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Politicians Did Not Get Rich From Hollowing Out the Economy

In his inauguration speech Trump said:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and, while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

He claims that politicians got rich by off-shoring jobs and driving up trade deficits. This is an instance of a standard Republican lie, that our problems are caused by politicians. In fact, all the profits from off-shoring went to corporate executives and owners of corporations. They made political contributions, sure, but that doesn’t enrich anyone. The gains to citizens were some lower prices at a cost of whatever wars and worse-paying jobs.

The decisions to off-shore and outsource jobs are made by corporate executives and controlling owners. They had many reasons to invest in other countries, ranging from a desire to protect their own businesses from being underpriced by foreign entitiesk, incentives offered by foreign countries, lower labor costs, and access to foreign markets among others.

US policy in both parties since at least WWII has been generally sympathetic to foreign investment for many reasons, not least the belief that nations linked by commerce and trade are less likely to go to war.

Foreign investment is always dangerous. The risks include expropriation, local governments that won’t or can’t stop violence against plants and equipment, lack of protection of intellectual property, and others. Karl Polanyi discusses these risks in The Great Transformation. Hannah Arendt agrees in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In different words, and with different emphasis, they say Western European capitalists solved this problem by enlisting the government to protect them when they invested abroad. The same thing happened here. Thorstein Veblen saw it clearly in 1904:

… [W]ith the sanction of the great body of the people, even including those who have no pecuniary interests to serve in the matter, constitutional government has, in the main, become a department of the business organization and is guided by the advice of the business men. Chapter 8, Principles of Business Enterprises.

Here’s a discussion of the implications of that statement for foreign investment.

Right down to today, capital enlists the support of the government to protect it so it can make profits in other countries, and government responds for its own reasons. We have always used military force for that purpose, but now the primary tool is trade treaties. The recent example of the TPP stands out. It was written by corporations and their lobbyists and lawyers, and supported by mainstream economists. It was opposed by working people and unions and most progressives. It was supported by a bipartisan majority of legislators. It should be noted that it was rejected by Trump and Sanders and disparaged by Clinton.

I won’t try to untangle all the interlocking interests, or to discuss the negotiations between the two camps, government and capital. But Trump’s assertion that Washington politicians got rich off foreign investment is stupid and false. The people who got all the money from from foreign investment are the executives and the obscenely rich people who own and control these corporations.

The incoherence of Trump’s statements in his inauguration speech and in his campaign speeches about corporate overseas investment is displayed in this New York Times article discussing Trump’s meeting with CEOs of giant US manufacturers. The reporters, Nelson Schwartz and Alan Rappeport, say that Trump told the “titans of American business” that they had better move manufacturing jobs here, threatened them with taxes that look like tariffs, and offered rewards like lower taxes and fewer environmental regulations. The reporters say that this is pointless, because taxes and regulations do not determine where corporate investment are made.

The reporters say that the real cause of overseas investment is Wall Street, by which they mean Capitalists, including hedge fund managers, giant Banks, and the richest investors.

In some cases, Gordon Gekko-like hedge fund managers are to blame, but much of the time, it is the drive for bigger returns on 401(k) accounts, pension plans and other retirement vehicles that depend on steadily rising corporate profits and, in turn, a buoyant stock market.

That’s just wrong. Many pension funds are operated by private Wall Street firms through Gordon Gekko-like managers. The largest funds spread management around among several management firms, and invest with hedge funds, and get investment advice from Wall Street firms for the funds they manage themselves. The idea that Wall Street cares about small investors or their IRAs is silly. I’ll just ignore the stupidity of using a movie character when it’s easy to identify the real perpetrators. You could just read this article to find one, Daniel Loeb.

The actual problem is that the federal government let the interests of the rich set our industrial policy with no public input, and actively ignored the interests of US workers and citizens, and sometimes even the security interests of the nation.

I suppose it’s possible that Trump meant that the rich have too much influence in government, and he means to change that. But seriously, can anyone imagine that the Republicans or the neoliberal Democrats will allow Trump to initiate trade wars over protectionist tariffs? Does anyone think that Trump will do anything to harm the interests of the rich, or that Trump doesn’t personally identify with the rich and their interests?

And exactly how is this different from that time President Obama chewed out the banksters over their greed in April, 2009? Nothing changed then. Why should this time be different?

