Gareth Dale Interviewed by George Souvlis
George Souvlis: By way of introduction, could you explain what personal experiences strongly influenced you, politically and intellectually?
Gareth Dale: It’s the proto-politicization of childhood that interests me most—the way in which psychological individuation occurs in relation to socialization, and the construction of social circles which simultaneously involve relations and attitudes of domination and oppression.
For me, the primal influences crystallized around age 10. One was the wonder and dread of growing up in a rural backwater. My family, an islet of Welsh urbanity in the swamplands of Fife, straddled the antithesis of town and country. Surrounded by fields and forests and shorelines, one can experience nature in a way that townlubbers hardly can—and does this not matter, politically? At this juncture in human and planetary history we need to know the life and lives of fauna and flora, yet increasing numbers find themselves behind city walls, immured. In the age of coal, miners would carry canaries into the shafts. If carbon monoxide had accumulated the canary would expire, enabling them to retreat and survive. In the age of climate change the molecules of death are dioxide not monoxide, the dying birds are not single canaries but entire populations and species, the planet is the mine. These alerts are more visible, more visceral, if one can see which butterflies, which larks and warblers, which gulls, which ‘canaries’ are vanishing and in what numbers. If language kept pace with reality ‘the birds and the bees’ would be a euphemism of death.
This is not to exalt the observational gifts or practical capacities of the villager. In the Marx-Engels thesis on town/country the focus is material and economic (the disrupted circulation of matter between people and the soil, the agriculture-manufacturing division of labour) but it is also political. For Engels, an honourable enough reason to abolish capitalism would be to save the rural population from its isolation and stupor. For Marx, the small-holding peasantry was culturally impoverished, socio-economically atomized (a sack of potatoes), and prone to support authoritarian strongmen—Bonaparte in his day, Trump in ours. Memories of harvesting potatoes each autumn—back-breaking work in icy furrows behind a relentless tractor, the labour force regimented in Sartrean seriality—gave the ‘sack of potatoes’ analysis an immediacy of recognition when I encountered it some years later.
When a child I could only grasp class, considered as a system of antagonistic relations to the means of production, as dim, candlelit memories of the magic of power workers, who had been able to switch off our lights from afar. At first, these belonged to the same order of reality as days of heavy snow that would prevent the bus from taking us to school, and yet they lingered, an awareness of something meaningful. More tangible was class considered as a system of exclusion, injustice and political table-tilting. I’ve vivid memories of canvassing dinner ladies and agricultural labourers with my father (a Labour candidate). The former, swollen-legged and creaking from a long day’s toil, would not contemplate walking to the ballot; some of the latter would vote Tory out of deference to the squire. (A poster at home referenced the bourgeois revolutions—liberté, egalité, fraternité—but deference appeared to have survived the assault quite well.) Finally there was class in a Bourdieuan sense, a system of calibrated and graded cultural distinctions. This was experienced powerfully during our annual trek south to balmy Swansea. In one grandparental household, a prim lawn large enough (just) for croquet, and a gong rung (albeit jokily) to call us to the dining table, where discussion might range from veganism to literature—Dickens, say, or Dylan Thomas. In the other, Under Milk Wood made flesh. Ham and boiled veg (or laverbread) on the tiny kitchen table, and the kin-squidged front room filled with a chatter of chapel and coal sacks, music-hall sing-song and plumbers’ yarns. Barely three miles across town, a cultural gulf. It taught something of the psychology that accompanies class position: a comfortable (upper-)middle, set against the common folk who felt true pride in their social and political and cultural roles and talents and in labour itself but at whose hearts a fearsome ‘class shame’ could gnaw—of the sort that Didier Eribon auto-analyzes in Returning To Reims. Even an infant can grasp that income and status inequalities engender constrained life chances, inferiority-coding, and complex unhappiness.
The third antithesis, imbricated with the others (rural idyll vs rural idiocy, class vs class), was of familial socialization (socialist-feminist-Quaker) vs ambient bigotry. Being raised in a political household required a grappling with contradictory influences. Our pacifist parents would (not-too-complainingly) furnish us with the war toys that peer pressure demanded, yet awareness of their martial and gendered traits obliged us to reflect on whether indoctrination through society and peers is superior to that through kin. It was, additionally, a chiaroscuro world, ‘socialism and barbarism’ in the playground. Even in Fife, human children brim with playfulness and warmth, wit, invention and curiosity, yet there was lord-of-the-flies savagery and sadism, too. Approaching this with a Quaker-meliorist compass in hand is frustrating but instructive. When applied to feral infant powermongering, the pacifist ethic (Turn the other cheek! Love thy oppressor!) is a recipe for repeated, if not ignoble, defeat. This may be why I devoured accounts of those who did fight back (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Armies of the Night, and so on)—the literary soundtrack to a political shift.
