Karl Polanyi

economist, philosopher and historian

Karl Paul Polanyi (October 25, 1886 – April 23, 1964) was a Hungarian-American economic historian, economic anthropologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher.

Karl Polanyi

QuotesEdit

  • A bare outline of the objective nature of Fascism thus tends to support our interpretation of its philosophy. The Fascist system has to carry on persistently the task begun by the Fascist Movement: the destruction of the democratic parties, organisations, and institutions in society. Fascism must then proceed to attempt to change the nature of human consciousness itself. The pragmatic reasons for its clash with Christianity are due to this necessity. For a Corporative State is a condition of things in which there is no conscious will or purpose of the individual concerning the community, nor a corresponding responsibility of the individual for his share in it. But neither such a will not such a responsibility can pass from our world altogether so long as we continue to conceive of society as a relationship of persons.
    • "The Essence of Fascism", In J. Lewis, K. Polanyi, D. K. Kitchin (eds), Christianity and the Social Revolution (1935)

The Great Transformation (1944)Edit

  • 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.
    • Ch. 1 : The Hundred Years' Peace
  • 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. 1 : The Hundred Years' Peace
  • 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. 2 : Conservative Twenties, Revolutionary Thirties
  • At the heart of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century there was an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production, which was accompanied by a catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people.
    • Ch. 3 : "Habitation versus Improvement"
  • Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs'.
    • Ch. 3 : "Habitation versus Improvement"
  • The Industrial Revolution was merely the beginning of a revolution as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians, but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities.
    • Ch. 3 : "Habitation versus Improvement"
  • The conclusion, though weird, is inevitable; nothing less will serve the purpose: obviously, the dislocation caused by such devices must disjoint man's relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.
    • Ch. 3 : "Habitation versus Improvement"
  • 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. Such a system capable of organizing the whole of economic life without outside help or interference would certainly deserve to be called self-regulating. These rough indications should suffice to show the entirely unprecedented nature of such a venture in the history of the race.
    • Ch. 4 : Societies and Economic Systems
  • Broadly, the proposition holds that all economic systems known to us up to the end of feudalism in Western Europe were organized either on the principle of reciprocity or redistribution, or householding, or some combination of the three. These principles were institutionalized with the help of a social organization which, inter alia, made use of the patterns of symmetry, centricity, and autarchy. In this framework, the orderly production and distribution of goods was secured through a great variety of individual motives disciplined by general principles of behavior. Among these motives gain was not prominent. Custom and law, magic and religion cooperated in inducing the individual to comply with rules of behavior which, eventually, ensured his functioning in the economic system.
    • Ch. 4 : Societies and Economic Systems
  • Barter, truck, and exchange is a principle of economic behavior dependent for its effectiveness upon the market pattern. A market is a meeting place for the purpose of barter or buying and selling. Unless such a pattern is present, at least in patches, the propensity to barter will find but insufficient scope: it cannot produce prices.
    • Ch. 5 : Evolution of the Market Pattern
  • The step which makes isolated markets into a market economy, regulated markets into a self-regulating market, is indeed crucial. The nineteenth century-whether hailing the fact as the apex of civilization or deploring it as a cancerous growth-naively imagined that such a development was the natural outcome of the spreading of markets. It was not realized that the gearing of markets into a self-regulating system of tremendous power was not the result of any inherent tendency of markets toward excrescence, but rather the effect of highly artificial stimulants administered to the body social in order to meet a situation which was created by the no less artificial phenomenon of the machine.
    • Ch. 5 : Evolution of the Market Pattern
  • Where markets were most highly developed, as under the mercantile system, they throve under the control of a centralized administration which fostered autarchy both in the household of the peasantry and in respect to national life. Regulation and markets, in effect, grew up together.
