Karl Polanyi has a lot to say about today’s politics and economy.

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters are not Marxists clamoring for a dictatorship of the proletariat or the nationalization of industry. Most are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. Polanyi’s classic, The Great Transformation, was published in 1944—the same year that FDR promised a “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteeing employment, housing, social security, medical care, and education to all Americans. Today, Polanyian arguments are once again in the air. Since his ideas seem to be everywhere but he is rarely mentioned, a (re-)introduction to his thinking, and its relevance to politics in 2016, is in order. …

Polanyi’s work dismantles this argument in two important ways. The first is to show that markets are planned everywhere they exist. Economic organization is always the result of the state. “Laissez-faire,” he writes, “was planned. . . . [The] laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate state action.”

Polanyi says that the economy is “embedded” in society—part of social relations—not apart from them. He believes that a pure free market society is a utopian project, and impossible to realize, because people will resist the process of being turned into commodities. In fact, he calls labor a “fictitious commodity,” along with land and money. And this process of turning fictitious commodities into market commodities can only be carried out by the state.

But I’m involved in markets for land, money, and labor all the time!

Yes, but Polanyi argues that none of these things were created for the purpose of being a commodity to be exchanged. As Polanyi writes:

Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance.

As Polanyi writes:

To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment . . . would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity “labor power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused without affecting the human being who happens to be [its] bearer.
. . . In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity “man” attached to the tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure [and] social dislocation. . . . Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled,
. . . the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts were in primitive society.

Polanyi says that a market society is impossible to achieve, in any case, because people resist being turned into commodities. When they are exposed to too much of the market—when markets try to “disembed” from society—people resist, demanding protection from excessive commodification. Lives are more than commodities for those who are living them. This is what Polanyi describes as the “double movement”—the drive for laissez-faire inevitably produces a protective countermovement that insists on shelter from the damaging effects of the market. Welfare and different forms of social insurance are canonical products of this resistance; Polanyi believed fascism was another possible response. …

Gøsta Esping-Andersen made a different use of Polanyi in his groundbreaking The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, published in 1990. He found that the right way to understand the differences between the welfare states of the United States, Sweden, and France isn’t necessarily to look at how much money they spend, but at how much they decommodify labor. Decommodification, for him, means that “a service is rendered as a matter of right, and when a person can maintain a livelihood without reliance on the market.” The United States actually spends a lot on welfare, but mostly for people who already have jobs—in the source of income boosts, tax-free benefit packages, and the like—so this spending does little to decommodify labor. …

Sanders here offers a straightforward defense of decommodification—the idea that some things do not belong in the marketplace—that is at odds with the kind of politics that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered more or less since Carter and the narrow policy “wonk” focus that tends to dominate coverage. …

Whether or not Sanders has read Polanyi—similar language about economic and social rights was also present in FDR’s New Deal, which Sanders argues is the basis of his brand of socialism—Polanyi’s particular definition of socialism sounds like one Sanders would share:

Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. From the point of view of the community as a whole, socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavor to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons.

Karl Polanyi for President