Living in the End Times: Theories of Anti-Market Revolts

In 2011, the U.S. news weekly Time declared “The Protestor” to be the Person of the Year, and for good reason. Revolutions had rippled throughout North Africa and the Middle East; harsh austerity programs in several European countries prompted demonstrations and even riots; indigenous peoples in Central and Latin America marched against mines and highways encroaching on their land; and in the United States, the Tea Party and Occupy movements grew over vastly different concerns about economic policies. Although they wrote at very different periods, the works of political economists Karl Polanyi and Susan Strange offer relevant insights into the protests we are seeing around the world today, specifically in their respective discussions on the friction caused when market forces upset pre-existing social relations and how globalization has eroded state authority. For all their capacity to help explain present protests, however, it is also essential to acknowledge how incorrect assumptions constrain their theories – in Polanyi’s case, regarding pre-capitalist societies with undue sentimentality, and in Strange’s case, overrating the state’s ability to serve the interests of the people and not its benefactors.

In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi observed in the 1940s how modern capitalism had begun to spread across the globe, imposing the rules of the market even in parts of the world where free trade and rapid industrialization meant swift and often violent destruction of pre-existing social structures and norms. When the forces of economic liberalism confronted traditional societies, the result was “a reaction against a dislocation which attacked the fabric of society, and which would have destroyed the very organization of production that the market had called into being” (Polanyi 1957, 130). This “double movement” – the expansion of the free market and the inevitable, impassioned attempt to check this expansion to preserve the status quo – formed the basis for Polanyi’s analysis of the social strife England underwent during its transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy. It also clarified, to Polanyi’s alarm, the rise of fascism “as an alternative solution of the problem of an industrial society” in the years after 1930 (ibid, 252). Today, in Greece, one can see obvious parallels to the rise of fascist parties in post-Great Depression Europe in the recent rise of the nationalist, neo-fascist Golden Dawn party. The party has preyed upon the consequences of the ongoing European sovereign-debt crisis – unemployment, rising crime rates – to persuade Greeks to endorse parochial, xenophobic policies and to pressure politicians to adopt similar far-right agendas (Hope 2010). The “double movement” also finds expression in the so-called “pink wave” of socialist and pseudo-socialist indigenous rights movements in Latin America, where indigenous peoples have mobilized against the neoliberal reforms common in the region in the 1980s as those reforms removed property rights protections and subsidies for peasants, which most indigenous people are (Yashar 1998, 32-34). While the world has changed in the almost 70 years it has been since Polanyi’s contribution to political economy was published, the recognition that there is an omnipresent, evolving struggle between integration into global capitalism and a desire for a reactionary return to the past remains as salient as it ever was. While re-emergent fascists are not present in every instance, it is certainly true that strains of populism – be it along class lines, ethnicity, religious grouping, or otherwise – permeate most contemporary protests.

Of course, not all protests revolve around political parties or agendas, as in the above examples. Many contemporary protests are either broad, informal coalitions rallying toward a common goal (such as liberals and Islamists protesting to bring down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011) or actively seeking to “seize” the parties closest to them on the political spectrum (as with the Tea Party movement challenging “Republicans-in-Name-Only” in primaries leading up to the 2010 U.S. midterm elections). In The Retreat of the State, Susan Strange goes some way to elucidating why protestors may either eschew or feel compelled to “take back” the political process. In her view, states of all stripes have become “victims of the market economy,” their authority eroded by transnational corporations and other inter-state giants like the IMF and World Bank who actively work against state intervention in economics, resulting in a “yawning hole of… ungovernance” (Strange 1996, 13-14). Specifically, many protestors take to the streets because they perceive the state complicit or unwilling to protect them from structural changes that affect them. In the case of Egypt, popular dissatisfaction stemmed from the fortunes (in the billions) made by Mubarak’s banker son and heir apparent, Gamal, and his business allies while many young people wallowed in poverty and joblessness (Goldstone 2011, 11-12). In the United States, meanwhile, the Tea Party movement formulated around a widespread grievance that the government rescued the financial institutions that had caused the 2008 financial crisis and that those same bankers subsequently enjoyed massive profits and bonuses (again, in the billions) while average people contended with stagnant unemployment. These disparate groups, ranging from followers of Sayyid Qutb to Ayn Rand, share what Strange describes as an exposure to the “forces” of the “world economy and society” with a belief that the government is incapable of emitting a “protective shield” around their prospects of social mobility and survival (Strange 1996, 82-83). Notwithstanding the myriad ideologies contemporary protestors have professed, all are linked by a stated or implied belief that the state is not a solution to their deprivation but, rather, part of the problem.

