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

Freedom, Power, Hope: The Great Transformation

Written by: on February 5, 2014

As I began to read The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time I could not disregard our reading from last week, Collateral Damage. Both texts deal with issues that have tremendous impact on society and humanity. And both books challenge us to not just sit and wait for “the power of the market” to miraculously work its “magic”, but they call us “the people” to move into action to help restore hope, freedom, and equality to our neighbor, locally and globally.

Last Tuesday I was invited to attend a candidate forum for the Multnomah County Chair. I had the opportunity to meet and hear two of the candidates share their ideas, vision and strategies for the community. Both candidates have a long history in local politics. Both candidates shared that they are advocates for the disadvantaged. They provided statistics of the “people groups” who are classified as the vulnerable and disadvantaged in the county. And both candidates shared their vision for providing services to its most vulnerable citizens. Human vulnerability and uncertainty is the foundation of all political power. Powers claim authority and obedience by promising their subjects effective protection against these two banes of the human condition.[1] It seems that when it gets close to elections, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged –“the invisible,” are made visible. Politicians are excellent in making promises that will help the vulnerable and disadvantage feel a real sense of security and hope.

That same evening I watched and listened to President Obama give the State of the Union. There were several things that he said that stood out, but one in particular I would like to share:

“Finally, if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system… Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year. Let’s get it done. It’s time.”

In The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi argues that it is simply wrong to treat nature and human beings as objects whose price will be determined entirely by the market.[2] Seeking to fix the immigration system will, without a doubt, help grow the economy. Yet I can’t help but wonder if we are more worried about the economy or the welfare of the people. We need to be careful not to see people solely as commodities. To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society.[3]  Polanyi points out that land, labor and money are fictitious commodities. Land and human beings have their own sacred dynamics.  He argues that treating them as commodities can bring about dangerous pressures. People cannot be seen as an accessory of the economic system. They are a vital part of the economic system and of life itself.  So, yes, let’s get immigration reform done this year, but for the sake of humanity, not solely for the sake of products.

In the last chapter of The Great Transformation, Polanyi addresses the issue of freedom in a complex society.  In order to achieve the freedom we are searching for, one must understand the true significance of freedom in our society. So how do we maintain freedom in an industrialized society?  He states that the problem with freedom arises on two different levels: the institutional and the moral or religious. On the institutional level, regulation both extends and restricts freedom; only the balance of the freedoms lost and won is significant. [4] On the moral or religious side, it seems that liberalism, fascism and socialism have areas in which they agree and disagree with the issue of freedom. For the liberal the idea of freedom degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise.[5] The concept of freedom, for the liberal, ignores the reality of society and the power it necessitates. Because of this view of freedom, they were unable to defend themselves against the fascist argument in Europe in the thirties.

For the fascists and socialist alike the reality of society is accepted with the finality with which the knowledge of death has molded human consciousness. Power and compulsion are a part of that reality. Where they divide is whether in the light of this knowledge the idea of freedom can be upheld or not; is freedom an empty word, a temptation, designed to ruin man and his works, or can man reassert his freedom in the face of that knowledge and strive for its fulfillment in society without lapsing into moral illusionism?[6]

Yet there is another layer to this question with regards to freedom.  There is the issue of power.  How can a society move towards freedom if power is required to control and protect society from the abuse of the market?  According to Polanyi, “as long as he is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need.”[7]

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011) 122.

[2] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001) xxv.

[3] Ibid., 76

[4] Ibid., 262.

[5] Ibid., 265.

[6] Ibid., 267.

[7] Ibid., 268.

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Miriam Mendez

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