The Alcove

How (Not) to Criticize Karl Polanyi

A recent critique of Karl Polanyi reveals more about the limits of our current political debates than anything about the man himself.

By Steven Klein

Tagged GlobalizationKarl PolanyiLiberalismnationalismsocialism

Globalization has not been doing so well lately. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea that unfettered free markets bring unadulterated benefits to society has lost its sheen. Trump’s election demolished Republican Party catechisms around free trade. The irony of our current moment is that the center-left politicians, traditionally wary of markets, have become the great defenders of global openness, while the opponents of globalization are gravitating to the nationalist right.

Once a relatively obscure Hungarian academic, Karl Polanyi has posthumously become one of the central figures in debates about globalization. This recent interest in his thought has occasioned an unsympathetic treatment by Jeremy Adelman in the Boston Review. Adelman, a Princeton professor, has scores to settle with Polanyi. But his article ends up revealing more about the limits of our current political debates than anything about the man himself.

Polanyi’s classic book, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, published in 1944, argued that the utopian obsession with self-adjusting markets had wreaked havoc in nineteenth-century European society, eventually laying the groundwork for the rise of fascism. His once unfashionable views have witnessed a remarkable revival of late. His name is frequently invoked when describing the dangers that global market integration poses to democracy. Polanyi has now moved one step closer to intellectual canonization with the publication of Gareth Dale’s excellent biography, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left (2016), the impetus of Adelman’s article.

First, there are aspects of Polanyi’s thought worth criticizing. His historical account of the origins of the market society is murky. He neglects gender, race, and colonialism, although he was a supporter of anti-colonial struggles. Yet, instead, Adelman returns to a well-worn and wrong-headed criticism of Polanyi: that his thought represents a romantic revolt against markets in favor of a warm communalism, a stance that inevitably leads to violent nationalism and tyrannical “collectivism.”

More troubling still is Adelman’s explanation for why Polanyi was supposedly attracted to romantic attacks on liberalism. In Adelman’s telling, Polanyi, who was born into an assimilated Jewish family but converted to Christianity, suffered from a sort of intellectual Stockholm Syndrome: Excluded from European society, he romanticized his murderous oppressors. He longed for the communal belonging that was denied to him as a Jew. And so Polanyi, Adelman declares, wanted to “merge into the national Volk.” This desire explains his “blind spot for reactionary nationalism,” which “would only grow with time” as he looked to the passions of nationalist belonging “as a way to restore a sense of fraternal community.” Polanyi’s rejection of liberalism was thus a rejection of his own Judaism. He attacked market liberalism and excused reactionary nationalism because of his unfulfillable desire to belong in a Europe defined by ethnic unity and anti-Semitism.

Now, there is much to be said about Polanyi’s social circumstances and life story, beautifully recounted in Dale’s biography. The complex identity of assimilated Jewish elites in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Polanyi’s lifelong attraction to Christianity certainly informed his thinking. There is also a larger story here about the attraction of interwar Jewish intellectuals to various strains of Christianity. Perhaps this fascination reflected a degree of self-loathing for highly educated Jews, caught in the double binds of Jewish identity: either too assimilated and therefore incapable of authenticity, or else clinging to their primitive roots. Or perhaps a radical interpretation of aspects of Christianity provided such Jews with a standpoint to criticize Europe without having their criticisms dismissed on account of their Judaism. These are all interesting and worthy questions.

For Adelman, though, Polanyi’s conversion to Christianity is a bludgeon with which to attack him, a crude device to explain Polanyi’s (again supposed) hatred for European liberalism. But the idea that Polanyi, who was forced to flee Europe, is some sort of apologist for nationalism is just plain wrong. Indeed, he viewed European liberalism’s attachment to market fundamentalism as the barrier to an alliance between democratically inclined liberals and the working masses. The worst that could be said of him on this account is that he underestimates nationalism as a source of opposition to markets, although he certainly was aware of the fascist threat. But his central point was always that, if we want to avoid an authoritarian reaction to the ravages of the market, we need to develop a democratic alternative to pro-market liberalism.

To tar Polanyi with the brush of reactionary nationalism, Adelman makes some strange claims. For instance, he argues that Polanyi affiliates Judaism with liberalism, both of which he then views as stepping stones to Christianity and socialism, respectively. The only problem is that Polanyi explicitly associated Christianity, and not Judaism, with liberalism—Christianity revealed the principle of individual freedom that is the core of liberalism—and, for him, both Christianity and liberalism stood in need of a revision that would push them toward democratic socialism. Of course, deeply internalized anti-Semitism could be more important than Polanyi’s actual statements. The problem with such psychological arguments, though, is their pointillist quality: They cohere better from afar than up close.