It won’t be different until a solid majority of voters come to grips with the fact that the dangerous elites in this country aren’t college professors or scientists or liberals. The dangerous elites are the rich people who control the giant corporations and the people who support them, in and out of government.

Security, Territory and Population Part 1: Introduction

Security, Territory and Population is a collection of lectures given by the French thinker Michel Foucault at the College of France in 1977-8. Foucault describes the lectures as a work of philosophy, defined as “the politics of truth” (p. 3), a term which itself seems to require a definition. This creates two difficult problems for the reader. First, philosophy is hard. It involves carefully picking things apart, examining each element, putting the pieces back together, and then picking them apart from some other perspective, examining the new set of pieces and reassembling. It’s hard work, and it makes for difficult reading.

Second, these are lectures, not a polished work prepared for publication with the aid of editors and the time it takes to smooth out analysis. Foucault says that these lectures are part of a long program of study, of which other books and sets of lectures are parts. The earlier books include Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality for certain, and others as well. These are polished works, and they give an idea of the general program.

In this book, Foucault wants to talk about what he calls “bio-power” which he describes as “… the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object ofa political strategy, of a general strategy of power….” Note that I did not use the word “define”, but the word describe. We should understand this book and The Birth of Bio-Power which I plan to take up next, as tentative explorations, and not as a formal philosophical explication.

I haven’t written about Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality (except briefly), but I don’t think that will be a problem. The last three books I’ve written about, The Great Transformation, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Theory of Business Enterprise, raise a similar set of issues. In each one of these books, we saw a massive change in the lives of the working people in Western Europe and the US beginning with the Industrial Revolution. These changes have produced amazing wealth for a few people, and have completely revamped the day-to-day lives of the vast group of working people. How exactly did these changes happen? Was there some great clamor for 12 hour work days in deep-pit mines? Did working people spontaneously decide to put their children to work in spinning mills at the age of 8? Was the demand for coal and cheap shirts so great that these things seemed like fair exchanges to the people whose lives were affected?

Polanyi seems to suggest that the changes were driven by economic duress both from the early capitalists and from the government. Arendt talks about the collapse of earlier social structure, and a combination of economic insecurity and random violence coupled with an appeal to nationalism and scape-goating of the Jews. Veblen doesn’t directly discuss the mechanisms of change but he does say that the industrial age demanded new structures to achieve maximum efficiency. Polanyi says that society resists these massive changes, and Veblen seems to agree. Arendt says that the people can be changed by a combination of force and rhetoric. I realize these are gross simplifications, but they are offered to show that these writers lead us to the problem Foucault wants to talk about. Foucault says that he is not interested in a theory of power, but that his investigations have the potential to expand into a discussion of major social trends.

Third, the analysis of these power relations may, of course, open onto or initiate something like the overall analysis of a society. The analysis of mechanisms of power may also join up with the history of economic transformations, for example. P. 2.

Human beings are a species, and in large groups can be understood and manipulated by those who have studied the species. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault gives us an early example:

[T]he ideas of crime and punishment must be strongly linked and ‘… follow one another without interruption…. When you have thus formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters.’ Foucault, Discipline and Punish, at 102, quoting J. M. Servan, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle, 1767.

It reads just like Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. We are much more refined than that now, of course. Almost every day we read a new theory about ourselves as a species. These insights are used by business to boost sales, by politicians to gain their own ends, and by each of us for our own purposes. For some of us, it is enough to know that. For Foucault, it was a signal that we need to think more clearly about power.

One good question might be, how did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse, not just of general societal power but of control over the self. Freedom is the most important thing in neoliberal rhetoric, but if we have to work to live, how free are we? If we have to take whatever is on offer as wages and employment, how free are we? People have internalized neoliberalism as a tool of self-discipline, and at such a deep level that they cannot even recognize it as an ideology. They think it is the natural way life should be, and anyone who questions it is anathema. This leads us to think about governmentality, which I discussed very briefly here, and which Foucault discusses in some detail in this book.

