I have begun reading Quinn Slobodian’s new Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, which is just flat-out brilliant. There are a number of very good reviews of the book out there (I’ll single out Patrick Iber’s in The New Republic) if you want to read more about it, but I wanted to bring it up in order to draw out a particular thread for USIH readers.
Slobodian’s book is a revisionist account of neoliberalism in a number of different ways, but early on he identifies one particular reason why critics of neoliberalism have routinely misunderstood its basic principles. “One of the obstacles to understanding neoliberals on their own terms has been an excessive reliance on a set of ideas borrowed from the Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi,” he writes.
Although Slobodian quotes one scholar’s estimation of Polanyi’s renown as second only to Foucault “among social scientists today,” that may be stretching things. Polanyi has probably reached the stage of fame where he is well known for being not well known: a quite sizable number of people can tell you something about his ideas, but they continue to introduce him as a kind of well-kept secret or a recent discovery.
Still, it is not wrong to see Polanyi as central to anti-neoliberalism and his ideas as growing rapidly in influence. In the past year or two, excellent articles about his ideas and their importance for the present moment have appeared in Dissent (by Daniel Luban and by Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal), The Nation (by Nikil Saval), the New York Review of Books (by Robert Kuttner), and The Chronicle of Higher Education (by Patrick Iber once again!). It is worth—as I want to do here—trying to estimate Polanyi’s impact on intellectual historians and the ways his ideas have proved to be “obstacles” not just for how intellectual historians understand neoliberalism, but capitalism more generally.
In his piece for Dissent, Daniel Luban refers to Polanyi as a “totem for social democracy, much like Marx for communism or Hayek for neoliberalism,” and states that Polanyi offers an alternative guru for non-Marxist leftists. Polanyi gives them a vocabulary and a broad historical paradigm to resist many of the same structural forces that Marxism also identifies as inimical: commodification and the fetishization of commodities; proletarianization; social alienation; the profit motive; the enclosure of public or common resources; the eradication of value forms other than prices. But where Marx and Marxists want to abolish these forces in order to emancipate a particular class (the proletariat), Polanyians tend to root their opposition in a basic assumption that the market society which binds all these forces together simply isn’t natural—it isn’t compatible with human life.
That’s a distinction that is easy to miss because Marxists and Polanyians can express themselves in very similar ways when speaking against capitalist practices and ideas. But Marxists don’t root their opposition to capitalism in the idea that it is a less “natural” mode of living than feudalism or socialism; it is simply exploitative, and exploitation is fundamentally (morally) wrong. Socialism’s theoretical superiority to capitalism isn’t that it is more closely suited to human nature, but that it promises to be less exploitative—and will eventually (as communism) become free of exploitation entirely.
The critique of capitalism as, in a strong sense, anti-human and anti-nature has of course not been limited to Polanyi, and it is rather factitious to call people taking up this line of critique “Polanyians.” But as Iber and Konczal note in their piece, Polanyi’s basic orientation and affect accord very well with a kind of post-New Left radicalism that is widespread. As they put it, large numbers of the supporters of Bernie Sanders “are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi.” Like Polanyi, they feel that the operation of capitalism in all domains of life violates some innate part of what it means to be human, that efforts to “marketize” or commodify or price or “capitalize” things like health care or education are in genuinely unnatural. (Two lines of scripture—both said in scorn of those who would let capitalism run untrammeled into every cranny and crevice of human activity—are often invoked to express the madness of “market society.” The first is by Jesus of Nazareth—“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”—and the second by St. Oscar Wilde—“[he] knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”)
Without getting into the specialized Polanyian terminology (if you’re interested, the Iber/Konczal piece has the best explanation), the point here is that markets must be bounded in space and time: there must be a limit to what kinds of things can be traded for money or treated as economic assets. Different people may have different ideas about what a list of non-market goods and services should include, but the overall idea is that markets must exist inside a society, be controlled by external norms and rules, rather than exist as a kind of layer over the whole of society, setting the norms and rules for when and where all things can be exchanged.
As Slobodian argues, that latter condition—the engrossment of society into the maw of the market—is how most lefty scholars and activists characterize the essence of neoliberalism. “Of a piece with the Polanyian language is the idea that the goal of neoliberals is to liberate markets or set them free. The otherwise uncommon adjective ‘unfettered’ is attached habitually to ‘markets’ as both neoliberal goal and putative reality,” he writes.
Slobodian contests this characterization of neoliberalism in Globalists: the neoliberal dream has to do with achieving market coordination and (his key word) “encasement” at the correct level of society. Contrary to Polanyi, (neoliberal) capitalism doesn’t strive to “disembed” the economy from its normal social norms and constraints, but to locate the ideal set of institutions which can protect market relations from tampering and subversion. “Against the intention of the authors of neoliberal theory, this metaphor [of disembedding/unfettering] essentializes the object of critique: the market becomes a thing capable of being liberated by agents, instead of being, as neoliberals themselves believed, a set of relationships that rely on an institutional framework.”
Luban makes a similar point in Dissent:
In a way Karl [Polanyi], like his brother Michael, remained a theorist of spontaneous order, the difference lying in which forces they took to be organic and which to be artificial. Karl’s aphorism that “[l]aissez-faire was planned; planning was not” is sharp and suggestive, but equally it illustrates the ways in which (as scholars like Philip Mirowski have pointed out) his thought often moved within the same dichotomies as his opponents’. The market becomes the artificial product of conscious intervention, society’s self-defense against the market becomes spontaneous and natural.
That is the other side of the Polanyian/Sandersite coin, one might say: the firm belief that certain social arrangements are natural, the product of spontaneous human impulses which are violated by the capitalist drive to take things to market and slap a price tag on them. For Polanyi and for these leftists, capitalism is historically exceptional—even if prices or markets or forms of accounting existed before capitalism, it is only under capitalism that these instruments became the tools of oppression. Capitalism isn’t the only society with markets in history, but it is the only market society.
This attitude toward capitalism has been particularly dominant in the field of U.S. history, especially in social and labor history, but it has also been quite strong in U.S. intellectual history, particularly in those works that intersect with the history of capitalism as it has been developing over the past 10 or so years.
In future posts and reviews, I want to think about the way that this strong assertion of the historical exceptionalism of capitalism has shaped that scholarship, pushing it in certain directions and encouraging certain connections while hampering others. By thinking about capitalism or “the market” as unspontaneous or unnatural (in a way that pre-capitalist modes of living are implicitly not), what kinds of conclusions are historians of capitalism driven toward? And, given their prominence, where are they taking the rest of the field?