Few years ago, while randomly scrolling my Facebook homepage, I came across a Facebook status from a reputed University teacher who was defending a contemporary viral music video which sparked online controversy for its vulgarity and culturally sensitive elements. Astonishingly, the sole ground for his approval of the vulgar music was stemming from economic concerns rather than objective moral legitimacy of the content, as he was arguing that such popular contents do have a large consumer demands and our music/culture industry wouldn’t survive without such populist flavor.
The said Facebook of a university teacher, who belongs to the highest intellectual strata of the society, seemed wrong at multiple levels. The most troubling aspect of his approach was that he was not defending a vulgar and obscene content from a progressive point of view; rather he was defending it on the ground of economic utility instead of assessing the objective moral legitimacy of such action. The more concerning picture is that such economy obsessed approach to social and moral issues was not an isolated incident of a lone individual; rather it is becoming the most dominant narrative of modern life.
The best answer to the above stated phenomenon could be found in Karl Polanyi’s famous book “The Great Transformation”where in search for the political and economic origins of our time, the gifted author came forth with his legendary “Theory of Embeddedness” which offers the best explanation for the growing influence of market economy on our moral and social life. The 20th century intellectual Karl Polanyi who is considered as the most insightful and prophetic critique of capitalism is now proving his unimaginable relevance to our contemporary world.
According to Polanyi’s ‘theory of embeddedness’, as the economy is profoundly embedded in all other spheres human life, the economic life of a community cannot be understood in isolation from its moral as well as social life. In his book Polanyi claimed that as a consequence of unprecedented expansion of capitalism in the 18th and 19th century, the economic sphere became increasingly separate from noneconomic institutions that would function only to maximize profit. Before 19th century the profit maximization was not the sole driving force of market economy, rather along with the market principles of profit and exchange, there were other motivations for economic transactions such as social customs and norms. In other words, historically the market has always remained as a subordinate or adjunct part of the broader society and hence regulated by the social values, but with the dramatic rise industrial capitalism fueled by the philosophy of free market economy, now market has become so dominant that society itself has turned subordinate to market economy. According to Polanyi, such a drastic paradigm shift in relationship between market and the society is likely to fundamentally change the basis of all social interactions and, thus, society as whole. Because the capitalist form of economy would transform all the basic aspects of social life as pure market commodities.
Interrelation between capitalism, liberalism and individualism
Alexander Anievas argued in his famous book- ‘How the West Came to Rule’ that capitalism is not all about wages, labor and free market; rather it includes all the social and political factors that reinforce the system. It means capitalism would nurture and flourish all the ideologies and systems that are mutually beneficial to capitalist status quo and, one of such values is known as liberalism. Based on such premise, Karl Polanyi also argued that birth of modern liberal state in 19th century was the inevitable necessity and outcome of industrial capitalism because free market economy hardly flourishes in a society where strict observant traditional values exist. Polanyi explains the connection by an example from the western colonial policy. After colonizing the native lands European colonists found that it was difficult for them to make money off the locals because they didn’t want to work. In fact the natives did not need the industrial or mining jobs offered by the colonialists because the traditional native society was organized in such a way that nobody was ever threatened with starvation or homelessness outside of a major disaster. The colonizers quickly learned that the only way to get the locals to work on their plantations or mines was to weaken the social bonds and destroy their traditional social structure and, consequently forcing them to sell their labors to colonizers for their individualistic survival.
Not only the early colonialists, capitalist establishment have been following the same strategy till now. Breaking down all collectivist institutions from family to society though promotion of individualism has been very crucial for availability of more number of people willing sell their labor in markets. It works in such a delicate way that even a son of millionaire parents sometimes would be forced to work for his own survival just because he is not willing to live within the bounds of traditional family values along with his parents.
From capitalism to Neoliberalism; the ultimate decline of social fabrics
Neo-liberalism is the twisted love child of capitalism and liberalism. Neoliberalism is basically the most radical version of capitalism which advocates for absolute deregulation of market and, promotes individual responsibility instead of welfare funding. To the neoliberals, the freedom of market is the freedom for humans. Though originally an economic idea, the neoliberalism has eventually transformed into an ideology that transcends into all spheres of our social and political life. Just like capitalism, the neoliberalism also nurtured and flourished every idea or institution that serves its interest. For example, Margaret Thatcher, one of the radical proponents of neoliberalism, once famously said-“There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women and there are families”.
Neoliberalism has waged an invisible war on social, moral and religious values. It has transformed all our traditional values into a single value and, that is the value of market. Now the only virtue which is left behind in wreckage of humanity is the virtue of profit maximization. Neoliberalism has made us to see the world through the lens of profit and now the only criteria by which we assess the worth of our life is its economic productivity. Neoliberalism makes the adult film industry flourishes as it generates revenues of billons; meanwhile the rich traditional music keeps dying due to lack of economist incentives.
Even a few decades ago, religious scholars, Sufi saints or poor village teachers were considered the most noble and dignified strata of the society, whereas now even parents do not suggest their kids to pursue a profession that doesn’t earn much. Even at universities, choosing a degree of philosophy over an MBA would be considered utterly foolish as the philosophy doesn’t have an economic future. This happens, for instance, when objective of education shifts from fostering culture and knowledge to maximization of profit.
The glorious virtue of motherhood has now become an economically unproductive liability for modern women. Given the widespread sexual promiscuity facilitated by the neoliberalism, men are also turning away from enduring the traditional masculine responsibilitiesas the institution of marriage is barely needed for fulfilling his natural needs. The rising cost of urban living along with the exploitation of neoliberal economy often force both parents of the family to work outside and thereby, leaving the kids with the trauma of unattached childhood. As a consequence of the above factors coupled with sweeping tide of unrestrained individualism, our families are falling apart like a broken castle.
The implication for such decline of families goes deeper than mere decline of a social institution, as families are the only viable institution to transcend our values to newer generation. If there are no families, there will be nothing; no values, no religion and society at all.
The author of this article is a lecturer of Department of Law, Uttara University.