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Karl Polanyi, the “always-embedded market economy,” and the re-writing of The Great Transformation

Abstract

This article seeks to subject Fred Block and Margaret Somers’ influential reconstruction of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation to a systematic review. I show that Block & Somers’s central claim—that Polanyi’s thinking underwent a “theoretical shift” as he wrote his seminal book—is not supported by archival evidence. I demonstrate that all the narrative keys that Block & Somers advance to lend plausibility to their discovery of a “theory of the always-embedded market economy” in The Great Transformation, wither under critical probing. While this article does not advance a comprehensive alternative reconstruction of Polanyi’s main work, the essential continuities it uncovers in his social thought suggest that Polanyi’s book is best understood as the culmination of his long-standing efforts to rebuild a radically transformative socialism on non-Marxist foundations. The recognition that Polanyi’s political purposes extend far beyond regulated capitalism or social-democracy, I conclude, makes it possible—and indeed necessary—to read The Great Transformation as an internally coherent work of social theory.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    18-06, Karl Polanyi, “Fascism and Marxian Terminology,” New Britain (June 20, 1934), p. 128. Writings identified by their catalogue number are held at the Karl Polanyi Archive (http://www.concordia.ca/research/polanyi/archive.html) and can be accessed in the following format: Con_18_Fol_06. Dates or years for particular files or writings indicated here sometimes differ from those in the KPA catalogue, when its contents or other incidental information make this advisable.

  2. 2.

    Polanyi, K. ([1944] 2001). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Beacon Press. All references to TGT will refer to this edition as (Polanyi 2001).

  3. 3.

    Critiques of Polanyi’s social thought did, of course, exist prior to Fred Block’s 2003 intervention, but those were generally framed as critiques of an argument considered fairly unambiguous; Halperin (1988) and Randles (2003) may be considered exceptions that prove the rule in this regard.

  4. 4.

    Dale’s comprehensive writings on Polanyi (especially 2010a, 199-203; 2016a, 49-51; 2016b; 2016c) contain elements of such a critical evaluation. But the most forceful rebuttal of Block & Somers’ argument came from Polanyi’s daughter, Kari Polanyi Levitt (2006, p. 387): “There is no evidence of a ‘theoretical shift’ in Polanyi’s thinking during the writing of The Great Transformation. What may appear to Fred Block as a contradiction is due to his misconception of the relationship of Polanyi to Marx.”

  5. 5.

    47-14, 12/08/1944, Letter from John Kouwenhoven.

  6. 6.

    47-15, 01/20/1945, Letter to Kouwenhoven.

  7. 7.

    Not all these authors have adopted this label for themselves, though they certainly fit Szelenyi’s categorization. I find the terminology of hard- and soft-Polanyianism rather uncomfortable, but have chosen to employ it here because it has served to orient past discussions about the fundamental purposes of Polanyi’s social theory (cf. Dale 2010b and 2016a, pp. 4-7; Goodwin 2018).

  8. 8.

    55-02, 04/04/1965, Letter from Ilona Duczynska to George Dalton; cf. Dale 2010b, p. 370-371.

  9. 9.

    Although the 2003 article was authored by Block alone, it was subsequently included in the co-authored 2014 volume, from which I quote (except on occasion, when the text of the 2003 article and the 2014 book chapter do not fully coincide). Apart from a few references to Block’s pioneering interventions in 2001 and 2003, I therefore refer to Block & Somers as co-authors throughout.

  10. 10.

    Block (2003, p. 297). In their book (Block & Somers 2014, 94), this passage reads: “… so the idea of impairing its functioning is illogical. It is similar to saying that one’s efforts to capture a unicorn were impaired by the noisiness of those who came along on the expedition.”

  11. 11.

    Dale (2010a, p. 201) provides important pointers for a complex reconstruction of Polanyi’s institutionalism.

  12. 12.

    Block & Somers attempt to replace Polanyi’s problematique of dis-embeddedness with analyses of the historically varying forms of embeddedness of the market has been a step too far for some interlocutors; cf. Maucourant and Plociniczak (2013) and Behrent (2016). But such resistance has been remarkably muted—perhaps because Block & Somers took soft-Polanyianism where it was always headed.

  13. 13.

    The purpose of this article is not a full reconstruction of Polanyi’s thought and its development over time, but an evaluation of B&S’s thesis of a Polanyian “turn.” This focus, inevitably, tends to overstate the continuities in Polanyi’s thought. A more nuanced elaboration of the changes and developments in his social thought that fall short of such a “turn” will have to remain for another occasion.

