great transformation

Part 2 of Lecture on Spirituality and Development: Friday, 27th Jan 2017 by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE — for Students of Religion & Development Paper, Center of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Link for part 1: Spirituality . 50m Video lecture:


  1. The meaning of development has varied dramatically across time, space, cultures.
    1. When Britannia ruled the Waves:
      Development definition suited Britain: Sea-Power, Coal Mines, Industry, Climate, Race
      No entry for “democracy” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1930
    2. Post-War Rise of USA
      Initial Definition: Democracy, GNP per capita – both criteria serve to ensure leadership of USA.
    3. Later, some Oil Economies had Higher GNP/Capita than USA
      So REDEFINE Development to include Income Distribution, so as to keep US on top
    4. Later, Switzerland, Japan and some other Scandinavian countries had Higher Wealth + Lower Gini. How to measure development to ensure USA is on top? Answer: Redefine Development to include Infrastructure
    5. Conclusion: Definition of Development Changes to suit the powerful. Criteria are chosen to ensure that the powerful are on top.
  2. Read More

wisdomThe adventure of leaving home, and exposure to unlimited educational opportunities as well as a radically different social environment, made us heady with excitement as freshmen at MIT. We often stayed up all night discussing our new experiences. Since we could not come to any conclusion regarding the most important question we face: “what is the meaning of life?”, we resolved to seek guidance from one of our professors. Most were teaching technical subjects like math, physics and chemistry, but our history professor occasionally talked about the bigger issues of life. Upon being asked, he gave us an answer which satisfied us at the time: he said that first we must learn the little things that we were being taught, in order to be able to answer the bigger questions that life poses.

It was many years later that it gradually dawned upon me that we had been scammed. Our teachers had no answers to these questions, and so they shifted our attention to the questions that they could answer. We were counselled to look under the light, for the keys which had been lost in the dark. It was not always that way. In The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality, Harvard Professor Julie Reuben writes that in the early twentieth century, the college catalogs explicitly stated that their mission was to shape character, and produce leaders. Students were to learn social and civic responsibilities, and to learn how to lead virtuous lives. However, under the influence of an intellectual transformation which gave supreme importance to scientific knowledge, and discounted all other sources and types of knowledge, consensus on the meaning of virtue and character fragmented and was gradually lost. Universities struggled very hard to retain this mission of character building, but eventually gave up and retreated to a purely technical curriculum. Because this abandonment of the bigger questions of life has been extremely consequential in shaping the world around us, it is worth digging deeper into its root causes

Enlightenment philosophers had hoped that reason would lead to a superior morality, replacing what they saw as the hypocrisy of Christian morality. They thought that Truth was comprehensive, embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive. However, by 1930’s this unity was decisively shattered. The triumphant but fatally flawed philosophy of logical positivism drove a wedge between factual cognitive knowledge and moral/spiritual knowledge. It became widely accepted that science was value-free, and distinct from morality. Prior to the emergence of this division, social scientists had defined their mission as understanding and promoting human welfare. Social and political activism had been a natural part of this mission. However, this changed in the early twentieth century with the widespread acceptance of Max Weber’s dictum that social science, like physical science, should be done from a value neutral perspective of a detached observer.

Positivist philosopher A J Ayer said that moral judgements had no “objective” content, and hence were completely meaningless. Similarly, Bertrand Russell said that despite our deep desires to the contrary, this was a cold and meaningless universe, which was created by an accident and would perish in an accident. These modern philosophies displaced traditional answers to the most important questions we face as human beings. According to modern views, we must all answer these questions for ourselves. No one else has the right to tell us what to do. All traditional knowledge is suspect, and instead of following custom or authority, we should arrive at the answers in the light of our limited personal experience and reason. Indeed, this is a core message of Enlightenment teachings which is built into the heart of a modern education.

