Andreas Novy on Karl Polanyi’s TGT and Rodrick’s Globalisation Trilemma – Revision and Appraisal of Ideas

Aug 5, 2021 by

Andreas Novy is an author and socio-economist that started his AEMS session with a presentation of “The political trilemma of contemporary social-ecological transformation - lessons from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation”'. His AEMS session was a talk accompanied by a discussion with Q&A with us students about the very complex existing concepts of the current socio-political economic status in today’s world dynamics. Novy’s structure of the discussion was guided through two concepts of transformation, the globalization trilemma, and the political trilemma of socio-ecological transformation. The discussion with the presentation was rather interactive, its conclusion and analysis through the diagram summarized its main points. He argued that socio-ecological transformations had to go beyond considering, and as stated in his article, “the limiting analysis to superficial and rather ephemeral phenomena like electoral surprises, be it Brexit or Trump.” 

Andreas Novy further explicates his theory and ideas by commencing with Karl Polanyi’s analysis of linking an event (short-term transformation) to its underlying dynamics (long-term transformation). Novy has, through the analysis of Karl Polanyi’s metamorphosis of transforming systems, brought closer the process of transformation of the world in which we live in today.

Andreas Novy analyzes the discussion about Rodrick’s trilemma and Polanyi’s book ‘The Great Transformation’ (1944). A book that has gained interest once again after decades have passed since Polanyi's ideas are seen as relevant within the context of today's climate crisis. Novy reminisces how Polanyi uses the word metamorphosis referring to a quote from the book, “The transformation of this system (the industrial society of the 19th century AN) is so complete that it resembles more the metamorphosis of a caterpillar than any alteration that can be expressed in terms of economic growth and development.” (Polanyi 1944:44) and says Polanyi contextualises metamorphosis beautifully here. Rodrick’s trilemma emphasises three dimensions, namely hyper globalisation (consumer sovereignty), the nation state (territorial sovereignty) and democracy (mass politics). We also agree with Andreas Novy that the idea of the metamorphosing process of a caterpillar to a butterfly applied in economic terminology is rather appealing.

The importance of Polanyi’s socio-economic ideas relate back to our current dynamics. Polanyi argues for the relevance in the book and how it links the analysis of an event (short-term transformation1930’s) to its underlying dynamics (long-term transformation) of industrial society. This linking of short- and long-term dynamics is very important for us today as well. Never before have we had to make a transformation towards socio-ecological sustainability of this scale and this is only comparable to the Neolithic revolution from hunters-gatherers to agricultural society and the industrial revolution from agrarian societies to industrial-urban modern societies. We are facing this challenge of a socio-ecological transformation today due to climate change and other crises. The short-term transformation is more like a revolutionary rupture, a change that affects everybody because it has political implications and it requires what Andreas would call conjunctural analysis to understand concrete events for actors to intervene within structural dynamics for long-term structural development. Therefore, the key argument of Polyani’s The Great Transformation (1944) goes ahead to give an example in order to understand 1930’s fascism, which must be analytically connected to the long-term dynamics of unregulated markets that emerged in Cartesian England during the 19th century. Moving forward from these short-term and long-term transformation dynamics, Andreas Novy leads us through Rodrik’s proposal of an “augmented trilemma” - a political trilemma of the world economy, later called globalization trilemma, which consists of three nodes representing different normative principles for the world economic order today.

Andreas Novy’s ideas, perspectives and the way he connected the key elements of the world we are in (like globalization, an ecological approach, nation states, and democracy) have given us a fresh insight into neoliberal politicisation with capitalistic nationalism of current international politics. It has opened up a new approach to us in the process of thinking about transformations in a long and short term perspective, and to quote “Strengthening the foundational economy from a planetary coexistence footing builds place-based social-ecological infrastructural configurations, empowers people as well as local business, but, also, promotes a common planetary consciousness,  it is a strategy of “empowerment without hubris” (Block, 2018, p.170), combining a radical vision with a gradual strategy. 

There is a need to build a better and healthier environment that will not be suppressed under different stresses, such as the climate crisis, which we are facing almost helplessly in the most technologically advanced time so far.  It is necessary to adapt forms of natural flow in the best sense for the society, we need to understand where we are and complement society that affects, but not to be a society that is affected by marketing, institutional governance and national boundaries and revolutionize on. 

Written by: Loise Braganza and Mirela Imsirovic

Based on the lecture "The political trilemma of contemporary social-ecological transformation" by Andreas Novy during the AEMS summer school 2021.