Amoureax by Eve Arnold

"These people were passionately committed to improving human nature and building a model society - to living like angels in heaven on earth." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
"Put your hands to work and your heart to God." - Mother Ann Lee

The Shakers are intriguing in many respects - they were a communal religious society devoted to living in the 'now' of the Kingdom of God and, in doing so, they have provided us with a concrete example of 'being in the land.' The stark simplicity of their architecture and furniture has something hauntingly compelling about it. Their music and worship speaks of a full life lived joyfully.

The Shaker economy was marked by diversity. They both cultivated the earth and used its products in manufacturing. Diversity was a mark of both craft and cultivation. Multiple communities, or societies, the unit of which was called a 'family' (25 to 100 people), existed in mutual aid relationship and had their own domestic economic life.
"... each society faced its own way by selling whatever they could produce, including garden products, such as apple sauce, dried sween corn, maple sugar, pickles, vegetable seeds, fruit trees, dried herbs, and herb extracts; butter, cheese and milk; baskets and brooms; chairs and other furniture; and yarn, woven fabric, knitted goods, and other textiles. These products were sold wherever there was a market - locally, regionally, around the United States, and even overseas." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
This very diverse economy provided the Shakers with means of life and was itself their mode of participation in the creation in a responsible way: here is a joyful simplicity.

The Shakers are striking for the way in which they challenge the theory of motivation central to most modern economic theory. For example, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." - Adam Smith, Chapter II, 'On the Principle which gives occasion to the Division of Labour', Wealth of Nations
While I will not dispute Smith's insight into the importance of self-interest as a motivating factor in economics, the Shakers certainly throw doubt upon the degree to which self-interest can be assumed to be the only, or even primary, driver of economic activity.

Each person in a Shaker society was given what was necessary for life and health, whether efficient or not, whether healthy or sick, young or old. No one was directly remunerated for their work and yet each was diligent in its performance.

Drawing upon US agricultural and manufacturing census records for the years 1850-1880, Metin Coşgel and John Murray were able to compare the productivity of Shakers to contemporary non-communal enterprises of equivalent size and conditions. They found that the Shakers were consistently as productive, sometimes more so, than others. Shakers also sacrificed some productivity to produce the diversity of crops that made for a livable domestic economy. Coşgel and Murray speculate that the Shakers must have had some motivation other than direct pecuniary gain.

It is not difficult to see that several things may form a complex of alternative motivations. The Shakers had an intensely liturgical life in a broad sense of that word: their work was deeply related to their Christian practice and so was understood as a part of a 'story'. Working together may make for happier workers but it also facilitates the efficacy of shame mechanisms. In this sense, communal work was supervised work.

That Shakers' productivity levels are comparable with those of firms which were motivated more by self-interest is not the only feature of Shakerism worthy of note. While it was important to be productive, productivity was subordinated to other concerns such as a diverse, rich - if frugal - communal sharing of the products of their labour. All the products made or grown by the Shakers were first for the community and surplus was sold. This had a dampening effect on overall productivity, especially where labour intensive perishable vegetable crops are concerned. Certain costs could be borne for the sake of communal maintenance. Community was more important than commerce.

Certain tasks took on the nature of forming people in the rhythms and patterns of Shaker life. In the same way that the economics of our time forms us, often unconsciously, the Shakers were formed, knowingly, by an economy they saw as participation in heaven.
"...the management of a hotbed 'is quite particular, and requires you to be thoughtful and regular; but this is only promoting a good habit; and if you were inclined to forgetfulness, it would almost justify keeping one expressly for that purpose." - Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book
We may not agree with all of even much of Shaker thought or theology, but there seems to be something in their practice to which we might pay heed. They put questions to us like, 'How are we formed by our economic life?', 'How does our work participate in the fullness of creation?', and 'What is our primary motivation and how does it impact on the organisation of our lives?'

4 comments:

Harry,

Nice to meet you. I just came across your blog.

November 13, 2007 at 1:52 PM  

Thomas Merton did quite a bit of research into Shaker economy, or more specifically into their furniture production. He was very impressed with them. I never actually read what he wrote about it, but he talks about it a lot in his letters (The Hidden Ground of Love).

November 13, 2007 at 4:11 PM  

@Mike - Nice to meet you too.

@Simon - Yes, I have read Merton's reflections on the Shakers. He gave a conference on the Shakers at Gethsemani in 1964 and held extensive correspondence with Edward and Faith Andrews, who wrote much on Shakerism. In "Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers", Merton wrote

"...to work for God means not this business of working and looking at God, but working in such a way that your work is your union with God." - p92

November 13, 2007 at 8:00 PM  

Yup, that's why I love him so.

Loving the bloggage, harry.

November 14, 2007 at 1:45 AM  

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