Why Trump? Karl Polyani and Donald Trump by Peter Radford

Excellent piece in Real World Economics today: 

Why Trump?

March 13, 2016

from Peter Radford

I have become so enmeshed in political activity here that I rarely have time to reflect on the strangeness of it all. Why Trump? Why now? But I was prompted to think a little harder about it when I re-read the following in Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”:

“Market society was born in England – yet it was on the Continent that its weaknesses engendered the most tragic complications. In order to comprehend German fascism, we must revert to Ricardian England.”

Now I don’t want to re-litigate the entire argument about neoclassical economics. Frankly I am tired of wasting my time. If the preponderance of economists want to disconnect from reality, then who am I to argue? Let them. And ignore them. Their ignorance of the real world is both willful and necessary for the alternative world in which they think to cohere. So be it.

But.

For those of us who value economics as an understanding of a critical part of social reality we must insist that those inhabiting that alternative world take full responsibility for the outcome of their ideas if, and when, those ideas are allowed to seep into actual policy making. They must be blamed. And we ought to demand an explanation as to why the imposition of fanciful ideas onto an unsuspecting world, with the core consequences now becoming apparent, is at all ethical.

You see, Polanyi was right. At least in so far as he projects the blame for extreme politics, in a major part, onto the shoulders of those who advocate policy based upon theories that stand not so much on solid foundations but in midair.

It is not possible now, nor has it ever been, to extract economics form its socio-political context. It is not possible to remove history. Nor is it possible to remove the panoply of institutional, cultural, geographic, intellectual, or technological frameworks within which economic activity takes place. Those things frame every single transaction. They channel them. They constrain them. And they create the pathway along which an economy travels. If we ignore such things then the consequent study is a sterile amoral technical exercise of little practical value.

Yet that limited small thing has been presented to the world as the theoretical structure upon which we ought rely if we wish to prosper. It has become the most important part of the meta-structure we know as neoliberalism, and it is neoliberalism and its hollowing out of the socio-economic environment in which we live that has produced the combustible political context within which Trump has emerged as a viable candidate.

I have often suggested here that a key characteristic of mainstream economics is its fundamental distaste for democracy. We read it in the way in which economics pours scorn on government – even democratic government – as an automatic and inevitable problem in the achievement of efficiency, whatever that is. The anti-social bias is palpable. Yet most economists scoff at the thought.

But say it often enough, say it loudly enough, and, especially, say it with the authority of a scholarly background and the damage can be awful.

You might just make a Trump legitimate.

Ideas matter. We all acknowledge that. From where I sit economics has a lot to answer for. Polanyi was right, and that really matters.

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).
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