Your daily dose of the great Christian Socialist, Karl Polanyi:

Under capitalism, humans are only worth as much as their labor output. As such, market societies are necessarily anti-Christian and therefore anti-humanist. The creative capacity of human poiesis (labor) is not only commodified, but diabolically transformed to serve mammon.

The problem with capitalism, then, is not about the system’s efficiencies (they are some), nor its inefficiencies (they are many), but that it redefines humanity. Humanity was once teleologically ordered toward the divine, but in a market society humanity is teleologically re-ordered toward acquisitiveness.

It gets worse. The great proponents of market society (von Mises, Hayek, etc.) understood that humans are not by nature competitive, driven toward acquisitiveness, or even inherently rational. They maintained that in order to best structure society, we must ensure that humans become competitive, acquisitive, and rational. The problem is that this re-ordering of humanity does not come naturally to most folks. Unlike liberals, most humans value tradition, family, hearth, and irrational things, like high feast days and sacred spaces. Most would rather till their own land rather than work for slave-wages in someone else’s factory. In order to get this “Great Transformation” up and running, the government had to intervene in the affairs of society.

The peculiar nature of market society is such that it requires ongoing state intervention and government planning, with the result of compounding economic and political crisis. The market overreaches, society reacts, markets crumble in response, thus leaving a wake of social and environmental devastation.

Enter the Greek crisis. Neoliberalism imposes austerity measures on Greece’s sovereignty. The people react, the market reacts, and because the market is more powerful than popular democracy, the market wins and society is further devastated. As Polanyi observed about the “ambiguous position” of democracy under a market-driven society,

While the action of the market called forth widespread reactions and helped to create a strong popular demand for political influence of the masses, the use of the power so gained was greatly restricted by the nature of the market mechanism: isolated interventions, however urgent on social grounds, could often be shown to be economically harmful, while economically useful interventions of a planned type could not even be considered. In political terms, while piecemeal reform could be discredited as a damaging interference with the working of the market, outright social solutions, which would have been economically advantageous, had to be excluded altogether. Under conditions such as these, the striking power of the forces of popular democracy was necessarily limited (For a New West, 208).

It remains to be seen what will happen to Greece and the EU. For Polanyi, 19th century society faced two options: in response to crises, society will either implement some variation of socialism, such as the New Deal, and will for a time be placated; or fascism will take over.

Polanyi didn’t shirk from this grim picture. In a letter to a friend from 1929, he referred to these historical “facts,” but added, “we must make life out of these facts as faith builds life out of death.” This seems a good a starting point as any.


The truth about human life discovered by Jesus asserts itself today, in the recognition that, in our present society, man is in a condition of self-estrangement and that the socialist transformation is the only means of redeeming personal life in a complex society (For a New West, 84).

We are reminded here that redemption is as much about the human body as it is about the soul. We are also reminded that sin is as much about the body as it is about the soul: “dark Satanic mills” that enslave; deadening jobs that numb the heart; lack of work that withers the soul; too much work just to make ends meet that destroys the family.

The “socialist transformation” concerns, of course, the social body of Christ, that knows no boundaries between the political, the personal, or the economic.

One of my favorite games to play when reading Friedrich von Hayek is to plug and play the terms “socialism” and “capitalism.” The Road to Serfdom presents many opportunities. Here are just a few of my favorite corrections:

It is not rational conviction but the acceptance of a creed which is required to justify a particular plan. And, indeed, socialists capitalists everywhere were the first to recognize that the task the had set themselves required the general acceptance of a common Weltanschauung, of a definite set of values. It was in these efforts to produce a mass movement supported by such a single world view that the socialists capitalists first created most of the instruments of indoctrination of which Nazis and Fascists have made such effective use (113).

The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends toward which the social capitalist plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends. To make a totalitarian capitalist system function efficiently, it is not enough that everybody should be forced to work for the same ends. It is essential that the people should come to regard them as their own ends. Although the beliefs must be chosen for the people and imposed upon them, they must become their beliefs, a generally accepted creed which makes the individuals as far as possible act spontaneously in the way the planner capitalist wants. If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian capitalist countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal totalitarian countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian capitalists governments succeed to a higher degree in making people think as they want them to (153).

