Category Archives: War in Ukraine

Does Peace have a chance?

DOES peace have a chance?

25th of April, 2022

Michele Cangiani

International politics, and therefore the problem of peace, are an important and constant subject of Karl Polanyi’s reflection. In his article “Die neue Internationale”[i] he maintains that socialist parties from different countries should not only establish fruitful relationships with each other, but also fully assume the supranational role of promoting peace. This role belongs to the socialist movement, and to it alone. Indeed, in Polanyi’s opinion, only the development of democracy within each country – hence the attainment of socialism – is able to ensure peace, by overcoming the limits of the capitalist form of imperialism, affecting, for instance, the League of Nations’ peace policy, in which financial interests, primarily American, have the last word.

“The story of the Disarmament Conference bore out the truth of the socialist contention that capitalist states are unable to organise peace,” Polanyi recalls in 1937.[ii] The attempt to stop the armament race, he writes, “was bound to fail,” because “the economic organization of the separate countries” made “an international organisation of economic life on a big scale impossible” (ibid.). His critique of naive pacifism, as well as that of the Christian communitarian ideal, is grounded on his conception of “the reality of society,” already emerging in articles and manuscripts of the 1930s[iii]. No problem can be faced, no solution can be found – then, no social science is sound – if the specific organisation of society is not primarily taken into account. That organisation determines causes and modalities of wars, which, in general, respond to the need to define territorial borders and/or to dispose of resources located outside them – when a given societal setup does not dispose of an alternative option.

Beyond this criticism, Polanyi recognises pacifism’s merit of affirming the abolition of war as an emerging need of our age. This would be possible, he adds, in a “human” society, of conscious and responsible individuals, not subjected to the extraneous power of the market, of profit, of class division. Realistically, however, he formulated his ideal through the analysis of alternative developments. For instance: socialist freedom or an “aristocratic” society “more intimately adjusted to the economic system”[iv]. “Co-existence” plus “regional planning” or “universal capitalism”[v] Unfortunately, the worst combination of internal and international alternatives has taken hold: the neoliberal globalisation, both in the West and in the post-Soviet East. Then, as Polanyi feared[vi], “the war-waging slave empire will triumph and ensure peace and division of labour within its confines of death.”

Now, to conclude by drawing a minimal consideration on the current situation from Polanyi’s thought: Nobody could deny the evidence of Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, in stark contrast to Polanyi’s attitude, most opinion makers – in politics, in the mass media, in academia – isolate the war from historical past and present geopolitical conjuncture. Basically, indeed, the institutional setup of our society is repressed. Any reflection is thereby prevented on complex motives of the war, on how it could have been avoided and could be stopped. Public opinion is correspondingly constrained: also in the ‘free world,’ this is a worrying symptom of citizens becoming the target of propaganda, instead of political protagonists – as Polanyi wished, also for giving peace a chance.

 

[i] Der Österreichische Volkswirt, 1925. Now in K. Polanyi, Chronik der großen Transformation, Band 1, ed. by M. Cangiani and C. Thomasberger, Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag, 2002.
[ii] Europe To-Day, London, W.E.T.U.C., p. 38.
[iii] See e.g. “The Roots of Pacifism”, in K. Polanyi, For a New West, ed. by G. Resta and M. Catanzariti, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014.
[iv] “Our Obsolete Market Mentality,” 1947, now in K. Polanyi, Economy and Society, ed. by M. Cangiani and C. Thomasberger, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018, p. 210.
[v] See Kari Polanyi-Levitt, “Karl Polanyi and Co-Existence,” in The Life and Work of Karl Polanyi, ed. by K. Polanyi-Levitt, Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990, pp. 253-263. And “Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning?,” 1945, now in Economy and Society, op. cit.
[vi] “Common Man’s Master Plan,” in Economy and Society, op. cit., p. 180.

Michele Cangiani

Michele Cangiani is Professor of Economic Sociology at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage at the Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Italy

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

Ruminations on the conflict in Ukraine

Debate on War in Ukraine

RUMinations on the war in ukraine

25th of April, 2022

Maja Savevska

Efforts to grasp the origin of the war in Ukraine, has led many commentators on the left of the political spectrum to point the finger to NATO’s eastward expansion or the American disregard for its own rule based international order. Some might be even tempted to draw lessons from Polanyi’s analysis of the policy mistakes of the Great Powers during the interwar period when explaining the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I would argue against such critical moves.

Polanyi is best known for his brilliant and unconventional narrative of the origins of the nationalism crises of the 1930s, which could be found in the internal contradictions of the market society. Being a prolific scholar meant that he wrote on wide variety of topics, including western policies towards Russia. He argued that America should not repeat Britain’s mistake in its post-war policy towards Russia because when left isolated, Russia will follow a policy of despair, not out of her own will, but as the only way of preserving her self-interest and security.

