In the Great Transformation

The Red-Green Alliance/Enhedslisten (Denmark) adopted at its Annual Congress on 5 – 6 October a program on globalisation entitled A Green Earth With Peace and Room for Us All, thus becoming the first party providing a comprehensive analysis on the current stage of international capitalism. Read Walter Baier’s review.

updated: 20.11.2019
originally published: 26.09.2019

Please find the globalisation programme on the right (PDF)

There are a great many detailed studies of the impending collapse of the natural environment, of refugee and migratory flows, of the worldwide inequitable distribution of livelihood opportunities, of the arms race, etc. But we rarely find attempts at showing the systemic connection between these phenomena and representing them as aspects of a global crisis of capitalism. Still more rarely do we see proposals for effective collective action developed on the base of the gained insights. This is precisely what the board of the Red-Green Alliance (RGA/EL) is attempting with its presentation of a programmatic text on globalisation:  A Green Earth with Peace and Room for Us All. Let me say right now that this attempt has to a great extent succeeded.

There are essentially two answers to the worldwide character of the economic and social changes in contemporary capitalism: a cosmopolitan and a nationalist one. One either affirms or rejects the idea of humanity developing into a community that regulates its social relations and its relation to the natural environment communally and responsibly.

This is the debate over ‘globalisation’ into which the RGA/EL has intervened with this contribution. Neoliberalism’s pensée unique equates globalisation with the globally deregulated goods and capital markets, which is being realised without taking into account its social and ecological consequences. But the assertion that this is a rational order in which increasing prosperity for all or at least for most people is being achieved through the ‘invisible hand’ is contradicted by reality on a daily basis.

Even in capitalism’s privileged zones there is a growing realisation – often still only a vague presentiment – that conditions must change in the foreseeable future. This feeling of insecurity finds a response among the nationalist, neo-fascist, and fundamentalist movements – to neoliberal individualism they counterpose a collectivism defined by religion or the nation and promise protection. What gets lost to view amidst the roaring clash between neoliberals and right-wing radicals is the concept of society they have in common: both see globalisation abstractly, for the former it is a saviour, for the latter the cause of evil; but in both cases it is detached from the relations of property and power that determine its content. Both assertions are irrational and serve to perpetuate capitalist domination.

Populism’s simplistic contrast between ‘elites’ and the ‘people’ cannot provide a way out of the dilemma, which requires analytical work. The programmatic text contributes to this solution in taking the repressive and exploitative character of the capitalist system as its point of departure.

The danger of fascism and the collapse of economic liberalism

Nowadays it has been nearly forgotten that the collapse of economic liberalism has already thrown the world into a catastrophe once before. The path to it was described by Karl Polanyi in his 1944 book The Great Transformation. The capitalist market economy, he wrote, rests on a destructive fiction, namely that labour, land (= the environment), and money are commodities that exist for the purpose of purchase and sale in markets.[1] But this ‘fiction disregarded the fact that leaving the fate of soil and people to the market would be tantamount to annihilating them’.[2]

Karl Paul Polanyi (1886 – 1964) was an Austro-Hungarian political economist, historical sociologist, and social philosopher. He is known for his opposition to traditional economic thought and for his book, The Great Transformation, which argued that the emergence of market-based societies in modern Europe was not inevitable but historically contingent. Polanyi is remembered today as the originator of substantivism, a cultural approach to economics, which emphasised the way economies are embedded in society and culture. This view ran counter to mainstream economics but is popular in anthropology, economic history, economic sociology, and political science.

Polanyi observes a twofold movement in the age of capitalism: on the one hand, the market continually expands and, on the other, society reacts to this destructive tendency through counter-movements. The labour movement, which wanted to overcome the domination of the market through socialisation, was the most important of the counter-movements and shaped the nineteenth century. In the 1920s fascism emerged. It too claimed to represent the masses, and it too was ‘rooted in a market society that refused to function’.[3]

‘In reality, the part played by fascism was determined by one factor: the condition of the market system. […] After 1930 market economy was in a general crisis. Within a few years fascism was a world power.‘[4]

With fascism the antithesis of a rational critique of capitalism and democracy took form.

‘The fascist solution of the impasse reached by liberal capitalism can be described as a reform of market economy achieved at the price of the extirpation of all democratic institutions […].'[5]

Unlike the mainstream of today’s liberal political science, Polanyi demonstrated that the seizing of power by fascist movements arose first and foremost out of the needs of the ruling class.

Though usually aiming at a mass following, its potential strength was reckoned not by the numbers of its adherents but by the influence of the persons in high position whose good will the fascist leaders possessed […].‘[6]

An new world order in the making

At the same time, the capitalist crisis undermined the international order. In the Second World War it was not only Japanese and German imperialism’s plans for world domination that collapsed. In the wake of the war the US dislodged Great Britain from the top of the imperialist power pyramid and established its own hegemony through economic, financial, and, when needed, military means.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War this world order has proved again incapable of providing a framework for the necessary transformation of world society.

