by KARI POLANYI LEVITT & MARIO SECCARECCIA
Karl Polanyi is the author of The Great Transformation, a seminal piece of political-economic theory. PHOTO/Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy
“The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its Own Name”: Thoughts on Neoliberalism from a Polanyian Perspective
Laissez faire was planned, explained Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation: The origins of the market system go back to the intentional project of institutional transformation initiated in England in the 19th century, establishing a free labor market, free trade and the gold standard. Institutions such as the unions, the industrial cartels and the Welfare State instead emerged subsequently as spontaneous counter-reactions to laissez faire. Kari Polanyi Levitt and Mario Seccareccia show, with a new periodization, how this dialectic interaction, or ‘double movement’ can still guide the understanding of today’s Neoliberalism.
Philip Mirowski has produced some truly exceptional works on the historical roots and intellectual history of what is described as the Neoliberal Thought Collective (NTC). These works have been rightly celebrated for deepening our understanding of the continued popularity and dominance of neoliberal policy ideas in the second decade of the twenty-first century (see, for, instance, Mirowski  and Mirowski and Plehwe ).
Neoliberalism, just like some other overworked buzzwords du jour (to use his expression) such as globalization and financialization, has slipped into the common lexicon, especially of political economists, over the last few decades. This expression is normally connected with the rise of the visible hand of the so-called “pro-market” minimalist state in seeking to remove all vestiges of the postwar Keynesian welfare state that had resulted from social struggles rejecting the old economic liberalism of the nineteenth century.
For this reason, it cannot be associated merely with the dominance of neoclassical economic ideas and methodology. As he correctly depicts in Figure 3 of his working paper (Mirowski 2014, p. 10), those are quite distinct in nature. An example of these divisions are the differences and tensions within the large NTC over such matters as how economic agents behave in processing information: the neo-Austrians reject outright models of perfect knowledge and point to the market as the only correct source of information, while the Chicago rational expectations tribe starts with the presupposition of quasi-perfect knowledge. Because of differing presuppositions, there ensue differences in how, for instance, the neoliberals view the state as an instrument to protect the “market” from the demands of the “people”, while the neoclassicals see it as an exogenous entity potentially generating market “imperfections”. Yet, as Mirowski (2014) rightly points out, there remains among most economists much skepticism as to the existence of neoliberalism as an intellectual movement itself. This is so despite the fact that neoliberalism has slowly achieved such a global political influence in government policy circles since its beginnings during the interwar era of the last century and in the immediate post-WWII years with the founding of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947.
We are in complete agreement with Philip Mirowski (2014) on the existence of an organized Neoliberal Political Project (NPP) — whose presence he tries to detect and measure by using various analytical tools of research. For instance, he provides an empirical review of the number of books and articles referring to neoliberalism, particularly since the 1980s, and he studies the proliferation of neoliberal think-tanks and other such lobby groups, often masquerading as research institutes that can hijack government policies at the local and national levels and end up almost as in camera advisors to elected representatives. A very good example of this is right here in Canada over the last decade. In this country, there has been much suspicion about the relationship between the previous Conservative government that was defeated recently in the October 2015 election and such neoliberal think-tanks as the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, and lobby groups such as the Toronto-based National Citizens Coalition. The latter had actually once been headed by none other than our former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who is himself a political ideologue associated with the broad NPP.
However, this kind of capture of the state is hardly new. A similar takeover is discussed by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, in reference to the emergence and development of what he dubbed the liberal creed in Ricardian and post-Ricardian England of the nineteenth century. His historical reconstruction focused precisely on the political strategies that were deployed by groups adhering to this creed to capture the state and redefine its role. Indeed, it is surprising that Karl Polanyi is not mentioned or cited once in Mirowski (2014).
This avoidance of Polanyi is somewhat surprising, since he had been the most solid opponent of many of the early twentieth-century neoliberal writers that Mirowski mentions. It was the case particularly with Ludwig von Mises already during the 1920s and early 1930s in Vienna, that is, much before the Keynes-Hayek debates that ensued in the late 1930s. But he also engaged debates with other liberal/neoliberal writers and eventual members of the Mont Pèlerin Society, such as Walter Lippmann (Polanyi 1944, p. 148). Indeed, while they did not actually know each other personally, Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Polanyi followed parallel paths from the two diametrically-opposed intellectual circles emerging in the Red Vienna of the 1920s, with each of them leaving for Britain in the early 1930s and then eventually to the United States (see, for more details, Polanyi Levitt 2012-13; 2013).
The Importance of Karl Polanyi’s Analysis to Understanding Current Neoliberalism
For Karl Polanyi, the liberal creed was the set of organizing principles that guided the nineteenth-century movement after the Great Reform Act of 1832, that had represented the political defeat of the British aristocracy by the then rising industrial class or bourgeoisie. Its purpose was to design and establish a self-regulating market system that would include the creation of markets for fictitious commodities, namely pseudo-markets for labor, land and money.
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