It's like Mardi Gras meets the bombing of Dresden...
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Karl Polanyi's "The Great Transformation"
I just found out this post isn't dead- so I'm bringing it back to the top for ease of access. I'll get on it tonight, but not now, because it's reading day and I have a three-on-three tournament to play in...

I've recently been reading "The Great Transformation" by Karl Polanyi. To quote the back cover, "Mr. Polanyi's immediate objective is to bring out, as he does with remarkable discernment, the social implications a particular economic system, the market economy that grew into full stature in the 19th century." More specifically, Polanyi traces the rise of free market capitalism since the end of feudalism and its effect on European social structures. I'm not going to review the whole book, but I wanted to bring up a couple points he makes that are relevant to recent and semi-recent topics.

1st Topic: Modernity's destructive effect on humanity- This has been kicked around a few times without, from my opinion, a clear cut indictment of how modernity negatively effects humanity. In Polanyi's opinion (which I think I at least partially agree with) the force that sets modernity against traditional humanity is the commodification that goes hand in hand with liberal economics. Specifically (my paraphrasing may lack some nuance here), modernity requires the commodification of three things: money, labor, and land. I'll skip the first for brevity, but I'll hit the last two. The commodification of land came first, and wreaked havoc on traditional social structures by removing the feudal bond between land and labor. Through enclosures and restrictions on land use, humanity (more specifically the classes of humanity without land) became displaced in their own country, which was inherently disastrous when culture was still inherently feudal (ie identity was defined at least partially through location and consequently allegiance to feudal lords). However, this displacement was necessary in order to free up the mobility of labor, so that the work that was created through capitalism could be done. In essence, this breaking of man's bond to land had be first accomplished so that the migration of labor to cities and factories could occur. Secondly, through the commodification of labor, man no longer existed outside the economy (such as being born noble), but rather his identity was defined through economic terms (wealth for instance) and his interests became subservient to economic considerations (without land there is no self-sufficiency, the choice now became factory labor or starvation).

I'm willing to concede this and to jump on J. Morgan's anti-modernity train with one important consideration- I only concede that modernity is destructive to traditional (read late feudal) humanity. By existing as products of modernity, the same problems that plagued humanity through the Industrial Revolution are no longer problems, they have already been accounted for in our existence. By accepting my role as commoditized labor, I don't have problems not being tied to land and such, because my identity is no longer tied to the institutions that lost the battle to capitalism and modernity.

One more quick point and I'm done- If the assumption that humanity is continually redefined through cultural/societal/technological/political evolution is held as true, than I find that blanket statements like "modernity is damaging to humanity" automatically have to be divorced from the implication it would be better if we could undo the change. At best, statements like "modernity is damaging to humanity" are ironical- sure we may have lost something, but we are only who we are and able to make that statement because of that loss, and we can't go back again.

In conclusion, I wish I was tied to land. I don't mind being commodified labor and I thank capitalism for all my materialist crap, but I'm sick of trying to move it every five months to a new state and a new job...

10 Comments:

Blogger RedHurt said...

In defense of those of us who rag on Modernity, I don't think we normally do it wholesale like that. It's usually clarified, speaking in terms of economics or purpose or motivation, or something like that. We'll criticize aspects of modernity, but you'll never find me wholesale saying it's wrong, and you'll actually find real and documented instances of me ragging on j. morgan for saying things like, "modernity is a failed project."

Modernity is - or rather was - and beyond that there's not much to say about it in general. Some has been very, very, very good, and some of it has been bad. In certain respects, it's had some really bad results, and these are the things that post-modernism sets out to address. Whether or not PostModernism does a good job of this without destroying the good things brougt in by modernism is the question (I said this on Hans's blog.)

We're in Oregon right now, and happened to hit a wireless network. So don't expect anything out of Charles or Hans until at least next Wednesday - sorry.

12:59 AM  
Blogger StandingOutInTheCold said...