    • Ch. 6 : The Self-Regulating Market and the Fictitious Commodities: Labor, Land, and Money
  • A self-regulating market demands nothing less than the institutional separation of society into an economic and a political sphere. Such a dichotomy is, in effect, merely the restatement, from the point of view of society as a whole, of the existence of a self-regulating market. It might be argued that the separateness of the two spheres obtains in every type of society at all times. Such an inference, however, would be based on a fallacy. True, no society can exist without a system of some kind which ensures order in the production and distribution of goods. But that does not imply the existence of separate economic institutions; normally, the economic order is merely a function of the social order. Neither under tribal nor under feudal nor under mercantile conditions was there, as we saw, a separate economic system in society.
    • Ch. 6 : The Self-Regulating Market and the Fictitious Commodities: Labor, Land, and Money
  • Social history in the nineteenth century was thus the result of a double movement: the extension of the market organization in respect to genuine commodities was accompanied by its restriction in respect to fictitious ones. While on the one hand markets spread all over the face of the globe and the amount of goods involved grew to unbelievable dimensions, on the other hand a network of measures and policies was integrated into powerful institutions designed to check the action of the market relative to labor, land, and money. While the organization of world commodity markets, world capital markets, and world currency markets under the aegis of the gold standard gave an unparalleled momentum to the mechanism of markets, a deep-seated movement sprang into being to resist the pernicious effects of a market-controlled economy. Society protected itself against the perils inherent in a self-regulating market system-this was the one comprehensive feature in the history of the age.
    • Ch. 6 : The Self-Regulating Market and the Fictitious Commodities: Labor, Land, and Money
  • Another feature of the reversal of the Speenhamland method was less obvious to most nineteenth-century writers, namely, that the wage system had to be made universal in the interest also of the wage-earners themselves, even though this meant depriving them of their legal claim to subsistence. The "right to live" had proved a death trap to them.
    • Ch. 7 : Speenhamland, 1795
  • The Speenhamland episode revealed to the people of the leading country of the century the true nature of the social adventure on which they were embarking. Neither the rulers nor the ruled ever forgot the lessons of that fool's paradise; if the Reform Bill of1832 and the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 were commonly regarded as the starting point of modern capitalism, it was because they put an end to the rule of the benevolent landlord and his allowance system. The attempt to create a capitalistic order without a labor market had failed disastrously. The laws governing such an order had asserted themselves and manifested their_radical antagonism to the principle of paternalism. The rigor of these laws had become apparent and their violation had been cruelly visited upon those who had disobeyed them.
    • Ch. 7 : Speenhamland, 1795
  • The pitfalls of the market system were not readily apparent. To realize this clearly we must distinguish between the various vicissitudes to which the laboring people were exposed in England since the coming of the machine: first, those of the Speenhamland period, 1795 to 1834; second, the hardships caused by the Poor Law Reform, in the decade following 1834; third, the deleterious effects of a competitive labor market after 1834, until in the 1870s the recognition of the trade unions offered sufficient protection. Chronologically, Speenhamland antedated market economy; the decade of the Poor Law Reform Act was a transition to that economy. The last period-overlapping the former-was that of market economy proper.
    The three periods differed sharply. Speenhamland was designed to prevent the proletarianization of the common people, or at least to slow it down. The outcome was merely the pauperization of the masses, who almost lost their human shape in the process.
    • Ch. 7 : Speenhamland, 1795
  • Pauperism, political economy, and the discovery of society were closely interwoven. Pauperism fixed attention on the incomprehensible fact that poverty seemed to go with plenty. Yet this was only the first of the baffling paradoxes with which industrial society was to confront modern man. He had entered his new abode through the door of economics, and this adventitious circumstance invested the age with its materialist aura. To Ricardo and Malthus nothing seemed more real than material goods. The laws of the market meant for them the limit of human possibilities. Godwin believed in unlimited possibilities and hence had to deny the laws of the market. That human possibilities were limited, not by the laws of the market, but by those of society itself was a recognition reserved to Owen who alone discerned behind the veil of market economy the emergent reality: society. However, his vision was lost again for a century.
