10 September 2011

A Reverse Transformation?

Polanyi's work is valuable in denying the priority placed on the market in most economic theory. His account of how we arrived at the situation where most of our needs are met by the market is worth consideration. Polanyi identifies three stages in the 'subjection of the surface of the planet to the needs of an industrial society. The first stage was the commericalization of the soil, mobilizing the feudal revenue of the land. The second was the forcing up of the production of food and organic raw materials to serve the needs of a rapidly growing industrial population on a national scale. The third was the extension of such a system of surplus production to overseas and colonial territories. With this last step land and its produce were finally fitted into the scheme of a self-regulating world market.' (p. 188)

Given that the market system needs to be re-evaluated in an era when our most pressing task as a human community is to ensure the sustainability of our society, we might raise questions about all three of these process of transition. It is taken for granted by most contemporary economists that land can operate like any other resource, that the process of the commodification of land—its bundling into parcels over which ownership rights can be asserted—and of its sale in a market is unproblematic, but recent developments towards land reform across the world, based in the indigenous view of land as having its own rights, argues against this.

Polanyi's second stage of the transition to a market economy he calls the 'forcing up' of production of food and organic raw materials' in response to the movement of the population from the land and its rapid expansion in the industrial cities. What he has in mind here, I think, is the loss of balance between people and their land, which is a nexus of interacting pressures and conflicts rather than a simple cause-and-effect process. This reopens the generally accepted view that economic growth increased population and then put pressure on resources.

While some environmentalists have traditionally taken what can be judged to be a neo-Malthusian stance on the population question, the more nuanced response to the debate is to recognise that the shift to the market broke the connection between people, their need for resources and the land they inhabited. In a peasant community, each new birth represents a mouth that needs feeding from a limited land resource; in contrast, in an economy where livelihoods are based around the labour-market, each birth represents a potential labourer whose time can be sold. Evidence of the extent of child labour in Victorian cities or in the megalopolises of the global South today is greeted with horror, and yet it is a rational response to an economic system where people have no right to land and need their children to guarantee their subsistence.

Polanyi's third point is linked to the second, since once the industrialised country's population were engaged in producing goods for trade rather than for their own subsistence, their basic needs for food and the raw materials to make clothing, had to be met from the work and land of others, and in the colonial era and subsequently this has meant through using the over-priced land and labour of countries of the global South. Extending Polanyi's insight into the present globalised economy we can see the system of the global trade system as a means of enabling the rich Western economies to rent land in the poorer countries, and exchange which cannot be fair while the former's currencies dominate the system of global trade.

Polanyi's central point is that the role of the market as the central and controlling mechanism in economic life is a modern and short-lived one: 'Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life.' (Polanyi, 1944: 45). To move towards a provisioning based economy we need to reverse the three stages Polanyi identifies as forming the transition to a market economy. In other words we need policies to:

Decommercialise the soil - perhaps a Land Value Tax is a first step here;
Return to sufficiency via the strengthening of self-reliant local economies;
Limits on global trade rather than hyper-globlisation.

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