“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

emotional custom

In Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, one of the key early chapter is entitled Habitation and Improvement. The chapter title is taken from a letter about the enclosures of common land in England. Polanyi takes this as an archetype of economic transformation: the enclosing of the commons by the Lords and, later, by the bourgeoisie in the Tudor period meant destroying old forms and destroying, literally, old houses, the huts of the tenantry. Polanyi grants that, in the end, the wool industry did develop England. Looked at purely in terms of economic growth, this was a triumph. But, as Polanyi points out, looked at from the viewpoint of the uprooted peasants, it was a disaster. However, the state, or the Crown, mitigated that disaster by slowing the process.

But the state could not play a similar role in the Industrial revolution. It could only play an opposite role, tearing down old laws to allow laissez faire free reign. Why? Polanyi claims that the machinery needed to produce commodities in the Industrial Revolution brought with it necessities that were socially transforming:

“But how shall this Revolution itself be defined? What was its basic characteristic? Was it the rise of the factory towns, the emergence of slums, the long working hours of children, the low wages of certain categories of workers, the rise in the rate of population increase, or the concentration of industries? We submit that all these were merely incidental to one basic change, the establishment of market economy, and that the nature of this institution cannot be fully grasped unless the impact of the machine on a commercial society is realized. We do not intend to assert that the machine caused that which happened, but we insist that once elaborate machines and plant were used for production in a commercial society, the idea of a self-regulating market was bound to take shape.

The use of specialized machines in an agrarian and commercial society must produce typical effects. Such a society consists of agriculturalists and of merchants who buy and sell the produce of the land. Production with the help of specialized, elaborate, expensive tools and plants can be fitted into such a society only by making it incidental to buying and selling. The merchant is the only person available for the undertaking of this, and he is fitted to do so as long as this activity will not involve him in a loss. He will sell the goods in the same manner in which he would otherwise sell goods to those who demand them; but he will procure them in a different way, namely, not by buying them ready-made, but by purchasing the necessary labor and raw material. The two put together according to the merchant's instructions, plus some waiting which he might have to undertake, amount to the new product. This is not a description of domestic industry or "putting out" only, but of any kind of industrial capitalism, including that of our own time. Important consequences for the social system follow.

Since elaborate machines are expensive, they do not pay unless large amounts of goods are produced. 6 They can be worked without a loss only if the vent of the goods is reasonably assured and if production need not be interrupted for want of the primary goods necessary to feed the machines. For the merchant this means that all factors involved mast be on sale, that is, they must be available in the needed quantities to anybody who is prepared to pay for them. Unless this condition is fulfilled, production with the help of specialized machines is too risky to be undertaken both from the point of view of the merchant who stakes his money and of the community as a whole which comes to depend upon continuous production for incomes, employment, and provisions.

Now, in an agricultural society such conditions would not naturally be given; they would have to be created.”

The creation of those conditions was the creation of a new way of looking at life – through the money economy:

“But the most startling peculiarity of the system lies in the fact that, once it is established, it must be allowed to function without outside interference. Profits are not any more guaranteed, and the merchant must make his profits on the market. Prices must be allowed to regulate themselves. Such a self-regulating system of markets is what we mean by a market economy. The transformation to this system from the earlier economy is so complete that it resembles more the metamorphosis of the caterpillar than any alteration that can be expressed in terms of continuous growth and development. Contrast, for example, the merchant-producer's selling activities with his buying activities; his sales concern only artifacts; whether he succeeds or not in finding purchasers, the fabric of society need not be affected. But what he buys is raw materials and labor - nature and man. Machine production in a commercial society involves, in effect, no less a transformation than that of the natural and human substance of society into commodities. The conclusion, though weird, is inevitable; nothing less will serve the purpose: obviously, the dislocation caused by such devices must disjoint man's relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.”

What is obvious to Polanyi may not be obvious to us all. But the book is devoted to making us see the process of that dislocation and its consequences. Among other things, Polanyi has a much less romantic view of the relation between state and private enterprise than Hayek. For Polanyi, laissez faire is the result of state planning.

But that gets us off on another topic.

LI has been thinking of Polanyi as we’ve been contemplating our emotions essay. It is essential to this essay to get across the fact that the shift in the way the emotions were ordered had to do with Polanyi’s Great Transformation. What we are seeing is a dislocation in emotional habitation, or – as I’m going to call it – emotional custom. Following the rise of a certain way of talking about emotions – the rise of valence, in psychology, and the diffusion of a classificatory system related to it, and yet not synonymous with it, in everyday life, is simply following a thread in the shift of emotional custom.


northanger said...

i thought you went to bed crying in your beer.

northanger said...

oh oh oh, this is "the shift in the way the emotions were ordered". me bad.

roger said...

North, as is well known in the bloggo-spore, going to bed and crying in your beer does not exclude typing things out on the computer!

Actually, Im crying partly cause it is cheap beer. What has happened to beer???!!! My god, my chief nourishment seems to be hiking in price every day. It is the bee rapture, I tell you. Has to be the hops are more expensive to pollinate or something. Or perhaps it is the humpty dumptying of the U.S. dollar - but the Russian beer I mostly drink somehow has resisted inflation somehow. But Lord God, yesterday I was forced to buy lonestars. Now how am I to write like a slumming angel on friggin' lonestars?

Are you sorry for me or what?

northanger said...

the only pity parties i go to sir are my own.

roger said...

North, what is this, tough love? Does this mean that you don't like pina coladas and walks in the rain?

Well, damn. Here's some vive la fete, anyway.

northanger said...

aww, that's sad. stop making appeals to my postive emotions, Roger! accelerate to the Wundt point!

roger said...

Here's the root of the problem:

"Foods, feeds, and beverage prices jumped 1.6 percent in July after rising 0.2 percent in June. Over the past year, prices rose 9.8 percent, the largest yearly increase since a 10.2 percent gain in May 1995."

No wonder I can no longer afford good beer or cheese. I'm dooooooommmmmeeeed!

northanger said...

you know what a Princess Grace is? right? well. similarly you accrue an unending accounting paper strip behind. just like Jacob Marley's chains. cost of your upkeep on this planet. what else is new? the feather weighed &c &c &c.

roger said...

North, there is a difference. At least Jacob Marley could munch on good Stilton. Admittedly, those were in the days before Negro Modela was available in your average London market, but on the other hand, those Victorian Mild Ales sound mighty tasty - plus, that wonderful 7 percent alcohol content. I could go for that. And a goose dinner. Now, what were you saying about the upkeep of the planet?

northanger said...

And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core

P.M.Lawrence said...

"At least Jacob Marley could munch on good Stilton" - no, the "on" makes it impossible. I suspect you mean "munch good Stilton", though even using "munch" transitively looks odd; in British English, what you wrote has only one grammatical reading: "At least Jacob Marley could munch [something unspecified, while seated or otherwise located] on good Stilton".

P.M.Lawrence said...

Polanyi almost certainly knew the Hungarian proverb that the half-Hungarian columnist Petronella Wyatt once quoted in the "Spectator". It went something like "may you eat bread bought in the market", and meant "may you be so short of independent subsistence resources that you are forced to use up your savings buying subsistence". It highlights an insight that was once so obvious that it did not need to be stated, with the consequence that it is now almost unknown for lack of tradition and current example. Who now knows the cat i'the adage?