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

Polanyi and the Commons

Written by: on January 24, 2019

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/



About the Author

Rev Jacob Bolton

5 responses to “Polanyi and the Commons”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks for your insights and perspectives. Since land, water, and (certainly in some locales) air (space) are considered monetized commodities; what are the pragmatic steps towards understanding and stewardship for the good of all? What would first steps look like in your locale?

  2. Mary Mims says:

    Jacob, I love that you are writing about Polanyi’s prophetic voice about our environment. I am so disappointed that water from Michigan is being sold for pennies on the dollar to Nestle, who are turning around and selling it for much more money when there is a freshwater crisis in Flint. We would do well to reject these commodities, such as water, and make sure all of our citizens have access to natural resources.

  3. Sean Dean says:

    As I sit here listening to Weezer sing “Everyone wants to rule the world” for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but wonder if in the future it will be those societies that have make water, air, and land into communal rights that will survive. Truly the misunderstanding of the value of those resources will be the source of demise for societies as the climate continues to change.

  4. Mario Hood says:

    Wow, I didn’t even know you could sell air! Maybe we can do that and pay off our church :). But then we will be doing the thing you are talking about. Thanks for the reminder that we truly don’t own the Commons, but we are supposed to steward them the right way.

  5. I like Polanyi’s identifying certain things that ought not to be commodificd: land, labor & money. I just don’t know how this can work in a fallen world.

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