The treasure of knowledge which is our collective human heritage has been collected by hundreds of thousands of scholars, laboring over centuries. Imagine what would happen if we were required to use our reason to establish and validate every piece of knowledge that we have. It would be impossible to learn more than a very tiny fragment of this knowledge. As a practical matter, we accept as givens vast amounts of material taught to us in the course of a modern education. This is necessary; if told to re-discover mathematics from scratch, even the most brilliant and gifted child would never get beyond the rudiments of the material in elementary school textbooks. But for the most important question we face in our lives, we are told that all traditional knowledge is useless; we must work out the answers for ourselves. There is a huge amount of discussion, conversation, and controversy contained in the writings of ancients. But we were educated to believe that the wisdom of the ancients was merely meaningless verbiage of the pre-scientific era. Thus, we never learned about Lao Tzu’s saying that loving gives you courage, while being loved gives you strength.  We learned fancy techniques and tools, but never learned how to live.

Real education can only begin after removing positivist blinders, and realizing that we have no choice but to trust the stock of pedigreed knowledge. It takes a lifetime of reasoning to arrive at a few simple results – we can look at the lives of those who made remarkable discoveries and see how, despite the magnificence of their contributions, their work was confined to a narrow and specialized domain.  Furthermore, they were only able to see far by standing on the shoulders of giants of the past. In benefitting from the stock of accumulated knowledge, our main task is to discriminate, to extract the gold nuggets from the mountains of dirt, and to avoid being deceived by fool’s gold. Today, as always, and in all fields of knowledge, the best path to expertise is via discipleship, unquestioning acceptance of instruction from experts. A premature application of reasoning and critical thinking leads to rejection of thoughts which contradict our prejudices, and makes learning impossible. Discipleship requires putting away preconceptions, emptying our cups, and opening ourselves to complex systems of thoughts entirely alien to anything we have ever conceived before. It is only after absorbing an alien body of knowledge that we acquire the ability to understand, reason and critique. A modern education creates multiple barriers to the pursuit of real knowledge that we desperately need to lead meaningful lives, by renaming ancient knowledge as ignorance, and by presenting us with illusions masquerading as knowledge. Like the wife of Alladin, we have gladly given away the ancient lamp for the bright and shiny modern one, without being aware of our loss. The path to recovery is long and difficult, as unlearning requires being open to possibilities and exploring directions that seem patently wrong to our modern sensibilities. It is not easy to suspend judgment and let go of what we have already learned, in order to acquire new ways of looking at the world. Yet, this is exactly what is required, if we are to learn to live, and not waste this unique and precious gift of life that has been granted to us for a brief moment only.

See also: The Secrets of Happiness, and Re-Enchanting the World. Published in The Express Tribune, 26th December, 2016.Posts on Diverse Topics: My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index .

PRELIMINARY REMARKS: Philosopher Hilary Putnam writes in “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Distinction” that there are cases where we can easily and clearly distinguish between facts and values — the objective and the subjective. However, it is wrong to think that we can ALWAYS do so. There are many sentences, especially in economic theories, where the two are “inextricably entangled” .

This is the fourth post in a sequence about Re-Reading Keynes. This post is focused on a single point which has been mentioned,  but perhaps not sufficiently emphasized earlier: the entanglement of the economic system with the economic theories about the system. Our purpose in reading Keynes is not directly to understand Keynesian theory — that is, to assess it as an economic theory in isolation, and whether or not it is valid and useful for contemporary affairs. Rather, we want to co-understand Keynesian theory and the historical context in which it was born. This is an exercise in the application of Polanyi’s methodology, which I described in excruciating detail in my paper published in WEA journal Economic Thought recently:

Asad Zaman (2016) ‘The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation.’ Economic Thought, 5.1, pp. 44-63.

I must confess that I am not very happy with the paper; I was struggling to formulate the ideas, and could not achieve the clarity that I always try for. It is a difficult read, though it expresses very important ideas — laying out the foundations for a radical new methodology which incorporates political, social and historical elements that have been discarded in conventional methodology for economics. One of the key elements of Polanyi’s methodology is the interaction between theories and history — our history generates our experiences of the world, and this experience in understood in the light of theories we generate to try to understand this experience. This obvious fact was ignored & lost due to the positivist fallacy that facts can be understood directly by themselves. The truth is that they can only be understood within the context of a (theoretical) framework. Once we use theories to understand experience, then these theories are used to shape our responses to this experience, and so these theories directly impact on history — history is shaped by theories, and theories are shaped by history. The two are “inextricably entangled.”

