Panitza Library

Polaniy’s Prophesy: The Promise and Perils of the Market, by Prof. Ivelin Sardamov

February 16, 2018

In recent votes, a significant part of white working-class voters in Britain, the United States, France, and other countries have switched allegiance from center-left to far-right political parties and candidates. Political and other social scientists have offered different explanations for this surprising phenomenon. Some have attributed it to the fanning of racism and resentment by populist politicians. Others have explained it as an understandable response to declining economic opportunities, a sense of insecurity, perceived unfairness, and abandonment by detached political elites. A few conservative scholars have described a cultural crisis affecting white working class communities. Some basic insights from Karl Polanyi could cast this puzzling problem in new light. He argued that the market economy converted labor, land, and money into fictitious commodities – and could thus pose a threat to human wellbeing, nature, and private enterprise itself. Polanyi believed that this existential threat triggered countervailing efforts – which later led to the creation of the welfare state and expanded economic regulation. Until the 1970s, an abundance of well-paying jobs for industrial workers also helped avoid the dangers Polanyi outlined. In recent decades, however, these social and economic trends have been largely reversed. Economic liberalization, globalization, and technological changes have created growing social dislocation and triggered high levels of psychological stress, particularly among blue-collar workers. At the same time, increased abundance of cheaper consumer goods and information have contributed to allostatic overload and chronic arousal. This physiological and psychological malaise has helped create a social and political environment in which unrealistic promises, xenophobic rhetoric, and bizarre conspiracy theories have stronger resonance. Instead of delivering a degree of material comfort that makes possible the pursuit of post-material values, the market economy and technological advancement may therefore be inducing patterns of thinking and behavior that threatens the functioning of current models of democratic governance.

Ivelin Sardamov completed his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Notre Dame (U.S.A.) in 1998. He has taught at the American University in Bulgaria (his native country) ever since. His research interests are in the areas of cultural neuroscience, political culture, and education in the digital age.

We are Social