Karl Polanyi: “The market mechanism moreover created the delusion of economic determinism as a general law for all human society.. To attempt to apply economic determinism to all human societies is little short of fantastic. Nothing is more obvious to the student of social anthropology than the variety of institutions found to be compatible with practically identical instruments of production. Only since the market was permitted to grind the human fabric into the featureless uniformity of selenic erosion has man’s institutional creativeness been in abeyance.”
Karl Polanyi considers this article to represent his first significant advance over the thesis presented in The Great Transformation, which attracted international attention as an original analysis of the dilemma of free enterprise capitalism as it affects our entire Western society. Dr Polanyi was born in Vienna in 1886, and was from 1924 to 1934 on the staff of the Oesterreichische Volkswirt, a leading financial weekly. When the clerical dictatorship was established, he emigrated to England, where he lectured at Oxford and the University of London, co-edited Christianity and Social Revolution, and wrote The Essence of Fascism. He was at Bennington College from 1940 to 1943, and will return to the United States this month as visiting professor at Columbia University. This article is twelfth in the series, “The Crisis of the Individual“.
What is it about free-market ideas that give them tenacious staying power in the face of such manifest failures as persistent unemployment, widening inequality, and the severe financial crises that have stressed Western economies over the past forty years? Fred Block and Margaret Somers extend the work of the great political economist Karl Polanyi to explain why these ideas have revived from disrepute in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, to become the dominant economic ideology of our time.
Polanyi contends that the free market championed by market liberals never actually existed. While markets are essential to enable individual choice, they cannot be self-regulating because they require ongoing state action. Furthermore, they cannot by themselves provide such necessities of social existence as education, health care, social and personal security, and the right to earn a livelihood. When these public goods are subjected to market principles, social life is threatened and major crises ensue.
Despite these theoretical flaws, market principles are powerfully seductive because they promise to diminish the role of politics in civic and social life. Because politics entails coercion and unsatisfying compromises among groups with deep conflicts, the wish to narrow its scope is understandable. But like Marx’s theory that communism will lead to a “withering away of the State,” the ideology that free markets can replace government is just as utopian and dangerous.
Widening economic inequality is the academic topic du jour, but the trend of growing wealth and income disparity has been underway for several decades. How did mounting inequality succeed in proving culturally and politically attractive for as long as it did? Will Davies writes that rather than speak in terms of generating more inequality, policy-makers have always favoured another term, which effectively comes to the same thing: competitiveness. In this article, and in a new book, The Limits of Neoliberalism: Sovereignty, Authority & the Logic of Competition, he attempts to understand the ways in which political authority has been reconfigured in terms of the promotion of competitiveness. The years since the banking meltdown of 2008 have witnessed a dawning awareness, that our model of capitalism is not simply producing widening inequality, but is governed by the interests of a tiny minority of the population. The post-crisis period has spawned its own sociological category – ‘the 1%’ – and recently delivered its first work of grand economic theory, in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a book dedicated to understanding why inequality keeps on growing.
Having people believe that massive inequality is the fair outcome of a competitive process that is ultimately good for all is the ideological foundation of the current regime. The crisis has put an end to this fairy tale as free competition in financial markets created financial weapons of mass destruction instead of shared prosperity. For individual diversity to flourish and for democratic societies to function, economic inequality has to be limited and private capital’s controlling power over media, political parties, academic expertise and research must be broken. Freedom and democracy cannot survive where plutocratic power abuse is rampant. Closing tax havens, setting minimum tax floors, taxing wealth, inheritance and windfall profits from rising real estate prices or other asset bubbles are policy option fully in the range of the possible. Taxing the rich is necessary not only for funding inclusive societies, but also for defending democracy. The rich have an exclusive concept of freedom: they want the freedom to buy themselves all kinds of privileges. Real freedom means, as the most famous German social democratic intellectual, Karl Marx, put it, to change all circumstances were human beings are oppressed. Combating inequality is about development as freedom, it is about real democracy, it is about opening up the world for everybody and it is about help and solidarity for all in need.