I believe that theory is important. The right wing is winning because so many people believe in neoliberalism, including a large number of Democrats. Kuhn points out that scientists can’t even do analysis without a theory with which to understand the observations they are making. I don’t think theories about societies or individual human behavior can ever have the kind of certainty we can get in the physical sciences, because as humans, any theory becomes an object of study and then of change. Even so, we can’t understand our society without some kind of theory. Foucault says that philosophy is about the politics of truth. Is neoliberalism a truth? What are the points about it where we can push back against the idea that it is a truth? Identifying those points is one of the goals of this series of lectures and of the next set, collected as The Birth of Bio-Politics.

In this post, I suggested the beginnings of a theory for the left. The same kind of analysis can and should be applied to that proposal. But that’s for the future. As I work my way through these books, I will try to remember that every proposal has points of struggle, as Foucault calls them, points that are contested. Let’s start with the recognition that for many people, neoliberalism has successfully concealed the points of struggle from the people whose minds it has colonized.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction

The Origins of Totalitarianism is Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian governments, the Nazis under Hitler in Germany and the Communists under Stalin in Russia. It was published in 1951, though it was largely completed in 1945. In its original form it focused primarily on Nazism, and as more detail emerged about Stalinist Russia, the book was revised. There are three sections, Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. The book can be read here. Page numbers at this link correspond to the page cites I’ll be using.

Rationale

Why this book? Anyone following current US politics has seen references to a fascist turn in Republican politics, and in the crowds surrounding at least one of the candidates. Similar but much smaller outbreaks occurred at campaign appearances of Sarah Palin in 2008 and at other Republican and conservative gatherings. One early user of the term fascism was @billmon1 on the Twitter, also here. Arendt’s detailed exploration of the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany, is a tool to help us understand its genesis, and perhaps see certain parallels to today.

In Modernity on Endless Trial, Leszek Kolakowski says:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Maybe so, but I think most ages are blessed with a few people capable of identifying at least the central points of a civilization, as they write the first drafts of history from the perspective of those who lived through it. They give us signposts for thinking about the best way to proceed into the future, and ways of understanding aspects of we humans and our societies that seem ineradicable. I’m also dubious about the term “historical period”, because there are few ideas that ever really disappear once installed in human minds. Instead they hide in the corners of society until conditions are ripe for another outbreak.

Arendt and Polanyi both wrote near the end of WWII. Both were Jews, educated in Europe after WWI, and both left Europe as Antisemitism struck at their ability to work and to live. Arendt left Germany in 1933, first to Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, then Paris. She was picked up by the Vichy regime in France, and interned in a camp. She was permitted to leave France in 1941 and moved to the US using an illegal visa issued by a US diplomat, Hiram Bingham, and with the aid of a noted rescue worker, Varian Fry. Polanyi left Vienna in 1933, and moved first to London, and then to the US. After WWII, he was unable to obtain a visa because his wife was a former Communist, so they moved to Canada and Polanyi commuted to New York where he taught at Columbia.

The technique adopted by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation was to look far back into history to show the wave that swept over European nations with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization. Foucault uses the same technique, for example in Discipline and Punish, which describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working people of France. Arendt uses the same technique. She gives a broad historical perspective to the rise of fascism and communism and their transformation of Germany and Russia into totalitarian states. This technique offers a way to begin to identify a civilization, or a social structure, to get at its roots. Thus, all three follow Kolakowski’s model.

In this post, I described Polanyi’s discussion of the rise of fascism in Germany. It is similar to Arendt’s analysis in The Origins of Totalitarianism. They both see the destruction of social roles of huge numbers of people, primarily from the lower and middle classes, as a crucial element of that change, though they use different sources and different language. Polanyi points to the large numbers of people who lost status and social position and roles in the sweeping changes of the Industrial Revolution, and in the wake of the Great Depression. As we will see, Arendt points to the dislocation of millions as the Industrial Revolution progressed, and to the dislocation of the lives of many Germans in the wake of defeat in WWI, exacerbated by hyperinflation in the early 20s and then worsened by the Great Depression.

It seems to me that the wave of neoliberalism that rose to new heights under the Reagan and Thatcher administrations and has wedged itself in our minds since, is a cultural change, not of the magnitude of the rise of totalitarian states or the Industrial Revolution, but still with an enormous impact on the lives of individuals. For many in the upper class, the neoliberal turn has removed any sense of responsibility to society or to the planet. For others in the upper class, there is increasing fear for the future because of global warming and the rise of oligarchy.

