Nature, Labor, Money: Flashpoints of Capitalist Crisis in the 21st Century
The thought of Karl Polanyi can shed some much-needed critical light on the present crisis of neoliberalism. His 1944 book, The Great Transformation, traced a previous crisis of capitalism to efforts to commodify land, labor, and money. In Polanyi's view, it was the attempt to turn these three fundamental bases of human society into objects of exchange on self-regulating markets that triggered a crisis of multiple dimensions, not just economic and financial, but also ecological, social, and political. The effects were so destabilizing as to spark an ongoing counter-movement aimed at protecting society and nature from the ravages of the market. The end result was fascism and world war.
Although developed for an earlier era, Polanyi's diagnosis is relevant today. Our crisis, too, can be fruitfully analyzed as a great transformation, in which a new round of efforts to commodify land, labor, and money is sparking a new round of counter-movements for social protection. Yet despite its evident merits, such an approach fails to capture the full range of social injustices and social struggles in contemporary capitalism. Thus, Polanyi's framework needs to be reconstructed in a form that is adequate for critical theorizing in the twenty-first century.
In this lecture, Fraser will examine Polanyi's concept of fictitious commodification. After proposing a post-metaphysical reinterpretation of this concept, she will use it to analyze burgeoning markets in nature, reproductive labor, and finance as flashpoints of the current crisis of neoliberalism. The result will be a revised understanding of commodification that better grasps both the system dynamics and the normative deficits of contemporary capitalism.