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Karl Polanyi

economist, philosopher and historian


The Great Transformation (1944)Edit

Ch. 1 : The Hundred Years' PeaceEdit

  • Nineteenth-century civilization rested on four institutions. The first was the balance-of-power system which for a century prevented the occurrence of any long and devastating war between the Great Powers. The second was the international gold standard which symbolized a unique organization of world economy. The third was the self-regulating market which produced an unheard-of material welfare. The fourth was the liberal state. Classified in one way, two of these institutions were economic, two political. Classified in another way, two of them were national, two international. Between them they determined the characteristic outlines of the history of our civilization.
    Of these institutions the gold standard proved crucial; its fall was the proximate cause of the catastrophe. By the time it failed, most of the other institutions had been sacrificed in a vain effort to save it. But the fount and matrix of the system was the self-regulating market. It was this innovation which gave rise to a specific civilization.
  • Both the personnel and the motives of this singular body invested it with a status the roots of which were securely grounded in the private sphere of strictly commercial interest.

Ch. 2 : Conservative Twenties, Revolutionary ThirtiesEdit

  • The true nature of the international system under which we were living was not realized until it failed. Hardly anyone understood the political function of the international monetary system; the awful suddenness of the transformation thus took the world completely by surprise. And yet the gold standard was the only remaining pillar of the traditional world economy; when it broke, the effect was bound to be instantaneous. To liberal economists the gold standard was a purely economic institution; they refused even to consider it as a part of a social mechanism.

Ch. 4 : Societies and Economic SystemsEdit

  • Market economy implies a self-regulating system of markets; in slightly more technical terms, it is an economy directed by market prices and nothing but market prices.

Ch. 19 : Popular Government and Market EconomyEdit

  • Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. It is the solution natural to the industrial workers who see no reason why production should not be regulated directly and why markets should be more than a useful but subordinate trait in a free society. From the point of view of the community as a whole, socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavor to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons which in Western Europe was always associated with Christian traditions.

Quotes about PolanyiEdit

  • Polanyi's account is consistent with a much broader range of historical experiences in the countries where today we find not only the most stable and long-lived democratic systems but also the most advanced and successful market economies, in Europe, North America, and the Pacific.
    • Robert A. Dahl, After the Revolution? (1970; 1990), Ch. 3 : Democracy and Markets
  • Now I am not sure how right Polanyi is: it is not clear to me that the shift has been as large as he thinks it has. And when "embeddedness" was used in the past to enforce transactions at a "just price", it usually seems to me to have been cover for thugs-with-spears (or thugs-with-idols) getting things on favorable terms from merchants, artisans, and peasants: it is far from clear that a decline in "embeddedness" is a bad thing.
    But I do think it is an interesting point.
  • Post-war prosperity also overshadowed the central problems with which Polanyi grappled in the 1930s and 1940s. Polanyi accepted that a market society could indeed produce a great deal of material prosperity, but he was concerned that it could only do so by turning people into puppets and playthings of mindless market forces, and that people did not take well to this new role. The goal, for Polanyi, was to achieve the prosperity that a market economy generates, without suffering the risks of poverty, creative destruction, and community erosion implied by the operation of market forces.

    Crucially, Polanyi warned that if the modern bourgeois order failed at this task, authoritarian and totalitarian political movements would benefit. During the post-war period, the fair-weather argument that market-driven prosperity justifies any collateral social pain was taken as a given; it also came to define the consensus view among the moneyed class and its ideological backers.

  • Writing in 1944, the year of the Bretton Woods Conference, Polanyi suggested that the extension of the institutions of the market over the course of the nineteenth century aroused a political reaction in the form of associations and lobbies that ultimately undermined the stability of the market system. He gave the gold standard a place of prominence among the institutions of laissez faire in response to which this reaction had taken place. And he suggested that the opening of national economic decision making to parties representing working-class interests had contributed to the downfall of that international monetary system. In a sense, this book asks whether Polanyi’s thesis stands the test of time. Can the international monetary history of the second half of the twentieth century be understood as the further unfolding of Polanyian dynamics, in which democratization again came into conflict with economic liberalization in the form of free capital mobility and fixed exchange rates? Or do recent trends toward floating rates and monetary unification point to ways of reconciling freedom and stability in the two domains?
  • As was rightly pointed out by Karl Polanyi in the 1940s, the 19th century laissez-faire regime can be thought of as one in which society is forced to conform to the needs of the market mechanism. "Instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system" in this laissez-faire regime. However, it was precisely because of this that the system gradually disintegrated from the early 20th century into economic and social chaos. "Since society was made to conform to the needs of the market mechanism, imperfections in the functioning of that mechanism created cumulative strains on the body social."
  • Were he writing today, I am sure Polanyi would suggest that the challenge facing the global community today is whether it can redress these imbalances—before it is too late.
  • Where did the modern world come from, and what are the political, economic, and social changes that it wrought? Polanyi doesn’t answer every question, but he’s a good place to start.
    • Stephen Walt, My “top ten” books every student of International Relations should read (April 9, 2009); on The Great Transformation

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