  14. 14.

    Whether Polanyi was wrong in this respect—whether his thesis, in other words, was falsified by the history of the post-war stabilization of capitalist societies—must remain open here (though see Lacher 1999b for some thoughts on this). My claim in this article is merely that TGT is internally consistent; not that it was correct about the trajectory of modern development. My purposes here are “polanyiological;” though generally sympathetic to Polanyi’s intellectual and political projects, my own commitments are nevertheless distinct from his. It is, in this regard (despite our disagreements in matters of substance), similar to Dale’s studies of Polanyi (cf. 2017, p. 733)—and quite different from B&S’s.

  15. 15.

    Fleming (2001) and Dale (2016b) provide insightful commentary on the writing of TGT; my focus on B&S’s claims necessarily brings a specific focus to my reconstructions.

  16. 16.

    59-07, 11/21/1940, Letter to Ilona.

  17. 17.

    59-07, 02/25/1941, Letter to Ilona and Kari.

  18. 18.

    59-07, 09/21/1941, Letter to Ilona.

  19. 19.

    59-02, 1942, Letter to Kari. This letter is dated February 23, 1941 by Polanyi. However, it must have been written one year later as Polanyi refers to Ilona Duczynska’s arrival in the United States, and to her first lectures on aerodynamics at Bennington (she assumed her lectureship in January 1942, cf. 30-01, CV); the letter also references an article published in November 1941 by his brother Michael.

  20. 20.

    47-12, 09/11/1942, Letter from Kouwenhoven.

  21. 21.

    47-13, 11/13/1943, Letter to G. D. H. Cole.

  22. 22.

    47-12, 09/12/1942, Letter to Kouwenhoven.

  23. 23.

    47-13, 03/25/1943, Letter to Charles Cuningham

  24. 24.

    Ibid.

  25. 25.

    Ibid. Cf. 47-13, 04/10/1943, Letter to Miss Lisowski.

  26. 26.

    47-13, 04/09/1943, Letter from J. King Gordon.

  27. 27.

    13-04, 04/13/1943, Memorandum of Agreement.

  28. 28.

    47-13, 05/07/1943, Letter to Gordon (emphasis added).

  29. 29.

    Block & Somers (2014, p. 246, fn. 14). Moreover, Polanyi ultimately had more time left than he had anticipated in March – or than Block & Somers p. 82) allow for when they claim that “Polanyi sent the text of the book to the American publisher before sailing to England in June 1943.” Polanyi did not in fact sail until August 19, 1943 (47-13, Letter to Oscar Jászi, 11/01/1943).

  30. 30.

    47-13, 05/07/1943, Letter to Joseph Willits (emphasis added).

  31. 31.

    In charge of corrections, John Kouwenhoven complained about incomplete sentences, spelling errors, and punctuation, and he mentioned difficulties in determining where certain footnotes should go (47-13, 09/28/1943, Letter from Kouwenhoven). Polanyi replied contritely that his footnotes were indeed “a scandal” (47-13, Fall 1943, Letter to Kouwenhoven).

  32. 32.

    47-13, Fall 1943, Letter to Kouwenhoven (emphasis added).

  33. 33.

    47-14, 12/08/1944, Letter from Kouwenhoven.

  34. 34.

    47-13, 11/08/1943, Letter from Peter Drucker.

  35. 35.

    The offer by the IIE was made on February 18, 1943 (47-13, Letter by Edgar Fisher). Polanyi declined on April 10 (47-13, Letter to Miss Lisowski).

  36. 36.

    47-13, 04/10/1943, Letter to Miss Lisowski.

  37. 37.

    54-06, ~1944-45, Letter to Tawney; cf. 47-13, 11/13/1943, Letter to Cole; 47-14, 05/22/1944, Letter to Cole; 47-14, 08/18/1944, Letter from Tawney. The same self-deprecating modesty is visible in Polanyi’s letter to Robert MacIver (48-01, 10/12/1946) cited by Block & Somers (2014, p. 82); it, too, is a request for a reference, and does not indicate any substantive concerns regarding TGT’s core arguments.

  38. 38.

    47-13, 04/10/1943, Letter to Miss Lisowski.

  39. 39.

    47-14, 10/02/1944, Letter from Stanley Unwin.

  40. 40.

    47-14, 11/21/1944, Letter from Curtis Brown Ltd; 47-14, 11/21/1944, Letter from Victor Gollancz. Cf. cf. 45-08, 06/22/1957, Abraham Rotstein, "Notes on Weekend II with K. Polanyi,” p. 55. Cf. Fleming (2001).

