The Nonprofit Prophet: Decommodifying Our Humanity
I’m drawn to this idea of decommodification. Karl Polanyi cites land, labor, and money as the three natural entities, which the free market commodifies in order to attain self-regulation. “Self-regulation implies that all production is for sale on the market and that all income derives from such sales. Accordingly, there are markets for all elements of industry, not only for goods, but also for labor, land, and money […]” (72) For Polanyi commodifying land, labor, and money was unheard of prior to the British industrial revolution, but became necessary in the self-regulated free market.
The free market is essentially “disembedded” from political, social, and religious relationships. Conversely, an embedded economic structure “[…] expresses the idea that the economy is not autonomous, as it must be in economic theory, but subordinated to politics, religion, and social relations.” (xxiv) These two counter forces created what Polanyi calls the double movement. He writes,
“Double movement refers to the tension in society between forces who are pushing for a self-regulating, or “disembedded” economy […] and the social forces who are pushing for aggregate social well-being and equality. If the subordination of society to the market system goes unchecked by any societal counter-movement, then the tension between the two movements increases and leads to crisis.” (156).
When social relationships are commodified, Polanyi argues, the fabric of society breaks down. He asserts that it was this tension that lead to the chain reaction of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War 2.
So, the concept which peaks my interest surrounds decommodification. Decommodification is certainly a noble ideal, but is it possible at any societal level for labor, land, and money to be decommodified?
I have personally worked in four dying industries. I got my start in big box retail at Kohl’s. I’ve been moved on to working in the textbook industry, both of which have been entirely consumed by Amazon. Simultaneously, while working in the textbook industry, I served on an up-and-coming church planting. And finally, I’ve been working in Christian higher education for the past seven years.
I was recently I was asked, along with those in my admissions department to serve as a “volunteer“ on the Saturday of Spring commencement. In the request, there was no talk of compensation (never mind but I’ve only had a 3% raise over three years). The request was also postured as some sort of celebratory and fun event. The Christian higher education market chooses to live in two worlds; the world it chooses to live within depends on the advantages offered. On one level my labor is commoditized to provide service to the organization known as George Fox University. On another level, my labor is decommodified entirely and seen by the institution as an act of service for which there is no rate of exchange. Heavy language around calling, “being called,“ and vocation are inserted when the institution seeks unpaid labor. Yet very specific rules regulate when seeking reimbursement, or when requesting sick time or vacation time.
The “Be Known” promise is the official moto of George Fox University. It was originally intended as a marketing strategy to entice prospective students, and meant to signal, primarily to parents, that their incoming student would be seen and known as an individual, and not lost in a sea of faces. However, the Be Known promise slowly came to be identified with unspecified duties within each job description. Today, this promise to students is an exploitive expectation on employees that they will work more for less.
At Kohl’s I was trained to “wow the customer”. In the textbook industry we were taught to persuade students (or their financially well-endowed parents and grandparents) to spend more money on textbooks with us than through online sources. At the church, or unofficial motto was “together we will get there“, but the longer people stayed, the less they belong and the more on the outside they felt. Perhaps it was because because the church, on behalf of the denomination, exploited member’s religious fidelity into profit. In Christian higher education, the Be Known promise only applied to the consumer, not the laborer. But how can you know someone when you are unknown yourself?
Of course, commodification 0f labor is not a problem solely within dying industries, for thriving industries also commodify labor. However, thriving industries are able to pay laborers a fair wage, and hire more laborers to meet growing demand. Dying industries, on the other hand, rely on on mythologies of togetherness, mission, and values to convince laborers that their work is intrinsically valuable as a way of counter-balancing an unfair wage. Meanwhile employers live comfortably, are not concerned with putting food on the table and often have fewer expenses, or are able to navigate a free market economy on a single income.
It is not clear what the way forward is, and I am certainly not well versed in economics. I do not hold Polanyi’s idealistic views, though I appreciate his insightful historical elaborations, and vision for how economics should function with society. Ultimately, I feel we must learn to live alongside the free market, see its values, and work against its injustices.
11 responses to “The Nonprofit Prophet: Decommodifying Our Humanity”
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Ty for sharing your experiences. It was interesting because as I read your post, it reminded me of a double movement within us that we all struggle as leaders in ministry. In your opinion and observation, how does decommodification apply to ministry leaders today?
