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The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Author(s):Polanyi, Karl
Reviewer(s):Mayhew, Anne

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. 1944. xiii + 305.

Review Essay by Anne Mayhew, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tennessee. amayhew@utk.edu

Markets to Market to Protection: Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation

Karl Polanyi, once a World War I officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, a lecturer at the People’s University, and a member of the editorial staff of Vienna’s leading financial newspaper, who had been forced first from his native Hungary and then from Vienna by the turmoil of revolutions and dictatorships, began The Great Transformation as an exile in England at the end of the 1930s. He completed it in the U.S. during World War II. The task he set himself was to explain the political and economic origins of the collapse of nineteenth-century civilization, and the great transformation that Polanyi had lived through in the twentieth. As he saw it, four institutions were crucial to the economic and political order that had characterized the North Atlantic Community and its periphery in the nineteenth century: a balance of political power, the international gold standard, a self-regulating market system, and the liberal state. The SRM (self-regulating market) was “the fount and matrix of the system,” the “innovation which gave rise to a specific civilization” (p. 3).

The Great Transformation is a history of the SRM: of its emergence from the fact that the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took place within a thoroughly commercial though not yet thoroughly market-organized economy; its nurture through the efforts of the liberal economists and statesmen of England in the first decades of the nineteenth century; and finally its demise as a consequence of the “protective reaction” to counteract the consequences that the SRM spawned. Two crucial differences between Polanyi’s analysis and that of most other historians of the economy and of the thought of the nineteenth century are so important to understanding his work that they must be made explicit even before their role in the larger argument is recounted. Polanyi differentiated between economic systems in which there were markets and the “starkly utopian” SRM of the nineteenth century. Markets are places or networks in which goods are bought and sold; they are human interactions organized by price, quality, and quantity of traded goods and services. The SRM was a society-wide system of markets in which all inputs into the substantive processes of production and distribution were for sale and in which output was distributed solely in exchange for earnings from sales of inputs. The second crucially distinct feature of Polanyi’s analysis is his argument that the SRM could not survive — not because of the distributional consequences that play the major role in Marx’s explanation of the inevitable collapse of capitalism — but because the starkly utopian nature of the SRM gave rise to a spontaneous counter movement, even among those enjoying increased material prosperity. Society is vital to humans as social animals, and the SRM was inconsistent with a sustainable society.

Polanyi developed his argument from the work of many economic historians, historians of thought, anthropologists, and others. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was “an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production,” but was also an equally powerful revolution in economic organization that was in part a consequence of the introduction of the new machines into an already commercially organized economy, and in part a social experiment. Up to this point the economies of much of Western Europe, and certainly of most of Britain, had been quite thoroughly commercialized: cottage industries, paid agricultural labor, and thriving trade in towns meant that most people earned money and used that money to buy the material stuff of life. However, as Polanyi also noted, control and regulation of markets by governments and other organizations were also widespread and common. Markets were controlled; they did not control until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In laying out this argument, Polanyi recognized the need to deal directly with the proposition, itself a creation of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British thought, that market organization of economic activity was the natural state of human affairs. Polanyi was (counter to what many of his later critics say) quite well aware that markets and careful calculation of prices by buyers and sellers alike had long been important parts of many human societies. By use of logic and of the historical record, Polanyi developed a schema of “forms of economic integration”: that is, forms of organization for production and distribution, of which the familiar circular flow of an idealized capitalist economy (the SRM) is only one. Polanyi developed his schema for characterizing economies to show that economies could and had been organized in ways other than through an SRM. He argued that the organization of production and distribution in many societies had been accomplished through social relationships of kin or community obligations and counter obligations (reciprocity) and that other societies, on scales as small as a band of Kung bushmen or as large of Hammurabi’s empire, or even as large as the planned economy of the Soviet Union, employed redistributive systems.

In much of Western Europe a combination of redistributive and reciprocative systems dominated through the end of the feudal and manorial era, and came to be increasingly supplemented and then replaced by market trading, the control and encouragement of which was a major focus of medieval municipal and mercantilist national governments. (In The Great Transformation Polanyi also described “householding” as a form of integration, but in later work reclassified it as “redistribution writ small.”)

