Utopia & Gain

by Caleb Roberts

This leads up to our thesis which still remains to be proven: that the origins of the cataclysm lay in the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system.  Such a thesis seems to invest that system with almost mythical faculties; it implies no less than that the balance of power, the gold standard, and the liberal state, these fundamentals of the civilization of the nineteenth century, were, in the last resort, shaped in one common matrix, the self-regulating market.

The assertion appears extreme if not shocking in its crass materialism.  But the peculiarity of the civilization the collapse of which we have witnessed was precisely that it rested on economic foundations.  Other societies and other civilizations, too, were limited by the material conditions of their existence — this is a common trait of all human life, indeed, of all life, whether religious or nonreligious, materialist or spiritualist.  All types of societies are limited by economic factors.  Nineteenth-century civilization alone was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies, and certainly never before raised to the level of a justification of action and behavior in everyday life, namely, gain.  The self-regulating market system was uniquely derived from this principle. (31)

Karl Polanyi | The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time