Johnathan, That is a great question. I feel ministry work is highly commodified, but its currency exchange is rarely monetary in nature. I think the church industry is highly unconscious of its consumer structure: people come to church, attend a church or are members of a church, the same way they may shop at Kohl’s, Kroger or be members at Planet Fitness. There is a service expectation, which places a huge burden on ministry leaders to provide a better experience, than the church down the street. Personally I advocate for small ministry, because it can’t as easily imitate consumerism.
Michael, thank you for sharing your personal journey through difficult work environments. Over the years, money and ministry has kept me awake on numerous occasions as it does create a tension. I like your realistic call to live alongside the free market, see the value, and work against the injustices. It reminded me of the Serenity Prayer that includes the phrase, “so that we may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with (God) in the next.” Are there specific issues you had in mind with the statement to see the value and work against injustice?
Great questions. I’ll stick with my context working in admissions within a seminary. Historically, seminaries were for young, white, funded, heterosexual or celibate men. Of course, this has entirely shifted, but there remains certain structural inequities at play. For example, a DMin requires a prior seminary MA. This requirement alone eliminates large swaths of the population from consideration. The DLd shift brought about equity as allowed non-seminarians to apply for a seminary doctoral degree. We did something similar on the MA side when we stopped requiring a “pastoral reference” since many women felt they could not ask their pastor for a reference since he may be against women in ministry. We have a lot of work to do; however, when it comes to international students who are largely students of color. GFU fired all international student support over the past 3 years, so international students have a much harder entrance experience when beginning a program at GFU.
Michael: Your last paragraph is great. It sums up how I feel about these macro notions of economic systems and politics. I can respect with Polanyi’s desire for justice, fair play, and the thriving of everyone in society. Ultimately the Church can function in any economic system–we will always be the ones who help the poor and needy. The Church is the institution that picks up the pieces of broken people’s dreams and fights the injustices of a society.
Troy, I believe it was in one of our previous readings (or a podcast about a previous reading) that said, “Conservatives care about humans, progressives care about humanity.” It gave me pause as they explained the micro vs macro approaches to serving the poor two “sides” often have. I know Northwest Christian is highly involved in outreach to the poor. What have you seen being a part of that community?
Michael, I enjoyed the post and your clarificaiton on the book and major points. However, I finished the blog not really understanding where you position oh the matter. In light of these past few weeks, and your personal experiences, what have you seen that works well? And, if you could create the ideal economic world, what would that look like?
Eric, I don’t feel entirely clear myself, so you’re reading it well 🙂 I should clarify that my experience at Portland Sem is wholly different that the larger undergraduate campus experience, so I’m able to hold certain boundaries working in a non-anxious branch of the institution (In large part that is due to Dr. Morse’s leadership as dean).
I don’t know if there is an ideal economic system as much as I believe that facilitators of any economic system must address its shadow. That is, who is being exploited to make the system function? Conversely, who is most benefitting from the economic system. I think this is the collective work we are doing in the West at the moment.
Michael: I have little to say other than I can fully empathize with your current vocational context and the challenges those of us within the higher education system face. In my 9 years in higher education now, the only way I have been able to earn a “raise” was to take on exponential amounts of work. Hang in there — I think our industry will go through significant changes these next few years.
Out of curiosity, what is a vocation that you’d really want to dive into in the future?
Thanks Kayli 🙂 Yeah, I could see myself doing this role for a while, but I’m really drawn to shadow work facilitation in the forms of spiritual direction, retreat facilitation, and in education. I used to teach adjunct, but realized I was contributing to a very broken part of the higher education system. I’ll likely always do many things – it seems to be who I am, but these elements seem to be where I experience flo 🙂
Hi Michael, I enjoyed reading your blog and particularly took interest in your comments about the employer being at a much better place than the employee as, “Meanwhile employers live comfortably, are not concerned with putting food on the table and often have fewer expenses, or are able to navigate a free market economy on a single income.” Obviously the employers will justify their privileged position courtesy of their efforts and having to bear the business risks but that should not lessen their responsibility for equity and fairness in remunerating their employees. I agree with you that the inequity and unfairness of the free market should be subjected to the necessary corrective countermeasures.