    • Ch. 7 : Speenhamland, 1795
  • The connection between rural poverty and the impact of world trade was anything but obvious. Contemporaries had no reason to link the number of the village poor with the development of commerce in the Seven Seas. The inexplicable increase in the number of the poor was almost generally put down to the method of Poor Law administration, and not without some good cause. Actually, beneath the surface, the ominous growth of rural pauperism was directly linked with the trend of general economic history. But this connection was still hardly perceptible. Scores of writers probed into the channels by which the poor trickled into the village, and the number as well as the variety of reasons adduced for their appearance was amazing.
    • Ch. 8 : Antecedents and Consequences
  • Speenhamland precipitated a social catastrophe. We have become accustomed to discount the lurid presentations of early capitalism as "sob-stuff:' For this there is no justification. The picture drawn by Harriet Martineau, the perfervid apostle of Poor Law Reform, coincides with that of the Chartist propagandists who were leading the outcry against the Poor Law Reform. The facts set out in the famous Report of the Commission on the Poor Law (1834), advocating the immediate repeal of the Speenhamland Law, could have served as the material for Dickens's campaign against the Commission's policy. Neither Charles Kingsley nor Friedrich Engels, neither Blake nor Carlyle, was mistaken in believing that the very image of man had been defiled by some terrible catastrophe. And more impressive even than the outbursts of pain and anger that came from poets and philanthropists was the icy silence with which Malthus and Ricardo passed over the scenes out of which their philosophy of secular perdition was born.
    • Ch. 8 : Antecedents and Consequences
  • The mechanism of the market was asserting itself and clamoring for its completion: human labor had to be made a commodity. Reactionary paternalism had in vain tried to resist this necessity. Out of the horrors of Speenhamland men rushed blindly for the shelter of a utopian market economy.
    • Ch. 8 : Antecedents and Consequences
  • Pauperism had become a portent. But its meaning was still anybody's guess.
    • Ch. 9 : Pauperism and Utopia
  • The change of atmosphere from Adam Smith to 1bwnsend was, indeed, striking. The former marked the close of an age which opened with the inventors of the state, Thomas More and Machiavelli, Luther and Calvin; the latter belonged to that nineteenth century in which Ricardo and Hegel discovered from opposite angles the existence of a society that was not subject to the laws of the state, but, on the contrary, subjected the state to its own laws.
    • Ch. 10 : Political Economy and the Discovery of Society
  • Edmund Burke was a man of different stature. Where men like Townsend failed in a small way, he failed in a great way. His genius exalted brutal fact into tragedy, and invested sentimentality with the halo of mysticism.
    • Ch. 10 : Political Economy and the Discovery of Society
  • Bentham possessed neither the sleek complacency of a Townsend nor the all too precipitate historicism of a Burke, Rather, to this believer in reason and reform the newly discovered realm of social law appeared as the coveted no man's land of utilitarian experimentation.
    • Ch. 10 : Political Economy and the Discovery of Society
  • The true significance of the tormenting problem of poverty now stood revealed: economic society was subject to laws which were not human laws. The rift between Adam Smith and Townsend had broadened into a chasm; a dichotomy appeared which marked the birth of nineteenth-century consciousness. From this time onward naturalism haunted the science of man, and the reintegration of society into the human world became the persistently sought aim of the evolution of social thought. Marxian economics-in this line of argument was an essentially unsuccessful attempt to achieve that aim, a failure due to Marx's too close adherence to Ricardo and the traditions of liberal economics.
    • Ch. 10 : Political Economy and the Discovery of Society
  • For a century the dynamics of modern society was governed by a double movement: the market expanded continuously but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions. Vital though such a countermovement was for the protection of society, in the last analysis it was incompatible with the self-regulation of the market, and thus with the market system itself.
    That system developed in leaps and bounds; it engulfed space and time, and by creating bank money it produced a dynamic hitherto unknown. By the time it reached its maximum extent, around 1914, every part of the globe, all its inhabitants and yet unborn generations, physical persons as well as huge fictitious bodies called corporations, were comprised in it. A new way of life spread over the planet with a claim to universality unparalleled since the age when Christianity started out on its career, only this time the movement was on a purely material level.
