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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Picture Worth A Thousand Words of Polanyi

Written by: on January 25, 2019

One of the biggest stories of this week’s news was the story of the Covington Catholic High school MAGA wearing students and the Native American drummer.  As a disclaimer, this blog is not about who is right and who is wrong or how the all the issues unfolded that created a media firestorm, but this blog is really about the symbolism displayed by the two people at the center of this story, High School student Nick Sandmann and Native American Nathan Phillips.

Polanyi’s made a distinction between real and fictitious commodities (Polanyi 2001, p. xxv).  Polanyi believed that real commodities were things produced for sale on a market whereas fictitious commodities were land, labor, and money because these things were not originally produced to be sold on a market (Polanyi 2001, p. xxv).  Polanyi hated the idea that land, as nature, could be divided and sold by someone.  Although this is considered normal for us in our society, life was not always like this in the past.  After the time of the Exodus, as Joshua led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land, the land belonged to the Nation of Israel and was subdivided by the tribes.  Each tribe distributed land to the families as a type of stewardship.  This system of land management continued for many centuries in some variation or another throughout the world.  Brian Burgoon of University of Amsterdam explains Polanyi’s belief’s that the creation of the market for land was a political maneuver which was violently imposed on people and created a large landless population who were not able to make their living from working on a common land (Social Science Research/University of Amsterdam, 2018).  This conversion of land into personal property in England was called the Enclosure Movement taking place from the 1600s to around 1850 (Social Science Research/University of Amsterdam, 2018).  Burgoon also explains how Polanyi’s belief that the 1884 Bank Charter Act, cementing the spread of the gold standard, placed more power in the hands of some more than others and also created a status of money which also conferred power on those creating the standards on which money is based.  The labor commodity, the most important of all, says Burgoon, included the Speenlandham system which subsidized the wages of the poor, but also created a lower wage and lead to the 1834 Poor Law act which solidified the labor commodity by getting rid of subsidies, forcing the poor to work for the prevailing wage (Social Science Research/University of Amsterdam, 2018).

All of this lead to what Polanyi names the Double Movement in which Polanyi believes that creation of these markets, including land, money, and labor, are not natural or self-regulating, but are destructive to society, creating a backlash which is natural, spontaneous and protective of society (Social Science Research/University of Amsterdam, 2018).

This Double Movement is what I see in the incident of the Covington Catholic High school MAGA wearing students, the Native American drummer, and the Black Israelites not previously shown in the initial story. The students are in town to stand against abortion.  They believe they are standing up for righteousness, trying to bring America back to the values it once held dear, wearing the MAGA hats symbolizing solidarity of purpose. The Black Israelites/Hebrews are a Black Nationalist group, but many of them, if not most of them also consider themselves Christian. The Black Israelites see the MAGA hats and see it as a symbol of racism and oppression, as well as White Nationalism. In an article written for Vox, Beauchamp states, “For many, the hats themselves are a sign of supporting not just the president but more explicitly his nativist and anti-minority proposals for making America great. To don the hat is to pick a side, not only in favor of the GOP but against minorities more broadly” (Beauchamp 2019). The Native American people may also see the MAGA hats as a symbol of minority bias as well. The Native Americans are against capitalism, against the destruction of the land, and against the exploitation of any people group. I see the tension with all of these groups as a type of response to the capitalist system that makes up America.  Many who immigrated to America found that they could own land and become wealthy. They declared America discovered and divided up the spoils. And many want to keep it that way.  Others have struggled to get a piece of the pie and want to keep what they have and get a little more.  Then there are those who believe the pie is to be shared and not owned, giving to each as they need. The tension is real.

Polanyi states, “The Christian discovery of the uniqueness of the individual and of the oneness of mankind is negated by fascism.  Here lies the root of its degenerative bent” (Polanyi 2001, p. 268). It is important to live in tension without leaning too far to the left or to the right. Trying to have a moral economy is difficult but it is necessary as a society to keep trying. I believe that as a Seminary student we must find the intersection between the economy and Christianity and try to teach the economic value of each person as someone made in the image of God.

References

Beauchamp, Zack. “The real politics behind the Covington Catholic controversy, explained: The Covington Catholic fight is American politics in microcosm.” Vox. January 23, 2019. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/1/23/18192831/covington-catholic-maga-hat-native-american-nathan-phillips (accessed January 24, 2019).

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Social Science Research/University of Amsterdam. “University of Amsterdam | Brian Burgoon presents Karl Polanyi | AISSR Great Thinkers Series”. Filmed [May 15, 2018]. YouTube Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShpbAG4Gq9g.

About the Author

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Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

8 responses to “A Picture Worth A Thousand Words of Polanyi”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    I agree, Mary, if only our politicians would take a centrist approach and try coming together instead of leaning toward the extreme of their party. We must all move to the middle to truly reach across the aisle for the good of our society and find common ground to agree upon. May the Church be the leading voice to bring us together and find real solutions.

  2. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    A few years ago PM Forni wrote a book called Choosing Civility, which beautifully described ways those of us who live in that tension you describe Mary, can do so without being rude, arrogant, classless or inflammatory. It is a quick little read and I found very helpful on topics as large as the one you raise, to congregational issues. Thank you for a great post!

  3. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you, Mary. I appreciate your use of recent events and speaking to the tension we all feel – whether we are aware of it or not. It is real tension but we must not give up and continue to wrestle and work for solutions.

  4. mm Sean Dean says:

    I really wanted to write about this event with Polanyi but I couldn’t find a handhold for it. You found a great way of connecting the underlying motivations to what Polanyi describes in a pretty great way. Thanks for this.

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Sean, I tried to be somewhat objective, but everything is so crazy and I found that Polanyi made a little sense of it all. I wish I had 2 weeks to really understand this book. The video did help, I can see a bit why we were assigned the book.

  5. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Nice post, Mary. I appreciated your correlation of the Double Movement tied into current events today. The Covington HS story is a perfect example of the Double Movement from a different viewpoint that Polanyi’s financial focus. Powerful blog, Mary. Thanks for sharing!

  6. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Mary,
    Thanks so much for your unique wisdom and perspective. You live and minister in perhaps the epicenter of economics and politics in this nation. Your thoughts and wisdom are so informative to me. Your statement, “I believe that as a Seminary student we must find the intersection between the economy and Christianity and try to teach the economic value of each person as someone made in the image of God.” compels me to keep wrestling. Thank you for reminding me that I have been given “much” in the form of being able to wrestle with these issues and therefore “am required” to give myself to discerning God’s calling in the midst of our complex society.

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