Category Archives: Debates

Domestic work and home care brokerage in Sri Lanka and Austria

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Domestic work and home care brokerage in Sri Lanka and Austria: on ‘fictitious commodities’, dis/embedded markets, ‘institutional logics’ and social inequalities

30th of August, 2023

Brigitte Aulenbacher and Wasana Handapangoda

Since the 1990s, in the era of neoliberal globalization, a new migration industry has taken shape: the brokerage of domestic services by recruiting mostly female workers from the poorer parts of the world or of the population and placing them as domestic or care workers in middle- and upper-class households around the globe. The article draws on two projects and compares the transnational brokerage of domestic work in Sri Lanka and home care in Austria[1]. It aims at analysing this migration industry through Polanyian, neo-institutionalist and intersectional lenses.


Labour and care brokerage as paradigmatic case of the ‘commodity fiction’ and its limits


In the Sri Lankan and Austrian case, brokerage agencies are intermediators, and the core element of their activity is, in a Polanyian sense, the transformation of labour and care into ‘fictitious commodities’ which are sold like ‘genuine commodities’ but neither have been ‘produced for sale’ nor can ‘be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized’ (Polanyi 2001, p.75; see Aulenbacher and Leiblfinger 2019). In both cases, these inherent limits of the ‘commodity fiction’ (Polanyi 2001, p. 75) become visible when it comes to the so called ‘matching’ of the households (employers or care recipients and relatives) and the domestic and care workers in the live-in work arrangement: on the one hand, brokerage agencies as marketeers consider domestic and care workers as a more or less readily workforce in competitive labour markets and therefore offer to exchange them if the arrangement does not work as expected by the households (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Handapangoda 2023); on the other hand and far away from the idea of workforce ‘detached from the rest of life’ (Polanyi 2001, p.75), households as well as brokerage agencies often expect that domestic and care workers subordinate their whole life to the demands and needs of employers or care recipients during the period they are hired for (Handapangoda 2023; Lutz and Benazha 2024), transforming live-in work as a specific case of ‘unfree labour’ (Parreñas 2021).

Although the ideology of the ‘free market’ is most significant in the field of domestic work and home care brokerage, the consumer as well as the labour market can be considered as dis/embedded markets in a Polanyian sense: while pretended to be ‘self-regulating’ (Polanyi 2001, 157) by supply and demand, they are obviously embedded in the normative and   institutional order of the society. This means they are politically shaped and regulated by the state (laws, politics, and policies) and influenced by further “institutional logics” (Thornton et al, 2012, pp. 3ff., 65ff.) – besides those of the market and state also by religious, familial, professional, communitarian etc., orientations which are inherent to the respective care, employment, welfare, and migration regimes of the countries involved. This normative and institutional order also shapes and is shaped by social inequalities, e.g., in terms of the division and recognition of labour, care etc., in the relations of gender, race/ethnicity and class. In this normative and institutional order hybrid and stratified live-in work and care arrangements take shape (Dammayr 2019, p. 51ff.; Aulenbacher et al. 2018), which are formalized and informally organized. In this setting, the commodification of labour and care is interwoven with imageries of the ‘ideal’ migrant and female worker defined along criteria, such as education, nationality, colour of skin, religion, emotions etc., who is expected to fulfill the professional as well as familial demands of the household and to provide the services promised by the brokerage agencies. Thereby the legal status of labour and care brokerage legitimizes the live-in arrangement despite the extremely exploitative working conditions workers are often subject to (Aulenbacher and Prieler 2024; Handapangoda 2023; Parreñas 2021; Prieler 2021; Steiner et al. 2020). 


The Sri Lankan kafala and the Austrian self-employment model of brokerage

In Polanyi’s perspective (2001), brokerage typifies how state and non-state actors interact and at times compete to limit exposure to the market (Goodwin 2022). Dealing with the ‘fictitious commodity’ labour, in Sri Lanka brokers act as ‘bureaucratic interpreters’ (Wee et al. 2020, p. 994). They translate policy texts into tacit and explicit advice as well as private contracts (Wee et al. 2020) and aim at professionalizing domestic services by certifications, education etc. Kafala, a private sponsorship system by the employer, characterizes unarguably the most significant rule of law governing the recruitment of migrant domestic workers (MDWs) from Sri Lanka to the Middle East (e.g., Kuwait and Saudi-Arabia). It defines the employer – employee  relationship, giving employers absolute control over MDWs’ work and residency status in the Middle East. This means that their entry, stay/work, and exit from the country of destination are subject to employer’s express consent. Importantly, kafala as a sponsorship scheme is connected to an excessive brokerage borne by the employer. This is particularly the case of Sri Lanka where employers have to pay around $5,500–6,500 for hiring one domestic worker. Brokerage therefore creates a form of debt slavery, whereas it is recovered by the employer through exploitation, overwork and non-payment or withholding of salary to MDWs. The whole commerce behind this employer – employee relationship coalesces around the exploitation of labour power through market capitalism. Migration brokers are thus powerful players in the dis/embedded consumer and labour markets. They exercise a greater degree of latitude in determining the relation of market and non-market institutions, thus wavering between self-regulation of the market at one end and absence of the market at the other, combining the logics of the state, market and profession with a system of personal debt, thereby promoting extremely exploitative working conditions in the frame of ‘unfree labour’ (Parreñas 2021).   

 Austria’s strongly neoliberal self-employment model of senior home care brokerage is considered to be forerunner of legal and affordable care provision (Steiner et al. 2020) embedded in a care regime in which the logics of the welfare state, family, profession and market converge (Shire 2015): cash-for-care policies – uncommitted care allowances and additional federal allowances to support the live-in care arrangement –, legalization of live-in work and its professional acceptance as personal care by the Home Care Act as well as the separation between brokerage of personal care and personal care as free trades, have created the conditions for a flourishing consumer market in which brokerage agencies offer their services by recruiting self-employed care workers, mostly women from Eastern Europe  (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Leiblfinger and Prieler 2018; Leiber and Österle 2022). Brokerage agencies deal with the ‘fictitious commodities’ of care and labour by offering householding, companion, everyday life and medical assistance as services, intermediating the ‘ideal’ care worker, drafting the contracts for all parties involved, thereby indirectly influencing many caring and working conditions of the live-in arrangement, such as fees, honorarium, transport, demands, etc. Furthermore, brokerage agencies act as stakeholders and lobbyists to influence the (self-)regulation and business conditions of this migration industry by themselves or by addressing the state (to increase the federal allowances, to indirectly regulate the market by a national quality seal, etc.) (Aulenbacher et al. 2020; Leiber and Österle 2022). Thereby brokerage agencies as the most powerful players of all the parties involved, formalize more and more their own business conditions striving to improve the domestic services while the negotiation of the live-in arrangement in private households remains in a zone of informality due to the reason that self-employment is not covered and protected by the labour law and rights (Aulenbacher and Prieler 2024).


Comparison and conclusion


In the Sri Lankan and the Austrian case of live-in work and care, blurring boundaries between work and leisure time, sexual harassment, extended demands and duties, ethnic or racist stereotypes and division of labour, and lack of respect for workers are part of the everyday practice (Aulenbacher and Leiblfinger 2019; Prieler 2021; Handapangoda 2024). Brokers are aware of the exploitability and vulnerability of poor female migrant workers and of the social inequality – workers pushed to migrate, employers or care recipients able to pay for the services – as constitutive element of their business. They often consider themselves as mediators between all parties involved. However, they provide their services primarily in favour of the employers or the care recipients and their relatives because most of the payment comes from them while many decisions concerning everyday life and work in the live-in arrangement are made in the informality of the private households and this means: between unequal parties and beyond the given contracts.

The Sri Lankan kafala and the Austrian self-employment-model of brokerage evidence how different the commodification of labour and care are embedded in socio-spatial and historical settings in the Global North and South and the normative and institutional order of the countries involved. Nevertheless, such extremely different models of the ‘commodification’, ‘marketization’ and ‘corporatization’ (Farris and Marchetti 2017) of labour and care in the global brokerage industry – kafala as a system of personal debt and self-employment as a system of neoliberal self-responsibility – have in common that labour rights fail. On highly competitive dis/embedded consumer and labour markets, the formalization, professionalization and regulation of domestic services by brokers can be combined with extremely poor working and living conditions of the domestic and care workers. However, struggles and protests of domestic and care workers – as a Polanyian ‘countermovement’ (Polanyi 2001, see Aulenbacher et al. 2020) – around the globe (Blofield & Jokela 2018; Marchetti 2022; Schilliger 2024) indicate the limits of this new ‘commodity fiction’ (Polanyi 2001) in domestic service provision.

[1]Austrian country study of the D-A-CH-project „Decent Care Work? Transnational Home Care Arrangements“ funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (project I 3145 G 29) and conducted by Brigitte Aulenbacher (applicant/chair), Michael Leiblfinger, Veronika Prieler, Johannes Kepler University Linz/Austria; duration 06/2017-11/2021 ( and Lise-Meitner-Grant „‘Ideal’ Migrant Subjects: Domestic Service in Globalization“ (project M 2724-G) funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and conducted by Wasana Handapangoda (applicant/chair) and Brigitte Aulenbacher (co-applicant/mentor), Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria, duration 11/2019-04/2023.



Aulenbacher, Brigitte and Michael Leiblfinger. 2019. ‘The “Fictitious Commodity” Care and the Reciprocity of Caring: A Polanyian and neo-institutionalist perspective on the brokering of 24-hour-care’”, in Capitalism in Transformation, Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century, ed. Roland. Atzmüller, Brigitte Aulenbacher, Ulrich Brand, Fabienne Décieux, Karin Fischer and Birgit Sauer, (eds.), Capitalism in Transformation, Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar:147–171.

Aulenbacher, Brigitte, Fabienne Décieux and Birgit Riegraf. 2018. “The economic shift and beyond: Care as a contested terrain in contemporary capitalism”. Current Sociology 66(4): 517-530. 

Aulenbacher, Brigitte, Michael Leiblfinger and Veronika Prieler. 2020. “The promise of decent care and the problem of poor working conditions: Double movements around live-in care in AustriaJournal of the Division of Sociology, Social Policy, Social Work 2(5):1-21. 

