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

From 1944 to Today: Lessons Still Only Partially Learned. Reflections on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Written by: on July 16, 2014

Karl Polanyi first wrote The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time in 1944.

Much has changed (understatement) since 1944; and yet…

And yet, unfortunately, one of the things that has not changed is our need to still learn some of the lessons that Polanyi suggested were needed back in 1944 (Joseph Stiglitz underscores this perspective in his forward to the 2001 edition printed almost sixty years later).

So what are some of these lessons that Polanyi writes to us in The Great Transformation?

A major premise Polanyi explicates in his text is that social life and economic life are to be understood as interconnected.  If the economic capital of people suffers then the social capital of the places in which such people reside will also tend to suffer.  From this thesis, in contradistinction to people like Ayn Rand and other “free-market” advocates, Polanyi did not believe that a non-regulated economic market was a viable or healthy socio-political model.  Instead, he felt that economic regulation through governmental intervention was necessary if a society was to have a real chance at maintaining some semblance of healthy equilibrium/functionality.

I agree with the above, but I would like to also add the variation that isn’t offered there; that is, I also think that if the social capital of people suffers then the economic capital of the places in which such people reside will also tend to suffer.

I don’t really think that we can place one variation fully against the other in an either-or scenario.  There is a symbiotic relationship in process.  Economics affects sociality and sociality affects economics.

However, symbiosis noted, I personally lean toward preferencing sociality a bit over economics as I feel that having a proper heart-orientation and community connections can facilitate people better navigating situations of poverty or even just times of economic hardship if and as they arise.  While there are multiple examples that can be offered toward this – including some from economists – let me just offer two.

One example that I greatly appreciate is the work of Harvard’s Robert Putnam work which as relates to this case underscores that strong internetworked community bonds makes for more resilient and more equitable/just societies.  He writes about this factor in various of his texts, but an early and important study from both micro and macro analysis is offered in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.  This text considers a twenty-some year longitudinal study of northern and southern Italy asking why there is such vastly differentiated economic societal fortunes playing out in the two regions.  The answer in short is civic interconnectedness.  It’s an important study that can be extrapolated to other areas.  [Other texts of Putnam’s that are helpful in this area include: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community; Better Together: Restoring the American Community; Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society…]

A second example that is meaningful for me is the book and the video of The Man Who Planted Trees by

By Jean Giono.  This is a story that can be understood to poignantly portray both sides of how economics and community sociality are vital to one another.  Elzeard Bouffier is the protagonist in the story and provides us with a character of great moral bearing who is able to redeem and revive a barren land through the steadfastness of his heart coupled with perseverance at his task.  He is an example of how deeply, rooted understanding of community can weather and eventually overcome economic setbacks.  However, Elzeard is needed in the first place because the land has been laid waste through untoward community practices that has led to almost total environmental collapse of the surrounding area.  This has driven most people away from the area and those who stayed have become hostile due to the harsh conditions.  Their souls have become mirrors of that which surrounds them.  They were not strongly rooted in communal care in the first place and thus instead of being able to work to transmute “lead into gold” per se, their own spirits have become leaden.  This is an excellent tale that showcases care for what is around us leads to well-being of both the personal and the communal while disdain for what is around us leads to all kinds of harm.

Polanyi’s text fits well alongside these other texts reminding us of the interconnected nature of this reality in which we exist for better and/or for worse.

How are you caring for that which is around you? How are you not?  Are you aware of how you are being affected by all of these things?

About the Author

Clint Baldwin

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