The market economy has become so widespread that it has become difficult for us to imagine societies where the market does not play a central role. Yet, for reasons to be clarified in this article, this is the need of the hour. The unregulated market has done tremendous damage to man, society and nature. Bold, imaginative steps to find alternative ways of organizing economic affairs in a society are essential to our collective survival.

– Asad Zaman

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the “great transformation” of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi’s seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.


The great transformation was begun by the powerful modern state, which was needed to push changes in social structure and human nature that allowed for a competitive capitalist economy. For Polanyi, these changes implied the destruction of the basic social order that had reigned because of pre-modern human nature and that had existed throughout all earlier history. Central to the change was that factors of production like land and labor would now be sold on the market at market determined prices instead of allocated according to tradition, redistribution, or reciprocity.[8] He emphasized the greatness of the transformation because it was both a change of human institutions and human nature.

His empirical case in large part relied upon analysis of the Speenhamland laws, which he saw not only as the last attempt of the squirearchy to preserve the traditional system of production and social order but also a self-defensive measure on the part of society that mitigated the disruption of the most violent period of economic change. Polanyi also remarks that the pre-modern economies of China, the Incan Empire, the Indian Empires, Babylon, Greece, and the various kingdoms of Africa operated on principles of reciprocity and redistribution with a very limited role for markets, especially in settling prices or allocating the factors of production.[9] The book also presented his belief that market society is unsustainable because it is fatally destructive to human nature and the natural contexts it inhabits.

Polanyi attempted to turn the tables on the orthodox liberal account of the rise of capitalism by arguing that “laissez-faire was planned”, whereas social protectionism was a spontaneous reaction to the social dislocation imposed by an unrestrained free market. He argues that the construction of a “self-regulating” market necessitates the separation of society into economic and political realms. Polanyi does not deny that the self-regulating market has brought “unheard of material wealth”, but he suggests that this is too narrow a focus. The market, once it considers land, labor and money as “fictitious commodities” (fictitious because each possesses qualities that are not expressed in the formal rationality of the market), and including them “means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market.”[10]

This, he argues, results in massive social dislocation, and spontaneous moves by society to protect itself. In effect, Polanyi argues that once the free market attempts to separate itself from the fabric of society, social protectionism is society’s natural response, which he calls the “double movement.” Polanyi did not see economics as a subject closed off from other fields of enquiry, indeed he saw economic and social problems as inherently linked. He ended his work with a prediction of a socialist society, noting, “after a century of blind ‘improvement’, man is restoring his ‘habitation.'”

The sociologists Fred L. Block and Margaret Somers argue that Karl Polanyi’s analysis could help explain why the resurgence of free market ideas have resulted in “such manifest failures as persistent unemployment, widening inequality, and the severe financial crises that have stressed Western economies over the past forty years.” They suggest that “the ideology that free markets can replace government is just as utopian and dangerous” as the idea that Communism will result in the withering away of the state.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, and with full force in the first half of the nineteenth century, two things happened. The rapidly expanding factory system altered the relationship between commerce and industry. Production now involved large-scale investment of funds with fixed obligations to pay for those funds. Producers were less and less willing to have either the supply of inputs or the vents for output controlled by governments. The second and closely related change was the development of economic liberalism as a body of thought that provided justification of a new set of public policies that facilitated transformation of land, labor, and capital into the “fictitious commodities” of a self-regulating system. Land (nature), labor (people), and capital (power of the purse) were not in fact produced for sale. Nor did the available quantity of land, labor, and capital disappear inconsequentially when relationships of supply and demand produced low input prices. This issue was, of course, particularly acute in the case of labor and led to the dismal conclusions of classical economics. Polanyi describes how, in spite of the threat to social order, the philosophy that came to be called “laissez faire” was “[b]orn as a mere penchant for non-bureaucratic methods . . . [and] evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market” (p. 135). Polanyi describes this evolution of British thought from the humanistic approach of Adam Smith, who wrote in a time of “peaceful progress,” through Malthus’s acceptance of poverty as part of the natural order, and on to the triumphant liberalism of the more prosperous 1830s. What is important is that a set of recommendations about public policy was transformed into widespread acceptance as the laws of a natural order.

One of the most significant things about Polanyi’s work:  it emerged at the precise time that neoliberal idealism was also forming.  It was nearly the same time that the Mont Pelerin Society formed.  In fact, Polanyi had public debates with Hayek about his market idealism.  The wealthy elite and their media minions promoted Hayek’s works, while attacking and marginalizing Polanyi.  Today, we can retrospectively see that Polanyi was the true friend of humanity, and Hayek’s followers among the enemies who would emerge in the 1970’s to destroy us.

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Great_Transformation – Karl Polanyi