  41. 41.

    47-13, 11/13/1943, Letter to Cole; 47-14, 05/22/1944, Letter to Cole; 47-14, 08/18/1944, Letter from R. H. Tawney.

  42. 42.

    47-15, 08/28/1945, Letter to Oscar Jászi.

  43. 43.

    08-07, “The Rise and Decline of Market-Economy” (undated, but printed on the back of a 1946 lecture outline).

  44. 44.

    59-07, 11/21/1940, Letter to Ilona and Kari.

  45. 45.

    Ibid. Cf. 15-02, 1937-38, “Conflicting Philosophies in Modern Society,” Eltham, Lecture 2; 08-07, “The Christian and the World Economic Crisis” (the content suggests that this was written in 1937).

  46. 46.

    15-02, Lecture 2. Block & Somers suggest, without elaboration, that Polanyi’s use of “fictitious commodities” in this document “does not appear to carry the same meaning as in the GT;” Block & Somers (2014, p. 245, fn. 8).

  47. 47.

    20-08, 1934-35, “The Fascist Transformation,” 18. Cf. 15-02, Lecture 2

  48. 48.

    15-04, 1936-40, Morley College Lectures on “Post-War Democracies.”

  49. 49.

    20-08, p. 20. Cf. 08-07, “The Rise and Decline of Market-Economy,” pp. 4-5; 16-14, 1939-40, “Modern European History 3,” Lecture 10. Cf. 17-03, 1939-40, “Social and Political Theory,” Canterbury, pp. 13-15.

  50. 50.

    19-17, “The Eclipse of Panic and the Outlook for Socialism” (although undated, Polanyi noted that this paper sought to apply “the theory of our period as developed in my book ‘The Great Transformation’” to the “socialist working-class movement”).

  51. 51.

    16-03, 1946, Lectures on “The Changing Structure of Society,” Croydon; cf. 08-07, “The Rise and Fall of Market Economy”. Cf. Polanyi 1947a.

  52. 52.

    Cangiani (2011); cf. Bockman (2016, p. 395): “Given Polanyi’s life-long commitment to socialism and critique of capitalism,” it was “not illogical” for him to posit the simultaneity of market self-regulation and impairment.”

  53. 53.

    Rockefeller Archive, Box 310, Folders 3693 and 3694. Folder 3693 contains Polanyi’s “Memorandum concerning the plan of a book on the Origins of the Cataclysm,” submitted 1941/02/06. I would like to acknowledge the help of Tom Rosenbaum at the Rockefeller Archive Center in locating the Polanyi files. It turns out that Polanyi’s first proposal was known to us all along: it is archived in the KPA file as 19-05, with the KPA catalogue assigning it to 1943 (none of the copies in this file bears a date). This mis-timing may have contributed to confusion about the temporal sequencing of Polanyi’s concepts and approaches. With its confirmed dating to early 1941, we are now in a much better position to trace the development of TGT from beginning to end—and to put to rest the myth of the book’s initially Marxist conception.

  54. 54.

    I have here quoted from one of the drafts for Polanyi’s book proposal collected in 19-5. The other draft, like the version Polanyi ultimately submitted to the Rockefeller Foundation, substitutes “economic” for “materialist” (and “essentially” for “radically”).

  55. 55.

    15-02, 1937-38, "Conflicting Philosophies in Modern Society," Lecture 2; cf. 17-03, 1939-40, p. 9.

  56. 56.

    17-03, 1939/-40, p. 9; cf. 20-08, 1934-35, “The Fascist Transformation.”

  57. 57.

    15-02, Lecture 2.

  58. 58.

    21-19, ~1936, “A Christian View of Marxism.”

  59. 59.

    18-06, “Fascism and Marxian Terminology,” New Britain, June 20, 1934 (emphasis added).

  60. 60.

    02-21, 1933, “Die Wirtschaft ist für den Faschismus” (my translation). Cf. 19-16, “What is the Real Character of the Economic Crisis?”

  61. 61.

    18-09, “Marxism Re-Stated,” Part II. New Britain, June 27, 1934. Polanyi anticipated the Marxist response: “Current Marxian criticism would, probably, object that this formulation does not do full justice to the theory of class-interests and class-war. … It is not the spectres of Democracy and Capitalism that are fighting each other, but the actual concrete forces of Capital and Labour…Why all this talk about a functional perversion of Democracy and Capitalism and the establishing of a functional Democracy based on Socialist economics? Thus the hypothetical Marxian commentator. He might even quote the chapter and verse of Karl Marx himself as a bludgeon. Yet he would be wrong” (ibid., p. 159).