In the case of the lower and middle classes, that impact has been much more concrete. After years of stagnating wages and pointless wars followed by a frightening financial crash, and more wars and political deadlock, the middle class is disappearing. People experience dropping from the middle class as a loss of status, of a place in society, a role, and even a purpose. There is nothing in US society to replace that status, or to provide a new sense of belonging. These dislocated people are not in any way organized. The neoliberal system dismisses them as moochers and leeches seeking handouts while taking no responsibility for themselves. People who are nominally still middle class are feeling similar pain as their future prospects and those of their children dwindle.

The parallels to today are uncertain. But I think it’s worth examining this argument in detail to see if we can learn something useful.

General Plan

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. I intend to focus on Totalitarianism. I see the first two sections as setting up the third. One of the central ideas in the section on Antisemitism is that the Jews in Europe were never assimilated. There are several forces described in the section on Imperialism that reach full flower in Totalitarianism. Among others, these include the idea of superfluous humans and superfluous capital, which are associated with Arendt’s categories of the mob and the masses, and the whirlwind of capitalism. I’ll take those up briefly, and quite incompletely, before turning to the main discussion.

The Costs of Equal Opportunity in a Neoliberal Economy

Eric Loomis has a nice discussion of an article in the WaPo titled “White Americans long for the 1950s, when they didn’t face so much discriination.” The article reports these findings:

• 43% of all respondents said discrimination against whites is as much of a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups.

• 60% of the white working class respondents said discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

• White Americans feel put-upon and mistreated — and large shares of non-white Americans do not seem to have any knowledge of the challenges that white Americans say they face.

Loomis concludes that these feelings are the basis of the appeal of Donald Trump:

I will however say that the numbers of the white working class are particularly important because the economic insecurity of an outsourced and automated economy, the effects of which are swept under the rug by the many proponents of unrestricted globalization, are very real. I have said for a long time that if you want a stable society you have to have good paying jobs. Without those jobs, racial and religious prejudice becomes even more powerful than it usually is. That is part of what we are seeing in this recent rise of proto-fascism. It’s scary and should make us rethink a lot about the society we want to build before it’s too late. Emphasis added.

I absolutely agree with Loomis, but there’s more to be said. So here’s a story. I was accepted at Indiana University Law School in the Summer Session of 1971. My college grades were mediocre, but I got a very good score on the LSAT and had two years in the Army to encourage me to study harder. My law class had 200 people of whom 20 were women, as I recall. I graduated 20th in my class, and 10 of the people ahead of me were women. I assume that all the white guys with better credentials than mine got in, so it’s fair to guess that I would have graduated at least 10th if not for those really smart women. As it happened, it didn’t affect my ability to get a great job with a brilliant mentor, Stanley Schwartz, who taught me how to be a real lawyer. But that was a good time for lawyers and for hiring in general. And if I had wanted a job in New York City with a big firm, that move down the graduation rank would have made that unlikely.

The same thing happened to athletes when African-American players were allowed to compete. Lots of really good white players lost their scholarships to better players. The same things happened when police forces opened the doors to everyone on more or less equal terms. The number of jobs didn’t increase much, so the competition meant that some white men who would have been cops or office administrators or anything else didn’t get those jobs. It wasn’t a great problem until the decent jobs were disappeared by the rich. With the vast number of good jobs that had cushioned the entry of women and people of color gone, the previously privileged people, mostly white men, didn’t automatically win. Instead, they had to deal with the fact that there many previously disqualified people who were smarter and better prepared than they were, and many more were at least as smart and well-prepared as they. Just like me, they lost their previous rank.

That is an actual loss for white men. It isn’t just an appearance, or an excuse, it’s a genuine loss.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. When the rich started their drive to collect all the money from work in the Reagan years, they explained to the working people that they needed to be better and smarter, and they needed more education, which the workers were expected to pay for. Then college tuition shot through the roof, and states cut support, first for higher education, and then, in the wake of the Great Crash, for all education. But at the same time, Republicans tell workers it’s their fault, they need to work harder and longer and better and smarter. It’s a horrible double bind. I think the result is that some people respond by blaming themselves, and others respond by blaming the people who beat them out, or the liberals who made equal opportunity more of a real thing.

