A very long time ago, some wide-eyed utopians dreamed a seductive dream. A dream of a perfect world. A world without coercive constraints on economic activities, where the intrusive hand of government would be eliminated. They conceived of an economy governed by the same laws that operate in nature. And they called it the free market. And over time the left began to believe in this fantasy as much as the right. For the right it is a call to arms against the domination of the ‘villainous’ state; for the left it is the rot at the heart of our ‘inequitable’ economic system. Yet while they disagree on its desirability, both positions assume that a ‘non-regulated’ market can even be possible. One of the key insights of the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, however, is that there is no such thing as a free market. There never has been, and there never can be. Let me explain.
The concept of an economic sphere completely divorced from government and civil society institutions, Polanyi argues, is a “stark utopia”—stark, because the attempt to bring it into being is destined to fail and will inevitably bring about dystopian consequences for human beings and nature alike. However, there is a gulf of difference between a market and what Polanyi calls a market society. The first is a necessary part of any functioning economy, one of many different social institutions on which the common good depends; the second imperils human society by attempting to subject almost everything that social life depends upon to market principles: health care, legal security, and the right to earn a wage. When these ‘commodity fictions’ (Polanyi’s words, not mine) are treated as if they are genuine commodities, produced for sale in the marketplace, rather than inherent rights, our social world is thrown before the lions and major crises inevitably follow on. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Wall Street Crash, arguably being just two examples.
The flip side to all this, Polanyi argues, is that human beings tend to mobilise in response to such crises, but the resulting resistance is not always necessarily democratic (think the New Deal)—it it is just as likely to be authoritarian and nasty. For all their wickedness, the Nazi Party came to power on a protectionist ticket, promising to restore order in the face of the social chaos created by the crash of the early 1930s. Looking at today’s world through this prism, isn’t free market ideology the common thread that links many of today’s problems too—global warming, rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and economic instability?
To any rational thinker, then, the very idea that markets and governments are independent and autonomous institutions is clearly dangerous nonsense. Government action is not some kind of Orwellian “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity. In simple terms, the economy just cannot exist without the mediating influence of government and social institutions. It’s not only that society depends on schools, a legal system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that every major input the economy needs in order to function—land, labour, and money—originate and are maintained through sustained government action. The supplies of money that enable us to purchase goods, the employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling land, all are supported and organised through the exercise of government’s authority, rules, and regulations. Put simply, there is no such thing as a “free market”.
In light of this doesn’t the quixotic left need to stop tilting at windmills and see the world as it really is? It’s time we changed the terms of political debate and made it clear that the frustrating economic problems we face today are exclusively political problems. This means rejecting the illusion of a deregulated economy altogether. Instead of parroting the fallacious ideology of the free market, we need to close the book on this myth and tell an alternative story.
As the academic Margaret Somers has pointed out, what happened in the 1980s in the name of “deregulation” was, in truth, simply “re-regulation”, this time by laws and policies completely opposite to those of the mid-twentieth century—of Attlee and Roosevelt. Those older regulations laid the foundations for greater social equality, a thriving middle class and increased economic and political security. The reality is that, between the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 and the present day, government continued to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers and customers, it devised novel policies aimed to help multi-national corporations and the financial services industries maximise the returns on their investments, by reforming anti-trust laws, putting obstacles in the way of unionisation, and handing out bank bailouts without any conditions attached whatsoever. In 2008, 1.3 trillion pounds were transferred to the banks in the UK overnight—the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history—but nothing was asked for in return. You get the picture.
The implications of Polanyi’s critique for the left are critical. If regulations are necessary features of markets, then surely we’ve got to stop fixating on the ‘regulation versus deregulation’ debate that has distorted political discourse for the last thirty years, and instead discuss what kinds of regulations we want to see put in place? Those designed for the exclusive benefit of capital and the billionaire class? Or those that jointly benefit workers, customers, and businesses? We must not ask whether the law should intervene in the market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be expressed in these laws—those that recognise that it is the expertise and experience of employees that help make firms profitable and productive, or those that rig the race solely in favour of employers and centralised capital?
The truth, of course, in the 1930s as now, is that the poor have always struggled to keep their heads above water in the face of forces that overwhelm them. Confronted by the economic failures and instabilities brought about by what political philosopher Maurice Glasman calls “market utopia”, we must be relentless in guarding against the threats which the advocates of free market ideology unwittingly present to democracy and peace. Unless there are some serious initiatives to chart a new course, we can only expect that the threat from the nationalist right and the anti-Semitic hard-left—that is currently growing across Europe— will grow stronger.
“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves,” says Don Quixote, as he advances towards the windmills on the plain. Taking Polanyi seriously means the left needs to confront reality. Or the economic inequities it rallies against will prevail. Another major crisis will become inevitable. And we may well have no say in our destiny at all.