From political economy to political ecology

After the stark utopia

talk by Brian Holmes at The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Utopia is an imaginary figure, an absent place, a vision or a model that can gather all the force of reality. It’s widely believed there are no more utopias, but that’s not the case. “No place” abounds in the twenty-first century. Its towers rise over Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. Its freeways, airports and data centers proliferate. Its markets move into ever more complex virtual spaces. Its citizens, credit cards in hand, sustain an economy of continuous capital circulation. All this claims to be an absolute invention – a brave new world.

The contemporary utopia has its birthdates and its ghostly afterlives. Sometimes they coincide. In 1949, Friedrich von Hayek published an article in a University of Chicago journal calling for the rebirth of nineteenth-century liberalism. The past would become the future:

What we lack is a liberal utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.

In 1949 Hayek was still largely unknown and without influence. But he had already founded the Mont Pelerin Society, a transnational network of economists meeting once a year on a mountaintop in Switzerland. And he had already laid the foundation of his utopian system. It depends on a single, quasi-mystical economic function, which he conceives as capable of gathering, synthesizing and communicating all useful knowledge about everything in the world. That single function is price. The market price of a physical asset, a service or a financial product is supposed to crystallize the evaluation of its potential utility in the eyes of an untold multitude of individuals. Once the price is known, each participant in the market can then decide on the degree of utility, to him or herself, of that particular physical asset, service or financial product. And they can take it or leave it.

Unlike socialist planning, the market according to Hayek enables individuals both to take advantage of their personal, incommunicable knowledge and to coordinate their activities with others, so that the best possible use will be made of scarce resources. The others need not know what you intend to do, because that would be too complicated. They need only know that today, right now, as a function of their vastly different activities and choices, all market participants have settled on a particular price for a particular thing. That price allows them, and you, to decide whether to purchase that particular thing or not, without any further determination whatsoever as to when, how or why the thing purchased will be ultimately used. All the rest is freedom.

By reducing social relations to ownership and contract, the liberal utopia promises individuals control over their own vital energy. Once some degree of mastery has been gained on these terms, individuals can accumulate property – including money, of course – and they can subordinate others contractually, creating vast organizational pyramids. The consequences on productivity, especially technological productivity, have been enormous. One can see their reflection in the architecture of the great global cities. Here one can also see the consequences on social inequality, including poverty, indigence, and death from exposure in the world’s richest societies. Inequality is now so widespread that it even affects millionaires. A report by the European Banking Authority has revealed there are 125 millionaire bankers in Spain, 162 in France, 170 in Germany – and 2,436 in the UK. Apparently the London fog is somehow good for millionaire bankers. It’s a pity we have no such figures for the climate of New York, or of Chicago, where I live.

In his most famous text, Hayek demanded that we simply accept a feeling of awe for the liberal organization of the economy by market price. What he proposed was something close to revealed religion. I quote from The Road to Serfdom:

 It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of a civilization which without this could not have developed; it is by thus submitting that we are every day helping to build something that is greater than anyone of us can fully comprehend. It does not matter whether men in the past did submit from beliefs which some now regard as superstitious: from a religious spirit of humility, or an exaggerated respect for the crude teachings of the early economists. The crucial point is that it is infinitely more difficult rationally to comprehend the necessity of submitting to forces whose operation we cannot follow in detail, than to do so out of the humble awe which religion, or even the respect for the doctrines of economics, did inspire.

It’s astonishing that the most utopian of twentieth-century liberal economists reccomends sheer faith in the spontaneous order of forces beyond our comprehension. But so he does.

Hayek is usually contrasted to Keynes, and for decades both academia and the newspapers were public arenas for their rivalry. Today we might reflect that Keynesian economics not only saved capitalism, as intended, but also produced the self-interested, consumption-oriented middle classes that ultimately rejected the Keynesian compromise. Perhaps we need a better contrast to the high priest of neoliberalism. From a counter-utopian standpoint, the most interesting contemporary of Hayek was not Keynes but the Hungarian anthropologist and economic historian Karl Polanyi, the author of a book called The Great Transformation, published in 1944. Like Hayek, Polanyi was born in Vienna and later emigrated from that city to London, before going on to America. However, the resemblance between the two ends there.

