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Polanyi in China

Polanyi all over the World

Polanyi in China

In 2007, the first simplified Chinese translation of The Great Transformation was published in mainland China. Today, Chinese scholars not only refer to Polanyi’s theory in order to explain the problems in China’s reform and opening-up process, but also develop a global vision and try to reflect on the structural problems with modern complex societies. The 20 years’ research process can be divided into three stages, as discussed below by Zhang Runkun.

31st of May (Article was written in September 2020) 

Zhang Runkun

It was at the end of the 20th century that Polanyi’s work, which has drawn increasing attention on a global scale, was introduced to China alongside with implementation of the reform and opening-up policy which helped to emancipate people’s mind and facilitate global academic communication. In 2007, the first simplified Chinese translation of The Great Transformation was published in mainland China. Today, Chinese scholars not only refer to Polanyi’s theory in order to explain the problems in China’s reform and opening-up process, but also to develop a global vision and try to reflect on the structural problems within modern complex societies. The 20 years’ research process can be divided into three stages, as discussed below.

The First Stage: The Early Introduction

When Polanyi´s thought was first introduced into China, it coincided with the development of China’s reform and opening up to a more in-depth stage. The most important sign of this stage in practice was the beginning of China’s economic and ideological liberalization. A socialist market economy started taking shape, signifying the transition of economic institution from a planned economy to a market economy and the expansion of marketization. However, “socialist market economy” contains the dual dimensions of “socialism” and “market economy” that seem to be somewhat contradictory on the surface, which raises many problems in the practical process of socialist construction. These problems are reflected in the ideological field as discussions about liberalism and socialism. Such discussions have dual characteristics: on the one hand, Chinese scholars have never abandoned the Marxist tradition, nor have they given up their criticism of liberalism; on the other hand, Chinese scholars have begun to rethink “what is socialism”, thinking about how socialism, which includes a market economy and expects to be integrated into a globalized world, is made possible. These questions are not convincingly answered by traditional dogmatic Marxism. In this context, along with the wave of “mind emancipation”, some left-wing Chinese scholars with global perspectives brought Polanyi’s work into academic circles in China. They believed that Polanyi’s issues fit the theoretical and practical problems of China.

During this stage, some works of translation and compilation were undertaken. In 1989, the first Chinese version of The Great Transformation was published by Taiwan Yuan-Liou Publishing Company, but it did not evoke much response at the time, and there was also little research on Polanyi’s thoughts in mainland China. Zhu Guohong’s Sociological Approach to the Economic Phenomena (1998) and Economic Sociology (1999) contain fragmentary introductions to Polanyi’s main works. Zhu Guohong provides extraordinary theoretical resources to reflection on China’s social and economic conditions, but Polanyi’s thoughts have not yet become the protagonist in these two relatively general works. In the new century, Polanyi’s thoughts gradually attracted the attention of Chinese scholars. In 2001, the book Anti-Market Capitalism (edited by Xu Baoqiang and Qu Jingdong) was published. It contains some major chapters of Polanyi’s works, including The Great Transformation, Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies, Trade and Market in the Early Empires. The book is prefaced by Wang Hui who offers insightful comments on Polanyi’s thoughts.

In addition to the translation and anthologies, the research on Polanyi’s thought was on its way. During this stage, the research involved three major concerns:

First, Chinese scholars took their interest in Polanyi’s critique of liberalism. In the preface of Anti-Market Capitalism, Wang Hui grasps one of the key issues Polanyi deals with, that is, the debate between liberalism and socialism. Lin Yi briefly introduces Polanyi’s economic thoughts in Polanyi’s Thoughts on Institutional Economics and Its Enlightenment (2001), affirming that Polanyi, like Marx, unveils the historical characteristics of modern capitalist civilization. Lin Yi further points out that Polanyi reminds us that the market economy bearing western imprints is not the sole possible model of a market economy. In the process of reform and opening up, he adds, Chinese scholars ought to avoid blind application of Western economics and figure out a way the system of market economy can be adapted to the social structure of modern China. Deng Weizhi and Qin Qin express similar views in To Find K. Polanyi’s “Reciprocity Economy”: A Discussing about the Paradigm of Market Transition Theory (2004). They argue that the understanding of the market cannot be based only on the view of “western market economies”; it is necessary to use Polanyi’s discussion of reciprocity and redistribution to understand the real market, which is particularly important for understanding China’s market economy in the context of reform and opening up and the violent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Second, Chinese scholars who have been deeply influenced by Marxism attempted to elucidate how Polanyi’s thoughts are linked and mutually complementary to Marxism. In Wang Hui’s preface, on the one hand, he clearly notices the difference between Polanyi and Marx. On the other hand, he also tries to understand Polanyi with the help of Marx’s theory. He submits three similarities and one difference between Polanyi and Marx. First of all, Polanyi’s “double movement”, as is described in The Great Transformation, which has destroyed the stable state of the 19th century, is exactly the process of Marx’s “natural laws of capitalist production that result in social antagonisms”[1]. Secondly; Marx’s criticism of Proudhon (“He fails to see that economic categories are but abstractions of those real relations, that they are truths only in so far as those relations continue to exist.”)[2] is very similar to Polanyi’s distinction between the substantive and formal meanings of the economy[3]. Third, Polanyi’s method is to return to the actual economic process or economic experience, which saves troubles emerging from the formal economic discipline or ideology. This method is especially suitable for analyzing the actual process of China’s transformation from planning to market. And this method is also very close to the method of inquiry described by Marx in Grundrisse and The Capital, notwithstanding the obvious difference in the method of presentation. Wang Hui also points out that Polanyi does not follow Marx’s optimistic belief in class struggle, and Polanyi has criticized Marxist historical determinism.

Third, Polanyi’s thoughts are increasingly being used to explain the reality of China. Wang Hui points out that the debates between liberalism and socialism should be placed in the context of China’s reform and opening up, the establishment of a market economy, and the world market, with the purpose of finding a theoretical framework and inspirations from Polanyi’s thoughts to respond to the misunderstanding of Chinese conditions at that time. Wang Hui believes that Polanyi should be highly valued in the controversy between liberalism and socialism in the last decade of the 20th century in China. Some scholars argue that even after the reform and opening up, China is constrained by a so-called “shortage economy”, which means that the balance between supply and demand is ascribed not to free market but to the residual influence of the planned economy. In this regard, Wang Hui points out that these scholars have made two methodological mistakes. On one hand, they misunderstood or selectively ignored the phenomenon of price rigidity that also appears in Western economies. On the other hand, they failed to grasp the institutional conditions of the economy and the market that balance supply and demand. Misled by methodologies and limited by ideology, they are far from comprehending the actual operation of the economy, let alone the reforms and market mechanism in China.

The Second Stage: The Research of Core Concepts

With the deepening of reform, the opening up and the rapid development of the market economy, Polanyi’s theory became a wellspring for Chinese scholars to understand emerging social issues. In this stage, the range of reflected themes is expanded. Scholars no longer just reflect on the construction of China’s market economy resultant from the reform and opening up. At the same time, they also grasp the “double movement” as a clue to further study the interaction between market and society, trying to explore the emergence of social problems and the efforts to solve them. During this stage, Chinese scholars’ research on Polanyi’s thoughts shows two trends. The first is to further introduce Polanyi’s theory of social transformation; the second is to research China’ reality through a deeper grasp of Polanyi’s key concepts.

Regarding the first trend, with the publication of the translated version of The Great Transformation in Mainland China in 2007 and further studies on Polanyi’s thought in Chinese academic circles, Karl Polanyi gained greater popularity and influence. To be more specific, efforts were made in two fundamental spheres: One is a new round of introduction and reflection on the latest published Chinese version of The Great Transformation. Related introductory articles emerge in an endless stream, which continue to today. Bao Gangsheng’s Reflections on Karl Polanyi’s Nine Propositions: The Great Transformation Revisited (2014), as an excellent example of these articles, systematically summarizes The Great Transformation. The other is to analyze a series of core concepts in Polanyi’s theory of social transformation. In addition to a brief introduction to The Great Transformation, Bao Gangsheng’s article also discusses the concept of “embeddedness” and “double movement”. He emphasizes that the political dimension should not be ignored when talking about the “embedded” relationship between economy and society. The counter-movement stimulated by a laissez-faire economy is often realized through political means. The “double movement” is not just a question in the economic and social fields.

Regarding the second trend, after Chinese scholars have absorbed Polanyi’s key concepts, they apply them to research on China, which can be subsumed into three main themes.

The first theme is the “double movement” and the transformation of modern Chinese society. In addition to Zhu Guohong, Wang Hui, Xu Baoqiang, and Qu Jingdong, Wang Shaoguang is also one of the earliest scholars in China to read and introduce Polanyi’s works. He talks about the concept and the reality of the “double movement” in the article The Great Transformation: Two-way Movement in China since the 1980s (2008) and the book Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and China’s Great Transformation (2008). It is worth mentioning that Wang Shaoguang’s research on Polanyi mainly grasps the economic and sociological significance, and conducts an in-depth comparative study on the actual situation of China’s reform and opening up. Under the framework of thinking about why and how the “double movement” emerges in China, Wang Shaoguang divides the historical period since the founding of People’s Republic of China (1949) into three parts and highlights the corresponding social and economic policies in these three periods to sketch out the evolvement of the “disembedded” relationship between economy and society, and how the “re-embedding” process is promoted. The first period is from 1949 to 1984, which is called “the period of ethical economy” when the market played a negligible role in social life. Economic relations were completely linked to social-political relations, and all policies were policies in both economic and social sense. The second period is from 1985 to 1998 when the market economy developed rapidly and a large number of economic policies appeared. During the reform of China’s market economy, the “disembedded” phenomenon occurred in form of marketization of medical care, employment and the care for the aged, and thus triggered the counter-movement in the 1990s. Social policies were lacking in this period. The third period started in 1999. Social policies gradually appeared in China, which means efforts were made to re-embed the economy into society through “de-commodification” (showing as the emergence and improvement of unemployment insurance, medical insurance and endowment insurance, etc.). Wang Shaoguang puts these three periods into Polanyi’s “double movement” framework. We can clearly see that his research on Polanyi’s thought pays more attention on the criticism of market economy. However, he pays less attention to the vision that Polanyi’s transformation really pointed to. Perhaps because he attaches more importance to Polanyi’s identity as an economist and sociologist, and ignores the philosophical part of Polanyi’s thought. Although he has noticed the discussion of the ideals of socialism in the final chapter of The Great Transformation, and is also familiar with Polanyi’s ideal of social freedom, he does not fruitfully discuss the problem of freedom and socialism. Thus, he seems to have overestimated the impact of “counter-movements” in his research. In fact, we cannot achieve Polanyi’s ideal only through counter-movement. The operation of the complex society is much more complicated than the vision of a “double movement”. Not only that, Wang Shaoguang’s understanding of the transformation in The Great Transformation may be problematic, but this is basically due to the tremendous and rapid changes that have taken place in China in the past 40 years, which cannot perfectly correspond to Polanyi’s transition era.

The second theme focuses on “self-protection of society” and the socialist market economy system with Chinese characteristics. Meng Jie grasps the issue of commodification that Polanyi paid particular attention to in the article The Commodification of Labor Force and the Development of Employment Relationship Since the Reform: Polanyi and Marx’s Perspective, and enters the discussion of the double movement and social protection issues. Meng Jie provides a lot of empirical evidence, emphasizing that Polanyi’s “double movement” can be used to understand China’s reform and opening up and the construction of a market economy. It is worth noticing that the social protection movement does not only come from state power; attention should also be paid to the power from the bottom of society. This perspective advances Wang Shaoguang’s interpretation of the “double movement” (Wang Shaoguang is mainly concerned with social policy, but he does not see the power of the lower classes). Meng Jie argues that for Polanyi, the protecting movement involves almost all classes whose interests are affected in the process of market expansion. Therefore, Polanyi’s theory has a comprehensive perspective that is more suitable for analyzing China’s unique situation. Meng Jie’s point of view is further explained in 2020. In the article The State Theory in Socialist Political Economics with Chinese Characteristics: The Genealogy, the Object and the System he points out that the “double movement” is also present in the socialist market economy system with Chinese characteristics, appearing as the development of the Chinese labor market and social protection against the commodification of labor. The latter is a social protection movement brought about by state power, which maintains the healthy development of the market economy and is one of the Chinese characteristics of a socialist market economy.