The new centres of economic growth China and India, Russia, which was defeated in the Cold War, the emerging regional powers like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and the growing number of economically disadvantaged states, especially vulnerable to ecological crises, are not reconciled to their places in the hierarchy of power and are pushing for a multi-polar world order.

It is improbable that the economic wars and forced arms race fomented by the Trump Administration can halt the change in the international relation of forces. Nevertheless, and this is a characteristic danger for transitional periods, these conflicts are in danger of turning into military confrontations escalating from the regional to the global level.

The criteria of an ecologically sustainable, solidary and feminist world are presented in the second section of the programme draft: global redistribution, the conversion of the mode of production and consumption and of the transportation system, the shutting down of tax havens and illegal fortunes, the right to asylum in accordance with international law, equal rights for immigrant workers, global disarmament, the dismantling of NATO, and resistance to the militarisation of the EU.

The fundamental question is whether the social and political struggles that are unavoidable in such a transformation can be conducted without major wars, not to mention a world war.

The most important demand is that of general disarmament and particularly the abolition of weapons of mass destruction as is established in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. If this international treaty were to fall apart in the new round of the arms race, Europe would be particularly involved, since it would be in danger of becoming the site of a nuclear arms race with first-strike weapons.

The programme draft calls for the reinforcement of international law and of the United Nations. And still more: to ensure

‘fair trade structures, global social minimum wage standards and working conditions and efficient measures for the rehabilitation of our environment, there must be institutions and bodies that can implement and monitor the new global framework and that can sanction infringements’.[7]

The Europeans on the crossroads

Europeans must decide whether they want to be part of the solution or persist in being part of the problem.

Europe is not identical with the EU and should not try to be so. Peace and security in Europe require a framework beyond the EU that places all states on an equal basis, on the model of the OSCE. From this perspective one would also have to recognise that the problems of today’s world cannot be solved exclusively by sovereign nation-states. Supra-national security policy – which includes the questions of the environment, transportation, and energy supply – requires democratic institutions that have the authority to settle disputes peaceably and establish social and ecological standards that are binding for all.

In this, European integration in the framework of the EU is also a fact. With the neoliberal turn the neo-functionalist theory according to which market-economy integration leads to social and political integration has changed from a promise to a threat. It has brought about the subordination of politics to the dictates of the financial markets and thus intensified the social and regional inequities in the EU.

There are many social and ecological reasons to reject this model. Furthermore, the non-transparent, technocratic governance of the EU that has constricted the right of states to democratic self-determination has proved an obstacle to necessary changes. Is the necessary conclusion, however, that it would be more promising to oppose the globalised financial markets exclusively by means of the nation-states? What seems more plausible to me under conditions the EU has created is to conduct a struggle outside and inside the institutions and on the various levels – in all of which the struggle for democratisation assumes ever greater importance.

The merit of the present document is that it draws attention not to the controversial issues or to general hypothetical considerations but to proposals for the common action of progressive and socialist forces on an international scale.

This is necessary because in the movements and debates in which global society is seeking ways out of the crisis, the voice of the socialist left is insufficiently audible today, which gives rise to the misimpression that the alternative to neoliberal globalisation would be a relapse into nationalism and fundamentalism.

In the struggle against global capitalism the socialist left is not starting from zero. Its first historical attempts at creating a progressive political subject of world development in the form of centralised world parties – the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Internationals – essentially contributed to the advancement of the working class. In the last analysis, they foundered on the complexity of the international processes and the diversity of the progressive protagonists. This diversity characterised the movement of the non-aligned, which as an alliance of independent states significantly accelerated the victory over colonialism. In the framework of civil society the World Social Forum attempted to unite progressive forces in all their diversity. All these initiatives deserve to be acknowledged and their usefulness and flaws critically assessed.

The same can be said for the theoretical insights worked out by Marxists. The most important of these is that the current level of development of the productive forces and the dangers it produces enables and requires ‘common ownership in many forms’, in which ‘public authorities, employees, communities, and other associations of people must have direct control of production’, which ‘will mean a radical expansion of democracy’.[8]

For all these reasons this programme by the RGA/EL deserves to be read, disseminated, and discussed internationally.

Please find the globalisation programme and the programme draft on the right (PDF) (English)


[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press, 1944 (2001), p.75.

[2] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p.137.

[3] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p. 248.

[4] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p. 250 f.

[5] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p. 245.

[6] Polanyi, The Great Transformation, p. 246

[7] A Green Earth With Peace And Room For Us All. online:

[8] A Green Earth.