liberalism and fear

Lately LI has been reading Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. So we were pleased to see an article in the Journal of Social Philosophy by Frank Cunningham, a professor at the University of Toronto, that dealt with a central Polanyi-ish theme: does a market economy necessarily generate a market culture? To clarify the problem, Cunningham quotes a pertinent passage in one of Polanyi’s essays:

“This institutional gadget, which became the dominant force in the economy—now justly described as a market economy—then gave rise to yet another, even more extreme development, namely as a whole society embedded in the mechanism of its own economy—a market society.”

This may seem like an esoteric theme, but, in actuality, it is the central problem of our time. If the one always leads to the other, not only is liberalism sunk, but the ability to meet the enormous environmental challenges that are even now building in the oceans and the heavens is doomed to failure. That will then doom to failure whole swathes of the planet. For instance, the melting of the glacial system in the Himalayas will essential drain the source of water for around 400 to 500 million Indians and Chinese. Although the libertarians, Randians, Bushians and other fine purveyors of superstition probably don’t know this, without water, people die. The Randians, et al., would probably answer that at least they would die in freedom, able to freely exchange their whole life savings for a couple of cups of water before expiring. And think of the enormous flexibility this would put into the labor market!

But these people are crazy. Unfortunately, at the moment they govern the planet, write the newspapers, and release the bombs. To use the word in the proper sense, they are the terrorist class.

Terror, or fear, is, according to Cunningham, one of the great connectors between a market economy and a market society. Cunningham makes the case that what is commonly viewed as greed – that insatiable avarice for more money driving the ideal type capitalist (he quotes John D. Rockefeller’s response to the question, how much do you need, by saying – “just a little more”) is actually driven by the fear that is promoted by one of the mechanisms of the market – its efficiency. That efficiency depends, in good old capitalist fashion, on removing ‘unnatural’ restraints to the pricing of commodities.

“Still, market economies are characterized by expansion of the market into all domains. Part of the explanation for this is greed for profits, but I suggest that at a more primordial level expansion derives from insecurity or, more precisely, fear.
Competition among producers and retailers promotes efficiency by prompting them to make and distribute things that people want and by keeping the costs of those things down—this is the key premise of free market economic theory. But at the same time, competitors must fear each other. Employment of wage labor with the omnipresent threat of dismissal keeps wages down, thus reducing this cost of production or distribution. Privatization of publicly needed goods provides captive markets. From the side of working people and consumers, market economies are also fearful places. Wage laborers must fear dismissal. Market transactions may signal consumer preferences, but they do not guarantee that goods produced in response to those preferences will be affordable.”

Cunningham’s point is that fear is what turns the relation of the economic and social around – in Polanyi’s terms, what makes it the case that, in capitalism, the economy is no longer embedded in social relationships, but social relationships are embedded in the economy.

Cunningham gracefully moves from his analysis of the key role played by fear to the kind of social philosophy I recognize as liberal:

"The upshot of the foregoing is that a market economy can be prevented from engendering a market society by voiding it of fear. There is no mystery about the sorts of measures to accomplish this. They include a guaranteed annual income,full employment through job creation and training, adequate health and old age care programs, and the like. At the end of the paper I shall return to some questions about what structural arrangements (welfare capitalist or a more socialist alternative) are necessary to inhibit the nurturing of a possessive individualist culture, while maintaining room for an economic market. Here I pursue the hypothesis’ cultural implications.

Removing fear from the market would inhibit selfishness at least to the extent that people could afford to be moral." [my italics]

The last sentence is excellent, since this is the heart of liberalism – allowing people to afford morality. And the attack on fear connects up to the founding political father of liberalism in the U.S. – Roosevelt – who explicitly connected liberal programs with fear.

Yet this interpretation also hints at the reason that liberal society decays. Once one removes fear, after all, it is like past pain – the memory of it is not equivalent to the thing itself. Liberal society can lead to two things – the kind of free riding that re-introduces a conservative politics; and a search for invulnerability that feeds into a perpetual war culture.

About which LI will have more to say later.


