Today Jeffrey Epstein talks 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.
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.
9:27 - Hellos
10:35 - The commodification of labor - what it really means
14:41 - The fantasy of power, to vent the frustration of being powerless
17:01 - The self-regulating market is a fiction and a stark Utopia. The double movement
19:41 - Movies- Don't Look Up and Encanto
22:45 - How do you resist the self-regulating market and beat it, instead of perpetuate it?
26:30 - Whatever the answer, it starts with you
29:33 - Peace is a balance of power, but only in a belligerent world
38:20 - Peace is controlled violence - violence by, not against, the powerful
40:19 - Individual imbalance of power, fiction of nation states
44:38 - Corporations are more powerful than nation states
46:56 - The gold standard was the glue that held the world together but for a terrible reason (and mercantilism)
54:48 - 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