austerity

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.

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