In many respects, today’s crisis resembles that of the 1930s, as described by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation.footnote1 Now, as then, a relentless push to extend and de-regulate markets is everywhere wreaking havoc—destroying the livelihoods of billions of people; fraying families, weakening communities and rupturing solidarities; trashing habitats and despoiling nature across the globe. Now, as then, attempts to commodify nature, labour and money are destabilizing society and economy—witness the destructive effects of unregulated trading in biotechnology, carbon offsets and, of course, in financial derivatives; the impacts on child care, schooling, and care of the elderly. Now, as then, the result is a crisis in multiple dimensions—not only economic and financial, but also ecological and social.
Moreover, our crisis seems to share a distinctive deep-structural logic with the one Polanyi analysed. Both appear to be rooted in a common dynamic, which he called ‘fictitious commodification’. In both eras, ours and his, free-market fundamentalists have sought to commodify all the necessary preconditions of commodity production. Turning labour, nature and money into objects for sale on ‘self-regulating’ markets, they proposed to treat those fundamental bases of production and exchange as if they could be commodities like any other. In fact, however, the project was self-contradictory. Like a tiger that bites its own tail, neoliberalism threatens now, just as its predecessor did then, to erode the very supports on which capitalism depends. The outcome in both cases was entirely predictable: wholesale destabilization of the economic system on the one hand, and of nature and society on the other.
Given these structural similarities, it is no surprise that many analysts of the present crisis are now returning to Polanyi’s magnum opus, nor that many speak of our time as a ‘second great transformation’, a ‘great transformation redux’.footnote2 Nevertheless, the current conjuncture diverges in a crucial respect from that of the 1930s: despite the structural similarities, the political response today is strikingly different. In the first half of the 20th century, social struggles surrounding the crisis formed what Polanyi called a ‘double movement’. As he saw it, political parties and social movements coalesced around one side or the other of a simple fault-line. On one side stood political forces and commercial interests that favoured deregulating markets and extending commodification; on the other stood a broad-based, cross-class front, including urban workers and rural landowners, socialists and conservatives, that sought to ‘protect society’ from the ravages of the market. As the crisis sharpened, moreover, the partisans of ‘social protection’ won the day. In contexts as divergent as New Deal America, Stalinist Russia, fascist Europe and, later, in postwar social democracy, the political classes appeared to converge on at least this one point: left to themselves, ‘self-regulating’ markets in labour, nature and money would destroy society. Political regulation was needed to save it.
Today, however, no such consensus exists. Political elites are explicitly or implicitly neoliberal—outside Latin America and China, at least. Committed first and foremost to protecting investors, virtually all of them—including self-professed social democrats—demand ‘austerity’ and ‘deficit reduction’, despite the threats such policies pose to economy, society and nature. Meanwhile, popular opposition fails to coalesce around a solidaristic alternative, despite intense but ephemeral outbursts, such as Occupy and the indignados, whose protests generally lack programmatic content. Progressive social movements are longer-lived and better institutionalized, to be sure; but they suffer from fragmentation and have not united in a coherent counter-project to neoliberalism. All told, we lack a double movement in Polanyi’s sense.footnote3 The result, therefore, is a curious disjuncture. While today’s crisis appears to follow a Polanyian structural logic, grounded in the dynamics of fictitious commodification, it does not manifest a Polanyian political logic, figured by the double movement.
What should we make of this disjuncture? How can we best explain the decidedly non-Polanyian character of the political landscape in the 21st century, and how should we evaluate the present constellation? Why do political elites today fail to champion regulatory projects aimed at saving the capitalist economic system—let alone society and nature—from the ravages of out-of-control markets? And why do social movements not unite around a counter-hegemonic project aimed at defending threatened livelihoods, battered communities and endangered habitats? Are we dealing here with political mistakes—with failures of leadership, defects of analysis, errors of judgement? Alternatively, does the current constellation of political struggle in some respects represent an advance over Polanyi’s scenario? Does it reflect hard-won insights that point to weaknesses in the idea of the double movement? In what follows, I propose to address these questions in two stages. First, I shall assess some widely cited hypotheses as to why the current political landscape deviates from Polanyi’s analysis. I shall then propose an alternative hypothesis, which in my view better illuminates our situation. This hypothesis requires that we revise Polanyi’s idea of a double movement in a way that better clarifies the prospects for emancipatory social transformation in the 21st century.