However, what was true of the Concert of Europe and the geopolitical situation during the first half of the twentieth century, does not hold ground today. Russia is misunderstood by the west, but not because the west fails to grasp the misconstrued idea that what stands in the way to Russian prosperity is the Euro Atlantic expansion. The root cause of the attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty is Putin’s policy of restoring the Russian Mir, a more ethnocentric version of the old Russian empire that never received a proper post-colonial criticism. This exercise of empire restoration is neither caused by ill-fated western policies, nor a one-man project. If we can blame the liberal democracies of anything, it is their stubborn pursuit of a policy of appeasement since the 2008 war in Georgia.

Polanyi’s insights become useful to the current predicament when we try to look at the economic roots of the nationalism crisis in Russia. The left should find the answer to the question about the origin of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the return to a reign of censorship in the economic limits of the kleptocratic regime. A regime which leaves no space for joint prosperity among the post-Soviet republics, which are left no other option but to seek integration in more successful economic blocks. Both Ukraine, which got the closest to this objective of economic independence, and Belarus and Kazakhstan deserve a better choice than forceful participation in an economically stunted order.

Maja Savevska

Dr. Maja Savevska is Assistant Professor in International Political Economy at the School of Sciences and Humanities at Nazarbayev University. She joined the Political Science and International Relations Department in Fall 2016. She completed Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate in Globalisation, Europe and Multilateralism at University of Warwick and Université Libre de Bruxelles. Her PhD mobility program was fully funded by the European Commission. Her previous appointments include a residential fellowship at the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School following her successful completion of her PhD.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

A war for NATO, gas, or Putin?

a war for nato, gas, or putin?

25th of April, 2022

Maria Markantonatou

To the question what can we draw from Polanyi’s analyses for the current war in Ukraine, three points can be made:

First, Polanyi viewed the interwar crisis as the result of a conflict between liberalism, fascism, and socialism, which were not closed mental schemes but actual political forces in conflictual interaction. In 1940 he referred to the “external pressure” of fascism on Russia. In Russia, according to Polanyi, “the democratic tendency succumbed in the long run to the totalitarian trend. This was due primarily to the overwhelming force of fascism under the external pressure of which Russia… changed from a potential democracy into a despotic totalitarian state[1]. Today’s Russian aggression is not unrelated to NATO’s policies of eastwards enlargement. In her book “Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post–Cold War Stalemate”, Sarotte notes that critics of the American foreign policy argued already since the mid-1990s that NATO’s expansion was “humiliating Moscow, and undermining arms control[2]. Sanders argues that the US still operates under the Monroe Doctrine and would perhaps act aggressively “if, for example, Mexico was to form a military alliance with a U.S. adversary[3]. NATO’s expansionism, regardless if it poses a real or symbolical threat to Russia, paved the way for the imperialist invasion to Ukraine, together with such factors as the treatment of Russia as a rogue state by the American political establishment, a language and political symbolism reminiscent of the Cold War, and the refusal of the US to provide security guarantees before the war[4].

Second, Polanyi criticized instrumental “crude class theory”, as he called it, which explained imperialism “as a capitalist conspiracy to induce governments to launch wars in the interests of big business” and presented war “to be caused by [sectional] interests in combination with armament firms who miraculously gained the capacity to drive whole nations into fatal policies[5]. Long-lasting tensions over the gas transportation systems, Russian interests in the Black Sea’s energy resources and trade opportunities, and Ukraine’s chances to compete Russian gas and oil exports to the EU[6], constitute the war’s background. However, following Polanyi, the ongoing war between the two capitalist countries cannot be reduced to economic causes alone. Given the high costs of the war and the sanctions, the specific form and roots of Russian nationalism and imperialism must be closer studied.

Third, contrary to psychological interpretations of war (similar to those attributing today’s war to Putin’s personality), Polanyi, in the writings where he shares some premises of political realism, conceptualizes war as “an institution” aiming “to decide on issues that arise from various territorial groupings…, and that cannot remain in abeyance without endangering the existence of the communities concerned”. Polanyi also argues that “states can exist only within definite boundaries” and that “failing peaceful agreement, war is unavoidable[7]. Today, this dimension, or the fact that “the key to peace lies in policy[8], seem to get lost in the way war is presented by Western political elites, liberal EU-leaders, representatives of the US military-industrial complex, and the global monopolies of information, whose discourses dominate. The war is named “Putin’s war” and the emphasis is placed on the necessity of sanctions and his demonization, rather than on the reasons why exactly the Minsk agreements failed, and how can the civil war and tensions in the border areas be resolved.

Up to now, the situation seems to benefit the US, which, therefore, has interests in the continuation of the conflict with Russia. There are economic gains for the American gas industry, as in March 2022, it was agreed during the emergency meetings of NATO, the G7 and the European Council that the EU will increase imports of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the US to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian energy[9]. The war has also provided the US with the opportunity to regain a hegemonic role as the main player that represents “the West”, which now appears united in its condemnation of Russia. Given that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of military operations could not be presented as a victory over the Taliban regime, the war in Ukraine provides an opportunity for a restructuring of the American status.