A key mistake of logical positivism is the attempt to separate the objective and the subjective — an idea that we have all swallowed in the course of our education. In fact reality is shaped by a complex interaction of the two. When we taste a fruit, the flavor is determined partly by the objective characteristics of the chemicals in the fruit, but also by the characteristics of the taste buds on our tongues, and ALSO by the interpretative apparatus within our brains which interprets the stimuli coming into the brains. To reduce this complex process to the external and objective characteristics of the fruit would be a great mistake. It is this mistake which is embodied in conventional economic methodology. Economists do not understand that they are very much a part of the economic system. How the economic system operates is STRONGLY influenced by the theories propounded by economists. The economy of communist Russia was created under the influence of Marxist theories, and cannot be understood without understanding Marxist theory. The operation of the US economy is strongly influenced by the dominant economic theories. Quantitative Easing, QE, is a brainchild of Bernanke, based on Friedman’s understanding of the Great Depression. QE has strongly affected economic conditions in the USA and throughout the globe. The observer cannot be detached from the system being observed.  Just taking this one methodological insight from Polanyi on board is sufficient to completely invalidate the current methodological approach used by economists.

I have a 45 minute video lecture on “The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation” which attempts to explain these methodological ideas in a more user-friendly way. This is linked below:

One of the core and central properties of markets is that they lead to increasing concentration of wealth at the top. This is because market allocations of goods and services respond to money, automatically conferring great power to those with wealth. For instance, market incentives lead to the production of luxury handbags anmythrealityd briefcases for plutocrats priced at $40,000+. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the price of one such bag can save more than 300 lives.

The extremely ugly realities of market societies are hidden from view because markets generate myths to glorify achievements, project illusions and conceal defects. Indeed, the creation of market myths is a second core and central property of markets, which is not mentioned in any current economics textbook. Market myths are crucial to the survival of market societies since knowledge of realities would lead to a revolution of the bottom 99% who are exploited by the super-rich. In this essay, we analyse a few of the central myths of market societies, and contrast them with the realities.

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This post was meant to provide a framework for further elaboration of the idea of ET1% — the Economic Theory of the top 1% — as one ingredient of a Meta-Theory of Economics. However, covering necessary preliminary background already took up more than a thousand words, so this project has been deferred for a later post. The goal of this post is to explain why we need to focus on Meta-Theoretical aspects of social science, rather than whether or not economic theories are true or false. The perspective emerges from my understanding of the Methodology of Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” [which was recently ranked as the 2nd most important book of the 20th Century in a Poll of RWER Blog Readers]

As the name indicates a Meta-Theory for Economics is a theory about economic theories. As we are all aware, economic theories evolve, change and mutate. Multiple rival conflicting and contradictory theories co-exist within the mainstream. Outside the mainstream, there are people (like myself) who claim that all of mainstream theories are fundamentally and deeply flawed.

A meta-theory studies the process by which new theories emerge. Some of the central questions for a meta-theory would be:

  • What are the circumstances which lead to the creation of new economic theories?
  • Who are the agents who create new economic theories?
  • Why are new economic theories created?
  • What leads some theories to become popular and widely accepted?
  • What leads other theories to be rejected, or neglected and ignored?

Those who refuse to think about meta-theories often commit themselves to an extremely simplistic meta-theory without realizing or explicitly acknowledging it. This simplest of meta-theories is based on the idea of “TRUTH”. According to this meta-theory, new theories are generated as part of a process of searching for the truth. A theory is adopted because it explains the observed phenomena well, and hence is likely to be true. Agents are motivated by the search for truth, and seek to improve the explanatory power of theories. New theories are created to bring wider range of phenomena within the scope of explanation. Theories which are able to explain a large range of observed phenomena become widely accepted and popular. Theories which conflict with observations are rejected and confined to the dustbin of history.