The same contradiction-scored terrain also helps a child get to grips with the realm of power and ideology. A Quaker ‘Sunday school’ is closer to a sociology or ethics class than to theology, and the sect’s guiding philosophy of unconditional universalism, that all humans are profoundly equal, provides a toughened lens through which to view schoolyard-political issues—the bizarre sumptuary dispositif that is gender, and suchlike. The plasticity (even, dare one say, ‘falsity’) of ideology hit me with force when, following the classic, infernal cycle of interpersonal wrongdoing, my own turn arrived. The fact that the Quaker super-ego dictates so sternly that base prejudice (say, homophobia) is wrong laid bare a disturbing reality: the most widespread and effective instruments of abuse available had not been forged by me and weren’t at all in sync with my emergent ethics. I retained enough shreds of rationality to recognize that this affective order was ’false’ (‘am I being interpellated correctly?’), and to the extent that it served pre-reflective purposes (‘joining the club,’ brute self-assertion, climbing the status ladder through enforcing exclusions, &c.) it was not only complicit in a deeper deception (the pretence that inflicting harm, qua ‘negative transference’, can overcome harms previously endured—a ‘false unconscious,’ so to speak) but it operationalized these unconscious responses as the reproduction of dominant power structures that I abhorred—a deception doubled. These experiences of cognitive dissonance, and the duplicitous seduction of oppressive discourses, encouraged a casting around for ideas that could make sense of the distortions and mystifications of ideology—a search that led to Marxism.
Beyond the school gates, meanwhile, politicization was occurring against a canvas of austerity and militarism. It was an era of Thatcher and fear, of mass unemployment and the arms race. We marched against poverty and the Malvinas war. Activism with the striking miners in the near civil-war conditions of ’84-85 gave a glimpse of what a class-for-itself might look like—even as, we had painfully to concede, the miners were no longer all-powerful wizards; their lifeblood was ebbing away. The era also reminds us of the galvanizing potential of ‘catastrophism.’ The siting of Cruise, Pershing and Trident in Europe brought the prospect of ‘first strike’ and nuclear Armageddon, with radicalizing effects on thousands of teenagers. We poured onto overnight buses to CND demonstrations in London.
And at university?
At university I helped set up Students For Palestine, and my allegiances were feminist and socialist. The latter camp divided between those in Labour and those without. The Labour Club was run by Derek Draper, an old-style machine man whose maxim was to win elections at any cost—in order to get close to the power elite. He was already on a fast track to becoming a key New Labour fixer. Draper would go on to pen a weekly column for the Express, was the dedicatee of Peter Mandelson’s The Blair Revolution and an enthusiast of its author’s ‘filthy rich!’ philosophy—to the point that, he gleefully revealed to the press, earning £250+ per hour was his main aim in life. He eventually crashed to earth, in the ‘Lobbygate’ affair. Set against the corruption and parliamentary-cretinism of Labour were the revolutionaries, notably the SWP. Its members had knowledge (if from the more wooden parts of the tree) and were impressively committed: three of them sparked a major university occupation after being expelled over alleged ‘great expectorations’ on Thatcher’s immigration minister. (The backdrop: a government-led campaign against asylum-seekers.) In a dark irony, given what was to come to light in 2012, they persuaded me of the shortcomings of my feminist friends’ mobilizing focus on sexual violence. My studies, meanwhile, in languages, literatures, and social sciences, were politicizing in their own way, with diets of feminist and poststructuralist theory—and when curricular helpings were insufficient, Sadie Plant was on hand to provide impromptu seminars on Deleuze and Foucault. Marxism was supplied by the inimitable Isabel Emmett (a typical class would consist of drawing pictures of the productive forces and production relations), Norman Geras and, later, Colin Barker.
It was with Barker that you co-wrote ‘Protest Waves in Western Europe’ (1998). Does its optimism still hold today?
This essay made two arguments. In one, we sought to define class struggle in broad terms to include questions of social reproduction, of ecology, sexuality, familial relations, identity, racism and the like, all of which concern the nature and quality of life and are hence of quite as much concern to ‘labour’ as questions of working conditions. Workers’ needs encompass all these aspects; it’s only from the vantage point of capital, or that of a narrowly-drawn trade union negotiating table, that they appear reducible to ledgers of hours and pennies.
The other concerned historical rhythms of collective action. The modern era has seen intense international bursts of struggle: 1776-95, the 1840s, 1910-23, and from 1945 (or 1955) to 1975. In the latter two periods especially, labour movements were prominent, but since then there’s been relative quiescence: a more ‘normal’ period, specked with struggles of course, but which have not gathered force globally in a radically transformative way, and with generally low levels of industrial action.