No one, especially politicians and economists, blames the people who shipped all the good jobs out of the country. Not a single politician or economist points out that if Intel and Apple and IBM don’t ship physical, financial and intellectual capital to Taiwan, there won’t be any semi-conductor manufacturing low-wage jobs there. No one says out loud that if the heavy equipment used to manufacture washing machines isn’t shipped to Mexico, there won’t be washing machine plants in Mexico. Economists of all stripes applauded the hollowing out of US industry on the absurd theory that the benefits to some outweighed the costs to society, assuming, of course, that there are economists who think about the interests of society beyond money. Neoliberal policies, specifically the massive support for unrestrained movement of physical, intellectual and money capital, produced the current state of the US economy.

Certainly, restraints on free movement of capital might not have permanently insured that these jobs remained in the US. But the central lesson we learn from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is that the pace of change is of crucial importance. See p. 39. The sudden and massive changes in the US economy have produced unnecessary misery, just as the Industrial Revolution did in the early 1800s in England. Whatever benefits there are in cheap foreign labor haven’t gone to the working class in the US, or even to most of the middle class. A government that cared about human beings would have acted to slow down change so society could protect itself. But we had Reagan and a crowd of crappy Democrats.

All this not only explains why people are so angry at both parties, it answers a basic question: why don’t the poorest among us vote? These are the people who benefit from the scraps of safety net left after years of efforts by neoliberals of both parties to destroy it. This is from the NYT:

While Mr. Bevin did not win Louisville, a Democratic stronghold, Mr. Conway did not win by nearly as big a margin here as Democrats usually do. William Benton, a Family Health Centers patient who voted for Mr. Conway, said he was not an inspiring candidate even for committed Democrats.

“A lot of people felt really justified not voting,” said Mr. Benton, a musician and part-time bakery worker who signed up for Medicaid this month to get help for his depression.

Not inspiring? That barely begins to describe a Democratic Party supporting neoliberalism at the expense of poor and the middle class.

The Great Transformation Part 6: Labor as a Fictitious Commodity

Previous posts in this series:

The Great Transformation: Mainstream Economics and an Introduction to a New Series

The Great Transformation Part 1: The Market

The Great Transformation Part 2: More on Markets

The Great Transformation Part 3: Neoliberalism Before It Got Its New Name

The Great Transformation Part 4: Reaction and Counter-Reaction To Self-Regulating Markets

The Great Transformation Part 5: Polanyi on Marxian Analysis

In Chapter 6, Polanyi says that the theory of the self-regulating market, which is at the heart of laissez-faire and neoliberal economics, requires that all of the elements of production and consumption be subject to the price-setting mechanisms of a market, and that government is not allowed to interfere with those markets in any way. Polanyi defines commodities as things produced for sale; and markets are “contacts between actual buyers and sellers”. Following that definition, commodities are generally subject to market pricing, and that was generally true at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, say the late 1700s. But three crucial elements of production were not at that time fully subject to markets: labor, land and money. In order for the self-regulating market to function, these three elements had to be brought under market control and freed from government regulation.

In Chapter 6, Polanyi calls these three elements “fictitious commodities”. That’s because they aren’t produced for consumption as the definition requires. Labor is human beings, who are part of society, not some product. Land stands for our natural surroundings, the place we live, and if we treat it like a cornucopia of goodies we’ll foul our own surroundings and make our lives miserable. Money is a social creation, not a commodity produced for sale.

And yet, for the self-regulating market to work, any element of humanity that extends beyond slavery, all efforts to preserve our home planet, and social control over our social creations must be stripped out, and the remains shoved into the same mold of one-dimensional value as potatoes and shoes. Anything less gives the defenders of laissez-faire and today’s neoliberals room to argue that the self-regulating market has never been allowed to do its magic and provide us with a material heaven on earth.

Polanyi discusses the impact of bringing the three fictitious commodities into market control in Chapters 14, 15 and 16. We start with the market in labor, which means the market in people’s lives. In Chapter 10, The Discovery of Society, Polanyi explains the separation of the economic and political spheres, starting with Joseph Townsend’s 1786 A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. Townsend tells the story an island populated by dogs and goats. The dogs eat the goats until there are too few to support the number of dogs. Then the dogs die down and the goats thrive. Then the dogs thrive and eat the goats, so the population of goats goes down. Here’s Townsend’s moral:

The weakest of both species were among the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives. It is the quantity of food which regulates the numbers of the human species.