I agree that we are always a product of our past and can never say "let's go back to the way things were before." Which I think is part of what you are saying, if I understand correctly. I think that Modernism was the natural product of Feudalism once the Ottoman threat faded enough to allow Europe the time and money to take it to the next level. The prevailing ideals of those in power in Feudalism is "get the most for yourself out of everything and everyone you can." I think that in many respects Modernism just furthers this ideal, allowing for greater exploitation. Now, this isn't my thought based on deep reflection or any research, its just my knee-jerk reaction right now, so maybe I'm off. But from what I can see right now, Modernism was a natural evolution from Feudalism, and Feudalsim is clearly (in my opinion) not ideal. Therefore Modernism is not ideal and has been harmful in many ways. But we probably could not have known how harmful it would be until we had come through it. Now that we have we can see that it is not the best and try to ahieve something better.

Do any of us feel the pain of separation from land? I don't know. I don't know that we can really say unless we recreated that connection and decide whether we feel better that way.

I'm in San Antonio this week for Geekfest 2006... er, the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (Baylor is hosting it, I'm not in it). So don't expect much out of me. Because I like it better when your expectations are low, not because I'm going to be busy or without an internet connection (I'm at a programming contest... I think there are twice as many computers here as people)

7:26 PM  
Blogger Jackscolon said...

Standingout: I'm going to have to disagree with you on Feudalism. I know this is going to share some similarities with J. Morgan's "thrashing" a while back, but I'm going ahead anyway...

I think you're giving feudalism an unfair shake on the exploitation- to a 21st century American raised on "be all you can be", feudalism does seem exploitative and constraining- but to your 11th century European peasant, feudalism was not the totalitarian monster it seems today. First, feudalism had some real benefits for serfs. To phrase things in modern contractual terms, there was some give and take between the classes. While it seems like the serfs did a majority of the work, it was in exchange for protection and a sense of community. From what I've read, nationalism was still a fairly vague concept, identity was determined by a "whose man are you?" rather than a "where are you from?". So in return for the fruits of peasant labor, manor lords provided the structure for community and semi-predictable stability for the farming classes. Better to give up a portion of the crop once a year than have the whole thing pillaged and burned regularly.

Also, (I'm drawing on some Polanyi again) feudalism was much more communitarian than anything after the advent of modernity. Local starvation (in the sense of parts of a village or city) was uncommon until the concept of trade and exchange was introduced after the death knell of feudalism was already sounded. Crop surpluses were stored for community use, rather than traded or sold to enrich the merchant class.

The damage modernism did was not to us (unless you're advocating prior institutions and traditions as better than the current- which seems to me to be a tricky position (I'm interested in a J. Morgan comment there)), but rather to the people who still held to feudalist structure and tradition to derive meaning who became displaced by the growing modern flood.

My point on seperation of land is that we don't feel the pain of seperation- we are no longer tied since we are fully modern in our tradition. In my opinion, modernism is a failed project in that it failed to deliver on the promises sensed during the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, not in the sense that humanity is fundamentally incapable of finding meaning and value within in confines.

From what I seem to be gathering from Charles, Redhurt, and J. Morgan is that postmodernism is the reaction to these failed promises. Postmodernism does not consist of throwing away the scientific and philosophical groundwork laid through modernity, it merely strips it of its pretense and hyperbole. If anything, it seems to be the pragmatic view of modernity...

11:58 PM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I can't seem to say this enough: when I (and I'm speaking only for myself here) talk about modernity or post-modernity, I'm using it as shorthand to refer to the ideas, projects, goals and methods of certain thinkers--NOT economic institutions, countries, spiritual undercurrents, zeitgeists, or histories. Modernity is Descartes, Rousseau, Kant to some extent, and folk like that. Post-modernity is Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, Lyotard, and folk like that. So when I criticize "modernity," I'm criticizing concepts like

--Universal education is the key to a perfect society
--If arguments are correct nearly everyone will be convinced of their truth
--Religion is the opiate of the masses

Etc, that I can locate in specific thinkers at specific times and places. I am just as guilty of reifying from time to time as anyone, but that's the bottom line.

So when you say

"Postmodernism does not consist of throwing away the scientific and philosophical groundwork laid through modernity, it merely strips it of its pretense and hyperbole. If anything, it seems to be the pragmatic view of modernity."