  62. 62.

    09-02, 1934, “O Spann and Modern Universalism” original emphases). Polanyi added: “Marxism had thought that the economic system would go, but actually the politics [system] went (quite in accordance moreover with Marxian theory” (ibid.). Cf. 16-10, 1937, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe.”

  63. 63.

    09-02, 1934, “O Spann and Modern Universalism.”

  64. 64.

    15-04, Lecture 27, “Socialism and Fascism.”

  65. 65.

    12-07, 1941, “Essence of Fascism;” cf. 15-02, Lecture 2.

  66. 66.

    21-05, ~1936, “The Religious Nature of the Crisis.”

  67. 67.

    09-02, “O Spann and Modern Universalism” (underline emphasis in the original, italic emphasis added); undated lecture typed on the back of a circular letter dated January 22, 1934.

  68. 68.

    See, in particular, chs. 19-20, esp. 236ff.

  69. 69.

    Indeed, Polanyi explicitly rejected the Labour Theory of Value; see 15-04, 1936-40, “Excerpt on Marx and Value Theory,” 59; cf. 21-33, undated, “Christian Left Study Circle,” p. 8.

  70. 70.

    TGT 2001, p. 160.

  71. 71.

    Karl Polanyi Archive, uncatalogued, 03/31/1934, Letter to Walter Adams.

  72. 72.

    12-06, 1941-42, Bennington Lecture on “The Moral Values Underlying Social Organization.”

  73. 73.

    21-22, 1937, “Community and Society,” p. 8.

  74. 74.

    12-07, 1941, “Essence of Fascism.”

  75. 75.

    21-01, 1936, “The Paradox of Freedom.” Polanyi added: “Mankind may fail (economic or social laws do not exclude this). But then it will perish physically and morally because it has failed spiritually—it will have sacrificed its freedom.”

  76. 76.

    cf. 20-08, 1934-35, “The Fascist Transformation;” cf. 20-20, 1934, “Church and State in the Light of Central European Experience;” 20-23, 1935, Auxiliary Conference Lecture.

  77. 77.

    20-20, 1934, "Church and State in the Light of Central European Experience" (original emphasis).

  78. 78.

    21-22, 1937, “Community and Society,” 8. Cf. 20-11, 1938, “Trotzkyism. Earlier Works of Marx,” p. 9.

  79. 79.

    21-05, 1936, “The Religious Nature of the Crisis.”

  80. 80.

    Karl Polanyi Archive, uncatalogued, 03/31/1934, Letter to Walter Adams.

  81. 81.

    Ibid.

  82. 82.

    21-19, ~1936, “A Christian View of Marxism.”

  83. 83.

    Polanyi was not very successful in these regards, as Rogan (2017) shows in his illuminating chapter on Polanyi.

  84. 84.

    21-21, 1936, “A Christian Left. Draft Memorandum No 1.”

  85. 85.

    21-13, 1938, “Christianity and the Present System of Government.”

  86. 86.

    Ibid.

  87. 87.

    Ibid.

  88. 88.

    21-02, 1936, “Christian Principles and the New Social Order.”

  89. 89.

    21-13.

  90. 90.

    The only explicit references come on the last page of TGT (2001, p. 268). Why would Polanyi not make them explicit? His experience in the United States, surprisingly, may account for that: “In the USA, there is no intelligent Xtian public at all. The masses of the East, especially the students, are as dechristianized as in Russia;” 54-04, ~1944, Letter to Kari (original emphasis).

  91. 91.

    But five years earlier, Polanyi had similarly insisted that the “turning points of history are not simply the result of the wishes and whims of individuals or multitudes but they are the more or less adequate response to the objective needs of a civilization, however painful this response may be,” 15-03, 1938, “Perilous Europe,” p. 14.

  92. 92.

    20-16, 1939, “Coercion and Defence,” p. 7.

  93. 93.

    Indeed, they preceded—and shaped—Polanyi’s engagement with the “young Marx;” cf. Thomasberger (2005).

  94. 94.

    21-33, p. 9.

  95. 95.

    18-39, undated, “The Meaning of Peace.” Cf. 20-13, 1938, “The Postulate of Peace.”

  96. 96.

    18-21, 1937, “Europe To-Day,” p. 57.

  97. 97.

