chapter  5
14 Pages

The Politics of Liquid Modernity: Polanyi and Bauman on Commodification and Fluidity

In one of the occasional appearances that Karl Polanyi makes in Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000), his Great Transformation (1944) is confronted with the logic of a further one, no less ‘great’ according to Bauman. Where Polanyi had ‘proclaimed the treatment of labour as commodity to be a fiction’ and unwrapped the consequences of the social arrangement based on that fiction, under the conditions of ‘liquid society’, Bauman insists that we are faced with ‘a phenomenon exactly opposite to the condition which Polanyi took for granted’ (Bauman 2000, 120). We are now faced with:

And Bauman concludes:

Apt as the metaphor is, the question nonetheless arises of whether he may not be over-stating the break between the ‘solidity’ of Polanyi’s account of capitalism and the ‘fluidity’ of his own. Note the assumptions he makes and the contrasts (‘exactly

opposite’) that he draws. We are now faced with ‘the disembodiment’ of labour, he says; but then what else is commodification but disembodiment, an abstraction that crucially undercuts it as crucial expression of man’s humanity? Capital was always ‘volatile and fickle’, it always ‘travelled fast and light’; that is the point that Marx makes consistently when he talks of the ‘promiscuity’ of capital. Finally, in contrasting his own diagnosis with Polanyi’s, is Bauman not, in fact, conflating what Polanyi identified as the logic of the process itself of the radical colonisation of society by the fictions of land, labour and money with the self-protective mechanisms that arose to counter the devastation?