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Activist #MMT - podcast


Mar 6, 2022

Welcome to episode 111 of Activist #MMT. Today I talk with Asad Zaman about the 2001 edition of Karl Polanyi's 1944 book, The Great Transformation. Professor Zaman is a PhD economist based in Pakistan, with many lectures, papers, and posts on the topic. This is part one of a two-part episode, but it's also part three in a larger four-part series on Polanyi's book. Parts one and two are with Jackson Winter. Jackson and I are two smart layperson MMTers trying to come to terms with the depth of what we just read, and connecting it to our lives and MMT.

(A link to all four parts in the series can be found near the top of this post: A summary of Polanyi's Great Transformation (with many sources to learn more). A list of the audio chapters in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post.)

As I briefly describe in part one with Jackson, Professor Zaman and I are developing a free online course called "Historical Context for Real-World Economics". It's almost entirely through an MMT lens, but mostly, it's history, not directly MMT. However, it provides critical context for those who want to understand MMT better. The course is produced by Activist #MMT, and hosted by Bill Mitchell's MMTed and Esha Krishnaswamy's Historic-ly. There are five lecture chapters currently being developed, and I look forward to sharing them with you. The next seven lectures are all on Polanyi's Great Transformation. Links to the seven lectures, plus several related sources by Professor Zaman can be found [in the show notes.] in the "Resources" section at the bottom of this post.

(The below summary and resources have been collected into this post: A summary of Polanyi's Great Transformation (with many sources to learn more))

The Great Transformation reveals, essentially, that what we think to be a foundation of our economy and society is, in fact, an illusion. Specifically, Polanyi calls capitalism and its free or "self-regulating" market "a stark Utopia". By definition, a Utopia (an imagined place where everything is perfect) is impossible to achieve. However, the attempt to achieve it – to eliminate literally all market regulation – can result only in the complete destruction of all human life and the land they live on. This is evidenced by our increasingly likely extinction at the hands of a human-created ecological crisis, caused largely by unprecedented and still-growing levels of inequality and the mass exploitation of all natural resources, including most human beings.

Here's Polanyi, on the first page of the first chapter:

Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.

Unfortunately, the only way to maintain the fiction of the self-regulating market, is to continue the mass exploitation of the poor. Instead of treating human beings as the infinitely precious and unique beings they are, they are rather treated as mere interchangeable and disposable cogs to run the Unending Greed Machines; most often under terrible conditions. Polanyi calls this grave maltreatment the commodification of labor.

The only way to get human beings to submit to these terrible conditions, is to threaten them with an even more terrible condition: starvation and death. As quoted in the book, starvation "can tame even the wildest beast". Not even the strongest man can overcome it.

How is this starvation made possible? By eliminating the possibility of self sufficiency. A major tool to do this was the invention of the concept of the private ownership of land. This justified the ejection of all former occupants, who must now, for example, in modern society, purchase our food at a distant store. We have to drive to that store, and the food, plus the car and its gas, must all be paid for with money, which in turn can only be obtained by laboring at the Greed Machines. What this all means is that the commodification of labor also requires the commodification of the land.

Those being potentially annihilated by the destruction of the self-regulating market resist that destruction. This results in what Polanyi calls the double movement. This is the ideological battle that has raged for centuries, where one side tries to eliminate all market regulation, while the other tries to protect itself by imposing some. When the amount of regulations are only enough to moderately reduce that destruction, as is unfortunately most often the case, then the resistance can only perpetuate and further enable the pursuit of that stark Utopia.

What underlies and justifies this horror is the most dominant religion in the world, which is greed. Without Polanyi's book and his work, this religion, and its byproducts of inequality and mass exploitation, are made to appear normal, inevitable, and unstoppable – in other words, natural. The truth that Polanyi's history reveals (and as is reinforced by my recent interview with Wesley Wiles)is that inequality, exploitation, and greed are not "unfortunate, but necessary", they're deliberate choices. Those who benefit most from the self-regulating market have incentive to deceive the rest of us into thinking that these terrible things are indeed natural. This is the role played by neoclassical economics: to provide that official, neutral, and natural-sounding justification.