The third theme is the critique of liberal market utopia and the interpretation of the concrete connotation of the socialist road. Chen Gang expresses his criticism of Chinese economic liberalists in Polanyi’s Criticism of Liberal Market Utopia (2009). He thinks that Polanyi has already revealed that the laissez-faire market is a utopia. Even if the market can bring great economic efficiency, the laissez-faire market will only create what Polanyi called a satanic mill. In 2008, China’s reform and opening up process has gone through 30 years, and the question of whether reforms should be further liberalizing is a hot issue in academic circles. Chen Gang accurately grasps the admiration of radical liberal scholars for the free market, but he also emphasizes that the market should be re-embedded into society. This re-embedding process requires the establishment of social values, the cultivation of a cultural atmosphere that respect human dignity, and the use of fairness, justice, humanity, democracy and freedom. It can be seen from the criticism of liberal scholars in this article (although it is not explicitly written in the article) that the 30-year reform and opening up is not just a “double movement” process (in this sense, obviously, the next stage of research must go beyond the limits of Wang Shaoguang’s research approach). It is not a simple movement of liberalization and corresponding regulation. The true significance of the future-oriented reform and opening up lies in the answer to what is socialism and how to build socialism. China’s socialist construction includes the use of capital and globalization, but it is also trying to tame the market and construct a society with freedom. These are precisely the most significant issues that Polanyi has to deal with in Freedom in a Complex Society, the last chapter of The Great Transformation. These are also the issues that the world is facing to, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. The answer to these questions is the key task for the Chinese scholars in the third stage.

The Third Stage: Thinking about the Fundamental Problems of the Modern Society

In recent years, the research of Polanyi in Chinese academic circles has shown a new trend. Under the influence of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, along with the continued development of the crisis, scholars have undertaken more in-depth reflections on neoliberalism and globalization, as well as explanations and discussions on China’s socialism. At this stage, the main focus of Chinese Polanyi researchers is no longer to directly use Polanyi’s concept or theoretical framework to analyze Chinese reality, but to use Polanyi’s perspective and theoretical resources to re-understand the internal crisis of capitalism, exploring possible ways to respond to the fundamental problems of modern society.

The research at this stage first appears as a new round of explanation and research on Polanyi’s thought, showing three aspects. First, Chinese scholars’ understanding of Polanyi is no longer limited to The Great Transformation. For Polanyi-inspired researchers, The Great Transformation is not only a very enlightening work, but it may also become a shackle. Under the background of the new era, with the Chinese version of For a New West (2017) is published, researchers pay more attention to Polanyi’s rich resources outside of The Great Transformation, and also notice the broader issues Polanyi has discussed. Second, the economics, sociology, and philosophy in Polanyi’s thought are all highly valued. In previous studies, philosophical research was not really carried out. The issues of socialism and freedom discussed by Polanyi has not been discussed in depth. Scholars have paid attention to the economical or sociological discussion between Polanyi and Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Max Weber, etc., but few scholars have studied the theoretical connection between Polanyi and Marx, Habermas, etc. These missing studies are supplemented at the current stage. Third, scholars move from the study of Chinese issues to a global perspective, trying to respond to the fundamental problems of modern society. At this stage, China’s reality is no longer just China’s reality, but turns into the Chinese reality in a global perspective. The domain of problems that scholars think about also expands to resolving the internal structural problems of capitalism and finding a prospect for the modern society. As a result, the Chinese scholar’s attention and the international academic community’s renewed attention to Polanyi’s thought begin to echo each other.

The research mentioned above mainly include four items.

The first is the inherent problems of a complex society and the structural transformation of capitalism. In 2014, Wang Xingfu launches his research on the issue of “complex modernity” in his article Complex Modernity and Social Inclusion. The article attempts to incorporate Polanyi’s critique of the market system and the discussion of freedom in a complex society into Wang Xingfu’s own reflections. In the article, he points out that Hegel’s critique of civil society receives a strong response in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Like Hegel, Polanyi also believes that the market system has two important negative characteristics: one is the loss of the ethical, and the other is arbitrariness. For Hegel or Polanyi, even though the market is an indispensable institution in modern society, it is morally problematic and politically harmful. Wang Xingfu points out that although the transformation that Polanyi expects after World War II have not occured, and under the hurricane of neoliberal globalization, society has once again been overwhelmed by the market; the welfare state has been overwhelmed by the market society. That is, the human society once again became what Polanyi refers to as the “satanic mill”. This is the source of many current problems that mankind is facing. Wang Xingfu re-emphasizes that “freedom in a complex society” is the biggest problem of modernity in the international academic workshop “Socialism: An Immanent Dimension of Modern Society” in 2019. He points out that the understanding of Polanyi should not be limited to his critique of liberal market society, but we should also pay attention to constructive aspects in Polanyi’s thoughts. Today, the significance of the latter is to provide clues for thought and to re-think problems of modernity: in a modern world in which a society independent of the state has emerged, is it possible for humans to tame the market? How should the principle of democracy be settled in a modern society? Is it possible to have freedom in the society? In short, how can we embrace both the principle of freedom and the principle of society in the modern world? Wang Xingfu points out that it is necessary to introduce Habermas’s theoretical resources on this issue. In particular, the radical democracy in Habermas’s sense can be connected with Polanyi’s vision of social integration and they can work together to achieve freedom and democracy in a complex society.

The second is the “counter-movement” in the context of the neoliberal capitalist crisis. Zhang Xiaoshuang, in the article Restatement of Polanyi’s Contemporary Significance: Why Marx’s Theory of the State Is Important, points out that the conflict between democracy and freedom under neoliberal conditions stimulates the rise of some radical movements on the one hand, and on the other hand, the possibility of a resurgence of neo-fascism. That reminds us that it is extremely important to re-read Polanyi’s discussion of the repositioning of markets, freedom and democracy under socialist conditions, in consideration of the current condition that the failure of neoliberalism is already clear. Liang Xuecun expresses a similar view in the article Radical Politics in the Tensions of Globalization: The Built-in Conflicts among Capital, State, and Man, and further emphasizes that if the economy continues to pursue progress in a “disembedded” manner, then this will not only create a group of “outcasts”, and their resistance will also lead these outcasts to adopt extreme, violent, and anti-democratic ways to resist. The decline of democratic politics is within view. These so-called outcasts have begun to form a certain strength all over the world. Liang Xuecun points out that the politics of the 21st century must consider such a problem: is the current global capitalism so powerful and all-dominant that ordinary people, labor organizations, civil society and nation-states must obey without any alternative?

The third is the Western left-wing social movement and its dilemma from Polanyi’s perspective. For Polanyi’s readers in China, who are mainly left-wing scholars and scholars who sympathize with Marxism, there are some questions here: how to understand the difference between the “counter-movement” and the left-wing social movement in the context of the impact of neoliberalism and the continuous emergence of social problems? How to understand forms of socialism under different political, social and cultural backgrounds? These are important issues that the Chinese scholars ignored in the first two stages, but it is the focus in the current stage. These issues are of course highly related to previous research, but they have already transcended the scope of the previous topic. As far as the left-wing movement is concerned, a Chinese scholar has translated Nancy Fraser’s A Triple Movement? Parsing the Politics of Crisis after Polanyi into Chinese. The situation and related theoretical reflections of the left-wing social movement have entered the horizon of Chinese researchers.

The fourth is to re-interpret the concept and concrete connotation of socialism. The other pole that corresponds to the left-wing social movement is that we try to give a new interpretation of socialism. Some excellent Chinese scholars are trying to deal with the issues of socialism and freedom in articles and presentations of international conferences. These are very meaningful efforts. There are few articles or books at present, but the prospect of research has already emerged. At present, the Chinese society, with the process of continuously deepening reforms, is still in transformation, and Chinese politicians and scholars are also trying to provide answers about the present and the future of socialism.

[1] See: Preface to the First German Edition, in: Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol 35, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996, p9.
[2] See: Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, in: Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol 38, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1982, p100.
[3] See: The Economy as Instituted Process, in: Trade and Market in the Early Empires, Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, Harry W. Pearson ed., USA: The Free Press, 1957, p243-270.

Zhang Runkun

Zhang Runkun is doctoral student at School of Philosophy, Fudan University. He is interested in Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi's critique on market society

More ‘Polanyi all over the World’: 

Zhang Runkun on the Importance of Polanyi’s work in China. 31st of May.
Edward Webster on the importance for Polanyi’s work in Japan. 19th of October.
Chikako Nakayama on the importance for Polanyi’s work in Japan. 5th of September.
Nils Brandsma on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Sweden. 31st of July.
David Bond and John Hultgren on the importance of Polanyi’s work in the US. 30th of June.
Attila Melegh on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Hungary. 30th of May.
Claire Baker and Alan Scott on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Australia. 25th of April.
Patricia Villen and Bruno de Conti on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Brazil and Latin America. 25th of March.

Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the Capitalist Society

Karl Polanyi Visiting Professorship

Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the capitalist society: intellectual traditions, theoretical approaches, and visions for the future

Laudatio at the inauguration event of the 1st Viennese Karl Polanyi visiting professor on 4th May 2021, Vienna City Hall by Brigitte Aulenbacher

7th May, 2021

It is a great honour—and an equally great challenge—to deliver this speech in recognition of Nancy Fraser’s rich and multifarious work. And I am delighted to be doing so on behalf of the International Karl Polanyi Society. The last time my colleagues and I from the International Karl Polanyi Society met Nancy Fraser was two years ago. It was at an event at Bennington College in Vermont on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Karl Polanyi’s magnum opus The Great Transformation, which he had written at the college. It perhaps came as no surprise to those who know Nancy Fraser when she said at that event that she would in fact consider herself as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Marxian’ rather than ‘Polanyian’. It would have probably been just as unsurprising had she said, for example, that she considered herself a ‘feminist’.

At the time, we had no idea that, before too long, a visiting professorship in Karl Polanyi’s name would be created in Vienna—the city that had such an impact on his life and work—and that we would have the tremendous honour and pleasure of welcoming Nancy Fraser as our very first visiting professor. But how does this fit together: an internationally renowned author and researcher, who has contributed decisively to the ongoing rediscovery of Karl Polanyi’s work and made it accessible for constructive discussion, yet who epitomises so much more?

In this brief address I will try to illustrate how Nancy Fraser’s oeuvre drives the discussion forward, the discussion which we seek to encourage in the spirit of Polanyi and through the newly established visiting professorship in Vienna as well as a lecture series, this year’s motto of which is: ‘Countermovements: putting the economy in its place’. I shall do so by presenting some unique aspects that highlight the many facets of Nancy Fraser’s work.  

Intellectual Traditions

Nancy Fraser is a social philosopher and effortlessly crosses the boundaries between disciplines. At times we encounter thoughts and ideas related to political science, at other times to sociology, alongside her philosophical reflections. What remains constant however, is that her ideas are always rooted in long-standing intellectual traditions. As the internationally renowned representative of critical theory that she is, Nancy Fraser has always sought to engage with Jürgen Habermas (Fraser 1992, 2015). Her theory of justice—rooting in feminist research (Fraser 1996, 2001)—developed out of the controversy with Axel Honneth and her critiques of the limits of his theory of recognition (Fraser/Honneth 2003). Her analysis of capitalism and society is strongly influenced by Marx, we find Polanyi’s work inscribed in her theory of the contemporary capitalist society, accompanied by reference to Antonio Gramsci—and in her ‘conversation in critical theory’ with Rahel Jaeggi she brings all these distinct intellectual traditions together (Fraser/Jaeggi 2018). So, can we in fact identify a common theme?

In my view, her ultimate objective, as she spelled out with Axel Honneth in the tradition of critical theory, is to ‘conceptualise capitalist society as a “totality”’ (Fraser/Honneth 2003, p. 10). Her aim—and indeed, that of the various intellectual traditions listed above, albeit each in its own distinctive way—is to discern the social structures and interrelationships that cause the ecological, economic, social, cultural and political crises we have witnessed over the past few decades and which have so far had a considerable impact on the 21st century (Fraser/Jaeggi 2018).

“According to Nancy Fraser, capitalism as such, regarding both its emergence and various forms of manifestation, cannot be separated from sexism and racism.”

Understanding this development of society, the feminist Nancy Fraser explains, requires a broadening of the perspective on capitalism and society. We need an analysis of capitalism that regards not only class inequalities, but also the dimensions of gender and race as constitutive of this social formation (Fraser 2018a). According to Nancy Fraser, capitalism as such, regarding both its emergence and various forms of manifestation, cannot be separated from sexism and racism. In this sense, capitalism is neither compatible with the idea which Nancy Fraser—well ahead of her time—introduced to the discussion in the 1990s: the organisation of society according to the ‘universal caregiver’ principle, a conception of humanity and idea of man which aspire, in keeping with ‘anti-poverty’, ‘anti-exploitation’, ‘anti-androcentrism’, ‘equality of respect’, etc. (Fraser 1994, p. 610; see also Fraser 1996), for all people to be able to care for themselves and others. Nor is capitalism conceivable without colonialism and slavery, a circumstance that is currently being condemned by the Black Lives Matter movement and has led Nancy Fraser to speak of ‘racialized capitalism’ (Fraser 2018b, 2018c).

