Talking about the real-world: Karl Polanyi and the neoliberal way of life

The expansion of neoliberalism in the last four decades has increasingly expressed the tensions between the expansion of the market economy and the consolidation of a new way of life. Indeed, the neoliberal way of life can be apprehended if considering Karl Polanyi´s concern about the way in which the economy relates to social organization and culture and the impacts of social and political institutions in relation to human livelihood. In his opinion, since the proper self-regulation of the market entails that nothing must be allowed to inhibit the formation of markets, the institutional patterns and principles of behavior turn out to adjust perfectly.

Taking into account the current effects of the neoliberal modernization process on the way of life, Karl Polanyi´s critique of the liberal myth and of the disruptive forces inherent to the self-regulated markets is inspiring to think about the deep impacts of neoliberal policies and institutions on livelihoods. In accordance to Polanyi, the centrality of the market entails that “Nothing must be allowed to inhibit the formation of markets, nor must incomes be permitted to be formed otherwise than through sales” (Polanyi 1944: 69). In other words, labor, land and money turn out to be seen as commodities and are produced for sale. As the commodity fiction proves to be the vital organizing process, the self-regulated markets demand the institutional separation of society into an economic and a political sphere. In other words, the commodity fiction implies that the market economy demands the institutional separation of society into an economic and political sphere, that is, in the market society the social relations are embedded in the economy rather than the economy embedded in social relations.

As Polanyi warned, the transformation in individual behavior towards the economic motive has disorganized the traditional forms of reciprocity and redistribution. As a result, the way of life has been increasingly subordinated to the commodity fiction.

Consequently, the neoliberal way of life is an important expression of the recent economic and cultural changes because it may possible to enlarge the subordination of sociability conditions to the market economy and the social relations increasingly become an “accessory of the economic system” (Polanyi 1944: 75). The policies adopted and the institutional changes have not only redefined employment and working conditions, but also patterns of behavior and patterns of subjective expectations and preferences that turned out to privilege competition in social dynamics.

References:

Madi, Maria A. C.; Gonçalves, J. R. B., Corporate Social Responsibility and Market Spciety: Credit and Social Exclusion in Contemporary Brazil. In: Bugra, A.; Agartan, K., Reading Karl Polanyi for the Twenty-First Century: Market Economy as a Political Project. Palgrave McMillan, 2007.

Polanyi, Karl.1944. The Great Transformation. Beacon Press: Boston, 1971.

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