Freedom and Uncertainty in a Complex Society: Why Karl Polanyi Was Well, Should be a Deweyan Pragmatist

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.2.05 (Clement House)
Josh Whitford, Columbia University, New York, NY
The paper takes as its starting point a pair of well-known controversies that have emerged as political economists and economic sociologists have sought to translate theoretical ideas drawn from Karl Polanyi’s (seminal if sometimes contradictory) The Great Transformation to the modern era. The first is the debate around the “career of the concept of embeddedness” (Barber 1995; Beckert 2007: 9) with its fights over the relative utility of ever thinking of any real market (or relation) as “disembedded” amid claims that Polanyi at his best had least “glimpsed the idea of the always embedded market economy” (Block 2003: 276). The second goes to the fact that there are so many and varied understandings of Polanyi’s theory of the “double movement” that commentators describe it in termst that are not necessarily commensurable between each other --  ranging from a “dialectical process” (Schmidt and Thatcher 2013) to a “pendulum swing” (Dale 2012) to a “dynamic process of embedding, disembedding and reembedding” (Beckert 2007) and beyond.

The paper does not conduct an intellectual history (of which there are already a few) nor does it ask what Polanyi the man thought of the pragmatists (though there is some evidence that he was at least familiar with, and sympathetic to, the work of Veblen; see Berger 2008). It aims, instead, to clarify some confusions in contemporary studies drawing on Polanyi’s writings in efforts, especially, to better understand “the effects of the economic system on society at large” (Beckert 2007: 17), and to do so specifically by identifying affinities between Polanyian modes of theorizing and two ideas characteristic of John Dewey’s pragmatism. Those ideas are: (i) Dewey’s demonstration that a “principle of continuity,” understood not as a “static linear order” but rather as a “temporal and creative process,” can help us to overcome our “tendency to think dualistically” (Alexander 2006); and (ii) Dewey’s delineation of a theory of action that orients both actor and theorist towards inquiry, experiment, and the as-yet-unknown (Whitford 2002).

The theoretical framework got from a pragmatist read of Polanyi and recent neo-Polanyian work is used, then, to analyze the relationship, if any, of the “social, institutional and historical anchoring of expectations” to the “stability of markets and the efficacy of economic policymaking” (i.e. it will focus on a key theme of the mini-conference). The empirical case material analyzed – and thus the studies containing the confusions to be clarified – is the recent crisis of the eurozone and the raft of recent work invoking Polanyi to unpack the consequences of the “frivolous experiment of a single currency for a heterogeneous multinational society” (Streeck 2014). The analysis shows how the theoretical frame proposed helps to identify contingencies in consequent double movements related to the rise of, and mobilization in, the modern welfare state of “definite social forces” (Polanyi 1944) with strong culturally sustained expectations of quasi-property claims on a range of public and para-public institutions (often, but not only, pensioners of various sorts).