In my understanding, Nancy Fraser seeks to develop a feminist and intersectional theory of justice and an analysis and critique of capitalism that traces the relations of dominance and causes of crisis to the economy and the relation between economy, ecology and society, while at the same time pursuing emancipatory change.

Theory of Justice

Nancy Fraser’s (2001, 2003, 2006, 2007) theory of justice, developed at the beginning of this century, is highly relevant and topical, as we shall see in the following. I will venture to highlight some of its key aspects here. In her widely acknowledged concept of social justice, she recombines what has been separated historically: the topics of redistribution and recognition, commonly more closely associated with the ‘old Left’ or the ‘new Left’ under the label of class politics or identity politics, respectively (Fraser/Honneth 2003, pp. 8; Fraser 2009, p. 481). And she reflects on the issue of the ‘representation’ of people in a globalised world, the nation-state-based structure of which does not provide for the participation of all people, even in democracies (Fraser 2007). Nancy Fraser’s ‘three-dimensional’ concept of social justice focuses on economy, culture and politics as the domains that structure and determine the practice of social life (Fraser 2004, p. 19, Fraser 2007). It is where the decisions concerning the redistribution of wealth and goods, the recognition of diversity and the opportunities for influencing the destinies of society are made. A just society, according to Fraser (2003, p. 55), can be measured by the extent to which the norm of ‘participatory parity’ of all members of society has been established. The path to such a society is marked by struggles for redistribution, recognition and representation, in the course of which marginalised and discriminated groups in society have to claim their right to participation in the face of institutional obstacles. Fraser’s ‘perspectivist dualism’ states that questions of redistribution always also entail a dimension of recognition and vice versa, and the dialogical and deliberative negotiation of issues of redistribution, recognition and representation is without alternative in a democratic society. The ‘political sphere serves […] as a kind of stage on which the struggles for redistribution and recognition take place’ (Fraser 2007, p. 351) and where the question of who is entitled to make which demands is determined and new forms of democratic participation must be developed.

Theory of Capitalism

With regard to Marx and Polanyi, Nancy Fraser argues ‘why two Karls are better than one’, for ‘each of these Karls affords some indispensable insights for understanding capitalist crisis’ (Fraser 2018d, p. 67). According to Nancy Fraser, society is suffering from a fundamental contradiction inherent in capitalism. Building on Marx, she defines this contradiction as follows: the accumulation-driven dynamic of the capitalist mode of production destroys the very foundations of social and ecological reproduction on which it relies for its own functioning (Fraser 2016, 2018a). Here, her perspective focuses on the relations of ownership and exploitation, which subordinate humanity and nature to the logic of capital valorisation and accumulation and which is where the appropriation of surplus value and the wealth redistribution in favour of the 1 % takes place. Yet this Karl (Marx), she argues, is too fixated on inner-economic processes. Nancy Fraser considers the other Karl (Polanyi), by contrast, to be the best diagnostician of crisis of our time. His concept of ‘fictitious commodities’, according to which the destructive commodification of land, labour and money in line with the requirements of the ‘self-regulating markets’ leads to the ‘demolition of society’ (Polanyi 2001, pp. 71ff), explains the more recent ecological, (finance-)economic and social crises which have proven to be politically momentous for some time (Fraser 2012). To some extent, however, Nancy Fraser is at odds with this Karl as well. Even though he does address the relation between economy and society, society seems to remain a ‘black box’ (Fraser 2018d, 71, see also Fraser 2012).

“Yet this Karl (Marx), she argues, is too fixated on inner-economic processes. Nancy Fraser considers the other Karl (Polanyi), by contrast, to be the best diagnostician of crisis of our time.”

Correspondingly, Nancy Fraser’s own approach differs. The decision about what is to be organised in a marketised, private-commercial, familial or state-coordinated form, and in what way this is linked to social inequalities and occurs not only in the economy or in the relation between economy and society. It occurs also in ‘border struggles’ that develop along the ‘social institutional order’ of capitalism (Fraser 2018d, p.72, see also Fraser 2018a) and are closely linked to the division of labour. While Polanyi (2001, pp. 79f.) considers history to be the result of a ‘double movement’, that is, the ‘movement’ of the market-fundamentalist commodification of land, labour and money and the ‘countermovements’ through which society seeks to protect itself from the consequences of market dynamics, Nancy Fraser (2012), proposes her concept of the ‘triple movement’, which is close to her conception of social justice. This concept includes—besides the Polanyian double movement—those social protests and struggles that are neither of the Marxian type (i.e. directed against exploitation) nor of the Polanyian type (i.e. for the protection against the consequences of market fundamentalism), but which pursue the goal of ‘emancipation’ in the sense of recognition and may be linked to a critique of exploitation and the dynamics of the market, but not necessarily so.

The Analysis of Contemporary Crises

Nancy Fraser sparks debate. I would like to illustrate this based on two specific examples. The first pertains to populism, the second, to feminism with regard to the present and the future.

With respect to populism, Nancy Fraser (2019a, pp. 11ff.) emphasises the path from ‘progressive’ to ‘reactionary’ and ultimately to ‘hyperreactionary neo-liberalism’, not only in the United States. In her view, these developments were, and continue to be—before, during and after the financial crisis—the cause of economic, ecological and social crises and of the intensification of social inequalities and divisions, while also leading to far-reaching shifts in the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Alongside the rise of anti-democratic forces, the latter includes the destabilisation of the political institutions which the capitalist market economy relies on for its functioning—given that it does not exist independently from society, as Karl Polanyi (2001, 1979) made clear. To Nancy Fraser, ‘today’s crisis of democracy is a dimension of the capitalist crisis’ (Fraser 2019b, p. 82), as neoliberalism is stretched to its limits. Drawing on Gramsci, she speaks in his words of an ‘interregnum’, in which ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’ (Fraser 2019a). This goes along with a ‘hegemonic gap—and the struggle to fill it’ (Fraser 2019a, p. 18). As regards the chances of managing to form a ‘counterhegemonic bloc’ (Gramsci) in light of a society shaken by crisis, she provocatively states that the current situation ‘leaves progressive populism as the likeliest candidate’ (Fraser 2019a, p. 30). To her, redistribution and recognition are topics through which ‘progressive populism’ can take effect both subjectively and objectively, reach people and thus change conditions, considering the existential social uncertainties felt by large parts of the population and the struggles discriminated groups face to assert their rights.

Regarding my second example and to Nancy Fraser (2009), the history of neoliberalism is also one of the co-optation of feminism. Policies of gender equality in the context of the given economic order have helped only very few women to climb up the social/professional ladder and achieve real success, while the ‘99%’ suffer the consequences of the economic, ecological, social and political crises. Nancy Fraser has provided inspiring contributions to the debate across a wide range of feminist and intersectional critiques of capitalism, always with the objective of inverting relations that are the wrong way round—to paraphrase Marx—and reversing the subordination of social-ecological reproduction to economic production (Arruzza/Bhattacharya/Fraser 2019). With regard to our motto: this also includes ‘putting the economy in its place’ in society, instead of—in the words of Karl Polanyi (2001, p. 79)—degrading society to the status of an ‘accessory of the economic system’. To Nancy Fraser, ‘progressive populism’ is not a ‘stable endpoint. Progressive populism could end up being transitional—a way station en route to some new postcapitalist form of society’. (Fraser 2019, p. 39)

The Vision for the Future

Nancy Fraser’s work is pervaded by a holistic view on economic, social, cultural and political claims to participation and egalitarian distribution, equal recognition and participation.

In the last chapter of his main work, entitled ‘Freedom in a complex society’, Karl Polanyi envisages a society that could be ‘just and free’, ‘when the utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory’ (Polanyi 2001, p. 258). In this society, the ‘right to non-conformity’ (Polanyi 2001, pp. 260ff.) as a form of individual freedom would take centre stage just as much as the organisation and structuring of society in a way that would break with the structures of privilege and replace existing economic organisation with forms of ‘planning’, ‘regulation’ and ‘control’ in order to guarantee freedom for all (Polanyi 2001, pp. 264ff.).

Nancy Fraser’s (2019c) vision for the future is one of ecological socialism, in which the centralism of the failed socialist systems is entirely alien, in which the relations of ownership and economic organisation are subjected to a radical democratic restructuring and in which it ultimately becomes a collective decision which growth paths are chosen, and how and for what purposes surplus value is actually used.

When comparing both Karl Polanyi’s (2001) and Nancy Fraser’s (2003, 2019c) conceptions of a ‘just and free’ socialist society, it turns out that they may have far more in common than is often assumed.

Today, and in the coming days, we can look forward to being part of some exciting discussions with our very first Karl Polanyi visiting professor Nancy Fraser, contributing to the intellectual ‘countermovements’ of our time.


Arruzza, Cinzia / Bhattacharya, Tithi / Fraser, Nancy (2019): Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, London/New York: Verso

Fraser, Nancy (1992): Was ist kritisch an der Kritischen Theorie? Habermas und die Ge-schlechterfrage, in: Ostner, Ilona / Lichtblau, Klaus (Hg.): Feministische Vernunft-kritik, Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag, pp. 99-146

Fraser, Nancy (1994): “After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State”, Political Theory, vol. 22 no. 4 (November 1994), Newbury Park: Sage Publishing, pp. 591-618

Fraser, Nancy (1996): Die Gleichheit der Geschlechter und das Wohlfahrtssystem: Ein postindustrielles Gedankenexperiment, in: Nagl-Docekal, Herta / Pauer-Studer, Herlinde (Hg.): Politische Theorie. Differenz und Lebensqualität, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 469-498

Fraser, Nancy (2001): Die halbierte Gerechtigkeit. Schlüsselbegriffe des postindustriellen Sozialstaats, aus dem Amerikanischen von Karin Wördemann, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Fraser, Nancy (2003): Soziale Gerechtigkeit im Zeitalter der Identitätspolitik. Umverteilung, Anerkennung und Beteiligung, in: Fraser, Nancy / Honneth, Axel (Hg.): Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? Eine politisch-philosophische Kontroverse, übersetzt von Burkhardt Wolf, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 13-128

Fraser Nancy (2004): Feministische Politik im Zeitalter der Anerkennung: ein zweidimensionaler Ansatz für Geschlechtergerechtigkeit, in: Beerhorst, Joachim / Demirović, Alex / Guggemos, Michael (Hg.): Kritische Theorie im gesellschaftlichen Strukturwandel, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 453-474

Fraser, Nancy (2006): Mapping the Feminist Imagination. From Redistribution to Recognition to Representation, in: Degener, Ursula / Rosenzweig, Beate (Hg.): Die Neuverhandlung sozialer Gerechtigkeit: feministische Analysen und Perspektiven, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, pp. 37-51

Fraser, Nancy (2007): Zur Neubestimmung von Gerechtigkeit in einer globalisierten Welt, in: Heidbrink, Ludger / Hirsch, Alfred (Hg.): Staat ohne Verantwortung?: Zum Wandel der Aufgaben von Staat und Politik, Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, pp. 343-372

Fraser, Nancy (2009): Feminismus, Kapitalismus und die List der Geschichte. in: Forst, Rainer / Hartmann, Martin / Jaeggi, Rahel / Saar, Martin (Hg.): Sozialphilosophie und Kritik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 481-505

Fraser, Nancy, (2015): “Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism”, Critical Historical Studies vol. 2, no. 2, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 1–33

Fraser, Nancy (2016): “Contradictions of Capital and Care”, New Left Review 100, London: New Left Review, pp. 99–117

Fraser, Nancy (2018a): “Krise, Kritik und Kapitalismus, Eine Orientierungshilfe für das 21. Jahrhundert”, in: Scheele, Alexandra / Wöhl, Stefanie (Hg.): Feminismus und Marxismus, Weinheim/Basel: Beltz Juventa, pp. 40-58

Fraser, Nancy (2018b): “From Exploitation to Expropriation: Historical Geographies of Racialized Capitalism”, Economic Geography 94, no. 1, pp. 1-17

Fraser, Nancy (2018c): “Is Capitalism Necessarily Racist?” [2018 Presidential Address, APA Eastern Division], Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 92, pp. 21–42

Fraser, Nancy (2018d): Why Two Karls are Better than One, Integrating Polanyi and Marx in a Critical Theory of the Current Crisis, in: Brie, Michael / Thomasberger, Claus (Eds.): Karl Polanyi’s Vision of a Socialist Transformation, Montreal, New York, Chicago, London: Black Rose Books, pp. 67-76

Fraser, Nancy (2019a): The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born, London/New York: Verso

Fraser, Nancy (2019b): „Die Krise der Demokratie: Über politische Widersprüche des Finanzmarktkapitalismus jenseits des Politizismus“, in: Ketterer, Hannah / Becker, Katharina (Hg.): Was stimmt nicht mit der Demokratie? Eine Debatte mit Klaus Dörre, Nancy Fraser, Stephan Lessenich und Hartmut Rosa, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 77-99

Fraser, Nancy (2019c): “What should socialism mean in the 21st century?”, in: Panitch, Leo / Albo, Greg (Hg.): Socialist Register 2020: Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living, London: Merlin Press, pp. 282–294

Fraser, Nancy / Honneth, Axel (2003): Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? Eine politisch-philosophische Kontroverse, übersetzt von Burkhardt Wolf, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Fraser, Nancy / Jaeggi, Rahel (2018): Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, Cambridge/Medford: Polity

Polanyi, Karl (2001): The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press

Polanyi, Karl (1979): Ökonomie und Gesellschaft, übers. v. Heinrich Jelinek, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp

Translation by Jan-Peter Herrmann

Nancy Fraser

Nancy Fraser is Henry A. & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at the New School for Social Research and the 1st Karl Polanyi visiting professor hosted by the Central European University Vienna, the University of Vienna and the WU Vienna.