Reading Polanyi is admittedly a frustrating experience. He mixes high theory, historical narrative, and overheated journalistic polemic into a distinct mélange. Yet at the center of his thinking is a brilliant idea: that the three core “inputs” of the economy—labor, land, and money—are what he calls “fictitious” commodities. By this, Polanyi means that, try as we might, workers are never going to move at a moment’s notice to wherever markets dictate, markets aren’t going to replenish rivers and fields, and governments will bail out banks to keep money flowing. To take one not-exactly-random example: Since land, to Polanyi, is more than just a resource for market exchange, so too will housing only ever be a partial commodity. Access to housing is a vital interest, and so democracies will face pressure to introduce a variety of regulations that “distort” housing markets. So, it is hardly surprising that the financial crisis was centered on mortgages—try as we might, we will never get housing markets to be the smooth, frictionless edifices imagined by economists. A house cannot be moved like a bushel of wheat. Adelman misses the significance of these arguments because he reduces Polanyi’s thinking to the binary of morality or markets. But the central opposition, for Polanyi, is democracy or markets. Democratic demands for social protection conflict with the dictates of the market, a fact that is ever more apparent in our era of financial capitalism.

Adelman boils this down to a simplistic rejection of the market as such, an inability to see how markets can function as engines of wealth-creation and need-satisfaction. But here Polanyi fully agrees with Adelman about the remarkable potential of markets. Polanyi’s attack on market liberalism is not that it impoverishes the masses in favor of the rich. The problem with markets, for him, is that they are so good at producing efficiencies that they tend to override all other considerations. To unlock their full potential, markets require the subordination of all individual, social, and political institutions to their dictates.

Polanyi expresses this as the tension between habitation and improvement: We cannot live off the land while we improve the land. This is a lesson that the Greeks and other Europeans are currently learning first-hand, as the search for long-term competitiveness through “structural reforms” leads to massive unemployment. Polanyi thinks this hunt is politically unrealistic and potentially explosive. Societies create moral expectations around fairness, rewards for effort, and stability that markets, by their nature, cannot meet. What is efficient from a market perspective can be profoundly harmful from a human perspective—Polanyi learned this as a teenager, when his father went through a traumatic bankruptcy.

If Polanyi’s argument was just that markets were immiserating and destroyed communal integration, we should certainly consign him to the dustbin of failed moral economists. Fortunately, that was not his view. But Adelman’s line of attack reveals more about our contemporary moment than it does about Polanyi. It speaks to a growing rift between liberalism and the left. Liberals want globalization with a human face, while leftists echo Polanyi in fundamentally questioning the undemocratic political infrastructure of our current market era. The unexpected strength of Sanders in the United States, Mélenchon in France, and now Corbyn in the UK shows that old political dogmas are dying.

Adelman’s read of Polanyi reinforces the liberal view that globalization is a done deal and left anti-globalization rests on a romantic fantasy, one that cannot but appease the racism and nationalism of the “losers” of the market. Just as, if you squint hard enough, you can persuade yourself that Polanyi is a sort of self-hating, pseudo-nationalist reactionary, despite his professed socialism, so too, if you work at it, can you merge Sanders and Trump, Mélenchon and Le Pen into one anti-globalization, anti-liberal morass.

Yet Polanyi provides a vital avenue out of this paralyzing deadlock between pro-globalization liberalism and nationalist populism. Our contemporary market order is in crisis not because of fuzzy-headed leftists, adorned in too many buttons, who refuse to get with the program. Nor is the crisis one last revolt from the losers of globalization, animated by the fever dreams of white Americans and “native” Europeans. Our order is in crisis because it has failed to deliver on its own promise of widely distributed, real growth. For Polanyi, the central problem was how to channel the reaction to such inevitable failures in a democratic rather than authoritarian direction. Polanyi saw many different avenues toward this goal, including Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today, of course, we face different political conditions, but many similar problems: a massively exploitative consumer credit “marketplace,” the degraded power of workers, and flows of speculative capital that undermine democracy. Tackling these issues, though, will require a more foundational rethink of a global institutional order that facilitates market exchange above all else.

One last thought: Adelman takes capitalism’s revival after World War II as an embarrassment for Polanyi. To be sure, Polanyi failed to foresee the remarkable resiliency of capitalism, produced in part by the ability of elites to absorb the undercurrents of his own teaching and construct a form of embedded, organized capitalism. The flipside of post-war capitalism, though, was the creation of an environmental crisis the full scope of which has only now become apparent. If Polanyi failed to predict the persistence of our market society, he was certainly prescient about the destructive environmental implications of unconstrained growth. In this respect, as in many others, we should heed his warnings and learn from his thought, as today the stakes could hardly be higher.

Read more about GlobalizationKarl PolanyiLiberalismnationalismsocialism

Steven Klein is a political theorist who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. He writes and teaches about democracy, the welfare state, and European political thought.

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