Then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, and with full force in the first half of the nineteenth century, two things happened. The rapidly expanding factory system altered the relationship between commerce and industry. Production now involved large-scale investment of funds with fixed obligations to pay for those funds. Producers were less and less willing to have either the supply of inputs or the vents for output controlled by governments. The second and closely related change was the development of economic liberalism as a body of thought that provided justification of a new set of public policies that facilitated transformation of land, labor, and capital into the “fictitious commodities” of a self-regulating system. Land (nature), labor (people), and capital (power of the purse) were not in fact produced for sale. Nor did the available quantity of land, labor, and capital disappear inconsequentially when relationships of supply and demand produced low input prices. This issue was, of course, particularly acute in the case of labor and led to the dismal conclusions of classical economics. Polanyi describes how, in spite of the threat to social order, the philosophy that came to be called “laissez faire” was “[b]orn as a mere penchant for non-bureaucratic methods . . . [and] evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market” (p. 135). Polanyi describes this evolution of British thought from the humanistic approach of Adam Smith, who wrote in a time of “peaceful progress,” through Malthus’s acceptance of poverty as part of the natural order, and on to the triumphant liberalism of the more prosperous 1830s. What is important is that a set of recommendations about public policy was transformed into widespread acceptance as the laws of a natural order.

Polanyi called the continuing tension and conflict between the efforts to establish, maintain, and spread the SRM and the efforts to protect people and society from the consequences of the working of the SRM “the double movement.” On one side was a concerted philosophical and legislative program to establish the SRM from the enclosures of the 1790s through the Poor Law Reform of 1834 to the Ricardian Bank Charter Act of 1844 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The other side was a widely varying, unorganized set of movements, legislative reforms, and administrative actions to limit the effects of self-regulation, from the Chartists through early legislation to limit the hours and places of work of women and children, through the growth of labor unions, and through the emergence of the Bank of England as lender of last resort, to reimposition of tariffs on foodstuffs, and to the first legislation presaging the welfare state. As the SRM was impaired in operation, justifications for international economic cooperation and the liberal state weakened.

Polanyi’s story of the tensions in and collapse of the self-regulating economies that developed in the first half of the nineteenth century differs sharply from the story that Marx anticipated and from the story that Marxian economists have told. Though Polanyi argues that perception and response to the damages of the SRM varied by class, and therefore “the outcome was decisively influenced by the character of the class interests involved,” (p. 161) it was not unfair distribution of total output via exploitation that caused the tensions and ultimate collapse of the SRM system. The working class did not rise up to overthrow the system. Rather, land owners and bankers as well as merchants, whose interests were often threatened by fluctuations in trade, joined workers in seeking protection. As they got protection, the SRM was “impaired,” eventually the point of collapse. Increasing protection so impaired the SRM that it could no longer coordinate the world’s economy when World War I destroyed Europe’s balance of power. The struggle to restore the nineteenth century system by reestablishing the gold standard destroyed the international financial system.

Dictatorships in some places and more benign management elsewhere emerged in nationally varying responses to the collapse of the SRM system. Polanyi was optimistic but uncertain about what the longer term results of the reaction to the nineteenth century utopian experiment in economic organization would be, and if he were alive today his answer might remain uncertain for, to a remarkable extent, the conflicting sides of Polanyi’s double movement still dominate debates in public policy. As neo-liberalism founded on faith in secular salvation through the natural emergence of a self-regulating market system has spread in Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so too have calls for protection of man, nature, and national interests. The framework that Polanyi provided for understanding the collapse of nineteenth century civilization and the rise of the troubled twentieth remains powerful.

Having said this, however, it must also be said that The Great Transformation contains some major errors of omission and interpretation. Most striking to me, as an economic historian of the United States, is his cavalier and quite wrong assertion that a double movement did not develop in the U.S. until after 1890 because, until then, “free land,” a ready supply of cheap labor, and a lack of commitment to keeping foreign exchanges stable meant that a fully self-regulating market did not exist and no protection was needed. This is plainly wrong. In addition, some students of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century quarrel with his interpretation of the Speenhamland system of subsidies in aid of wages.

However, the strongest and most long lasting criticism of The Great Transformation has been directed at the passages where he argues that reciprocative and redistributive forms of integration have been much more common in human history than self-regulating market systems. These criticisms invariably focus, however, not on the forms of integration themselves but on the mistaken proposition that Polanyi assumed the forms to be founded on different human motives: the SRM on self-interest and rational calculation and reciprocative systems on kindness and generosity. (Far less has been said about motives associated with redistribution, probably because emphasis has been on the contrast between greed and kindness, and on the proposition that “you cannot change human nature,” with the associated proposition that the nineteenth century British economy was truly natural.) The original attack of this kind came, not from economists or economic historians, but from anthropologists whose disciplinary literature Polanyi had used in making his assertion. Beginning in the early 1960s, anthropologists, for reasons having to do with changing political structures in the worlds that they studied and because of the evolution of thought in their discipline, began to insist that the primitive and peasant peoples whom they studied were as rational as any westerners.