Brigitte Aulenbacher

Brigitte Aulenbacher is Professor of Sociological Theory and Social Analysis at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and Vice-President of the International Karl Polanyi Society.

English Football’s Polanyian Moment – The ESL

Blog Post

English Football’s Polanyian Moment – The European Super League

Elite European football has long been commodified and progressively disembedded from its historic roots as a working class sport. In the UK a countermovement to this piecemeal disembedding has been sporadic and generally unsuccessful. The countermovement against the ESL in contrast was spontaneous, large-scale and apparently highly successful. A piece by Rowan Alcock.

April 25th, 2021

Rowan Alcock

Football has become an opiate for masses of people around the world, with irrational highs and more frequent lows. In Europe seasons can secure hundreds of millions of pounds and the chance of playing with the European elite, coupled with the possibility of spiralling down the leagues and potential bankruptcy. But for many, football is much more than that. Clubs are part of the local community, often with a heritage of over 100 years, they contribute to an individual’s collective identity (1) and clubs and fans often work within their community in a charitable capacity. In a society such as the UK, which has had a political project of undermining collective power for decades, football fans maintain a camaraderie which allows them to mobilise when their club, and therefore local community, is threatened. It was this mass-mobilisation that we witnessed in the latest episode of football’s multi-billion dollar soap opera – the European Super League.

Clearly there are numerous concurrent crises global society is facing, and one might argue the machinations of a sport where over-paid players run around at the behest of over-paid executives and billionaire owners is something that deserves little attention. However the 72 hour saga of the European Super League (ESL) can be seen as a Polanyian moment and highlights numerous Polanyian tropes with wider lessons for society. The ESL was concocted by the owners of eleven elite and highly decorated European football clubs as well as Tottenham Hotspur. Its aim was to create a league in which the twelve founding members (2) could never be relegated therefore securing them as long-term high-value financial assets. The model was said to be based on the American sports franchising model. Elite European football has long been commodified and progressively disembedded from its historic roots as a working class sport. In the UK a countermovement to this piecemeal disembedding has been sporadic and generally unsuccessful. The countermovement against the ESL in contrast was spontaneous, large-scale and apparently highly successful.

As Polanyi would have observed, ‘intellectual fashion played no role whatever’ (3) in the countermovement which united the opinions of politicians from across the political spectrum. From the socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the right-wing populist Victor Orbán, as well as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a politician immensely comfortable with ‘greed and capitalism’, (4) and Sir Keir Starmer, a politician immensely comfortable sitting on the fence, they all outwardly agreed that the ESL was a step too far.

Political ideology did not unite the countermovement, yet politics was everywhere. The manager of Liverpool Football Club, Jürgen Klopp, in his defence against accusations being levelled at Liverpool players, stumbled into a truth at the heart of most economic organisations – the general lack of worker democracy. The players and the management team were not consulted over the ESL ‘just like all employees’ (5), it was not their decision. More directly Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa, argued, in terms that could have been spoken by Polanyi himself, that ‘the fundamental problem is the rich always aspire to be more rich without considering the consequences for the rest. As they gain more power they start demanding more privilege over the rest’ (6). Fans ran with numerous slogans including ‘Created By the Poor, Stolen By The Rich’.

These spontaneous moments that have the potential to create the foundations of a progressive politics were coupled and often interwoven with spontaneous reactions that could create the foundations of a reactionary politics – demonstrating Polanyi’s view that the countermovement always has two faces. Rio Ferdinand declared that ‘this is for me a war on football’ (7). Garry Nevil stated it was ‘a criminal act against football fans in this country, make no mistake about it’ and that the owners are ‘imposters’ they ‘are nothing to do with football in this country’ (8) the fans ‘need protecting’ and owners have ‘no loyalty to this country and these leagues’ ‘there isn’t a football fan in this country that won’t be seething, and shouldn’t be seething’ (9). James Cordon during his diatribe on the ESL posited the argument that the billionaire owners have ‘slowly but surely’ moved these teams away from the working-class foundations on which they were built, or in Polanyian terms have disembedded them from the local community, and that they ‘look at the historical fanbase of every single club with disdain’. His solution to the powerlessness of fans and the belief that ‘I don’t think we can do anything about it’ was to ‘remember the names of these owners… don’t forget the people that did this, it’s them it’s those owners… they took something so pure and so beautiful and they beat the love and the joy out of it’ (10).

But remember for what ends? A progressive remembers in order to create a mass movement to democratically change society for the betterment of the whole of society. However, in the current system in which billionaires have disembedded themselves from social norms and democratic accountability, to what ends do we remember? Often these ends are reactionary. This is Polanyi’s countermovement at work, spontaneously erupting due to a move to transform a social institution into a commodity for private profit, with two solutions – one progressive and one reactionary.

The ESL did come crumbling down in England after just 72 hours thanks to sustained pressure from almost every corner of English football; fans, managers, players, pundits… However, many believe it is only a matter of time before something similar will raise its head. In fact it was reported that UEFA’s solution to the greed of the ESL was even more debt fuelled money pumped into their own competitions (11). Another option proposed has been a new football regulator (12), however, if similar to other regulators in the UK, it is likely to be toothless, under resourced and captured by special interests. A government that wants ‘to do as little as it has to do’, according to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (13), is never going to solve deep structural problems. A better solution may, however, be presented by the German league, whose teams were not part of the initial 12 ESL founding members. The 50 +1 model, which guarantees a majority stake in football clubs in Germany for fans, could be the start of re-embedding football back into the communities it was born out of. Yet this is fraught with difficulties and as the popular wave of discontent towards the ESL subsides, due to its collapse, the Government is likely to brush any significant changes aside to concentrate on whatever new populist crusade arises, churning out faux victories while nothing significantly changes.

If the ESL had gone ahead, it is almost inevitable the German sides would have sold their souls and joined; the alternative would have been for them to forgo hundreds of millions of euro a year and become uncompetitive on the European stage. This demonstrates another Polanyian theme, islands of democracy are meaningless in the global oceans of the self-regulating market. Unless there are bridges linking islands of democracy, from the workplace, to the local community through to continents of democratic participation, democracy is unable to stand up to the tsunami of global financial capitalism. The message Polanyi clearly articulates is; unless all of us are protected from the negative social effects of the self-regulating market system then none of us are protected and that protection can only come from a deep and broad democratic society. Football becomes as important a place to embed within democratic norms as housing, labour, health and all systems we rely on for our social well-being. A democratic sphere of football can create a logic of democratic participation in society, protect other democratic institutions and may even become a model for more. Football may, importantly, also be a space that has a ready-made and hard to undermine mass-movement prepared to argue, and take to the streets, for radical changes, a movement that has the ear of national leaders. The Polanyian task is the same with this spontaneous countermovement as it is with all, to push it away from any form of reactionary politics and towards progressive solutions. Even though the ESL has crumbled there is still much more to play for.

1 Of course it must be stated that this collective identity can also have a darker tone of sectarian or racist othering and football fans’ hooliganism is well documented.
2 Founding member spots were also potentially available for three more clubs from France and Germany.
3 Polanyi, 2001 [1944], p.151.
4 Allegretti & Elgot, 2021, Covid: ‘greed’ and capitalism behind vaccine success, Johnson tells MPs, The Guardian, johnson-tells-mps
6 elland-road-964141
8 Alan Shearer similarly suggested that the owners ‘are clearly removed from the heritage’ of the Premier League and its predecessor ‘they don’t have any sense of value of the clubs relationship with the fans and the communities’.
11 league
13 Ibid

Rowan Alcock

is a recent Oxford DPhil graduate in politics. His thesis engaged with Polanyian theory to analyse Chinese food and environmental movements. He has published articles on Polanyi including a recent publication in New Political Economy entitled The Unconscious Countermovement and the Conscious Polanyian Movement.

Johnson and Orbán: Peacocks’ Feathers Fading

EU - Negotiations / Populism

Johnson and Orbán: Peacocks’ Feathers Fading

As a Covid-dominated year draws to a close, the implications of EU negotiations with two renegades deserve attention. Although the structural significance of their countries is very different, Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán have some common traits. Both have led populist movements that can be theorized as countermovements in the sense of Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944). But what happens when the exemplary personalities of Eurosceptic populism start to lose their shine?

December 30th, 2020

Chris Hann

Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán

It is generally agreed that contemporary populism can only be understood as a countermovement (in the sense of Karl Polanyi) to accelerated globalization, including the neoliberalization of the European Union. Of course, even within Europe, populism comes in many guises. The United Kingdom organized a referendum in 2016 and in December 2020 finally completed its tortuous severance from the EU. Hungary has maintained a high level of rhetorical criticism of “Brussels” over a long period, but has no intention of withdrawal. Each of these Eurosceptic countries has a dominant personality. In this contribution I suggest that comparing Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán illuminates more general political configurations of our age.

At first glance, the differences far outweigh the similarities. Like Britain, Hungary has a long history of aristocratic hierarchy. This was interrupted in the middle of the twentieth century, when socialist rule was imposed forcibly for four decades. Viktor Mihály Orbán is a man of the people, born in 1963 in the provinces and brought up without a silver spoon. As a bright pupil, he was admitted to study law at the country’s best university. Though he devoted a lot of his time to oppositional politics, he completed his degree in 1987. The disciplined Lebensführung was physical as well as mental: Viktor Orbán played football at a semi-professional level for many years. But his main focus was power and in 1990 he entered parliament at the first opportunity.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964 and pampered from birth. From Eton (the most famous of England’s exclusive schools) he proceeded to Oxford, as so many Prime Ministers had before. He did not take a first, probably because of the dissolute lifestyle he shared with a whole generation of “toffs,” many of whom went on to make careers in the Conservative party. Unlike the humourless Orbán, Johnson cultivated a taste for the comic and the fantastic. He indulged this in his journalism for the Daily Telegraph, before reaching larger audiences through the television programme Have I Got News For You. Johnson consolidated his larger-than-life personality not in parliament, which he entered in 2001, but in maverick performances on public stages as Mayor of London (2008-2016). 

Viktor Orbán  has dominated his party for over thirty years (the Alliance of Young Democrats was very much his creation and to this day he has no serious rivals inside the party).  Boris Johnson’s path to the top in the Tory party was necessarily more complex. Yet both have established their populist credentials as politicians who go against the establishment grain. Orbán has frequently presented himself as an enfant terrible, determined to break socialist shackles that the early years of democracy left substantively untouched. Johnson has had to endure brash accents very different from his own in forging new alliances to transcend elite complicity in the dilution of British sovereignty. The Brussels deal negotiated by David Cameron (a rival since schooldays and drinking companion in Oxford’s Bullingdon Club) was simply not good enough. Unlike Orbán, Johnson is a social liberal (otherwise he would hardly have been elected and re-elected as mayor of a supremely cosmopolitan city). His profile is more like that of Donald Trump, who also inherited wealth, was sent to the best schools, and developed a colourful media personality as well as a reputation for philandering. How do such persons persuade voters that they sincerely believe in conservative values? How do they persuade them to support economic policies that contradict their interests?


Populist Negotiating in December 2020

Boris Johnson has notoriously dismissed those who would prioritize the economy ahead of sovereignty. This is what you might expect from an Etonian Oxford classicist, but the cavalier approach has inevitably been modified in the course of post-Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Viktor Orbán’s background in a poorer country being so different, it should be no surprise that he has taken great pains to ensure that the Alliance of the Young Democrats is tightly allied with a new national bourgeoisie. Family members and chums from his village are among the most prominent beneficiaries of a system that redistributes transfer income from Brussels (intended to support “cohesion” in the less developed member states) to a new class of domestic capitalists. Even if the size of those transfers will diminish following Brexit, Orbán will never call a referendum on Hunexit. Even if he did, polls indicate that few Hungarians would support withdrawal, even within his own party, which is ostensibly hyper-critical of Brussels. Everyone knows that the Hungarian economy is too deeply locked into the EU.

