Polanyi | Commonwealth Magazine

Each chapter of Market release tackles a different area of ​​public policy and shows how social reformers have historically fought for progress in this area by “articulating a different idea of ​​freedom”, one rooted in “resistance to reliance on markets”. In “Free Land”, Konczal traces the history of land redistribution movements and landowner wealth, from Thomas Paine’s 1796 pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice,” which argued that landowners owed the treasury. land rent, and that inheritance taxes should be used to fund what amounted to a universal basic income, until the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of free land owned by the government. government to anyone wishing to build housing on the land and live there for at least five years.

The Homestead Act was one of the largest transfers of wealth in U.S. history: in the decades since its passage, a total of 246 million acres went to 1.5 million people . This was about a sixth of all public domain land at the time, or nearly the entire land area of ​​Texas and California combined. And although Konczal acknowledges problems with the law – including that much of this “free government land” was only “free” when it was taken, with force, by the people who already lived there. “Namely, Native Americans – he credits it nonetheless by offering” a floor of opportunity to all who have been able to use it. “Republican politicians always like to remind everyone that the GOP is the” Lincoln Party. ” , but can you imagine a modern Republican president overseeing such a gargantuan redistribution of wealth to ordinary Americans?

In a chapter titled “Free Time,” Konczal examines how union organizers of the 19th and early 20th centuries fought and ultimately won shorter working hours and a shorter workweek. One of the biggest obstacles to progress in this regard was a conservative judiciary that regularly overturned working time limits, most infamous in the 1905 Supreme Court ruling. Lochner v. new York, on the grounds that they interfered with “contractual freedom”, that is, the freedom of capitalists to dictate the terms of contracts to workers. But those who campaigned for reform weren’t content to hand over the cloak of freedom to their opponents, often framing their demands as efforts to increase the freedom of the working class by fighting against the tyranny of the bosses. The “Ten-Hour Circular,” a manifesto issued in 1835 by a group of Boston workers calling for a ten-hour work day, solemnly declared that “we claim, by the blood of our fathers, to be shed on our fields. battle, in the Revolutionary War, the rights of free American men and no earthly power will resist our just demands with impunity. Even the most flowery progressive rhetoric of today generally stops at describing the labor movement as an extension of the American Revolution.

In “Free Health”, Konczal highlights not only how the public health insurance offer can make everyone more free by reducing the prospect of destitution or bankruptcy in the event of illness, but also how it has historically been used as an instrument to fight against other forms. inequality and discrimination. Most of the chapter is devoted to recounting how the implementation of Medicare gave progressives the opportunity to force the racial integration of hospitals into the Jim Crow South, threatening to exclude any facility from the program. medical which remained separate and thus deprive it of a lucrative market. income stream. According to Wilbur Cohen, who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, “the day Medicare went into effect in the South, all these signs [reading “White” and “Colored”]… started to descend. I think it was a singular Medicare achievement. In one day, Medicare and Medicaid broke the backs of separate health services. “

In the acknowledgments of the book, Konczal credits an acquaintance with helping him refine his “Polanyi-ish and Pollyanna-ish” thinking, a reference to 20th-century Austro-Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi, whose ideas permeate the book. Although Konczal only explicitly refers to Polanyi a handful of times, he has written elsewhere about the enduring relevance of his thinking. “Karl Polanyi for the president”, a 2016 article in Challenge that Konczal co-wrote with Patrick Iber, is a useful addition to Market release, and helps to shed light on the intellectual genealogy of its arguments.

As Konczal and Iber explain, Polanyi’s most famous work, The great metamorphosis (1944), is devoted largely to a critique of the idea that the so-called “free market” is a precondition and a guarantor of freedom more generally. “Polanyi’s work debunks this argument in two important ways,” they write, first by showing that “markets are planned wherever they exist”. As Polanyi says, even let it go “Was the product of deliberate state action”; the economy is not an autonomous reality that exists outside the state, but is necessarily structured by it. Even in areas where the government seems to take a hands-off approach, it still plays a vital role in sustaining economic activity because it sets the ‘rules of the game’ – for example, by making laws. governing incorporation, bankruptcy or labor relations. Without such acts of continuous creation, the market would degenerate into Hobbesian chaos.

The second key argument of The great metamorphosis is that, in the words of Konczal and Iber, “the move to markets is inherently destabilizing”:

Rather than a source of freedom and liberty, markets are also a source of coercion, instability, precariousness, and worse. Subjecting one’s whole life to the market would not lead to the freest society but on the contrary defined by the collapse of social life…. [P]people resist being turned into commodities. When they are too exposed to the market – when markets try to “dislodge” from society – people resist, demanding protection against excessive commodification. Lives are more than commodities for those who live them.

Polanyi called this process a “double movement”: the destabilization brought about by commodification produces a backlash, sometimes in the form of socialist or progressive movements that work to shelter themselves from the market, but other times in the form of fascist or reactionary movements. .

About Norma Wade

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