At the Boston Review, Alex De Waal remembers Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which was written in 1944 and analyzed the events leading from the Napoleonic Wars to the World Wars from a social and economic perspective. De Waal applies that same analysis to the events since 1945. His conclusions do not give reason for optimism.
The article is long and densely reasoned and so depressing that it’s taken me three days to wade through it. I urge you to read the whole thing, even if it takes you three days . . . .
Here’s just a bit to either whet your appetite or scare you away (emphasis added).
Donald Trump was elected as the mouthpiece for a populist insurgency that humbled the biggest political machine in the United States. But he is also a plutocrat, a scion of the very system against which he mobilized so much anger. And his cabinet is oligarchy incorporated. What most distinguished Trump from Hillary Clinton in his public performance was his candor in admitting that the system is rotten and so is he. Trump was elected because he is deplorable, and proud of it.
So now—a winning minority of the electorate having lodged its protest and voted for its own gravedigger—the logic of today’s political economy is laid bare. What then can we take from The Great Transformation to deepen our understanding of our predicament? Polanyi’s central conclusion is that unregulated capitalism promised a “stark Utopia” of great wealth but destroyed the social and material basis of a humane society. Just over a hundred years ago, nineteenth-century Western liberal civilization reached its apogee, which was also the moment at which it could no longer contain the forces of disorder that it had unleashed. The massive destruction of the world wars, the communist revolution, fascist imperialism, and the Great Depression followed. Capitalism was reprieved by the political dispensation that followed World War II. John Maynard Keynes provided the intellectual capital for managing the market, and the victors of the war recognized that full employment, social welfare, and a good measure of equality were necessary to save civilization. But capitalism’s dangerous tendencies remained and, once freed from the challenge of socialism, its utopian dogma was again ascendant. The inevitable crisis is now here.