Economists see the free market economy as the end point of social evolution. Industrialisation and the market economy are but inevitable stages in the development of society. Sophisticated developed societies are market economies. They are the high point of social evolution, a belief best demonstrated in Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the development of liberal democracy. All these democracies were of course free markets. Human freedom has reached it’s zenith in the free market. (Milton Friedman even thought the killing and imprisonment of thousands in Pinochet’s Chile, as a price worth paying for the restoration of human and economic freedoms.)
This triumphalism of the market economists is a recent phenomenon. In the period after the second world war and as a consequence of the Great Depression, free market economists were a small discredited minority. Instead economists such as Karl Polanyi, Nicholas Kaldor and John Maynard Keynes who supported the state management of the economy were those held in the highest regard. However with the economic crisis of the 1970s, these economists fell out of favour to be replaced by the free market economists, who persuaded governments institute the new era of neo-liberalism.
Karl Polanyi is now one of those unfashionable economists that is now being studied again after the collapse of the market economy. What makes him so different from the free market economists is that he did not believe that free markets were a product of social evolution. He sees the economy as part of an integral part of a network of social institutions. Changes in the economy were a consequence of changes in wider society and changes in the economy in its turn changed the society in which it was located.
Polanyi traces the origins on the free market industrial society of today to Tudor society. The old military aristocracy was losing power to a new rising class comprised of small landowners and the merchants in the towns and cities. It was the demands of these two groups that kick started the social and economic change that led to industrialisation and development of the free market. Landowners wanted the rural peasantry off the land, so they could introduce new and more profitable farming methods. This was enclosure of common lands. Legislation made it almost impossible for the poor ‘inefficient’ peasant farmers to continue to farm the land. They could not afford the costs of enclosing their farmland. . The great merchants in the cities wanted the end of the guild system, which they believed restricted their ability to make money. Guilds imposed regulatory controls on their members, which the great merchants believed placed unfair restrictions on their ability to trade. These two groups were over represented in parliament. Also the great merchants (Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell) were the source of loans for a government that was always short of money. Consequently the government introduced measures to help both groups.
Once example was the vagrancy laws which could be used to control the landless peasantry. Landless peasants without work and no support within the community could be whipped and driven out of the community, so relieving the landowners of the obligation to support them. E.P. Thompson about the Black Laws introduced in the 18th century) which further disempowered the working poor. These acts introduced capital punishment for offences such as trespass or for destroying a farm gates. These had the effect speeding up the exodus of peasants from the land. Formerly the rural peasantry could collect fallen branches from the woods, now this was illegal. Similarly poaching as means of supplementing a poor diet was now a hanging offence. This created a new class of landless proletariat who would supply the labour for the new industries that were developing in the towns and cities.
This breaking of the link between the poor and the land, created the flexible and mobile workforce that the new industries would need. Obviously there were other important factors that facilitated the industrial revolution such as advances in technology.
If I understand Polanyi correctly the free market and industrialisation, were accidental changes following on from a power grab by the landowning and merchant classes.
Social and economic change produced a new ideology, that of capitalism. In the new social environment, people thought differently. What now ensured societies well being was Adam Smiths ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Now the price system would be responsible for distribution of wealth, and consequent responsibility for people’s well-being. Poverty now was not deserving of amelioration, it was a consequence of a personal failings. However even Adam Smith was shocked at the brutal way the new capitalists were treating there employees in Glasgow. However the moral coda that he inserted at the end of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ stating that employers owed a duty of care to there employees was ignored. Capitalist ideology dehumanised society, people and land were now valued according to their utility. They were now things, society was commodified, people and land were things that were bought. Valued only according to their usefulness. This was according to Weber the process of disenchantment. What today has become known as financialisation. Society was an inhuman affair in which people only had value in their functionality.
Perhaps the best illustration of the new way of thinking is represented in the writings of those twentieth century economic historians who wrote that the introduction of the Factory Acts were responsible for the slowing of economic growth in the 19th century, as the money that should have been reinvested in the business was instead spent on wages or improving the welfare of the workers. This was the cause of Britain’s relatively poor economic performance compared to foreign rivals. There spokesman was the liberal MP John Bright who argued that the country’s continued prosperity was dependent on the continued exploitation of children in the Mills. An attitude that still prevalent today. During the 2015 election campaign Ed Milliband was criticised by a member of the audience for not understanding that the success of his business depended on his continued ability to continuation of that exploitation of his workers through the zero hours system. Some employers certainly in the medieval period treated their workers equally badly, but they did not boast of the fact, or claim that their behaviour had moral sanction from the nations code of ethics. Then the prevailing Christian code of ethics would have condemned such behaviour. The stocks were often occupied by tradesmen who had cheated there customers. Whatever the failings of the Middle Ages a different and anti capitalist ethics prevailed.
Polanyi writes that the unregulated free market is a threat to social order. The example he uses to demonstrate this is the Speenhamland system which was introduced in the late 18th century. Until industrialisation there was a thriving cottage based textile trade. With the introduction of new technology and the growth of the factory system, these people faced impoverishment. Trade was lost to the new mills taken and payment for whatever they produced was reduced to the price paid for such products by mills. In France the impoverished peasants together with the urban proletariat provided the foot soldiers that made revolution possible. This was avoided in Britain, because the poor could apply to the parish for relief. They never became as desperate as the working poor in France. The parish money enabled these workers to remain in their homes and provided them with sufficient money to satisfy there family’ basic needs. Unlike their French counterparts desperation did not drive them to revolution. There were no equivalence in England of the Chateau burnings of France.
One writer rightly describes Polanyi as a moral economist. All new economics students in the U.K. are taught that moral preoccupations have no place in the study and practice of economics. It is a science different in nature from ethics. Even today economists and writers prefer Polanyi without the moral dimension. Threats to the social order posed by the economy are said to bring forth a reaction, societies develop protective measures that seek to minimise the disruptive effects of the free market. Anybody who has read ‘The Great Transformation’ cannot fail to note his suppressed anger when he describes the impact of the Great Depression on people in Europe.
Polanyi is important today not just because he offers an alternative vision of economics and society; but because he was one of that great generation of economists, who persuaded governments that a new way of managing the economy was possible. A way that would prevent a recurrence of both the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately a later generation of economists have persuaded governments to abandon the policies of these economists and revert to the failed economic policies of the 1920s.
One last point Polanyi makes and that is that the market based price system is only a recent historical development. Only in the last two to three hundred years have households satisfied a majority of there needs by exchanging money for goods and services in the market. Prior to take the market only provided a minimum of a households needs. There is no reason why the price system and free market will always be the means by which goods and services are distributed. When the managing director of the IMF warns of another Great Depression, all that can be certain is that the free market so beloved of the Neo-Liberals will disappear.