Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is difficult to summarize. A patriotic citizen of his native Hungary, he spoke German at home and identified with German intellectual culture. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity, as well as an Anglophile who was deeply impressed by the spiritual intensity of Russian culture. He witnessed Europe’s fin-de-siecle nervousness and survived two world wars, living in Hungary, Vienna, England, before finally taking a position at Columbia University just in time to witness the birth of the Cold War.
Disciplinarily, Polanyi was equally hard to pigeonhole. A socialist, he insisted that markets were created by and embedded in society, not naturally existing creations that could or ought to be ‘free’. Economists thought him a sociologist, sociologists thought him an economist. Much of his work was historical, but he greatly influenced the field of anthropology.
In fall 2016 British academic Gareth Dale published the first ever biography of Karl Polanyi, presenting for us at last a major account of Polanyi’s complex and fascinating life. I interviewed him recently over email about his book, Polanyi’s life, and his relevance for today.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first full-length biography of Karl Polanyi. How did you decide that Polanyi merited this level of consideration? If Polanyi is an important thinker, then why hasn’t a biography of him appeared already?
Yes it’s the first full-length biography. The decision to write it was easy. In the cover blurb, G. M. Tamás puts his finger on Polanyi’s significance: “one of the truly great thinkers of the twentieth century, comparable in importance to Max Weber or to John Maynard Keynes.” Some excellent biographical essays have appeared over the years, compiled in conference volumes and the like, but I don’t know why it took so long for a biography to be attempted.
You’ve written extensively on Polanyi. Can you tell me how this book differs from your other writings — how are the audiences or purposes of it is different from your previous volume? What should readers trying to choose between them know about how each are distinctive?
The three books form one project, on Polanyi’s life and work, with exposition, analysis and critique. Each of these aspects is found in all three books, but the emphasis of the biography is on his life and times, that of Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market is on exegesis and analysis, while that of Reconstructing Karl Polanyi is on critique.
Polanyi was multilingual and peripatetic — can you tell me about how you managed to do the research for this very well-researched volume? Did you travel much? Did you have to learn Hungarian? German? Did you have to do extensive background reading on the different countries he lived in? It seems a daunting task!
The archives I used were in Montréal, Budapest, Vienna, Oxford, New York and Chicago. I speak German and was fortunate to win funding to have the bulk of Polanyi’s Hungarian writings summarised or translated. (I’ve collated some of them in Karl Polanyi: The Hungarian Writings, Manchester University Press.) And yes, extensive reading was necessary.
You write that Polanyi was full of political ideas but never threw himself into a single political cause the way some of his contemporaries did. This might remind some of the professor who preaches revolution in the class room but is otherwise politically quietistic. Is Polanyi the sort of person that only a professor could really love? Or will activists and politicians find Polanyi someone worth learning from?
Polanyi diagnosed the collapse of liberal civilization in the inter-war era, developed a passionate critique of ‘market fundamentalism,’ and sieved the norms, laws and customs of ancient and ‘archaic’ economies for ingredients that could assist the builders of future socialist institutions. In all these respects, activists and politicians can find inspiration and food for thought in Polanyi’s work. In other respects his ideas are less amenable to activist interpretation. There is relatively little concern with social movements, or with relations of power and oppression. The weight of explanation in The Great Transformation falls on the cultural forms and moral norms that shape economic behaviour, with a neglect of social class: the control of productive property and the systematic relationships of command and exclusion that flow from it.
In the end of your book you discuss how Polanyi might have viewed the political events that occurred while you were finishing the manuscript. Now that the book is out, how do you reckon Polanyi would analyze Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump?
Brexit might have puzzled Polanyi. He tended to see regionalism as a progressive development—the Hayekian form that the European Union has taken would have surprised him. As to Trump, he is the latest in a series of elected strongmen leaders—Berlusconi, Erdoğan, Duterte, Putin, Orbán—who seek to construct an authoritarian-populist basis of support, one that blends ‘man of the people’ rhetoric with conservative bigotry on immigration/race, women, LGBT, socialism and so on. Authoritarian populism is widely thought of as liberalism’s antithesis, or nemesis, and yet in a sense the neoliberal project (which has for many decades been the main avatar or liberalism) requires elements of authoritarian populism. For although, in the mainstream neoliberal imaginary, stable liberal-democratic regimes preside over free markets and tolerant civil societies, in practice these desiderata are difficult to combine. Neoliberalism arose in battle against labour and other social movements, and in defeating them it expedited tendencies to social and geographical polarization and the corrosion of the public sphere. Societies have found themselves increasingly subordinated to the logic of market choice; politics became individualized, and communities fragmented. As the wealth chasm widens, those at the bottom face precarious circumstances and bitter struggles, while those on the middle rungs find themselves scrabbling and insecure, aspiring to the peaks but fearful of falling. In this context, neoliberal politicians are tempted to court nationalist-authoritarian forms of populism. For example here in Britain, under Thatcher, neoliberalism was fundamentally unpopular, but her government was able to broaden its support base in part by populist means, whipping up jingoism, and moral panics (often coded) around issues such as race and refugees, law-and-order, and sexual permissiveness. For neoliberal centrists this is a risky game—their project is facing a legitimacy crisis, and right-wing populism can’t necessarily be contained. Whether Polanyi would have analysed Trump along these lines is difficult to say. I like to think he would.