Although it is Ukraine which stands alone in the horror, this war is not merely about Ukraine, as it initiates new crises, similar to those described by Polanyi in the interwar period, both economic (fisco-financial and currency turbulences, recession, food and energy crises etc.) and political crises (conflicting definitions of democracy and authoritarianism, polarization, militarization etc.). As the war’s effects will be counted for a long time ahead and its causes interpreted by various opposing forces, the reshaping of global geopolitics and global economy will have initiated a new era.

[1] Polanyi, Karl, Marxism and the Inner History of the Russian Revolution, Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy, 31-10, 1940
[2] Sarotte, Μary E., Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post–Cold War Stalemate, Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 2021, p. 367
[3] See: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/prepared-remarks-sanders-senate-floor-speech-on-ukraine/
[4] Streeck, Wolfgang, Fog of War, New Left Review, 01.03.2022. https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/fog-of-war

[5] Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press, Boston, 2001, p. 158
[6] Amelin, Anatoliy, Prokip, Andrian, Umland, Andreas, The Forgotten Potential of Ukraine’s Energy Reserves, Harvard International Review, 10.10.2020, https://hir.harvard.edu/ukraine-energy-reserves/
[7] Polanyi, Karl, The Meaning of Peace, Karl Polanyi Digital Archive, 20-13
[8] Polanyi, Karl, The Nature of International Understanding, Karl Polanyi Digital Archive, 17-29
[9] Joint Statement between the European Commission and the United States

Maria Markantonatou

Maria Markantonatou teaches Political Sociology at the Department of Sociology, University of the Aegean (Lesvos, Greece), and European Political Ideologies at the Greek Open University. She is a board member of the IKPS and her research interests include social and political theory, the sociology of crises, and the work of Karl Polanyi.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

Once again: universal capitalism or regional planning?

Debate on War in Ukraine

once again: universal capitalism or regional planning?

25th of April, 2022

Claus Thomasberger

“World War I … awakened our generation to the
fact that history was not a matter of the past, as
a thoughtless philosophy of the hundred years’
peace would have us believe. And once started, it
did not cease to happen”.
(Karl Polanyi, For a New West, Cambridge: Polity 2014, 29).

A few months before the end of World War II, Polanyi discussed the two principal alternatives on which the post-war order could be established: universal capitalism or regional planning?[1] The path taken at that time set the course that structures international relations to this day. Viewed through Polanyi’s lens, the original sin lay in the utopian attempt to reconstruct after the War an international order that remained trapped in the logic of the 19th century – utopian in the sense that the implementation of such a project would produce unexpected and highly perilous results that unavoidably would frustrate the intentions of the nations involved.

The essay, as well as a subsequent newspaper article[2] primarily addressed the policies of Churchill and other conservatives in England who, bypassing Parliament, sought to distance England from the Soviet Union and tie it (and thus Europe as a whole) to the United States. Polanyi did not attack capitalism in the USA: “Americans almost unanimously identify their way of life with private enterprise and business competition … , rich and poor alike”.[3] His key argument was that capitalism is not an adequate mode of social integration for other parts of the world, and especially not for Eastern Europe. Polanyi had spent most of his life in Hungary and Austria, and during the First World War fought against the Russian army in Galicia (now Ukraine/Poland). The attempts, he understood, to establish a market economy „in multinational areas, like the basins of the Vistula and the Danube, … resulted in hysterically chauvinistic states, who, unable to bring order into political chaos, merely infected others with their anarchy“.[4]

After World War Two, for 45 years, the existence of the Soviet Union prevented the full realization of universal capitalism. This changed in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Universal capitalism was now called globalization. In the rush of supposed final victory, the protagonists of universal capitalism supported in Russia not Gorbachev’s reform project but Yeltsin’s shock strategy. In Ukraine, neoliberal hawks in the European Union, disregarding economic and political relations with Russia, pressed forward with their Association Agreement to undermine Russia’s attempt to strengthen a Eurasian Customs Union.

Today, Russia and Ukraine are capitalist market economies – not exactly as described in textbooks, just “real capitalism” with a clique of oligarchs directly intertwined with politics. In both countries, the conflict between democracy and capitalism has decisively determined the course of recent history: in Russia most visibly in October 1993, when the tanks that Yeltsin had called in put the parliament under fire; in Ukraine in February 2014, when the elected government was overthrown as the result of the Maidan Uprising. Nonetheless, both current presidents were elected by an overwhelming majority. In 2018, Putin won the election with nearly 77% of the vote, a year later, Zelensky with over 73%. And both countries are heavily affected by what Polanyi called – referring to Eastern Europe – the “three endemic political diseases – intolerant nationalism, petty sovereignties and economic non-co-operation … inevitable by-products of a market-economy in a region of racially mixed settlements”.[5]

What are the results of the Russian attack and the Western response in the international arena? Under the wave of new sanctions, the freezing of foreign exchange assets, collapsing supply chains and the need to plan the supply of raw materials, semiconductors and other indispensable commodities, globalization as we have known it has come to an end. And it was a clear signal that in March 2022 the more than 40 states that refused to condemn Russia at the UN General Assembly (votes against and abstentions) represent more than half of the world’s population. Today, with the relative decline of the US and the rise of Asia regional cooperation is back on the agenda. Paradoxically enough, it is not Russia but the Ukrainian people who demonstrate the unbroken importance of national borders and international collaboration on the European level.