If this dependency is so clear, why did Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen give in so cravenly in December 2020, after Orbán (together with Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki) had vetoed the adoption of the next EU budget? At stake was the principle of connecting transfer income with observance of EU norms of law and governance. This is sometimes phrased in terms of “democratic values”. The principle has been strongly affirmed not only by the European Parliament but also by George Soros, who Orbán has pilloried for years as the author of a plan to flood Christian Europe with Muslim migrants. But for Merkel and von der Leyen it was urgent to have their budget approved forthwith. They therefore agreed to compromise: the buck was passed, and the contentious principle of linking economic redistribution to the values of liberal democracy will eventually be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. No one knows when this might happen.

Was there a subplot in political economy? While the economies of Hungary and Poland do not matter much in the larger scheme of things, for German capital, especially the automotive branch, the Visegrád countries are important locations for outsourcing production. Within days of the Brussels decision, Mercedes-Benz confirmed a massive investment to produce electric cars at its factory in Kecskemét in Central Hungary, thereby securing thousands of jobs for many years to come. As usual, the funding depends on a significant contribution from the Hungarian government, which in turn will continue to benefit from the Brussels development support.  

Whether or not the German car bosses somehow made their preferences known, in December 2020 it was vital for Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen to salvage political unity. The stakes were different for George Soros, who lost no time in deploring the climbdown. Soros’s disappointment was, in turn, the best evidence for Orbán to prove to Hungarians that he was the real victor once again. He responded to Soros’s protest with a lengthy statement on the prime ministerial homepage, in which the philanthropist was once again denigrated as the “most corrupt man in the world”.[1]

Which populist is the more hypocritical? Is it Viktor Orbán, the man of the people who attacks the liberal cosmopolitanism of the EU but fights to hold on to its subsidies in the interests of his cronies? Or is it Boris Johnson, formerly a liberal Mayor of London, who has triumphed personally but must realise deep down that his successful Brexit campaign has plunged both economy and polity into spirals of uncertainty likely to last generations? 


Emotions and Economics

Viktor Orbán has compared his carefully rehearsed diplomatic manoeuvring towards Brussels (and Strasburg) with the courting dance rituals of the peacock. The analogy also works for his relationship to George Soros. In fact, every scrap of liberal critique from western professors and journalists is grist for the populist mill. Whenever a representative of the Hungarian opposition sides with western critics in the European Parliament, this is trumpeted in the media controlled by Viktor Orbán as a betrayal of the national cause. Yet whenever European institutions come close to implementing measures that would threaten the foundations of the regime, the peacock changes his strut and rattles his trail to proclaim victory.

Observers have long argued that this ritualized dance cannot continue indefinitely. Some liberals in the west and opposition leaders at home have interpreted the compromise struck in December 2020 as a death knell for Orbánism. They are confident that the European Court of Justice will confirm the decision to couple financial aid to liberal norms of governance. But this will not happen quickly, and by the time it does the peacock may have won another election, making it impossible for foreign inspectors of the rule of law to deny his democratic mandate.

Boris Johnson has behaved similarly when bringing forward legislation that flies in the face of international law, only to withdraw it at the appropriate tactical moment. He too is very much the preening type. Yet even before his personal encounter with the Covid virus, he was beginning to seem less boisterous. No personal trainer can do much to improve that much-abused body. With his incompetent management of the pandemic, the Johnson who used to entertain his compatriots is more and more perceived as an embarrassment, especially among the young. As for Viktor Orbán, though he remains passionate about football, citizens who observe him on television alongside other leaders at summit meetings comment on his increasingly awkward gait.

What is the fate of ageing peacocks when their feathers fade? Both Johnson and Orbán have been ruthless in reshaping their parties to suit their personal ambitions. Even before Covid, there was no disguising the poor quality of those who survived the culls. The idea of grooming a successor is unthinkable. Both confirm Ernest Gellner’s dictum that a successful populist is an oxymoron.[2] Short of fascism, it is impossible to routinize populist power. Margaret Thatcher was an earlier leader who ruffled feathers for a while, finding convenient external enemies in Argentinian generals and domestic ones in coal miners and the “wets” of her own party. But it could not go on forever. Eventually some of the radicals she had promoted combined to oust her, before themselves morphing into a new stratum of “grandees” that Johnson would trash in the next generation. Viktor Orbán has outlasted most populists through inventing an unprecedented plethora of enemies: Brussels bureaucrats, good-for-nothing Roma, the supreme speculator George Soros, and waves of Muslim migrants. But there must be a limit. December 2020 also saw the fragmented political opposition in Budapest pledge to unite behind common lists in order to put an end to the “Orbán system” in the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2022.

It evidently suited both parties to delay the post-Brexit trade deal until there was no time left for detailed scrutiny and the eruption of further political controversy. It is unlikely that the cross-channel traffic chaos triggered by a mutation of the Covid virus just before Christmas played a decisive role. The EU certainly bargained harder with Johnson than it had with Orbán a few weeks earlier. Elements of deterrent and punishment were in play, even humiliation and Schadenfreude (this earlier loanword will surely outlast Willkommenskultur). As historian Ute Frevert has recently reminded us, in politics a great deal depends on the emotional dimension (The Politics of Humiliation. A Modern History. Oxford UP 2020). But when it comes to dealing with Britain, the economic component is vastly more important than it is in the case of peripheral Visegrád states. Boris Johnson has had to accept that the economy does matter after all (not least if he is to redeem promises to redistribute prosperity to the declining postindustrial regions that abandoned the Labour Party to support him). The EU can hardly allow unconditional market access to a turbo-capitalist competitor on its doorstep. But perhaps the need to sell all those postsocialist German cars is also important. The cars manufactured by Mercedes in Hungarian Kecskemét are not affordable for ordinary Hungarians. So long as the new electric production lines include vehicles with a steering wheel on the right, we can safely assume that Mercedes-Benz bosses are continuing to count on easy access to the British market.

[2] Isiah Berlin Archive: (page 21)

Chris Hann

Director of the Max Planck Insitute for Social Anthropology
Halle, Germany

Sprawls in the park before the snow storm

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 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: 

Margaret Somers on the US-Elections

US Elections 2020

"A democratic Ritual against the underlying reality of an incompatibility between capitalism and democracy"

In an interview conducted by David Bond and John Hultgren, Margaret Somers talks about the US election, the relationship between the neoliberalism and the hypernationalism of the American Right and to which extent the liberal embrace of a “free-market” logic has contributed to the predicament in which the US currently finds itself.

3rd November, 2020

Note: The Interview was coonducted on October 28.

David Bond & John Hultgren: Maybe we could start with this: So, we’re a week out from this election. Biden is climbing in the polls and is potentially bringing new states into play. At the same time, the Supreme Court is issuing really frightening rulings about their jurisdiction over contested elections. One week out, are you pessimistic or optimistic?

 Margaret Somers: I’m especially struck by the wide gap between the surface of the election drama— the polls, the policy positions, race relations–and the election’s structural underpinnings, or background conditions. While they may not completely determine the outcomes, they certainly delimit the spectrum of possibility, yet they are of course never discussed openly. The most important of these background conditions comes to us from Polanyi: We’re performing a democratic ritual against the underlying reality of a basic incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. And at some point—under certain conditions, but not inevitably—that incompatibility may well be resolved by a capitalist accommodation with fascism. That possibility is heightened by the fact that we’re performing this post-democratic ritual in the context of the most hypercapitalist oligarchic regime in recent American history, which has already moved far along the continuum to an autocracy. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the spectrum.

            But my day-to-day focus is on the polls. I have doubts about how optimistic Democrats are about Biden being ahead in the polls by a wider margin than Hillary was in 2016. For while good polling constructs models and algorithms that include contingencies and assumptions, their assumptions are based on historical experience. So for example, they have decades of data that show what difference it makes if it’s raining on election day, or the effect of the so-called “shy Trump voter,” or the peculiarities of the electoral college, or the impact of the current level of unemployment, etc.


“We’re performing a democratic ritual against the underlying reality of a basic incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. And at some point—under certain conditions, but not inevitably—that incompatibility may well be resolved by a capitalist accommodation with fascism.”

          What I’m worried about is that this year the degree of voter suppression is not continuous with history, because it is unprecedented in the post-Jim Crow era. So statisticians do not know how to factor in the difference between voters (especially African American and young people) who report to pollsters that they *intend* to vote for Joe Biden, but then they are prevented from *actually* voting for Biden—either through having their ballots thrown out, or discovering their name has been purged from the voting register, or being told they’re at the wrong voting place, and the multiple other ways that Democratic votes will not be counted based on Republican methods of supressing the vote. Moreover, it’s the first election in over 30 years in which so-called “poll watching” is no longer prohibited, which is code for the presence of armed white intimidation of Black voters. In almost every state in the U.S., it’s legal to bring firearms into the voting booth; we don’t know what the effect of this will be but it cannot be good. Finally, we’ve never had a President who is so clearly committed to inciting extra-paramilitary violence as well as legal violence (calling out the Insurrection Act on protestors).

             Nate Silver [the premier American polling analyst and statistician] has written that the mainstream media was understating the potential effect of voter suppression. He acknowledged that while throughout American history there has always been voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement, the voter suppression strategies this year are so new that they aren’t able to use their historical assumptions to build them into the model: “[T]here are some possibilities that our model doesn’t account for, and they have become more pertinent after Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and declined to commit to respecting the election results… The model also does not account for the possibility of extraconstitutional shenanigans by Trump or by anyone else, such as trying to prevent mail ballots from being counted….”

Finally, we have to add that we’ve not ever held an election in the middle of a pandemic that is escalating daily.


David Bond & John Hultgren: It’s beyond the typical forms of voter suppression, we also have the hijacking of the post office and…

Margaret Somers: Exactly… we just found out last night that Detroit—a city comprised almost entirely of Black voters—has been subjected to the most delayed mail in the country—in other words, their mailed absentee ballots are unlikely to arrive in time to be counted. In fact, almost every large Democratic city in every swing state has had their mail delayed by this Trump crony Postmaster. 

            …I can’t help but be very pessimistic. But I also can’t quite accept what I think is likely to happen. For example, many of us have been trying to figure out the puzzle of Trump’s campaign. All the pundits keep saying, “it’s almost like Trump’s trying to lose…all he does is feed red meat to the base. Why would he do that? Why wouldn’t he try to expand his electoral base?” But Timothy Snyder has an answer. He writes that in the “authoritarian playbook” it’s more important to incite the affective angry emotional level of your base supporters than it is to getting a thinner, wider but less fanatic base. And as we know, Trump has already acknowledged that he’s not going to win the election by getting the most votes, *but* he has announced that he’s not going to lose. How to resolve this contradiction?

            The reason he hasn’t been trying to extend his voting base is because he believes that more important than the number of votes he gets is the degree of rage and the commitment he has from his base supporters to have him win the presidency. He is treating the election like a planned coup, so his priority is to fortify the emotional valence of those who will be willing to do anything to keep him in power. Above all, that is going to entail massive violence.  


“He is treating the election like a planned coup, so his priority is to fortify the emotional valence of those who will be willing to do anything to keep him in power”

             Perhaps even more frightening is that this tells us something about the deeply fragile nature of the popular commitment to democracy–that so many of his supporters will vote for him in the context described above where he has outlined his planned coup indicates that they are participating knowingly in a scenario that will potentially end democracy as we know it. Thus Timothy Snyder… “It’s a vote for a future in which voting does not matter…a vote for Trump is to traduce the meaning of voting, which is a normal part of the transition to authoritarianism…”


John Hultgren: So stepping back from the election for a moment to think about how we got to this point… Your recent work has focused on explaining and critiquing the idea of market justice. Does market justice persist within an American Right increasingly defined by the ideological oddity that is Trumpism? To put it differently, how do you make sense of the relationship between the neoliberalism and the hypernationalism of the American Right?

Margaret Somers: Market justice, just like meritocracy, maintains its credibility by its claim to being nonpolitical, free of power, reflecting the pure neutralism of market rewards equaling the exact amount that was inputted in contributions—i.e. unequal wages simply reflect unequal work effort and lesser market value. That’s the theory of marginal productivity. The hatred for democracy stems from it being seen as a political force that disrupts and violates the neutrality of the supposedly nonpolitical unbiased processes of market justice. It “politicizes” the market in the interest of “special interests,” and so threatens market justice. (This is also the logic of hatred for affirmative action and for the conservative racism of “color-blindness”—it pretends to neutrality while it exercises the power of exclusion.)

