July 4, 2016: A little good news about Western instability

Last time, closing remarks on this blog made note of Michael Polanyi’s lamentation, that Western civilization is inherently unstable. [1] In this post we ponder a particular aspect of instability that Polanyi points out in his final chapter, “The Open Society,” and the form of freedom he believes an open society should have.

First, a bit about Polanyi (1891-1976): He was a remarkable fellow, and part of historic irony. A Hungarian physical chemist, it was claimed he was destined to win the Nobel Prize, when instead of completing his scientific work he turned his attention to social issues. His son went on to win the Nobel for chemistry in 1986 ten years after Michael’s death, and two of Michael’s students also took home the award. Rare company. Michael Polanyi was also mentor to Austrian-born Frederick Hayek (1899-1992), another Nobel winner, in economics, and author of The Road To Serfdom. [2] A book with widespread influence that might be called the Capitalist Manifesto. The irony is that Michael’s brother Karl, in a complete reversal from Michael and Hayek, wrote the Socialist Manifesto, The Great Transformation, also influential, both books frequently referenced today. [3]

Michael Polanyi’s book deals with modern society, without defining what modern means. Of course in this context “modern” means as compared to ancient, which was…what? I can’t resist this opportunity to drop in another remarkable fellow to help answer this perennial question, Marcel Gauchet (1946-). Gauchet’s Disenchantment of the World provides a rip-roaring thrill of how he believes we got to the modernity we have. [4]

Gauchet writes that before invention of the State, humans were “Projected into a world in which the order was irrevocably fixed in an earlier time of foundation. Each of us had an assigned place in this order we could not repudiate. In this world, our defining potential [to innovate] was preemptively abandoned. There was no question of who we were and how we fit in; no question on transforming the order of things.” But with invention of the State comes upheaval through State ambition, and a hierarchy where some are closer to the gods than others. Later, with the Axial Age (ca. 800 BC-300 BC) an attempt was made to unify the order of earlier religions under a transcendent and supreme principle: God (prophetic Judaism), Nirvana (Buddhism), the Tao (Taoism, while Confucianism was a century earlier), or Reason in service of the Good (Greek philosophy). Suddenly “order was no longer self-explanatory,” writes Gauchet, “but depended on a higher reality or principle. Growth toward this reality then became possible through devotion or understanding.” In all cases the individual turned inward (prayer, meditation, analysis) to find the way outward. The holy was, “no longer an irrevocable past, and there were now ways of making contact with it,” says Gauchet. “Now we could change our relation to [this higher reality] by becoming servants to God, seeking spiritual Enlightenment, or through reason grasp the Ideas.” The future was no longer fixed, and it acquired a measure of uncertainty. The old notion of a sacred power in things was attacked, and the world was disenchanted by man, with the holy confined to this higher reality alone (passport to modify the planet). This commenced the era when “religion would bring about an exit from religion,” claims Gauchet, and with that the opening of questions that were once closed, i.e. our role, purpose, meaning.

While the ancients expected tomorrow to be like today, we can never know what tomorrow will be. Herein lays an instability inherent in societies that focus forward rather than back. With the old roles lifted, freedom becomes central. Polanyi notes two forms of freedom: one that tends toward an absence of restraint, the other as liberation through submission to obligation. The first form is an individualistic freedom inherited, according to Polanyi, from the Utilitarians who defined the good society as that which creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Rational restrictions dictate that one’s freedom must not interfere with another’s right to the same freedom. Without such limits, absence of restraint leads to anarchy. With priority of the individual this is an anti-communitarian freedom. While rewarding to the individual, this theory of freedom is inspiring at inception, but not in the long run because emancipation from the old chains are forgotten over generations.

Polanyi’s second form of freedom is submission to a “higher ideal.” It fosters community and the inspiration that belonging through submission to the ideal brings. Complete submission is what totalitarian regimes thrive on as witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. In such extremes the old freedom from arbitrary abuse of power is reframed as freedom from circumstance, from want, from fear, or some other universal that the State claims it must enforce. Polanyi proposes a middle road, one that already exists in science and law.

Contrary to modern hostility toward tradition and authority, Polanyi argues that society can be free and open only if it has both. Polanyi notes that during the European Enlightenment, traditional authority had to be rejected because it was opposed to the free pursuit of knowledge. “Once these opponents were defeated,” writes Polanyi, “[this notion] remained, but it came to imply that science required repudiation of all authority and all tradition.” And yet, Enlightenment science requires both.

How? Deeper understandings of reality are not the private conviction of a scientist, but released for open inspection of data, analysis, and conclusions by all others in the field. An iterative exchange eventuates in truth about nature as it is that all can agree on. When that examination arrives at judgments substantiated by a tradition of examination and test, a respect for authority in science results, and real things are built. It is the true nature of nature that science holds as its central concern. Just as justice is the central concern of law. The institutions of law, courts, and enforcement, are composed of traditions and authorities.