Fact is that Ukraine and Russia are part of Europe. The demand to set aside the interests of EU countries in response to the Russian attack shows how much in reality their interests diverge from those of the US. Ending the war is above all a European concern. Solutions can only be found through negotiations. For the European countries it is vital to leave nostalgia behind and face the realities of regional reorganization in an increasingly complex global environment.

 

[1] Karl Polanyi, “Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning? (1945),” in Economy and Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 231.
[2] Karl Polanyi, “British Labour and American New Dealers” (1947), in Economy and Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 226–30.
[3] Polanyi, “Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning?, 233.
[4] Polanyi, 235.
[5] Polanyi, 235.

Claus Thomasberger

Claus Thomasberger is a sociologist and economist. Until 2017 he taught Economics and International Policy at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin, Germany. He is a board member of the IKPS. His research interests include international political economy, history of economic thought and political philosophy.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

International morality

Debate on War in Ukraine

international morality

25th of April, 2022

Florin Poenaru

Critics of John Mearsheimer’s realist analysis of the broader causes that led to the war in Ukraine point to the cynicism of his interpretation. Great power rivalry, and the quest to maintain control over their spheres of influence, allows little room, if any, to other states to express their self-interest and self-determination. By accepting that Ukraine’s NATO membership would represent a “mortal danger” to the interests of the Russian state, the realist view seems to disregard what the Ukrainians really want. The freedom of states to chart their own policies is enshrined in the international law, the liberal proponents argue.   

Some strands of leftist thinking subscribed to Mearsheimer’s view, despite his overall conservatism. This was so because the realist framework offered a longer historical perspective of the conflict in Ukraine and identified the US-led NATO expansion in the post-Soviet and post-socialist world as the chief culprit. Hence Russian “regional” imperialism could be folded into the global American one and thus criticized together. However, this theoretical maneuver rendered the leftist segments that subscribed to it prone to accusations of whataboutery and insensitivity to the immediate Ukrainian plight. The further fragmentation of the international left around the proper analysis of the Ukrainian situation has been one of the theoretical collateral damages of this war so far.

This is where, I believe, Karl Polanyi’s inchoate international relations theory might offer a more fruitful perspective. Gareth Dale outlined Polanyi’s transition in the interwar period from Wilsonian liberalism to more realist positions, while grappling with questions of Soviet planning and Nazi aggression[1]. Polanyi developed a criticism of both the cynical reason of realism and the inherent idealism of liberalism. He introduced the notion of international moralism by which he envisaged the congruence between national interests and universal interests. While recognizing the right of every country to develop a sui generis foreign policy in accordance to its real and perceived national interests, each such policy should also take into account the interests of other countries in order not to offend them. Foreign policy options do not happen in a void but are necessarily linked to the international order. “Good” foreign policy for Polanyi is the capacity of countries to define their national interests so that they relate and even overlap with the interests of others. Crucially, moreover, for Polanyi the question of war and peace is profoundly linked to the right definition of national interests. When such interests are defined antagonistically and with disregard to the concerns of other countries, war is more likely to ensue. 

From this Polanyian perspective that supplants realism’s focus on relations of power with a moral dimension that focuses on international order, it becomes clear that the Eastern expansion of NATO had a destabilizing effect and set up the balance of forces towards war rather than peace. A return to Polanyi’s international moralism as a way of calibrating national interests with universal ones is, perhaps, the way to restore it.

 

[1] Gareth Dale. In search of Karl Polanyi’s International Relations Theory. Review of International Studies. 2016. 42, 401–424.

Florin Poenaru

Florin Poenaru is a lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest. He has a PhD in social anthropology from Central European University, Budapest and was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar to City University of New York. He works on issues related to class, post-socialism and global history of Eastern Europe and teaches classes on contemporary theories in sociology and anthropology.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

Historical Causality and Moral Judgment

Debate on War in Ukraine

historical causality and moral judgment

25th of April, 2022

Fred Block

Fred Block

There has been some confusion on the political left about the appropriate response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Given people’s deep and justified distrust of the way the U.S. has exerted its power internationally since W.W. II, it is difficult for many to sympathize with a nation that the U.S. is supporting. However, a critical insight from Karl Polanyi is useful to dispel this confusion. Polanyi distinguishes between historical causality on the one side and moral responsibility and culpability on the other. He devoted considerable effort to explaining the rise of Nazism in Germany, while simultaneously holding Hitler and his followers responsible for their numerous and horrendous crimes.  It was important to him to understand the historical forces that allowed a dangerous and demagogic leader to monopolize power in a particular nation. However, that understanding did not diminish his condemnation of that leader’s actions.

