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The Great Transformation The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time Karl Polanyi 2001 :: The Progressive Torrents Community
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The Great Transformation The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time Karl Polanyi 2001


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21.30 MB

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2015-05-16 13:22:27

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most discerning economic historians. He left his position as senior
editor of Viennas leading financial and economic weekly in 1933,
became a British citizen, taught adult extension programs for Oxford
and London Universities, and held visiting chairs at Bennington College
and Columbia University. He is co-author of Christianity and the Social
Revolution; author of The Great Transformation; Trade and Market in
Early Empires (with C.Arnsberg and H.Pearson) and posthumously, Dahomey
and the Slave Trade (with A.Rotstein).
Joseph E. Stiglitz was formerly chair of President Clintons Council of
Economic Advisors, and chief economist of the World Bank. He is
professor of economics at Stanford University, and senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution.
Fred Block is professor of sociology at the University of California,
[45]A masterpiece of economic history that is as relevant as ever sixty
years on By [46]Robert Moore [47]HALL OF FAME[48]TOP 500
REVIEWER[49]VINE VOICE on June 12, 2006
Although this book was published in 1944, the same year as Hayeks THE
ROAD TO SERFDOM, it remains as relevant as ever. Some say that it is
dated and it is true that many of the historical references are not the
ones that would spring to mind today, but the critique of the myth of
the self-regulating free market remains as relevant and to-the-point as
ever. One of the main targets of his book was the Vienna school of
economics, the central figures of which were Ludwig von Mises and F. A.
Hayek. What Polanyi does is help one to see how hopelessly naïve and
ahistorical many of their central assumptions are. Though one might
question some of the details of Polanyis thesis, especially regarding
the gold standard the causes of the two world wars, he makes two
incredibly powerful arguments about the myth of the self-regulating
market to which proponents of that theory have offered no convincing
reply. More of this is a second.
Polanyis method is multi-disciplinary. He wants to show by a multitude
of ways that the central historical contentions of those advocates of
the self-regulating market are simply fasle. These people have argued,
for instance, that by nature humans engage in market trade and that
these markets by nature are self-regulating. If this were, as they
insist, true, then wherever one would look in human history one would
find markets that were by their nature self-regulating. Remember, Adam
Smiths Austrian heirs were making arguments not just about what ought
to be, but what naturally is in a state of nature. They are making
claims about what is the case if government and others will just get
out of the way of the workings of nature. So to this end Polanyi looks
at the results of anthropological and historical studies to see what
the evidence shows. Overwhelmingly, he finds no evidence that things
have been in the course of human history as the self-regulators have
claimed. In fact, Polanyi finds little or no evidence of the worldwide
prevalence of markets at all. He finds little historical evidence for
the kinds of claims about the state of nature that self-regulating free
marketers posit. Instead, he finds a world of evidence that free
markets were human artifacts, created and maintained entirely by
government intervention. The chapters that detail Polanyis argument
can be a bit heavy going, but they are crucial to his overall argument.
Polanyi makes two central claims about the myth of the self-regulating
free market. The first is that in its essential nature it is utopian
and nonhistorical. It is utopian in that it describes not the world as
it ever has been or ever could be, but a fantasy that exists only in
the minds of its adherents. It is a powerful myth because whenever one
points to the failures and shortcomings of attempts to promote free
market principles, its adherents reply by insisting that the market
hasnt yet been made pure enough. If only we decrease government
involvement, further reduce regulation, remove restrictions on the
kinds of compacts companies can form with one another, further gut the
power of trade unions, and so forth, we will see the birth of a
glorious new economic world in which all will be right in the world and
God will be on his throne. But as Polanyi argues, not only has such a
creature as a self-regulating free market economy never existed, it
never could. In fact, what has passed for self-regulating markets has
in fact been the result of drastic and pervasive government
intervention. Additional interventions take place to protect society as
a whole from the damage that a self-regulating economy inflicts on the
citizenry as a whole.
The second major point that Polanyi makes is that of embeddedness: any
economic system is embedded in society as a whole, with a host of
moral, political, and religious values that are not primarily economic
in nature. The self-regulating free marketers would somehow wish for an
economic system that is distinct from and separated from those values;
that is, an economic system that is not embedded. But such a thing,
Polanyi argues, is impossible. This is another reason why belief in a
self-regulating free market is a sheer fantasy: it is predicated on a
host of impossible situations being possible. As the effects of a
self-regulating free market occur, society intervenes to counteract the
harmful effects of that economy. For instance, workers compensation is
neither required nor desirable by pure free market principles. The same
is true for unemployment insurance or anti-trust legislation. Or
pollution standards. There is no question that keeping a plant from
polluting is an interference with the market, but this is an example of
noneconomic values trumping economic ones.
The basic dilemma of free market capitalism has always been this: is an
economic system that generates a great deal of wealth for a society as
a whole but concentrates most of that wealth in the hands of a few
people, leaving most with less than they would have in a different
economic system, a good economic system? Most of us would say no. Even
free marketers would have to concede this, which is why they have had
to concoct articles of faith (though not of fact) such as the trickle
down theory. "Trickle down" has been debunked repeatedly over the
years, both in theory and reality, but perhaps never so eloquently as
by Will Rogers. Some people, he said, thought gold water like water:
put it at the top and it will trickle down to everyone below. But, he
went on, gold wasnt like water at all; put it at the top and it just
stays there. Polanyis book gives meat to the question of whether one
would prefer a society where a very large amount of profit were
concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people (essentially
the situation in the United States today) or a somewhat smaller overall
amount distributed more equitably among al the people. Yes, the few who
profited under the former would have less, but the vast majority would
have more.
I want to question one reviewer below who says that Polanyi doesnt
understand the essential nature of the free market. I find that an
amazing statement. The reason that the myth of the self-regulating free
market has spread so easily and widely is that it is so incredibly easy
to understand. What one can question is whether this
easy-to-understand, perhaps simplistic, theory is right. We have no
examples of self-regulating economies from history even though in the
utopian fantasy one of the tenets is that it is the "natural" course of
things. Of course Polanyi understands the theory he is criticizing. He
just finds it naïve and silly. My only hope is that more people in the
United States come to realize this. Ever since the election of Reagan
in 1980, though in fact the tendency began under Jimmy Carter (most
Americans dont seem to remember how conservative he was on economic
matters, far more conservative than either Ford or Nixon), America has
toyed with ideas promulgated by the free marketers. The result? Vast
accumulation of wealth, especially in the financial markets despite the
progressive decay in the industrial base, concentrated almost
exclusively in the top 2% of the population. In fact, real wages for
the vast majority of Americans has fallen since 1980, the percentage of
the population to live below the poverty line has increased, and
America has become the industrial nation with the greatest economic
My own fantasy is that more people would read Polanyi and fewer Hayek.
I can understand why they dont. Hayek is easy to read and understand
and feeds the fantasy that one can pursue economic advantage with no
thought of the damage it might do; the invisible hand will take care of
everything. Polanyi is difficult and complex and subtle and pricks a
hole in the fantasy. Polanyi reminds us that economics has to be
tempered by our values as a whole, that we cannot be reduced to
economic animals. My fantasy--or is it a hope?--is that we as a society
will come to care more for the welfare of the majority more than the
welfare of the few. I would love to see a world in which our highest
values did not have a price put upon them.

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