hayekpolanyiHayek & Polanyi

Polanyi’s contribution was to show that markets are not self-regulating, but always embedded in a matrix of social institutions. This has a crucial consequence: price signals alone cannot be sufficient to guide the coordination of human activities. The reason why is that three of the major inputs to a market economy – land, labor and money itself – are not produced for the market, nor with means provided by the market. Land (or the natural environment), labor (or human life and reproduction) and money (or the conventions of exchange) all require modes of regulation and care that do not conform to the criteria of double-entry bookkeeping. These foundations of human existence can only enter the market as what Polanyi calls “fictitious commodities,” whose dependence on social, sexual and ecological cooperation is veiled and denied. Such a denial was characteristic of the liberal capitalism that arose in the nineteenth century. As he writes in The Great Transformation:

 Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark Utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness. Inevitably, society took measures to protect itself…

Polanyi was inspired by Marx’s early philosophical works, but his conception differs significantly from that of Capital. From the late nineteenth century onward he sees efforts toward the self-protection of society being expressed not only by the working classes, but also by the traditional stewards of the land (both aristocrats and peasants). These efforts found parliamentary representation and began to produce the forms of economic regulation and social assistance characteristic of welfare states. At the same time the liberal program continued to gain ground, notably through the transnational institution of the gold standard, which exerted a disciplinary force of capitalist competition on all those adhering to it. In this tense and contradictory context, society’s drive to self-protection would ultimately take a destructive turn. The liberal utopia of market society was so strong, and so blind to its own consequences, that the gold standard and the free-trade regime attached to it were restored after the First World War. Economic havoc was the result, bringing on not only the Great Depression but also the fascist reaction.

The simultaneous trend toward increased market liberalization and heightened social protectionism constituted what Polanyi called the “double movement.” He describes its contradictory nature in The Great Transformation: “The market expanded continuously but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions. Vital though such a countermovement was for the protection of society, in the last analysis it was incompatible with the self-regulation of the market, and thus with the market system itself.” For Polanyi, the double movement lay at the origin of both world wars.

Polanyi therefore agreed with Hayek’s conviction that Nazism sprung from the same root as socialism – a claim that is hard to deny when you consider that the very name, Nazism, actually stands for National Socialism. Yet quite unlike Hayek, Polanyi ascribed the appearance of the various strains of fascism to the destructive effects of liberal capitalism itself. It was not, and still is not clear to most members of liberal society that an excess of free-market capitalism can produce its opposite: an oppressive, authoritarian state. Thus, Polanyi’s most striking insight concerns the self-blinding character of market society, which continually exacerbates the forces leading to its own undoing. He was able to express this complex idea in limpid and even quite beautiful prose. For those not already familiar with his writing, it’s worth quoting this passage in full:

The middle classes were the bearers of the nascent market economy; their business interests ran, on the whole, parallel to the general interest in regard to production and employment; if business was flourishing, there was a chance of jobs for all and of rents for the owners; if markets were expanding, investments could be freely and readily made; if the trading community competed successfully with the foreigner, the currency was safe. On the other hand, the trading classes had no organ to sense the dangers involved in the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighborhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways, and the general degradation of existence including housing and arts, as well as the innumerable forms of private and public life that do not affect profits. The middle classes fulfilled their function by developing an all but sacramental belief in the universal beneficence of profits, although this disqualified them as the keepers of other interests as vital to a good life as the furtherance of production. Here lay the chance of those classes which were not engaged in applying expensive, complicated, or specific machines to production. Roughly, to the landed aristocracy and the peasantry fell the task of safeguarding the martial qualities of the nation which continued to depend largely on men and soil, while the laboring people, to a smaller or greater extent, became representatives of the common human interests that had become homeless. But at one time or another, each social class stood, even if unconsciously, for interests wider than its own.

In these lines, the difference with Marx becomes crystal clear. Polanyi lets no one off the hook; but nor does he deny that all classes are able to stand for interests wider than their own. Crucially, he believed, and I quote from a 1934 text, “that it is not by following their own immediate material interests that the working class can prove their capacity for leadership, but by adapting their own interests to the interests of the indifferent masses in order to be able to lead society as a whole.” And he added, “If a revision of Marxism is necessary for this purpose, the task should neither be shirked nor delayed.” The revision concerned not only the definition of the working class as the privileged subject of history, but also the corresponding trust in industrial progress as a good in itself. When these dogmatic or teleological ideas are dropped, a notion of political ecology becomes possible.