Brian Miller said…
Fascinating, roger.

As I posted over at UFO Breakfast, while recognizing that the regulatory state (and capitlist welfare systems) has its serious flaws (being too often faced with either bureuacratic nitpicking and inertia or being captured by the very businesses it was supposed to regulate), and acknowledging that State intervention helps create the very environmental disasters we are facing, I nonetheless remain unconvinced that a society characterized by vast discrepancies in private power and wealth can forego the State altogther in environmental regulations (and land use regulations).

Your argument adds further amunition to my beleifs.

Oh well, off to harass a small businessman for violating our zoning ordinance. :) I am a true blue member of Scrugg's "Managerial Technocratic Class). :)
roger said…
Brian, you are a lucky ducky. My own fun in harrassing people is diminished by the fact that it is from this perch -- never face to face! Sob.
roger said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Oh well, off to harass a small businessman for violating our zoning ordinance. I am a true blue member of Scrugg's Managerial Technocratic Class

I told you I was fond of evil bureaucrats! And now you justify that fondness. Bless you, Mr. Miller, and make sure you put him through changes.

Roger, when he's not lost in fugues of anarchist hobbitry, is aware that desirable though the demise of the state may be, it's incumbent on those who would assist that demise to avoid making things worse. The anarchist hobbitry demographic itself is not completely composed of arsonists. So by and large they agree with him, and of course they welcome his advocacy on their behalf. I personally would love to believe that a social democratic state could cope with Wise Use cretins, the reverse Midas touch untreprenuers of lobbydom and the cranky will to power crowd, whose proudest accomplishments to date are sending squads of sexual molesters out to hunt terrorists, precipitating environmental disasters and the slow strangulation of the liberal state. The attempts by liberals to rein that in were fought with the kind of hysteria most often associated with yuppies at the tail end of a cocaine binge. Here history finds us, living like the sinners we are (or would like to be), trapped in the nut cache of an angry Squirrel! The first step away from that would seem to be putting some brakes on those parts of the state that facilitate the activities of the looting class.
Brian Miller said…
Ah Mr. Scruggs, some good points, as always, My only caveat would be "looting class" is quite a bit wider than we may like to admit.

I would include within such class, for example, a proud new "middle class" homeowner who has deliberately CHOSEN to move a 90-minute drive away from work to "get out of the City and have a bigger yard." The excess consumption that is considered a holy right-and I myself consume far more than my share of glass-encourages and facilitates the looting class's activities. Without the Great American Glutton (GAG), if the libertarian dream of people facing the true costs of what they do (I think, myself, that gas taxes should be raised to fund much of the military budget), then things might be better.

I'm less sympathetic to the idea, expressed most profoundly by Joe Bageant, that people are basically "good" if they are properly educated. I know you disagree with me on this one :)
I think people have to be educated out of being basically interested in getting along. Perhaps I should use "trained" instead of educated to avoid confusion. Book learnin' is a splendid thing, as Dr. Rice and Dr. Wolfowitz would no doubt tell us. The anti-social practices of the institutions where that should be fostered turn out some dreadful people. Worse, they drive out the people trying to fix the problems and deter the able from seeking work within. I know quite a few people who should and could be teaching, Mr. Miller. The main problem appears to be they take the education part of schooling seriously, and have little use for the training apsects.

The people Joe Bageant sometimes writes about have been very thoroughly trained. Most hold on to some degree of humanity in spite of that.
roger said…
Mr. Scruggs, I wonder if you've checked out Polanyi? If you haven't, ah, I think the Great Transformation is a book to warm the cockles of your heart (if rabid squirrels haven't snuck in and eaten up the cockles of your heart already).
roger said…
For some reason, this commenting function isn't publishing my comments. That's a damn shame, when your own blog rejects you!
Let's see if it publishes this one.
Roger, I keep reading that as Pollyanna. A significant deterrent! even if it is the result of some mild dyslexia.

if rabid squirrels haven't snuck in and eaten up the cockles of your heart already

The things I could tell you about that. You're better off not knowing. It's. . . it's the tawdriness that's worst.