    Yet simultaneously a countermovement was on foot. This was more than the usual defensive behavior of a society faced with change; it was a reaction against a dislocation which attacked the fabric of society, and which would have destroyed the very organization of production that the market had called into being.
    • Ch. 11 : Man, Nature, and Productive Organization
  • One might suppose that freedom of production would naturally spread from the purely technological field to that of the employment of labor. However, only comparatively late did Manchester raise the demand for free labor. The cotton industry had never been subject to the Statute of Artificers and was consequently not hampered either by yearly wage assessments or by rules of apprenticeship. The Old Poor Law, on the other hand, to which latter-day liberals so fiercely objected, was a help to the manufacturers; it not only supplied them with parish apprentices, but also permitted them to divest themselves of responsibility towards their dismissed employees, thus throwing much of the burden of unemployment on public funds.
    • Ch. 12 : Birth of the Liberal Creed
  • The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organized and controlled interventionism. To make Adam Smith's "simple and natural liberty" compatible with the needs of a human society was a most complicated affair.
    • Ch. 12 : Birth of the Liberal Creed
  • While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate State action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez-faire was planned; planning was not.
    • Ch. 12 : Birth of the Liberal Creed
  • The countermove against economic liberalism and laissez-faire possessed all the unmistakable characteristics of a spontaneous reaction. At innumerable disconnected points it set in without any traceable links between the interests directly affected or any ideological conformity between them. Even in the settlement of one of the same problem as in the case of workmen's compensation, solutions switched over from individualistic to "collectivistic:' from liberal to antiliberal, from "laissez-faire" to interventionist forms without any change in the economic interest, the ideological influences or political forces in play, merely as a result of the increasing realization of the nature of the problem in question.
    • Ch. 12 : Birth of the Liberal Creed
  • Purely economic matters such as affect want-satisfaction are incomparably less relevant to class behavior than questions of social recognition. Want-satisfaction may be, of course, the result of such recognition, especially as its outward sign or prize. But the interests of a class most directly refer to standing and rank, to status and security, that is, they are primarily not economic but social.
    • Ch. 13 : Birth of the Liberal Creed (Continued): Class Interest and Social Change
  • Ultimately, therefore, it is the relation of a class to society as a whole which maps out its part in the drama; and its success is determined by the breadth and variety of the interests, other than its own, which it is able to serve. Indeed, no policy of narrow class interest can safeguard even that interest well-a rule which allows of but few exceptions. Unless the alternative to the social setup is a plunge into utter destruction, no crudely selfish class can maintain itself in the lead.
    • Ch. 13 : Birth of the Liberal Creed (Continued): Class Interest and Social Change
  • Markets for labor, land, and money are easy to distinguish; but it is not so easy to distinguish those parts of a culture the nucleus of which is formed by human beings, their natural surroundings, and productive organizations, respectively. Man and nature are practically one in the cultural sphere; and the money aspect of productive enterprise enters only into one socially vital interest, namely, the unity and cohesion of the nation. Thus, while the markets for the fictitious commodities labor, land, and money were distinct and separate, the threats to society which they involved were not always strictly separable.
    • Ch. 13 : Birth of the Liberal Creed (Continued): Class Interest and Social Change
  • To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.
    Such a scheme of destruction was best served by the application of the principle of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.
    • Ch. 14 : Market and Man
  • Actually, the labor market was allowed to retain its main function only on condition that wages and conditions of work, standards and regulations should be such as would safeguard the human character of the alleged commodity, labor. To argue that social legislation, factory laws, unemployment insurance, and, above all, trade unions have not interfered with the mobility of labor and the flexibility of wages, as is sometimes done, is to imply that those institutions have entirely failed in their purpose, which was exactly that of interfering with the laws of supply and demand in respect to human labor, and removing it from the orbit of the market.
    • Ch. 14 : Market and Man
  • What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.
