Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Downton Abbey and Polanyi

Written by: on February 6, 2013




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OK, I confess.  I’m watching this season of Downton Abbey!

 My wife and daughter have been faithful fans for some time; therefore, in my attempts at espousal betterment, I have been following the show.  Initially, I experienced some deep prejudice toward the nobility and class society projected by the series.  However, as the episodes progressed, I learned of the care (at least in their minds) and responsibility that the head family had for the entire village.  This is the attitude that Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation attests was decimated during the beginnings of the market era.

“No longer was the lord or the landed merchant responsible for the welfare of the serf, no longer did the rules of societal responsibility, handed down for centuries in the cultural makeup of Christian Europe, apply for the wealthy and powerful to their subservient and grateful servants.”

In a sense, places like Downton Abbey exercised autarky – a sense of self-sufficiency or closed economy.

When my family moved to Brazil in 1986, autarky was also present.  Import tariffs were deliberately very high to discourage imports and encourage national manufacturers.  Of course this only resulted in paying exceedingly high prices for substandard products.  The rich were the only ones who benefitted from this style of autarky.  Only after liberation of import/export controls did Brazil begin its march toward prosperity and relevance in the world.  But with success, a new problem arose, which other countries have been debating for years.  As productivity and wages increased, social benefits had been introduced.  Now some people have the choice – do I work or accept unemployment?  It’s a new concept for most Brazilians.

Defoe, in 1704 insisted that “the poor would not work for wages if relief was available, and if they were forced, it would add to unemployment of those that could work.”  Polanyi also writes about the Poor Laws and Owenism, this back and forth tension of relief and dependency.  I see this in our churches’ missions work.  Sometimes when help is offered and given, those who benefit from the help will not maintain and continue the project on their own.  Why not?  Because they know the missions group will come back and fix the well or replenish their chicken coup.  Isn’t this similar to the initial attitudes that resulted in the work houses and Poor Laws of England?

Polanyi would probably say that many of these issues that disgust me on Downton Abbey had faded because of the Speenhamland Laws.  But again, are we in missions, culpable of this same attitude?  Do we help those who are barely hanging on to life, just enough to live but not thrive?  Do we give them just enough “bread” such as was seen in the Speenhamland Laws, to survive but not the necessary tools to prosper?

So many questions emerged for me from reading the second half of the book.

Even current situations in our own country reflect the issues presented by Karl Polanyi.  This past week I attended a celebratory event in our city in which 10 African American leaders were honored for their investments and leadership in Grand Rapids society.  It was a high-dollar affair, very lavish and as my pastor was one honored, it was a joy to be part of this annual gala.  But as one honoree lamented the recent Michigan ban on Affirmative Action, while accepting her award, I was puzzled.  Although she felt the demise of Affirmative Action would hinder the advancement of blacks in Grand Rapids, my African American pastor who is younger, applauded the ban, reciting some of the same arguments that we find in The Great Transformation. 

So the debate continues.

Polanyi ends the book with this quote.  “The answer does not lie in a libertarian view of an unregulated market, or in a Keynesian soft capitalism. The answer is a radical transformation of our economic system away from capitalism.

But what does that truly look like?

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