    20-16, p. 9; cf. 21-33, p. 10.

  98. 98.

    18-06, 1934, “Fascism and Marxian Terminology.”

  99. 99.

    02-22, 1924-27, “Pure Economic Theory;” cf. 47-04, Letter, April 1927, p. 5.

  100. 100.

    56-13, 12/07/1929, Letter to Donald Grant.

  101. 101.

    20-22, 1934, "The Alternatives—Fascism, Communism, Christianity;” cf. 21-02, 1936, “Xty and the Social Order.”

  102. 102.

    20-11, 1936-38, “Marx on Self-Estrangement.” Cf. 08-09, “Introductory Notes to Karl Marx’s ‘Political Economy and Philosophy;” cf. 21-22, 1937, Section 5: “Market Economy;” 20-08, p. 42; 20-11, 1938, “The Marxian Theory of Self-Estrangement;” 21-02, 1936.

  103. 103.

    15-04, 1937-38, Morley Lectures on “Social and Political Theory,” Lecture 1.

  104. 104.

    59-07, 09/21/1941, Letter to Ilona; cf. 16-14, 1939-40, “Modern European History 3,” p. 38.

  105. 105.

    11-02, 1934-46, “Notes on Reading” (original emphases).

  106. 106.

    Ibid. (emphasis added).

  107. 107.

    Lukács 1972, p. 69.

  108. 108.

    Ibid., 62.

  109. 109.

    Ibid., 95.

  110. 110.

    20-08, 1934/35, “The Fascist Transformation.” Cf. 08-07, “The Christian and the World Economic Crisis.”

  111. 111.

    13-06, 1935, “The Essence of Fascism,” p. 392.

  112. 112.

    59-07, 11/21/1940, Letter to Ilona (original emphasis).

  113. 113.

    Ibid.

  114. 114.

    18-32, 1946, “Adult Education and the Working Class Outlook,” p. 11.

  115. 115.

    Polanyi 1945; Cf. 18-34, 1946, “British Labour and American New Dealers,” Leeds Weekly Citizen, 01/10/1947; 19-08, “The Meaning of Parliamentary Democracy,” (undated, but the document refers to Bretton Woods); 16-03, 1946, “The Changing Structure of Society.”

  116. 116.

    cf. 15-08, 1943-44, High Barnett Lectures on “Government and Industry,” Lecture 15.

  117. 117.

    47-13, 03/25/1943, Letter to Cuningham.

  118. 118.

    Indeed, Polanyi himself considered socialism in the United States an impossibility for the foreseeable future, as I show in Lacher 2020; America’s historical trajectory, he believed, had followed an entirely different course from Europe’s because of the weakness of its working classes. As a result, market self-regulation there had not been impaired, and Europe’s institutional paralysis had been avoided. By the same token, America did not face the stark choice between fascist capitalism and democratic socialism. A progressive resolution of the crisis thus proved possible in the United States that did not have to abolish capitalism and private property; cf. 16-10, 1937, “Conflicting Philosophies in Europe.”

  119. 119.

    15-10, 1944, “The Study of Human Institutions.”

  120. 120.

    59-02, 1942, Letter to Kari; cf. 19-5.

  121. 121.

    In their review of Dale’s recent work, B&S (2017b, p. 735) object that their Polanyi was “not a social democrat but ‘a lifelong socialist,’” who “put the emphasis on achieving economic democracy, not simply administrative correction of market inequalities” (B&S 2017a, pp. 379-380). Turning the table on Dale, they accuse him of wrongly presenting TGT as a “social-democratic bedtime story”—which Dale (2017, p. 734) rejects as “blatant and egregious misrepresentations.” In fact, B&S (2014, pp. 6-7, 221-2; Block 2018) have repeatedly characterized Polanyi’s late-Bennington perspective and aims as both “social-democratic” and as “socialist”—and portray a Polanyi who had come to redefine his socialism in social-democratic terms. Accordingly, B&S’s objection is rather obfuscatory.

  122. 122.

    18-21, 1937, “Europe To-Day,” p. 57. Cf. 20-10, “What is the Xtian Left?”

  123. 123.

    18-33, 1945-46, “Socialist Education in the Labour Movement.”

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Lacher, H. Karl Polanyi, the “always-embedded market economy,” and the re-writing of The Great Transformation. Theor Soc 48, 671–707 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-019-09359-z

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Keywords

  • Capitalism and socialism
  • Critical Institutionalism
  • Economic sociology
  • Fascism
  • Political economy
  • Neo-Polanyian social theory