Karl Polyani: The Great Transformation

I have always liked Karl Polyani’s fine book “The Great Transformation” that I am about the re-read in the light of this comment in Real World Economics that I think profoundly insightful about US politics. It is also making me look for a copy of “Dear Hunting with Jesus” by Joe Bageant: 

“Yes, let me wade in but not too deeply. I was intrigued by your very first itemization about logical positivism having failed as a theory of knowledge, and especially your mention of it excluding morality. Since I am reading the late Joe Bageant’s “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” his book about the alienation of white working class Americans from upper middle class liberals, and them not voting the logical positivistic formulations of their own economic self interest, please note that this segment of America is where the morality contained in the Evangelical Movement/Fundamentalism has its deepest roots. They listen to Larry Summers tone, condescension (even as Larry has moved left, which he tries to hide by using terms like “secular stagnation) and run into the arms of Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton…and who knows about Bernie Sanders.

The irony though, is that the nature of religious morality in America has shifted to worship the market as the final moral authority in determining social standing…has become entrepreneurial itself…so I don’t want to draw too many neat distinctions. Pope Francis, a moderate if not conservative social democrat has shockingly reminded us in the US that you can come up with an entirely different political economy after listening to exactly the same “Sermon on the Mount.”

Unfortunately the Right has been far more effective in translating the alienating scientific/mathematical posturing of economics into a more palatable ideological meal than the left, starting with Milton Friedman who had better sound bites than his debating partner, John Kenneth Galbraith. His son Jamie is trying, but his very interesting works (esp. The Predator State, The End of Normal) are hardly on the lips of the bottom 60-80%.

The same goes for the other great economic book from 1944, Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation,” which I still can’t help but defend as the single most relevant book for our times, where he gives full weight to the overwhelming disruptions the rise of industrialism gave to the surplus agricultural workers as they were meted out shock treatment transformation into an urban proletariat with no social safety net. Logical positivists demand that we revise that history because wages rose after 1850, and they are probably right, they did rise later, but the memory of the transition and the scalding impression it left gave rise to a “never again” attitude, very similar to that which Putin has built upon the bitterness and brutality of the shock treatment fiasco that Russia underwent post 1989, advised by the best and brightest from the West. Does it even make a shallow impression upon the department minds at Princeton, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and U of Chi? Does history have any greater, ironical, cruelties yet to deliver. Probably it does.

It is out of experiences like these that ordinary human beings are driven from the cold winds that seem to blow perpetually from “scientific economics.”

I’ll leave it at that.”


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Economic Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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