While reading along with Polanyi I was pleased to find a very subversive thread in his work stemming from his idea of what is and is not a commodity. Polanyi lists three things as false commodities, those of land, labor and money:
For Polanyi the definition of a commodity is something that has been produced for sale on a market. By this definition land, labor, and money are fictitious commodities because they were not originally produced to be sold on a market. Labor is simply the activity of human beings, land is subdivided nature, and the supply of money and credit in modern societies is necessarily shaped by governmental policies. Modern economics starts by pretending that these fictitious commodities will behave in the same way as real commodities, but Polanyi insists that this sleight of hand has fatal consequences. It means that economic theorizing is based on a lie, and this lie places human society at risk. [i]
Regarding land as a fictitious commodity, Polanyi’s view draws to my mind the concept of the Commons. I was first introduced to this in college, and then further in my work with and through the program GreenFaith. The Commons are “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”[ii] Much of my discussion of land, water and air as the commons has involved the fact that there is no universally held manner of monetizing them, let alone a full understanding of how important clean air, water, and land are to the well being of all of humanity or all of creation.
According to one Fortune article the water industry may be a “$600-billion-a-year industry “[iii] but that only includes how much money can be made in selling water to places and communities that do not have access to water that is clean. The price of land needless to say varies from location to location, but clearly it is a non-renewable resource. I also am very aware of the hypocritical nature that is present in my writing this blog post, as I used to serve a church that sold her “air rights,” the space above our sanctuary, church house and steeple, in a promise to never build any higher, and to add that new found income from the sale into our endowment. We sold that “air” for $17 million.
All three, land, air and water are finite resources, and not items to either be used completely up or that can be produced by human hands. Polluting these resources not only damages the quality of life for everyone that benefits from them, but also limits how much of them we can share. Clearly all three are not shared equally. However, Polanyi’s genius may not be in his calling out of fascism or in his wok describing the transformation from before to after the industrial era. It may be his prophetic voice in rightly naming that if land – and then in extension water and air – are mismanaged and misunderstood and then treated as an economic commodity, it places all of human society at risk.
[i] Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation (Boston:Beacon, 2001), 23.
[ii] Basu, Soutrik; Jongerden, Joost; Ruivenkamp, Guido (17 March 2017). “Development of the drought tolerant variety Sahbhagi Dhan: exploring the concepts commons and community building”. International Journal of the Commons. 11 (1): 144, https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/article/10.18352/ijc.673/
[iii] Dumain, Brian, “What is Water Worth?,” Fortune, May 1, 2014, http://fortune.com/2014/05/01/what-is-water-worth/