Aulenbacher, Brigitte and Veronika Prieler. 2024. “The ‘good agency’? On the interplay of formalization and informality in the contested marketization of live-in care in Austria”. In: Brigitte Aulenbacher, Helma Lutz, Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck and Karin Schwiter (eds.), Home Care for Sale, The Transnational Brokering of Senior Care in Europe. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington: SAGE (forthcoming).  

Blofield, Merike, and Jokela, Merita. 2018. “Paid Domestic Work and the Struggles of Care Workers in Latin America”. Current Sociology Monograph 66(2): 531-546.

Dammayr, Maria. 2019. Legitime Leistungspolitiken? Leistung, Gerechtigkeit und Kritik in der Altenpflege. Weinheim und Basel: Beltz Juventa. 

Farris, Sara R., and Sabrina Marchetti. 2017. “From the Commodification to the Corporatization of Care: European Perspectives and Debates.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24(2): 109–131. 

Goodwin, Geoff. 2022. “Double Movements and Disembedded Economies: A Response to Richard Sandbrook”, Development and Change 53(3): 676:702.

Handapangoda, Wasana. 2023. “A Regime Analysis: Evidence from Sri Lankan Migrant Domestic Workers’ Voyage to Saudi Arabia”. Global Labour Journal 14(2):148-164. 

Handapangoda, Wasana. 2024. “Reproducing ‘self’ and ‘other’ in the micropolitics of paid domestic labour: Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia”. In: Annelisa Carstensen, Peter Birke, Lisa Riedner and Nikolai Huke (eds.), Anthology of Migration and Work. Beltz Juventa (forthcoming). 

Leiblfinger, Michael and Veronika Prieler. 2018. “Elf Jahre 24-Stunden-Betreuung in Österreich: Eine Policy- und Regime-Analyse“ (Linzer Beiträge zu Wirtschaft – Ethik – Gesellschaft 9). Linz: Katholische Privat-Universität Linz.

Leiber, Simone and August Österle. 2022. “Formalisierung des Informellen. Die Regulierung der „24-Stunden-Betreuung“ in Österreich und Deutschland”’, WSI-Mitteilungen, 75(5): 380–385.

Lutz, Helma and Aranka Vanessa Benazha. 2024. “At home with the employer? — Contradictory notions of the care client’s home as a workplace and living space”. In: Brigitte Aulenbacher, Helma Lutz, Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck and Karin Schwiter (eds.), Home Care for Sale, The Transnational Brokering of Senior Care in Europe. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington: SAGE (forthcoming).

Marchetti, Sabrina. 2022. Migration and Domestic Work. Cham: Springer. 

Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar. 2021. Unfree: Migrant Domestic Work in Arab States. California: Stanford University Press.

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

Prieler, Veronika. 2021. “‘The Good Live-in Care Worker’: Subject Formation and Ethnicisation in Austrian Live-in Care”. Sociológia, 53(6): 483-501.

Schilliger, Sarah.2024. “Breaking out of the ‘prisoner of love’ dilemma: infrastructures of solidarity for live-in care workers in Switzerland”. In: Brigitte Aulenbacher, Helma Lutz, Ewa Palenga-Möllenbeck and Karin Schwiter (eds.), Home Care for Sale, The Transnational Brokering of Senior Care in Europe. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington: SAGE (forthcoming).  

Shire, Karen. 2015. Family supports and insecure work: The politics of household service employment in Conservative Welfare Regimes, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 22 (2): 193–219.

Steiner, Jennifer, Veronika Prieler, Michael Leiblfinger and Aranka Vanessa Benazha. 2020. „Truly legal!? Legal framing and legality narratives in live-in care in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. In: Noémi Katona and Attila Melegh (eds.), Towards a scarcity of care? Tensions and contradictions in transnational elderly care systems in central and eastern Europe. Budapest: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung: 69–91.

Thornton, Patricia H., William Ocasio and Michael Lounsbury. 2012. The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wee, Kellynn, Charmian Goh and Brenda A. A. Yeoh. 2020. Translating People and Policy: The Role of Maid Agents in Brokering between Employers and Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore’s Migration Industry. International Migration Review 54(4):992-1015.

Brigitte Aulenbacher

Prof. Dr. Brigitte Aulenbacher is Head of the Department for the Theory of Society, Institute of Sociology, at the Johannes Kepler University Linz and Vice-President of the International Karl Polanyi Sociey.

Wasana Handapangoda

Dr. Wasana Handapangoda is currently a Visiting Scholar (Lise Meitner-Grant/FWF) at the Department for the Theory of Society, Institute of Sociology, at the Johannes Kepler University Linz (2019-2023)

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: 


Contested Marketisation and Communitisation of Care

Contested Marketisation and Communitisation of Care: Migrant live-in care and Caring Communities in Austria

15th of May, 2023

Florian Pimminger

As in many other European countries, the Austrian society is faced with challenges to organise care services for the growing share of senior people. Two tendencies can be identified to address occurring care gaps in the face of demographic transition: on the one hand, market-mediated provision of care and, on the other hand, the potential for care within communities.

In this article, we shed light on the ongoing marketisation of care work with respect to agency-mediated live-in care, conducted mostly by women from Eastern European countries, living and working as caregivers in Austrian households. Moreover, we focus on multi-faceted forms of communitisation in terms of caring communities, local and neighbourhood initiatives and alternative living arrangements for seniors. These developments, among others, can be analysed as controversial and ambivalent societal reactions to the ongoing “crisis of care” (Maier 2022).

Persistency and Fragility: Care Gaps within the Welfare State

Within the Austrian society, the ideal of living at home in old age is culturally and institutionally firmly anchored (cf. Bauer et al. 2014; Prieler 2021). At the same time, Austria’s welfare state shows different scopes of responsibility: “while the long-term care allowance [“Pflegegeld”] is a national responsibility, services are the responsibility of the provinces” (Österle 2021: 7). This means a primarily addressing of families, with state investments directed towards this. Idealising family care is supported by a variety of political measures. Despite public expansions of inpatient, day-care and mobile services, senior care provision “has traditionally been embedded in both family structures and state institutions securing and enabling those structures” (Weicht 2019: 264).

Despite equalisations, inequalities are shaping the feminised working environment of the care sector. Regarding the shift from a male-breadwinner to a so-called adult worker model, Austria is described as a “gendered model of explicit familialism, which reiterates the male breadwinner and female caregiver ideology” (Mairhuber/Sardadvar 2018: 66; Leitner 2014). Not only in the area of family-based provision, but also in the service sector administered by provincial authorities and the third sector (non-profit welfare agencies), working pressure is increasing and gaps are emerging.

Live-in-Care and Caring Communities as Reactions to Care Crisis

Especially since the legalisation of the self-employment model in 2007, agency-mediated live-in care has become an important pillar of care provisioning for seniors (Aulenbacher et al 2021; Österle 2021). On a European market for care work, agencies sell care (as a “fictitious commodity” in a Polanyian sense – cf. Aulenbacher et al. 2020) to more affluent societies, responding to growing demands.

Live-in care is organised as a market-oriented self-employment model, in which care in private homes of the cared-for is operated as a business, and caregivers as well as agencies are represented by the Chamber of Commerce. What is known in everyday language as “24-hour care” points discursively to the permanent availability of the caregivers. Mediated by currently around 1000 agencies of different size, these for- and non-profit organisations have become powerful actors, as they have a decisive influence on the conditions under which it is provided (Aulenbacher et al. 2021). This has resulted in a dynamically developing care market – transnationally and within the welfare state.

Live-in care workers are often referred to as virtual or imagined family members. Accordingly, relatives and family caregivers often associate care tasks with qualities that are typically assigned to families, like intimacy, love, or housekeeping (Weicht 2019). Thus, migrant caregivers, who live in the shared household, are often seen as substitute for family care. This relates to gender norms and family logics that are ingrained in the Austrian care regime (Aulenbacher et al. 2018). The arrangement is further consolidated through quality seals and additional financial subsidies (Aulenbacher et al. 2021; Österle 2021). Mostly large – for-profit and non-profit – agencies hold a special quality seal, trying to stand out against other agencies. In this way, agencies are seeking to make live-in care more competitive and sustainable (Aulenbacher et al. 2020).

However, movements have become apparent. Providers at regional levels and welfare agencies are trying find new ways to improve the arrangement through higher degrees of transparency, slightly enhanced working conditions, more integrated cooperation with mobile and medical services. Although the sector is growing steadily, the condition of the arrangement remains controversial. Critics focus on precarious working and living conditions, and coalitions of caregivers are formed (Aulenbacher et al. 2022; Maier 2022). These initiatives and NGOs are revealing problematic conditions of working in a foreign household and the challenges of pendulum migration.

In addition to tendencies towards marketisation, various community initiatives are gaining relevance, aiming at understanding care for senior citizens as a task to be dealt with collaboratively and at establishing more reciprocity-oriented care networks (Dressel et al. 2022; Wegleitner &Schuchter 2018; Wegleitner & Schuchter 2021).

What unites these diverse forms of communitisation, in all their heterogeneity, is to strengthen new cultures of care, cooperation and community-building. They often strive to bring together residents of a municipality or region with local family caregivers in order to raise awareness about issues of vulnerability, dying, death and loss, and how care work is currently allocated. As one project report puts it, it is a matter of “perceiving, organising and maintaining a multifaceted fabric of (caring) relationships” (Wegleitner & Schuchter 2021: 10).

Caring community projects are set up and supported by government institutions, in cooperation with local or confessional services and civil society actors. Currently, projects are promoted using the motto “Towards Good Neighbourhoods” or “Caring Communities for Future”, focusing on interaction between civil society initiatives and professionals. These (pilot) projects aim to improve the quality of life and health of citizens and reduce the burden on the health and care system.  

Community-based forms of care are still a niche phenomenon in Austria, which is gaining in importance. Financial incentives, support programs, the variety of projects as well as political and scientific debates on community-based forms of care indicate their increasing relevance. As societal reactions to insufficient public provision and to “fragmentation, bureaucratisation and commodification of care” (Wegleitner & Schuchter 2019: 5), caring communities can be interpreted as Polanyian counter-movements. At the same time, their organisation and embedding in the welfare state are controversial. The reorganisation of logics of (and through) communitisation may result in altered forms of division of labour. Gender inequalities can potentially be challenged but also de-thematised (Aulenbacher et al. 2018; Reimer & Riegraf 2016; Wegleitner & Schuchter 2018). In this context, questions arise about the extent to which more reciprocal community initiatives can contribute to new family, generational and gender arrangements. Or more generally: whether it could lead to questioning of traditional orientations that have shaped the provision of care so far.




