Letter from Abraham Rotstein (10 July 1956)

From Karl Polanyi
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Dear Professor Polanyi,

I continue to be preoccupied with the meaning of industrialism, for its very uniqueness requires a deeper understanding of its mainsprings and its significance before we may determine its place in society.[p 1]

On a superficial level industrial economic policy is self-evident - (I quote from the recent international GATT agreement:) "The broad objectives of international trade and economic endeavour which all countries share, i.e. raising standards of living, increasing real incomes, developing the world's resources, and expanding the production and exchange of goods". One is struck by the unquestioned universality of this objective on the one hand, and its relatively recent ascendancy. Of course the problem of livelihood has always necessitated production, but behold the array of "raising", "increasing", "developing" and "expanding". I believe this is a unique and distinct element of our consciousness.[p 2] - It relates[p 3] to the industrial solution to the problem of the economy.[p 4] You mentioned once, with reference to the use of machines for production that "it is an irrational cultural factor which is untraceable" (Notes of Feb. 25/26, p. 17)[1].

I think your discussion of the formation of the Western mind through successive revelations, is a massive brilliant and religious conception. It seems then, that the keystones of our consciousness each relate to a unique revelation.

[113] Further, the major values of our institutions would derive from these revelations.

I think that the entrenched compulsive drive for "more" of the West - of which industrial is the servant - has behind it a great vision of abundance on earth. In addition, a factor which is sometimes lost sight of, is that industrial technology provides not only abundance but certainty[p 5], effectively alleviating that aspect of Nature's pressure which is erratic and capricious e.g. storms, famines, plagues, etc. (The term abundance is used here to comprise both these elements. Until it is achieved we shall be in a condition of perpetual "scarcity".)[p 6]

Perhaps more has been revealed to us than knowledge of death from the story of the Fall of Man - I think this vision of abundance derives from the legend of man's original state - the Garden of Eden. We have not resigned ourselves to its loss - we have engaged in a fierce, irresistible, ruthless, and sometimes mad drive to recapture the vision on earth.

You have talked about a compulsive, eschatological element in Christianity, with Jesus believing that the end of the world was imminent. (Notes on Feb. 25/26 p. 5) I wonder whether both Jewish Messianic eschatology (sometimes cited as the impulse for "progress" of our society) and the Christian [114] notion of the Kingdom of Heaven aren't partial images of the lost Garden of Eden, even allowing for significant differences in oral visions. Interestingly enough, non of the three have economies. (Adam is only a curator).

The Fall of Man has given us the revelation of abundance as well as the notion that the present state of the economy is a curse - the substantive content of man's atonement:

"Cursed is the ground for thy sake;
in toil shalt thou eat of it all
the days of thy life. Thorns[p 7]also
and thistles shall it bring forth to thee;
and thou shalt eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat
bread[p 8] till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou
art and unto dust thou shalt return."

[2]

The very stringency of the curse and, the juxtaposition of the economy and death would presume to invoke the same total resignation to both. The moral and religious axis on which the Western World rested up to the time of the Reformation would implicitly have accepted this resignation.[p 9] The embeddedness of the economy was maintained by a religious view where important technological innovations for production would have been almost sinful or occult, while paradise was for the nonce, deflected to the heavens. There, existence was bodyless, while our material dependence on earth was uncomfortably regarded with some measure of guilt as a symbol of weakness and sin to be superseded eventually in the Kingdom of Heaven.[p 10]

[115] However, the mature response to these elements of man's fate, (death and the economy) each demand precisely opposite reactions - resignation where we can do nothing, and action where we can. To defy the curse was to try to regain abundance. It would seem that the Reformation was a necessary prelude to the Industrial Revolution.[p 11]

Man's visions of utopia gradually altered from moral or political establishments and became distinctly abundance - centered at about this time, beginning with the early Socialists. It would seem that they were the first to sense the portent of abundance behind the chaotic changes coming over Europe.[p 12]

To what extent, do you think, is the mature response of resignation really characteristic of our reaction to revelation?

"Do not go gently into that dark night,
Rage, rage against the passing of the light,
(Dylan Thomas)

Might an impulse of rage and frustration at the knowledge of death and the moral person have added impetus to our rebellion against expulsion from Eden?

[116] It would seem then that in relativizing the industrial economy we are embedding a process of enormous force, unlimited ambition and with deep roots in our consciousness. The final meaning of abundance is freedom from Nature's pressure and so the balance of freedom[p 13] won is the overall guide for the absorption of this process into society.

In sum:
The irrational compulsive force of industrialism may derive from some element in our consciousness related to a vision of abundance and a compulsive drive to conquer the economic problem. It is suggested that the abundance and curse of the 'Fall of Man' provide these elements. If the economy is a curse and our body sinful, then the capricious scarcity of Nature is just punishment, and we must resign ourselves to it. Defiance would seem to lead to the reverse side of the coin: gain and abundance. An understanding of industrialism's source would aid in its absorption in society with its contribution to freedom as our ultimate criterion.

[117] The above is offered to you with some hesitation as an exercise in speculation. I hope it proves of some interest and I am most anxious to have your comments. I think that I have hold of something here, but I'm not quite sure which are the essential propositions.

[… (personal matters)]

Abe

Polanyi's Pencil Additions

  1. It's doubtful whether the 'place' in society of a historically unique development can be determined at all.
  2. Yes. But it is not {raher} its place in the history of civilization you are trying to fix? "Society" and even consciousness are not synonymous for civilization
  3. Seems to relate.
  4. But does it - that is the question.
  5. And {useless} new hazards "thrills", threats plagues, and storms.
  6. The dizzy feats were Not in the 'abundance' direction, the "Great Western", the transatlantic cable, the Zeppelin, the North Pole drive, the Eiffel Tower, that symbole of it al. Now T.V., radio radar, submarine, the car…
  7. Absence of irrigation!
  8. bread is made of wheat only Not of {barly} millet, etc. - only meal!
  9. Interesting thought -but No evidence support it.
  10. No evidence, insofar as I can see.
  11. But the Reformation finally {acapl} the curse. Luther Calvin rediscovered H Augustinism.
  12. [It would… Europe] I agree
  13. "balance of freedom"underlined.

Editors Notes

  1. 19, on the archives pagination.
  2. Genesis 3:14-19.

References

KPA: 49/05, 112-117
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