But these traditions are not closed or inflexible. “While science imposed an immense range of authoritative pronouncements,” writes Polanyi, “it not merely tolerates descent in some particulars, but grants its highest encouragement to such creative descent. While the machinery of scientific institutions severely suppresses contradictions to accepted views about the nature of things [astrology, Creationism, UFOs], the same authorities pay their highest homage to ideas destined to sharply modify those accepted views [Relativity, quantum mechanics].” Polanyi calls this a “decentralized, free procedure of mutual adjustment.” There’s not only a tradition of practice with a belief this practice is the best one to reveal truth about nature, but there are careers and authority for those who do it well. “All these areas of free interaction operate within a tradition of discipline,” says Polanyi, while still being free to criticize and innovate.

By this analogy Polanyi expands to society at large. “A free society is not simply an open society in which anything goes,” he writes. “It is a society in which people engage in activities considered worthy of respect, with the freedom to pursue those ends…dedicated to various ideals. It cannot be a free society by being open to matters such as these, by being neutral on truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, honesty and fraud.”

A free society exists with traditions that provide a framework within which members make free contributions. “The freedom of mere self-assertion can lead only to disintegration of standards and institutions,” claims Polanyi. “It may lead from time to time in an equalization of interests that mutually tame one another to a point that people can live in a working balance. However, no one who holds the view that freedom is mere self-assertion will be devoted to maintaining such a balance: he will rather be devoted to upsetting it in order to achieve more of his own interests. As Adam Smith foresaw, the chief danger to balance would come from manufacturers, for none of them would have interest in maintaining a free system of competition. Their interests would lie in securing monopolies in order to control their markets.” Hence the need for rational regulations (as Frederick Hayek noted), just as government must be limited because humans are humans no matter where you go.

“Under this system of spontaneous order,” says Polanyi, “individuals are engaged in the competitive pursuit of personal gain. Scientists, judges, scholars, clergymen, et. al. are guided by systems of thought to promote the growth, application, or dissemination of that to which they are dedicated. Their actions are determined by their own professional interests, which do not aim specifically at promoting the general welfare of society.”

Objections to this system are that the public good seems surrendered to the personal motives of individuals, and that society will drift in a direction willed by no one. In a system of spontaneous order the public interest is not controlled by the state, but appears controlled by an irresponsible bourgeois. Polanyi argues that despite all the inheritance, family power, and class differences, oligarchies in societies of spontaneous order do not exercise anything like a controllable plan. With so many moving parts in such complex societies they cannot tell where they are going, nor control the direction of all the players. SONY’s famous 250 Year Plan fell to two boys who invented a company in their garage they later called Apple. “The plain fact is that necessarily man is adrift [in modernity],” claims Polanyi.

If there were a central truth in politics the way there is in science and law, actions in the public interest would be easy. That’s not the case, so persuasion in politics is a matter of one interest striving for as much power as it can get, to survive, and to oppress. Institutions must be built to keep these interests from destroying each other and the whole system. Those intuitions cost money. Hence, why America’s Founders emphasized economic interests, because prosperity pays for national defense and law enforcement to preserve individual rights, as an offset to despotism, not to coddle the rich as some delight in asserting. As Polanyi writes, “A higher level moral sphere exists on the basis of a lower-level sphere of profit, power, and parochialism of interest…crasser interests transformed, in operation, into moral principles like justice.”

“Only if we manage to abandon our deeply ingrained moral perfectionism,” says Polanyi, can we come to accept such a system. But if we let a higher cause, moral as it may sound, take over governance, then “moral inversion” eventually occurs. The State takes charge of morality for a perfected utopia as it did for Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Polanyi’s system is an imperfect moral system that can and sometimes will be immoral, which is paradoxically in service to ideals of truth, justice, and equality that can never be perfectly attained. “The evils which prevent the fullness of moral development,” writes Polanyi, “are precisely the elements which are the source of power that protect moral accomplishments.” Such a system is a bit like the internal combustion engine he writes, “it is noisy, smelly, and occasionally refuses to start, but it is what gets us to wherever we get. We must somehow learn to understand and tolerate, not destroy, the free society.”

Having made a career in pursuit of scientific truths Polanyi writes about, I, and the scientists I know, find politics in practice often unbearable. By Polanyi’s teaching, this is naïve, and it’s some relief to find our views too idealistic. We shouldn’t expect from humans the coherence we find in nature. But there’s just one problem that Polanyi didn’t raise, or likely couldn’t yet see.

Let’s look at that at another time. Maybe the first Monday in September, the 5th, 2016.


[1] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
[2] Frederick Hayek, The Road To Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 1994
[3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time , Beacon Press, 2001
[4] Marcel Gauchet, Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of the World, Princeton University Press, 1997
Revised for clarity 12.5.2018
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Published on July 04, 2016 09:59
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