I’m currently re-reading Karl Polanyi’s (1944) masterpiece, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, to present to a graduate history seminar. Along with the text itself, I’m also re-reading some of the seminal secondary work on Polanyi, including Fred Block’s (2003) article, Karl Polanyi and the Writing of “The Great Transformation”. Block elucidates some of the tensions in Polanyi’s writing, arguing that Polanyi shifted his theoretical framework as he rushed to finish the book before the end of WWII. Polanyi moved away from a certain economistic Marxian viewpoint, to his own more nuanced understanding of the relationship between economy and society**. But in his rush, Polanyi failed to revisit certain aspects of his analysis creating some tensions. In particular, Block argues that by the end of writing the book, Polanyi decided that economies are always embedded in social relations, and that modern market societies only think of the economy as disembedded. But at times, Polanyi still refers to various forces that interfere with the self-regulating market – a market he denies could ever exist. Block summarizes this tension:
But even by the logic of [Polanyi’s] own argument, there can never be a self-regulating market system, so the idea of impairing its functionality is an absurdity. It is the equivalent of complaining that one’s perpetual motion machine was damaged when it was inspected by skeptical scientists. (Block 2003: 297)
And that’s your quote of the day.
** Summarized set-theoretically by me as: ∀x, (Economy_x)∩(Society_x)≠∅