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Weicht, Bernhard (2019): The commodification of informal care: joining and resisting marketization processes. In: Roland Atzmüller / Brigitte Aulenbacher / Ulrich Brand / Fabienne Décieux / Karin Fischer / Birgit Sauer (Hg.), Capitalism in Transformation: Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 261–274.

Florian Pimminger

Ph.D. student in Social Sciences, Economics and Business. Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) at the Institute of Sociology (Department for the Theory of Society and Social Analyses) of the Johannes Kepler University Linz. As part of the ÖAW DOC-team 114 “The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing” ( he is currently conducting a project on the societal organisation of care between marketisation and communitisation in the care regimes of Austria, Hungary, and the Netherlands. The blog post is the result of close cooperation with Brigitte Aulenbacher and Valentin Fröhlich within this project. Contact details:

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: 

Analysing Senior Care in its Change

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Analysing Senior Care in its Change – The Twofold Hybridity in the Societal Embedding of Marketised and Communitised Care

10th of May, 2023

Valentin Fröhlich

Due to societal transformation, the field of senior care is in flux. Responding to growing demands and arising care gaps or even crises in European countries, the interaction of the state, market, communities, third sector and families or individuals has shifted. On the one hand intensified outsourcing of senior care to the private sector, the responsibilisation of individuals as well as the family and the growing presence of profit-oriented companies, selling care on transnational markets was observed (cf. Aulenbacher 2020; Vaittinen et al. 2018; Lutz 2017). Accordingly, in-kind services are replaced and supplemented by financial subsidies, leading to commodification. As a result, the creation of markets is politically motivated, supported, or accelerated, leading to marketisation, and corporative practices are increasingly introduced, leading to corporatisation (Farris & Marchetti 2017). On the other hand, cuts in or outsourcing of public services entail not only market-oriented care services but also ambivalent civic society engagement and protective responses by the community. In this context, through the rise of a configuration that has been called “community capitalism” (van Dyk & Haubner 2021), not only individuals, the market, and companies, but also volunteers, unpaid work, and civic engagement are taken into service, creating a distinct instrumentalization of the “resource” community. Yet in contrast, community building also deals with the struggle to organise social environment collectively, involving attempts to create an adequate political and regulatory framework for providing care, making care visible, promoting participation (Wegleitner & Schuchter 2021; Klie 2019), and the “search for future images of successful care” (Schuchter et al. 2022: 230; own translation).

Shifted responsibilities were thereby not only accompanied by the further evolvement of market-based (agency-brokered) care and the progression of caring communities into an important pillar of senior care provisioning in affluent societies but also by movements in the practice, requirements, orientation, and societal framing of these care arrangements. While the established model of transnationally operating agencies consists in the placement of largely migrant female care workers in the household of the cared for, changing patterns and cross-sectoral activities have become apparent and although a caring community is already defined by its openness (cf. Sempach et al. 2023) these changes and new activities at the interface of communities, the state, the family, and the market are also increasingly taking place. This not only suggests that the field of care and, in this respect, the marketisation and communitisation of care are contested, but moreover opens the question of whether changes in the provision of care and the organisation of care work are potentially due to precisely this contested nature. It is thus this very question that prompts us to consider the tendencies of marketisation and communitisation not as mechanical or deterministic, but rather as inherently heterogeneous and hybrid, and this at least in a twofold way. In this blog-entry, we take this thought of a “twofold hybridity” further by combining Polanyi’s substantivist understanding of the economy with the institutional logics perspective.

Principles of ‘Caring’ Behaviour …

According to Polanyi, man “survives by virtue of an institutionalized interaction between himself and his natural surroundings. That process is the economy, which supplies him with the means of satisfying his material wants” (Polanyi 1977: 20). This substantivist economy is thereby not to be confused with a formalist definition, i.e. the equation of “the human economy with its market form” (ibid.), as economic processes or the organization of livelihood are not solely characterized by (market-)exchange but also by redistribution, reciprocity and householding[1] (ibid. 2001). These principles manifest in “heterogeneous combinations; and even where one is clearly dominant, that dominance may be codependent on other forms” (Peck 2013: 1555). With this understanding, Polanyi thus provides tools to examine variegated forms of market-based and community-based care provision and allows to reveal the formative hybrid interplay of different principles. If we look at the movement towards marketised agency-brokered live-in care through this lens, it becomes apparent that the commodification, marketisation and corporatization of care is decisively shaped by the principle of (market-)exchange, but that the tendency of disembedding results in redistributive or reciprocal reactions, without which it could not persist as an even more establishing arrangement (cf. Aulenbacher et al. 2018a, b). While the state occupies an ambivalent stance in the provision of care – pushing markets for centuries –, redistributive policies or regulations bear the potential to counteract the effects of marketisation. Reciprocity is not only fundamental to any (care) relationship – although sometimes asymmetrically and thus not in a strictly Polanyian sense –, it also is the basis for creating bonds between different actors who, as a community, build a place for advocacy or protest. As care in the household of the person to be cared for, live-in care furthermore encompasses or even appropriates the principle of householding by integrating the caregiver as a (quasi-)member into this self-sufficient unit.  

… and the Institutional Differentiation of Society

In addition to Polanyi’s theory, we draw on the institutional logics perspective to examine how (market-)exchange, redistribution, householding, and reciprocity interact with the institutional order of society and corresponding logics. Logics as defined by Thornton et al. (2012: 2) are “assumptions, values, and beliefs by which individuals and organisations provide meaning to their daily activity, organise time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences”; that emerge from and are linked to “institutional orders” of the family, community, religion, state, market, profession, and corporation (ibid.: 104). As stated by Brigitte Aulenbacher et al. (2014: 213) for the field of care and care work, institutional logics express themselves as guiding action individually, organizationally, and institutionally (cf. Aulenbacher et al. 2018a, b), thus enabling us to examine how – and according to which implicit rules – actors orient their practices. At the same time, actors may refer to different logics that are potentially conflictive, but also mutually benefiting each other (Dammayr 2019: 67f.). This means that market logics and the principle of market exchange respectively logics of the community and community principles can coexist with each other and with logics of the state, corporation, profession, religion, and family. In the provision of live-in care cash-for-care policies, competing agencies on an ever-growing care market, and the family’s demand for “loving”, intimate but also professional care work provided at home intertwine. In contrast, caring communities rearrange logics and are oriented towards reciprocity, which may conflict with market or corporate logics.

As an analytical tool, our concept of a “twofold hybridity” hence encompasses the configuration of economic processes as entangled, mutually dependent principles and a further societal differentiation in the provisioning of care along the institutional orders of the family, the market, the corporation, the community, the state, the profession, and religion.



Aulenbacher, Brigitte / Dammayr, Maria / Décieux, Fabienne (2014): Herrschaft, Arbeitsteilung, Ungleichheit: Das Beispiel der Sorgearbeit und Sorgeregime im Gegenwartskapitalismus. In: Prokla 175, 44(2), 209-224.

Aulenbacher, Brigitte / Décieux, Fabienne / Riegraf, Birgitt (2018a): Capitalism goes care. Elder and child care between market, state, profession, and family and questions of justice and inequality. In: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 37(4), 347-360.

Aulenbacher, Brigitte / Décieux, Fabienne / Riegraf, Birgitt (2018b): The economic shift and beyond. Care as a contested terrain in contemporary capitalism. In: Current Sociology, 66(4), 517-530.

Aulenbacher, Brigitte (2020): Auf neuer Stufe vergesellschaftet: Care und soziale Reproduktion im Ge-genwartskapitalismus. In: Karina Becker / Kristina Binner / Fabienne Décieux (Hg.), Ge-spannte Arbeits- und Geschlechterverhältnisse im Marktkapitalismus. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden; Springer VS, 125–147.

Dammayr, Maria (2019): Legitime Leistungspolitiken? Leistung, Gerechtigkeit und Kritik in der Altenpflege. Arbeitsgesellschaft im Wandel. Weinheim: Beltz.

van Dyk, Silke / Haubner, Tine (2021): Community-Kapitalismus. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition.

Farris, Sara R. / Marchetti, Sabrina (2017): From the Commodification to the Corporatization of Care. European Perspectives and Debates. In: Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24/2, 109–131.

Klie, Thomas (2019): Wen kümmern die Alten? Auf dem Weg in eine sorgende Gesellschaft. Pattloch.

Lutz, Helma (2017): Care as a fictitious commodity. Reflections on the intersections of migration, gender and care regimes. In: Migration Studies 5/3, 356–368.

Peck, Jamie (2013): For Polanyian Economic Geographies. In: Environment and Planning A, 45, 1545-1568.

Polanyi, Karl (1977): The livelihood of man. New York, N.Y. u.a.: Acad. Press.

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

Schuchter, Patrick / Wegleitner, Klaus / Herpich, Andreas (2022): Die Dialektik der Sorge zwischen Regel und Ausnahme: Ethische Reflexionen zu „Care & Corona“ rund um das Hospiz Veronika Eningen. In: Limina 5/1, 223–249.

Sempach, Robert / Steinebach, Christoph / Zängl, Peter (Hg.) (2023): Care Schafft Community – Community Braucht Care. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH.

Thornton, Patricia H. / Ocasio, William / Lounsbury, Michael (2012): The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure, and Process. Oxford University Press.

Vaittinen, Tiina / Hoppania, Hanna-Kaisa / Karsio, Olli (2018): Marketization, commodification and privatization of care services. In: Juanita Elias / Adrienne Roberts (Hg.), Handbook on the international political economy of gender. Cheltenham Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 379–391.

Wegleitner, Klaus / Schuchter, Patrick (2021): Handbuch Caring Communities – Sorgenetze stärken – Solidarität leben. Eigenverlag Rotes Kreuz.

[1] We are deeply indepted to Anna Safuta’s seminal comment at the workshop “The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing”, pointing out the essentiality of householding in analysing senior care that takes place in the (private) household of families or the realm of communities. 