            Market justice tells us that what the market spits out is by definition completely fair: The value that goes into the market is exactly what you get in return. The instrument that translates the theory of naturalized market justice into a social practice is the ascribing of “moral unworthiness” to those who lose out on market outcomes. There is a precise parallel between market justice and the dominating coercions of the alt-right. For the most energized enforcers of what I call the “tribunal of moral worth” are white supremacists…they define nonwhite people as “undeserving” and “unworthy” in equally naturalistic and biologized terms as that of market justice.

            If you look at my Guardian piece on how Malthus uses market naturalism to justify cruelty and exclusion, you can easily transpose what he applied to the “poor” onto race. In Malthusian terms, “Nature” decides who is economically worthy and not worthy. For white supremacists, Nature is translated into race in biological terms. So, it parallels exactly marginal productivity theory which says  – the famous quote – that “the distribution of income in society is controlled by a natural law, and this law if it works without friction would give to every agent of production the amount of wealth that that agent creates.” This readily converts into a tribunal of racial worth and unworth, in which social value is determined by ascribed—natural—racial identities .

            But the alt-right takes it one step further: It’s not merely that non-white people don’t contribute enough to be worthy of inclusion; they are also supposedly stealing from the worthy (white) people. They (unworthy and undeserving non-whites) are undeserving social parasites who are taking away white males’ naturally privileged place in the social hierarchy. The alt-right’s hatred toward liberals is driven by their belief that liberals are facilitating this theft by the unworthy, which in turn generates a culture of enraged aggrievement of the entitled convinced they have been wronged. This is why they love Trump for his casual cruelty…Trump is saying for them what they felt they weren’t allowed to say for too long. They thrill at his sadistic transgressions of “political correctness,” especially against women and people of color.

            For plutocrats, the currency of worth and unworthiness is defined by marginal productivity; for white supremacists, the currency is race. It’s very convenient that these two systems of evaluation converge on the same people: Immigrants, women, and people of color.


David Bond: From Clinton’s welfare reform to Obamacare and “cap and trade,” the Democratic Party has long toyed with its own versions of market justice (and, to a lesser extent, social naturalism). To what extent has the liberal embrace of a “free-market” logic contributed to the predicament in which we currently find ourselves? Do you see signs that Biden/Harris are willing to shift to something resembling a social democratic taming of the market? 

Margaret Somers: Let’s start with the most damning evidence that confirms how the Democrats participate in the policing of market justice and accept the social naturalism on which it’s based. Consider that the most dramatic rollback of the social state in 40 years of neoliberalism took place under Bill Clinton, the so-called 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, which was orchestrated entirely through Malthusian discourse of both social naturalism and the perversity thesis: Namely, that relief of poverty to the poor has the perverse consequence of disincentivizing them to work. Why? Because of the foundational biologization of working people, which reduces them to their bodily instincts of “thinking through the body”—Work when hungry; hibernate when full. In this biologized naturalistic world, removing scarcity by providing social provisioning to the needy is what causes poverty in the first place; it frees workers from taking personal responsibility by removing the scourge of hunger.

            In Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, he documents extensively the degree to which the social democratic embrace of neoliberalism, especially their embrace of austerity, in Europe and the U.S. contributed enormously to the extreme increase in inequality. Their unwavering commitment to globalization led to today’s alliance of what he calls hypercapitalism with ethnonativism—a term that captures those who were left behind by neoliberal policies who have now turned to right-wing populism.

            Lest anyone think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Democrats (and Labour) believe in market justice and social naturalism, consider Clinton’s view of globalization: “[It is] the economic equivalent of a force of nature, like wind or water.” As Tony Blair declared defending his policies in the globalization debate: “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

            Now, to be fair, let’s stand back a minute and take a Polanyian look at the situation and we see that these were not merely perverse choices of wannabe Conservatives—these were/are social democrats trying to navigate the shoals of the basic incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, and face resistance to the “intrusion” of the democratic populace into the supposedly private sphere of the economy. Polanyi reminds us that when faced with a choice between supporting democratic socio-economic reform on the one side, and authoritarian protection of capital on the other, economic elites and global capital have almost always chosen the latter. As he reflected on the collapse of civilization in the 1930s: “[T]he victory of fascism was made practically unavoidable by the [market utopians’] obstruction of any reform involving planning, regulation, or control” (Polanyi 2001, 265). It couldn’t be more clear: Protecting capital against democracy is the historical norm.

            Polanyi’s analysis helps explain why the American Republican Party, as the primary carrier of neoliberalism, so determinedly protects, enables, and advances Trump’s authoritarianism. The more that Democrats move in a progressive direction with social democratic goals at the top of their platform, the more we witness the Republicans’ embrace of Trump’s strong state, weak democracy project—authoritarianism, in short.

            As for Biden and Harris…how far they can go in the direction of socioeconomic reform will depend on how far capital will let them go before threatening to pick up their marbles and go elsewhere in capital flight. They will also be impeded by the rage that Trump (even if no longer in office) will continue to foment among his supporters with his faux populist discourse. Above all, they will have to contend with the American institutional structure of de-democratization –the severely undemocratic Senate, the multiple veto points to suppress the “mobocracy,” the antidemocratic Electoral College, and the reigning juristocracy, which at this point is the most dangerous of all. In America, it is the judiciary that has the last word on how successful the plutocracy will continue to be, and lest we forget, the judiciary has been seized by the extreme right for generations to come.


John Hultgren: You end with a warning, echoing both Polanyi and Luxemburg, that the future will be one of either democratic socialism or fascism. Which path do you think we’re heading down? From a Polanyian perspective, do you see cause for optimism?

Margaret Somers: At the macroeconomic level we are faced with the same conflict between capitalism and democracy. Polanyi explained 1930s Europe as both the apogee of their incompatibility and the nadir of the consequences: Capital’s commitment to the global Gold Standard crushed national democratic efforts to enact social reforms to protect against the extreme privations of market inequality and mass unemployment from the Depression. To ensure the forces of democracy were thoroughly tamed, global economic liberals turned to authoritarianism and fascism to achieve their ends. As Steve Klein (2019) has recently reminded us, Polanyi understood that the initial “antidemocratic virus” (Polanyi’s words) made it all too easy for capital to find succor with a movement committed to “a structure of society which would eliminate the very possibility of its reversion to Democracy.” That should haunt us today.

            At the same time, Polanyi made clear that fascism was a contingency, not an inevitability. He lays out what is necessary for democratic forces to subordinate the deceits of market justice to an egalitarian and just society built on individual and social rights and freedoms. These are the necessary steps to achieve democratic socialism, which Polanyi defines as “transcend[ing] the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” They include first and foremost, the decommodification of humans, of nature, and of money, which entails taking out of the market the fictitious commodity of “labor.” Some of this can be facilitated by fighting for newly constitutionalized socio-economic rights, and some even by redistributive policies of the social state. But above all it requires tearing open the hidden world of predistributive market power. (Incidentally, in the context of the American failure to contain Covid19, it would require, as Fred [Block] and I recently wrote on Polanyi and Covid19, decommodifying the necessities of the democratic public good of public health.) Following Polanyi again, much of this is going to depend on the strength of the progressive left, and on the willingness of Democrats to make alliances with the left. That will demand that Democrats be willing to fight for power and democracy as a substantive goal.

            In closing, as I wrote at end of my article on the “Moral Economy of the Capitalist Crowd”:

“Because Polanyi’s was as much a normative project for a just moral economy as it was historical analysis, his alerting us to the seductive dangers of [market] utopianism is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s…[It] is a precondition to fashioning a democratic rather than an authoritarian response to the cruelties of market utopianism.”


Margaret Somers

Professor Emerita of Sociology and History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Political Economy, Social Theory, Comparative Historical Sociology

David Bond

Associate Director of CAPA (Center for the Advancement of Public Action) in Bennington College, Vermont, USA

John Hultgren

Faculty of Society, Culture & Thought and Faculty of Environmental Studies, Bennington College Vermont, USA

More on the US: 

Online-Discussion with Fred Block, Margaret R. Somers, and Robert Kuttner. Organized by the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy (Montreal).
Margaret Somers on the US-Elections and beyond, interviewed by John Hultgren and David Bond. November, 2020.
Gareth Dale on Degrowth and the US-Elections, interviewed by John Hultgren and David Bond. October, 2020.
David Bond and John Hultgren on the importance of Polanyi’s work in the US. 30th of June.

Degrowth and the US-Elections

US Elections 2020

"Our most fundamental need is for a habitable planet - and we’ve lost sight of it"

In order to better understand the current fight for the presidency in the US, John Hultgren and David Bond from Bennington College (Vermont, USA) talked to Gareth Dale about the importance of the Green New Deal, the need for a reduction of fossil fuels and the Degrowth movement. 

29th October, 2020

The Green New Deal and the Threat of Corporate Capture

David Bond & John Hultgren: The Green New Deal has captured the imagination of the Left in the US and beyond. After decades of playing defense, the Green New Deal advances a bold progressive vision on par with the immense need of today: a moment tipping precariously towards climate catastrophe. The Green New Deal also has the great advantage of harkening back to an immensely popular moment when government reimagined its responsibilities to the people. Drawing on Karl Polanyi’s own “ambivalences and ambiguities” about the New Deal, you advise caution on the Green New Deal. Can you explain your hesitations around the Green New Deal?

Gareth Dale: As you say, the climate catastrophe is tipping perilously. The Mauna Loa emissions graph climbs ever upwards. Radical change is urgent, and the GND is visionary. We shouldn’t see it as a definitive programme but as a “battlefield”—to use Thea Riofrancos’ term. And so too was Roosevelt’s New Deal. He didn’t enter office with a social-democratic agenda. It came thanks to movements—the hunger marches and rent strikes, the Teamster Rebellion and the waves of sit-down strikes. Those same years remind us that when organisers and movement leaders tied themselves to state institutions, their ability to mobilise went into decline. And while the New Deal did enact vital progressive reforms, and legitimated the unions, it also re-stabilised the capitalist order. It consolidated America’s grotesque, nature-trashing growth model—and then Roosevelt launched the US oil grab in the Middle East. Similar dangers face the GND today. State leaders and corporate interests are trying to own it. We saw this back in 2008 with the so-called green stimulus packages in South Korea and China. When you looked at the detail there’s virtually nothing green, it’s almost entirely greenwash and growth boosterism. The same was seen again in South Korea this year with its new GND. Within a fortnight of the announcement, the Korean government authorised a colossal bailout of Doosan Heavy Industries, one of the world’s biggest coal exporters. So any “caution” I’m voicing is against the threat of corporate capture. The movement angle of the GND, the campaigning efforts and visions of environmentalists and socialists, is inspiring—a bright light in the general murk.

“When organisers and movement leaders tied themselves to state institutions, their ability to mobilise went into decline”

David Bond & John Hultgren: Despite being quite popular and fanning the enthusiasm of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in the current presidential campaign the Green New Deal is lambasted by both sides. Trump calls it a socialist takeover of American democracy while Biden backpedals into a less transformational, more corporate friendly, and utterly devoid of social justice version he calls “Build Back Better.” With so much at stake in 2020, why do you think now is the time to push the Green New Deal to clarify its relation to growth in particular and to the capitalist state in general?

Gareth Dale: Surely it’s always the time to clarify the relations of political projects to capital and capitalist states, for it’s they who set the economic and political framework, the rules. It’s their machine that’s steering the world to the precipice. Trump’s version is the death cult, exulting in planetary arson. Biden is a bit less repulsive, but driving a similar juggernaut. He’s currently distancing himself from the GND but if he returns, it’ll be with the aim of clipping its wings, taming it for Wall Street. So yes, in November 2020 there’s a lot at stake—and this campaign year also showcased the ability of the US electoral system to blackmail the left, with the threats that any militancy will endanger the Democrats’ prospects. So, whoever wins, organising in our communities and on the streets (…um, with masks of course…) will be more needed than ever: to push back the fascists, to keep the heat on Biden (if he wins), but also to begin to build left spaces independent from the state-supporting parties.

Fossil Fuel Reduction, Poverty Reduction & Degrowth

David Bond & John Hultgren: COVID-19 has shuttered economies around the globe and sent hundreds of millions of people worldwide into abject forms of destitution. As transportation ground to a halt and people sheltered in place, fossil fuel consumption declined significantly. You note that the sharp reductions in CO2 emissions we’ve experienced in the past 9 months must continue for decades to stave off the worst of climate change and retain some semblance of modern society. How can we continue drastic reductions of fossil fuels without also sending billions of people into poverty?

