Reading Block and Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism (Part 3)

I concluded part 2 in this series of posts on Fred Block and Margaret Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism with several questions about the meaning of local in Polanyi’s global-national-local analytical framework. It seems that Polanyi is not so much focused on the local in any spatial or place-based sense but rather on the social sub-units that comprise groups interested in particular forms of protection from the market. This is significant, I believe, because of Block and Somers’ argument (one that I find convincing and important to this point) that not only Polanyi’s analytical framework but also the political-economic mechanisms that he identified (most importantly, the gold standard, which today’s system of international capital controls resembles) are useful for understanding the contemporary crisis we face today. However, the significance of the local today appears more consistent with the 15th century, when city-states ruled the European landscape, than the 19th century, when the nation-state form came to prominence. At the same time, today’s quasi-city-states resemble other metropolises around the globe to a far greater degree than neighboring places that are less integrated into this global urban network. And although they are networked, as Richard Sennett notes there is a tendency to think of these cities in terms of autonomy, approaching them as self-shaping entities. Of course, this strand of thought was present in the work of sociologists like Max Weber during the 19th century, but the structure of the city has changed in important ways since then. And, as Sennett argues, it must (and inevitably will) change again as global problems such as climate change alter the systems that underlie the illusion of autonomy (in this way, the autonomous city-state idea resembles the idea of the autonomous free-market).

If Polanyi’s use of the local suggests some spatial-analytical confusion in his work (and I’m not sure that it does), it is not the only point of confusion. In chapter three, “Karl Polanyi and the Writing of The Great Transformation,” Block and Somers take up the complicated relationships that Polanyi’s work has to both Marxism and economic liberalism. Continue reading

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Reading Block and Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism (Part 2)

Chapter 2, “Beyond the Economistic Fallacy,” is largely focused on Polanyi’s argument that markets are embedded in specific institutional arrangements. The emergence of a distinctly market society in the nineteenth century was a consequence of political acts. And the countermovements by groups seeking protection, along with the state’s role as a universal source of support for both countermovements and free market advocates, contributed to the volatility and breakdown of social systems in the early- and mid-twentieth century. The chapter moves through Polanyi’s historical argument before describing the conceptual tools and methodological approaches that he employed to such great effect. In the paragraphs that follow, I summarize the main points of discussion before concluding briefly with some questions about the meaning of the local in Polanyi’s work and how this might affect using Polanyi today.


The Speenhamland Act of 1795 illustrated for Polanyi the way in which the existence of markets was transformed into a market society. Continue reading

Reading Block and Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism (Part 1)

I just began Fred Block and Margaret Somer’s The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s CritiqueThe book was published this year but it brings together work that both Block and Somers have done over the past thirty years. If you want a brief overview of the book and its historical and intellectual context, you can read an interview with Block and Somers about the book here and a short article about Polanyi by the authors here.

Prior to starting The Power of Market Fundamentalism, I had read Polanyi’s ideas through two other books that approached the problem of political economy in late-capitalism from very different starting points. These were Bourdieu’s The Social Structures of the Economy and Bob Jessop’s The Future of the Capitalist State. Each author used Polanyi to frame their work–Bourdieu starting from the local housing market of the Parisian suburbs and Jessop from the system of trans-Atlantic national economies linked through Fordist Keynesianism. It was important to read these books together because while both emphasize the importance of the relationship between local and global structures, neither adequately lays out these linkages.

Of course, The Power of Market Fundamentalism makes Polanyi and his ideas the focal point.  Continue reading

Re-Imagining the Community College Experience

Over this past weekend I gave a talk at the University of California All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity annual meeting entitled “Re-Imagining the Community College Experience.” It touched on a forthcoming book chapter and some work in progress, both of which stem from my dissertation research on 24 women who have attended community college. Below is the text of my talk.


A recurring problem in the sociological research on community colleges, if not the main problem, is that large numbers of community college students aspire to bachelor’s degrees while relatively few attain them. The most recent figures reported by Brand, Pfeffer, and Goldrick-Rab (2014: 448) are that “more than 80 percent of entering students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about 12 percent complete that degree within six years.” One approach to explaining this disparity has been to focus on student aspirations and how they intersect with the community college environment.

Continue reading

Social Acceleration and Plodding Ethnography

I recently learned of German critical theorist Hartmut Rosa and his work on social acceleration (and I hastily ordered his book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity) over at Mark Carrigan’s blog. Rosa is a professor in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Jena. Based on a couple of talks in English available on Youtube (see here and here), I understand his argument to be cented around the constant speed up of cultural life in which the possibility for us to live rich and complete lives diminishes as the scope of unrealizable opportunities expands (this idea is reminiscent of Heidegger’s argument that being is fundamentally null, in that we are composed of multiple possibilities that cannot be realized, though I have no idea if Rosa attaches this idea to Heidegger’s concept of nullity). Paradoxically, this process is rooted in the imperative of economic growth, which is oriented toward the maintenance of the status quo. In other words, we go faster as a society to stand still.

Reading Nancy Abelmann’s “plodding” ethnography, The Melodrama of Mobility, about South Korean women and the social change they experience and represent during the years 1992-2001, I came across a comment on the jarring speed with which South Korea has changed. According to Abelmann, the speed of change had consequences for studying and understanding contemporary South Korea. Continue reading

College and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

Yesterday, Corey Robin posted on his blog a few lines from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The snippet of text pointed out the long-standing tendency of people to disproportionately attribute virtue to the rich and powerful while condemning the poor as a consequence of their poverty. It struck a cord with many readers who tweeted it and posted it to Facebook in large numbers. For me, it was timely because I have been working on an academic article about the pursuit of virtue through college aspirations and the links between education, the increase in productive capacity, and the social good. With the spread of the college-for-all ideology, the relationship between class position and virtue runs through college.

Adam Smith noted that the tendency to attribute moral status based on class position was not a new phenomenon. As Robin already shared, Smith writes that, Continue reading

Capitalism and Climate Justice: The People’s Climate March

Updated Below

It has been very hot and humid in the American Southwest and because of the exceptional heat I have to pick my kids up from school before mid-day when classrooms without air conditioning become dangerous. This heatwave and the disruption it means for my workday coincide with the final run up to the People’s Climate March in New York, with solidarity rallies around the country. The organizers have deemed the event a disruption and there is a film called Disruption that attempts to document the organization of the march and to provide a wide range of reasons that people should, absolutely must, join in. Hopefully, the increasing frequency and intensity of disruption to people’s lives will move them to disrupt the forces that prevent a serious reckoning with global warming.

I will need to watch it again to be sure, but I don’t think the word “capitalism” was uttered once throughout the entire film. Continue reading