I don’t know enough about economics to understand what the fuck is going on. Ever. This applies not only to the arguments in the texts that we have been reading and discussing in class, but also, apparently, to my own wallet. That last point aside, this means that I struggle, desperately, to maintain even the most threadbare scraps of an opinion concerning the claims that Polanyi makes in The Great Transformation, (or truthfully, most of the claims of the other texts that we have taken up so far in class), that is, I struggle to say anything about these texts other than that I have no way of knowing whether or not I am being jerked around by the arguments they make.
I read a line like “Eventually, the spread of deflation will reach the exporting firms and thus achieve the export surplus which represents ‘real’ transfer. But the harm and damage caused to the community at large will be much greater than that which was strictly necessary to achieve such an export surplus.” (p. 202) and I feel compelled to ask “Is that so?” Even if I had a firm understanding of the terms of the economic art in which these sentences are presented (which I don’t really) it would take much more time than I have to be able to integrate such an understanding into the argumentative structure of the work as a whole.
The Great Transformation as I (mis)understand it, is counting on my inability to process the micro-claims that constitute its narrative. Yet is this not precisely the kind of work that Polanyi’s readers need to do in order to find his argument compelling (or not)? Long form arguments, like this one, always ought to produce a great deal of skepticism in their audience; whether the author supports her thesis by a series of logical entailments or with an interpretation of a story, the long form argument leads its audience in a stepwise fashion towards conclusions that audience members may or may not find persuasive in a more simplified form.
I find Polanyi’s method of tracing problematic phenomenon (the ideology of free markets, in this case) back through the historical circumstances from which it arose to be particularly questionable (not illegitimate, just questionable.) It is not only the staggering immensity and ultimate irretrievability of historical knowledge that piques my skepticism (I hope to have more to say about this later). Instead, I am suspicious of the theatrics involved in rehearsing the historical conditions of… anything, actually. It is as if the a author is saying “You may think that things are necessarily the way they are, but let me show you the luridly unlikely story of how they came to be this way. At the end of my story, I will pull back the curtain revealing the meaning of freedom in a complex society. Fly little away you crazy little doves!”
When other authors do this however, I rarely find myself complaining. It doesn’t really matter for instance, whether Nietzsche’s “History of an Error” is historically accurate – the point of his argument lies elsewhere. Except that in the study of economics, historical accuracy means everything. In other words, although a writer like Nietzsche’s rehearsal of history can be understood as a rhetorical exercise divorced from its factual basis (that is, he can manipulate history in the service of an observation about the present), an economist does not have this luxury for the reason that economics seeks to describe things not only as they are but also as they will be. I want to say, theses on metaphysics are of a fundamentally different order than theses on economics – economics wants to be real. This difference is both the reason that I want to take the claim’s that compose Polanyi’s argument seriously and individually, and the reason that Polanyi had to present his argument as a long form historical account. I take this book to be a sincere effort to employ the history of economic thought to account for the present political and cultural situation. It is central to Polanyi’s thesis that economic thought had historically neglected the actual complexity of things and the systems by which they are traded by viewing them only through the distorting and simplifying lens of market-based ideology, and that what is called for is a broader understanding of the way in which systems develop. In this respect, the form of Polanyi’s argument attests to the sincerity with which he put it forth, and I think we have to at least respect him for that.
As I write this, I recognize its problems, as I’m sure Polanyi would as well. A claim that economics is more concerned with the way things are is a thinly veiled claim that things are a certain way, a way that is discoverable and communicable. But Polanyi himself seems to make the point that the way in which we understand ourselves – in our dignity, society, and freedom – has been radically altered by the intrusion of markets into our collective culture. Just as we discussed Polanyi’s conjuring of the ghost of the market in the same move that he disavows it as a ghost, we can also see the way in which his need to produce an argument from history undermines itself in its very historicity