Double Movement

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= concept in Karl Polany's book Great Transformation, which stresses a pendulum in capitalist history between periods in which the market forces disembed themselves from society, creating dislocation, and counter-movements in which people and nation-state re-embed market functions


John Restakis (in Canvas Network course discussion on transition to cooperative commonwealth):

"A key focus of the readings and discussions in Week 1 was Polanyi's concept of the Double Movement. So let me start by sharing some comments on the Double Movement, wherein social forces react to, and defend against, the undermining of social values and bonds by the instrumentalist forces of capital. (Indeed, I would describe this Synergia MOOC as one aspect of this social aspect of the Double Movement).

A key difference between the situation today and Polanyi’s timeframe is that now the Double Movement is global – precisely because capitalism is now global. This is perhaps a key point of evolution and shift beyond the early forces of capital incursion/social reaction & self-defence that Polanyi described in The Great Transformation. Globalization and the internationalization of capitalist forms are not new --- they have been going on for three hundred years. What is new is the crystallization of this mode of industrial and social production into a nexus that now threatens to exclude all other possibilities. And this is what many of the comments among the participants who have posted their views reflects.

In reading again through people’s postings a number of themes seem to resurface as primary preoccupations for many that have signed on to this course. Here are some of my reflections on these and the Double Movement in general.

A number of people have commented on the binary nature of the Double Movement and also cited critiques of this approach as being too simplistic and given to reifying or abstracting the notion of society as a single and coherent agent in this process.

This critique has some substance to it, if we approach Polanyi’s account merely on its face. My sense is that indeed, Polanyi tried to capture the diversity of forms and dynamics that constitute resistance to the capitalist process of instrumentalizing all aspects of society and nature into raw materials for market ends.

A deeper reading into Polanyi’s analysis, as for example provided by the excellent paper shared by Arzeena (Polanyi’s Double Movement and the Reconstruction of Critical Theory – Fred Block), indicates how the Double Movement takes account of the complexity of forces and interests that together react to capitalist processes – sometimes in tandem, sometimes in competition with each other. This too, is part of the dilemma concerning the role of the state as an entity that simultaneously tries to steer a course between the pressures of public interest, political survival, and the continuity of state institutional power. And it is precisely these divisions and contradictions that make political action and public pressure possible in a nominally democratic society.

Indeed, these are the dynamics that are constantly negotiated and exploited by political actors and agents for social change – whether on the left… or the right. The question then becomes how do we negotiate system change that unites civil forces along the values we wish to espouse (environmental sustainability, human and civil rights, gender equity, democracy… etc. etc.). In the end, the social element of the Double Movement doesn’t guarantee a given outcome… this ultimately is a question of politics and the interaction between different political, social, cultural, and economic interests within society.

I was struck by Rob Macintosh’s comment concerning the importance of examining system change as something continuous or congruent with the existing system. This also connects with the oft repeated concern by participants on the real prospect for change given the overwhelming presence and influence of laissez faire ideas and practices. Indeed, unravelling and understanding prospects for change has been one of the primary motivations for people taking part in this course.

I often detect a note of deep frustration – if not despair – concerning this question. My response to this is that it is precisely in those times when new ideas and models are most needed that they are least supported by mainstream forces. We are in such a time now. Austerity ideology has taken hold of public policy everywhere and it seems as if alternatives are systematically discounted and discredited.

In my view this is a sign of deep anxiety and self-doubt within the status quo itself. Evidence of mass rejection of this ideology is growing everywhere, from the rise of the anti-globalization movements of the 80s to the deep polarization in national politics today, where rejection of the status quo is a central element in the path to political power – witness the rise of Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, and the turmoil and polarization of national politics in Europe.

The question then, is not whether alternatives are wanted, or needed, but how they are framed and what they mean. This has to do with a coherent and truly transformative vision for change and that is what ultimately this course, and our collective work, is about. The point is, the examples for new directions are there, the political and economic analysis is there, the desire for substantive change is there.

I see our task as making what is hidden and repressed visible and clear in the light of public action, public debate, and political mobilization.

Some people have voiced the sense that somehow we need to disassociate ourselves from capitalist forms to effect the kind of change we seek. I understand this sentiment, but approach the issue differently. Aside from the sheer difficulty and impracticality of withdrawing from capitalist society as a broad social strategy, I would rather reclaim the forces of economics and the market as serving of the common good. That, to me, is the essence of transformative change within the contours of the capitalist set up. Let is not forget, co-operatives, collective ownership, renewable and sustainable systems, all these are active and operating now, within the current set up.

We cannot allow the capitalist discourse to claim a legitimacy and hegemony on economics that it does not deserve. We have at hand alternatives and practices that are demonstrably superior for both people and planet. Exploring what these are, how they work, and how they can be applied and multiplied, is a prime objective of this course." (email, April 2017)