COVID Reaction: The Triumph of Ethics

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.