Polanyi Returns to Bennington: The Role of Liberal Arts Colleges at a Moment of “Great Transformation”

This is part of our special feature on Forced Migration, Displacement, and the Liberal Arts.


In September 1940, faced with ravages of war in Europe, Karl Polanyi found himself at a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont. Ineligible for many of the refugee lectureships of the time (since he did not hold a regular university appointment), Polanyi nonetheless received support from the Rockefeller Foundation for a short-term fellowship at Bennington College—an all-girls institution less than a decade old, founded on a progressive ethos of civic engagement and “learning-by-doing.” He initially “envisaged his stay as brief and Bennington as mediocre,” but he was pleasantly surprised, finding “Bennington’s ethic and community spirit highly congenial” (Dale 2016, 158-9). Polanyi’s time in Vermont was remarkably productive; it afforded him the opportunity to focus on writing, to discuss and debate his ideas with colleagues, and to give a series of five lectures that helped to lay the groundwork for his magnus opus, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944).

Eschewing disciplinary boundaries, The Great Transformation employed insights from history, anthropology, politics, and sociology in an attempt to diagnose the social forces behind the world historical ruptures through which he lived—notably the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of two world wars. In contrast with orthodox thinking of the time, which championed the free-market as the holy grail of Western civilization, Polanyi suggested that the market economy itself lay at the root of the poverty, dispossession, and violence that had ravaged societies across the world: “the origins of the cataclysm lay in the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” (Polanyi 1944, 31).

Our world today shares troublesome similarities to the one Polanyi encountered: the forced displacement of millions; the entrenchment of hyper-nationalism and xenophobia; the emergence of new cracks and fissures in the global economic order; and the election of strong-men with little regard for constitutional law and democratic governance. At the time of this writing, Trump has invoked a national emergency to construct a “great wall” along the United States’ border with Mexico; newly elected Brazilian President Bolsanaro has withdrawn from the United Nation’s Migration Accord; the Hungarian Fidesz party continues to employ anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric; India’s Bharatiya Janata Party has purged Muslims in the border state of Assam from citizenship lists; Erdogan’s crackdown on critics has forced many Turkish intellectuals and activists to flee the country; and right wing parties are polling high across much of Europe.

Seventy-five years after it was written, Polanyi’s theoretical framework seems remarkably prescient, offering conceptual tools to understand and combat the rise of right wing populism and xenophobic nationalism today. Moreover, revisiting Polanyi, a refugee intellectual whose own life and work transgressed both geopolitical and intellectual boundaries, prods us to evaluate anew the role that liberal arts colleges can play in intervening in contemporary crises of migration and displacement.


The Polanyi Lectures and The Great Transformation

Upon arriving at Bennington, Polanyi delivered a series of talks, collectively titled, “Five Lectures on the Present Age of Transformation.” Over the course of these lectures, Polanyi built a case that the nineteenth century world order locked into place a series of tensions—between the economy and society, democracy and capitalism, and domestic and international institutions—that exploded into fractures amid the tumult of the 1930s.

“[A]ll human societies of the past,” Polanyi wrote, “seem to have been based on the institutional unity of society, i.e., one set of institutions was designed to serve both the economic and the political needs of society” (Polanyi 1940, Lecture 2). The formation of a “laissez faire” system—a society structured around supposedly self-regulating markets—constitutes a profound break from history in that it transforms social relations into transactions mediated by the price mechanism. The economy becomes disembedded from social relations; or, more precisely, social relations are shattered and remade in the image of the market.

Polanyi illustrated the pitfalls of this transformation by examining market society’s treatment of land, labor, and money—what he termed, the “fictitious commodities.” None of these are goods produced for sale—land is simply the nature that surrounds us, labor is the human mind and body put into action, and money is “a token of purchasing power which, is not produced at all but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance” (Polanyi 1944, 76). Yet, in a market system, “the fiction of their being so produced became the organizing principle of society” (Polanyi 1944, 79), with disastrous results:

“[T]he ‘Satanic Mill’ of the market would soon dispose of a society which would allow its land to be atomized or to be left unused; which would allow its labour power to be overstrained or to be left to rust; which would permit its credit system to run into an inflation or to throttle business according to the whims of a blind mechanism removed by its very nature from the needs of the living community embodied in every human society” (Polanyi 1940, Lecture 2).

