What we managed to explore last year was above all a single thesis, drawn from Karl Polanyi’s notion of the “double movement.” This refers to the fundamental paradox of capitalism, which by commodifying everything, by bringing every aspect of human experience under the rules of profit and reinvestment, at the same time provokes a defensive reaction of breakup, of escape, whether through withdrawal and autarky, warlike aggression or the search for a better alternative. Polanyi, whose major work is called The Great Transformation, is really an ecological thinker. He shows how the notion of the self-regulating market, which is supposed to assign a proper price to everything and thereby secure the necessary resources for the continual production of an ever-expanding range of goods, fails tragically to account for all the factors involved in the reproduction of land, of labor, and of the very institution of exchange, money itself. What happens instead is that careless trading in these “fictitious commodities” tends to destroy them, to blight the land, to exhaust and even kill the laborer, to ruin the value of the money through unchecked speculation. Polanyi showed how these self-destructive processes operated up to the First World War, how they ultimately wiped out the international gold standard that had been built up by British liberalism and then brought on the Great Depression. What resulted was a division of the world into five rival currency-blocs, which went to deadly war against each other from 1938 to 1945. After the war, of course, the people of the world had to pick up the pieces; for better or worse, they had to establish new balances, new systems. Giving in to the history obsession, I tried to explain both the new basis of stability and the potential weakness of the postwar world-system that came together under the domination of the United States. With David Harvey’s help we analyzed the very shaky state of that system today, examining all the strains that neoliberal globalization is now placing on the world ecology, on the conditions of existence for the global labor force, and even on the hegemony of the US dollar, whose continuing status as the international reserve currency has never been so uncertain.
- Brian Holmes