Wanted: A Readable Polanyi…

Il Quarto Stato

For almost my entire adult life–since I was a sophomore, IIRC–I have thought that the key social theorist for our age is neither Marx nor Mill nor Toqueville nor Weber nor Durkheim, but rather John Maynard Keynes. Now I think, I am slowly swinging around to thinking that the key social theorist is Karl Polanyi. The problem is that Polanyi writes so damnably badly–a fault he shares with, among others, Hyman Minsky. Just as Charlie Kindleberger is a much better Minsky than Minsky is, we need a much better Polanyi than Polanyi…

I tried my hand, with some but not adequate success:

The mid-twentieth century Hungarian sociologist Karl Polanyi wrote that a market economy was a fine thing—it made great sense for individual businesses that made bread or ran streecars had to pass a market-profitability test in order to survive. But, he wrote, a market society is not. Attempting to implement a market society is very dangerous. Why?

  • Because a market society turns finance into nothing but a commodity—which means that the industry you work in and the kind of job you get have to in mass pass a market test.

  • Because a market society turns land into nothing but a commodity–which means that the community you live in has to in mass pass a market test.

  • Because a market society turns labor into nothing but a commodity—which means that attaining the standard of living you expect and feel you deserve has to pass a market test.

And people have very strong feelings about these three. People believe that they have a right to the standard of living they expect and deserve, to working in the particular industry at the kind of job that makes up a key piece of their identify, and to the stability of the community that they are used to. People believe they have rights to these things. Yet in a market society the only rights that matter are property rights.

And yet what passes the market profitability test, what property rights you actually have, and how valuable those rights are—how much control over your life they actually give you—are directed and controlled by distant forces far from the blood-and-soil realities. And then some politicians come along to tell you truthily that they are really directed and controlled by distant and sinister people far removed from blood-and-soil realities. And in their truthy telling, those people often have names like Sachs. Goldman. Rothschild…

And, in Polanyi’s analysis it least, it is the backlash to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century project of implementing a market society that triggered the totalitarian disasters which he watched and from which he fled…

Karl Polanyi (1944): The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press: 0807056790) <http://amzn.to/2kI4tpE>

Hyman Minsky (1986): Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (0071592997) <http://amzn.to/2kgEh9p>

Charles Kindleberger (1978): Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises (New York: Basic Books: 1137525754) <http://amzn.to/2kHUOzp>

January 29, 2017


Brad DeLong
Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch