Polanyi’s work, written during the tumultuous times of the Second World War, serve as a reflection and critique of the current self-regulating free market forces against the market economy of centuries past. Written in response to the flaws of free market forces such as inequality, war, oppression and social turmoil, Polanyi attempts to convince the reader of the evils of the centrality of power and the free market compared to the advantages of a more harmonious and equal pre-market society. According to Polanyi, free market economies are a shocking recent departure from a socially harmonious past, which break social connections between individuals, creating inequalities that previously did not exist.
I was interested how Polanyi doesn’t keep his discussion within the spheres of economics, history and political science alone. He brings religion into his critique, speaking highly of eighteenth century reformer, Robert Owen, who was known for his negative views on Christianity. Polanyi writes, “Like Saint-Simonianism in France, Owenism in England showed all the characteristics of spiritual inspiration; but while Saint-Simon worked for a renaissance of Christianity, Owen was the first opponent of Christianity among modern working-class leaders.” [i] He explains how for Owen, “the fulcrum of his thought was his criticism of Christianity, which he accused of ‘individualization,’ or of fixing the responsibility for character on the individual himself, thus denying, to Owen’s mind, the reality of society and its all-powerful formative influence upon character.” [ii]
While, no doubt, Owen contributed significantly to societal needs in the UK during his time, including paving the way for the cooperative movement, one surely cannot entirely agree with Owen in his view that Christianity is not societal. As present-day sociologist Robert Woodberry has discovered, “the work of missionaries…turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.” Andrea Dilley, in her article, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries” [iii] quotes Woodberry who has discovered evidence how the significant numbers of “schools, teachers, printing presses, hospitals, and doctors” established by Protestant missionaries, had a subsequent positive influence upon the establishment of democracy in those nations. Dilley writes, “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernment associations.” [iv]
Indeed there exists a wealth of evidence that would affirm Christianity as societal. A quick turn to the ancient texts of the Old Testament, reveal numerous texts exhorting the people to consider the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, including:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)
“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Creating market structures within society that safeguard against inequalities and isolation has clearly been a challenge on the table for centuries. Why then, given all of history and experience behind us, have we not been able to yet create that kind of market system? Polanyi reveals why, “If industrialism is not to extinguish the race, it must be subordinated to the requirement of man’s nature. The true criticism of market society is not that it was based on economics – in a sense, every and any society must be based on it – but that its economy was based on self-interest.” [v]
Instead of disregarding Christianity and the Church as “empty husks,” (a Polanyian phrase) I suggest a turning to the heart and principles of Christianity would contribute to finding answers to the immense needs of a nation. After all, Christianity has much to say in terms of looking to the interest of others, caring for the needs of the vulnerable, while not forgetting the need to trust in God to provide and bless. Indeed Christianity has much to offer in this discussion of healing the inequalities and injustices within society.
Even the Founding Fathers of the United States appreciated the need for divine help while writing the Constitution. As David Barton explains, “About five weeks into the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when they were attempting to draft the U. S. Constitution, their efforts were a signal failure. As things were beginning to break up and delegates return home to their states, Benjamin Franklin challenged them and called them to prayer. He told them: ‘In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor… . And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?’” [vi]
Surely, the One who set the systems of the heavens and earth in place is able to provide the wisdom and systems necessary to his people to create a fair and equal society and economy. Friend, it’s time to bring back theology into the marketplace.
[i] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), 177
[ii] Karl Polanyi, ibid., 133
[iii] Andrea Dilley, Christianity Today, January 8, 2014
[iv] Dilley, ibid.,
[v] Karl Polanyi, ibid., 257