Social Boycott

by Wendy McElroy

One of the most powerful vehicles for social change is moral suasion in its many forms. The art of persuasion is particularly important to libertarians who eschew the use of government and other types of force in attempting to influence society. In the nineteenth century, individualist anarchists experimented with various strategies that hinged on using psychological pressure to affect change. One of these strategies was the "social boycott" aimed at eliminating destructive elements from organizations or from society itself.

Although social boycott and ostracism may seem to be the same concept, there is a crucial difference between the two strategies. Ostracism literally means "judgment by shards" because broken pottery was used as writing implements in the ancient Greek practice of having citizens vote on whether a member of society should be banished, generally for ten years. The practice was generally exercised against those whose power was seen as a threat to democracy. Ostracism has come to mean the forcible expulsion of an individual from society for any reason, often accompanied by the confiscation of his property. The statist form of ostracism is the recinding of citizenship. Ostracism is, at its root, an exercise in governmental or mob violence against an individual who is deemed unacceptable.

Social boycott is the shunning of a person -- a society's collective refusal to engage in the normal social and commercial relations that make life palatable and, in some cases, possible for an individual. Its goal: to make that individual so uncomfortable that he decides to voluntarily leave the society. The strategy never involves the confiscation of property or the initiation of force. It has been used effectively by a wide variety of societies, most notably the Amish.

The term "boycott" was coined in 1880 by the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell to describe a campaign being waged against Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott by his Irish neighbors. The strategy quickly became a standard tactic used in the struggle against English landlords whose property titles were the result of conquest and sustained by legal privilege. In 1879, Parnell and Michael Davitt founded the Irish Land League in order to achieve what they called the three "Fs": fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tensure. The League evolved into a widespread and successful peasant rebellion -- the first peaceful mass uprising in Irish history.

The campaign against Captain Boycott was the League's most notable early victory. The captain was a much-hated overseer for Lord Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo. In 1880, when Boycott refused to lower rents for the tenants, an audacious scheme was hatched. Servants no longer worked in his hourse, stores sold him nothing, no mail was delivered, and laborers refused to bring in the harvest. Boycott imported politically friendly (that is, Protestant) laborers from the county of Ulster but the expenses of doing so proved disastrous. A humiliated Boycott was forced to leave Ireland in disgrace. The campaign's success galvanized Ireland. Landlords who evicted tenants suddenly found that no other family would move into the vacated home.

Social boycott became a popular strategy with the nineteenth century libertarians who congregated around Benjamin Tucker's pivotal periodical Liberty. Social boycott seemed to provide a peaceful means by which people could address actions they considered so immoral as to be intolerable. Without such a means, libertarians feared that people would turn to government for a remedy.

Tucker was fascinated by the Irish "no rent" movement, the main organ of which was Patrick Ford's Irish World. "Liberty is not always satisfied with it [Irish World]," Tucker wrote, "but, all things considered, deems it the most potent agency for good now at work on this planet." Of the Irish Land League, he wrote, "Ireland's true order: the wonderful Land League, the nearest approach, on a large scale, to perfect Anarchistic organization..."

Tucker was not alone in his admiration. Two of Liberty's most frequent contributors -- Henry Appleton and Sidney H. Morse -- also wrote columns for Irish World under the pseudonyms of Honorious and Phillip, respectively. Tucker eventually became disillusioned with the Land League, however. He believe that the movement had been sold out for personal advantage by Parnell, who accepted political offices.

But the Land League had vindicated the strategy of boycott in the minds of nineteenth century American libertarians. In later commenting upon what he called "Ireland's shortest road to success," Tucker praised the "rigorous but non-invasive 'boycotting' of deserts, cowards, traitors, and oppressors..."

The seeds of social boycott had been sown within the Tucker circle long before the Irish Land League's example. They had been planted by Josiah Warren, the first individualist anarchist. The inventor and political theorist Josiah Warren (1798-1874) was a key figure in defining the radical individualist movement in 19th century America. His books on utopian experiments and social theory profoundly influenced a rising generation of libertarians, including Tucker. Indeed, the dedication in Tucker's first and best known book, Instead of a Book (1893), acknowledged a debt that many of his generation must have felt keenly: "To the memory of my old friend and master, Josiah Warren, whose teachings were my first source of light, I gratefully dedicate this volume ..."

Warren's books and periodicals consisted largely of accounts of his pioneering attempts at establishing private communities through which he sought to express two social principles that subsequently became the main themes of late 19th century individualism: the sovereignty of the individual; and, cost the limit of price. If one impulse dominated Warren, it was the desire to see how social theories operated when they were put to the test of functioning in a real community. An early follower of the more socialistic communitarian Robert Owen, Warren directly participated in various utopian Owenite experiments. Indeed, he was a member of Owen's most famous utopian experiment, the New Harmony Community of Equity in Indiana. He left in 1827 with the firm conviction that the community could not solve the problems involved in cooperative and communal living. He later explained his reasons for doing so:

"It seemed that the difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us...Our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation."

The New Harmony experience made Warren realize that the individuality of the members had to be rigorously respected in order for cooperative living to succeed. Warren became especially critical of the community's growing bureaucracy, and feared that it would replace both voluntary cooperation and the primacy of the individual. More and more, the bureaucracy functioned as an outside authority, rather than as a co-operative venture between members of the community. Warren insisted that the individual himself should remain the primary unit of any social authority. As he wrote later:

"Society must be so converted as to preserve the SOVEREIGNTY OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL inviolate.... it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests and all other arrangements which will not leave every individual at all times at liberty to dispose of his or her own person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate, WITHOUT INVOLVING THE PERSONS OR INTERESTS OF OTHERS."

In 1846, while most social visionaries were abandoning social experiments and turning to electoral politics instead, Warren founded the community of 'Utopia'. There, he tried to employ strategies that would maximize the freedom of the individual while promoting social harmony. Utopia lasted for almost twenty years, long after Warren departed in 1850 in the belief that his strong personality was blocking the natural development of the society. Of Utopia's government, Warren wrote, "No Organization, no indefinite delegated power, no 'Constitutions,' no 'laws' or 'Bye-laws,' 'rules' or 'Regulation' but such as each individual makes for himself and his own business." In short, Utopia operated without a formal government structure.

Warren's publication "The Periodical Letter on the Principles and Progress of the Equity Movement" (1854-1858) was a monthly that issued from a later community -- Modern Times on Long Island, and then from Boston. It served as a means of explaining the philosophy and innovative tactics of experimental communities to interested reformers. A friend of Warren's described the main method through which the community protected itself against disruptive members who refused to abide by community rules:

"When we wish to rid ourselves of unpleasant persons, we simply let them alone. We buy nothing of them, sell them nothing, exchange no words with them -- in short, by establishing a complete system of non-interference with them we show them unmistakably that they are not wanted here, and they usually go away on their own accord."

Social boycott remains one of the most powerful weapons of social control in the arsenal of those who refuse to use force to achieve societal harmony.