Are structural factors the cause? You can argue that the great global eruptions were the product of tectonic shifts as a (geo)political matrix appropriate to capitalism was levered into place: the rise of nation states and the national principle (1776-95 and the 1840s), the breakdown of European empires (1910-23), and the expiration of the imperial form at the global level (post-1945), bequeathing us (post-1970s) a consolidated and eternal globalized nation-state system. Or you can argue that working-class communities have fundamentally fragmented and dissipated—in consequence of neoliberal globalization, say, or the energy-systemic shift from coal to oil. But we maintained that there is no persuasive reason to suppose that worldwide phases of heightened collective action have disappeared for good. Class conflict may seem localized or dormant, it is not extinct. On this count, the protest spike of 2011, associated with the Arab revolutions, the Indignados movement in Spain and Greece, and Occupy Wall Street, gives some grounds for optimism.
The first book you co-edited is titled The European Union and Migrant Labour and is a collection of Marxist-inspired writings that examine the relation between EU and migrant labour, focusing mainly on the flows of the people that came to core EU countries from Eastern Europe. Could you tell us what West European capitalism gained from the arrival of these floods of economic immigrants during the 1990s?
The floods metaphor may be apt, connoting rejuvenation and replenishment through transfusion, as in the annual flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile that supplied the nutrients from which urban civilization was born. But the book doesn’t focus on these infusions from Eastern Europe. Its first section investigates the part played by immigration and racism in fashioning a new European identity. Country studies then explore the colonial foundations of the present order, the interaction between oppression by race and by class, histories of immigrant activism, and the contradiction at the heart of the EU migration regime—that free mobility of labour belongs to a capitalist drive to create a unitary market (as in the US), but one which, viewed from a different angle, brings together migrants from its manifold constituent nations (unlike in the US) into living and working communities, a cosmopolitan churning of Europe’s working class.
My own chapter sketches a comprehensive Marxist theorization of the nature and dynamics of migrant labour in capitalism, analyzed through a chain of contradictory imperatives and forces: use value and exchange value, wage labour and capital, the mobility and immobility of labour, capitals and states, the management of social reproduction and the unfettered circulation of labour, tensions among the different subjectivities of labour, and the construction of national community through xenophobic exclusion.
Your 2006 book, The East German Revolution of 1989, proposes that the causes of the collapse of communism in the GDR can be found in the interaction between the streets protests, the civic groups and the regime. What was this book’s broader argument?
I moved to East Germany in the early summer of 1989 and threw myself into (then illegal) political activity. A couple of years later I returned home with armfuls of interview transcripts, documents, and questions, out of which the GDR books were woven. This one attempts three things. One is to capture and preserve the revolutionary essence of 1989. Mass collective action was its animating force. The uprising was considerably more impressive than is generally recognized: in its duration, scale, and its reach into the citizenry, in the diversity of the protest repertoire and the verve and élan of the protest culture. The second is to contribute in case-study form to the theorization of social movements, through a critique of mainstream approaches to GDR’89 (e.g. rational actor theory) and presentation of an alternative analysis, drawing on such thinkers as Régis Debray, Colin Barker, Rick Fantasia and James C. Scott. The third is a critique of the weltanschauung and political strategy of the ‘civic movement’—the democratic-socialist and radical-liberal groupings of organized opposition—to which I had belonged. For all their courage and imagination, they were unable, or insufficiently equipped, to empathize with and strategically engage with the working-class currents of resistance. When new peaks of protest radicalization were reached in late 1989, in which a mix of elements were blended (democracy, egalitarianism, material justice, nationalism), the civic activists found themselves sidelined, or, worse, formed an ‘anti-chaos coalition’ with regime forces in order to contain the radicalization. In view of the power and prosperity of the Federal Republic and its national claim on East Germany, the nationalist element inevitably gained strength. And yet, often overlooked, is that its critics were, overwhelmingly, nationalists too—partisans of a distinct and separate East German nation state.
Your 2005 study, Popular Protest in East Germany, 1945-1989, examines by using a Marxist analytical framework the nature of opposition movements under the Communist regime. You periodize your study in three distinctive moments, 1953, 1989 and the period between these two. What does this periodization serve? How dialectically do the moments inform each other in order finally to end up in the historical point of 1989?
Although the coincidence of its onset with my arrival was not at all anticipated, I wasn’t altogether surprised to see a revolutionary rising in the GDR. More of a puzzle was its nature. The backbone of the great uprisings in the Soviet bloc had been mass, worker-led revolutionary activity, quite unlike the 1989 events. The classic instances were Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980-81. Another similar case, June 1953 in East Germany, was extraordinary in its own right. A routine strike flared into a nationwide rebellion, in some towns with the formation of inter-factory strike committees and embryonic soviets, all in the space of 24 hours.