Today, we seem to be living through the ghostly afterlives of all these debates. Seventy years after the publication of The Great Transformation, the neoliberal era is again confronted by the consequences of the stark utopia – which are rising inequality, economic turmoil, climate change and political aggression. Some people were able to perceive this as early as the 1990s, when Polanyi’s masterpiece came out of oblivion and began circulating again, especially among participants in the counter-globalization struggles. The return of the double movement became clear after 2001, which was marked by a stock-market crash, a popular revolt in Argentina and above all, by Al-Qaeda’s violent reaction to neoliberal globalization, which led to a bellicose response from the NATO powers. Society’s self-protection took the form of war, plus the inflation of a new asset-bubble, this time in the popular domain of housing prices. The collapse of that bubble, plus the abject failure of the Middle Eastern wars, provides the political-economic backdrop to the ecological crisis of the present.

Art and interdependence

Ecology has a crucial epistemological difference from the preceding forms of natural and social science: it includes the observer as part of what is observed. So here I want to suddenly shift to a micro-level of history. For myself, the years around the turn of the century were filled with intense political, artistic and literary activity; and then I fell in love. From 2005 onward, Claire Pentecost and I began practicing and theorizing an experimental process called Continental Drift. Our aim was to observe the new manifestations of the double movement in the globalization process, which simultaneously brings the world together through free trade and tears it apart through rising conflict over resources, class, identity, political and religious philosophy, etc. We approached these issues using the language of territory, deterritorialization and reterritorialization, borrowed from Deleuze and especially from Guattari. At the same time we wondered how it might be possible to develop the organs of perception that the trading classes were so clearly lacking. Could this be done through the formation of experimental groups, moving through territories in order to sense, analyze and express the current Great Transformation?

A series of Continental Drift seminars were put together with the 16 Beaver Group in New York from 2005 to 2009, focusing on geopolitics and geopoetics. In parallel to the development of these seminars, Claire and I began carrying out a number of geographical investigations. We went to places like Almería, in southern Spain, where intensive greenhouse agriculture has transformed an entire region into a kind of rippling plastic ocean where vegetables grow in artificial substrates through which chemical fertilizers flow. Here we also encountered the heavily racialized exploitation of immigrant labor. Workers from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East lived alongside the greenhouses under conditions of fear and isolation, which were long term consequences of violent anti-immigrant riots in the city of El Ejido in the year 2000.

In the landscape around El Ejido, the high-tech feudalism of the vegetable economy unfolded right alongside a speculative explosion in tourist architecture, which in 2005 was already being called a “real-estate tsunami.” The greenhouses surge over the hills, all the way down to the flotsam and jetsam of hotels and timeshare apartments jumbled within eyeshot of the beach. As everyone is now aware, this was the largest and undoubtedly the most irresponsible housing boom in European history, driven by the same financial mechanisms that were at work in the US, the UK, Ireland, etc. In Almería, the three fictitious commodities – land, labor and the means of exchange – were all subject to the demands of highly sophisticated transnational markets, which have brought the area to an ecological breaking point.

A longer engagement took us twice to Argentina, in 2005 and 2011. On the one hand we were pursuing some research into the artistic side of what has been called “the first great revolt against neoliberal globalization.” On the other, Claire instigated an investigation of GMO soybean production in Argentina, which is a major geoeconomic phenomenon.

Monsanto introduced GMO soy into the country before the expected passage of the law that would allow them to collect royalties on it. The revolt of 2001 then obstructed the legislative process and the law never passed. The area under soybean cultivation increased dramatically, and the huge profits actually played into the hands of the new social-democratic government, which derives an important share of its income from a special export tax. Meanwhile, the government became locked into struggle with the powerful soy oligarchy. In 2008 this struggle culminated in the so-called “conflict of the countryside,” when small farmers, truckers, big landowners and corporate interests came together to block the imposition of further windfall profits taxes that would benefit the nation’s urban poor. The tense and contradictory nature of the double movement could once again be seen unfolding.

