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.