    • Ch. 15 : Market and Nature
  • The dangers to man and nature cannot be neatly separated. The reactions of the working class and the peasantry to market economy both led to protectionism, the former mainly in the form of social legislation and factory laws, the latter in agrarian tariffs and land laws. Yet there was this important difference: in an emergency, the farmers and peasants of Europe defended the market system, which working-class policies endangered. While the crisis of the inherently unstable system was brought on by both wings of the protectionist movement, the social strata connected with the land were inclined to compromise with the market system, while the broad class of labor did not shrink from breaking its rules and challenging it outright.
    • Ch. 15 : Market and Nature
  • Even capitalist business itself had to be sheltered from the unrestricted working of the market mechanism. This should dispose of the suspicion which the very term “man” and “nature” sometimes awaken in sophisticated minds, who tend to denounce all talk about protecting labor and land as the product of antiquated ideas if not as a mere camouflaging of vested interests.
    • Ch. 16 : Market and Productive Organization
  • How far the state was induced to interfere depended on the constitution of the political sphere and on the degree of economic distress. As long as the vote was restricted and only the few exerted political influence, interventionism was a much less urgent problem than it became after universal suffrage made the state the organ of the ruling million—the identical million who, in the economic realm, had often to carry in bitterness the burden of the ruled. And as long as employment was plentiful, incomes were secure, production was continuous, living standards were dependable, and prices were stable, interventionist pressure was naturally less than it became when protracted slumps made industry a wreckage of unused tools and frustrated effort.
    • Ch. 17 : Self-Regulation Impaired
  • Mankind was in the grip, not of new motives, but of new mechanisms. Briefly, the strain sprang from the zone of the market; from there it spread to the political sphere, thus comprising the whole of society. But within the single nations the tension remained latent as long as world economy continued to function. Only when the last of its surviving institutions, the gold standard, dissolved was the stress within the nations finally released. Different as their responses to the new situation were, essentially they represented adjustments to the disappearance of the traditional world economy; when it disintegrated, market civilization itself was engulfed. This explains the almost unbelievable fact that a civilization was being disrupted by the blind action of soulless institutions the only purpose of which was the automatic increase of material welfare.
    • Ch. 18 : Disruptive Strains
  • 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.
    • Ch. 19 : Popular Government and Market Economy
  • Under conditions such as these the routine conflict of interest between employers and employees took on an ominous character. While a divergence of economic interests would normally end in compromise, the separation of the economic and the political spheres in society tended to invest such clashes with grave consequences to the community. The employers were the owners of the factories and mines and thus directly responsible for carrying on production in society (quite apart from their personal interest in profits). In principle, they would have the backing of all in their endeavor to keep industry going. On the other hand the employees represented a large section of society; their interests also were to an important degree coincident with those of the community as a whole. They were the only available class for the protection of the interests of the consumers, of the citizens, of human beings as such, and, under universal suffrage, their numbers would give them a preponderance in the political sphere. However, the legislature, like industry, had its formal functions to perform in society. Its members were entrusted with the forming of the communal will, the direction of public policy, the enactment of long-term programs at home and abroad. No complex society could do without functioning legislative and executive bodies of a political kind. A clash of group interests that resulted in paralysing the organs of industry or state—either of them, or both—formed an immediate peril to society.
    • Ch. 19 : Popular Government and Market Economy
  • Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function. Hence, it was worldwide, catholic in scope, universal in application; the issues transcended the economic sphere and begot a general transformation of a distinctively social kind. It radiated into almost every field of human activity whether political or economic, cultural, philosophic, artistic, or religious. And up to a point it coalesced with local and topical tendencies. No understanding of the history of the period is possible unless we distinguish between the underlying fascist move and the ephemeral tendencies with which that move fused in different countries.
    • Ch. 20 : History in the Gear of Social Change
  • By accident only, as we see, was European fascism in the 1920s connected with national and counterrevolutionary tendencies. It was a case of symbiosis between movements of independent origin, which reinforced one another and created the impression of essential similarity, while being actually unrelated.
    In reality, the part played by fascism was determined by one factor: the condition of the market system.
    During the period 1917–23 governments occasionally sought fascist help to restore law and order: no more was needed to set the market system going. Fascism remained undeveloped.
