For some authors, books seem heavy, as if the responsibility for having something big to say crushes their ability to say things clearly. I feel that way about the humanist economic historian Karl Polanyi. The Great Transformation, his courageous, crusading work questioning the ideology of the free market, sometimes seems like it was deliberately written to blunt the force of his argument. It reads as if Polanyi couldn't quite bring himself to jump across the ever-widening rift his analysis created in the world’s economic thinking. (To be fair, Polanyi wrote the book in a great hurry during World War II, and the shadow of that conflict probably made it hard to venture as far in words as he had in thought.)
So it’s great news that Polity has released For a New West, a collection of Polanyi’s unpublished essays and lecture notes. As a young man, Polanyi started studying law but dropped out, instead becoming an economic journalist and commentator for Der Oesterreichische Volkswirt, the leading German-language financial weekly in Europe. The pieces in this collection, culled from an archive of his papers at Concordia University in Montreal, are refreshingly clear – perhaps because they were never intended for publication. In these essays, we can watch Polanyi as he teases out the implications of his arguments. The book’s title, taken from the title Polanyi gave one of the essays, doesn't capture the scope of his work. Polanyi wasn't only blowing the dust off the West’s self-image. His thought required retooling many of the economic nostrums that have come to dominate the entire planet and wresting politics and culture from collapsing into economics. He wanted a gut renovation of almost all the conceits of economics and a renewed commitment to freedom, justice, and the concept of the people ruling themselves.
Here he is, questioning whether the need for food and the desire for gain should be considered economic matters:
We…are surrounded by plenty but freeze our economic life in terms of scarcity. That is why we are able to accept the fiction that millionaires are actuated by fear of starvation.
... We rightly assume that our market economy appeals to what we call “economic motives,” that is, fear of hunger and hope of gain. But, by calling hunger and gain “economic motives,” do we not prejudge the very possibilities of adjustment of the economic sphere of life? Let us consider the point. In one sense, the answer must be yes. Since market economy takes care of production and distribution of material goods, and hunger and gain (as we define them) are insuring the working of that system, it is justifiable to call them economic motives, since they happen to be the motive on which the economic system rests. But are they economic in any other sense. Are they intrinsically economic? In the sense in which aesthetic motives or religious motives are aesthetic or religious, that is, as the outcome and expression of an experience the quality of which is self-evident? Not at all. There is nothing economic about hunger: if a man is hungry, there is nothing specific he can do. Being hungry is certainly no indication of how to go about production. It may induce him to commit robbery, but that is not an economic activity. Neither is the cerebral drive of gain specifically economic. Its idea, and maybe its urge, if such a thing exists, have no connection with the production and distribution of material goods.
Nonetheless, while he questioned the value and values of capitalism, Polanyi had little sympathy for orthodox Marxism, which he thought involved economic absolutism:
Marxist determinism is based on some kind of railway timetable of social development: Upon slave society follows feudalism, upon feudalism capitalism, upon capitalism socialism….It was such a mistaken belief in economic determinism as a general law that made many Marxists – not, to my knowledge, Marx himself – prophesy that our personal freedom must disappear together with the free enterprise system. Actually there is no necessity for this whatsoever.
Still, he noted, under the laissez-faire system, the economic and the political meld together in a marriage that also tends towards fascist intrusions on freedom:
A point is reached where neither the political nor the economic system functions satisfactorily. A feeling of general insecurity takes hold of society as a whole. There is [a] fascist short cut to safeguard production at the price of sacrificing democracy. Democracy can continue only with a change in the property system. Therefore the destruction of democratic institutions is a safeguard for the continuation of the industrial system.
His analysis of the tendencies of the free market alliance between economics and politics seems incredibly prescient in light of the rise of the Tea Party and the battle to tear down Obamacare or any new form of government-backed health insurance or social safety net:
While the action of the market called forth widespread reactions and helped to create a strong popular demand for political influence of the masses, the use of the power so gained was greatly restricted by the nature of the market mechanism: isolated interventions, however urgent on social grounds, could often be shown to be economically harmful, while economically useful interventions of a planned type could not even be considered. In political terms, while piecemeal reform could be discredited as a damaging interference with the working of the market, outright socialist solutions, which would have been economically advantageous, had to be excluded altogether. Under conditions such as these, the striking power of the forces of popular democracy was necessarily limited.
Finally, he asked what might be called the ultimate economic question: what’s the use of having the great wealth and abundance produced by modern society unless it goes to make people’s lives better:
An industrial society has one thing in abundance, and that is material welfare more than is good for it. If, to uphold justice and the freedom to restore meaning and unity in life, we should ever be called upon to sacrifice some efficiency in production, economy in consumption, or rationality of administration, an industrial civilization can afford it….we can afford to be both just and free.
Contradict that, Koch brothers! Occupy Wall Street couldn't have said it better.
Today every militant must feel profoundly that he is not called to coerce humanity to its salvation but to restore humanity to its freedom, and he must have the inner conviction that what will save the world is freedom -- and nothing else.
Polanyi was a man of his time ahead of his time. We need him more than ever.
For a New West focuses on unpublished or draft writings and lecture notes. But, in her preface, Kari Polanyi Levitt mentions some additional essays that sound like winners -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Is Freedom Possible, Economy and Democracy, and The Mechanism of the World Economic Crisis. They previously appeared in various German-language newspapers and, in one case, in an Italian translation – and thus are not technically unpublished. But so what? It would have been great if they had been included here. I hope the fact that they were left out means there’s more Polanyi yet to come.