Karl Polanyi’s work in The Great Transformation gave me pause on multiple occasions. I am not an economist and I have not studied the history of the Industrial Revolution in any depth as to readily consider the effects of the market economy on modern society especially as pertains to leadership and the church. Yet, Polanyi’s writing also enticed me as I would search various definitions of terms (he often assumes the reader’s know his content) and begin to relate his historical accounts to trends we see today in church and society.
The Great Transformation pursues a course of change from a traditional economy (where all own and use land and gather and share its resources) to a market economy (businesses produce and distribute goods based on supply and demand) brought on by the Industrial Revolution. This “great transformation” radically reshaped society as it was known by the commodification of land, labor and money. Three major contributions of Polanyi’s analysis of the shifts from one economy to the other are:
- The self-regulating market as an impossible Utopian vision to achieve.
- The Liberal Creed as a “reaction to the Crown’s failed attempts at social welfare for the displaced masses during the ravages of English industrialization.”
- The idea of double movement referring to the two polar tensions in society of self-regulation, toward independent personal gain, and the forces fighting to protect the well-being and equality of the society by inducing regulation.
Polanyi does not so much critique industry as he does the economy prompted by the industry. “The congenital weakness of nineteenth-century society was not that it was industrial but that it was a market society. Industrial civilization will continue to exist when the utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory.” Polanyi’s disdain is both a reaction and a prophetic voice to what happened and has continued to happen as effects of the transformed economy.
As Asad Zaman notes in his article, “all societies face the economic task of producing and providing for all members of society…It is only in a market society that education, health, housing, and social welfare services are only available to those who can pay for it.” This left many uncared for who did not have the funds to support their family. Before the market society people were cared for by one another and the idea of poverty did not really exist until 1650. The creation of poor-laws were meant to help but did not regulate or motivate the economy and society.
Over the following century a new term, “unemployment,” would be introduced for those who were either unemployable due to handicap or unable to find work. The non-working able-bodied were then made to go hungry in order to motivate them to join the workforce. These changes suppressed the position of people as second to the economy. Polanyi’s solution focused “on ensuring that all people have the right to earn a decent livelihood…prioritizing social relationships and subordinating the market to the society.” As Polanyi himself stated, “If industrialism is not to extinguish the race, it must be subordinated to the requirements 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.
The idea that the transformed economy perpetuated self-interest caused people to reject care for their neighbor because of the need and desire to care for one’s self as a method of survival and potential prosperity. This of course transformed not only how people worked and lived, but how they perceived one another. New classes based on the type of vocation and income people made were eventually developed, including the upper, middle, working, and lower classes. These classes created social divisions and both still exist today.
The church has not avoided the market economy, the classes, or the divisions produced by the industrial revolution. As part of the culture the people of the church were part of the industrialized move. This is neither good nor bad in itself. Yet, questions still remain about how those as part of the church reacted in their treatment of one another once everything from land to humans became commodities. This still holds true when speaking of others saying, “I value them, I am going to invest in them or they are worth my time.” All of these statements have monetary meanings revealing the depth of the nature to which the market has infiltrated thinking and language even when not considering labor or an exchange of goods.
In considering the church today in respect to its basic form of making disciples, I consulted a friend of mine who teaches Christian ministries with an emphasis in youth ministry. He lit up when I asked him how he related the Industrial Revolution to the church saying, “Oh yes, the whole idea of evangelization changed with the assembly line.” He continued to share that the four spiritual laws came into play as a method of making disciples and people were more systematically brought into faith but not fully developed. That was left to the pastor or another system in the church.
My concern with regard to the church is that we continue to classify and segregate people based on their perceived value to us. This may seem crass, but the church in John Wesley’s day, which happened to be during the period when poverty was on the rise and unemployment was just becoming a reality, spent much time caring for those who began to be marginalized or classified as lower class workers. In addition, they made sure people were well discipled from the point of evangelism through sanctification while providing mutual support for the care of individual souls. I fear that out of a scarcity mentality, much of the church today follows the market economy in serving its own self-interest for survival rather than make disciples and care for the least of these. Perhaps if the church followed Jesus’ model rather than the market, the “produced outcomes” might be different.
 Meier, Brian. “Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.” Social Thought and Research. 29 (2008) 155-160.
 Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press: Boston. 2001, 258.
 Zaman, Asad. “Summary of the Great Transformation.” WEA Pedagogy Blog.
https://weapedagogy.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/summary-of-the-great-transformation-by-polanyi/ (January 30, 2018).
 Polanyi, 257.
 Sherwood, Steve. Interviewed by Trisha Welstad. Personal Interview. Indianapolis, January 31, 2018