By 2011, when we returned for a “Continental Drift through the Pampa” in collaboration with the El Levante group from the city of Rosario, GMO grain production had drastically transformed both the national economy and rural life, particularly through the radical expansion of what is called “the soy frontier.” No-till sowing and pesticide spraying from the air mean that huge new lands can be clear-cut, burned off and turned immediately into the sources of a cash crop for export to Asia, with population displacement and environmental pollution considered as collateral damage, nothing more. This represents an extension to Argentina, and to all the countries of the Southern Cone, of capital and technology-intensive practices that originated in the United States.

In this case, deterritorialization signifies a disembedding of the agricultural economy from its social matrix, by which I mean the institutions of reciprocity and redistribution that make such an economy bearable for the people involved in it. Although changes of this kind have marked both Argentina and the United States for centuries, they are now reaching a kind of climax, which is threatening our lives precisely to the extent that market society does not allow it to be recognized as an issues. Between the rise of the transnational soy economy and the social-protection measures of the center-left government, we could clearly see Polanyi’s double movement at work.

We always conceived these trips in relation to our home environment. In 2008 a group of ten to fifteen people came together for a “Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor” – which was a way of renaming and decentering the region around Chicago where we live. In this case, the practice was immediately expressive as well as critical. It involved a core group living in different places in a vast and generally depreciated region, whose alternative communities and radical cultural dissidents we wanted to bring into focus. To do so, it was enough to sketch out a rough itinerary and then let the people living in each area set up encounters and events.

Without in any way abandoning the conceptual inquiries that had been at the heart of the Continental Drift seminars, we were able through this kind of practice to open up many more avenues into people’s daily lives. That first highly collaborative experiment in collective perception and expression became the departure point for many others. Reflecting on the whole process a few years later, in her Notes on the Project Called Continental Drift, Claire gave a nice definition:

Continental Drift is a collective and mobile project of inquiry. We aim to explore the five scales of contemporary existence: the intimate, the local, the national, the continental and the global. Within the mesh of scales, we want to understand the extent of our interdependence, how any action we may take has effects on and is shaped by all of these scales at once. We attempt to understand these dynamics so that we can understand the meaning of our own actions, the basis for an ethical life.

It’s interesting that she refers to the second scale of existence as “the local.” I have typically used the word “territory” to refer to the immediate lived environment, the one that’s continually traversed in the course of day-to-day existence, whether in the city or in a rural environment. Apparently Claire wanted to reserve that word for a more extensive inquiry. As I mentioned before, in developing the Continental Drifts we often referred to Guattari’s notion of existential territories, which he drew out of infantile psychology but also ethology, or the study of animal behavior. For Guattari, existential territories are literally grounds, inhabited spaces of the body, pacings, ranges of mobility, graspings and appropriations, sinkholes and sometimes dead ends (“black holes,” as he would say). But the territory is never fixed: it’s subject to deterritorialization, notably because of capitalist process but also because of sheer human inventiveness and desire. And the resulting flows are in turn subject to reterritorialization, for good or for ill.

All of this bears remarkable similarities to Polanyi’s notion of embeded, disembedded and re-embedded institutions. To disembed something is to extract it from the web of interdepencies in which it was formed and which sustains its existence. To re-embed a set of human practices then entails, not the restoration of past institutions, but instead the fresh creation of a new social interaction, with a conscious set of governing principles and an original commitment to care. Bearing all that in mind, here are Claire’s ideas on the subject:

The territory is a complex phenomenon. Physically it is a modest radius around our homes, a space we can traverse, if need be, on our own two feet. But it is much more than that: it is the matrix for our connection to others and to the earth. Thanks to globalization it encompasses the near and the far. It is the extent of all that is enlisted to sustain our lives: the path of the water that comes to our glass, the path of the waste we produce, the labor of many, many people. It involves these and other concrete things, but is also driven by abstractions. We collectively constitute the territory every day; it is an outcome of our perceptions, our imagination and our actions. Generally we constitute it in an unconscious way, but when we stop to study it we realize that we have agency in determining its form and parameters.