The point here is to show that everything Hayek feared that would eventually come to pass under socialism has happened under capitalism, including vast amounts of Americans losing their homes, savings, working for meager wages, etc. It’s almost as if today’s business elites used Hayek’s critique of the “planned economy” as a blueprint for how to structure our current capitalist order.

Hayek, of course, doesn’t see it this way. Yes, Hayek says, monopolies or totalitarian orders arise under capitalism; but such facts only point to the failure of capitalism to live up to its superior ideal. In other words, there are no failures of capitalism, just failures to live up to the ideal. As Seth Ackerman & Mike Beggs point out, under neoliberalism, “we can fail the model, but the model can never fail.” The status quo is therefore beyond reproach.

Now, to be fair, Hayek rightly diagnosed some elements of our current predicament. There’s little hope for regulating abuses within the market system, as regulators will inevitably become co-opted by business interests (see Gar Alperovitz, around the six minute mark). The solution, then, is to out-compete centralization and monopoly power. Indeed, for Hayek, there are two and only two paths before us: competition or centralization. “There is no other possibility than either the order governed by impersonal discipline of the market or that directed by the will of a few individuals; and those who are out to destroy the first are wittingly or unwittingly helping to create the second” (199), thunders Hayek.

Despite the fun games one can play with Hayek, there are certain elements of his thought we should take seriously. Karl Polanyi understood this, I think, which is why he spent the better part of his career challenging Hayek. And today the stakes couldn’t be higher. As Robert Kuttner writes, “Polanyi viewed Mises and Hayek as modern counterparts of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, punishers of the poor in the name of market incentives. “Inside and outside England,” he wrote in The Great Transformation, “from Macaulay to Mises, from Spencer to Sumner, there was not a militant [free-market] liberal who did not express his conviction that popular democracy was a danger to capitalism.”

The only other insight to add here is that Polanyi also grasped the anti-Christian animus behind Hayek and his ilk. As he writes in The Great Transformation, at the height of the industrial revolution,

huge masses of the laboring population resembled more the specters that might haunt a nightmare than human beings. But if the workers were physically dehumanized, the owning classes were morally degraded. The traditional unity of a Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the condition of their fellows… To the bewilderment of thinking minds, unheard-of wealth turned out to be inseparable from unheard-of poverty. Scholars proclaimed in unison that a science had been discovered which put the laws governing man’s world beyond any doubt. It was at the behest of these laws that compassion was removed from the hearts, and a stoic determination to renounce human solidarity in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number gained the dignity of a secular religion (106-107).


Before modern times… there existed, as a rule, no term to designate the concept of economic. It cannot be merely a matter of chance that until very recent times no name to sum up the organization of the material conditions of life existed in the languages of civilized peoples. Only two hundred years ago did an esoteric sect of French thinkers coin the term and call themselves economists. Their claim was to have discovered the economy.

Karl Polanyi, “Aristotle Discovers the Economy,” 71.


The language of freedom, however august its origins in Enlightenment thought, has become the language of the market. “No limits,” as the credit card offer says, “you’re in charge.” 

-Matthew Crawford, LSE, April 2015


The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:

Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).

Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.

It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.

Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.

In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.

Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,

the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)

I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.

Fred Block stands as one of the most important contemporary expositors of Karl Polanyi. This is not to say, however, that Block is without his fair share of critics. As Gareth Dale argues in Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Block overemphasizes Polanyi’s understanding of the embedded economy, and thereby downplays Polanyi’s grasp on the uniqueness of the modern market society. The great Polanyian insight, according to Block, is that capitalism and democracy can coexist, provided robust political structures are in place.