Valentin Fröhlich

Valentin Fröhlich, MSSc, BSc: Ph.D. student in Social Sciences and Humanities. Fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) at the Institute of Sociology (Department for the Theory of Society and Social Analyses) of the Johannes Kepler University Linz and Student Research Assistant at the Institute of the History of Philosophy of the Catholic Private University Linz. As part of the ÖAW DOC-team 114 “The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing” ( he is currently researching the societal organisation of care between marketisation and communitisation in the care regimes of Austria, Hungary, and the Netherlands. The blog post is the result of close cooperation with Brigitte Aulenbacher and Florian Pimminger within this project.

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: 

Bringing life’s work to market: Performation struggles and incomplete commodification on the margins

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Bringing life’s work to market: Performation struggles and incomplete commodification on the margins

15th of September, 2022

Christian Berndt

“Housing markets are less liquid, but people are very careful when they buy houses. It’s typically the biggest investment they’re going to make, so they look around very carefully and they compare prices. The bidding process is very detailed.“

This is how the economist Eugene Fama responded to a question about the efficiency of the real estate and housing market in an interview on the eve of the 2008/2009 US mortgage crisis (Clement 2007). Fama is considered the “father” of the so-called efficient market hypothesis. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2013 for his research. Even in the face of emerging distortions, Fama saw no reason to abandon the efficiency assumption. For him, house and apartment buyers in particular weigh their decisions carefully. They look around carefully and compare prices, the material condition of the properties and their locations. In short, they calculate rationally. This is precisely how perfect market competition works in mainstream economics. In their simplest form, markets are efficient because market prices reflect all available information. For neoclassical economists, markets are infallible and are therefore fundamentally better suited to solving environmental and social problems than, for example, the state or a social community.

A cascading number of crises that seem to follow each other in ever shorter time intervals have since made it increasingly difficult to dismiss suggestions of market failure in such a cavalier way. The ongoing presence of orthodox economic thinking notwithstanding, there is reason to believe that the times of radical market thinking and unfettered neoliberal marketization are finally over. This is a perfect moment to think differently about markets and marketization and to break to spell of the neoclassical market. I will use the space of this blog entry to do so on the example of housing, combining insights of “social studies of economization” (Çalışkan and Callon, 2010) and “geographies of marketization” (Berndt and Boeckler 2012, 2020) with Polanyian political economy. I will do so by making three related arguments:

The first is the conviction that it is marketization as a process that matters, and not markets as self-contained entities. The focus is on markets “in the making”, a process that is necessarily incomplete and unstable. As such marketization is the work of a large number of actors, human and non-human, who arrange markets in a delicate double play of entanglement and disentanglement – or, to use the words of STS scholars, “framing”. In the housing market framing is the work of a human-nonhuman working group of real estate agents who apply models and knowledge from their various practice disciplines; material devices such as valuation models and formulas, benchmarks, online platforms, maps, redlining; and of course wider regulatory structures. What would the marketization of housing be without institutionalized property rights, legal norms or various kinds of standards? But assembling these heterogeneous agents is not enough. Before they can be entangled other connections have to be cut. When real estate practitioners perform their calculations they have to bracket out all kinds of “non-economic” considerations. All these provide the frames that make market transactions possible. But framing is never complete. The “entities” in question exceed the various frames, there are “overflows” that cause friction and irritation. In the case of housing this may concern non-market valuations of a certain neighborhood or emotional attachment to the places in question. Or protests against the growing presence of various “others” (wealthy gentrifiers, people perceived as “foreign”).

Second, by reading marketization from below, that is, from the vantage point of actually-existing market settings, prescriptive orthodox representations lose their overshadowing hegemony. There are always additional logics and rationalities at work. The ideal-type understanding of the market is always only one of these logics. This may happen in relative harmony, but more often involves struggles between antagonistic rationalities, strategies, and values. With Karl Polanyi (1957) one might point to his well-known institutional forms, each associated with a particular social pattern: in addition to price-making housing markets there are collective, cooperative housing projects that are stabilized by symmetrical ties of community; or state-administered social housing, working along redistributive logics. But what is crucial is that neither of these logics exist in isolation. A cooperative housing project, for instance, can never fully disentangle itself from the redistributive state (taxes, property title) or from market forces (land prices, wider rent levels). There are potentially unlimited possibilities, giving form to institutionally diverse markets that can only adequately be mapped with careful empirical analysis: Markets are institutionally diverse and have to be studied in their diversity.

Third, when we start with the insight that marketization can never be fully successful because nothing can be commodified “all the way down” (Fraser, 2014), there is greater acknowledgement of how misfires and overflows set limits and provide openings for resistance and alternatives. There are obvious connections with Polanyi’s forceful argument that the expansion of “market organization in respect to genuine commodities was accompanied by its restriction in respect to fictitious ones” (1957, p. 79). For Polanyi the market was checked on the terrain of labor, land and money. As elements not originally produced for sale these are responsible for what he famously referred to as “double movement”.

Housing is a key terrain on which to study the ongoing unequal marketization and reframing of activities that have hitherto been relatively shielded from market logics. The agents involved are engaged in struggles over social reproduction. There are attempts to reclaim lost terrain in the name of state redistribution; for instance, when citizens voted for the re-municipalization of Berlin’s public housing stock after the city government sold it to private real estate companies; or when there are attempts to reclaim lost terrain in the name of communal sharing. In Zürich where about a quarter of rental housing is provided by Wohnungsbaugenossenschaften, voters have obliged the city government to increase this share to 30 percent. This reminds us that marketization always emerges as the effect of political struggles that inscribe new social differences onto existing ones, throwing into sharp relief that marketization is gendered, racialized, and immersed in class relations and that there is a need to center categories of difference in processes of marketization. 

Such an understanding of markets as continuously in the making (marketization), as being institutionally variegated (diverse markets), and as involving incomplete commodification processes that are shot through with inequalities and power asymmetries (market struggles) can be considered as an emerging consensus within critical market studies. The “Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing” Workshop provided perfect examples for this, offering valuable state-of-the-art studies that illustrate perfectly what theoretically informed empirical analyses of marketization processes are capable of achieving.



Berndt, C., & Boeckler, M. (2012). Geographies of marketization. In T. Barnes, J. Peck, & E. Sheppard (Eds.), The New Companion to Economic Geography (pp. 199–212). Wiley-Blackwell.

Berndt, C., & Boeckler, M. (2020). Geographies of marketization: Performation struggles, incomplete commodification and the “problem of labour.” In C. Berndt, J. Peck, & N. Rantisi (Eds.), Market/Place: Exploring Spaces of Exchange (pp. 69–88). Agenda Publishing.

Çalışkan, K., & Callon, M. (2010). Economization, part 2: A research programme for the study of markets. Economy and Society, 39(1), 1–32.

Clement, D. (2007). Interview with Eugene Fama. The Region, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. (last accessed 3 October 2022)

Fraser, N. (2014). Can society be commodities all the way down? Post-Polanyian reflections on capitalist crisis. Economy and Society, 43(4), 541–558.

Polanyi, K. (1957). The economy as instituted process. In K. Polanyi, C. M. M. Ahrensberg, & H. W. W. Pearson (Eds.), Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (pp. 243–270). Free Press.

Christian Berndt

Christian Berndt is Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Zürich.

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: 

Using Polanyi’s Principles of Economic Behavior for Assessing the New Wave of Collaborative Housing in Europe

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Using Polanyi’s Principles of Economic Behavior for Assessing the New Wave of Collaborative Housing in Europe

15th of September, 2022

Benjamin Baumgartner

Over the last years, citizens across Europe have become more active in providing for their own housing, often in collaborative arrangements of groups supported by public, third sector and/or private actors (Czischke 2017). Commentators speak of a “new wave” of collaborative housing unfolding across Europe – referring to an umbrella term that includes different housing forms (e.g. cooperatives or self-building groups) with varying degree of participation and community engagement (Lang et al. 2018).

In this blog post, I reflect on the novel collaborative housing initiative “Bikes and Rails” in Vienna and analyze how it reconfigures Karl Polanyi’s principles of economic behavior: market exchange, reciprocity and redistribution. In his later years, Polanyi came to believe that all economic processes would represent a combination of these three organizational principles, but one would often dominate to “integrate” the process or to achieve “unity and stability” (Polanyi 1977: 286). Market exchange is a mode mediated by trade, money, supply and demand, while reciprocity is characterized by forms of symmetrical social relations. Redistribution involves the allocation and distribution via a central authority (cf. Polanyi 1977: 35-47; Jessop & Sum 2019). From this perspective, countermovements against marketization function by promoting the dominance of redistribution and/or reciprocity in the provisioning process, in our case housing. To understand how this plays out, we must also take the Viennese housing system into consideration that provides the structures in which the housing initiative is embedded in.

Having lived there himself, Polanyi admired the achievements of “Red Vienna” (1919-34), which started as an emancipatory municipal project addressing the poor living conditions of the working class. Housing provision since then developed into an innovative top-down approach centered, among other characteristics, on two crucial aspects:

  1. While the municipality still maintains a large housing stock (22%), Vienna has increasingly shifted responsibility of direct provision from the public into the hands of limited profit housing associations (LPHAs). Operating under the umbrella of limited profit housing law, LPHAs are today the main providers of affordable housing in Vienna. Additionally, “housing development competitions” have become the most important steering instrument how the city still intervenes in housing provision. Usually organized by the Vienna fund for housing construction, it distributes publicly owned land to developers based on a point system with four categories: economic aspects, ecology, architecture and social sustainability. The social sustainability category allows the responsible advisory boards to consider the benefits of collaborative elements (Gruber & Lang, 2018).
  2. Vienna’s affordable housing is characterized by high levels of supply side subsidies (around 0.6% of GDP). Total housing related public expenditures amount to 0.9% of GDP (Baron et al. 2021). In a European context, this amount is comparatively low and considered highly effective (Wieser et al 2013). The affordable segment provides cost-rent, which means that future rents are set on levels to ensure the refinancing of production costs. The scheme also defines maximum land and construction prices to ensure relatively low rents. Most granted subsidies are provided in the form of long-term, low-interest loans for new housing construction. This system has created a sizable revolving fund: Repaid loans can be used to finance new construction, which decreases the financial burden on the municipality (Mundt 2018).

The housing initiative Bikes and Rails started as a collaborative building group that applied for building plots in a development competition. As a member of “habiTaT Austria”, they are organized according to the principles of the better-known German “Mietshäuser Syndikate”. The syndicate network officially aims to create housing “free of speculation”. In practice, this means that the building is managed by a housing common (the residents) and bought by a legal entity, co-owned by the residents (51%) and by the HabiTaT solidarity network (49%). HabiTaT has no rights to interfere with the project, except for a veto on the sale of the building. The underlying rational being that once all running loans are repaid, the building will be kept out of the (speculative) housing market forever.