In this text, Claire refers to the ways that we help to create the region that we live in. However, by extending the notion of territory far beyond the immediate environment, she hints at a planetary awareness and agency. In a later text, called Notes from Undergound, she speaks explicitly of “the unified geobiological system that regulates life on the planet.” That’s the language of political ecology – the specific opposite of Hayek’s price system, with which we began. And political ecology is also the horizon – the utopian horizon – of the art piece in which she responds most completely to the entire problematic I have been developing here.


This piece of art is called Soil-Erg (see artist’s website). It was created in 2012 in the Land of Hesse, near Kassel, Germany, and was presented for the first time at Documenta 13. Soil-Erg is an extended metaphorical inquiry into political ecology, based on scientific research and collaborative production. To carry it out, Claire began studying soil science with a renowned expert, Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Rodale Institute. She learned how to use a microscope and became familiar with the bacteria and fungi that make up the living part of the soil. She then engaged in a collaboration extending over several months with the Organic Agriculture Department of the University of Kassel at Witzenhausen, which is the only university department in the world devoted entirely to organics. She further collaborated with Ben Friton, a young eco-designer who has been making what he calls “vertical growing systems” which simultaneously permit organic waste disposal and kitchen-garden agriculture in overcrowded cities where neither is easily available. In preparation for all that, she wrote the text “Notes from Undergound,” which adds multiple layers of meaning to the project.

What you see in the artwork is an alternative store of value: a monetary system made out of dirt. It comprises, on the one had, a treasury of ingots forged of molded and dried compost, looking for all the world like crumbling gold bars without the luster. Hanging from the wall are oversized coins made of a similar substance. The erg is a measure of energy potential, and these bars refer not only to gold, but even more, to oil, which has been the key commodity underlying the value of American dollar since the US left the gold standard in the early 1970s. Oil is, of course, the energetic flow that powers the whole machinic world of capitalist deterritorialization, including the war machine upon which the hegemony of the dollar depends. The place-bound soil-erg calls for the abandonment of the petro-dollar as the world reserve currency, echoing the slogan “soil not oil” launched by the activist Vandana Shiva.

The ingots can neither last forever, like gold, nor burn up in a toxic blaze of macho glory, like oil. Instead, they can only crumble back into the vast planetary skin with which we all co-evolve. The question to which they give rise in the viewer is elemental: “How could we keep this kind of treasure?” One answer, of course, is buy it, invest, grab the land, as so many agents including sovereign states are doing right now, just to make a profit, or in provision against the upcoming food crises. Claire is acutely conscious of this answer, and another part of the installation includes a list of such land-grabs, which are happening around the world. Yet at the same time, a very different possibility is indicated by the monetary signifier, which forms the second part of the project.


On the walls of the installation are hand-drawn banknotes, each representing one soil-erg. No two of them are alike. They all feature the portrait of a scientist, philosopher, activist or worker of the land – including animals, worms, insects, protozoans and bacteria – and they have all been dipped in compost tea. These portraits range from Gerrard Winstanley, the English revolutionary Digger and champion of the commons, to Donna Haraway, the theorist of cyborgs and of what she calls “companion species” – by way of Charles Darwin, who helped us understand “small agencies and their accumulated effects.” The representational form of the alternative monetary system seems to answer the question, “How can we keep this treasure?” by presenting a potentially endless series of incomplete but useful inquiries and actions, all of which point toward a reterritorialization of the human economy.

Clearly, this is not a price system, since the only number involved is the singular 1. You are invited, not to exchange anything, but to conjoin your efforts with a multiplicity of small agencies, into which you can only enter at one specific yet perhaps also arbitrtary point. Indeed, the question this system of value-representation seems to be asking is that of the unit in its relation to the whole.

One could easily infer that this is a simple additive relation, an open series, 1+1+1+1+1… That’s the classic utopia of democratic inclusiveness, or pluralism. Yet it’s on exactly this point that Claire’s text, “Notes from Underground,” becomes most intriguing and most urgent. In the opening section, she quotes Gregory Bateson saying that in evolutionary biology, the unit of survival is not the single species or family tree. Rather, it is organism-plus-environment. This idea is typically ecological: the singularity depends on the whole, and vice-versa. Survival depends on an intricate belonging. You cannot just spend one soil-erg and leave, for example. Or just steal one and have a good time – as you are basically encouraged to do under neoliberal capitalism. By accepting this system of value and of representation, you are going to enter an environment. But what does that mean? And what sort of utopia, or better, what kind of topology or discourse of places does that entail?

