The Return of Karl Polanyi

In the first half century of Dissent’s history, Karl Polanyi almost never made an appearance in the magazine’s pages. On one level this is surprising, because Polanyi was a presence in socialist circles in New York City from 1947 through the mid-1950s, the period of Dissent’s gestation. On another level it is unsurprising, in that Polanyi was a heterodox thinker—even among fellow socialists. With some significant exceptions, it has taken decades to recognize the extraordinary theoretical contributions to socialist thought that he made in his masterpiece, The Great Transformation: The Social and Political Origins of Our Time, first published in 1944.

Some of Polanyi’s relative obscurity can be traced to choices he made early in his youth in Budapest. Unlike his Hungarian colleagues and contemporaries, Georg Lukács and Karl Mannheim in particular, he did not start out on an academic track. He instead obtained a law degree and pursued a career in reformist liberal politics. From 1915 to 1917 Polanyi served as an officer in a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Russian front. After serving as general secretary of the Radical Citizens Party, he left Budapest for Vienna at the time of Béla Kun’s Soviet Republic. In Vienna Polanyi wrote for the leading central European financial paper, Österreichische Volkswirt, until he was forced to leave for England in 1933, where he found work in the Workers’ Educational Association teaching adults at night. He then held a visiting research position at Bennington College in the early 1940s funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. But he was already sixty when he began his most important academic post: a visiting professorship in economics at Columbia University. Polanyi never had the stable foothold in academia that made it possible for some other refugee intellectuals to get their ideas in broad circulation.

Over the last two decades, however, things have changed dramatically. Karl Polanyi has gained belated recognition around the world as one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He is regularly invoked by both scholars and activists who challenge unfettered free-market globalization, and his writings are increasingly part of the core canon for sociologists, political scientists, historians, and heterodox economists. Last November the Atlantic invoked Karl Polanyi, not Karl Marx, as the social thinker most relevant to Pope Francis’s widely circulated moral injunction on the evils of social inequality and the limits of unregulated markets—just one sign of Polanyi’s recent fame. In our book, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard 2014), we argue that his innovative theoretical framework could be central to the project of revitalizing the democratic socialist tradition.

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Starchitects in Spain Left on the Plain

For almost twenty years the phrase “Spanish architecture” was spoken in hushed and reverent tones. It evoked not just Gaudí and his perpetually unfinished spires, but a new breed of visionaries who were reinventing the profession and doing wonders for the Spanish economy while they did it. Now, the days of international recognition seem far away. With home evictions soaring, joblessness endemic, and both the Socialists and the center-right People’s Party (PP) willing to implement austerity measures in the face of suffering, Spain has gone from architectural bon enfant to real estate bubble bête noire.

Many commentators in the United States have failed to link the era of lauded architects to the shocking collapse of the real estate market. Some in the world of architecture punditry have even indicated that starchitect projects in lesser-known Spanish cities are the silver lining to an increasingly ugly crisis, because no matter how hard austerity measures squeeze Spaniards they will still have great buildings for future generations. But the connection has not been lost in the Spanish press, where mega-projects such as Santiago Calatrava’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (completed in 2005) never had time to become icons. The Ciudad almost immediately earned opprobrium as a symbol of excesses that were “bleeding Valencia dry,” as the Guardian reported. Signs of painful mistakes are also evident in the private property market, which flourished as a key sector of the Spanish economy starting in the 1990s. Vast tracts of the coastline were developed, and American-style suburbs and office parks sprang up outside of major cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, where there was no demand for them. Spaniards are quick to lambaste the decision makers of the boom period, but who deserves the blame? Politicians? Banks? Developers? Mortgage holders? Architects?

Santiago Calatrava, Rafael Moneo, and Alejandro Zaera-Polo and other architects became celebrities in the past two decades not just because of their professional aptitude but also because of the unique economic environment in Spain. After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the industrial sector of the Spanish economy was allowed to languish while tourism, construction, and the service sector were embraced. In the 1980s, massive hotels, timeshares, and resorts were built cheaply and quickly, leading to eyesores in towns from Lloret de Mar in Catalonia to Marbella in Málaga. These coastal resorts attracted North European tourists looking for hotter climates and northern capital looking for investments in a favorable regulatory environment—which, with the industrial sector ailing, the post-Franco government was happy to provide. The tourist-friendly trend symbolically culminated in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville World Expo. These events cemented Spain’s reputation not just as a sun- and sangria-soaked vacati

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