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The Political and Economic Origins of our Time by Karl Polanyi (Forward, Introduction and Chapter 1-10)
This is the second book I have read during the course of my studies at GFES which has transformed my thinking and has given great perspectives of life and society. One such book was ‘A Secular World’ by Charles Taylor. The Historical understanding of Karl Polanyi and his ability to peer into the future through political and economic theories as left me attempting to interpolate the events in my context. Africa arose from the ashes of colonialism to independent states that are still struggling with high poverty where half of the population less than a dollar a day. Karl seems to have a deep understanding of the dynamics of economic and how it affects society that the church can use. The Christian faith has always understood the times and acted upon the changes in society.
Kenya will be holding elections on 4th march 2013. This will be the first elections after the country promulgated a new liberal constitution that moves from governing based on British heritage to similarities with the American constitution. In some ways, it is a merge of the British and the American philosophy of governance but with a lot of leanings towards the British side. Two main political parties launched their manifestos in the last week and their outlined their economic policies. One side leans on having a socialist government, where the government does everything for the people and runs businesses (e.g. banks) and the other leans more on empowering the private section so that they can provide and environment for small businesses to flourish. The idea is to ensure that everyone, especially the youth have access to credit at reasonable (or zero) interest. Many people favor the latter (private sector development) but as Karl noted, ‘the origins of the cataclysm lay in the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system). There is a sense of utopianism especially with the new constitution that seems to give rights to every person. As I read the third chapter, Karl seems to point out that the Industrial revolution resulted in a ‘catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people.’ (35). The abyss of human degradation was in the rise of factory towns. A new factory town, or a tech city was unveiled that will cost 13 trillion shillings over the next ten years. The vice president was categorical that no slums will be established in or near the town. This is a dream that will push the poor to the margins while the rich continue to be rich.
The principle of redistribution in an era or political and economic turmoil brings disequilibrium. Basic goods and services do not reach the poor. Instead, the poor are excluded from the currents of economic growth and prosperity. But the question I kept asking myself, is separation of society into an economic and political sphere possible to ensure a self-regulating market demand? Powerful institutions that are set up to check the action of the market relative to labor, land and money do not have the agenda for the poor.
The Christian faith from its onset was meant to ensure that the poor are taken care of. Jesus’ mission was mostly to ‘preach good news to the poor’. He also suggests that those who help the poor are the kind of people who are establishing the kingdom of God on earth. Ad I read the laws that were established to help the poor in the past four centuries, there is clearly a human need to alleviate poverty but the power of greed (which translates into profit margins and bonuses) is more powerful that the power of generosity. Even though about seventy billionaires in the world today are sharing 50% of their wealth with the poor, this does not even begin to help alleviate basic human needs of malnutrition among the world poorest. This utopianism to help deal with pauperism cannot deal with the realities of the poor, just as the society was unable to deal with it.
As I continue to read this book, the questions that linger in my mind are whether the political and economic top class is really concerned with the affairs of the poor. In the same breath, whether the church is able understand the signs of the times as Karl did and have and be a prophetic voice for the poor.