Karl Polanyi: Still envisioning a different world 

Eleventh Polanyi conference a success

By Russ Cooper

Sometime during the denouement of the 11th international Karl Polanyi conference, Polanyi Institute Director Marguerite Mendell received an email from University of Toronto senior scholar and conference participant Richard Sandbrook. "Intellectual life becomes fun again at the Karl Polanyi conference," he said.

Given the gravity of the current economic collapse, discussing the future has become a bit of a downer as of late. But good minds yield good ideas and, it appears, foster good moods.

Universidade Cândido Mendes’ Theotonio Dos Santos (left) sits with professor Kari Polanyi Levitt and Provost  David Graham (right) at the Polanyi conference’s plenary session, Dec.11. Magnifying glass

Universidade Cândido Mendes’ Theotonio Dos Santos (left) sits with professor Kari Polanyi Levitt and Provost David Graham (right) at the Polanyi conference’s plenary session, Dec.11.

Held from Dec. 9 to 11, 2008, entitled The Relevance of Karl Polanyi for the 21st Century, the conference connected community members and students with international experts to share ideas about the importance of Polanyi's work in the development of new theories across disciplines and borders.

The summit welcomed over 90 participating speakers and scholars to discuss, debate and expand upon Polanyi's ever-increasing relevance to history, the environment, financial systems, burgeoning social movements and a host of other issues. It drew approximately 100 attendees to its 18 sessions.

According to Mendell (who also serves as Vice Principal of the School of Community and Public Affairs), the crux of Polanyi's thinking and the basis for Concordia's Polanyi Institute of Political Economy is this: "People should be driving the economy. Not the other way around.

"Polanyi knew that any economy disembedded from its institutional and social context can have very devastating results," says Mendell. "We can look at what's happening today and see this clearly."

The conference's theme was chosen long before the recent market cave-in. Nonetheless, the choice of subject couldn't have been more pertinent.
Using his historical analysis of industrialization, the Hungarian-born Polanyi demonstrated that self-regulating markets were inherently crisis-bound, that commerce and trade require regulation and that growth cannot succeed without considering the short- and long-term human effects.

Polanyi's 1944 tome The Great Transformation, which grew out of his lectures delivered to the Workers Educational Association in the UK during the late-'30s, has long been the quintessential reference for his ideas.

For many years now, Mendell has been working closely with Polanyi's daughter, Kari Polanyi Levitt. Honourary president of the Institute and Professor Emeritus at McGill, Polanyi Levitt delivered a moving opening address at the plenary session in H-767 on Dec. 11.

"At this crucial point in time, I welcome the opportunity to discuss my father's ideas," Polanyi Levitt said. "Let us consider we do have a responsibility to think in larger terms."

And that they did. Distilling Polanyi's thinking never does justice to its scope and depth, and that's not what the conference was about. To name a mere few, participants included University of Gothenburg Professor Emeritus at the School of Global Studies Bjorn Hettne, Johns Hopkins University Professor of Economics Giovanni Arrighi, and Professor of Human Studies at the Universidade Cândido Mendes in Rio de Janerio Theotonio Dos Santos.

Among the recurring points of discussion was the current shift within many countries towards more local potential – both as a response to globalization, and a growing recognition of local capacity to generate wealth and meet larger societal goals of social justice, equity and sustainable development.

"There have been many local initiatives springing up all over the world in the last two decades," says Mendell. "These are not defensive strategies. On the contrary, they are important illustrations of what we might call the re-embedding of the economy in local communities."

After being held in Paris in 2010, the bi-annual conference will return to Concordia in 2012.


Concordia University