Gareth Dale: Well, billions of people already are in poverty. If we don’t drastically reduce fossil fuel use, they’ll be sent into early graves—and perhaps the human species with them—through the well-established laws of global heating and the slightly less predictable feedback loops that it’s triggering. As to how to reduce, the climate threat is so severe that drastic reductions are needed of both fossil fuel production and overall demand. So, ramp up renewables, quickly. And cut demand. Human energy consumption rose from forty terrajoules per year in 1900 to a hundred in 1950 to over five hundred today. That’s unsustainable, and can’t all be supplied by wind and waves. Obvious targets are the consumption of the super-rich, and the Pentagon—slash all that. Direct resources instead to supporting the poor, ensuring good food and shelter, and water, sanitation and electricity for all. And beyond? Well, homo sapiens is an enthrallingly needs-expanding species, but are we also a needs-comprehending species? Our most fundamental need is for a habitable planet and we’ve lost sight of it—thanks to the blinkers enforced by the capitalist system. Really, humanity should hunker down for a few hundred years. Tread lightly, to save ourselves and millions of species. This isn’t a prescription for hair shirts and self-flagellation, but resource and energy use must be clipped. You and I met at a Karl Polanyi conference. Well, in the early twentieth century Polanyi lived a happy and culturally extremely rich life, consuming a small fraction of the energy and materials that are at the command of his counterparts today. And Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto argued that the productive forces had reached the point at which a transition to communism could be envisaged. This was 1848. Before the invention of the car, the telephone, even the safety pin. I’m not suggesting we ‘rewind’ to that date. But for the love of life, of people and nature, present and future, a few delights of civilisation simply have to be suspended: all SUVs, all aviation (apart from dirigibles), nearly all beef (unless lab-grown), and so on.

“Our most fundamental need is for a habitable planet and we’ve lost sight of it—thanks to the blinkers enforced by the capitalist system.”

David Bond & John Hultgren: Degrowth, you have argued, is actually the most sober assessment of the current situation. Yet it struggles, as you note, to “find mass resonance.” Part of the New Deal, you suggest, contained kernels of contemporary degrowth – the government suppressed housing construction, people tore up their lawns and grew victory gardens, etc. Yet outside of the inflamed patriotism of a nation at war, it’s hard to imagine such sacrifice becoming a core commitment of party platforms let alone policies in the US. How can degrowth gain an enthusiastic base? Can we have a “homefront ecology” shorn of its nationalism?

Gareth Dale: A ’sober’ assessment of our situation is hard to reach. Can human minds really grasp the import of the climate catastrophe, the accelerating mass extinctions that their society is causing, let alone the possible end of their species itself? But yes, the degrowthers come closer than anyone else. In terms of strategy, I would put a rather different emphasis: I’d emphasise climate jobs programmes. These bring labour unionists together with environmentalists to campaign for a state-led ‘just transition,’ with secure ‘green jobs’ and care jobs and across-the-board economic change. It’s a programme that can address, and counter, two great fears of the present—mass unemployment and environmental collapse.

David Bond & John Hultgren: The poor have, in one way or another, been living a coercive form of degrowth for generations. Is there a class dimension to your theory of degrowth?

Gareth Dale: Degrowthers would say you’re completely misrepresenting their position. Their politics is all about overcoming poverty even as the materials and energy envelope reduces. And in some of my own work (The tide is rising, don’t rock the boat!), I’ve discussed how the growth paradigm, as an ideology of capitalist society, has been used historically to legitimate poverty and inequality. So yes, all of this pivots on class. The capitalist system is geared to relentless accumulation, which is spun as “growth,” which destroys nature, polarises society by class, by race, by gender and between rich and poor nations. The ownership of the world by a particular class—capitalists—who are driven by competition and the profit motive—is the root of all these evils.

“The capitalist system is geared to relentless accumulation, which is spun as “growth” and destroys nature, polarises society by class, by race, by gender and between rich and poor nations.”

David Bond & John Hultgren: The last decade has brought tremendous hope for progressive policies in the US as the neoliberal agenda is shown to be insufficient to the present challenges and actually part of the problem. In many parts of the world, the perennial logic of austerity is weakening and tax hikes on the obscenely wealthy promise a new boon to an emboldened progressive state (in the US, nationalized healthcare, free college education, and the Green New Deal). Is there a danger, in such a conjuncture, that a turn to degrowth morphs into an argument for austerity by progressive means?

Gareth Dale: Degrowthers are totally opposed to neoliberal austerity politics. A few of them do re-work the term ‘austerity’, but for very different purposes. On this, I criticise their position, you can find it in Degrowth and the Green New Deal. But it’s a small difference, perhaps only a quibble. And I hope you’re right about the tax hikes on the super-rich!

Polanyi's non-revolutionary Socialism

David Bond & John Hultgren: You argue that Polanyi “advanced a radical but non-revolutionary socialism.” Is there a contemporary party or movement that is similarly advocating for this brand of socialism? Where does BLM fit into this?

Gareth Dale: Yes, Polanyi was an anti-capitalist but didn’t understand capitalism—indeed, it wasn’t even on his theoretical compass. I think Bernie and especially Corbyn are quite close to his politics. That came with some tremendous strengths—not least of course the ability to build a sizeable socialist movement—but also weaknesses—including the tendency to collapse back into the liberal centre, and in Sanders’ case to cast votes for US imperialist adventures and projects. As to BLM, well, how much has it taught us, yet again this year! What an inspiring reminder of the capacity of popular rebellion to shake up an ossified political landscape. It has reminded us how radical politics can challenge the state ‘from without.’ Thanks to BLM, race politics in the US may have made greater strides during Trump’s tenure than any time since the 1960s. Possibly not. But even to have raised this as a possibility would’ve been laughed out of court half a year ago when politics still seemed a space strictly reserved for the state-supporting parties.

Gareth Dale

Gareth Dale is senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Brunel University, London. Before joining Brunel in 2005, he worked at Birkbeck, the LSE and Swansea University. His most recent books are Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left and Reconstructing Karl Polanyi: Excavation and Critique, and a critique of ‘Green Growth’ (all in 2016).

David Bond

Associate Director of CAPA (Center for the Advancement of Public Action) in Bennington College, Vermont, USA

John Hultgren

Faculty of Society, Culture & Thought and Faculty of Environmental Studies, Bennington College Vermont, USA

More on the US: 

Online-Discussion with Fred Block, Margaret R. Somers, and Robert Kuttner. Organized by the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy (Montreal).
Margaret Somers on the US-Elections and beyond, interviewed by John Hultgren and David Bond. November, 2020.
Gareth Dale on Degrowth and the US-Elections, interviewed by John Hultgren and David Bond. October, 2020.
David Bond and John Hultgren on the importance of Polanyi’s work in the US. 30th of June.

Polanyi in the US

Polanyi all over the World

History, Once More, in the Gear of Social Change

In this fourth part of our series 'Polanyi all over the world', David Bond and John Hultgren took some time to review 'The Great Transformation at 75', probably the first major Polanyi conference held in the US in October 2019. In their essay, Bond and Hultgren elaborate on the three main issues that came up again and again during the conference: fascism, democracy and the climate - and thus draw a bigger picture of the multiple crises happening in the US today.

30th of June, 2020


David Bond and John Hultgren 

In October 2019, Bennington College in Vermont, USA, organized a conference entitled “The Great Transformation at 75” to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Karl Polanyi’s magnum opus. It was the first major Karl Polanyi conference in the United States to bring together scholars from all around the world, all of whom gathered in this small town where Polanyi found intellectual sanctuary while writing The Great Transformation.

In 1940, as recession, racism, and totalitarian rule metastasized into worldwide terror, Bennington College announced it would devote its annual lecture fund to supporting endangered scholars fleeing the rise of fascist Europe. Through the serendipitous intervention of Peter Drucker, Karl Polanyi soon arrived on campus as an honorary fellow of the college. It was here, amid the rolling hills, meandering roads, harsh winters, and warm conviviality of rural Vermont, that Polanyi found the time to pull together scattered lines of inquiry into his prescient masterpiece The Great Transformation.

To mark the occasion of the 75th anniversary of its publication, this past October Bennington College brought together scholars and journalists from around the world to reflect on how Polanyi’s magnum opus might help us to understand the worsening condition of the contemporary. The last few years have witnessed the advance of fiercely anti-democratic forces, economies shedding any figment of generalized prosperity, eruptions of parochial hatred and insurgent racisms, the forced displacement of millions, and deepening ecological instability as the uneven impacts of climate change intensify. For three days, we gathered in seminar rooms, dining halls, and walks across the campus Polanyi called home to reflect upon the discordant timeliness of The Great Transformation today. With generosity of thought, spirited debates, and a growing sense that that present is being stretched past its breaking point, we discussed how the insights of The Great Transformation might sharpen our engagements with our fractured world, both to better grasp the cascading forces that enliven human inequity today and to chart ways past them.

Surely, we are living in an age of upheaval once more. Yet our conversation turned to Polanyi’s work less as a blueprint for explaining our present turmoil than as a potent set of concepts that help clarify the specificity of our contemporary crisis. The Great Transformation, as Robert Kuttner reminded us, is not scripture. And it was in the gaps between Polanyi’s terminal diagnosis of his time and our own inhospitable condition that some of our richest conversations took shape, whether around the necessity of incorporating capitalism, as Nancy Fraser insisted, or the necessity of foregrounding ecological crisis, as James Scott retorted. Polanyi always believed society would eventually act to save itself, Michael Burawoy said at one point; today, such survival cannot be presumed. Over the course of the conference, three themes emerged that now anchor this essay: 1) the origins and geography of resurging fascism; 2) the tactics and reach of reinvigorated democratic practice; and 3) the potential form and purpose of eco-socialist responses to the climate crisis.

The Great Transformation insists that fascism is a global phenomenon, forged in the fires of international finance and geopolitics. But it was the inability of democratic institutions to join with popular pressures against marketization that formed the soil within which each instance of fascism took root. Against a backdrop of lived subtractions and foreclosed horizons, authoritarian rule once more surges to the helm. While Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte, El-Sisi, and Trump are frequently explained by provincial problems and national resignation, is there an underlying thread that ties these instances together? What wider webs of misery now snag democratic vitality and entice brutality from above? While some participants turned to the disruptive terrain of globalism and the preemptive tyranny of financial institutions as the key update to Polanyi’s theory of fascism, others brought attention to how militarized violence cleaves populations from social legibility, how progressive identarian critique has hollowed out the terrain of human values, and how climate change shifts our primary register of induced precarity from financial networks to ecological systems.

While widening the focus beyond the nation, Polanyi also insisted we not give too much credence to the fascist militants who first seized power. The Great Transformation carries that startling insight of the 1930s: fascism was not a revolutionary seizure of power but a palace coup. Wary of a socialist reckoning rising in the winds of popular dissent, German business and party leaders readily handed the keys to the statehouse over to a ragtag bunch of militants. In a calculation that still resonates, elites found the burlesque brutalities of fascism more reassuring than reinvigorated democracy. Sound familiar? Even as the corruption and savagery of the Trump Administration comes to ever more light, Trump’s fundraising continues to break records, and relatively few CEO’s have publicly criticized him, as Fred Block noted. In the US, we have to wonder if white nationalist rallies and self-appointed militias should be better understood as a dress rehearsal of what Polanyi called “the sham rebellion” of fascism rather than a broad grassroots revolt against democracy. Indeed, many commentators overlook the well-heeled coalition of evangelicals and shareholders that stand behind Trump, instead explaining our lurch into authoritarianism by way of a clown car of adolescent grievances that appears to be leading the neo-fascist parade. But who is paving the way?


Democracy is under siege. Whether in exempting amassed money from democratic accountability, in widening the reach of executive prerogative, in criminalizing expressions of popular sovereignty, or in tactically restricting access to the ballot, the institutions and practices of democracy are battered from all sides. So much of this echoes themes in The Great Transformation, where Polanyi diagnoses an “anti-democratic virus” endemic to the industrial state. Yet across the US and Europe, capital left the factory for dead decades ago. While still coloring policy prescriptions and the conceptual iconography of class, industrialism is largely a thing of the past in so much of the US and Europe. Where, then, does the contemporary virulence of anti-democratic forces come from?

The legitimacy crisis faced by democratic states is in no small part a product of global institutions in which free-market policy prescriptions are deeply entrenched. Greta Krippner, Claus Thomasburger, and Shaina Potts reminded us that international financial institutions continue to take great pains to insulate economics from politics, and both from democratic pressures. With neoliberal reforms constitutionally enshrined in the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and myriad free trade agreements, what recourse do democratic publics have to resisting the tired triumvirate of austerity, privatization, and deregulation? While radical cosmopolitan sensibilities increasingly permeate left movements, the institutional venues for demanding socialist (or even social democratic) reforms at a global scale remain altogether absent. Robert Kuttner asked: Can democracy survive global capitalism?

