The Present Age of Transformation - Introduction by Kari Polanyi-Levitt

Editors' note: This week PRIME is publishing the set of five lectures given by Karl Polanyi in autumn 1940 at Bennington College, Vermont, entitled "The Present Age of Transformation".  The lectures have also now been put together for ease of reference into a pdf "publication".  We post here the Introduction by Kari Polanyi-Levitt, Emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University, Montreal.

The recovery of five lectures under the title The Present Age of Transformation, delivered by Karl Polanyi in Bennington College in 1940, is indeed serendipitous. It invites a comparison of the collapse of the 19th century liberal economic order in the Great Depression and its transformative consequences, with the contemporary unraveling of its neoliberal reincarnation and the rise of right-wing populist politics in the Atlantic heartlands of capitalism.

We express our thanks to the chief librarian of Bennington College for her initiative in posting these long-forgotten lectures and to Ann Pettifor and Jeremy Smith for making them available as electronic documents accompanied by their excellent summary and commentary. As noted in their introduction to the five lectures, The Great Transformation was briefer than originally outlined. The subject matter of the lectures on America and Russia was not elaborated in part 3 of the book. When Stalingrad turned the tide of war toward an allied victory, Karl and Ilona hastened to leave for England early in 1943 to participate in discussions on the post-war political and economic future of Europe. The two penultimate chapters (19 and 20) were left for colleagues to complete.

Before leaving the US, Polanyi obtained a contract for a popular version of the Great Transformation called The Common Man’s Masterplan, to be sent from England in 1943. A draft of this document indicates a programmatic approach to a socialist post-war Britain.

The first three lectures constitute a summary outline of The Great Transformation. On reading these lectures, in view of the rising tide of nationalist populist political currents in Europe, Britain and America today, I note the importance Polanyi  ascribes to the role of the nation in lecture three:

“The more intense international cooperation was and the more close the interdependence of the various parts of the world grew, the more essential became the only effective organizational unit of an industrial society on the present level of technique: - the nation. Modern nationalism is a protective reaction against the dangers inherent in an interdependent world.”

The lectures pose for me the question – can today’s political trend to forms of “modern nationalism”, increasingly authoritarian in some countries, be seen as a response of the same kind as occurred in the 1920s and 30s? This requires a  careful comparison between the two eras – between an economic order sustained  by a monetary system designed to protect the value of money in the interest of the rentier (the gold standard), and contemporary economic globalization, or neoliberalism. In particular, we need to assess the impacts of each “economic  order” on national society, as well as the respective responses within national societies.

I hope that reading these lectures afresh, written at such a  critical historical juncture, may stimulate deeper reflection on these themes, and help us develop positive responses to the daunting challenges we are now confronted with.