              Polanyi was particularly scathing in his analysis of the stupidity of the agreements reached by the victors at the end of World War I. He was incensed by the choice to restore the Gold Standard, but he also denounced the combination of crippling reparations and substantial war debts that made Europe’s economic recovery far more difficult.  Moreover, he was clear that it was the resulting global economic collapse in the 1930’s that brought Hitler to power. In his view, it was the failure of an existing international system of politics and economics that was responsible for the path that Germany took. He wrote:

              “Germany reaped the advantages of those who help to kill that
which is doomed to die. Her start lasted as long as the liquidation of
the outworn system of the nineteenth century permitted her to keep
in the lead. The destruction of liberal capitalism, of the gold standard,
and of absolute sovereignties was the incidental result of her marauding
raids.”   (p. 294)

By marauding raids, Polanyi meant the full-scale invasion of much of Europe. But this analysis, in no way, mitigates his denunciation of Nazism.

              The analogy is obvious. The decisions made by the United States and its allies at the time of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union were instrumental in creating the conditions for Putin’s rise to absolute power in Russia. The disastrous experiments with shock therapy to “reform” state socialist economies produced mass hardship that weakened the attraction of the Western model of “democratic capitalism”. And the unilateral expansion of NATO to the borderlands of Russia helped fuel currents of militant Russian nationalism that dated back to the Tsars. Moreover, the failure in the immediate post-Soviet period to give Russia a real seat at the table in the international state system paved the way for Russia to exert its influence through a combination of subversion and military aggression.

              But while this analysis helps us to understand Putin’s regime and its considerable level of popular support, it does not excuse the crimes committed by Putin’s military in the invasion of Ukraine. The West’s efforts to aggressively contain Russia—both before and after the fall of communism—do not undercut the righteousness of the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. Great Powers are never morally pure, but it is still important to distinguish different levels of moral culpability. Those who order the unprovoked shooting of soldiers and civilians earn the darkest circle of Hell.

Fred Block

Research Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book is an edited volume in the Real Utopia Series founded by Erik Olin Wright, Democratizing Finance: Restructuring Credit to Reform Society (Verso). He has also written Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion (California) and with Margaret R. Somers, The Power of Market Fundamentalism (Harvard).

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

International Crises and the Clash of Systems

Debate on War in Ukraine

international crises and the clash of systems

25th of April, 2022

Katharina Pistor

The saying goes that crisis brings out the best in us – and the worst. In Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere, violence inflicted by humans upon others reveals the human capacity for unfathomable cruelty, but also for empathy, sacrifice, even heroism. In a similar vein, crises might reveal the true nature of social systems, of capitalism and socialism, or democracy.

In an essay entitled “Russia and the Crisis”, published in February of 1939 by the Christian Left Group (CLG) of which Karl Polanyi was a member, the unfolding international crisis that would soon culminate in World War II was characterized as a clash between capitalism and socialism.[1] The emergence of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, sealed the fate of capitalist nations “which must decline into the dusty past” (p.1) and give rise to a new, and in the group’s view, a better order. “Fascism is simply an attempt to stave off the inevitable at the price of chaos, degradation and an infinitude of human suffering” (ibid).

How did the West respond to this challenge? It supported fascist governments “to the point of national suicide” and “surrendered to German Fascism” (with reference to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy). This, the essay suggests, “is not surprising; for these countries are ruled by Finance and Big Business, who look to the Fascist state for leadership in their struggle against the socialist movement” (ibid).

The CLG was clearly enamored with the socialist experiment, and may not have anticipated the rapprochement between Hitler and Stalin only six months later, which assured Germany a steady supply of Russian oil and carved up Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Contra CLG, Soviet Russia was as deep in big power realpolitik as was the West.

And yet, the analysis of the extent to which democratic countries are willing to accommodate an aggressor that openly defies fundamental democratic values is worth reflecting on given the West’s response to the war in Ukraine. Russia, of course, is no longer a socialist nation that embodies the promise of a better world and therefore a threat to capitalism. It has created its own oligarchic, natural resource-based, mode of capitalism and uses denazification as a cynical ploy to mobilize its citizens for the war. If the fear of socialism did indeed drive capitalist countries to appease fascism, we should perhaps expect a different response today in the absence of such threat.

At first, it seemed that this is what happened. Economic sanctions were swift; assets of Russian oligarchs were seized; military budgets were increased, as was the delivery of arms to Ukraine. Yet, it also became clear fairly quickly that there were lines the West would not cross. One such line did not exist in 1939: the threat of a nuclear war, which precludes a direct military engagement with Russia. Beyond this, the calibration of sanctions supports the CLG’s sober assessment that there is hardly a Faustian bargain a capitalist country, democratic or not (hardly a difference under capitalism in his view), will not strike.

