By Peter Frase
We need a politics that acknowledges that the social-democratic class compromise is unsustainable.
Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal have an essay at Dissent in which they use the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as an opportunity to explain the theories of Karl Polanyi, and what they mean for the future of progressive politics. Polanyi was a Hungarian emigré to Vienna and later England and the United States, a veteran of the interwar period that gave us the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.
His most famous work, The Great Transformation, was written in the 1930s and 1940s. In it, he attempted to diagnose the failures of the free-market capitalism of his time, which in his view had given rise to the reaction and war he lived through.
His central point, and the one which has been most influential on contemporary liberals, is that there has never been any such thing as an unfettered or natural free market.
Rather, all really existing social formations involve complex ties between people based on a variety of norms and traditions. As Iber and Konczal put it, “the economy is ’embedded’ in society — part of social relations — not apart from them.”
For this reason, the attempt to establish unfettered and unregulated markets is doomed: a pure free-market society is a utopian project, and impossible to realize, because people will resist the process of being turned into commodities.
This is an important insight, and to this point there’s not much about it that I can disagree with. The problem arises when one tries to derive a complete political strategy from this analysis. This is where I part ways with the Polanyian analysis that Iber and Konczal offer.
They suggest that the vision of “socialism” offered by Polanyi, and also by Bernie Sanders, ultimately just involves subjecting capitalism to some humane and democratic limits. They quote a passage in which Polanyi defines socialism as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.”
Continue reading at: Social Democracy’s Breaking Point