Why, this book asks, did 1989 not follow a similar trajectory? The answer is mapped at several different scales. One is the geopolitical context: in 1953 the Soviet-bloc ruling classes were bullish, confident in the long-term viability of their structures of rule; in 1989 they were preparing to jump ship. A second is the effects of the crushing of the ’53 rising: the building of the Berlin Wall, the demoralization of thousands of militants and the incorporation of others into regime institutions. During subsequent decades of subdued working-class militancy, thirdly, the regime was able to contain opposition groups within the cloisters of the Protestant Church. Here they found some safety but it was a ghetto. They could draw up utopian blueprints galore but lacked opportunities to connect to the wider citizenry. A moralistic ‘lifestyle politics,’ and an elitist attitude toward the ‘materialist’ masses, were consequences. Although the oppositionists were able to change gear and reach out when the opportunity arose in 1989, decades of isolation had left their mark, and very few veterans of 1953 were around to give new generations a counter-example of what is to be done and how to do it. Fourthly, there was the global social-movement conjuncture to which I alluded earlier. In the 1980s, ideas centred on militant working-class activism were in decline and a global liberal transformation was underway, centred on the spread of liberal-democratic political systems and neoliberal economics. (This global change, incidentally, and specifically its influence on the revolutions of the last three decades, is the subject of a volume I’m currently editing with Colin Barker and Neil Davidson.)
Your study Between State Capitalism and Globalization: The Collapse of the East German Economy, as the title indicates, is an exploration of the economic history of the German Democratic Republic. Could you explain initially why you defined the USSR as state capitalism? Was it a capitalist formation? What were the main challenges that the globalizing world market posed to Soviet Union? What was the role of East German policy makers and industrialists towards their Western German counterparts during the 1980s? In which ways did their policies contribute to the collapse of the East German economy?
It’s best analysed as a capitalist formation, for reasons given in the book (a final draft is available online). I draw on the Cliffite tradition, as developed by the likes of Mike Kidron, Nigel Harris, Chris Harman, Mike Haynes and Colin Barker. It understands the Soviet economic model as an extreme instance of a broader trend. For some of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries the ‘catch-up’ attempts by challengers to the liberal hegemons, relying as they did on the direct mobilization of labour and political allocation of resources, tended to construct forms of state that were proactive in economic development and managed in a highly centralized manner. These ‘varieties of state capitalism’ flourished when intense geopolitical competition coincided with economic de-globalization, and where ‘backward’ economies led by modernizing elites engaged in catch-up industrialization. De-globalization was conducive to the nationalization of industrial sectors and the management of foreign trade. Militarism drew states into an economic coordination role. Geopolitical competition on the basis of relative economic weakness locked the Soviet Union and its allies into a peculiar economic structure that featured an emphasis on heavy industry, a high savings ratio, allocation by administrative decision and the extensive use of political incentives and ideological appeals geared to increasing output. These features are typical of war economies. In this analysis, the Soviet model did not come into existence until the late 1920s. It developed in response to a set of pressures—military competition, world economic crisis and de-globalization, the exigencies of ‘catch-up’ industrialization by backward economies—that were generating a high degree of fusion between states and capital right across the interwar world. The ‘state capitalism’ thesis, in short, is not just about ‘Russia’ but about global capitalism.
As Sanchez-Sibony has shown for Russia and I and others have shown for East Germany, the Soviet economies were never autarkic. Their commercial policy bespoke an abiding desire for participation in a western dominated liberal world order, but that wasn’t always easy, given the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, the Cocom list and what have you. Uneven geo-economic power relations lent Washington the ability to shape the global division of labour, international economic institutions, and relations of international debt, money and finance, enabling it to press home its advantage vis-à-vis Moscow. Certainly, the Soviet economies were better adapted to the relatively de-globalized mid-century period than to the era of globalization. This is one reason why the transition of 1989-91 was, on balance, more dramatic than the parallel shifts elsewhere from ISI, corporatism, and/or Keynesianism to the neoliberal model that (more or less) prevails today.
In the East German case, economic policymakers found themselves facing a peculiarly neuralgic dilemma. Should they orient predominantly to Comecon or pivot toward the western-dominated world economy (‘Vodka-Cola’ commercial relationships). The first spelled stagnation, but, given the GDR’s relative weakness, the second option bore the threats of indebtedness, dependence and the diktat of Western market actors (Bonn, the IMF, &c.). Neither gambit was a clear winner and, ultimately, the masses knocked the cards out of the SED leadership‘s hands.