One might say that what the socialist threat was to the West in the 1930s, it is energy dependence today – not only in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, but also the threat of climate extinction. Back then the CLG asserted that “Munich mean[t] the eclipse of Great Britain as a power that can be trusted when it takes its stand on a moral issue” (p.2). Today, Germany is paying that price for its self-made dependence on Russian energy and its unwillingness to free itself from this bond even in the face of war crimes Russian troops are committing again in Ukraine, a country that Putin, like Stalin before him, believed to be his for ruination and that German troops had devastated under Hitler. In short, international crises reveal how thin a veneer democratic values are relative to system preservation, but the CLG may have over-rated the threat of socialism as the true cause.

 

 

[1] The essay is the first in a series of essays on “Russia in the World” published by the Christian Left Group in the “Bulletins for Socialists”. The full bulletin is available here. It includes several essays that were authored by Polanyi, but the provenance of this essay is not entirely clear.

Katharina Pistor

Edwin B. Parker Professor of Comparative Law at Columbia Law School. Her research and teaching center around the legal foundations of capitalism, law and development, corporate law, and law and finance.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

A New World Order is emerging

Debate on War in Ukraine

a new world order is emerging

25th of April, 2022

Michael Brie

“Of all the great changes witnessed by our generation, none
may prove more incisive than that which is transforming
the organisation of international life.”

Karl Polanyi (1945)

In Karl Polanyi’s eyes, at the end of WWII the world faced the alternative between “regional systems coexisting side by side” (Polanyi 2018: 232) or “universal capitalism.” Initially, things turned out differently. Between 1945 and 1991, a bipolar world system dominated. Only with the dissolution of the Soviet Union could a universal capitalism of neoliberal “hyperglobalization” (Rodrik 2012) under the unilateral hegemony of the United States prevail.

After three decades, this “rules-based order” of universal capitalism under the auspices of the U.S. as the world’s policeman is coming to an end. There were omens for this: The global financial crisis that had originated in the U.S. had led the world economy to the abyss, from which only the concerted action of the G20 provided an escape. The rise of China and other countries of the global South permanently shifted the global balance of economic power. Russia cautiously began to counter NATO’s westward expansion with its own agenda starting in 2008. Various outside powers intervened simultaneously and against each other in the civil wars over Syria, Libya, or Yemen.

In 2017, however, developments gathered momentum. President Trump denounced the readiness for global leadership with the slogan “America first.” This was followed by the withdrawal from the painstakingly negotiated Iran agreement and the declaration of open technological and economic warfare by the U.S. against China with the Huawei causa. The pandemic revealed the vulnerability of the globalized world economy to such crises. The panic flight of the Western military alliance from Afghanistan was hardly over when Russia launched a large-scale military attack on Ukraine in February 2022. In contrast to widespread assumption, this hot war does not change everything, but highlights all the changes in the glare of the sharpest confrontation and accelerates in a dramatic way the upheavals in the world order that are already underway.

In one of his last more extensive elaborations under the title “For a New West” from 1958, Polanyi outlines the vision of a “circumscribed, reduced West” which “is both a concentrated and radical West and an adjusted, tolerant West” (Polanyi 2014: 32). For him this was a West that had passed through the contradictions of modernity, claiming” to a way of life of universal validity” (ibid.). But it would lack the partner for a dialogue at this time. Now, sixty years later, the partners are there, who passed through the contradictions of modernity in their own way, but as colonies and semicolonies, as pariahs of the Western imperial world. Now they are gaining their own special “way of life of universal validity” (ibid.). Under these conditions Polanyi’s vision in the “The Great Transformation” may come true: “Out of the ruins of the Old World, cornerstones of the New can be seen to emerge: economic collaboration of governments and the liberty to organize national life at will.“ (Polanyi 2001: 262)

A new world order is under way with different ways of life. It is still open whether all the power, energy and imagination of the ruling forces will lead to nothing but an age of catastrophism and barbarism. The hubris of the U.S. and its allies on the one hand and fateful chauvinist counterattacks may lead to endless wars and a standstill in all the fields of necessary global cooperation. What will happen will also depend on whether Karl Polanyi’s vision of 1945 will come true or not – the vision of politically controlled large regions that are able to shape their relations to each other peacefully and cooperatively on the basis of common security and development.

For the shaping of a new and sufficiently peaceful and solidary world order, Polanyi formulated two important insights in the middle of WWII, which can be recalled: (1) „As in every previous phase in the history of Western civilization external influences form the decisive factor in the development of national life. The survival of democracy depends upon the measure of its success in tackling the global tasks of the time.” (Polanyi 2017: 80) (2) “The regulated economy allows cooperation in freedom i.e., irrespective of internal regimes. All except the predatory empire are acceptable. The tame empire is no longer a utopia.” (ibid.)

