The Great Transformation by Polanyi – A Summary

Now we discuss about popular book The Great Transformation by Polanyi. This book is vital to understanding both HOW and WHY we need to re-structure economic education now. Regrettably, the book is quite complex, a bit dry and technical sometimes, and therefore hard to follow. Though many major economists have praised it, I didn’t find any glimmer of comprehension of its central arguments anywhere in orthodox arena. Even among heterodox economists, it isn’t often mentioned or cited.

The Great Transformation by Polanyi

Largely for the purposes of knowing it for me personally, I set out to write a compact review of the key arguments in this book. The central theme of the book is a historical description of the development of the market economy for a competitor to the standard market. The market economy won this battle, and ideologies behind the market economy won the corresponding struggle in the marketplace of ideas. This revision below include some new information, and also provides some clarification of some common confusions associated with first article:

In a presidential address to the American Economic Association in 2005, Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas confidently pronounced that economists have solved the basic problem of avoidance of recessions. Unexpectedly, the US Congress set up a committee to investigate the failure of financial theory to predict the catastrophe. In written testimony, Robert Solow wrote that the concepts being used to make policy seemed appropriate for some alien world. Likewise Paul Krugman stated that the profession as a whole was led astray from the beauty of math, and failed to focus on the ugly realities. One of the fundamental tenets of economic theory is that prices direct us into the right allocations. Rather, the overheated mortgage market deceived people into making hugely wrong investments, which resulted in the crisis.

The failure of contemporary financial theories has led to a search for better theories. Authors like Bagehot, Minsky, Kindleberger and Keynes, who were ignored or lost are re-gaining popularity. However, the deepest and most penetrating critique of capitalism has been produced by Karl Polanyi in his monumental classic The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. Polanyi’s arguments are complex and remain unfamiliar to a vast majority of economists. They run counter to received wisdom, and are directly opposed to what’s educated about economics in leading universities. Our goal in this essay is to provide a succinct summary of his ideas.

The central topic of the book is a historical description of the emergence of the market economy as a competitor to the traditional economy. The market economy won this battle, and ideologies behind the market economy won the corresponding struggle in the marketplace of ideas. Today, the success of the market economy is so complete that it has become hard for us to envision societies in which the market does not play a central part. Polanyi argues that contrary to popular belief, markets are of marginal importance in traditional societies throughout history. The market economy emerged following a prolonged battle against these traditions. As Polanyi explains, this isn’t a fantastic development. The commodification of human beings and property required by the dominance of this market has done enormous harm to environment and society. The worth of human life has been degraded for their earning power. This enables the grim calculations made by Ambassador Albright that sacrificing half a million Iraqi kids is well worth the control of oil. In the same way, valuable rainforests, coral reefs, fish, plants, and animal species which took millions of years in the building, and cannot be substituted at any price, are reduced to the worth of wood, food or substances. This is the root cause of the societal and ecological catastrophes we now face. The study of Polanyi can be summarised from the six factors listed under.

First, markets are not a natural feature of human society. Nearly all societies other than the modern one we live in used different, non-market mechanisms to distribute goods to members. Our society is unique in having made markets the central mechanism for the production and distribution of goods to its members.Clarification: Markets have existed since ancient times in some societies, but have been peripheral adjuncts — shutting them down would not have caused serious damage to society.

Second, market mechanisms conflict with other social mechanisms and are harmful to society. They emerged to central prominence in Europe after a protracted battle, which was won by markets over society due to certain historical circumstances peculiar to Europe. The rise of markets caused tremendous damage to society, which continues to this day. The replacement of key mechanisms, which govern social relations with those compatible with market mechanisms, was traumatic to human values. Land, labour and money are crucial to the efficient functioning of a market economy. Market societies convert these into commodities causing tremendous damage. This involves (A) changing a nurturing and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth into a commercial one of exploiting nature, (B) Changing relationships based on trust, intimacy and lifetime commitments into short term impersonal commercial transactions, and (C) Turning human lives into saleable commodities in order to create a labor market.

Third, Unregulated markets are so deadly to human society and environment that creation of markets automatically sets into play movements to protect society and envirnoment from the harm that they cause. Paradoxically, it is this counter-movement, this opposition to markets, that allows markets to survive. If this was not present, markets would destroy the society and the planet. For example, the Great Depression caused the collapse of many free market institutions, and the government stepped in to prop them up and substitute for them. This protective, anti-market, move allowed capitalism to survive. This is called the “Double Movement” by Polanyi, who says that the history of capitalism cannot be understand without looking at both sides — the forces trying to liberate markets from all regulations, and the forces fighting to protect society from the harmful effects of unregulated markets.

Fourth, certain ideologies, which relate to land, labour and money, and the profit motive are required for efficient functioning of markets. In particular, both poverty, and a certain amount of callousness and indifference to poverty are required for efficient functioning of markets. Poverty is, in a sense, to be clarified, a creation of the market economy. The sanctification of property rights is another essential feature of markets. Thus, the existence of a market economy necessitates the emergence of certain ideologies and mindsets which are harmful to, and in contradiction with, natural human tendencies.

Fifth, markets have been fragile and crisis-prone and have lurched from disaster to disaster, as amply illustrated by GFC 2008. Polanyi prognosticated in 1944 that the last and biggest of these crises in his time, the Second World War, had finally killed the market system and a new method for organising economic affairs would emerge in its wake. In fact, the Keynesian ideas eliminated the worst excesses of market-based economies and dominated the scene for about 30 years following that war. However, the market system rose from the ashes and came to dominate the globe in an astonishing display of power. This story has been most effectively presented by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Sixth, market economies require imposition by violence — either natural or created. As noted by the earliest strategists, deception is a crucial element of warfare. One of the essential ingredients in the rise of markets has been a constant battle to misrepresent facts, so that stark failures of markets have been painted as remarkable successes. There are a number of strategies commonly used to portray an economic disaster as progress and development. Without this propaganda, markets could not survive, as the forces of resistance to markets would be too strong.

This last point clarifies something which may puzzle readers. According to all we hear, capitalism has created tremendous wealth and unprecedented progress. In fact, notwithstanding capitalist propaganda to the contrary, this growth has been extremely costly. We have sold planet Earth, and are celebrating the proceeds without taking into reckoning the costs. Understanding Polanyi’s analysis is essential to reversing the damage.