In a much discussed and very welcome piece for Dissent, historian Patrick Iber and Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal outline the resurgent ideas of the great political economist Karl Polanyi. Konczal and Iber, whose study of the cultural Cold War in Latin America we published last year, see Polanyi’s thought resonating throughout our political moment, particularly among followers of Bernie Sanders. In detailing Polanyi’s work on markets, money, and labor—embodied most significantly in 1944’s The Great Transformation—they hope to help us understand the 2016 presidential election:
Polanyi wouldn’t have been surprised by the rise of Trump. He knew that the double movement—the protective steps that people take when exposed to too much unfettered capitalism—does not always benefit the left. Trump supporters clamoring to make America great again reflect one version of this; they hearken to a time when life was more secure and stable, at least for certain types of working- and middle-class whites.
In fact, one of the reasons that Polanyi rushed The Great Transformation to press was to warn post-Second World War policymakers that poor economic institutions could lead—through the double movement—to disastrous consequences for democracy. For Polanyi, it would make sense that the Sanders and Trump insurgencies happened simultaneously, and that there are some people who would rank those two as their favored candidates, in spite of them seeming to come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both campaigns are based in part in complaints about the corrosive effects of exposure to global markets. Both are against so-called “free trade” and skeptical of open borders, though only Trump’s campaign is shot through with xenophobia and only Sanders wants to reform the Wall Street practices responsible for the Great Recession. Still, in spite of all their differences, both Sanders and Trump look like expressions of “double movement” politics.
In addition to the prevalence of Polanyian arguments in the public sphere, Iber and Konczal note a renewed academic interest, citing Fred Block and Margaret Somers’s The Power of Market Fundamentalism, among other recent studies. As we know, by the time an academic book is bound, its ideas often aren’t arriving on the very most sharpest point of the leading edge—which is to say that the Polanyi surge is more than just folks feeling the Bern. Indeed, as Iber and Konczal write, “The future of the party does not belong to Bernie Sanders himself, but the Karl Polanyi Democrats are here to stay.”