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Activist #MMT - podcast

Feb 20, 2022

Welcome to episode 109 of Activist #MMT. Today I talk with Jackson Winter, about the 2001 edition of Karl Polanyi's 1944 book, The Great Transformation. Jackson is co-writer and editor for PEGS Institute, which is a project to demystify and explain some commonly misunderstood realities of the modern world. Here’s their YouTube channel.

(A list of the "audio chapters" in this episode can be found at the bottom of this post. Here are links to all four episodes in the series about Polanyi's Great Transformation: part two with Jackson, and parts one and two with Asad Zaman.)

(Here are my first impressions of the book, after having read only the forward, introduction, and first chapter [be sure to see the show notes for a disclaimer]. It comes from an unreleased episode, with Jonathan Wilson.)

This is part one of a two-part conversation with Jackson, but it's also the first in a larger four-part series on Polanyi's book. 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. Parts three and four are with Asad Zaman, a PhD economist with many lectures, papers, and posts on the topic.

I'll summarize the book more at the beginning of part one with Professor Zaman, but very briefly: The Great Transformation is the centuries-long history of how our current rentier capitalism came to be, and what preceded it. It reveals that much of what we believe to be inevitable and unchangeable – natural – about our society is, in fact, a deliberate choice. Those who most benefit from this system (the rentiers, those who collect rent) would like nothing more than for the rest of us (those who pay rent) to believe this system – and their unending greed – to be natural, inevitable, unchangeable and, indeed, best for everyone.

I'd like to describe my journey to the book and this interview.

I first interviewed Professor Zaman in November 2020, in episodes 56 and 57. Our topic was his personal story, and, after decades immersed in neoclassical economics, his journey to MMT and real-world economics.

For the past year, I've been working with the Professor to create a free online course, centered around his many video lectures. Each lecture is split into fifteen-minute segments, and each segment is accompanied by a very substantial five-to-eight question quiz. I compose the quizzes with lots of assistance and support from my recent guest, Jonathan Wilson [episodes 106 and 107]. The course is titled "Historical Context for Real-World Economics", which is produced by Activist #MMT and hosted by Bill Mitchell's MMTed and Esha Krishnaswamy's Historic-ly. I look forward to sharing it with you. As we get closer, I'll release part three with Jonathan, where we spend the entire time talking about the course. (Patrons of Activist #MMT can hear the whole thing right now. Hint hint.)

The first five lecture-chapters for the course are completed, but four remain in draft form and still require a good amount of work. I'm currently resolving detailed feedback I've received from the Professor. However, we've already decided on the next seven chapters for the course, which are all on Polanyi's book. You'll find a link to the seven video lectures, plus several additional resources by Professor Zaman, in the show notes of part one with the Professor, coming in two weeks.

I purchased the 2001 edition of the book and read the forward, introduction, and first chapter. It blew me away. What most of us think is the foundation of our society and economy is actually not the foundation. There's another one below it.

A few days ago, I released a snippet of my first impressions, after having read only this much. At that same time, I saw Jackson on Twitter say he's studying the history of commodification of labor. (Very briefly, commodification of labor is threatening the poor with starvation and death unless they work the Unending Greed Machines of the rich.) I told Jackson to consider Polanyi's book as a critical source on the topic. Jackson said he would add it to his infinite reading list. I urged him just read the forward and intro. Two days later, he finished the book.

I was still only at chapter one! But now that he had thrown down the gauntlet, I was determined to finish. We scheduled an interview for five days later, on Wednesday morning my time. (He's sixteen hours ahead of me. I'm on the west coast of the US, he's in Australia. I was also on winter break.) Because reading the book was also in preparation for the course, I had to write lots of notes. By Monday morning, I knew there was no way I was going to finish. We postponed by fifteen hours, from 8 AM my time to 11 PM. I went into reading hibernation for two days straight, and my family slid pizza slices under my bedroom door every few hours. I finished the book at 9 PM, two hours before our scheduled start time.

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 (including my recent patron-question episode with Warren Mosler). 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 Every little bit helps a little bit, and it all adds up to a lot. Thanks.

And now, onto my conversation with Jackson Winter. Enjoy.

Audio chapters

  • 8:20 - Jackson introduces himself
  • 10:13 - Journey to the book and other reading
  • 12:59 - First impressions
  • 17:12 - Interview postponed
  • 17:52 - Speenhamland
  • 20:38 - Unemployed versus unemployable
  • 26:43 - Speenhamland’s place in history
  • 31:11 - Threaten starvation – tame even the strongest beast (natural)
  • 32:46 - The problem is not the Industrial Revolution but self-gain (greed, hedonism)
  • 34:19 - "Anti-government"
  • 40:14 - Commodification
  • 43:23 - George W. Bush, Satanic mill
  • 44:06 - Commodification of labor
  • 47:49 - Every level commodities the level below (venting their frustrations)
  • 51:39 - Cultural hegemony, the Queen of England
  • 54:19 - Death to the few versus death to the many
  • 59:20 - Duplicate of introduction, but with no background music