The Great Transformation, written for a broad audience, is witty and passionate
Contrary to libertarian economists from Adam Smith to Hayek, Polanyi argued, there was nothing “natural” about the free market. Primitive economies were built on social obligations. Modern commercial society depended on “deliberate State action” by and for elites. “Laissez-faire” he writes, savoring the oxymoron, “was planned.”Read the entire piece here.
Libertarian economists, who treat the market as universal—disengaged from local cultures and historic time—are fanatics whose ideas end in tragedy. Their prescription means “no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”
Like Marx, Polanyi begins in England, the first fully capitalist nation. In Polanyi’s telling, the slow shift from a post-feudal to a capitalist economic system accelerated in the 18th century, when the enclosure movement (“a revolution of the rich against the poor”) deprived the rural people of historic rights to supplement incomes by grazing domestic animals on common land, and the industrial revolution began to undermine craft occupations.
For a time, social cushions left over from feudalism sheltered ordinary people from the turbulence of markets. “England withstood without grave damage the calamity of the enclosures,” Polanyi wrote, because protections guaranteed by the Crown could “slow down the process of economic improvement until it became socially bearable.” Conservatives understood this better than economic liberals. Polanyi invokes the views of Lord Canning, a Tory who served as foreign secretary and later prime minister, that the poor laws—traditional relief payments that protected the rural working class from periodic destitution—“saved England from a revolution.” But in the early 19th century, the rising merchant class, the emergent Liberal Party, and the ideology of laissez-faire together produced a social order based on a self--regulating market.
The old poor laws were abolished in 1834 in favor of the poorhouse, an institution designed to be so degrading that workers would accept the dismal labor-market wages in William Blake’s dark, satanic mills. Meanwhile, free trade became the norm, meaning lower grain prices in the short run (and depressed wages) but increased volatility in the price of food. In the same period, the rise of a rigidly enforced gold standard limited the state’s ability to temper periodic downturns.
An economy oblivious to social consequences had to engender backlash. The sponsors of protective measures were often conservatives concerned about social stability, such as the English Tory Benjamin Disraeli and the Prussian Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. “The [English] Ten Hours Bill of 1847,” Polanyi writes, “which Karl Marx hailed as the first victory of socialism, was the work of enlightened reactionaries.” But by the late 19th century, periodic financial panics and depressions menaced both society and the market system. This got displaced into nationalism, culminating in World War I.
After that war, the victorious nations tried to restore the trinity of free trade, the gold standard, and unprotected labor markets. Obsessed with sound currency, market ideologues and bankers demanded austerity policies leading to both mass unemployment and episodes of hyperinflation. Given the legacy of war debts and dislocations, all this was more than the economy or society could bear. Market institutions, Polanyi writes, “broke down in the twenties everywhere—in Germany, Italy, or Austria, the event was merely more political and more dramatic.”
In a few places, politics produced a third way—neither the hegemony of the turbulent market nor the grim security of the total state. Social-democratic Sweden and New Deal America devised a mixed economy that civilized the brute energy of capitalism. At the time Polanyi was writing, others converged on the same aspiration. In Britain, Lord Beveridge was composing his blueprint for a postwar welfare state. Part II, published in 1944, carried the Polanyian title Full Employment in a Free Society. At Bretton Woods, also in 1944, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White were inventing a postwar international financial system that made room for domestic social democracy freed from the pressures of gold and deflation. A few months after Polanyi’s book went to press urging that “rights of the citizen hitherto unacknowledged must be added to the Bill of Rights” including “the right of the individual to a job,” Franklin Roosevelt delivered his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in January 1944, calling for exactly that. Polanyi was not part of the run-up to Bretton Woods; he does not cite Beveridge, nor could he have known about FDR’s coming speech. But in the aftermath of depression, dictatorship, and war, the shared vision of managed capitalism was in the air. Nobody gave it context and gravitas better than Polanyi.
For three decades, the success of a social settlement between labor and capital seemed to vindicate both Polanyi’s critique and his hopes. But the compromise did not stick. The path of capitalism since the 1970s has repeated the 19th-century hegemony of the market and is beginning to resemble the darker history of the 1920s and 1930s...