This veto introduces additional elements of redistribution and reciprocity. This is achieved by moving parts of property ownership into the hands of a central authority with an articulated agenda to keep the property out of the market. Residents also pay a solidarity contribution to the network as part of their rent, which will be used to support other projects. Since financial contributions to HabiTaT Austria’s network are shared only among similar project, this redistributing mechanism features strong reciprocal elements.

Bikes and Rails funding model follows a unique approach utilizing a mix of public and private loans. The city of Vienna granted the public loan as part of its affordable housing scheme. The private loans are divided into 1) a loan from a bank and 2) direct loans provided by supportive individuals. Any individual can contribute between 500 and 50 000 Euro in the form of direct loans and decide on an interest rate between 0 and 2%. (Bikes and Rails 2020). These direct loans also help as starting capital to back the loan from the bank.

Even though the pooling of financial resources based on reciprocity within the family is a widespread practice, the project, extends these reciprocal relations to a larger group. Since interest rates on direct loans are lower (on average 0.8%), this achieves a decommodifying effect. Nevertheless, market exchange constitutes the dominant economic principle instituting this mode of finance. This can be illustrated by the relative size of the loans: The total financing amount of €5.4 million was split as follows: bank loan: €2.8 (1.45% interest over 35 years); public loan (1% interest): €1.1 and direct loans 1.5 million (roughly 0.8% based on previous experience) (Bikes and Rails 2020). Thus, the bank loan covers more than half of the financing requirements.

As cost-rent, construction and financing costs of the building directly translate into Bikes and Rails’ rent levels. Average rental costs amount to €10.8 per 2m (Bikes and Rails 2020). While this is lower compared to newly constructed dwellings in the private segment, it exceeds average costs in the whole rental sector in Vienna, which add up to 8.6€ and overall newly build apartments, which amount to 9.8€ (Statistik Austria 2020). At this level, Bikes and Rails provide affordable rents for middle-income earners. However, the overall higher quality of the building, including large communal spaces have not been considered in this.

What insights might we gain from using Polanyi’s principles of economic behavior as a tool for investigating how novel decommodification measures work in housing provision? Most notably, principles of economic behavior always exist in hybrid configurations: although the housing initiative strengthens reciprocity and redistribution (e.g. with their innovative ownership structure), it can only provide affordable rents due to its embedding in the wider Viennese housing system. Moreover, members of Bikes and Rails share the vision of (re)moving the building from the housing market; however, they must still engage with upstream markets for building plots, construction materials or mortgages. Overall, this perspective, thus, calls into question the idea that the economy and society are separate and somewhat autonomous realms – a key Polanyian concern. 


Baron, H. et al. (2021) Wohnungspolitik und Wohnversorgung Bericht aus fünf wachsenden europäischen Millionenstädten. Available at: (Accessed: 7 July 2022).

Bikes and Rails (2020) Gläsernes Bikes and Rails. Geschäftsplan. Available at: content/uploads/attach/BnR_04_Informationen_Finanzen_Recht.pdf (Accessed: 7 June 2022).

Czischke, D. (2018) ‘Collaborative housing and housing providers: towards an analytical framework of multi-stakeholder collaboration in housing co-production’, International Journal of Housing Policy, 18(1), pp. 55–81.

Gruber, E., & Lang, R. (2018). Collaborative housing models in Vienna through the lens of social innovation: Austria. In Affordable Housing Governance and Finance (pp. 41-58). Routledge.

Jessop, B. and Sum, N.-L. (2019) ‘Polanyi: Classical Moral Economist or Pioneer Cultural Political Economist?’, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 44(2), pp. 153–167. Available at:

Lang, R., Carriou, C. and Czischke, D. (2020) ‘Collaborative Housing Research (1990–2017): A Systematic Review and Thematic Analysis of the Field’, Housing, Theory and Society, 37(1), pp. 10–39.

Polanyi, K. (2001) The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. 2nd Beacon Paperback ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Polanyi, K. and Pearson, H.W. (1977) The livelihood of man. New York: Academic Press (Studies in social discontinuity).


Benjamin Baumgartner

Benjamin Baumgartner is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna). He holds a degree in Social-Ecological Economics & Policy (SEEP) and is fields of research include Social Policy, especially Care and Housing, Foundational Economics, Ecological Economics and Social-Ecological tranformation.

Read the other essays on the Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing here: 

Polanyi and the Variegated Nature of Housing Financialization

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Polanyi and the Variegated Nature of Housing Financialization

15th of September, 2022

Hans Volmary

Karl Polanyi ingeniously analysed the forces that led to what he called The Great Transformation. To him, efforts to commodify the factors land, labour and money represented an attempt to restore the extremely market liberal (and unequal) conditions of late 19th century liberalism. This triggered protective reactions from society, however, given that land, labour and money are part of the “social fabric”. This, in turn, led to the rise of fascism as well as socialism and ultimately culminated in the horrors of the Second World War[i].

The participants of the workshop “The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing” drew on these insights to reflect on the current politico-economic conjuncture in Polanyian terms. A recurrent question revolved around the potential end of neoliberal globalisation. Do care deficits and housing bubbles (among many other things) represent the “morbid symptoms” of a Gramscian conjuncture in which the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born[ii]? By definition, such questions can only be answered in hindsight. To predict if, how and when this “new” will be born and what it will be remains highly speculative – after all it has been over a decade since Colin Crouch diagnosed “the strange non-death of neoliberalism”[iii]. Nevertheless, the consequences of the ongoing pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war might be indicators that we are witnessing neoliberal globalisation’s last hurray.

Polanyi did not foresee any of this. He did not imagine it possible to see another, a “third-wave marketization”[iv] unfolding. However, the spread of neoliberal globalisation and the ascendance of free-market ideology to global hegemonic status clearly proved him wrong. Is it still useful, then, to resort to Polanyi to contemplate the end of something he did not think possible to even exist? Not very surprisingly, I would argue that, yes, it is still worthwhile. A preliminary analysis of the financialization of housing illustrates this fact.

Financialization refers to “the increasing dominance of financial actors, markets, practices, measurements and narratives at various scales”[v]. This increasing dominance was enabled by the market-based restructuring of political, economic, social and cultural spheres, also known as neoliberal policymaking[vi], with a particular focus on deregulation and privatisation. Financialization and neoliberalism can, thus, be viewed as entangled, with the latter creating the conditions of possibility for the former.

The “classic” example for this is the financialization of housing in the United States. Here, economic growth created an increased demand for housing, resulting in a surge in prices. Therefore, more and more households wanted to become homeowners themselves. The financial industry and its so-called “innovations” (the infamous mortgage banks “Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac”) created opportunities for less affluent households to buy into this dynamic by taking on risky mortgage loans. This produced an upward spiral of increasing house prices (benefiting existing homeowners) and increased mortgage lending (benefiting financial institutions). While this dynamic fuelled economic growth for as long as it lasted, its breakdown in 2007/2008 brought the world economy to the brink of collapse.

Housing financialization does, however, not always follow this trajectory and what happens in the Anglo-Saxon parts of the world does not necessarily serve as a blueprint everywhere else. On the contrary, housing financialization materialises in variegated patterns across institutional contexts. One such “alternative” story is the (West-)German case. A “society of renters”, it long featured stable house prices, prudent credit regulation and a large decommodified housing stock. Non-profit housing provision played a crucial role in this – between 1950 and 1990, 7.5 million of the 19 million units built were developed by non-profit providers[vii]. But fiscal pressures and a corruption scandal at a non-profit housing provider led to the abolition of the Wohnungsgemeinnützigkeitsgesetz in 1990, a law that granted federal subsidies and tax exemptions to non-profit housing developers (often in municipal ownership) in exchange for adhering to the general rules for non-profit providers (limiting profits, earmarking, etc.) as well as accepting rent caps for 30 years on newly built units. Since the abolition of that law in 1990, large social housing stocks were privatised to improve municipal budgets – most of them being sold to private-equity companies. Most of these units finally ended up in the portfolios of listed real-estate companies such as Vonovia or Deutsche Wohnen. These companies operate according to the principle of shareholder-value maximisation. This has resulted in rent increases, displacement of sitting tenants or, if that is not possible, abandonment of the units in question. In Berlin, where these dynamics were particularly salient, a referendum turned out in favour of taking large real estate companies into public ownership.

This brief illustration of two types of housing financialization (there is more) illustrates the variegated nature of the process. While the “global wall of money” is indeed global in reach, its influence on local and national housing systems differs significantly across time and space. What different types of housing financialization have in common, however, is that they are enabled by the institutions of the respective housing systems: in the US most significantly the creation and regulation of mortgage lending institutions; in Germany the decision to abolish the Wohnungsgemeinnützigkeit. Here, Polanyi’s substantivist approach to studying actually existing economies proves invaluable. It calls for an understanding of these economies “in terms of their prevailing patterns of institutionalization”[viii]. Financialization is certainly a major force influencing the provision of housing around the globe and it has contributed to “shift[ing] the place occupied by the economy in society”[ix]. Its influence on the concrete organization of housing provision, however, remains contested and, thus, variegated and depends on a mix of local, national and supranational institutions.

The political implications of this are hopeful. If financialization is not some grand overarching process that rolls over unprotected countries and cities like a tsunami, then there is agency to oppose its effects. To be sure, the “global wall of money” is indeed global, and investors (private and institutional) are very resourceful in terms of directing their capital towards profitable investments. However, whether this process is encouraged, mitigated, or even reversed remains a political question – or as a recent report by the European Commission puts it: “policy plays an important role in the degree to which housing is, or can be, financialised”[x]. The lack of political will to change the effects of financialization reflects the unequal power balance of its winners and losers. Opening up new perspectives and breaking with the dominant narratives is crucial in this context. Understanding the economy in substantivist terms, as “an instituted process of interaction between man [sic] and his environment, which results in a continuous supply of want-satisfying material means”[xi] does just that. It asks questions such as: how can we organise economic systems that privilege the provision of affordable, decent-quality homes instead of the interests of real-estate developers and institutional investors? And in broader terms: how can we organise economic systems that privilege the well-being of real people and the planet over economic growth? At a time where the “morbid symptoms” of five decades of neoliberal globalisation have undermined the provision of housing in multiple parts of the world, these questions need to be asked and Polanyi can help us doing so.