What prevents such a dire state from being fully actualized is that the process of attempting to free the market from social institutions provokes resistance, giving rise to counter-movements aimed at reigning in the market through forms of social protection. Polanyi termed this the “double movement”: “the extension of the market organization in respect to genuine commodities was accompanied by its restriction in respect to fictitious ones” (Polanyi 1944, 79). Efforts to restrict the commodification of land, labor, and money can take different political forms, ranging from twentieth-century state socialism, to fascism, to social democracy. The double movement occurs on a social register shot through with competing forces, and the re-embedding of the market within society via democratic institutions faces barriers both internal (e.g. opposition of business interests, the power of laissez-faire ideals) and external (e.g. the potential for capital flight, currency devaluation).

In some cases, unions, religious organizations, and social movements persisted, and varying measures of democratic control over the market were implemented. In other cases, the failure of democratic attempts to control the market gave rise to more vicious forms of re-embedding, such as imperialism and fascism. Robert Kuttner suggests that while Marx expected the contradictions of capitalism to result in a proletarian revolution, “Polanyi with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism” (Kuttner 2017). Polanyi attributed the rise of fascism, and the resulting destruction and displacement, to “one factor: the condition of the market system” (Polanyi 1944, 250) or, more specifically, the inability of many democratic nation-states to temper the market system through protective measures.


Polanyi in the Present: Neoliberalism, Immigration, and Hyper-Nationalism

After World War II and through the 1970s, the industrialized world was governed by social welfare states that insulated societies—to varying degrees—from the machinations of the market. Political scientist John Ruggie channels Polanyi in characterizing this period as one of “embedded liberalism”: “all sectors of society agreed to open markets…but also to contain and share the social adjustment costs that open markets inevitably produce” (Ruggie 2003, 93-4). The resulting state programs—e.g. social security for the elderly, public education, the near-universal provision of some measure of healthcare, safety nets for the unemployed and disabled, workplace health and safety protections, employer-provided pensions, and, eventually, environmental regulations—constrained the most damaging forms of commodification. Such domestic reforms were possible under a liberal international economic order that emphasized free trade, but within a framework of capital controls and fixed exchange rates (Block and Somers 2014, 17).

Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, embedded liberalism has been steadily, if unevenly, replaced by a dominant neoliberal ideology, which maintains that the logic of the enterprise ought to be extended to the management of all spheres of social life (schools, hospitals, the environment, bureaucratic agencies, etc.). Neoliberals have aimed to privatize core functions of the state, remove or rewrite regulations to make them more amenable to multinational corporations, cut taxes, slash social spending, and eradicate barriers to trade (including non-tariff barriers, like labor and environmental regulations) (see Polanyi Levitt 2013). In the process, land, labor, and money have been subject to forms of commodification, both new (international financial speculation, biotechnology, etc.) and old (enclosures, the breaking of unions, etc.). The results of this wave of commodification are well-documented: corporate profits have skyrocketed alongside income inequality; wages have stagnated even as productivity has increased; the power of unions has declined while CEO compensation has surged; and the ecological order in which society is itself embedded is in danger of collapsing under the weight of our fossil-fueled economic order.

Over the past decade, myriad movements and parties have emerged that express outrage at this reality—from anti-globalization protesters to Occupy Wall Street, from Syriza and Podemos to the US Tea Party and Greek Golden Dawn, from the climate justice activists to the Gilets Jaunes. Some of these movements seek a return to social democracy or an even more radical shift to democratic socialism, others want a devolution of power to the local scale, and still others double down on a logic of “market fundamentalism” (Block and Somers 2014), asserting that we have not gone far enough in the direction of laissez-faire. The most worrisome of these movements, however, react to the failures of the neoliberal order through a nostalgic return to the symbols, rhetoric, and ideas of “traditional” nationalism—an embrace (sometimes tacit and other times explicit), of white supremacy, rabid xenophobia, and neo-fascism.