Reference

Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The Great Transformation. MA: Beacon Press.
Polanyi, Karl. 2017. ‘The Common Man’s Masterplan (1943)’. In Karl Polanyi in Dialogue: A Socialist Thinker for Our Times,     edited by Michael Brie, 79–94. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Polanyi, Karl. 2018. ‘Universal Capitalism or Regional Planning? (1945)’. In Economy and Society, edited by Michele   Cangiani  and Claus Thomasberger, 231–40. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Rodrik, Dani. 2012. The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. New York: Norton & Co   Inc.

Michael Brie

Prof. Dr. habil. Michael Brie, is chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Rosa Luxemburg foundation. He has studied philosophy in Leningrad and Berlin and was managing director of the Rosa Luxemburg foundation. His research fields are the theory and history of socialism and communism and the theory and practice of socioecological transformation. He is recent author of Rediscovering Lenin. Dialectics of Revolution & Metaphysics of Domination (Palgrave 2019), and together with Jörn Schütrumpf of Rosa Luxemburg. A Revolutionary Marxist at the Limits of Marxism (Palgrave 2021). He is chief editor of the series Contribution to Critical Transformation Research (VSA, Hamburg). Together with Claus Thomasberger he edited Karl Polanyi’s Vision of a Socialist Transformation (Black Rose Books, Montreal).

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

A non-updated notion: pacifism

Debate on War in Ukraine

A non-updated notion: pacifism

25th of April, 2022

Mariavittoria Cantanzariti

Since the start of the dreadful Ukrainian invasion, the public discussion about pacifism has been latent being rather replaced by the common idea that peace could be adequately preserved through adequate responses. Most focus has been given to the classical controversial concept of “just war”, looking for a legal basis that could justify the European choice to dispatch military equipment to Ukraine – whether it be Article 51 UN Charter. This recalls to memory the well-known scientific debate between Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt on the admissibility of the war only as lawful sanction, on the one hand, and the necessity of the war to face contingency, on the other hand. However, neither of these options, certainly not the Schmittian one, but neither the Kelsenian’s one advocating for pacifism through law, embraces a more radical alternative of non-violence. Polany’s reading is interesting in this respect as it offers a paradigmatic refusal of the idea of war. The dichotomy is radical, not in terms of “un-lawful war/just war”, rather in terms of “pacifism/war”.

In the essays The roots of pacifism (not dated) and The meaning of peace (1938) Polanyi draws a theory of pacifism that is theoretically rooted into the moral rejection of war.

The possibility of inequality among states is not taken into account as a political option (contingency). Conversely, the acceptable contingent status of international actors is the inherent possibility to co-exist, otherwise – Polanyi contends – civilization is going to peril. The abolition of  war is the prior task for society but it postulates a new foundation of politics: the constant fight against the institution of war does not depend on human emotions, but it tragically addresses the need to solve the uncertainty of territorial boundaries.

The thesis is groundbreaking as it does not simply mean that the international order should be based on the refusal of war, but on the achievement of institutional requirements that reject the need of war to pursue certain objectives.

Polanyi warns about the fact that both the material and political forms of human existence have a worldwide scale. Peace can be achieved throughout two alternatives: either a world empire ruled by conquest and subjection, or a world league ruled by international cooperation.

It would be important in the European debate to re-center the Polanyian legacy at the core of the pacifist challenge as it portraits an utilitarian idea of pacifism for the international order. Against the pacifistic deceit – supporting the abolition of war only based on the assumption that the war does not fulfill any vital tasks – this means that war cannot represent a precondition for the survival of a political community. If a state is destined to collapse in a situation of invasion or conflict unless resorting to war, we then must abolish the necessity of war as precondition for state’s survival.

In the case of defensive warfare, this alternative is brave because global interdependency tends to eradicate the possibility of non-competitive and non-reciprocal behaviors.

Mariavittoria Catanzariti

Mariavittoria Catanzariti is a Research Associate at the Robert Shuman Centre for Advanced Studies (EUI) and Adjunct Professor of Law & Ethics of Innovation & Sustainability at LUISS University. Barrister at law since 2010, she obtained a PhD in European Law in 2011 from Roma Tre University and the Italian Scientific Qualification as Associate Professor in Legal Sociology in 2018.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy

Karl Polanyi and Russia’s war on Ukraine

Debate on War in Ukraine

KARL POLANYI AND RUSSIA'S WAR ON UKRAINE

25th of April, 2022

Gareth Dale

In this note on Polanyi and Russia’s war in Ukraine, I suggest that although Polanyi’s critique of the ‘self-regulating’ market system speaks to aspects of the two nations’ collapse in the 1990s, to grasp the context of this war requires a theory of imperialism which he lacked.