[i] Polanyi (2001) – The Great Transformation.

[ii] Gramsci (1998) – Selections from the Prison Notebooks.

[iii] Crouch (2011) – The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism.

[iv] Burawoy (2015) – Facing an Unequal World.

[v] Aalbers (2016: 2) – The Financialization of Housing. A Political Economy Approach.

[vi] Brenner et al. (2010) – After neoliberalism?

[vii] Kuhnert & Leps (2017) – Neue Wohnungsgemeinnützigkeit. Wege zu langfristig preiswertem und zukunftsgerechtem Wohnraum.

[viii] Peck (2013: 1554) – For Polanyian Economic Geographies.

[ix] Polanyi (1957: 168) – The Economy as an Instituted Process.

[x] van Heerden et al. (2020) – Who owns the city? Exploratory research activity on the financialization of housing in EU cities.

[xi] Polanyi (1957: 248f) – The Economy as an Instituted Process. Trade and Markets in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory.

Hans Volmary

Hans Volmary is a doctoral student at the Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna). He holds a degree in Social-Ecological Economics & Policy (SEEP) and is fields of research include Social Policy, especially Care and Housing, Foundational Economics, Ecological Economics and Social-Ecological tranformation.

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The transformation of basic goods and services from a (virtual) right to a stratified provision

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

The transformation of basic goods and services from a (virtual) right to a stratified provision - Problematising community-based services in a commodified context

15th of September, 2022

Flavia Martinelli

Though I am not an expert on Polanyi, the Polanyian approach developed by the DOC-Team JKU-WU to analyze ‘The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing’ is of great interest. Given my background in urban and regional studies and based on recent research on the Neoliberal restructuring of social services in Europe (Martinelli et al., 2017), my contribution to the very stimulating discussion fostered by the Workshop in Vienna addresses the spatial dimension of the topic, focusing on two themes: 1) the role of the State; 2) the (fuzzy) notion of Community.


  1. The State

In the analytical framework presented at the Workshop there is a notable absent, the State, the role of which is somewhat left implicit or in the background. As Polanyi stressed from the very beginning, the State represents an enormous power behind (or against) the market and the transformations of Capitalism. Especially in the domain of basic services (services of general economic interest, such as transportation and communication, and social services, such as education, health, care), but also in what concerns housing, the State plays a key role in regulating and financially supporting their provision. The State can ‘substitute’ for, or significantly ‘complement’ the market by directly providing (‘decommodifying’) certain services or it can support their marketisation (‘commodification’).


During the Fordist-Keynesian regime, universal access to these services was pursued through direct public provision, for free or at affordable rates, i.e. by providing access to more or less the same quality of services to all, independently of income, origin, or place. Direct public provision also ensured regulated jobs and professional training. After thirty years of Neoliberal restructuring, despite attempts to curb expenditures, overall welfare outlays[1] have not decreased: the State still finances a large portion of such services, but has pulled out of direct provision, either ‘outsourcing’ their production and delivery to the private sector – both for profit and non profit – or via ‘cash for care’ transfers and other income subsidies, which reinforce the marketisation of services, as such transfer are spent to ‘purchase’ services in the market.


The State, thus, plays a key role in framing ‘movements’ and ‘countermovements’[2]. The movement towards the decommodification of certain services through universalistic public provision that characterized the greatest part of the 20th century was the result of pressures from the workers movements and organizations at the national level, but it then generated criticism and countermovements from both the left and the right. The left stressed the paternalistic and undifferentiated nature of publicly-provided services, generating a wealth of community-based initiatives aimed at greater users involvement and choice; criticism from the right underscored the inefficiency of the public system and the fact it fostered dependency on state assistance, sponsoring New Public Management reforms and more conditional access to services.


This said, what strikes me as the most fundamental change is the conceptual and practical shift from considering basic services a right to viewing them as a commodity to be purchased; and from considering users as citizens to viewing them as customers. Public services still exist, but with a somewhat residual function, for the poorest and most excluded, often with conditional access (including ‘deservingness’).


  1. Community, governance, and place

The other movement observed, in both the State and civil society, over the last forty years is the shift away from centralized – national – government and nationally organized movements, towards local governance and community organizing. In what concerns administrative decentralization, the established narrative portrays the local governance of public matters – including basic services – as intrinsically more democratic and efficient than centralized government, especially since it is more open to involving the local civil society. In progressive circles, grass roots movements and community organizing are considered a key component of this shift and a powerful vector of social innovation, empowerment, and inclusion.


Community, however, is a loose concept that applies to a very diversified galaxy of social groups and organizations[3]. It needs, thus, specifications and contextualization. A community can have an exclusive character, when it is based on homogeneous social characteristics (ethnic background, class, income, profession, age, religion, physical conditions) and it addresses the needs of only its members; or it can be inclusive, when it embraces different groups and tries to address their diverse needs. Communities very often have a strong spatial dimension, i.e. are territorially defined. In the TPSN model (Territory-Place-Scale-Networking), as illustrated by Novy, place plays indeed a very relevant role in defining a community, as it provides a strong identitarian and operational context for action. And it is in localized communities – whether neighborhoods, small municipalities, or rural areas – that the most interesting and innovative (counter)movements and practices have developed in the last decades, to overcome bureaucracy and exclusionary practices in the delivery of social services, as well as their commodification, in the direction of reciprocity.


This said, the capacity of communities to organize and generate durable processes of social innovation, empowerment, and inclusion is very diverse across space, as it depends on local endowments (social capital, economic resources), as well as the broader institutional context (including the State at its different scales). A Roma community in a Northern European country has very different empowerment opportunities than a Roma community in a Mediterranean country; a community-based organization providing social care for older people in a big city faces different challenges than one operating in a rural area. Moreover, the organizational form of community-based initiatives further contributes to their differentiation. Key differences exist between e.g. a co-operative, a non-profit organization and/or a voluntary association in what concerns the inclusiveness and reciprocity dimensions. And yet, all these organizations are lumped together in the generic category of ‘Third sector’ and are presumed to have a community dimension.


  1. A brief note on the difference between care and housing

From a methodological point of view, I would also like to stress the profound difference between the two ‘sectors’ addressed by the Doc Team, i.e. care and housing. In contrast to care, which involves mostly labour and is a quite relevant component of most welfare systems, housing involves fixed assets (land, buildings, infrastructure) – which sets it apart from other social provisions – and its public supply is very differentiated across welfare systems. In this domain the role of the state in framing the size and role of the market, i.e. how much housing is decommodified or (re)commodified, is of paramount importance. To this regard I find very useful the ‘triangle’ welfare-finance-planning identified by the DOC-Team to characterize housing regimes. What could be expanded in this approach is the rent dimension. This economic category has held different positions in the evolution of economic thought: in classical economics it was considered antagonistic to capital; but rent has become organic to contemporary capitalism, merging with financial capital and generating repeated waves of gentrification and real estate revalorization in all major urban areas.


  1. Concluding remarks (and provocations)

Since the 1990s there has been a widespread recommodification of care and housing, even in the strongholds of the Socialdemocratic/Nordic welfare regime, marking the abandonment of the principles of universal access to fundamental goods and services and of spatial justice (never fully achieved, but at least pursued). This shift has translated in a resurgence of social and spatial inequalities, especially noticeable in social services, where – despite important variations among countries – the result is a supply system stratified along income (class?) lines and spatially very uneven: while rich people and places turn to the market, poor groups and places are left with a residual – and rather impoverished – public supply.


In this context, community-based initiatives represent a powerful countermovement. As stressed by scholars working on social innovation (Moulaert et al., 2010) they can generate processes (of learning, participation, empowerment), as well as output (services and goods), based on reciprocity rather than market transactions. However, relying solely on this form of countermovement involves risks. First and foremost, as stressed earlier, the capacity to rally financial, human, and technical resources at the local/community level depends on the social and territorial context. The poorest and most excluded communities – those most in need of public goods and services – are often the least able to mobilize and organize. Networking can be helpful, but is not sufficient. A second risk is linked to the sustainability of the initiative over time. Participation and empowerment are not sufficient if needs are not satisfied. A third risk is ‘blaming the victim’: if communities are not capable of organizing, it is their fault and not a failure of the State.


In conclusion, community-based initiatives, especially place-defined ones – are diverse and sparse. Moreover, their efficacy and their sustainability over time depends very much on social, economic and institutional context. Despite some potential for upscaling through networking, the ‘transformative’ potential of such practices at the societal, rather than just community, level remains limited, since only broad-scale countermovements can effectively counteract the current marketisation movement. My argument is that in a context of widespread re-commodification (marketisation) of care and housing, community-based initiatives are very good, but not sufficient to structurally contrast social and spatial inequalities and sometimes they even contribute to reproduce them.


What is missing in the community-based approach is a centralized authority (national or supra-national) that can ensure an equitable distribution of resources and opportunities across social groups and places, hence perform a redistributive action that can only be carried out at a central level. In many countries the national State has ‘abdicated’ this role, while the EU level has very limited regulating and financing power. Paradoxically, claims for such a higher coordination authority – albeit with a rather exclusive notion of citizenship – have been appropriated by the populist-nationalist movements, as stressed by Roland earlier.


Therefore, the principle of social and spatial redistribution by a central public authority (State), through strong regulation, equitable distribution of financial resources and public goods and services should be retrieved and relaunched. This idea of the Welfare State might be updated and romantic (although no less romantic than that of community), but we should not give it up and should work to integrate the two. From this point of view, the Foundational Economy debate is very useful. Retrieving the redistributive role of the State, however, should not only occur in terms of financial resources but also in terms of direct public provision, which involves regulated and trained employment (‘jobs not dole’), since public employment has also a fundamental role of territorial ‘presidium’, especially in ‘left-behind’ places.


Esping-Andersen, G. (1990), The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press,


Martinelli, F., Anttonen, A. and Mätzke, M. (eds) (2017), Social Services Disrupted. Changes, Challenges and Policy Implications for Europe in Times of Austerity, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Available OPEN ACCESS at


Moulaert, F., Martinelli, F., Swyngedouw, E. and Gonzalez S. (eds) (2010), Can Neighbourhoods Save the City? Community Development and Social Innovation, Oxford: Routledge.

