I am reading again The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. What Polanyi analyzes is the idea of a free market. He states bluntly that there is no such thing as a free market. Every free market economy has had to have government legislation to protect citizens from its weakness. There are labor laws to protect children and minimum conditions for employment. Left to their own the free market would have exploited them. Whether all the government regulations have actually helped people is still debatable. The free market is a myth according to Polanyi. It cannot operate free from the effects it has on its citizens.
While thinking about macro economic issues, the image of the Tower of Babel came to my mind. The ancient story states that people gathered to make a huge tower that reached to heaven. It is a picture of people raising an edifice to their own greatness. I think of how we have almost deified progress. When I Googled “economy and Tower of Babel” there were many hits. Apparently, I was not the first one to compare economic issues and that story. In the U.S. economic problems loom large in government, employment and the banking system. In the U.K. discussions on the stability of the euro and whether to continue to participate have been hot topics. Again the Tower comes to mind. What all the hits on Google point to is the confusion of tongues that occurred during the Tower construction. They relate that to the confusing conversations now about the economy.
What the builders of the Tower of Babel missed was their own arrogance in the progress they were making. What we may miss is our own over-confidence in market systems. Polanyi calls the faith in the market a religious desire to find redemption there. (p.172) What has happened is that individuals looking out for self interests have abused others financially through greed and ambition. My question left unanswered is “Can the Church transcend the consumer society we are addicted to and subordinate it the claims of Christ for His people?” We are to be a society that elevates the importance of mutually supporting relationships. Polanyi does not see the Church as part of solving society’s complex issues. He misreads the Gospel and misunderstands the community of faith. But who could blame him unless we demonstrate differently.
At our church this week I have been dealing with a man who just lost his job, owes thousands in back rent and his wife and he have agreed to a divorce. This may sound tragic, but the tragedy is not these events, but it is the fact he is totally cut off from his family. He is now going back to Arizona to be with his adult children. He had only the church to help him, but now he is uprooting himself again. This uprootedness seems to be the basis of so much of his problems. The free market individual becomes uprooted from being a part of a people to one of “non-committal relationships.” (p.163)
How do we help the poor among us who have lost their identity because of choices they have made and nowhere to go? Reading Karl Polanyi causes me to think larger than the immediate “benevolent” problems we deal with and more of macro justice issues.
Consumerism is an impoverished culture. Polyani says that the free market system strips people of their cultural identity. He states, “Life in a cultural void is no life at all”. (p.158) People feel powerless when their culture has been stripped from them. It is not rooted in a people of history. Polanyi relates what happened to the black slaves as synonymous with what happens in a free market system. It destroys a more human rootedness in a people and a way of life. I wonder if we laud the individual who asserts himself of their poor condition while never speaking to the condition itself. Do I hear the Babel story again? Can the Church transcend the consumer society and subordinate it the claims of Christ for His people? I believe we can. Though Polanyi dismissed the church’s ability to engage society, I still believe it can, it has and it will continue. My question is how? What can be the first step to become that mutually supportive community?
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1944.