Ι would like now to discuss Eastern Europe further, by dividing analytically its recent history into two different moments: between 1989 and the crash of 2008, and the period since. In the first, what was the role of the previous political elites in the transition to liberalism that took place in 1990s? Can we say that the transition triggered a process of unfolding liberty? Did it trigger the formation of new inequalities as well? If yes, what form did they take? Now regarding the second phase. What was the main impact of the 2008 crisis on these countries and in what ways did the consequences differ from those that evolved in West Europe during the same period? Why in these countries were there far fewer protests and reactions against the political establishment compared to the rest of the Europe?
If the conversion of Soviet-bloc elites to liberalism was a region-wide trend, it occurred earlier and faster in some places than others. The rapidity with which neoliberalism was embraced by elites relates to prior domestic and transnational agitation for economic liberalization, and to the influence of Western institutions and polities (notably the European Union), but all this has to be situated in the wider context, the global shift from statist economic models.
This ran parallel with a second global experience of ‘liberty unfolding,’ the geographical expansion of democracy—which, however, unfolded in tandem with its social attenuation and depletion. In Eastern Europe, the democratic gains attained—civil liberties, the accountability of government to the citizenry, the right to organize politically and industrially, and so on—were momentous, but they coincided in the 1990s with soaring inequality and a regional Great Depression which impoverished millions and sapped the strength of labour. Against this backdrop it’s little wonder that social resistance has faced boggy conditions, and liberty and democracy suffered accordingly. This field—resistance—is shaped in general by the legacy of past repression (the decades-long denial of any independent trade union or political organizations), the social dislocations of the transition, the ongoing role of state and para-state repression, and a region-wide populist backlash against neoliberalism that has tended to follow national-conservative channels. All these factors were exacerbated by the 2008 Crash, and are discussed in detail in First the Transition, then the Crash: Eastern Europe in the 2000s (Pluto 2011).
The cost of the reunification of Germany was a severe downturn in the country’s economic growth. The economic recovery was based on a notable wage squeeze. As a result, since 1995, German unit labour costs have fallen by around 20%. How has Germany since then emerged as the European hegemon? What were the main processes that led to this outcome?
In the 1980s there were four major EU powers. Since then, Britain has elected to quit, Italy’s economy has stagnated, and France has been dogged by domestic fractures and mass unemployment. In the same period, the Federal Republic gobbled up the GDR and reconfigured Central Europe as a neues Mitteleuropa.
The unification process enabled Germany’s hegemonic ascent in more ways than one. National collective bargaining agreements were ripped up in the former East, resulting in a greater regional differentiation of industrial relations. The low wages imposed in the east were extended westward. This wage squeeze contributed to the inexorable increase of Germany’s unit labour cost advantage relative to its weaker Euroland partners. Germany’s current account surplus soared, as did its pendant, entrenched deficits in the countries of the EU periphery. The upshot was a devastating crisis and the evisceration of Greece—a process that was then crisis-managed largely from Berlin and Frankfurt. There’s hegemony for you, on conspicuous display: you lead the construction of a project that, in the interests of your corporate sector, drastically exacerbates the impoverishment of your neighbour until collapse occurs; then you take charge of the ‘rescue’ operation, imposing such hellish terms that even the IMF squeals.
In short, the EU, although set up to constrain Germany, has facilitated its unpicking of those constraints. The ESM assures region-wide capital flows and capital concentration, primarily to the advantage of Germany’s financial and corporate sectors. The Eurozone, in effect, suppresses the prices of German goods, giving a structural boost to the German export machine, and it keeps borrowing costs ultra-low for the German government. When the hegemonic power structure so palpably benefits from a fundamentally polarizing system, there’s little prospect of benevolent reform.
Many commentators believe that current European elites – especially the German ones – have no future plan for Europe and, by acting irresponsibly, they are undermining the project of the European Union as such. Do you believe they have any long-term plan in mind or they are behaving irrationally?
The EU has always embodied contradictory projects. Inasmuch as the goal is to create a unified economic space (with common currency) capable of rivalling the US, it faces not only the difficulty of politically unifying a multiplicity of sovereign states but also the problem that, unlike the US which constructed regimes of cheap labour through a combination of large-scale immigration and centuries of slavery and racism, the EU has rapidly extended its domain, in the space of a couple of decades, to include nation states with wages of a Latin American niveau as reserves of inexpensive and mobile labour. Given the lack of hegemonic investment (the absence of a Marshall Plan for the eastern and southern periphery), and compounded by the neoliberal/ordoliberal geist that has been hardwired into the rulebooks in Brussels and Frankfurt, tensions between ‘North’ and ‘South,’ over migration and much else, are foreordained, and EU politics will remain trapped in the gear of crisis management.
