How (Not) to Criticize Karl Polanyi


Steven Klein in Democracy:

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.

More here.