The core problem in our society is not "capitalism" or "the free market", per se, but rather the mass exploitation of the poor. Therefore, the core solution is to empower the poor. The nature of this empowerment is simple: provide them with what they desperately need: like healthcare, education, a job, un-poisoned water, and a world that doesn't threaten to collapse around them. These things all serve to empower the poor which ultimately reduces inequality – of both wealth and income.

We will annihilate the fiction of the self-regulating market or it will annihilate us. There is no gray area. We will provide for those on the bottom or we will go extinct. The first step is to emancipate ourselves from the chains of false history and false economics, and from the idea that everything horrible is "unfortunate, but necessary". Only then can we take a step back and start thinking of alternatives.

As a final note, you'll hear some of Professor Zaman's thoughts on the potential form a sustainable future society might take. These are not ideas from the book but his own, in an attempt to start a discussion on one of the greatest questions of our time: how do we resist and annihilate the self-regulating market, and what can and will society be like when we do? Perhaps you have some ideas of your own. Let's start that discussion.


If you like what you hear, then I hope you might consider becoming a monthly patron of Activist #MMT. Patrons have exclusive access to several full-length episodes, right now. A full list is here, each with a brief highlight. Patrons also get the opportunity to ask my academic guests questions, such as my recent patron-question episode with Warren Mosler. (A Patron question was also asked of Professor Zaman.) They also support the development of my large and growing collection of learn MMT resources, and the course with Professor Zaman. To become a patron, you can start by going to patreon.com/activistmmt. Every little bit helps a little bit, and it all adds up to a lot. Thanks.

And now, onto my conversation with Asad Zaman. Enjoy

Resources

Bill Mitchell's 2022 blog post, To reclaim the state, we have to start with ourselves, which contains a substantial comment from Professor Zaman.

For a good, short and basic introduction to the flaws of capitalism and its economics, Professor Zaman recommends this 17-minute 2020 TED talk by Nick Hanauer.

Here are the seven lectures by Professor Zaman that will be used in the course :

  1. Adv Micro L13: Entanglement of History with Social Theories
  2. Adv Micro L14: Emergence of Economics Theories in Economic Context
  3. Adv Micro L15: 19th Century European Economic Ideas In Historical Context.
  4. Adv Micro L16: Economics from Hunter/Gatherer to World War 2
  5. Adv Micro L17: Polanyi Great Transformation Part 2
  6. Adv Micro L18: Polanyi TGT cont - part 3
  7. Adv Micro L19: Polanyi TGT- Concluding Lecture

Here's the overall curriculum from which these lectures come: 21st Century Economics: An Islamic Approach

More from Professor Zaman on Polanyi:

Not directly related to Polanyi, but as important context (and s were briefly discussed), below are sources from the Professor on the topic of redefining "the poor" to mean the poorest among the aristocracy, such as in Jane Austen novels. I’ve provided the Professor’s full comments for context:

…EJ1083726.pdf
These just came up on a search, there is a lot of stuff on it which I haven't read

…/kuwahara.pdf

This might be the best: …/jane-austen-family-slavery-essay-devoney-looser/

Search term "Jane Austen and Colonial Politics" -- but "imperialism" would have worked too

There is chapter in Edward Said "Culture and Imperialism" called: Jane Austen and Empire. This is bound to be good. I have not read the book, but it is on my reading list.

Audio chapters

  • 9:46 - Hellos
  • 10:55 - The commodification of labor - what it really means
  • 15:01 - The fantasy of power, to vent the frustration of being powerless
  • 17:21 - The self-regulating market is a fiction and a stark Utopia. The double movement
  • 20:01 - Movies- Don't Look Up and Encanto
  • 23:04 - How do you resist the self-regulating market and beat it, instead of perpetuate it?
  • 26:49 - Whatever the answer, it starts with you
  • 29:52 - Peace is a balance of power, but only in a belligerent world
  • 38:39 - Peace is controlled violence - violence by, not against, the powerful
  • 40:39 - Individual imbalance of power, fiction of nation states
  • 44:58 - Corporations are more powerful than nation states
  • 47:15 - The gold standard was the glue that held the world together but for a terrible reason (and mercantilism)
  • 55:07 - Fascism is not something in and of itself, rather it's something to fill in the vacuum left by the wreckage of the self-regulating market
  • 59:40 - Duplicate of introduction, but with no background music