Polanyi and Peace

February 19, 2011 — 6 Comments

Polanyi

Most Christians, if asked if they know any words in Hebrew, will come up with at least one: shalom. When asked what shalom means, the most common response is, “peace.” Though it is used in a variety of ways in Biblical literature, shalom is often translated as “peace.” Our connotation of the word “peace” is inextricable linked–and often defined by–its antonym, “war.” Peace is usually seen as the absence of war.

Much of my reading and writing is centering on shalom. Whenever I come across and author’s use of “peace” I’m eager to understand how he or she unpacks the idea and compare that with my developing understanding of a fuller sense of shalom. Karl Polanyi, in his The Great Transformation seeks to chronicle the rise of the modern nation-state and market economy as linked social structures, embedded with one another. Early in the book he deals with the role of peace in the development of both.

In the opening chapters of the book, Polanyi looks at the hundred years’ peace (roughly 1815-1914), when most armed skirmishes were localized and escalation was mitigated by the “balance” of opposing large nations holding one another at bay. During this era the pursuit of peace came “under varying forms and ever-shifting ideologies–sometimes in the name of progress and liberty, sometimes by the authority of the throne and the altar, sometimes by grace of the stock exchange and the checkbook, sometimes by corruption and bribery, sometimes by moral argument and enlightened appeal, sometimes by the broadside and the bayonet–one and the same result was attained: peace was preserved” (loc. 917).

In stark contrast with preceding centuries, the nineteenth century saw the rise of an acute peace interest. Prior to that time “peace with its corollaries of crafts and arts ranked among the mere adornments of life. The Church might pray for peace as for a bountiful harvest, but in the realm of state action it would nevertheless advocate armed intervention; government subordinated peace to security and sovereignty, that is, to intents that could not be achieved otherwise than by recourse to the ultimate means. Few things were regarded as more detrimental to a community than the existence of an organized peace interest in its midst” (loc. 932). So why the change? Why did nations who, previous to this period, had a history of warring and border skirmishes, turn so resolutely to arbitration and peacekeeping? Perhaps the growing mechanization of war and the threat of larger, more destructive conflicts gave these nations pause. Polanyi hints that there is something else at play, something other than the balance-of-power between nations working to keep the peace.

This other factor, contends Polyani, is haute finance. This new international finance grew into a stabilizing force that did more to maintain peace than any balance of power arrangement. As a new agency, haute finance “supplied the instruments for an international peace system, which was worked with the help of the Powers, but which the Powers themselves could neither have established nor maintained. . . . There was intimate contact between finance and diplomacy; neither would consider any long-range plan, whether peaceful or warlike, without making sure of the other’s goodwill” (loc. 1000; 1004).

Although it would function to maintain peace for nearly 100 years, “haute finance was not designed as an instrument of peace; this function fell to it by accident” (loc. 1,029). From the beginning haute finance was about making money. The development of international trade and the free market system required peaceable relationship between nations. Peace was a necessary condition of gain, but only a certain brand of peace: “Not peace at all cost, not even peace at the price of any ingredient of independence, sovereignty, vested glory, or future aspirations of the Powers concerned, but nevertheless peace, if it was possible to attain it without such sacrifice” (loc. 1,041).

This brand of peace was not shalom. Instead of establishing wholeness, peace was a utilitarian function defined by the absence of large-scale war which, in turn, created fertile soil for international trade. As such trade between nations developed, it became linked with peace. “In the past the organization of trade had been military and warlike . . . Trade was now dependent upon an international monetary system which could not function in a general war” (loc. 1,111-13). Growing capitalistic endeavors led to growing prosperity in the Powers, giving the illusion that it was the presence of peace that was leading to financial gain, rather than the other way around.

This contrasts with the kind of peace, even prosperity, found in Jeremiah 29. Here shalom is translated as both peace and prosperity, but it retains with it the attribute of wholeness or intactness. Peace and prosperity in the midst of exile were to be the product of pursuing wholeness in relationship between the exiles and their captors. They were to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” “marry,” “grow in number.” Through seeking “just, harmonious and enjoyable relationships” (a shalom phrase from Bryant Myers) God would prosper both the exiles and their captors.

