Markets and Man
The Great Transformer

Karl Polanyi’s classic of the fascist age offers a compelling explanation for our own times.

Appeared in: Volume 13, Number 4 | Published on: January 22, 2018
Roger Gran Harrison is a professor emeritus at the Air Force Academy and a frequent contributor to The American Interest.
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  • QET

    This is the same bedtime story I used to hear every night during the Reagan Administration. Especially the “posturing buffoon” part. Some stories are just too good not to keep telling and telling and telling.

  • WigWag

    “But what if this zero-sum game played out domestically, too? And what if the losers did not go quietly? That was Polanyi’s point, and is the defining political problem of our age. What if actual human beings were not ready to abandon dying communities and older social mores? What if fanciful new norms of education, professional flexibility, and ethnic and gender inclusiveness did not arise, or arise quickly or broadly enough?” (Roger Gran Harrison)

    The “losers” as Harrison calls them didn’t lose in a fair fight; the deck was deliberately stacked against them by a venal elite. That elite, consisting primarily of credentialed “experts” and members of America’s clueless clerisy have consciously and deliberately destroyed the prospects of those “losers.” Who are they? They’re the same people that Mitt Romney labeled as takers not makers. They’re the same people that Barack Obama labeled as gun-slingers and religion-clingers. They’re the same people Hillary Clinton famously called “deplorable.”

    These people aren’t mad because they lost in a fair-fight; they’re made because in the words of a famous pop song, “they fought the law and the law won.” That law was created by elites for elites and despite knowing that millions of Americans would be hurt, that elite deliberately feathered their own nest at the expense of their millions of citizens.

    Elites wrote NAFTA and TPP and other trade laws that destroyed millions of American jobs while disproportionately benefiting bankers and financial executives living on the Upper West Side, or Greenwich, Connecticut or Newton, Massachusetts.

    Elites supported unlimited and uncontrolled immigration so that it would be less expensive to get their lawns cut, their gardens tendered, their houses painted and their hooves re-shingled. The fact that unfettered immigration drove down wages so much that American-born house painters and roofers could no longer afford to send their kids to college meant not a thing to our miserable and unethical elite,

    The fact that elite think-tankers can earn hefty salaries because the institutions that they work for are considered under the tax-law to be charities and thus pay no taxes, is mind boggling. If all those employees of manufacturing companies worked for companies exempt from federal income taxes maybe the manufacturing sector would be as healthy as the think-tank sector.

    Why can’t working class people afford to send their kids to college? Maybe its because the tuition has been raised to astronomical levels because of college faculty who make six figure salaries for teaching one or two courses a week. Isn’t it terrific to be paid generously to stand in front of a classroom full of undergraduates for, at most six hours a week. How much cheaper would college tuition be if those institutions of higher education would eliminate the gender studies program, the black studies program, the Jewish studies program and cut down dramatically on all of the administrators?

    Why don’t working people get raises any more? Maybe its because the money that used to be available for raises now flows to health insurance companies in the form of dramatically escalating premiums. Why are the premiums so high? Maybe its because health care costs so much. Why does it cost so much? Maybe its because physicians salaries are so high because the medical establishment uses the requirement for credentials that it alone bestows to significantly limit the number of physicians far below where it should be.

    Here’w what Harrison is too oblivious to see; its not that the white working class is infuriated by its loss of status to women, African Americans or anyone else. It’s that working class people are infuriated because the “zero sum game” Harrison describes need not be a zero sum game. Much of the economic calamity faced by working people has been deliberately created by policies crafted by American elites designed to benefit themselves while consigning millions of their fellow citizens to economic hell.

    That’s why working class Americans are fighting back. That’s why so many of them support Trump.

    They know their rulers epitomize evil. They are the good guys. American elites are the enemy.

    • three_chord_sloth

      The sad thing is, people like the author and the gentry elites he worships really seem to think they have made the West better! They expect thanks and praise for creating the modern West; lands of rising inequality, falling social mobility… where everyone bowls alone.
      Half a century of progress! Excelsior!

      • WigWag

        GK Chesterton described the problem with our intellectual elite almost a century ago. Here’s what he said,

        “While there are stupid people everywhere, there is a particular minute & microcephalous idiocy which is only found in an intelligentsia. I have sometimes fancied, as chilly people like a warm room, silly people sometimes like a diffused atmosphere of intellectualism & long words.”

    • Samatha

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  • Tom Scharf

    The “Trump Hitler” article count on Google just incremented from 17,900,000 to 17,900,001. All things do not actually end in death camps, a little nuance may be in order one year in.

  • mbermangorvine

    A wonderfully written review and a tragic elegy for the hopes of three generations in the Western world.

  • Anthony

    “In this American moment of political, cultural, and economic turbulence and anxiety, we do not lack for explanations of the cause”, nor do we lack for comparative examples attempting insight. Roger Gran Harrison provides another: “…Perhaps human nature was not as straight forward as he (Polanyi) had portrayed it; it might be darker and more complicated than a theory of market economics could comprehend….”

    Markets and Man, the great transformation, represents an interesting essay. Obviously, our political era has drawn historical parallels sought for informing today (this moment, era, time). Accordingly, reading essay with both clear eyes and open mind may cast author’s intent as less Trumpian critique than a comparative take on social arrangements with “The Great Transformation” as backdrop. To this end, Roger Harrison wants reader to reflect on a defining political problem (several really) of our age: what if actual human beings are not ready to abandon dying communities and older social mores – “the greatest insight for us in revisiting The Great Transformation is the realization that, in some ways at least, ours has been no less a millennialist fantasy than Marx’s triumph of the working class.”

  • FriendlyGoat

    Some men think is it better to suffer a loss of status to financial traders than to suffer a loss of status to women, minorities, inconvenient science, actual education or environmental imperatives. The tendency to this misconception is always accomplished and reinforced by a process similar to what is now playing on TV with the “Dilly, Dilly” ad series.

    • Micah718

      Lowest unemployment among Hispanics and African-Americans is seen by Comrade FG as loss of status to some mysterious entity called “financial traders”. That strikes me as pretty racist. I flagged FG’s comment.

    • Joe Eagar

      Nothing bad ever happens to poor white people, eh? This is the “equality feels like oppression” crap. Does anyone believe that white working-class people in monoethnic European countries have *fewer* rights and less status than in America? The idea is completely absurd. This is just the age-old KKK philosophy that bullying the weak is a virtue and a right.

  • Micah718

    Yes, Trump is just like Hitler. On an unrelated note, people no longer take opinions of Roger Gran Harrison’s of the world that seriously anymore.
    You know how we got Trump, Professor? Because of you. “The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

    • Gary Hemminger

      Exactly. They push the envelope and expect that the other side doesn’t do it themselves. they are crazy.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Let’s discuss the obvious. The progressives have gone too far. they have allowed Trump to take power. They have gone way too far with identity politics, open borders, sanctuary cities, political correctness, and all of the other progressive programs. then when they have gone too far in one direction, they don’t expect the opposite direction? For every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. they are crazy to expect nothing less. they push the envelope and expect there not to be an opposite reaction. Are they crazy? Yes, they are crazy. If they expect rational behavior, then behave rationally.

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