Polanyi: new Concordia Website

The Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy has, it appears, changed its home page, as explained here, in early April 2014, when I spent a week in Hospital and then over 3 weeks convalescence. I am still taking things carefully to build up my strength without provoking another racing pulse.

The digital archive has been expanded and improved. It is still, of course, at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. But this year is the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Great Transformation (1944) and an International Conference on 6-8 November is currently being organised on The Enduring Legacy of Karl Polanyi.

“Dedicated to the memory of Karl Polanyi, the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy was established in 1988. Our mission is to preserve his intellectual legacy & to contribute to urgent policy debates on alternative and innovative development strategies, both locally and internationally.”

The conference is particularly interesting for its themes. The Disembedded Economy turns the argument of the embedded economy on its head, because Polanyi of course died before the current neoliberal revanchist wave, so the first theme is about today’s neoliberal era with society re-embedded in the economy.

(1) “re-embedding of the economy in market society”:

What is the originality of Polanyi’s historical approach to the place of the economy in the capitalist market society? His notion of the “disembedded economy” continues to generate debate among social scientists. Situating this debate in the analysis of contemporary society poses theoretical questions that return to Polanyi’s analysis of the rise of liberalism in The Great Transformation and today’s re-embedding of the economy in market society. Others suggest that this process of re-embedding challenges the dominant paradigm with numerous examples drawn from countries in the north and the south.  How does “<dis> embeddedness” explain the current tensions between market and society?

(2) The double-movement: and agency in social transformation

“Polanyi’s “double movement” referred to spontaneous protective reactions against disintegrating forces of markets by social forces within nation-states. Who and where are the agents of social change in contemporary globalised market capitalism? This theme invites papers on forms of resistance in the north and in the south. Recent Occupy and indignados movements, protests by indigenous peoples, resistance to global injustice and inequality are often perceived as autonomous and fragmented, reducing their transformative capacity. Other social movements are challenging the dominant paradigm by developing new institutions and processes of social and economic transformation. In many parts of the world, the social and solidarity economy is a transformative process of resistance engaging the cooperative movement, labour unions, women’s and environmental movements, youth, rural communities and organizations in a growing international movement  to democratize the economy.

The social and solidarity economy challenges the principles underlying mainstream economics raising important theoretical questions. Does the diversity of the social and solidarity economy in different national and regional contexts reduce it to numerous discrete “double movements” or is it a global process of economic democratization? With the recognition of the role of the social and solidarity economy within numerous regions and countries in the north and the south, by the United Nations and the European Union, one asks if it exists on the margins of a global financialized economy or if its “lived realities” are contesting this model.

The double movement is also reflected in the rise of the new right in many parts of the world. As this call for papers is circulated, Europe prepares for spring elections. Rising nationalism and Euroscepticism are fuelling the threat of a right-dominated European parliament. Are Polanyi’s writings on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s prescient? Do they still resonate today?”

Sadly, they do. The rise of Golden Dawn in Greece and of Jobbik with anti-Semitic strains in Hungary as well as extreme right parties across Europe, in The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Party of the Swedes in Sweden are just some of the one-issue racist parties that have emerged since 2008. In Sweden anti-immigration parties across the whole spectrum of radical extremism have flowered. One, Sweden Democrats, has won several seats in the Riksdag and is today one of the largest parties in Sweden: third or fourth largest.

The reasons for the rise of racist parties are complex and the racism varied depending on political circumstances.

I wonder what Karl Polanyi as a Hungarian living in Vienna would have made of Jobbik with its anti-Semitism? Or the continuing strength of Freedom Party of Austria from Jörg Haider to today (see the earlier post on Austria). Others, like the Dutch Party for Freedom are critical of mainly the immigrants created by the Arab Spring from Syria through Egypt to Libya and many other countries. Others are less focussed on one or another immigrant group but more on  the general increase in refugee groups seeking to come to Fortress Europe, partly as a result of EU agricultural subsidies. The EU seems so paralysed by the variety of political views on agricultural subsidies and preventing the poor outside the EU as to lend itself to this kind of policy paralysis.

(3) The “economistic fallacy” : “Polanyi’s anthropological research established that pre-capitalist civilizations did not permit individuals to fall into poverty unless the entire society suffered famine or other disasters. He contrasted the variety of economic institutions combining reciprocity, redistribution and exchange with the “economistic fallacy” of the self-regulating market. What lessons for our modern world can we draw from Jubilee cancellation of debt, precautionary food security, special purpose money or institutionalised respect for nature? Is basic income an effective means to address inequality? Are these measures challenging the dominant paradigm or do they accommodate market imperatives as demonstrated by the ongoing imposition of austerity measures on fragile economies?” 

(4) Freedom in a complex society : “We cannot achieve the freedom we seek”, wrote Polanyi,  “unless we comprehend the true significance of freedom in a complex society”.  The last chapter of The Great Transformation resonates with the limitations on freedom imposed by market dominated priorities today. The commitment to “bien vivir” in regions of Latin America, for example, or the global movement to “restore habitat” ravaged by “blind improvement” with the collective management of resources, are expressions of freedom to set societal priorities. This theme can be addressed from several perspectives including the compatibility of freedom and regulation, the need for democratic institutions, raised by Polanyi in this last chapter of The Great Transformation.”

The interest in The Great Transformation today reflects the current situation in Europe in a way that almost eerily reflects the 1930s. I have much reading to do now on the work of Gareth Dale and also the new book of Fred Block and Margaret Somers.

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