This is not to say that the works of Polanyi and Strange are not without their defects, however. In the case of Polanyi, there is a clear romantic view of traditional societies that underlies the “double movement” thesis. He states that, in their natural environment, a person “values material goods only in so far as they serve” to safeguard his social relationships (Polanyi 1957, 48). Like Voltaire after reading Rousseau, one longs after reading Polanyi’s conception of early humanity to walk on all fours. It does not seem to matter to Polanyi that, generally, those social relationships a person preserves in pre-capitalist society are certainly not egalitarian and operate on the exploitation of a working class to keep an economic system functioning. Slaves in slave societies and serfs in feudal societies receive “security” from their masters and lords, yet such “security” is dependent upon the slave or serf satisfying their main purpose: laboring for the enrichment of their superiors. As Marx and Engels observed, the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels, Chapter 1). By looking back upon pre-capitalist societies with rose-tinted glasses, Polanyi encourages one to embrace a backward-looking populism with a Luddite distrust of social, economic and technological progress. It is dubious, for example, that indigenous activists in modern Peru would be over-eager to return to the Incan Empire, regardless of any shift from less material concerns to more basic social ones.

In regards to Strange’s theories, one cannot dispute that the current state of globalization leaves transnational corporations and other inter-state actors with influence never before seen in the international milieu. It is nevertheless a fact that states have always had their options limited by objective determinants beyond their control. Indeed, due to internal and external pressures, there has never been a “golden age of state control” in history (Thomson and Krasner 1989, 198). To be sure, states have long made alliances with a number of non-state actors, from religious institutions (the Catholic Church) to military orders (medieval mercenaries) to even pre-capitalist commercial centers (Venice and Genoa, to name a few). Moreover, the state has created such alliances throughout history because it, in the words of Lenin, is “an organ for the oppression of one class by another… which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes” (Lenin, Chapter 1, Section 1). Strange is correct to argue that the state has seen these moderating powers (and others) wither under globalization, but she fails to convey the degree to which the state’s purpose has largely never been at odds with an epoch’s reigning dominant class.

In this time of extensive tumult and upheaval, there has never been a greater need to study social movements and the causes driving them. With the insights provided by Polanyi and Strange in their treatises on global political economy, scholars should be better equipped to do so. While their own understandings of society and the state are far from perfect, it is impossible to attain an understanding of the world we live in without them.

  1. Goldstone, Jack. 2011. “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies.” Foreign Affairs, 90: 8-16.
  2. Hope, Kerin. 2012. “Greece grapples with shadow of Golden Dawn.” The Financial Times, September 21, 2012. Accessed October 14, 2012.
  3. Lenin, Vladimir. The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution. Marx/Engels Internet Archive.
  4. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Marx/Engels Internet Archive.
  5. Polanyi, Karl. 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.
  6. Strange, Susan. 1996. The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Thomson, Janice and Stephen Krasner. 1989. “Global Transactions and the Consolidation of Sovereignty.” In Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges: Approaches to World Politics for the 1990s, edited by E. O. Czempiel and J.N. Rosenau, 195-219. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Health.
  8. Yashar, Deborah. 1998. “Contesting Citizenship: Indigenous Movements and Democracy in Latin America.” Comparative Politics, 31: 23-42.