Here’s how Adam Smith explains it in Book 1 Chapter 8 of The Wealth of Nations:

Every species of animals naturally multiplies in proportion to the means of their subsistence, and no species can ever multiply be yond it. But in civilized society, it is only among the inferior ranks of people that the scantiness of subsistence can set limits to the further multiplication of the human species; and it can do so in no other way than by destroying a great part of the children which their fruitful marriages produce.

The liberal reward of labour, by enabling them to provide better for their children, and consequently to bring up a greater number, naturally tends to widen and extend those limits. It deserves to be remarked, too, that it necessarily does this as nearly as possible in the proportion which the demand for labour requires. If this demand is continually increasing, the reward of labour must necessarily encourage in such a manner the marriage and multiplication of labourers, as may enable them to supply that continually increasing demand by a continually increasing population. If the reward should at any time be less than what was requisite for this purpose, the deficiency of hands would soon raise it; and if it should at any time be more, their excessive multiplication would soon lower it to this necessary rate. The market would be so much understocked with labour in the one case, and so much overstocked in the other, as would soon force back its price to that proper rate which the circumstances of the society required. It is in this manner that the demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men, quickens it when it goes on too slowly, and stops it when it advances too fast.

It’s an unpleasant picture, but with decent nutrition and good medical care along with birth control and abortion, it’s an accurate description today. Birth rates decline in recessions and increase when the economy is booming. The difference, of course, is the element of choice available today, as this recent Wall Street Journal article explains:

While the uptick in fertility and birthrates is modest and could reverse, it appears the country’s improving economy is encouraging more couples to have children. The lingering financial toll of the recession prompted many young and less-educated Americans in particular to delay childbearing.

In Chapter 14, Polanyi describes the technique for bringing labor under market control.

To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.

Such a scheme of destruction was best served by the application of the principle of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.
P. 171.

Could that be closer to the neoliberal view of humans? Economic freedom is the only kind that matters, say the neoliberals. And government is to be used to enforce the kinds of contracts the neoliberals want, and strike down all contracts neoliberals don’t like. All debts are to be enforced to the letter against human beings and cities. All cooperation among workers is a restraint of trade, and is stopped by courts. All labor is available for consumption by employers, and if you don’t want to work, you are free to starve.

Corporate Profits as Percentage of Gross National Product

Corporate Profits as Percentage of Gross National Product


Meanwhile, the capitalists will not accept the possibility of any reduction in their take from the system, currently at absurd levels. When Donald Trump, who represents the Republican consensus, says that wages are too high, he means that returns to capital must be kept at the highest possible level. In order for profits to remain high, we have to keep wages low. Then we have to destroy the social safety net so workers will be forced to work for whatever wages are available. The lash of hunger should do the job, along with a militarized police force. This is the society envisioned by the early economists.

And, this is what Polanyi means when he talks about the dangers of treating labor like any other marketable commodity. It means the subordination of every aspect of the lives of workers to the maintenance of the wealth of the filthy rich.

The Great Transformation Part 4: Reaction and Counter-Reaction To Self-Regulating Markets

Previous posts in this series:

The Great Transformation: Mainstream Economics and an Introduction to a New Series

The Great Transformation Part 1: The Market

The Great Transformation Part 2: More on Markets

The Great Transformation Part 3: Neoliberalism Before It Got Its New Name

The standard history of the industrial revolution in England says that it was accompanied by environmental messes in cities, miserable lives for those with jobs, and even worse misery for those without. One of the victims of that misery was Charles Dickens who worked in one of those factories for several months at the age of 12, while his father was imprisoned for debt. That experience informed much of the social commentary in his novels The damage was not limited to the lives of the poor, but extended to all sorts of problems affecting much of society. There was plenty of agitation for legislation to rein in the excesses of the self-regulating market, and gradually legislation was enacted.

Polanyi gives a list prepared by Herbert Spencer, most widely knows as the father of Social Darwinism, “a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence.”, as Wikipedia explains it. The list ranges from restrictions on hiring of boys under the age of 12 to vaccinations to laws requiring the inspection of gas works and requiring vaccinations. Spencer and other liberals decried these laws as betrayal of liberal principles, or as the deleterious actions of the enemies of liberalism, the collectivists.