Block may be wrong about his reformist interpretation of Polanyi, but I think he might be onto something here with his understanding of how capitalism actually operates:

I once had a conversation with the late Paul Sweezy where I was talking about some visions of reforming capitalism, and he said, “well, you can’t get the capitalist leopard to change its spots…” Capitalism was very powerfully being described as a beast and its seems to me that that natural imagery, which is there very deeply in Marx’s work, and he used it, I think, very self-consciously as a way to protect Marxism from reformism. From the threat that workers would accept half a loaf rather than radical transformation. And so he always talked about that you had to transform capitalism root and branch; you had to pull the whole thing out. You couldn’t just change a little bit. So he used the image of capitalism as a natural system that had to be completely destroyed. And I think that natural imagery is part of what has gotten us into deep trouble. And the kind of alternative metaphor that I have been trying to work with is to think rather of market societies and the contemporary global economy as not as a natural entity at all, but rather as a kind of jerry-built structure; a bunch of elements put together at different times that fit together very uneasily which are constantly having to be patched and readjusted. And so the notion is that it’s a system which is always under construction because the parts of it don’t fit together very well. It’s riven by contradictions, tension, lack of fit. And it’s precisely that always-under-construction quality which it what gives the political openings, because that which is recognized to be under construction can be reconstructed in different ways, better ways, to promote different kinds of values.

Fred Block, “Towards a Polanyian Theory of Contemporary Capitalism,” transcribed from David Cayley’s “Markets and Society” podcast, episode V.

Christ know that Society was necessary, so that we might help each other, and hold together. And so the past seventy years we have made much of the Holy Communion, the service that tells of brotherhood, solidarity, co-operation. Social religion has become as necessary as personal religion… It is not for nothing that in the best language of our race “the State” is called “a Commonwealth”: it is not for nothing that our Prayer-book is called the Book of Common Prayer: alike in material as in spiritual matters we are still to be communists – sharers.

-Stewart Headlam, The Meaning of the Mass, 29.


God doesn’t just die, he goes to hell: a far more radical proposition. He descends to the underworld to liberate the anawim, the dispossessed and the forgotten. “The anawim will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever” (Psalm 9:18).

Good Friday, shorn of the Triduum, is nothing but death. That’s the point. But however much we fix our gaze on the theologia crucis, the story goes on. Christ doesn’t just die, he descends and harrows hell. Good Friday is radicalized by the passage of liturgical time, culminating in the Great Vigil of Easter.

Easter without the horror of Good Friday; Good Friday without the hope of Easter. Both are products of anemic protestant theology and in both cases the poor are forgotten. A dead god presents no hope for the poor; a god who is characterized by triumph alone presents no hope for the poor. But a god who died to join and liberate the poor in hell is a god of solidarity.

Good Friday without Holy Saturday is the veneration of death. In a culture that denies death, we can understand the allure of Good Friday; in a culture that denies mysterion, we can understand the rejection of Holy Saturday. It’s too pagan, too mystical. Better to have death and resurrection alone, and nothing in between.

Writing about Christ’s descent into hell, Terry Eagleton says that God,

dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Roman for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth – scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition (Reason, Faith, and Revolution, 23).

Perhaps we in the West have forgotten Holy Saturday because it is a day of solidarity with the anawim and a day of revolutionary fervor. As the thinking goes, better to pass over this day in silence lest any seditions thoughts begin to take hold.

I feel you, Karl.

The market acts like an invisible boundary isolating all individuals in their day-to-day activities, as producers and consumers. They produce for the market, they are supplied by the market. Beyond it they cannot reach, however eagerly they may wish to serve their fellows. Any attempt to be helpful on their part is instantly frustrated by the market mechanism. Giving your goods away at less than the market price will benefit somebody for a short time, but it would also drive your neighbor out of business, and finally ruin your own, with consequent losses of employment for those dependent on your factory or enterprise. Doing more than your due as a working man will make the conditions of work for your comrades worse. Be refusing to spend on luxuries you will be throwing some people out of work, by refusing to save you will be doing the same to others. As long as you follow the rules of the market, buying at the lowest and selling at the highest price whatever you happen to be dealing in, you are comparatively safe. The damage you are doing to your fellows in order to serve your own interest is, then, unavoidable. The more completely, therefore, one discards the idea of serving one’s fellows, the more successfully one can reduce one’s responsibility for harm done to others. Under such a system, human beings are not allowed to be good, even though they may wish to be so.

Quoted in Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, 10-11.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers