Perhaps you tuned in to watch President Obama deliver the State of the Union address this past Tuesday evening. During his speech the middle class was held up as the class for those in poverty to aspire toward and encouragement was sounded forth for employers to raise the minimum wage. The measure of success is a strong work ethic, access to good jobs and pursuing your dreams. Our President asserted, as many have before, “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. This is an edge America cannot surrender.” I wonder what Karl Polanyi would have said if he had heard this speech?
Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, gave me a jolt. The Great Transformation is a step back into time, a magnifying glass on the present, and just possibly provides a binocular to peer into the future. There are several areas that have caught my attention as I read. The first is that small actions, even ones perceived as unimportant, yet necessary can have far reaching implications and unforeseen results. Even before the Industrial Revolution a change took place in England, which would ultimately result in unforeseen consequences. Enclosures were erected changing arable lands into pasturelands for the keeping of sheep and the manufacture of wool. Cottage industries developed, people who had been forced out of supportive livelihood in the conversion of land found employment, and craftsmen were needed.
Polanyi’s point, “Only in a market economy can such compensating effects be taken for granted.” Remembering our tendency to determine an underclass it is no surprise that enclosures brought about improvement for the rich and mere habitation for the poor. As Polanyi often noted in his book there is a measure and then there is a counter-measure. There is change and there is movement to protect people from change. Not all change or even intended change was wrong nor was it always good.
Using the enclosures as an example, Polanyi offered this for consideration. “A belief in spontaneous progress must make us blind to the role of government in economic life. This role consists often in altering the rate of change, speeding it up or slowing it down as the case may be.” Polanyi asserted that if it is thought that the rate of change cannot be changed or should not be interfered with then “no room is left for intervention.” The rate and pace of change and the adjustments necessary bring stabilization, helping it to become “socially bearable.” The revealing factor of improvement resulting from the enclosure period was magnified during the Industrial Revolution creating social dislocation. From a historical perspective, a new creed resulted that “was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities.”
Secondly, our economic exchanges were initially out of need, whether for services or product. Much of our economy is now driven by “want” which after several (or many) hands supplies basic need for the providers of our wants. Commodities came to be centered on three principle areas: labor, land and money, each one were safe guarded as elements of industry that were “on sale.” It seems much remains the same. The President’s State of the Union expounded on the virtues of American jobs. In my home state the Machinist Union agreed to significant changes in their retirement plans so that the Boeing 777X would be built in Washington State and not in non-union South Carolina. This weekend’s Super Bowl is a prime example of all three elements just ask any NFL player and many a fan all under the guise of entertainment.
We tend to be focused on economic developments and trends. We rely on the stock market to provide and insure our retirement. Yet what the economy reveals is that our economic problem is in fact a social one. There is movement and then there is countermovement. The Speenhamland Act in 1795 and its counter reaction, the Poor Law Reform in 1834 wrecked havoc on English society. Polanyi was critical (or was he just calling it like it really was?) A free market advantages some and brings social destruction for others. “Despair was to prove an even more powerful agent of transformation.” Does that mean something for our time? Polanyi recognized the existence of opposite perspectives and practices in a political economy. On one hand there is progress and perfectibility through harmony and self-regulation and on the other determinism and damnation fostered by competition and conflict. Opposites that we surely must learn to work and hold in tension.
The intent of a market economy, freedom, seems to remain illusive. When improvement and prosperity are the aim how does that shape our definition of freedom? How do we get underneath the apparent reasons for market fluctuations to see what is interrelated? We seem determined to raise the standard of living and yet we have finite resources to draw from or to exchange. Can the Church provide demonstrable witness that the teachings of Jesus are applicable to a complex society?
 References in the paragraph are from the State of the Union address as published by the Washington Post. Accessed 1/30/14. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/full-text-of-obamas-2014-state-of-the-union-address/2014/01/28/e0c93358-887f-11e3-a5bd-844629433ba3_story.html.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), 36.
 Reference here is to my blog post from January 26, 2014 from reading Zygmunt Bauman’s Collateral Damage (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011).
 Ibid., 82. Responding to a time of great distress the Speenlandham law was enacted which would guarantee a minimum earning regardless of their wage. The Poor Law Reform in 1834 ended the “right to live” clause of Speenlandham. People were ill equipped to provide for themselves. Polanyi referred to it as a “ruthless act of social reform.” 86.