Polanyi goes to America

Mike Konczal, 2021. Freedom from The Market: America’s Fight To Liberate Itself From The Grip Of The Invisible Hand. 1st ed. New York: The New Press.

Upon finishing Freedom from the Market, I was left with an unsettling impression. Rarely had I read a book were a thinker (Karl Polanyi) is so omnipresent and yet so rarely mentioned (only twice throughout the whole book). But the result is rather fascinating. Freedom from the Market is a short, sharp and incisive book in which Mike Konczal brilliantly makes the case for a radically new way to think about freedom and economic opportunities.


In many ways, Freedom from the Market is the antithesis of Capitalism and Freedom, a book widely regarded as the New Testament of free-market conservatives. Therein, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman notably argues that political freedom and the market form of freedom are intrinsically related. The ‘impersonal market’, Friedman claims, protects people from discriminations based ‘on their views or their colour’ since only productivity matters in its eyes. This assertion, Konczal retorts, could not be more removed from the reality of how the market for healthcare, education, childcare or land operates in reality. He reminds us that, as Capitalism and Freedom was going to press in 1962, market-based healthcare was busy perpetuating the long tradition of racial segregation in hospitals. Konczal is at his best in this seventh chapter of the book (Free Health) in which he perfectly demonstrates why the organization of a basic aspect of life – healthcare – around the principles of the market is, if anything, a source of discrimination and coercion rather than the promised freedom and prosperity.


True freedom, he writes, ‘requires checks and hard boundaries on the ways markets exist in our society and in our lives’ (pp. 4), a vision that clearly echoes the Polanyian notion of ‘embeddedness’. But the task is daunting. Konczal brilliantly explains how the negative definition of freedom that underpins the market has become deeply engrained in our conception of society. Freeing our lives from the market, Polanyi predicted, ‘may require no less than a reform of our consciousness’. He could not be more right. The need for a new, progressive definition of freedom outside of the market has therefore never been so acute. ‘These developments and debates aren’t just welcome, they are necessary’, Konczal warns in the conclusion, ‘as new, reactionary, far-right forces are also fighting on the same terrain’ (pp. 185). He thus issues a welcome reminder that the end of the market utopia is no promise of better days, something that Polanyi knew all too well. 


But Freedom from the Market also offers reasons to be hopeful. It chronicles the stories of men and women like Frances Perkins, I. M. Rubinow or John Hollman who dedicated their lives to creating new forms of freedom. It is, at times, easy to get lost in this gallery of portrait and lose track of the main argument of the book (especially as a non-American). One might even wonder why Konczal spends so much time discussing the details of land reform programs that might appear trivial in 2021. But once you reach the conclusion, the book takes on its full significance. 

The main strength of this book lies in the link it draws between history and contemporary political-economic issues. Ancient History, Polanyi once argued, ‘may prove to be one of the most urgently needed toolboxes for the conceptual mastery of the problems of everyday life’. Freedom from the Market provides just that. Konczal shows that there is no need to look back as far as Ancient Greece or Babylonia to find sources of inspiration in the fight against the commodification of everyday life. Thereby, he also offers a strong rebuttal of economic determinism, of the pervasive idea that the American society has always been organized around the principle of free-markets and that it will therefore always be like that. The history is not ancient, but the argument is no less powerful.


Before concluding this review, I want to come back on what Mike Konczal recently said about his book in a (very interesting) interview with Dissent (you can read the full interview here):


‘Polanyi and the debates around him are a huge part of this book. His arguments about how markets are created are becoming more influential, not just in the academy but also in policy circles. But one thing I definitely noticed, being up close to these debates, is that it’s not clear what the next step is. You can break through this ideological wall, but then you’re stuck in this ideological pocket of air on the other side. Okay, so the market’s constructed. Now what? Polanyi and his idea of embeddedness are not great guides to getting out of that problem.’


Whilst I could not agree more with most of the argument, I think the last sentence does not really do justice to the normative aspect of Polanyi’s work. It is true that reading Polanyi is sometimes frustrating because he does not offer a technical fix to all the problems he identifies (he himself grappled with the normative aspect of his work). But the big normative ideals with which Freedom from the Market is impregnated - decommodifying and democratizing the economy - clearly stem from Polanyi. And that is part of the reason why it is a great book. Freedom from the Market makes Polanyian ideas accessible to anyone. It does not deal in grand theory or academic jargon but still provides invaluable insight into the issues of economic and political freedom and how the two relate to each other.

A book I can only recommend.