This is the myth of the anti-liberal conspiracy which in one form or another is common to all liberal interpretations of the events of the 1870s and 1880s. Commonly the rise of nationalism and of socialism is credited with having been the chief agent in that shifting of the scene; manufacturers’ associations and monopolists, agrarian interests and trade unions are the villains of the piece. Thus in its most spiritualized form the liberal doctrine hypostasizes the working of some dialectical law in modern society stultifying the endeavors of enlightened reason, while in its crudest version it reduces itself to an attack on political democracy, as the alleged mainspring of interventionism. P. 150-1

Polanyi explains these and all of the myriad regulations passed by Parliament in the wake of the industrial revolution as the natural response of a healthy society to the intrusions of the self-regulating market. There was no conspiracy, and there isn’t even a theory justifying these challenges to the self-regulating market, merely a pragmatic case-by-case examination of a specific problem and a more or less reasonable response to that problem.

That won’t do, of course. There were two lines of attack by the liberal economists who pushed the theories of laissez-faire. The first one, just emerging when Polanyi wrote, was that the Industrial Revolution was steady evolution of the economy that steadily benefited the poor. Polanyi explains their argument that by normal measures of population growth and wage income, things were getting better for everyone, including the nascent working class, throughout the industrial revolution. As a result, there was no need for the kinds of interventions that the Parliament imposed.

The controversy continues to today. Here’s a brief recent summary by Clark Nardinelli. The data cited by Nardinelli supports the claims of commenter Ian Turner on the previous post in this series, suggesting that despite the theory that subsistence wages were good and useful, manufacturing and other interests were unable to push wages to that level. Today the dispute among economic historians over standards of living, as Nardinelli explains it, isn’t as simple as wages and population growth. The concept of standard of living now includes many non-cash items, like living conditions, wars, taxes, famines, working conditions, social ties, social status, and much more. We have a good example of this discussion in the wake of the recent speech by Paul Theroux on poverty in Mississippi, as this by Dave Dayen. Oddly, this discussion mirrors Polanyi as well.

Polanyi explains that the real damage done to the workers was through a cultural catastrophe:

The economic process may, naturally, supply the vehicle of the destruction, and almost invariably economic inferiority will make the weaker yield, but the immediate cause of his undoing is not for that reason economic; it lies in the lethal injury to the institutions in which his social existence is embodied. The result is loss of self-respect and standards, whether the unit is a people or a class, whether the process springs from so-called culture conflict or from a change in the position of a class within the confines of a society. P. 164-5.

At one level, this is an argument about measuring standard of living, as in the Nardinelli article. Polanyi however uses it to support his idea that when a society is threatened, it seeks to protect itself.

The second main thrust of the liberal argument is that laissez-faire was never fully implemented, and therefore it hasn’t had the chance to improve the lives of everyone everywhere.

… Its spectacular failure in one field did not destroy its authority in all. Indeed, its partial eclipse may have even strengthened its hold since it enabled its defenders to argue that the incomplete application of its principles was the reason for every and any difficulty laid to its charge.

This, indeed, is the last remaining argument of economic liberalism today. Its apologists are repeating in endless variations that but for the policies advocated by its critics, liberalism would have delivered the goods; that not the competitive system and the self-regulating market, but interference with that system and interventions with that market are responsible for our ills. P. 149-50.

We hear that argument all the time, regardless of the subject, from conservative economists and conservatives generally. Some things never change.

One of the things that doesn’t change is that people accept the general idea of capitalism so firmly that only changes around the edges are allowed in polite discourse, and all regulation effectively requires the consent of the people who benefit from things as they are. This was true in the 1830s, the 1860s and the 1930s (to a somewhat lesser extent) and today. Thus, in the wake of the Great Crash, it was obvious that something was badly wrong with the financial sector. Any benefit it might provide to society was swamped by the misery inflicted by the Great Crash. And yet, when Congress and the Obama Administration considered changes to the regulatory structure, the financial sector was on all sides of the table, and essentially won. Dodd-Frank is weak, and it gets weaker as bad regulators like Mary Jo White listen to the financiers and ignore social demands.

That’s why Bernie Sanders, the Portuguese Leftists, and Jeremy Corbyn are so scary to the oligopoly. These politicians don’t think twice about throwing out broken regulatory and other systems and replacing them with social controls over capitalism.