AJPS Author Summary – Fictitious Freedom: A Polanyian Critique of the Republican Revival

By Steven Klein

In the following blog post, the author summarizes the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled Fictitious Freedom: A Polanyian Critique of the Republican Revival”:

The so-called republican revival in political theory has produced an ambitious vision of Fictitious Freedom: A Polanyian Critique of the Republican Revivalpolitical reform, one based on a simple idea: that to be a free citizen means not to be under the arbitrary will of another. Republican political thinkers such as Philip Pettit contrast this view with both negative, liberal accounts of freedom, according to which freedom means an absence of actual restriction on your actions, and positive, communitarian views of freedom, where freedom means acting in accordance with your higher, rational self. Contemporary republican thinkers have shown that realizing freedom of non-domination requires an extensive system of democratic control over the exercise of political power. Yet republican theorists have failed to develop an equally well-elaborated account of the economic policies and institutions that follow from freedom as non-domination.

My paper tackles this lacuna, developing a vision of political economy that can help specify the economic policies and the actors that could advance republican freedom. To do so, I turn to the thought of Hungarian social and political theorist Karl Polanyi. Writing in the wake of World War II, Polanyi sought to understand how the lure of the competitive market contributed to the crisis of European society. He contends that the effort to construct a market society produces a counter-reaction of self-protection of social needs and interests, and that this interplay explains the eventually calamitous course of European history.

For my purposes, Polanyi makes two contributions to debates about freedom as non-domination. First, his thought helps us understand the continuing appeal of the market for republican theorists. I argue that republican thinkers are too quick to look to the competitive market as a mechanism for securing freedom as non-domination, insofar as, in a fully competitive market, no individual will can exercise power over any other participant. To be sure, republican thinkers do not accept a naïve laissez-faire view, according to which markets emerge spontaneously in the absence of state action. Yet they still accept a vision of economic policy according to which markets could be combined with apolitical, constitutional mechanisms, such as to overcome the need for organized, collective power in the economic sphere. Polanyi helps us see that this is a false promise.

And second, Polanyi’s thought provides resources for elaborating an alternative framework within which to situate the ideal of freedom as non-domination. I draw on his central ideas to argue that republicans should stop focusing on overly idealized solutions like the perfectively competitive market. Rather, they should advocate an approach to political economy that focuses on various institutions that could equalize power amongst organized collective actors in the economic domain, such that none can unilaterally impose their will in the course of economic decision-making. These would include, I suggest, that could respond to growing income inequality, overcome labor market dualization, and thereby restore the potential for the democratic governance of the economy.

About the Author: Steven Klein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida.  Klein’s paper “Fictitious Freedom: A Polanyian Critique of the Republican Revival” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.