Welcome to Ask a Professor, our new series that offers an insider’s view of life in academia. This month we interviewed Gareth Dale, professor of politics and history at Brunel University in London.
Gareth Dale has not only written ten books, he’s also a frequent contributor to sites like Jacobin Magazine. Dale’s intellectual interest are wide ranging, encompassing history, economics, politics, climate change, social movements, migration, and central and eastern Europe. What connects all these disparate topics is Dale’s abiding interest in the history of capitalism—how it has changed over time, and how it has affected and been affected by other factors. For many readers, this topic will bring to mind great thinkers like Karl Marx, Adam Smith, or Max Weber. But for Gareth Dale, one key theorist of capitalism has been unduly neglected: Karl Polanyi.
Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was a socialist who insisted that markets were created by society, not naturally existing creations that could or ought to be “free.” When we forget this, Polanyi argued, we build economies and societies that are inhuman and serve us poorly. In this post-Brexit era of disenchantment with global capitalism, Polanyi’s work seems prescient. Anyone interested in Polanyi’s relevance for the current moment must pay attention to Gareth Dale’s work about him. In 2016, he published not one but two new books about Polanyi, both of them available on JSTOR: Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left is the first full length biography of Polanyi ever written, while Reconstructing Karl Polanyi is a full-length analysis of Polanyi’s thought and its relevance today.
What’s a factoid/tidbit about your field that most people don’t know?
Assyriology isn’t my field, but when researching the Mesopotamia chapter [ed note: Polanyi’s approach to ancient economies has informed how many scholars view the economy of ancient Mesopotamia] of Reconstructing Karl Polanyi, I was surprised to discover that the earliest recorded creation myths—the legend of Enki and Ninmah and the Atrahasis Epic—are constructed around an episode of industrial action. The narrative commences prior to the creation of humankind, in a world populated by deities. They are hierarchically organized. A lesser race of gods maintains the irrigation networks and tills the fields to provide for the divine community. It is from the contradictions of this hierarchical arrangement that humanity is born. When the lesser gods discover class struggle and refuse to work, their overlords decide to create a new race to take on the tasks of production. They slaughter one of the cleverer worker gods (perhaps the rebel ringleader) and, combining his divine flesh with earthly clay, bring humans into being.
Have you ever worked with someone in another field, and what was the nature of your collaboration together?
My first collaborations were with sociologists. With Colin Barker I sketched a critique of new social movement theory, and with Mike Cole I produced an edited volume, The European Union and Migrant Labour. I’ve published a critique of European Union law together with a lawyer, Nadine El-Enany, and have collaborated with various colleagues on questions of contemporary Central/Eastern European history. Recently I’ve worked with the environmental social scientists Manu Mathai and Jose Puppim de Oliveira. Our collaboration has yielded an edited volume, Green Growth: Ideology, Political Economy, and the Alternatives.
What’s the next big thing in your field?
Capitalism consists of institutional assemblages. These evolve, enabling different phases of capitalism (at the national and global levels) to be discerned. For several decades virtually all regions of the world have steered in a neoliberal direction. A major question that we confront today is whether the neoliberal phase is giving way to something new.
If you weren’t a professor what would you do and why?
I would design an inverted Malthusian experiment. Malthus held that a balance of human activity and natural resources is restored via natural law, through a cull of the poor. The experiment would be to see if a humanity/nature balance, at least in respect of greenhouse gas emissions/climate, could be restored via human agency, through eliminating—one by one—those who produce the greatest volume of emissions. Whether the measurement should be of the individual’s corporate carbon footprint, or in combination with their own carbon footprint, would have to be carefully worked out.
What’s on your bedside table?
Seriously? A clutter of objects, a bank of batteries, a ring of keys, a basket of apples, a holiness of doughnuts, a clutch of pens and a handful of books (currently Nanni’s The Colonisation of Time, Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Goytisolo’s Marks of Identity, and Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire).