Socialism has been embraced by many as they look around and see the poverty and injustice in the culture. Who will take the responsibility for that? In his book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi taught that democratic movements of the people along with restraints on big business would bring about the free society envisioned by the people.
Polanyi’s central argument in the book is that a self-regulating economic system is a completely imaginary construction. It is not that there aren’t markets; just that “self-regulating” markets are an impossibility. In contrast to what free-marketers think, land, labor, and money can only be controlled by the government for the protection of the people. We can’t trust the individual business owners.
He argues that a self-regulating market system implies balance of power, gold standard, and a liberal state. The main motive of this market system is GAIN.
Dr. Polanyi explains how he believes the current (for the 1940’s) economic systems came about. He discusses war (World Wars 1 & 2), changes in technology (Industrial Revolution as well as invention of tools, etc..), changes in social relations (movement of ‘habitation’), and the ups and downs of the economies in various societies.
In his conclusions, Dr. Polanyi was hopeful that people could achieve “freedom in a complex society” (page 262). This would come about with the separation of politics and economics. When profit or gain ceases to be the motive for work, freedom and peace will be realized. Some blend of government intervention that does not impinge on personal freedom must be put in place. “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 the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need” (page 268).
We have seen experiments with communism fail, but Polanyi’s vision was really a global vision. As we move toward globalism, will socialism be more viable? Will socialism tried on a global scale finally bring peach and justice to the world?
Dr. Polanyi (who died in 1964) did not live long enough to see that much of the idealism of socialist thought eventually proved unworkable. He did not see the Berlin Wall come down. And all during those years of separation of West and East Germany, nobody from the West beat down the walls or died trying to get past the barbwire fence into East Germany.
One fallacy of socialism is to believe that somehow “government” is righteous and has pure motives. But government is made up of sinful people. I’d like to think that we could get all of the major players to sit down at a table and plan world peace. But I’m not sure the business moguls who pay Chinese workers 30 cents an hour would be happy to listen to those who engage in Fair Trade. The whole discussion leaves out what the Bible has to say about economics.
The prophets repeatedly emphasized the need for justice in human affairs (Jer. 22:3, 16; Micah 6:8). Jesus never distinguished between ‘religious’ and ‘social’ aspects of service to others. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and commanded Christians to provide food for the starving, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, aid for the prisoners, and shelter for refugees. Jesus placed human needs before religious and ceremonial considerations (Mk. 2:23-28; John 8:3-11).
Though the economy in Bible times was agrarian, not industrial/technological, the Scriptural principles of loving one’s neighbor still apply. Scripture clearly condemns sumptuous living, non-productive accumulation, and hoarded wealth (James 5:1,3).
One of the reasons that socialism is popular is because Christians have embraced a “prosperity Gospel” and identified wealth with God’s blessings. Now, wealth is not so awful if we give it away, but unfortunately in our country too many of us are selfish and just want to accumulate things.
This is important because we were just talking about contextualization. How do richly dressed Christians speak to the poor? Our greed does not only take away from our message but it will also “blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called” (James 2:7).
As a Christian what can I do? Dr. Polanyi definitely saw the problem. For many businesses the profit motive blinded their eyes to the plight of the poor. Many rich people won’t share the wealth unless forced. I sympathize with all of those who want justice; but I don’t think that government control is the answer. “Regulating” will come from somewhere – why not the Holy Spirit enabling individual Christians to be self-governing?
Two hundred years ago the Puritans, Quakers, and Methodists practiced caring for the poor. Somewhere in between then and now churches have pulled back and the government has stepped in with welfare programs. I’m glad as a nation we’ve voted to care for our poor, but I believe the personal care given by Christians is better than the non-personal, often inefficient programs of bureaucracy. And government doesn’t preach the Gospel.
Do we have to choose between greed (bad self-regulating) and socialism (government regulating)? Is there a better way?
Who will be in control? Could I choose to obey Christ’s commands without having someone force me? In my life I hope my control will be the Holy Spirit.
As I reflect on the discussions for the last several weeks on changes brought by globalization, I would love to share the Gospel of peace with others, respecting their contexts, making sure that the message includes Jesus’ death on the cross for our reconciliation, but also the coming of the Holy Spirit to give us the power to leave selfishness behind and seek justice as Jesus did.
Jesus told us, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11)