This is a markedly different mindset than one that sees peace as a necessary precondition for increasing wealth. In Jeremiah 29,  peace was the means and the end. Regarding the climate that haute finance brought to peace in the nineteenth century Polanyi writes, “Take this economic system away and the peace interest would disappear from politics. Apart from it, there was neither sufficient cause for such an interest, nor a possibility of safeguarding it, insofar as it existed” (loc. 1,169). He later goes on to describe in detail how the collapse of the global economic markets led to both World Wars.

I wonder how much we reflect this utilitarian view toward peace in our nation-building efforts today? Are we really interested in shalom or are we using the promise of peace via freedom and democracy as a way to create emerging markets that we can control for our nations’ benefit?

Anderson Campbell

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  • Chris Marshall

    Eddie, your final question is a doozy, a really excellent question in context of Polanyi and our present US context in world affairs. Love the tie in of shalom in exile, though I wish it weren’t so true or a part of our faith history because then I wouldn’t have to be accountable to it. Keep pushing the shalom theme forward my friend.

  • Russ Pierson

    Brilliant, Eddie–and it is great fun to see how your view of shalom is shaping up in the wake of your visit to the West Coast. Two thoughts/comments:First, it was during the Hundred Year Peace that the “second wave” of European colonialization pressed into Africa, carving up nearly the entire continent into virtual (and often literal) European “mines.” I fear the peace in Europe came at the expense of our African brothers and sisters–made particularly easy in the days before global communications and CNN looking over your shoulder in places far away from home.Second, you offer this most troubling of quotes: “The Church might pray for peace as for a bountiful harvest, but in the realm of state action it would nevertheless advocate armed intervention; government subordinated peace to security and sovereignty, that is, to intents that could not be achieved otherwise than by recourse to the ultimate means.”If that does not describe the Evangelical world I have grown up in, I don’t know what does.

  • Michael Ratliff

    It seems that the “peace” that Polanyi describes is not

  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,This quote makes me think…”Growing capitalistic endeavors led to growing prosperity in the Powers, giving the illusion that it was the presence of peace that was leading to financial gain, rather than the other way around.” I wonder how many things in our culture we perceive one way but in actuality might be very different. Before reading Polanyi I never thought of peace being a product of the conquest for monetary gain and not the concern for the well being of others…great thought of challenging our concept of peace. #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    @Chris – Thanks, man. The more I read about shalom, the more I see it (the lack of it, the perversion of it, the hope of it) everywhere. @Russ – You are absolutely correct in observing that “peace” in the homelands of the Powers came simultaneously with the colonialization of the African continent. There is a lot that could be said about how the raping and pillaging of resources in the global South acted to feed the “peace machine” in the Powers.@Michael H. – It is hard work to try and examine deeply the “why” behind the “what” in our perceptions of culture. I don’t think that we’ll always find contradictions. However, it is important to ask questions about our perceptions, isn’t it? I was also struck by the idea that peace can be (and has been) used as a means, rather than an end. I’m so used to think of peace as an end unto itself that it had not dawned on me that peace might be used for less than noble purposes as well. Your inference that perhaps there are other things in our culture that might be twisted in this way is an important one. Any ideas on what some of those other things might be? What else should we be scrutinizing?

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – thanks for another great post. With Chris I am taken with your last question, “I wonder how much we reflect this utilitarian view toward peace in our nation-building efforts today? Are we really interested in shalom or are we using the promise of peace via freedom and democracy as a way to create emerging markets that we can control for our nations’ benefit?” This assumes that ‘creating emerging markets’ and expanding the existing market economy as the prime rationale for international activity. No doubt this is important, yet is it valid to subordinate the values of freedom and democratic activity to be of less importance to market activities? This strikes to the centre of the question Michael H raised regarding the ‘why’ beneath the ‘what’…economic activity is important but so is freedom and democracy…and no doubt the latter has been used to support the former…but the opposite might be suggested as well. Unfortunately we as Christians have the vision of shalom before us, yet we live in a world that is fallen and does not share our vision…as Heath and Potter in Rebel Sell suggests we may be in similar situation as the counter cultural left…holding unto an ideal, but facing the pragmatic reality of accepting a ‘peace’ that is less than shalom, and thus a pale shadow of shalom, yet a form of peace that does benefit people. The real temptation as you know is to settle for the pale shadow.#dmingml ((tags:dmimgml))