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After having examined a lot of relevant, useful and insightful material on the failure of orthodoxy, some of which that came up in the responses to my post, I have come to a conclusion that there is a viable project we could undertake together, which has the chance of creating a revolution. There are several points that need to be taken in consideration to shape the project.

Insight Number 1:

The first point comes from Edward Fullbrook’s remark that:

If Samuelson had any claim to genius it was that he understood better than anyone else that nothing in economics is nearly as important as Economics 101. Marshall, Samuelson’s target, understood it also.

Samuelson’s was the textbook which defined economics in the twentieth century. I propose that we work together on writing the textbook which will define economics in the twenty first century.

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Draft of chapter for Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics: Nature and Society. Editor Clive Spash. Forthcoming


In face of the strong conflict between market norms and social norms, peaceful co-existence is impossible. In traditional societies, markets were subordinated to society. Modern society emerged via a number of revolutions which made society subordinate to markets. This led to a reversal of traditional values of social cooperation and harmony with nature. Instead, men, nature, society became objects to be exploited for creating profits. A market society generates profits by exploiting men and nature, and requires increasing profits to sustain itself. This process has run into its limits as planetary resources are being destroyed on a scale large enough to threaten the planet. Saving the planet requires reversing the transition to modernity by subordinating markets to society. This is a difficult task.


As industrialised human society barrels down the fast track to ecological suicide, there is a well-funded campaign to spread stories that create confusion about problems such as climate change, because environmental protection interferes with corporate profits. Species of plants and animals which evolved over billions of years, and cannot be replaced, are becoming extinct at a rapidly increasing rate. Precious environmental treasures like coral reefs and rainforests are being destroyed. The cost of what has already been destroyed cannot be calculated. In addition, industrialised society is using up planetary resources at a rate which is much higher than the ability of the planet to replenish or renew. The wastes being produced by human beings are changing the composition of the atmosphere, oceans, lakes and rivers, and affecting all forms of life. How can some elite groups act as “Merchants of Doubt” (Oreskes and Conway, 2011) prepared to destroy the planet to make a profit?

Experiments show that humans have radically different sets of internalised norms for markets and society. On appeal to social norms, many will gladly volunteer to donate blood, but will refuse to give the same donation for payment. The conflict between the norms of markets and society means that the two cannot coexist peacefully. Throughout history, markets have been subordinate to society. Modern society is unique in having sought to reverse this relationship, subordinating social relations to market norms. This chapter follows the framework of Polanyi (1944), who describes the bloody battles between markets and society as the “Great Transformation”. The operation of a market society required the conversion of human beings and their habitat into marketable commodities, leading to the dissolution of society and environmental destruction. Current efforts to ‘solve’ environmental problems within the market framework fail to either recognise these fundamental conflicts or to go far enough to address the structural causal mechanisms. In line with social ecological economics [Chapter 1], I will argue that radical remedies are required to address the root causes of the problems. In particular, the great transformation needs to be reversed and the subordinate role of markets to society recognised.

One of the key theses of Polanyi (1944) is that unregulated markets are so extremely harmful to society, that society must take steps to protect itself. In order to understand the history of market societies Polanyi introduces the concept of the “double movement”—on the one hand the expansion of markets, and on the other the efforts to protect humans and Nature against harms caused by commodification. The second movement means that society always blocks complete freedom for markets, but this also means that free market ideologues can argue that any failure of capitalism was due to the failure to fully follow policies of laissez faire.

In this chapter the struggle between market societies and traditional societies is explained as occurring simultaneously on two fronts. One is the front of practice—the replacement of traditional institutions and customs by market institutions. The other is the ideological front—the practice of capitalism that requires faith in the accompanying ideology, which is often strongly opposed to natural instincts and traditional social norms.

For full article (5000 words) see: Markets and Society