    In the period 1924–29, when the restoration of the market system seemed ensured, fascism faded out as a political force altogether.
    After 1930 market economy was in a general crisis. Within a few years fascism was a world power.
    • Ch. 20 : History in the Gear of Social Change
  • We invoked what we believed to be the three constitutive facts in the consciousness of Western man: knowledge of death, knowledge of freedom, knowledge of society. The first, according to Jewish legend, was revealed in the Old Testament story. The second was revealed through the discovery of the uniqueness of the person in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. The third revelation came to us through living in an industrial society. No one great name attaches to it; perhaps Robert Owen came nearest to becoming its vehicle. It is the constitutive element in modern man’s consciousness.
    • Ch. 21 : Freedom in a Complex Society
  • The discovery of society is thus either the end or the rebirth of freedom. While the fascist resigns himself to relinquishing freedom and glorifies power which is the reality of society, the socialist resigns himself to that reality and upholds the claim to freedom, in spite of it. Man becomes mature and able to exist as a human being in a complex society. To quote once more Robert Owen’s inspired words: “Should any causes of evil be irremovable by the new powers which men are about to acquire, they will know that they are necessary and unavoidable evils; and childish, unavailing complaints will cease to be made.”
    Resignation was ever the fount of man’s strength and new hope. Man accepted the reality of death and built the meaning of his bodily life upon it. He resigned himself to the truth that he had a soul to lose and that there was worse than death, and founded his freedom upon it. He resigns himself, in our time, to the reality of society which means the end of that freedom. But, again, life springs from ultimate resignation. Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom. As long as he is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need.
    • Ch. 21 : Freedom in a Complex Society

The Livelihood of Man (1977)Edit

  • The nineteenth century gave birth to two sets of events of a very different order of magnitude: the machine age, a development of millennial range; and the market system, an initial adjustment to that development.
    • Introduction
  • The notion that individual acts of exchange were at the root of trade, money, and even of market institutions, is hardly tenable. Foreign trade, as a rule, preceded domestic trade, the exchange use of money originated in the foreign trade sphere, and organized markets were developed first in external trade; in all three cases, action was more of the collective than of the individual kind.
    • Introduction
  • The history of mankind and the place of the economy in it, is not, as the evolutionists would have it, an account of unconscious growth and organic continuity. Such an approach would necessarily obscure some aspects of economic development vital to men in the present phase of transition. For the dogma of organic continuity must, in the last resort, weaken man's power of shaping his own history.
    • Introduction
  • To sum up the central illusion of an age in terms of a logical error is rarely to the point; yet conceptually the economistic fallacy, in the nature of things, cannot be described otherwise. The logical error was of a common and harmless kind: a broad, generic phenomenon was somehow taken to be identical with a species with which we happen to be familiar. In such terms, the error was in equating the human economy in general with its market form (a mistake that may have been facilitated by the basic ambiguity of the term economic, to which we will return later).
    • Ch. 1 : The Economistic Fallacy
  • Such economic solipsism, as it might well be called, was indeed an outstanding feature of the market mentality. Economic action, it was deemed, was "natural" to men and was, therefore, self-explanatory.
    • Ch. 1 : The Economistic Fallacy
  • One simple recognition, from which all attempts at clarification of the place of the economy in society must start, is the fact that the term economic, as commonly used to describe a type of human activity, is a compound of two meanings. These have separate roots, independent of one another. It is not difficult to identify them, even though a number of broadly synonymous words are available for each. The first meaning, the formal, springs from the logical character of the means-ends relationship, as in economizing or economical; from this meaning springs the scarcity definition of economic. The second, the substantive meaning, points to the elemental fact that human beings, like all other living thins, cannot exist for any length of time without a physical environment that sustains them; this is the origin of the substantive definition of economic. The two meanings, the formal and the substantive, have nothing in common.