These anthropologists — known as formalists in the debates that ensued — found in Polanyi, and in the work of some of his followers such as George Dalton, a convenient target. They accused Polanyi and his followers of romanticism about other peoples. Description of behavior in reciprocative systems was fodder: “The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay” (italics added, p. 46). To anthropologists, who ignored the crass and rational self-interest implied by the phrase that I have italicized, this smacked of saying that non-modern, non-western people were “different” and not self-interested and rational. They disagreed and by extension dismissed the rest of Polanyi’s argument about reciprocity and the SRM.

Very similar arguments have been mounted by some economists. The passage most often quoted in ridicule of Polanyi’s argument is this: “previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets . . . gain and profit made on exchange never before [the nineteenth century] played an important part in human economy” (p. 43). Deirdre McCloskey, both in print and in a heated exchange on the FEMECON list serve, faults Polanyi in a way that illustrates precisely the difficulty that many readers, anthropologists and economists alike, have had with the book. McCloskey says that Polanyi asked the right question, but gives the wrong answer in saying that markets played no important role in earlier human societies. As proof McCloskey cites evidence that, the further away from their source of obsidian the Mayan blade makers were, the less was the ratio of blade weight to cutting length. To McCloskey this indicates that “By taking more care with more costly obsidian the blade makers were earning better profits; as they did by taking less care with less costly obsidian” (1997, p. 484). Ergo, Polanyi is wrong, presumably about the existence of other forms of integration and their importance. To be more careful with harder to get valuables is certainly rational, but it is not evidence of how blade makers were provisioned with material means for their sustenance or joys.

It is one thing to note that people for whom shipment of obsidian was difficult treated it with care; another to assume that they used it to produce goods that they sold for profit. Polanyi is in fact careful to note that the range of human motives varies little across systems, with the specific form of action that any motive such as self-interest, generosity, anger, or jealousy may take dependent upon the system. The economic system does not, however, depend upon the presence, or absence of the preponderance of any one motive. That this is perhaps the most difficult point that Polanyi makes is itself testament to the success of those who created the justifications for the nineteenth century.

In the years after publication of The Great Transformation Polanyi and a number of colleagues and students expanded analysis of the forms of economic integration and produced the collection of essays published as Trade and Markets in Ancient Empires. Both books present Polanyi’s understanding of what made the economies of the nineteenth and of the twentieth centuries so different, and with such far-reaching consequences, Polanyi created a way of thinking about economies and societies that has had substantial impact on economic history, anthropology, and the study of the ancient Mediterranean. The Great Transformation remains important as a highly original contribution to the understanding of the Western past; it has been and is important in methodological debates in the social sciences. Beyond that, as the double movement continues, the book is likely to remain one of the best guides available to what brought us to where we are.

Annotated References:

Polanyi, Karl. 1944, 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press by arrangement with Rinehart & Company, Inc. (The Beacon Press version remains in print and is the version for which page numbers are given in this essay. The book has been translated into and published in Hungarian, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish).

Dalton, George. 1961. “Economic Theory and Primitive Society,” American Anthropologist 63 (Feb.): 1-25. [One of the articles that sparked the formalist-substantivist dispute in economic anthropology.]

Drucker, Peter. 1979. Adventures of a Bystander. New York: Harper & Row. [This book contains an account of the remarkable Polanyi family by a friend who knew them in Vienna.]

Duncan, Colin A.M. and David W. Tandy. 1994. From Political Economy to Anthropology: Situating Economic Life in Past Societies. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books. [Selection of papers from annual Polanyi Institute Conference.]

Finley, Moses I. 1978. The World of Odysseus . New York: Viking Press. [Classic application of Polanyi to the ancient world.]

Halperin, Rhoda. 1988. Economies Across Cultures: Towards a Comparative Science of the Economy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Mayhew, Anne. 1972. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the U.S., 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (June): 464-475. [Though not acknowledged as such, this was an application of Polanyi's ideas to the U.S. economy.]

Mayhew, Anne. 1980. “Atomistic and Cultural Analyses in Economic Anthropology: An Old Argument Repeated,” in John Adams, editor, Institutional Economics: Contributions to the Development of Holistic Economics . Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1997. “Polanyi was Right, and Wrong.” Eastern Economic Journal 23 (Fall): 483- 487.

North, Douglass C. 1977. “Markets and Other Allocation Systems in History: The Challenge of Karl Polanyi.” Journal of European Economic History 6 (Winter): 703-716.

Polanyi, Karl, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson. 1957. Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

Sievers, Allen M. 1974. The Mystical World of Indonesia: Culture and Economic Development in Conflict. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Polanyi applied to development issues.]

Schaniel, William C. and Walter C. Neale. 2000. “Karl Polanyi’s Forms of Integration as Ways of Mapping.” Journal of Economic Issues 34 (March): 89-104.

Tandy, David W. 1997. Traders and Warriors: The Power of the Market in Early Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Recent application of Polanyi to the ancient world.]

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII