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Reviewer meets Reviewed: Repatriating Polanyi
Thursday 20 October 2022, 04:00pm - 06:00pm
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Thursday 20 October 2022 at 4.00-6.00pm (BST)

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Repatriating Polanyi:
Market Society in the Visegrád States


The Royal Anthropological Institute is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’, a discussion between author Prof Chris Hann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) and reviewer Dr James G Carrier (Indiana University).


Karl Polanyi’s “substantivist” critique of market society has found new popularity in the era of neoliberal globalization. The author reclaims this polymath for contemporary anthropology, especially economic anthropology, in the context of Central Europe, where Polanyi (1886–1964) grew up. The Polanyian approach illuminates both the communist era, in particular the “market socialist” economy which evolved under János Kádár in Hungary, as well as the post-communist transformations of property relations, civil society and ethno-national identities throughout the region.

Hann’s analyses are based primarily on his own ethnographic investigations in Hungary and South-East Poland. They are pertinent to the rise of neo-nationalism in those countries, which is theorized as a malign countermovement to the domination of the market. At another level, Hann’s adaptation of Polanyi’s social philosophy points beyond current political turbulence to an original concept of “social Eurasia”.


The book is published by Central European University Press.
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The review

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 28, issue 1 March 2022, pp.354-355

James Carrier

This book arises from Chris Hann's research since the middle of the 1970s in Hungary and Poland. Its orientation appears in the book's title, which invokes Karl Polanyi, and its dedication to Ernest Gellner. Appropriately, it considers market, economy, and society in those countries before and after 1989. Also, it demonstrates the importance of attention to what is going on in people's lives, which is often different from the intellectual orientations and political rhetoric of the time.

The first part of the book is concerned primarily with the practicalities of life under socialism, drawing mostly on research in Tázlár, Hann's small, rural Hungarian fieldsite. The second part is concerned more with identity, ethnicity, and nationalism, focused mostly on Przemyśl, his rural research site in Poland.

The embrace of market policies and systems in 1989 was supposed to end the evils of central planning and its associated corruption and shortages. The first two substantive chapters challenge that view. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hungary pursued a form of market socialism that had the pragmatic goals of increased agricultural output and improved rural services and that allowed farmers a great deal of latitude. After 1989, this changed. State support for agriculture dried up and, partly as a result, the young commonly rejected the uncertain rewards of farming and migrated.

The next two chapters deal with land and the peasantry. The first argues that the conventional concept of private property is inadequate for understanding the complex ways that different people relate to the things around them. The next considers rural life and the adequacy of concepts like ‘peasant’, ‘collectivization’, and ‘the market’. Hann says that they, too, are inadequate, to the extent that they ignore the local history and context that influence people's lives.

The remaining chapters address the nation, identity, and civil society. Hann says that advocates took ‘civil society’ to mean local associations and political institutions. He argues that they would have done better to investigate existing forms of the social cohesion and co-operation that ‘civil society’ invoked, rather than imposing a distinctive, Western model.

The next chapter is about a holy relic in Hungary: King Stephen's right hand. The relic and the king became more important when economic growth slowed in the 1970s, which meant that the government could not justify itself economically. Instead, it turned to more symbolic justifications. King Stephen was seen as creating a unified, forward-looking Catholic country. The government was happy to go along with this, as was the church.

The next three chapters question the common idea that ethnicity and identity are stable concepts, or that they are even useful. They do this through descriptions of the area around Przemyśl, in southeastern Poland near the Ukrainian border. The identity at issue is that of Greek Catholics in the area who are of Ukrainian extraction, sometimes called Lemko.

Prior to the Second World War, Hann says, it is not clear that villagers had what could be called an ethno-nationalist identity. After the war, state policies gradually became more accommodating to the Lemko. Increased state recognition after 1989, however, led to divisions caused by the proliferation of activist Lemko factions. In spite of that recognition, their position in Poland remained fragile. The country increasingly saw itself as a nation of Poles and as Roman Catholic, with historical grievances against Ukraine and its people. Moreover, the city council increasingly aligned itself with Polish extremists and ignored directives and policies from the more tolerant national government.

The situation after 1989 was shaped as well by the concept of Europe in public debate and EU discourse, which Hann says sees Europe as Western Europe, defined by a ‘European civilization’. Poland may be a diverse land, but its strong Roman Catholicism supported its claim to be part of Europe. Across its eastern border, Ukraine, with its Greek Catholicism, looks very different, and the people around Przemyśl were caught in the middle.

The final substantive chapter argues that the Visegrád states – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia – are experiencing Polanyi's double movement. Governments cut the social protection that existed before 1989, producing widespread disaffection, and opportunistic politicians urged anti-elite and anti-foreign populism and advocated more overtly nationalist economic policies that would ameliorate the ill-effects of market-orientated policies.

The ethnographic material in this thoughtful volume justifies Hann's unhappiness with the ideas of the Washington Consensus that washed over the region after 1989. Instead of trying to make economy and society conform to neoliberal ideals, he says that governments should have attended to the practices and social relations of people's economic lives and sought to improve their security and prosperity. It is hard to disagree

with that..



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