The clearest example in recent years of a bold, long-term vision forms an exception that proves the rule. This was Merkel’s 2015 démarche on Syrian refugees. It may be that she was attempting to take a leaf out of nineteenth-century Britain’s book, buffing Germany’s liberal-humanitarian credentials in the interests of a broader hegemonic thrust. But she did so by steamrollering over the Dublin Regulation. Although in one sense a welcome move—Dublin deserves to die—it hardly augured well for collaborative EU institution building, and Dublin hasn’t been replaced. Moreover, Berlin’s need for a burnished image was in direct proportion to its brutal mode of leadership in matters of Eurozone economics, in which its ordo-liberal austerity obsession and a narrowly defined self-interest have prevailed.
Your next important studies were a trilogy on Karl Polanyi: Karl Polanyi: The Limits to the Market (2010), Karl Polanyi: A Left on the Left (2016), and Reconstructing Karl Polanyi (2016). What were the experiences that strongly influenced Polanyi’s thought, politically and intellectually? What is his relationship to Marxism?
The motivations for this research were several. One was serendipitous. I found funding to have the Hungarian writings translated, and had access to archives, including at the indispensable Polanyi Institute in Montréal. (Being largely untapped, it was exhilarating—as if walking out into fresh-fallen snow.) Secondly, Polanyi was, in the 1990s and 2000s, ubiquitously quoted yet patchily understood. His life and work were known in the main contours but not the detail. Only devotees, if even they, knew his German, Hungarian or unpublished writings—of which there are troves in the archives. Thirdly, Polanyi being, as Tariq Ali remarks, “the most gifted of the social democratic theorists,” thinking through his life and times offers a convenient lens for thinking through social democracy. His life (1886-1964) was contemporaneous with the heyday of social democracy, and, even though not a ‘party man’ by nature, he maintained close connections to that movement. (His ability to float around the party, rather than lodge within it, is one reason why his work survives better today than that of his friends GDH Cole and Richard Tawney—Labour luminaries of the day.) At critical junctures Polanyi found himself in a left social-democratic milieu, which could fork toward revolutionary currents (Marxist, anarcho-syndicalist) or toward the dominant right-social-democratic mainstream. Polanyians today often use his work to justify the latter, but this is to do it a disservice. Fourthly, Polanyi’s socialism is in a sense sui generis. It has an antiquated ring, in its Christianity, its abhorrence of greed, its accents on the suffering caused by the commodification of social relations, and its ethics-based alternative that foregrounds duty, service and an envisioning of a “transparent” social order, yet it, equally, seems to connect to aspects of the current conjuncture, in that this features mounting global problems that elicit systemic critique but—alas—largely in the absence of combative large-scale labour movements, and hence we observe a tendency for vocabularies of generic suffering and moral stance to wriggle into spaces once occupied by a militant lexicon of exploitation and subaltern power.
In his analysis of the depredations and sufferings of market-ruled society, Polanyi draws on Marx’s theory of alienation but renders it romantic by tearing it out of its conceptual matrix. In Marx the theses on the systematic fracturing of human beings’ relationship to their ‘species being,’ to nature, to one another, to their creativity, and to processes of production and consumption are all tightly conjoined with a set of class-society and capitalism-related theses on exploitation, capital accumulation, and power—which Polanyi jettisons. This being so, Polanyi invites ‘half full / half empty’ evaluations from Marxists. Some find him wanting in respect of the 21 Conditions. They deny his Marxian affiliations or read him as a renegade à la Bernstein. They doubt that he originated anything much of value. Others join Polanyi in his critique of market fundamentalism and his critique of liberal hegemony—that it is unsustainable and unendingly generative of social and economic crisis. They point out the Marxian parallels to, or heritage of, these and many other Polanyian theses.
My own take is that Polanyi’s appropriations from Marx combine inspiration with misreading and bowdlerization. He is best understood, at least in the interwar period, as a left social-democrat, one who was close in outlook to Bernstein and Austromarxism. (Those who absolutely deny his Marxism should perhaps question that of Otto Bauer and Max Adler.) His work can be maddeningly (intriguingly?) opaque or vague, and it makes sense to proceed via immanent critique, to parse and deconstruct his ambiguities, to think through his contradictions and how they relate to his intellectual formation and the history of socialism. This needn’t be a scholastic exercise. Polanyi is a sufficiently rich thinker that you can savour the process, and find the odd treasure along the way.
Recently you edited a series of relatively unknown writings of Karl Polanyi published under the title The Hungarian Writings. Could you guide us briefly through the main insights that Polanyi offers in these texts? How do they connect to The Great Transformation? Considering that most of them were written between 1907 and 1923, does he deal with the phenomenon of right-wing authoritarian regimes of the time? If yes, what is his take?
