Tuesday, March 9, 2010

better late than never...

In The Affluent Society, J.K. Galbraith understands economic history as a history of ideas. For this precis, I'm most interested in how Galbraith's Chapter IV "Uncertain Reassurance", communicates with Karl Polanyi's notions of the commoditization of labor (mostly in Ch 14), especially with regard to how it might speak to their historic-economic projects more broadly.

Galbraith's senses of interaction between "conventional wisdom" and the emergence of ideas under unfortunate circumstances might also mirror Polanyi's double movement operation – it’s a bit clumsy, but I find it interesting. My reasoning for drawing these two concepts together, in hopefully not too heavy-handed a fashion, is to think about how Galbraith's choice of writing a kind of intellectual history of economics rather than, say, Polanyi's legal or material history of economics (in his not-so well received sprint through English history), works in different ways, perhaps for different ends, but with similar notions of interactions across socioeconomic or ideological boundaries.

Galbraith's explanation of wage fluctuations and bargains argues that wages will be controlled by a tolerable low number, "the cost of producing children", and criticizes this system for its supplication to Ricardian principles of wealth accumulation as "expecting [workers] to live on the edge of starvation". This sentiment seems directly borrowed from Polanyi, who puts it even more forcefully: “Hobbes’ grotesque vision of the state…was dwarfed by the Ricardian construct of the labor market: a flow of human lives the supply of which was regulated by the amount of food put at their disposal”. (Polanyi 172)

When Galbraith writes, "capital, like labor, was compensated according to its marginal product", I read connections to Polanyi's concepts of commodification of land, labor and money most prominently. Galbraith couches much similar processes in different terminology - 'marginal product' equally implicates the worker and employer; to an extent, the worker is responsible for his ability or inability to produce within a given system whereas 'commodification' suggests a much more extractive process.

Polanyi’s language of protective counter-movements seems to surface in Galbraith’s writing: “Even if the insecurity of the competitive model was not a damaging flaw, the efforts at self-protection that it induced almost certainly were." (emphasis added). Galbraith is unclear about the methods or actors in this market's efforts at "self-protection" - his discussion of poverty is largely borne out of thinking about compassion and morality. Galbraith lends less agency to low socioeconomic classes than does Polanyi, who writes “ the protection of society, in the first instance, falls to rulers”, before he recounts the successes of the Owenist and Chartist popular movements.

Polanyi's double movement, then, might be borne of the same problems that Galbraith's "uncertain reassurance" refers to, but with different actors at stake. What's interesting about this comparison is that Galbraith seems to emphasize problems with (psycho)logical justifications for extractive processes, while Polanyi criticizes them outright. Indeed, the following chapter -- "the American Mood" illustrates clearly where Galbraith sees change and effort necessary; in the confidence with which economic ideas are imagined and implemented. He criticizes the problems with articulating depression/recession/rolling readjustments, and sees depression as equally a problem of discursive over-normalization as economic insolvency.

As such, Galbraith, unlike Polanyi, focuses on the way depressions were academically understood and articulated. (I know I am ignoring Polanyi’s position as an academic himself – but I think this holds at least for the arguments they each employ) The last few pages of Chapter IV make the strongest case for this tension. Galbraith writes of the standard business cycle model promulgated by "central economic thinkers", which offers that the destructive cycles of economics are suggested to be entirely normal- that to intervene would be like "drowning the flames by drenching them with gasoline". Where Galbraith’s strongest metaphor for the destructive power of the market for individual livelihoods is a burning house, Polanyi sees it as a destruction of human existence, not merely its comforts; “the laws of the market annihilate all organic forms of existence”.

For this, one might read Galbraith’s work as undertaking a similar project as Polanyi, but with less polemic fervor. To an extent, I think this is true, but I think Galbraith’s polemics surface in the way he valorizes economic thinking rather than its material implications.

Galbraith's arguments provide psychological nuance that Polanyi's do not. His emphasis on ideas, while they do not account for the same material realities that Polanyi's arguments are based in, does challenge the bounded figures that Polanyi counter poses in his hegemonic and counter-hegemonic movements. However, Galbraith also bounds intellectual agency up with high-level economic thinkers. One could argue that in their lack of confidence, these thinkers hold the possibility for a kind of intellectual counter-movement, generated by challenges to ‘conventional wisdom’. For Galbraith, this might be enough. For Polanyi, these might be the very thinkers who ‘planned lasseiz faire’.

Emma Tome

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