In Polanyi’s account, from 1815 to 1914 a long peace reigned among the great powers, thanks to pressure from haute finance. In the late nineteenth century, however, shifting alliances gave way to entrenched blocs, undermining the ability of haute finance to mediate. Meanwhile, global market expansion and the gold standard were breeding “disruptive strains,” in the form of protectionism, class struggle, nationalism and imperialism. These undermined the market system, transposing its instabilities onto the geopolitical plane.

In the ensuing conflagration of 1914-18, empires collapsed, ‘liberal civilisation’ imploded, and the Soviet Union was born. Polanyi’s politics took a guild-socialist swerve, yet his stance on world order remained left-liberal. He applauded Woodrow Wilson’s exploits in geopolitical engineering, hailing him as a high-minded helmsman of the “pacifist” cause in opposition to the archaic “militarism” of aristocratic elites who turned trade into a tool of aggression. Toward the president’s own archaisms—his WASP supremacism, imperialist warmongering, etc—he turned a blind eye.

In the mid-1920s when guild socialism fragmented, most of its supporters, including Polanyi, migrated toward variants of left social democracy. Soviet communism was transmogrifying from the radical-democratic internationalism of 1917-22 to the autocratic étatisme and Great Russian chauvinism of the Stalinist period. Following the Bolshevik revolution, as Vladimir Putin recently reminded us, Ukraine briefly gained independence before its subsumption within the USSR, the terms of which were initially egalitarian, then oppressive. Stalin’s counter-revolution smashed into Ukraine on several fronts, notably the reversal of Ukrainisation policies and the peculiarly brutal consequences of agricultural collectivisation. Its violence is etched in Ukraine’s sharply lower population growth compared to 1930s Russia.

Polanyi’s interwar writings are admirable in their prescient identification of the sharp disjuncture between communist politics as practised under Lenin vis-à-vis Stalin, but not in his preference for the latter. During the Moscow Show Trials he swallowed the Stalinist newspeak, including the claim—still in vogue today—that the Kremlin’s opponents are all fascists. He condemned the former Bolshevik leaders in the dock, not least for their opposition to what he called, with reference to ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin’s “realist departure.” Realism, here, conveys his preference for Stalin’s state-building strategy over the class- and movement-oriented alternatives, but it was also bound up with his partial embrace of IR realism. From support for Stalin’s state-building project flowed acceptance of the hard facts of the contemporary states system, including the legitimacy of the spheres of influence to which the great powers consider themselves entitled.

His Hungarian Heimat apart, Polanyi’s affections were invariably toward big states and empires. In the 1930s, Russia remained a favourite, and his partiality to the USA blossomed; there was nothing necessarily imperialist about either state, he fondly believed. Throughout, he maintained that small states should cease demanding the sort of sovereignty that the great powers enjoyed. Ideally, they would federate, allowing the trend toward big polities to coexist with cultural rights for small nations. World order should be based on “Tame Empires”: large blocs dominated by major states and federations. A tame-imperial order offered a means of transcending “international anarchy”, and would allow the USSR to prosper.

It should have been obvious since the Winter War (which, incidentally, displays parallels to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine), if not before, that the Soviet empire was not ‘tame.’ For Polanyi, the penny eventually dropped during the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Resistance was led by the “eruptive force” of the working class, whose “heroic” intervention, in the form of mass strikes, street fighting, and workers’ councils, formed the heart of the rising. It was not primarily nationalistic or liberal in temper but, he thought, socialist and narodnik and heralded a rejuvenation of Marxism. The latter indeed came about, in the shape of a New Left which, with Polanyi on board, was critical of Stalinism, and opposed NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

If we can draw inspiration from this story, it is above all in the 1956 moment. Learning from working people involved in radical-democratic struggle, Polanyi moved beyond his previous state-supporting positions, which had veered from Wilsonian liberalism to pro-Soviet realism. He came to see that Moscow’s relationship to Hungary was one of domination and that the 1956 uprising pointed to a politics beyond the existing, hierarchical and oppressive, world system.

What remained absent in his work, however, was a theory of imperialism. He spoke of imperialist phases and policies, e.g. “American free trade imperialism,” but without exploring imperialism as a systemic totality, i.e. a hierarchical world system in which economic and geopolitical rivalries fuse. And while his core economic concepts—fictitious commodities, embeddedness, habitation/improvement, mechanisms of distribution—cast light on aspects of modern capitalism, without a concept of capital they fail to capture its compulsive dynamism or its systemic relationship to imperialist order.

Gareth Dale

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. He has written and co-edited several books on Eastern Europe, published by Pluto and Routledge, and on Karl Polanyi, published by Columbia UP, Polity, Pluto, Manchester UP, and Agenda.

Read the other essays on the War in Ukraine here: 

Michele Cangiani, Italy
Maja Savevska, Kazakhstan
Maria Markantonatou, Greece
Florin Poenaru, Romania
Michael Brie, Germany
Mariavittoria Catanzariti, Italy