The path from neoliberalism to neo-fascism was paved by the erosion of democratic institutions. As capital searched for opportunities abroad in efforts to lower production costs and secure new consumers, the cost of some products in the post-industrial core declined, but the working class faced deteriorating wages and working conditions. In the 1980s through early 2000s, the social actors who had once helped to organize counter-movements to this market expansion were chastened by the ever-present possibility of capital flight and the pull of neoliberal ideology. In the United States and England, for instance, the Democratic Party and the Labour Party, respectively, saw the solution to recent political defeats in the adoption of a “third way” ideology that downplayed class divisions, embraced a politics of consensus, and adopted market-driven policies to stimulate growth.

Although domestic-level social protections continued to exist (in weakened forms) in many core states, neoliberal ideals were institutionalized in powerful international organizations (e.g. the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, multilateral free trade agreements, regional development banks, credit rating agencies, etc.) that operate at a distance from democratic rule (see, e.g. Gill 2002). Throughout much of the Global South, policies of structural adjustment privatized core state services (like the provision of water, social security, and healthcare), slashed social spending, and opened up communal lands to foreign direct investment. Societal efforts to resist through democratic state institutions soon faced the realities of capital flight, intense currency fluctuations, and the general wrath of the Washington Consensus. The resulting poverty, dispossession, and loss of faith in domestic-level institutions, created a powerful “pull factor,” drawing displaced peoples to former imperial centers—countries who continue to function as rule-makers in the global political economic order, and who, as a consequence, have more economic opportunities, a higher standard of living, and an ability to insulate their citizens from the shocks of the market to a greater extent than peripheral states. As a general rule, displacement has occurred in direct proportion to the commodification of land, labor, and money (Sassen 2014).

The displaced, however, enter into societies that have themselves been put through something of a structural adjustment program. The social institutions that once mediated the relationship between capitalism and democracy—the union hall, the public school, social service organizations, public lands, and communal spaces—have been deeply damaged in the core as well. At such a conjuncture, the counter-movements to neoliberalism in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe have, broadly speaking, tended to follow one of two pathways. The first seeks to re-embed the market within a robust social democracy (think, e.g., the Green New Deal). The approach envisions social antagonisms—between people-power and corporate-power, the ninety-nine percent and the one percent—as central to the constitution of politics, and attempts to connect a variety of differently situated movements—labor, racial justice, feminism, environmentalism, indigenous rights and (in the United States) immigrants’ rights—in order to build a majority coalition against the forces of neoliberalism and reactionary nationalism.

The second demands protections from the market for that portion of the polis included in a racialized vision of the nation. In the US, for instance, racial resentment has long been central to the Right’s efforts to dismantle the welfare state. The selective anti-statism—the inconsistent neoliberalism—of Trump is illuminating in this regard. His administration has vigorously pursued the use of tariffs, subsidies, and employment protections for white male workers in extractive sectors, heavy industry, and national security, at the same time as they have sought reductions in wages, working hours, and labor and environmental standards for the less white, less male federal employees, teachers, nurses, fast food workers, janitors, maids and farmworkers (a significant proportion of whom are undocumented).

Neoliberalism here is re-embedded in society through a racial state; some citizens receive protection from the market, while others are abandoned to both the whims of the market and a polis held together by the material and symbolic “wages of whiteness” (Du Bois 1935, 135). The salve of racialized hyper-nationalism projects an image of national sovereignty to the Republican base, but the current administration continues to expedite the flow of financial capital across borders, leading to novel forms of speculation in land and labor alike. The material impacts of this performative posturing—acutely felt by human and non-human migrants attempting to cross the border, communities in the path of the wall, and migrants finding themselves in the cross-hairs of an emboldened border enforcement regime—are, of course, all too real.


