IKPS Webinar

Sprawls in the park before the snow storm

A report about the IKPS webinar on „The political Trilemma of Social-Ecological Transformation – Lessons from Polanyi’s The Great Transformation“ by Lukas Tagwerker

23rd December, 2020

Advocating for a place based economy

Andreas Novy appears on screen on this December evening, behind him neatly filled shelves of books and his own computer screen is mirrowed in his glasses, creating blue lights in front of his eyes.

Linking the long term analysis with the short term analysis, says  Andreas Novy, means linking an event to its underlying dynamics. This is the specific quality of Karl Polanyi’s classic „The Great Transformation“ which Novy applies as a method for his article, a pre-version of which appeared a few years ago in the Brazilian context.

Advocating for a „place-based foundational economy“ Novy takes up the model of Dani Rodrik’s globalization trilemma: out of 1.Hyperglobalization 2.the Nation State and 3.Democracy only two at a time were compatible. Novy examines the historic globalization trilemma and re-interprets it linking the ongoing epochal changes with short term political conflicts.

The point in the article that upsets me most is Novy’s confession of history’s potential to somehow repeat itself: 

„It is possible that the errors of the 1930s, when the victory of fascism was made practically unavoidable by the liberals’ obstruction of any reform involving planning, regulation, or control, are being repeated“

Novy’s conceptualization of the current trilemma appears as a more narrow, more clear-cut trilemma. This time only one out of three options can be thought to be in place:

  1.  Liberal globalism, a kind of continuation of hyperglobalization, where the ideology of consumer sovereignty, commodification and financialization even in the foundational economy have rendered public institutions increasingly unable to provide well-being for citizens, thus paving the way for anti-liberal countermovements.
  2. Nationalistic capitalism, a reactionary countermovement against the destruction of (imaginary) „habitation“, that sustains the politics of unsustainability by committing the „civilizational rupture“ allying against human rights and climate policies. Social hierarchies are deepened in order to prolongue white supremacy and anti-egalitarian authoritarianism, the most crucial example being contemporary Brazil.
  3. Foundational ecomony based on planetary coexistence, that satisfies basic needs (health, autonomy,..) by collective provisioning rather than individual consumption. Socioeconomic democratization and common, public and regionalized provisioning of basic goods could put long-term social-ecological transformation at the centre and reconcile it with the short-term.

Andreas Novy is kneading his neck while elaborating on the trilemma and I notice behind him on the top of his studio book wall a single book shelf that is empty. I get a bit distracted by the empty book shelf and by the fact that it gives me at the same time feelings of envy and comfort.

A western-centric Trilemma?

The webinar now moves 4000 miles west, six hours back in time: in New York it is high noon and the Academic Councilor on the UN System, Franz Baumann greets the participants by announcing the arrival of the first snow storm to N.Y. in this season.

Franz Baumann is sitting in front of completely filled book shelves and starts his contribution with a diplomatic quotation from Karl Polanyi, marking the common ground from where his criticism of the just proposed ideas will follow:

„The transformation to this system from the earlier economy is so complete that it resembles more the metamorphosis of the caterpillar than any alteration that can be expressed in terms of continuous growth and development.“

Now Baumann attacks the article: the jargon of it, the „code-words, that are only understood by the members of the tribe“, not by others.

Not being an economist, some of the concepts strike Franz Baumann as „exotic“, namely: „progressive reglobalization“, „contested neoliberalism“ or „entangled territorialized forms of self-determination“. In the course of the webinar there is unfortunately no time to clarify this vocabulary.

Franz Baumann dismisses the proposed trilemma: „Three options? I see many more and I would have liked the terms defined and historically and spacially situated than just used as mantras.“

After defending notions of globalization that give space for global policies Franz Baumann dismisses the analysis of the trilemma-options again: „I rather find them western-centric.“

When denying the existence of the trilemma is a characteristic of global Liberalism, did Mr Baumann just implicitly out himself as its proponent, or would that be a logical fallacy?

Franz Baumann goes on to compare the historic transformations of the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution as „sprawls in the park“ in comparison with the convulsions that he fears will mark the end of the fossil fuel era. „We are moving into a horrendously dangerous situation, where climate tipping points will be crossed and what will happen to humanity slips out of human control. Therefore global heating is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Global heating is the unprecedented global public policy responsibility. With emphasis on 1. unprecedented 2.global 3.policy 4.responsibility.“

In his ranking of attributes the word „public“ got lost.

After having described the current „Great Acceleration“ through demography and resource-use charts, Baumann concludes almost diplomatically: “I sympathize with the concept of foundational economy, that satisfies basic needs like physical health, autonomy, preconditions for effective participation in social life, but tell that to the people in Ghana or in Nigeria or in Chad”


Who does what why and with which individual, societal and ecological consequences?

Finally the economist Judith Dellheim is then appearing on the screen from Berlin sharing five recommendations regarding Andreas Novy’s article. Firstly Judith Dellheim poses a question in honour of Karl Polanyi’s analysis of specific detail: Who does what why and with which individual, societal and ecological consequences? The analysis of actors in global power relations and their metabolism with nature need more elaboration in order to develop strategies for a refoundation of the economy.

Secondly Dellheim recommends to re-read the Brundtland-report in the light of the situation of the global poor and with a focus on risks and potentials of new technologies. Dealing with the climate crisis while neglecting the crisis of biodiversity loss means to support those forces that are interested in Big Tech projects for highly centralized production. Local food producers depend on biodiversity though.

Her third recommendation invites to adopt a fresh look at history from the point of view of the majority of the global population, the historically colonized. Furthermore Dellheim asks us to re-think the terms „globalization“ as well as „deglobalization“. She views the former as a „global process of dissolution of the boundaries of primary and secondary accumulation“, the appropriation of surplus value, of bioresources, labor forces, brain drain, data, interest and debt repayment.

Finally Judith Dellheim recommends to look out for actors who could be possible alliance-partners to foster the „foundational economy based on planetary coexistence“, like Buen Vivir, Mother Earth, Commoning or the ecosocialist manifesto and she suggests to develop common actions and campaigns with them for the UN binding treaty or an international Corona tax for example.

A webinar about a subject-specific economic article, that is discussed also by non-economists, makes it adventurous to follow the language used in the arguments. I wonder if defending his ideas more rigorously against accusations of being „exotic“ could have helped opening a space for a common understanding of Andreas Novy’s „The political Trilemma of Social-Ecological Transformation“. But as announced, there will be more Webinars on this topic. Perhaps Novy will then be able to refute these accusations. 

Lukas Tagwerker

Austrian Journalist & Radio Producer
Works at the Austrian National Radio Station FM4 in Vienna

Watch the Webinar here: