The Contemporary Relevance of Karl Polanyi
The political economist Karl Polanyi, author of the 1944 volume The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, is arguably better known today than during his lifetime. The time has come for a major biography of Polanyi, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left by Gareth Dale. It is thoroughly excellent and provides the occasion to ponder the relevance of Polanyi today.
His book was a response to more than a century of globalization that fell apart in the 1920’s and 30’s, culminating in the Great Depression, Hitler’s fascism and World War II – all of which came to be seen, in the boom times of the 50s and 60s, as merely bad old history. Meanwhile in recent times the renewed wave of globalization following that War went seriously awry in the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the emergence (again) of the fascistic alt.right, with the unimaginable triumph of Trump in America, the very centre of global capitalism. Economics had wandered off to the right and was less than useless on such matters. Politics had to be brought into that universe and Polanyi’s progressive economics a.k.a. political economy was suddenly relevant again, there for the taking.
By 2001 when a new paperback edition of The Great Transformation was published there was sufficient unease about the drift of things global that the progressive Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz was asked to write a new Foreword, and he began, in true Polanyi style, by citing the reaction, the progressive countermovement, evident in the public marches against international financial institutions in Seattle in 1999.
Now, in 2018, things have degenerated sufficiently that it makes sense to go back and see what Polanyi saw as the explanation for fascism and how that might cast light on today’s darkness. Ironically, Hungary, from whence Polanyi came, has, as I write, re-elected to a third consecutive term, a right populist alt.right government with a stunning two-thirds majority.
For Polanyi, famously, there was a double movement in the annals of political economy: the driving force of the market creating losers as well as winners, as movement, the responding force of democracy as counter-movement. If the outcome became one of stalemate, there would be crises without a government able to resolve them, a situation much worsened historically by the rules imposed by the international gold standard. The deadlock created an opening for extremism, of the revolutionary left as in the Soviet Union as reaction to World War I, of fascism as in Italy and Germany, with the latter as reaction to the former. Each in its own way meant the end of democracy. Out of all this came the barbarism of World War II.
Today, the gold standard has been replaced by the iron laws of globalization. The extreme neoliberalism of the American government precluded offering protection, or assistance, to the losers, notably in the American rust belt who became the core support for Trump. We are now observing a threat to the American way of conducting politics, of American democracy, analogous to that of the 1930s. The creative response then was the New Deal, its legacy now exhausted. Today it is Trumpism, still in its early days, the fullness of which is uncertain, as is the fate of America and thereby of the rest of us. At the same time, similar forces led to Brexit, the consequences of which, for Europe and, again, the rest of us, remain to be seen. Polanyi sees unresolved national issues – open sores, bleeding wounds, like anti-semitism and the humiliation of the settlement of World War I in Germany – as critically important to the mobilization of the masses to fascism. For Trumpism, racism, white nationalism, with deep roots in America, is manifestly the rallying cry. Stay tuned in, CNN or Fox, watch one, conjure up the other, think like Polanyi.
Summary of the Great Transformation by Polanyi
“The central theme of the book is a historical description of the emergence of the market economy as a competitor to the traditional economy. The market economy won this battle, and ideologies supporting the market economy won the corresponding battle in the marketplace of ideas. Today, the victory of the market economy is so complete that it has become difficult for us to imagine societies where the market does not play a central role. Polanyi argues that contrary to popular belief, markets have been of marginal importance in traditional societies throughout history. The market economy emerged after a prolonged battle against these traditions. As Polanyi clarifies, this is not a good development. The commodification of human beings and land required by the dominance of the market has done tremendous damage to society and environment.”