The Spirit of Polanyi at Bennington

Our world today is both radically transformed and strikingly similar to the one Polanyi inhabited. Interlocking forms of displacement (war, climate change, gentrification, new forms of resource extraction, etc.) have uprooted people across the globe. Democratic states face a crisis of legitimacy. Neo-fascism is on the march. History, as Polanyi long ago wrote, is again “in the gear of social change” (Polanyi 1944, Chapter Twenty). What are the obligations of liberal arts colleges at such a time?

In his recent biography of Polanyi, Gareth Dale summarizes the approach to liberal arts education that characterized Bennington College in the early 1940s:

“The fact that the college hosted refugees from Europe informed its political atmosphere. Its teachers, ‘many of whom were refugees from Europe,’ one alumnus recalls, definitely made you feel that it was your responsibility to prevent further holocausts’” (Dale 2016, 159).

Bennington was home to other European émigrés, including management guru Peter Drucker, theatre and dance critic Richard Goetz, political scientist and economist Horst Mendershausen, and psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm. Our partner institutions in the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education share a similar history in this regard. Vassar College, for example, hosted among many others the famed composer Ernst Krenek and path-breaking founder of modern social work Alice Salomon. And after narrowly escaping the Nazis, philosopher Heinrich Blücher found his way to Bard (where he is today buried alongside his wife Hannah Arendt). The Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education is a continuation of this tradition; a way of cultivating action in the face of global crises. The Mellon-funded Consortium has committed to continue this tradition of sponsoring refugee scholars like Burcu Seyben, a Visiting Drama professor at Bennington, who faced persecution in Turkey after signing the academic peace petition.

At the same time, however, the Consortium also aims to a break new ground. One of the core goals is to rethink how we teach about issues of migration and displacement, extending the educational experience beyond the traditional classroom—interacting with and hearing the perspectives of displaced peoples, working with organizations on the ground in refugee camps, in “receiving” and “sending” communities, in academic and non-academic settings. This “rethinking” will deepen the more traditional focus of the liberal arts experience—a close engagement with intellectual giants like Polanyi and seminal texts like The Great Transformation—by providing students alternative perspectives through which to analyze academic works, and new experiences to which they can apply theories and concepts.

Our hope is that this multidimensional approach to migration studies will equip students to more effectively resist parochial nationalisms that advocate exclusionary “solutions” to crises of displacement (the modern equivalents of the red-baiting that kept Polanyi and his family from permanently settling in the United States), to embrace expansive and inclusive forms of political community, and to be on the front-lines of efforts to reinvigorate democracy, “true to [the] task of creating more abundant freedom for all” (Polanyi 1944, 268).


John Hultgren teaches environmental politics and political theory at Bennington, where he co-directs the college’s involvement in the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). 

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Great Transformation, Bennington College will bring together leading scholars, writers, and advocates to reflect on the place of Polanyi’s project amidst the troubling undercurrents of our political present. Occurring on October 25-27, 2019, this gathering aims to sharpen Polanyi’s insights into tools for building a better world today. Information can be found at: https://www.bennington.edu/center-advancement-of-public-action/what-we-do/great-transformation-75



Block, Fred and Somers, Margaret. 2014. The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s  Critique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dale, Gareth. 2016. Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left. New York: Columbia University Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935 [1998]. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: The Free Press.

Gill, Stephen. 2002. Constitutionalizing Inequality and the Clash of Globalizations. International Studies Review 4 (2): 47-65.

Kuttner, Robert. 2017. “The Man from Red Vienna.” New York Review of Books, Dec. 21. www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/12/21/karl-polanyi-man-from-red-vienna/

Polanyi, Karl. 1940. “Five Lectures on the Present Age of Transformation.” Available online through Bennington’s Digital Archive: https://crossettlibrary.dspacedirect.org/.

Polanyi, Karl. 2001 [1944]. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Polanyi Levitt, Kari. 2013. From the Great Transformation to the Great Financialization: On Karl Polanyi and other essays. London: Zed Books.

Ruggie, John Gerard. 1982. International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: EmbeddedLiberalism in the Postwar Economic Order. International Organization 36 (2): 379-415.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge,MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Photo: K Polanyi & I Duczynska Kent around 1937

Published on March 5, 2019.


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