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

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free….

Written by: on February 9, 2013

but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:13)

The question of the last post will be the beginning of the new. At the end of my first look at Karl Polanyi’s epochal book “The Great Transformation” I asked:

What is a freedom worth that is either utopian or worthless in terms of value?

This week I want to look at the second half of the book and focus on freedom, by looking at Karl Polanyi’s thoughts on the possibility to achieve freedom in a society. He asks how to maintain freedom in an industrialized society.

The Liberal (libertarian) concept of freedom ignores the reality of society. Perhaps this is one of the main reasons why fascism could arise. Due to the political times and Polanyi’s own experiences the comparison of fascism vs. socialism is a main focus. (He also worked on this topic earlier, for example in his work The essence of fascism, 1936).

This is why Polanyi addresses this topic as a main concentration:

He is asking for the freedom in society in the conflict between power and freedom. Power is essential and required to control and protect society from the strength of the market. But how can this dynamic be ordered without destroying freedom?

The answer for Polanyi is easy, but hard to grasp, since it hinges on recognition of a contradiction: the illusion that freedom is only defined as a free market.

In this chapter Polanyi tries to imagine a world in which freedom is established by agreement. Agreement within the structure of power within society. For Polanyi this thought isn’t to contradictory as it might seem in the beginning.

“The passing of market-economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.”

At the very end of the book Polanyi concludes with three acknowledgement’s: knowledge of the reality of death, of freedom, and of society. Almost commemorating the Momento Mori in Psalm 90:12, Polanyi asks first for the knowledge of death. Polanyi points out that true acknowledgements of this reality requires resignation, resignation that none of us will live forever on this planet. This ultimate resignation is fruitful. Accepting this reality develops courage and strength to remove injustice and unfreedom. The second is Christianity’s contribution to Western man: the discovery of the uniqueness of the individual, as embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. The third revelation is provided by living in industrial society.

For Polanyi the dynamics in society are fueled by the radical interdependence of human beings on one another. To accept the concept of society, people are urged to abandon the autonomous individual and autarkic lifestyle and by that risking to also abandon the classical notions of freedom. It is impossible for Polanyi to create a society without power (a utopia). To him it is desirable to resign to an omnipresence of power.

Polanyi ends The Great Transformation with the following:

“As long as he (“Man”) is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need.”

Inspired by Hegel Polanyi summed up his life in his last days the following way:

Brich mit dem Frieden in dir, brich mit dem Werte der Welt. Besseres nicht als die Zeit, aber aufs Beste zu sein.


(Literally translated: “Break with the peace within you/Break with the values of the world/You (cannot be) better than the times/But to be of the best. .. ”)

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