Lots of folks have been wondering if the COVID-19 pandemic carries any legitimately hopeful meanings. Here at TCT, we think there’s at least one, and that it’s a doozy. Permit us to explain.
In his classic (though admittedly pretty hard-to-read) book, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi argued that, despite official doctrine, no sane person really believes that human beings and natural objects are actually commodities, actually things that can be bought and sold, up to infinifty or down to zero, without regard to underlying physical and ethical realities.
Under certain conditions, Polanyi argued, certain groups of people can get away with pretending that land and labor really are merely salable things. But not always and not forever. When things get over- or under-heated, as they inevitably do, capitalist theory falls away, as people sense the truth of what Polanyi called, on page 76 of The Great Tranformation, “the commodity fiction”:
Now, one of Polanyi’s main subordinate hypotheses was that, despite the efforts of TPTB, society — meaning the democratic majority — would often be forced to defend itself against the commodity fiction by creating “welfare” policies based on the reality that land, labor, and money are not, in fact, infinitely salable quanta, but rather precious, ethically primary, qualitative realities of their own.
With this in mind, TCT would like to suggest that social distancing is, among many other things, a very major proof of the Polanyian “self-protection of society.”
As the most hardcore and/or naive capitalists among us are trying to point out, we could quite easily go back to letting the commodity fiction organize our everyday affairs. Doing so would undoubtedly be very good for capitalism.
But we are instead doing something else, aren’t we?
Why is that?
It is because we are choosing human life and human ethics over market valuations.
Just as Karl Polanyi predicted we would.
And, the news might be even better than this. We seem to be doing this astounding thing with little serious resistance. This may speak to the gradual improvement of our culture, in Polanyian and later culture-war terms.
We are voting with our feet, marching in the direction of the basic pragmatic point that, ultimately, in the real world, economic “markets,” as some have said, can be great servants, but are always, at the end of the day, terrible masters.
A big question now is whether we will somehow become aware of what we are, in fact, doing, and then use our new level of self-clarity to keeping stepping toward the other kinds of self-defenses we pretty obviously need to enact against our other impending realities, which promise to make COVID-19 look like, ahem, a tea party.
Those interested in reality and decent survival might ponder how our present pandemic underscores a few key points.
Three initial thoughts strike TCT as interesting:
First, the essential unity of human affairs. The arrival of the corona virus throws a rather bright light on the long-running fallacy of purely “private” enterprise, does it not? As has always been true, but is usually not so obvious as it is at this moment, doing business is always and everywhere a deeply social activity that relies on a host of quite distinct collective arrangements.
Second, risk. One of the cardinal excuses capitalists make for their incomes’ departure from any conceivably reasonable theory of compensation-for-services-rendered is the claim that their willingness to expose their investments to decline and destruction is itself such a service, and therefore justifies the existing flow of wealth. Tell us, then, O Barons of Business: Are you now willing to watch your enterprises go under — to forgo any and all public assistance? If your acceptance of risk really is the basis for your reward, why would you not simply take what fate is now dealing you? Pray, tell us your answer, which will certainly be very interesting…
The third question that seems especially apt right now is that of the exploitation of unpaid personal labor, which remains something, of course, mostly done by women. Given the ongoing fracture of purportedly “natural” routines and perceptions, the connections between what we do for employers and what we do to deliver ourselves to our employers ought to be right up in just about everybody’s grill, in these viral days. Perhaps it has been unwise and unhealthy to allow our overclass to treat our self-care activities as mere appendages to its own singular priority?
It is a reworked paper from a conference paying homage to the late, not-so-great Erik Olin Wright, who spent an entire academic career dithering unhelpfully around the edges of the topic of social class. In his prolix and stumbling efforts, Wright set a certain standard for careerist game-playing, for which he was repeatedly, deftly, and humorously (albeit, in effect on the subject, fruitlessly) taken to task by Russell Jacoby.
In this Olin-Wrightishly underwhelming Catalyst piece — which, by the way, provides nothing like an agenda for doing class analysis in this epochally troubled, massively class-oppressed century — Therborn basically admits that Erik Olin Wright spent all his supposedly analytical energy worrying about stillborn ideas like “class boundaries” and “contradictory class locations.” Therborn also comes very close to saying that Wright himself indulged in the very social-scientific “grantsmanship” and reputational grooming he ought to have rejected.
The main point Therborn misses in his near-take-down of Olin Wright is the plain fact that Olin-Wright always steamrolled over superior/classic views of what class analysis was, is, and could be. But such views were never very compatible with the “mainstream quant-sociology” Olin Wright fancied himself cracking into.
As it stands, it remains utterly remarkable how little creativity and insight has gone into the extension and refinement of class analysis, despite the relentless growth and refinement of the actual phenomenon it could and should be trying to explain. Sure, few topics have been less welcome than this one. But we, its supposed exponents, have hardly done much to damn the torpedoes. We have been downright dunderheaded about our own core topic.
So, The New York Times is starting to make some rather sane observations about the nature of our society:
We are living in the world’s most advanced surveillance system. This system wasn’t created deliberately. It was built through the interplay of technological advance and the profit motive. It was built to make money.
This development, which, barring sharp democratic intervention, only promises to intensify, was, of course, quite predictable quite some time ago. We here at TCT saw and named it in 2003, when the TCT book emerged. The pertinent phenomenon is “market totalitarianism.”
The NYT being both a major commercial enterprise and a major ideological organ of TPTB, the true origin of this deep reality has to be denied, of course.
Hence, a phenomenon which springs directly from corporate capital itself — itself a phenomenon which sprang straight from Adam Smithian capitalist normalcy — has to be attributed instead to mere bad apples:
The greatest trick technology companies ever played was persuading society to surveil itself.
[NYT, emphasis added]
In this preposterous but ascendant misreading, market totalitarianism is just a trick played by one rogue sector within our dominant socio-economic order. One question that willfully silly excuse begs is who buys all the data and for what purpose?