That sounds damn good to me. Hence the name of my blog. (Though Charles Peirce was one of the most modernist and confident of the pragmatists.)

Now, to speak for redhurt and j. morgan: I think redhurt is pretty much on board with my critique, and of course has his own insights and nuances. J. morgan, on the other hand, seems to criticize modernism with pre-modern insights and perspectives: he might want to say that we've somehow been spiritually shaken/damaged by the advent of capitalism and post-modernism and the 21st century.

Gentlemen, am I correct?

Lastly, jacks: I think your critique of standingout's critique was too aggressive. All standingout said was:

"Feudalism is clearly (in my opinion) not ideal."

I think we're all with him on that. Now, did feudalism situate people differently in a pre-nationalism context? Of course. That's a good insight. But the way you frame it is unfair. Feudalism had benefits for serfs? So what? No one said it was a totalitarian monster. Market capitalism is better, right?

12:23 PM  
Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

Alright. It has taken me a long time to think about this post and to get some time to write a comment. I think this is really provocative stuff and I look forward to reading it. So, to address what you present as Polanyi’s thesis regarding modernity:

“In Polanyi's opinion…the force that sets modernity against traditional humanity is the commodification that goes hand in hand with liberal economics.”

I think that is right on. I would not be comfortable arguing that commodification is behind the whole of the shift toward Modernity, but I think it plays a big part. I tend to think about Modernity as a totalizing, all-encompassing project in which literally everything is brought into play (e.g. language, institutions, identity, morality, knowledge, authority, aesthetics), so I would be leary of a claim that commodification (or any one thing) is the sole engine of Modernity.

That said, I wanted to quickly address your qualified acceptance of the deliterious effects of Modernity. You say,

“By existing as products of modernity, the same problems that plagued humanity through the Industrial Revolution are no longer problems, they have already been accounted for in our existence. By accepting my role as commoditized labor, I don't have problems not being tied to land and such, because my identity is no longer tied to the institutions that lost the battle to capitalism and modernity.”

I think that is absolutely right if commodification and economic shift is all that is going on. If, however, Modernity is a total eclipse of the heart… I mean a total and basic reconstitution of human existence that happens in every single sphere of that existence, then it creates bigger problems. Here, I will give two consequences:

First, to the extent that our identities are tied to notions that are pre-modern, we inevitably encounter conflict. Christianity, for example, plays a prominent role in a large number of American lives, yet it is in some very basic ways opposed to and by Modernity. Irreconcilable on many levels. The problem of identity comes in when Christians are also Modernists. If Christianity isn’t your thing, Democracy works just as well.

Second, fluidy is a ubiquitous consequence of Modernity, whether intended or not. As such, there exist few if any unchangable anchors by which one can solidify one’s identity. What it means to be human in 2006 is to be in continual navigation of changing institutions, rhetorics, and knowledges. We are all untethered now. That in some ways confirms and in other confounds your basic point. You are right that we are not any longer tied to traditional institutions (or at least not in traditional ways), but the consequence of that is that we are not tied to any institutions. This is the very essence of Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety.”

Overall, though, I think your most brilliant point was this:

“At best, statements like "modernity is damaging to humanity" are ironical- sure we may have lost something, but we are only who we are and able to make that statement because of that loss, and we can't go back again.”

I mean, ironic is perhaps too charitable here. I really think that there is something tragic about the perspective of Modernity; it allows the wish for - despite the imposibility of - its own undoing. Tragic. Yet, statements like “modernity is damaging to humanity” reflect one or both of two things. First, it may allow us to see that Modernity, by its own standards is a failure. I mean, the most Modern state in all of history was the Third Reich, yet the standards of Modernity have been reaffirmed and strengthened in opposition to that same state. Second, it may allow us to see that, for many of us, we are tentative Moderns. Our standards of judgment often dissatisfied with the options provided in Modernity. We happlessly wield concepts and ideals cut off from us by the very situation that we find inadequate.

So, there it is I think.

