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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation's new Left

With the exception of Labour's resurgence in the 2017 British elections, the Left has registered few advances lately. Elections in many Western countries have arrayed mainstream neoliberals against right‐wing populists, with the latter channelling the rage instigated by the policies of the former. Most established parties of the democratic Left in Europe are in electoral freefall. The ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America has rapidly receded (with a couple of exceptions). And far‐right populism is becoming the movement of the white working class. A crisis may erupt at any time in the form of another financial meltdown, an ecological disaster, an authoritarian reaction or a foreign‐policy miscalculation.

Yet progressive parties are unable so far to champion effectively a more secure, just and sustainable path. The main hope lies with an emergent new Left, of mainly new parties practising a movement‐politics and featuring an unwillingness to compromise with neoliberalism. Can Polanyi help with this revival?

Despite the fact that Karl Polanyi addressed a different era, his writings remain germane for those seeking to rejuvenate the Left. He was a visionary thinker who sought to understand the forces that drove history and, on this basis, to think through ways of maximising freedom by transcending the contradiction between democracy and capitalism in modern societies. But Polanyi was not interested in providing a blueprint, at least not in his post‐Vienna years (he left Austria in 1933). What he aimed to do instead was expand our political imagination. The comparative studies of the Polanyi circle in the 1950s – historical case studies from around the world and anthropological explorations of non‐Western societies – showed that non‐capitalist worlds existed in which people led full and even fulfilling lives. His point was not nostalgic – that we could somehow reclaim these earlier ways of life – rather it was that we, having recognised that market society was ‘obsolete’,1 could draw on these other worlds to imagine and construct societies of relatively free people by abolishing market society, though not necessarily markets.

Polanyi's work offers three potential contributions to the formation of this generation's new Left.

  • He furnishes the elements of a powerful diagnosis – a potent explanation of what is wrong with contemporary society.
  • His specific analysis of fascism alerts us not only to the dangers that lurk in our age, but also to the origins of fascism and what needs to be done to counter its rise.
  • His post‐Vienna approach to socialism is in accord with the political realities of our age. At a time when conventional views of social democracy and socialism have both reached an impasse, Polanyi's ambiguous stance, focusing on principles rather than institutions, ironically provides the grounds for a fresh start. It allows for the working‐out of an ‘in‐between’ movement‐politics strategy that might prove effective in confronting right‐populist forces and in building popular support.

Useful analytical and strategic advice can still be found in Polanyi's work.

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