[1] As Novy correctly remarked, the current narrative about the withdrawal of the State is a misrepresentation of reality, since the State remains very much behind the regulation and financing of many services. And Ewald stressed how the recent ‘deficit spending’ course, adopted by many European countries following the pandemic, is interpreted as a sign that ‘the State is back’. However, what is of relevance when talking about the role of the State is not just the volume of public expenditures, but how these resources are spent and whether they support the ‘decommodification’ and ‘defamilisation’ of certain activities (Esping-Andersen, 1990) or their ‘(re)commodification’ – as is currently happening.

[2] In my undestanding, ‘movements’ and ‘countermovements’ are a fluid and contingent notion. Moreover, as stressed by Brigitte Aulenbacher, countermovement are not progressive per se.


Flavia Martinelli

University of Reggio Calabria

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The end of neoliberalism?

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

The end of neoliberalism?

15th of September, 2022

Richard Bärnthaler

Even though arguments about a supposed ‘return of the state’ in the course of the Covid-19 crisis are imprecise – for the state has never been absent – we have been witnessing a notable reconfiguration of the roles Western states play in the economy, shifting from a strong emphasis on market-making towards a more pronounced presence of market-direction, i.e. “acts by the state that seek to direct markets towards certain desired longer-term outcomes and purposes by steering the accumulation process itself” (van Apeldoorn & de Graaff 2022, 4). Furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine war has revealed the illusion that the triumph and expansion of market-liberalism would foster democracy and secure peace as self-mockery at best. In the face of rising geopolitical tensions, arguments for selective deglobalisation (alias selective regionalisation) have increasingly entered dominant political discourse. Is this the end of neoliberalism, the beginning of a great transformation? This question also preoccupied the participants of the workshop ‘Contested Care and Housing’. While some argued that the end of neoliberalism is indeed approaching, others disagreed, arguing that recent neoliberal anomalies are just those (Gramscian) morbid symptoms that appear when the old is dying but the new cannot be born. Without taking sides, I deem it useful to call to mind the conviction of the great historian Eric Hobsbawm: the result of a horse race can only be told with absolute confidence once that race has already been run. The neoliberal horse race is still ongoing.

All the same: something is changing; the (jolly old) favorite is groggy, not just because its physical appearance has altered but because its mentality is in crisis. The mentality that neoliberalism has built upon can be summarized in the well-known abbreviation TINA – ‘There Is No Alternative’. Many have argued that there is a non-dissociable link between TINA and neoliberalism; some have even suggested that it is the main feature of it. If TINA is indeed part of neoliberal’s DNA, the latter is in an existential crisis. Based on the assumption that individual consumer preferences determine demand, thus price, and thus value, neoliberals have insisted that any distinction, e.g. between necessities and luxuries, even if democratically legitimated, is (market-)unfair and thus reprehensible. There is no alternative to determining societal directionality through consumer choices. All of a sudden, however, alternatives were put into practice during the pandemic: governments published lists of essential workers, shut down certain parts of the economy, and, in the US, even obliged GM to switch their production from cars to ventilators. Similarly, with the war in the Ukraine, governments started to develop plans to determine which industries will have to endure cuts in energy supply if gas becomes short.

(The end of no) alternatives have become broadly conceivable – if not out of conviction, then out of necessity. Drawing upon Bob Jessop’s distinction, the perception of certain crises has changed from “crises in” towards “crises of”, i.e. from crises that can be managed through routinized TINA-adjustments (e.g. by shifting its effects elsewhere, into the future or on vulnerable groups) towards a crisis of (neoliberal) crises management itself. Severe crisis symptoms, e.g. surging prices on everyday necessities, have afflicted broad sections of the Western population and, increasingly unable to shift these effects elsewhere (let alone solving them), normal (read: TINA) responses no longer work.

Surely, the adaptability and resilience of neoliberalism (not to be confused with the resilience of society, which has been undermined continuously by neoliberalism) must not be underestimated. Neoliberalism is, albeit not well, still alive and powerful forces will continue their attempts to nurture and enforce its logics. TINA, however, is dead. Hence, the key questions are: How essential is this discursive building block for neoliberalism? Can neoliberalism do without it? And if so, how would such a neoliberal mutation look like? (Much more authoritarian, probably). Are European decision-makers stupid enough to re-enter a neoliberal path of austerity, even if the result – the rise of Le Pens, Orbans, and Katschinskis – is foreseeable? In the current conjuncture, Polanyi’s lifelong conviction seems to find its way back into hegemonic discourse: ‘There Are Many and Real Alternatives’ (TAMARA). Neoliberalism might still be one of them, but others have been re-discovered. In particular, there are crucial lessons to learn from “war economies” and their ability to mobilise resources and make substantial economic adjustments to accommodate a specific societal goal. In an era of increasing social-ecological crises, an adapted form of a “war economy”, aiming not at defense production but at sufficiency, i.e. at having enough in the double sense of the word (neither too much, nor too little), might indeed constitute the most effective politico-economic arrangement to satisfy needs within ecological limits.


van Apeldoorn, B., & de Graaff, N. (2022). The state in global capitalism before and after the Covid-19 crisis. Contemporary Politics, 28(3), 306–327.

Richard Bärnthaler

Richard Bärnthaler is a prae doc researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, Institute for Multi-Level Governance and Development. His research focuses on strategies for a social-ecological transformation. He is a.o. winner of the Kurt Rothschild Award for Economic Journalism and Research 2019, member of the International Karl Polanyi Society and part of the Vienna Foundational Economy Collective.

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Articulations between neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through the light of Polanyi’s theory of fascism

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Articulations between neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through the light of Polanyi’s theory of fascism [1]

15th of September, 2022

Roland Atzmüller

The crisis of financialised capitalism since 2008 and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis led to austerity regimes and imposed cuts in welfare systems in many countries which reinforced the neoliberal dominance over economic and social policies in most European countries. These developments were accompanied by a global upsurge of far-right and right-wing populist movements and parties. The latter are increasingly able to combine grievances about social and economic crisis with the rejection of a range of socio-political and cultural developments concerning e.g. the transformation of the overcome gender division of labour linked to changing family forms and increasing female employment, the social recognition of queer identities and different sexual orientations and genders or the social conflicts about the creation of sustainable lifestyles fighting climate change and their impact on everyday live (e.g. reduction of cars, meat consumption etc.).

The upsurge of far-right and right-wing populist movements and parties has led many observers to understand them as an oppositional albeit nationalist reaction of society – even a “counter-movement” in a Polanyian sense – against the destructive effects of unfettered markets and financialisation fostered by neoliberalism. Others, referring more strongly to the socio-political and cultural orientations of these actors, are asking whether these movements and parties bring about a radicalisation of the still unfolding neoliberal transformation of capitalist societies through combining a nationalist reaction to the economic crisis with an authoritarian transformation of social and cultural relations. For some insights into these questions, a closer look on Karl Polanyi’s analyses (1979; Polanyi 2001) on the emergence of far-right, fascist movements and parties in the crisis of capitalist societies in the first half of the 20th century proves very useful. Against a schematic interpretation of his major work “The Great Transformation” (Polanyi 2001) Polanyi’s (earlier) analyses of Fascism (Polanyi 1979, 2005, 2018) reveal that he viewed these movements not only as a reaction to the crisis of unfettered market expansion and the subsequent increase of unemployment and poverty. Rather he explicitly linked Fascism also to the post-WWI expansion of democracy, individual freedoms and social policies which rest on the assumption of equality of all human beings, which they want to improve (e.g. expansion of welfare systems). For him, Fascism was an answer to the political stalemate and crisis which the unresolved tensions between the outlined developments and liberal market expansion had created in the 1920s.

Thus, in his papers of the 1930s about Fascism (Polanyi 1979) as well as in The Great Transformation (Polanyi 2001) he labelled Fascism as a political project to rescue capitalist societies from the crisis. For this, Polanyi identified three core elements of fascist philosophy (2001, p. 247). Thus, Fascism represents a move(ment) which aims at rescuing capitalism through first, an attack on and the destruction of democracy, second, the abolition of individual freedom within society (Polanyi, 2018a) and third, by grounding the institutional structures of society on assumptions of fundamental and hierarchical – based on national or ethnic affiliations – inequalities between human beings. Thus, for Polany faschism set in place a revolutionary reorganisation of the whole state and social fabric. This amounted to a full scale attack on and abolition of all democratic institutions and processes, rights and organisations (Polanyi, 2005, p. 219) as well as the imposition of policies to enforce new forms of docile subjectivities – if necessary through torture and violence (Polanyi 2001, 245).

Polanyi’s account on Fascism helps to understand the role and function of far-right “countermovements” in the crises of market societies – namely its anti-individualistic core, its rejection of universalist assumptions about the equality of individuals within society (Polanyi, 2018a, p. 96) and its denial of the legitimacy of individual gains of autonomy (Vobruba 2014) (“freedom”) and emancipation enabled through the expansion of protective social institutions such as welfare systems. He juxtaposed the fascist rejection of individual freedom to its universalistic opposite which expands through the democratisation of society and will be fully realised in a socialist future.

Polanyi’s conceptualisation of Fascism allows to understand how the emerging aporias and contradictions of neo-liberal welfare reforms opened spaces for far-right populism and its authoritarian social and political goals and how these political projects could converge (Atzmüller/Décieux 2019a, 2019b). From the start, neoliberal reform projects aimed at a retrenchment of democratic participation of e.g. unions, welfare retrenchment and the expansion and liberalisation of markets. These enabled about a global expansion of inequality and an enforced commodification of social reproduction which undermined the expansion of individual gains of autonomy and emancipation. The contradictions of neoliberal economic reforms pushed capitalist social formations in unfolding circles of multiple crisis as the former consciously undermined and destroyed the social (and political) embedding of the economy. Against this background, farright parties and movements promise to tackle the multiple crisis of capitalist social formations which emerge from the contradictions between the dynamics of market expansion and the commodification of social developments on the one hand and the crisis induced changing demands of social and ecological reproduction. They try to do so via a nationalist and reactionary attack on and reorganisation of welfare institutions and social policies These include the enforced return to traditional gender roles and divisions of labour in the core family and nativist social policies to counter an alleged replacement of autochthonous populations. The weakening of democratic institutions appears as a crucial instrument to implement these changes and bring about so-called illiberal democracies.