    The current concept of economic is, then, a compound of two meanings. While hardly anyone would seriously deny this fact, its implications for the social sciences (always excepting economics) are rarely touched upon. Whenever sociology, anthropology, or history deals with matters pertaining to human livelihood, the term economic is taken for granted. It is employed loosely, relying for a frame of reference now on its scarcity connotation, now on its substantive connotation, thus oscillating between two unrelated poles of meaning.
    • Ch. 2 : The Two Meanings of Economic
  • The economy as an instituted process of interaction serving the satisfaction of material wants forms a vital part of every human community. Without an economy in this sense, no society could exist for any length of time.
    • Ch. 2 : The Two Meanings of Economic
  • Only in a symmetrically organized environment will reciprocative attitudes result in economic institutions of any importance; only where centers have been established beforehand can the cooperative attitude of individuals produce a redistributive economy; and only in the presence of markets instituted to that purpose will the bartering attitude of individuals result in prices that integrate the economic activities of the community.
    • Ch. 3 : Forms of Integration and Supporting Structures
  • It is usually not realized that random acts of barter would not, by themselves, produce prices unless a market pattern were in existence that made the bartering intent of the persons effective. In this sense, barter is very much like reciprocity and redistribution. The principle of behavior, in order to become effective, requires the presence of some institutional structure. The market pattern is never traceable to the mere desire of individuals to "truck, barter, and exchange." Its origins come from other directions, as we shall see.
    • Ch. 3 : Forms of Integration and Supporting Structures
  • It was characteristic of the economic system of the nineteenth century that it was institutionally distinct from the rest of society. In a market economy, the production and distribution of material goods is carried on through a self-regulating system of markets, governed by laws of its own, the so-called laws of supply and demand, moti­vated in the last resort by two simple incentives, fear of hunger and hope of gain. This institutional arrangement is thus separate from the noneconomic institutions of society: its kinship organization and its political and religious systems. Neither the blood tie, nor legal compulsion, nor religious obligation, nor fealty, nor magic created the sociologically defined situations that insured the participation of individuals in the system. They were, rather, the creation of institutions like private property in the means of production and the wage system operating on purely economic incentives.
    • Ch. 4 : The Economy Embedded in Society
  • As a general conclusion, it can be stated that the production and distribution of material goods was embedded in social relations of a noneconomic kind. No institutionally separate economic system—no network of economic institutions—could be said to exist.
    • Ch. 4 : The Economy Embedded in Society
  • Of all the basic principles governing the development of early economic institutions, the need for the maintenance of communal solidarity deserves pride of place. Domestic and foreign relations are in stark contrast: solidarity here, enmity there, rule the day. "They" are the objects of hostility, depradation, and enslavement, "we" belong together and our communal life is governed by the principles of reciprocity, redistribution, and the exchange of equivalents.
    • Ch. 5 : The Emergence of Economic Transactions
  • Equivalencies between the units of different goods were meant to express proportions that both resulted from the conditions existing in that society and contributed to the maintenance of those conditions. The "justice" expressed in the equivalency is a reflection of the "justness" of the society it mirrors. How could this be otherwise, once the status rewards and standards of life that obtain in the society were necessarily reflected in the equivalencies? Consequently, what we are wont to call gain, profit, wages, rent, or other revenue, must be comprised in the equivalency, if those revenues are required to maintain existing social relations and values. This was the rationale of the "just price" as postulated by the schoolmen. Far from being the expression of a pious hope or of an uplifted thought irrelevant to "economic realities," as the orthodox economic classics tended to believe, the just price was an equivalency, the actual amount of which was determined either by municipal authority or by the actions of the guildsmen in the market, but in either case according to determinants relevant to the concrete social situation. The guildsmen who refused to sell below a price that would endanger the standard of his colleagues, and equally refused to accept a price that would secure for him a revenue higher than that approved by his colleagues, cooperated to create the "just price" as effectively as the municipal authority that could be called upon to fix the price directly in order to uphold these very principles.
    • Ch. 6 : Equivalencies in Archaic Societies
  • In effect, by far the greater part of trade flowed in such dispositional channels, while a much smaller part continued to proceed on transactional lines. Numerous devices ensured that no merging of the two should ensue.