2:59 PM  
Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

I hope this post hasn’t gotten passed over yet because there is still a ton of good stuff to say here. I want to respond to a few things Charles said in his comment:

“I can't seem to say this enough: when I (and I'm speaking only for myself here) talk about modernity or post-modernity, I'm using it as shorthand to refer to the ideas, projects, goals and methods of certain thinkers--NOT economic institutions, countries, spiritual undercurrents, zeitgeists, or histories…. So when I criticize "modernity," I'm criticizing concepts … that I can locate in specific thinkers at specific times and places. I am just as guilty of reifying from time to time as anyone, but that's the bottom line.”

I am ambivalent about this tact. On one side, I understand the need to be clear about what it is we are criticizing and referencing. On the other, though, I think it is difficult if not impossible to see thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Pierce, Nietzsche, etc. as creators and not as emblems.

Descartes didn’t sit down one day in a fideistic, medieval world and “invent” the Enlightenment; he was working with ideas, impulses, beliefs, skepticisms, murmurings, etc. that were already operative in his culture. What Descartes did was solidify and codify all of that, the result being that he became emblematic of “the Enlightenment” and gave broad purchase to those things that were operating already, albeit as an undercurrent before he gave them voice. Nietzsche is an even better example. It isn’t as if everyone was wandering around having pious Victorian picnics when Nietzsche showed up and, out of nowhere, started stomping on baby chickens. These people come from some place. They are the ultimate reifiers.

All I am saying is that we lose a lot of insight when we limit our scope to concrete emblems. That said, I acknowledge that we gain some really good clarity by focusing a bit. So maybe I think we a) need to do both and b) need not be as afraid of reification as we are.

“J. morgan, on the other hand, seems to criticize modernism with pre-modern insights and perspectives: he might want to say that we've somehow been spiritually shaken/damaged by the advent of capitalism and post-modernism and the 21st century.”

“did feudalism situate people differently in a pre-nationalism context? Of course. That's a good insight. But the way you frame it is unfair. Feudalism had benefits for serfs? So what? No one said it was a totalitarian monster. Market capitalism is better, right?”

I am taking these together because I think they really get at the trust of a lot that is going on here. My tendency to point out the difference between the pre-modern and the modern (or post-modern) is because I think that most of us, while acknowledging some problems with Modernity, aren’t honest about how radical that shift has been. Now, it isn’t that it is all bad or all good; it is just that it is nearly complete. That is why I have horrified admiration for people like Foucault who were completely honest about the lived implications of Modernity.

I got my hair cut on Sunday and the woman who was doing the cutting said, nearly verbatim, “I am glad that we got a Target here. Now we have basically all the conveniences that I think everybody wants, so I don’t see what the problem [with building a Target] is.”

The problem is that the only consistent way to shop at Target is to be Foucault. For those of us who cannot bear to be consistent, we are forced to bear being inconsistent. So, I would say that we have only lost something insofar as there are a great many of us who cannot, under any circumstances, be as wish (which is a (the?) chief moral good of Modernity).

9:01 AM  
Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

j. morgan, I'd take your objection at face value in any other context except in a discussion about postmodernism. So when you say:

"On one side, I understand the need to be clear about what it is we are criticizing and referencing. On the other, though, I think it is difficult if not impossible to see thinkers as creators and not as emblems...It isn’t as if everyone was wandering around having pious Victorian picnics when Nietzsche showed up and, out of nowhere, started stomping on baby chickens."

That's exactly my point--I try to be a good pragmatist and situate just as much as the next guy, but I don't know how to get everyone to stop hating on poultry-crushing Nietzsche without saying what I said. So, in this discussion, I think it's okay to err on the side of creators instead of emblems. Right? I'm open to disagreement on this--I just want it to be clear that that's what I was trying to do.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Jackscolon said...

Horrified admiration- I think I have that for Chuck Norris...

I'd like to get on this, but I'm not sure where we are after the last two comments here- I've written like three comments before I realized I basically plagarized something higher up in the comment chain. So, while you two figure out what we're arguing, I'm going to go back to reading my copy of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life", or something.

12:20 AM  
Blogger RedHurt said...

Don't rip on me for posting links if you're going to just go reposting your old posts, you homo.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Jackscolon said...

Yeah, well... I was in the middle of finals and moving.

8:21 AM  

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