[1]This text is based on two joint publications with Fabienne Décieux.  (Atzmüller/Décieux 2019a); Atzmüller/Décieux (2019b).


Atzmüller, Roland/Décieux, Fabienne, 2019a: “Freedom’s utter frustration . . .”: Neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through Polanyi’s theory of fascism. In: Atzmüller, Roland/Aulenbacher, Brigitte/Brand, Ulrich/Décieux, Fabienne/Fischer, Karin/Sauer, Birgit (Hg.): Capitalism in transformation. Movements and countermovements in the 21st century. Cheltenham, UK u.a., 135–151.

Atzmüller, Roland/Décieux, Fabienne, 2019b: “The origins of our time”. Articulations between neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through the light of Polanyi’s theory of fascism. Social Work & Society. 18. Jg. Heft 1.

Polanyi, Karl, 1979: Das Wesen des Faschismus. In: – (Hg.): Ökonomie und Gesellschaft. Frankfurt/Main, 91–125.

Polanyi, Karl, 2001: The great transformation. The political and economic origins of our time. Boston.

Polanyi, Karl, 2005: Die geistigen Voraussetzungen des Faschismus. In: – (Hg.): Chronik der grossen Transformation. Artikel und Aufsätze (1920-1947). Menschliche Freiheit, politische Demokratie und die Auseinandersetzung zwischen Sozialismus und Faschismus. Herausgegeben von Michele Cangiani, Kari Polanyi-Levitt und Claus Thomasberger. Marburg.

Polanyi, Karl, 2018: The fascist virus. In: – (Hg.): Economy and society. Selected writings. Edited by Michele Cangiani and Claus Thomasberger. Cambridge/Medford, 108–122.

Vobruba, Georg, 2014: Autonomiegewinne und Gesellschaftskritik. In: Fehmel, Thilo (Hg.): Systemzwang und Akteurswissen. Theorie und Empirie von Autonomiegewinnen. Frankfurt am Main u.a., 265–281.

Roland Azmüller

Roland Atzmüller is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology at the Department of social theory and social analyses at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria. Before, he was a researcher at the Working Lives Center Vienna (FORBA). He has co-edited ‘Capitalism in transformation: Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, 2019’ together with Brigitte Aulenbacher. In this book he published with Fabienne Décieux “Freedom’s utter frustration . . .: Neoliberal social-policy reforms and the shift to the far-right through Polanyi’s theory of fascism”. Roland Atzmüller works on (critical) theories of capitalist societies, welfare states and social policies with an amphasis on labour market policies and is a Board Member of the IKPS.

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Socialisation of housing in Sweden and Denmark: a Polanyian lesson

Debate on The Contested Provisioning of Care and Housing

Socialisation of housing in Sweden and Denmark: a Polanyian lesson

15th of September, 2022

Eric Clark

Commodification, financialisation and marketisation of housing have been core objectives and main outcomes of the neoliberalisation of housing politics. These processes have restructured the institutional conditions surrounding the provision of housing in recent decades, across Europe, and not least in the Nordic countries. Polanyi’s substantivist approach to political economy, with its pivotal conceptualisations of modes of economic integration (householding, reciprocity, redistribution and exchange) and double movements (marketisation and social protection), offers a robust framework for analysing such related yet variegated processes. [1] The histories of non-profit housing in Sweden (allmännyttan) and Denmark (almen) (allmän and almen translate to ‘common’) lend themselves particularly well to drawing a specific lesson from a Polanyian perspective, due to a key distinction: in the Swedish case, allmännyttan has historically been instituted by the local state (municipally owned and managed housing companies), while in Denmark, almen has rather been constituted as a form of association-based tenant-owned housing. Both of these decommodified housing sectors are products of socially protective countermovements to “the devastation of neighbourhoods”, “the general degradation of housing”, and “all-round dislocation” associated with late 19th and early 20th century marketised housing. [2] And both have been targeted by neoliberal politics in concert with powerful financial interests in order to privatise and recommodify them, thereby expanding the scope of debt and mortgage markets. The question arises: how have these distinctly different institutions fared in terms of resistance to the neoliberal offensive to marketise their housing?

      Strongly regulated and subsidised by the state, Swedish municipal rental housing (allmännyttan) grew to become, by 1980, the second largest tenure form in the country, surpassing private rental. This form of socialisation of housing has however proven vulnerable to neoliberal attacks, once the longstanding Social Democratic hegemony was broken in 1991. Carl Bildt’s right-wing government promptly initiated a radical dismantling of national housing policies. Subsequent Social Democratic governments (1994-2006) did little to reverse direction, and Fredrik Reinfeldt’s right-wing government (2006-2014) could rapidly achieve a massive withdrawal of national housing policies. [3] Housing was relegated to a minor task under the Ministry of Municipalities and Financial Markets (yes, in the same ministry), its minister proclaiming that “We don’t have any lorry department for lorry issues, or any lorry minister. Why should we have one for housing?” [4] Housing responsibilities and politics devolved to local governments. The only central government goal was a well-functioning market. Market fundamentalism prevailed: decommodified housing was recommodified. Allmännyttan declined from 25% in 1990 to 17% in 2010, as sell-outs (commonly much below market values) outstripped diminishing new construction. Allmännyttan is currently the smallest segment of housing in Sweden, and appears to soon reach a level below its 1960 position at 14%.

      In Denmark, the Social Democratic party never achieved the level of hegemony as in Sweden. The formation of the Danish welfare state was much more the product of compromise with liberal-conservative forces. Housing owned and operated by the local state was not politically feasible in Denmark. The compromise reached was a form of non-profit housing (almen) collectively owned by private associations of tenants under a national umbrella organisation: Danmarks Almene Boliger. [5] While Swedish allmännyttan peaked around 1990, the Danish almen grew steadily from 10% in 1960 to 21% in 2020. As in Bildt’s and Reinfeldt’s Sweden, almen also came under neoliberal attack in Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s (2001-2009) and Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s (2009-2011, 2015-2019) Denmark. But, being a form of collective private property, almen has not been so easy to dismantle as Sweden’s municipal-owned allmännyttan. It is, after all, private property. The Danish government’s “stealthy and frontal attacks” are too complex to summarise here. Suffice it to say that so far, almen has withstood these attacks, and the main reason for this resistance appears to lie in its collective ownership and strong organisation “outside the (local) state”. [6]

      Regarding the specific composition of Swedish allmännyttan and Danish almen in terms of Polanyi’s modes (forms, patterns, principles) of economic integration, it would run counter to Polanyi’s view to simply categorise allmännyttan as state redistribution and almen as community reciprocity. The extent to which Polanyi thought of forms of economic integration as ideal types remains a matter of discussion. [7] It is nevertheless not helpful today to interpret, much less deploy, Polanyi’s theoretical framework as merely a set of ideal types, with all the methodological weaknesses this entails. [8] Polanyi repeatedly insisted that modes of integration do not provide a “classification of economic systems”, even if one mode “may predominate”; rather, their “coexistence … is common.” [9] For instance, “Reciprocity as a form of integration gains greatly in power through its capacity of employing both redistribution and exchange as subordinate methods.” [10] Owner-occupied housing, while economically integrated largely through market exchange, has long been heavily buttressed by state redistribution through production subsidies and tax deductions in both Sweden and Denmark. Likewise, allmännyttan is not economically integrated solely through state redistribution, nor almen solely through community reciprocity. The Danish almen is characterised also by non-state redistribution as well as state redistribution; just as the Swedish allmännyttan is also characterised by what may be called local state reciprocity. The name kommun suggests as much.

      So, what Polanyian lesson might we gain from studying the history of Swedish allmännyttan and Danish almen? I think Polanyi’s 1919 argument nails it: “Socialisation should not be synonymous with state economy.” [11] Socially protective countermovements to the destructive forces of marketisation should not be limited to state redistribution through (local) state institutions and programs (which may be more or less emancipatory, more or less patronising). [12] As the experience of allmännyttan shows, these can be dismantled and taken away much more easily than they are built up.

[1] Novy, A, Bärnthaler, R and Stadelmann, B, 2019, Navigating between improvement and habitation: countermovements in housing and urban infrastructure in Vienna. In Atzmüller, R, Aulenbacher, B, Brand, U et al., (eds.) Capitalism in Transformation: Movements and Countermovements in the 21st Century. Edward Elgar, 228-244. Bärnthaler, R, Novy, R, and Stadelmann, B, 2020, A Polanyi-inspired perspective on social-ecological transformations of cities, Journal of Urban Affairs.

[2] Polanyi, K, 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press, pp. 139, 190.

[3] Hedin, K, Clark, E, Lundholm, E and Malmberg, G, 2012, Neoliberalization of housing in Sweden: gentrification, filtering, and social polarization, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(2), 442-463. Christophers, B, 2013, A monstrous hybrid: the political economy of housing in early twenty-first century Sweden, New Political Economy, 18(6), 885-911.

[4] Mats Odell, interviewed in Planera, Bygga, Bo, Number 1, 2007.

[5] Larsen, HG, and Lund Hansen, A, 2015, Commodifying Danish housing commons, Geografiska Annual: Series B, Human Geography, 97(3), 263-274. Larsen, HG and Lund Hansen, A, 2016, Wohnen als öffentliches Gut auf dem Prüfstand: Wohnungsreformen in Dänemark und Schweden, Geographische Rundschau, 68(6), 26-31.

[6] Larsen and Lund Hansen 2015, pp. 268 and 272.

[7] Dale, G, 2010, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Polity Press. 

[8] Sayer, A, 1992, Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach. Routledge.

[9] Polanyi, K, 1968, Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi. Beacon Press, p. 309.

[10] Polanyi, K, 1957, The economy as instituted process. In Polanyi, K, Arensberg, CM and Pearson, HW (eds.) Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory. Free Press, p. 253.

[11] Polanyi, K, 2014, For a New West: Essays, 1919—1958. Polity Press, p. 172.

[12] Fraser, N, 2013, A triple movement? Parsing the politics of crisis after Polanyi, New Left Review, 81, 119-132. Brie, M, (ed), 2017, Karl Polanyi in Dialogue: A Socialist Thinker of Our Times. Black Rose Books.


Eric Clark

Eric Clark is professor emeritus at Lund University. His research interests include the political economy of urban change, gentrification, island development, sustainability, financialisation, and more recently, critical agrarian and food studies. He is currently establishing a small forest garden in rural Blekinge (southeast Sweden).

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