    Both equivalencies, which made gainless transactions possible, and rules of law, which organized riskless dispositions into a trading system, were a result of the dominance of redistributive forms of integration. But these did not operate in the ways of tyrannical administrative bureaucracy, as assumed by historians in the past. The absence, or at least the very subordinate role, of markets did not imply ponderous administrative methods tightly held in the hands of a central bureaucracy. On the contrary, gainless transactions and regulated dispositions, as legitimized by law, opened up, as we have seen, a sphere of personal freedom formerly unknown in the economic life of man.
    • Ch. 7 : The Economic Role of Justice, Law, and Freedom
  • If it seems that we have unduly stressed "acquisition of goods from a distance" as the crucial factor in trade, it was done, inter alia, in order to work out more clearly the determinative role played by the acquisitive or import interest in the history of trade. It involves, as we saw, no less than the alternatives of peaceful versus forcible methods of satisfying that interest, alternatives that may affect the total structure of the state as well as its modes of acting in history.
    • Ch. 8 : Traders and Trade
  • Anthropologically, money should be defined as a semantic system, broadly similar to language; writing, or weights and measures. These systems differ mainly in the purposes served and the signs employed. Language and writing serve the purpose of the communication of ideas, weights and measures that of quantitative physical relationship. As to signs, language uses oral sounds; writing employs ideograms or visual characters; weights and measures, on the other hand, use physical objects as the basis of symbols.
    Money resembles, but also differs from, each of these. It serves several ends, which are traditionally described as means of payment; standard of value or money of account; store of wealth; and medium of exchange.
    • Ch. 9 : Money Objects and Money Uses
  • The standard use of money is vital to the staple finance that accompanies large-scale storage economies. No assessment and collection of taxes, no budgeting and balancing of manorial households, no rational accountancy comprising a variety of goods is possible without a standard. Since it is not the number of things but their values that are here subjected to arithmetic, this operation requires the setting of rates relating the various staples to one another. Such figures, representing rates, are in effect available in most archaic societies. Whether by virtue of custom, statute, or proclamation, fixed equivalents designate the rate at which the necessities of life can be mutually substituted, one for another. It is only when prices develop in markets (i.e., relatively late) that money as a standard can be taken for granted, as it is today.
    • Ch. 9 : Money Objects and Money Uses
  • The market institution has its origin in two different sets of developments: the one external to the community, the other internal. The external is intimately linked with the acquisition of goods from outside, the internal with the local distribution of food. This latter took two very different forms: the first was general in the irrigational empires and centered on storing and distributing staples; the second is to be found from the earliest times in peasant and bush communities, and focused on the local sale of fresh victuals and prepared food. These varied sources of origin contributed different constituent elements to the institution of the market.
    • Ch. 10 : Market Elements and Market Origins

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?
  • Hayek translated moral and political problems into an economic idiom. What we need now, I would argue, is a way to uninstall or reverse that translation. Karl Marx attempted just such a project, but his answers were elusive. In a fascinating but little-known 1927 essay, “On Freedom,” Karl Polanyi also attempted such a project, giving us a stylized rendition of what it would mean for a political collective, rather than a firm or a consumer, to make an economic decision—not in the marketplace, where price helps determine our decisions, but in a deliberative assembly, where other considerations are at play. One part of the assembly, representing the interests of the collective, will want to make an investment in a long-term good; healthcare was the example Polanyi chose. Another part of the assembly, representing the workers who would have to make the specific sacrifices for that good, resists that decision. What to do? Argue it out, says Polanyi. Whatever is the final decision, it will be “a direct, internal choice, for here ideals within people are confronted with their costs; here everyone has to decide what his ideals are worth to him.”
    Notice that Polanyi does not presume any agreement about moral and political ends, as Hayek claimed socialists must. Notice how insistent he is that decisions about production must confront the question of costs. Like Hayek, Polanyi is attuned to the materiality of moral choice, only he believes the question of costs and constraints is best mediated through moral and political arguments in the public square.
  • 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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