Moral Economy Versus Political Economy: Provincializing Polanyi

Monday, 11 July 2016: 16:15
Location: Hörsaal 45 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
John HOLMWOOD, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom
Despite Polanyi addressing the emergence of capitalism in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is no discussion of Britain as a colonial and imperial power. Moreover, the core conceptual apparatus of the book – the analysis of the three fictitious commodities of land, labour and money – appears to have no place for a treatment of ‘race’, except as a residual category of the ‘social’ in its resistance to market incursions. Nor is there a discussion of race in the many commentaries on Polanyi and attempts to update his work. I shall suggest that the original form of the commodity status of labour does not reside in labour-power as a commodity, but in the labourer, himself or herself, as a commodity. In this way, enslavement, rather than free-labour, can be seen as central to the development of capitalism and should no longer be seen as a residual form destined to disappear as capitalism becomes the dominant economic system as a consequence of capitalism’s inherent logic to commodify labour power. I shall also suggest that this interpretation is consistent with other sociological accounts such as those of Durkheim and North American pragmatism where labour is seen as a political, rather than an economic category, albeit that the racialized aspect is not discussed by these writers. With this shift in analytical focus, I shall suggest that we will be able to understand the central significance of ‘race’ and also be able to better understand the return of unfree labour in contemporary capitalism.