The fallout from decades of neoliberalization is acutely felt at home, where shuttered storefronts line Main Street, where work is shattered into pieces (none adequate to build a life), where dreams of ownership are cast aside as rents rise, and where the toxic aftermath of industrial pasts darkens and dampens collective aspiration. Distrust in the system is at an all-time high, and anger refuses the compromised ideologies and platforms of party politics. In these conditions, forms of what Sheldon Wolin calls “fugitive democracy” remain; for example, in the activism of care workers examined by Brigitte Aulenbacher and the solidarity economy movement highlighted by Marguerite Mendell. And yet, much of this democratic ferment unfolds in places of some privilege, at scales below the state and outside the corridors of accumulation. Perhaps we need to re-center democracy around distribution, as Margaret Somers suggested, to confront the profitable basis of our disorder more directly. Or perhaps local struggles over habitation, as Fred Block described, can provide a new basis of progressive politics beyond archaic institutions unable to reign in circuits of capital. From the reallocations of goods or the possibilities of care, our discussion explored the pathways that might pull the capacities of the state into a more principled taming of the market. Whether these political stirrings prefigure new Red Vienna’s or represent the ghost dance of a dying demos, our discussions of democracy were inseparable from considerations of socialism.


For one weekend in Vermont, the necessity of a radical socialist transformation was the default political position in regards to climate change. In true Polanyian fashion, this was not a promethean socialism, where economic growth and technological progress co-exist as hallowed solutions to distributional struggles; but, rather, an eco-socialism where the plausibility of continual economic growth in the midst of ecological crisis must be questioned. At the center of our debate lay the Green New Deal, a bold policy aimed at reasserting democratic control over the economy by bending its capacities towards the production of environmental goods and creating decent jobs in the process. For Kate Aronoff, the Green New Deal is far preferable to market-based reforms like carbon taxes or cap and trade programs whose moderate tone covers over their broken logic: adapting to the crisis of fossil capitalism by drawing nature even further into the casino economy. Gareth Dale cautioned, however, that a Green New Deal, as currently conceived, continues the conceit that we can maintain infinite economic growth on an ecologically finite planet. Referencing the near universal expectation of meat and petrol as the basis of the good life, Andreas Novy asked how a Green New Deal can be implemented in a way that doesn’t reinforce what Brand and Wissen term the “imperial mode of living”?

The lessons of the original New Deal are instructive in this regard. Many Polanyi scholars look to the post-war moment — the durable legacy of the New Deal and the social programs of the Labor Party in England – as the best example of what taming the market consists of in policy (despite Polanyi’s own disappointment about what unfolded in the US and UK after World War II). In light of our present ecological crisis, it is worth reconsidering if the broad post-war prosperity experienced in the US and western Europe was the result of democracy reining in capitalism, or of the engine of capitalism shifting from exploited (domestic) labor to extracted (foreign) nature. While labor successfully negotiated a pathway into middle class lifestyles for workers, and national institutions held back the most spectacular excesses of capital, the economies became newly attentive to, and dependent upon, a massive influx of coerced resources from abroad. The compromise of the industrial welfare state was an agreement, in no small part, bankrolled by Nature from elsewhere.

Mindful of this history, there existed widespread agreement that the Green New Deal must be internationalist in scope, tackle the problem of unequal ecological exchange, and figure out ways to confront an international institutional infrastructure in which markets remain sacrosanct.


A New Age of Upheaval
Kari Polanyi-Levitt closed the conference by walking us through the personal and historical disruptions that converged in the writing of The Great Transformation, and how prescient Polanyi’s emphasis on upheaval has proven to be. And even as we took stock of this new age of upheaval we had no idea of what lay ahead: a global pandemic that, in a matter of weeks, infected every inhabitable corner of the globe. COVID-19 appears a species level event that has catapulted the vulnerabilities and values of humanity itself to the forefront of policy considerations worldwide, though the lesson so far seems to be dismally familiar: distribute suffering downward rather than face-up to the great transformation needed to lift us all up, together.

The world’s poor will surely bear the brunt of this pandemic in the long run, but in the short-term COVID-19 has pricked the swagger of superpowers. The United States has found its sizable fiscal and militarized grasp on the world wholly inadequate to the task of taming this virus. Although it has now shelled out trillions of dollars to stabilize corporate bottom lines, by most human measures the US is a failed state. In this maelstrom – with the economic free-fall and pandemic purgatory that falls hardest on the poor and racial minorities – yet another overt act of racial violence has galvanized a widespread uprising. These past few weeks have witnessed protests that both seize upon and exceed the dilemmas of the pandemic, protests that provide an outlet for both longstanding racial injustice and newfound despair. On the one side, a newly energized movement for racial justice demands the defunding and/or abolition of police, the empowerment of local communities, and, above all, the basic right to breathe – a right threatened by the indiscriminate use of violence, environmental injustice, and inequitable access to healthcare. On the other side lies the demographic and ideological remnants of American conservatism, where the edifice of market fundamentalism is so strong that, even in the face of a pandemic, begging for the freedom to work and the right not to wear masks makes more sense than calling upon the state to provide ample monetary assistance and adequate healthcare. The resonance of this neoliberal reaction is narrow enough, though, that the Right has fallen back onto the only iron-clad ideological tenet of Trumpism: white supremacy.

Worldwide, dissent and despair now gather again on the knife’s edge between the ease of authoritarian certainty and the work of socialist transformation. It may be premature to declare that twentieth century civilization has collapsed, but there is little doubt that history, once more, is in the gear of social change.

David Bond

Associate Director of CAPA
(Center for the Advancement of Public Action, Bennington College
Vermont, USA

John Hultgren

Faculty of Society, Culture & Thought and Faculty of Environmental Studies, Bennington College
Vermont, USA

More ‘Polanyi all over the World’:

Zhang Runkun on the Importance of Polanyi’s work in China. 31st of May.
Edward Webster on the importance for Polanyi’s work in Japan. 19th of October.
Chikako Nakayama on the importance for Polanyi’s work in Japan. 5th of September.
Nils Brandsma on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Sweden. 31st of July.
David Bond and John Hultgren on the importance of Polanyi’s work in the US. 30th of June.
Attila Melegh on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Hungary. 30th of May.
Claire Baker and Alan Scott on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Australia. 25th of April.
Patricia Villen and Bruno de Conti on the importance of Polanyi’s work in Brazil and Latin America. 25th of March.

Businessman standing on an atlas, waving his hand

Free trade forever? On the imminent demise of the hyper-globalization project

Werner Raza (ÖFSE). In the 1930s a group of neoliberal thinkers embarked on a quest to establish a liberal world order. A quest that in the 1990s has led to what Dani Rodrik dubbed “hyper globalization”. However, this quest may now become a victim of its own success. Against the emergence of nationalist geopolitics, we face a new challenge: a challenge to reconstruct international relations on the basis of solidarity and cooperation.


Critics of hyper-globalization often identify the liberation of market forces from the shackles of the regulatory state as the essential element of neoliberalism. While not untrue, it is only half the answer. Equally important is the insight that the necessary corollary to this consists of the construction of a global “Ordnungspolitik” enforced by international institutions.

As Canadian historian Quinn Slobodian has meticulously recounted in his recent seminal book, the ideas for constructing a global economic order above and beyond the powers of the nation state date back to the 1930s. Ever since, the objective of “encasing” the market order from democratic politics has been a central tenet of the globalist project pioneered by economic thinkers in the liberal tradition, such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Wilhelm Röpke. Faced with the end of empires after World War I, the great depression and the disintegration of the world economy in the 1930s, these scholar-activists realized that the global economy needed a strong legal framework for its sustenance. Market forces alone would not guarantee its integrity or automatic reconstruction. The prefix neo-liberal was precisely chosen to indicate this departure from 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism. Neoliberals emphasized that the free workings of the market and the international division of labor needed a legal framework instituted and guaranteed by what Hayek referred to as a global federation. It was the explicit objective that under this framework the hands not only of nation states, but of all political authorities with respect to economic planning and interventionism would be tied.

So, was the Bretton Woods system of international economic governance that rose from the ashes of World War II welcomed by the neoliberals? Unsurprisingly not, for it retained considerable policy space for nation states to restrict financial markets, conduct Keynesian-style economic management, and expand the welfare state. That situation started only to change with the dissolution of the Bretton Woods monetary arrangement in 1971, and the ensuing economic crisis. As a consequence, conservative governments came into power in the UK (1979) and the US (1980) with a distinctly neoliberal agenda, including on international politics. The tight monetary policies of the Reagan administration drastically curtailed the policy space of other countries, particularly in the Global South, which during the 1980s suffered a series of severe debt crises. Crisis resolution was predicated on draconian structural adjustment policies imposed on debtor countries by the IMF and the World Bank, the latter now increasingly under the influence of monetarist doctrine.


The decisive moment for the globalist project came with the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1990/91. What followed was the phase of hyper-globalization. Centered on the trinity of “liberalization-privatization-deregulation”, efforts to promote a global institutional framework were greatly intensified. The resulting institutions, in particular the WTO, founded in 1995, enshrined the progressive liberalization of trade and capital flows into international law, promoted the removal of national regulations (now dubbed “non-tariff barriers”), guaranteed intellectual property rights, and otherwise curtailed national economic powers by imposing all kinds of so-called “disciplines”. International investment agreements codified the rights of investors, including the enforcement of their property rights against states via private international investment arbitration. Indeed, as early as the 1930s, Hayek and others had already anticipated that, by unleashing market forces, competition between nation states for investment would reduce (corporate) taxation levels and exert pressure on governments to cut down on welfare spending. Similarly, the power of trade unions to press for wage increases would be eroded, given the offshoring threat available to corporations.

Clearly, in this period, many of the objectives of the neoliberal masterminds had been achieved. Global governance mechanisms largely severed economic activity from the realm of national politics, and thus constrained governments’ ability for discretionary policies. To make matters worse, third-way social democrats like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Gerhard Schröder turned into zealous disciples of the new gospel, thus sealing neoliberal hegemony across the political spectrum. Regardless of which political ideology had its foot in the corridors of powers, economic policies hardly differed. British sociologist Colin Crouch aptly described this as a state of “Post-democracy”.


Given this success story, how can the emergence of nationalist leaders like Donald Trump and his economic nationalism then be explained? The neoliberals have not much to offer in this respect. Though they could not but accept the democratic nation state as a fact of political life, their explicit aim was to constrain its policy space to cultural issues in the hope that this would suffice to calm popular instincts for identification and community. But if national governments were to actively intervene into economic affairs on the back of popular pressure, neoliberals would insist that the liberal order had to be maintained. They considered it inevitable that the social costs associated with the free operation of market forces had to be borne by workers – and capitalists, to the extent that they did not succeed in the marketplace. Restraining democracy – either through outright support for a dictatorial regime (e.g. the Pinochet regime in Chile) or by resort to technocratic government (e.g. the recent governments of Mario Monti in Italy and of Loukas Papadimos in Greece) – was accepted as a necessary, if only temporary side effect of good economic governance.

In this respect, re-reading Karl Polanyi’s opus magnum “The great transformation”, written roughly at the same time Hayek et al. developed their hyper-globalization project, is enlightening. For Polanyi, it was precisely the dis-embedding of 19th century liberal capitalism from society that led us into the cataclysm of the two world wars and the horrors of fascism. If the economy became a detached system remodeling society according to its own demands, while externalizing the social costs of private enterprise upon the former, society would eventually strike back. Seen from this light, does Donald Trump not resemble a déjà-vu phenomenon reminiscent of European politics in the 1930s? Indeed, US voters from the working middle-classes, who have seen their prosperity eroded, the career perspectives of their offspring undermined, and their moral values denigrated by political correctness, have become disenchanted with established politics. Instead, they supported an extravagant political outsider claiming to put popular interests on top of his political agenda. Needless to say, this “populist moment” (©Chantal Mouffe) also resonates with the rise of far-right parties in Europe and their neo-nationalist projects.

A Polanyian perspective thus suggests that hyper-globalization has produced the very demons the Liberal mainstream conveniently deplores as the enemies of the open society. If the geopolitical agendas of Donald Trump and his likes eventually put an end to the hyper-globalization project, given its profound internal contradictions, this demise was ultimately unavoidable. The repercussions of nationalist geopolitics on international relations might be severe, but Karl Polanyi reminds us that counter-movements can also be progressive in orientation. In the 1930s and 1940s, effectively combatting fascism required abandoning the utopia of economic liberalism. Today, unleashing society from the globalist straitjacket is a key challenge. It is on us to live up to this challenge and reconstruct international relations on the basis of solidarity and cooperation, as well as to re-create spaces of manoeuver for democratic politics at the local, national and macro-regional levels.