The Elusive Karl Polanyi

Polanyi wrote that Red Vienna’s attempt to transcend the market economy produced “one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history” (Jan de Boer / Flickr)

Karl Polanyi had thought of calling his magnum opus Origins of the Cataclysm, or The Liberal Utopia, or Freedom from Economics. His publisher, worried about the book’s marketability, instead gave it the title by which it eventually became famous: The Great Transformation. It was an ambiguous phrase. Readers might imagine that “the great transformation” refers to the history the book traces: the imposition, equally utopian and violent, of the market economy upon a recalcitrant society, spreading from England to encompass the globe and ultimately bringing on the collapse of world order in the twentieth century. But for Polanyi the great transformation lay not in the past but in the future. It referred not to the coming of market liberalism but of socialism, understood as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” And this transformation would be the culmination of the dynamic that he famously called the “double movement,” in which the ravages of the market inevitably lead society to “protect itself” against depredation.

The more optimistic title did not make the work a rousing success upon its publication in 1944. As the book went to press, its itinerant author returned to London from the United States and promptly failed once again in his attempts to secure permanent academic employment. By the time he finally landed at Columbia a few years later, he was over sixty years old and approaching retirement. Upon Polanyi’s death in 1964, his brief New York Times obituary identified him simply as “an economist and former Hungarian political leader”—the indefinite article as revealing as the misleading choice of labels.

It was only in the decades after his death that Polanyi and his book would become iconic. In recent years he has been ubiquitous: one recent commentary claims (debatably, but not laughably) that his popularity among contemporary social scientists is second only to Foucault’s. Yet Polanyi has had several distinct afterlives. The first wave of Polanyians, beginning in the 1960s, consisted mostly of anthropologists investigating the distinctive economic logics of pre-capitalist societies. The second wave, beginning in the 1980s, were sociologists anatomizing the social networks and institutions in which our own economic activities are inevitably embedded. In the first decade of this century, Polanyi was taken up as a tribune of “counter-hegemonic globalization,” his double movement transplanted to the global South to analyze social movements in the age of Seattle and Porto Alegre.

Since the Great Recession, Polanyi has become something else: a totem for social democracy, much like ...

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