Notes-from-undergroundillustration, “Notes from Underground”

As I mentioned, Claire began using a microscope to look into the soil. This led her to an understanding of the way that bacterial communities live in symbiosis with each other, to help make up the complex living organism which is the soil. It also led to the artistic imaginary of the “biological cosmos underground.” Interestingly, bacteria are single-cell organisms based on just one strand of DNA. They do not have the differentiated nucleus and organelles that characterize the cells of more complex organisms. A question arises: how did the latter come into being? Or as Claire asks in her text:

Where did the nucleus and the organelles come from? Of several contending answers to this question, I am fondest of one proposed by biologist Lynn Margulis: one bacterium ingested another but for whatever reason was not able to digest it. The ingested bacteria continued to live inside the host and from there performed functions of cycling nutrients, metabolizing sugars, and absorbing and converting waste. Although they are parts of a cell that has its own nucleus, organelles contain their own genetic material and function much like bacteria. Bacteria are routinely found living inside the cells of multicelled beings. Margulis writes, “The origin of cells with nuclei is exactly equal to the evolutionary integration of symbiotic bacterial communities.” A primordial form of sex is one organism ingesting but not digesting another. The undigested continues to live, now inside the other: a radical intimacy ensues.

Now, it’s clear that this radical intimacy is not without conflict. You have only to look at the images assembled in Claire’s most recent piece, Old Friends and Unloved Others, to see that the place of the undigested other in the really existing political ecology is fraught, to say the least. Interdependency does not mean subordination. Instead it means a striving for collective health, often under very difficult circumstances. Think of organelles like Bradley Manning, or the unnamed protester assaulted by a cop, or the portraits of Gerrard Winstanley, Henry David Thoreau and Vandana Shiva in Soil-Erg. There is something awesome about the “cosmos underground,” but it is not the beauty of unquestioning submission to a spontaneous order. Instead it is about multiple communities striving, unconsciously and also consciously, for a balance of coexistence.

Today on planet Earth we are firmly within the grip of capitalism’s stark utopia. The centers of the great global cities look like surreal paradises; but frankly, if you look around the world and you do the math of climate change, the future does not look so great. Today the unloved others are those who ask the question, “What comes after neoliberalism’s stark utopia?”

I want to close with one more consideration of political ecology, concerning what Polanyi calls the “fictitious commodities,” namely land, labor and money, which were traditionally understood as the three basic factors of production. Given the way that neoliberalism has developed, with its particular reliance on science, art and communication, some thinkers have proposed that knowledge should be considered a fourth “fictitious commodity.” Knowledge is a crucial input to the contemporary market economy; but knowledge, and indeed, language itself, is not produced according to market criteria of profit and loss. What is destroyed when knowledge is treated as a commodity is our capacity for understanding interdependency, and thereby constituting the whole, or more precisely, the question of the singularity’s evolving place in the evolving whole. What’s destroyed is a generous vision.

Now, the bearers of knowledge in contemporary society are, in the main, the representatives of a particular class fraction: they are those who received the benefits of public education. Could they, or I daresay, we, not come to stand for interests wider than our own? The Keynesian middle classes were lured into neoliberalism during the age of Reagan and Thatcher; but in the recent cycle of struggles that have broken out all over the world, we see that elements of the expanded middle classes are taking very progressive stances, whether in North Africa, Turkey, Brazil, Europe or the United States. Could we not again strive for a leading role for the arts, the sciences and the humanities, as “organs of perception” in the face of the grave difficulties and disasters that await the capitalist democracies? Could we not design self-protective measures that lead society away from the current, largely unconscious drives toward racism, nationalism and classism? If so, how exactly would we do that? Would it not require a very different organization of the production and uses of the arts, the sciences and the humanities than the one we have today? Wouldn’t it also require that we reconsider our own careers and roles in public life?

In the last chapter of The Great Transformation, entitled “Freedom in a Complex Society,” Polanyi opposed the Hayekian idea that freedom and planning are mutually exclusive. He believed that by respecting dissidence and the contrary position, freedom and planning could be made mutually supportive – perhaps even symbiotic. This is the utopian idea we should reinvent today.

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