Lecturer makes the case for Karl Polanyi while taking on ‘free market utopianism’

Sociology and history Professor Margaret Somers of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor will deliver the Department of Sociology’s annual Lecture in Critical Sociology examining the importance of Karl Polanyi.

Somers’ talk, “Free Market Utopianism: Why Karl Polanyi Is the Necessary Thinker for Our Times”, will take place Thursday, March 31, from 4 to 6pm, in the Junior Common Room, 014 McLaughlin College, Keele campus.

Once thought to have been killed off by the Great Depression and the New Deal, an aged and decrepit collection of 18th- and 19th-century free market economic axioms have become the dominant ideational regime of our time, says Somers. This has occurred since the mid-1970s and has accompanied the erosion of the American New Deal order.

Margaret SomersRight: Margaret Somers

Little attention, she says, has been paid to the specific and remarkable accomplishments necessary for this “zombie economics” to have again become such a powerful agent of socioeconomic change.

These accomplishments, says Somers, include emerging from the dead not with cobwebs, but in the guise of an upstart new young and brash economic science perfectly suited to solve the problems of the late 20th and 21st centuries. They have emerged unscathed and theoretically robust despite a centuries-long fusillade of disconfirming evidence.

Somers also points to these free market economic axioms as having handily displaced the Keynesian economic policy regime, once believed to be impregnable and displaying the power to make reality conform to its contours. It came equipped with such powers of alchemy that it proselytizes the urgency of deregulation and the dangers of government, while in fact presiding over a panoply of different but wealth-enhancing regulations, and all the while convincing us that this is simply the free market at work.

Polanyi’s work brings indispensable theoretical tools to explain these extraordinary achievements, says Somers. “From his famously having dubbed the self-regulating market a ‘stark utopia’, I coin the term ‘free market utopianism’ to analyze this doctrine that has been much remarked upon, but too little subjected to the kind of scrutiny required to explain how it reincarnated itself as a new and powerful article of faith and transformation in the last decades of the 20th century.”

Somers’ research is in the areas of historical sociology, social theory, citizenship and human rights, and socio-legal studies. She is the author of Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness and the Right to have Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2008), which received the 2009 Giovanni Sartori Award for Qualitative Methods by the American Political Science Association.

She is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Free-Market Utopianism: From Market Fundamentalism to Karl Polanyi and the Reality of the Social (Harvard University Press, 2011).

The event is co-sponsored by McLaughlin College, The Nathanson Centre and the Law & Society program. Refreshments will be served.