Baldo by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos
As I read Polayni’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time and a number of reviews, I find myself asking more questions than finding answers. Perhaps that’s what happens when a new paradigm is introduced. The “new” paradigm, ironically not so new with a copyright date of 1944, focuses on western society’s economic system that is interdependent with all arenas of social life: political, community, physical, environmental. This new way of thinking challenges the accepted understanding and embedded endorsement of free markets and self-regulation. Not only after the Great Depression but for the globalized world of 2015, Polayni offers a key description of society that reflects “the market is not an end in itself, but as a means to more fundamental means.” For the wellbeing of individuals, social classes, communities and nations, the transformation of a society needs an elevated viewpoint beyond the culturally prescribed answer of capitalism in the case of western economics that influence developing countries.
While there is some truth that rings clear in Polayni’s thesis, he does appears to only offer a description, not a prescription. Now my questions begin. “How can we distinguish what brings true wellness to a society?” In western culture, the value placed on economic answers certainly supersedes other creative options to living in an environment with a desire for wholeness (for whatever definition that means; ie success, good relationships, vocational satisfaction, etc). The most recent recession revealed how many relied on what their economic fortunes and goals could bring. In fact, when that economic downturn reality hit, the option for some was suicide (as occurred with my brother-in-law). We want answers that will bring us freedom, and while money can provide one way through if used appropriately, society needs more than financial solutions. What happens when that assumed solution no longer works?
I’ll admit to an emotional reaction to not only the content but also my unanswered questions. This “new” paradigm strikes to my core values, penetratingly so. I’ve been spoon-fed since a child that laissez-faire economics provide the greatest freedom for all social classes involved. Raised in a middle class family with parents who humbly yet earnestly sought after the American Dream by trying to create more financial capital, I lived off the same economic philosophy until my husband and I came to a point of bankruptcy about six years ago. In an ongoing and growing discernment, I see how much I rely on the security of financial freedom. While it is difficult for me to admit how much I trust in “In Money I Trust” versus “In God I Trust” imprinted on my money, I do find a new freedom in social and spiritual capital versus financial capital. I see my own wellness as well as others grow stronger and more sustainable when there is a foundation that builds on social and spiritual capital, while being honest about the value of financial capital.
This book, out of all of them so far, creates a great longing in me to sit in person with my fellow cohort peers. I want a safe environment to verbalize and listen to these cultural challenges to my way of thinking and living. I need to see the eyes, the body language (especially after last week’s book), and know that we’re in this together. I realize we’ll post and respond, then type-chat on Monday, but I feel exposed and fragile after recognizing how much I rely on a system I can’t even recognize because it’s so much a part of my blood line. Can a community in which I live actually function differently when it comes to such an embedded system such as relying on free markets and self-regulation as the answer? My questions continue: What does this text say about God’s abundance versus scarcity? What are the social consequences of trusting a system, any system (economic or not), that permeates society because that’s the way it has always been done? How can people be on such opposite ends of the spectrum, and still follow the same God? Can we? Can we put aside our own agenda to talk about such a “hot topic?” As Jesus illustrates with a comparison between camel and an eye of a needle with a rich man and heaven, I can’t help but wonder about the complexity of financial need and resources. Money helps in so many ways. Yet, we can’t just put more rules in force to control the selfishness; after a while, revolution will arise. What do we do?
Please understand, I still believe that there is great hope with many of the Fair Trade options, micro-loans, and sharing of economic resources across the world. In fact, I continue to promote those opportunities over some of our former ways of supporting overseas work. But after reading Polayni’s text, I pause a bit more, asking the bigger 30,000 foot question, “How does this impact an entire social system, not just the economic system?” See, my questions still abound!
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), xv.