Almost all these texts are translated (by Adam Fabry) for the first time, and were only previously known, if at all, to a Hungarian audience. They show Polanyi moving from free-market ‘liberal socialism’ to a radical (guild socialist / Marxian) philosophy centred on an analysis of modernity as profoundly alienated because governed by market exchange. It was from such threads that The Great Transformation was later spun.
Many of the essays were written during Polanyi’s exile from a proto-fascist dictatorship, that of Miklós Horthy, which had imposed a reign of terror in which thousands, above all communists, socialists and Jews, had lost their lives. There is some analysis of the early stirrings of European fascism, and a letter that conveys Polanyi’s anxiety at the “concrete reality” of fascism in Austria.
But perhaps more interesting, in this collection, are Polanyi’s essays on guild socialism. He was radicalized in 1918-23, momentarily considered joining the CP—when it was struggling to cut loose from the apron strings of Hungarian social democracy—but turned decisively to guild socialism, a movement that had arisen amidst the breakdown of liberal order and with revolutionary tumult all around. In this phase, Polanyi held the belief that private ownership of the means of production blocks the potential for an unleashing of human creativity and productive potential and as such should be radically curtailed, if not done away with. He was sharply critical of the state, advocating that its powers be reduced to one institution inter pares. These ideas bear no kinship with those of most of his followers today, including the likes of Maurice Glasman, the nepotistically-ennobled ‘Blue Labour’ peer who professed inspiration from guild socialism even as he joined forces with the Labour party’s right-wing establishment in the attempt to murder by a thousand slashes that most guild-socialist (and indeed Polanyian) of its leaders, Jeremy Corbyn. All this belongs to the history of social democracy. Viewing it through Polanyi’s life and times can reveal some of the tensions and intricacies.
What is your take on Brexit? Could it be considered potentially as a progressive development for the interests of the working classes? How do you think that the Labour party should deal with this process in the forthcoming elections? Do you believe that Corbyn lost political leverage because of its ambiguous stance towards it? How do you think the Scottish left should deal with it?
A peculiarity of Britain’s evolving relationship to the EU is that when accession was under discussion in the 1960s and 1970s the business class was split down the middle, but following decades of integration that is no longer the case. The corporate sector was on the whole pro-Remain; the dispute was essentially within the Tory party, and driven by it. For the time being at least, the Tories have closed ranks around a rhetoric of ‘hard’ Brexit while Labour appears torn. Many of its voters are in ‘left behind’ occupations and towns and tend to favour Brexit, many others (youth, metropolitans and immigrants) are up in arms. This is one factor behind Corbyn’s ambiguity: a prudent reluctance to inflame the division. Another is simpler still: it can work in the short-term, and is currently [2nd June] playing well on the electoral stage. This is possible because Brexit is still in its ‘phony’ (or honeymoon) phase. It hasn’t intruded into the election campaign nearly as much as its import—not least, the looming prospect of GDP decline—might have led one to expect.
As regards a longer-term counter-hegemonic strategy, a Corbynite Labour party in government would talk friendly to Brussels whilst focusing on a domestic agenda of shoring up the welfare state to the limited degree that fiscal redistribution and tax loophole-closing can avail. Such tactics can only go so far, given that ‘Europe’ will inflict significant punishment—even if Britain’s imperial legacies (the City, soft power, &c.), respected by Brussels and Berlin, ensure that it is not treated with the contempt dished out to Greece.
A left-led Labour government could attempt to cut the knots. It could negotiate a departure from the European Single Market with a low-tariff trade deal and acceptance of free intra-EU mobility of people—this would require a strenuous challenge to racism and its many abettors on the Labour benches. It could counter the inevitable resistance from the corporate sector by taking radical measures, including nationalizations and expropriations. (The wealth of the richest thousand individuals and families in Britain is up from £575bn last year to £658bn this year. You could relieve them of £657bn and still leave them all millionaires.) On Scotland it could abandon its longstanding unionism and… You can see the element of wishful thinking in these scenarios. Corbyn and his team, and above all the movement that lifted them up, have supplied an unexpected shot in the arm for the British left, but they’re embedded in a social-democratic framework that internalizes the constraints of capitalism, making these appear as if a natural and immovable architecture. That said, a breakthrough could occur—if this newly insurgent Labour Party sparks a resurgence of the labour movement, and of the broader movement field; perhaps crucially, given Brexit-spurred xenophobia, anti-racist campaigning.
Nowadays, the emergence of xenophobic far-right movements is a common political denominator in many European countries. At the same time, Tariq Ali and others have pointed to the emergence of an “extreme center,” as center-left and liberal parties increasingly embrace far-right policies. Can we still speak about “political liberalism,” or do we need new analytical categories to grasp these transformations? What does the experience of European history tells us about the stance that left should keep today in face of the disintegration of liberalism by the ultra-right in France, the UK, and the USA?
At core, liberalism is an ideology of legal and moral equality serving the cause of social and imperial inequality. As the standard protocol of capitalist modernity, it has always adapted with the times and has always exhibited the ability to flirt with the far right—as for instance in the rhapsodies to fascism in Mises’ Liberalismus. Hardly had that book hit the shelves than the dominant political-economic logic lurched toward corporatism and étatisme, and this, accompanied by recrudescent despotism, did pitch liberalism into crisis. We’re not witnessing a rupture of that magnitude today—notwithstanding the stalling of economic globalization, zombified neoliberalism, and emboldened fascist, populist and other forms of authoritarianism.
As to the left, it has always been largely Bernsteinian, so to speak, in construing socialism as pimped up liberalism. The challenge, then, is to create movements and organizations that recognize that it’s through processes of practical and rigorous disillusionment with liberalism that those glistering liberal values—universalism, egalitarianism, meliorism, liberty—can be recuperated and taken seriously: egalitarianism of the economic sphere too, universalism as global egalitarianism, meliorism to include humanity’s relations with the natural environment, and so on.
Finally, you recently co-edited a book with a title Green Growth: Ideology, Political Economy and the Alternatives. Does the concept of Green Growth make analytical sense? If yes, what does it mean? Is it just a pure ideological concept or something more?
The book brings together Marxists, degrowthers, and others in a critique of green growth. Some sotto-voce internal debate notwithstanding, for all the contributors green growth represents a mystification. The social media-amplified flimmer of eco-modernist boosterism and technoporn (booming sales stats of PV solar panels, of Tesla cars, and so on) tends to cloak not only the truly vital statistics (the CO2ppm trend, say, or ocean pH; or the proportion of total global primary energy supplied by solar, wind, tidal and geothermal sources which currently, all combined, comprise a paltry 1.5%) and the realities of extraction and production (17.5 tonnes of CO2 is emitted in the production of one Tesla battery—over three times the annual emissions of the average French citizen) but, more importantly, it depoliticizes, glossing over the social relations of which economic activity is made and distracting from the need to organize to transform them.
Green growth is the latest adventure of the growth paradigm, the notion that economic growth is good, imperative, essentially limitless, and the solvent of a host of social problems. As an ideology it began to congeal (I’ve argued elsewhere) in the seventeenth century. In essence, the paradigm functions as a re-figuring, in ideological guise, of the capital accumulation imperative. It is a loyal servant of the great chains of dependence and compromise through which Capital rules the world. By this I mean that the bulk of the world’s productive resources are owned and purposed as capital; the entire planet and its inhabitants are threaded into the competitive dynamics of capital’s accumulation; all humans, to a greater or lesser extent, are enmeshed in a sorcerer’s-apprentice forcefield of compulsive-anarchic surplus-value expansion. Within the chains of material dependence and political compromise that issue from this, dominant ideologies are fashioned. Growth is one such—and it’s the one, alongside nationalism, that has exerted the strongest grip on social democracy.
In this context, Walter Benjamin’s celebrated epigram, “revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake”, should resonate. The goal is not stasis but to get off before the disasters, including those occasioned by the accumulation compulsion (and its growth correlate), further multiply; before the exhaust gases from the ‘runaway train’ trigger runaway warming.
Even if runaway warming strictu sensu is unlikely, a sharp shift to a new temperature regime is all but baked in. For 11,000 years—is it coincidence this is the same span as human ‘civilization’?—the earth’s climate has basked on a (for homo) beautifully benign plateau, with an unprecedentedly stable temperature and a CO2 level in the 260-290ppm band. Now we’re soaring past 406ppm—probably the highest concentration in 20 million years, prior even to the speciation of the Great Apes. With a ‘business as usual’ trajectory, even one that adapts to the Paris Agreements and Green Growth, the prospect is of a centuries-long feedback-fuelled thermal ratchet, and this, in combination with the array of other assaults on the earth’s biophysical boundaries (capital’s War on Terra), would portend accelerating species extinctions on a colossal scale, concatenative ecosystem collapse, and potentially, at the limit, even the collective suicide—blundering and largely inadvertent—of our own extravagantly gifted species. As tragic drama, things could hardly get grander (…have we even fashioned the words?). It is 160 years since the prospect of climate change-caused human extinction was first broached (in an essay entitled ‘On the General and Gradual Desiccation of the Earth and Atmosphere’). If global capitalism continues for another 160 years, all bets would be off.
But this is not to push doom or melancholia. In Benjamin’s metaphor the operative term is ‘activate.’If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.