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Thread: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

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    Default The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Tell me what you think about it. Agree? Disagree?

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    Leon Freeman
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Quote Originally Posted by TheCitizen View Post
    Tell me what you think about it. Agree? Disagree?
    I used to want reading Polanyi, but until now I haven't got time enough reading this guy. Many philosophers and books need to pay attention.

    The Great Chain of Being. I heard that many people in RevLeft already read it.

    TheCitizen, can you please introduce some arguments of that book, The Great Transformation?

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    Rightwing left liberalism/Careerism RevForum Administrator Nim Chimpsky's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Polanyi's Transformation has been described as the greatest revolution which never occurred.

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    Senior Voting Member Meridian's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Polanyi's Transformation has been described as the greatest revolution which never occurred.
    The book, or the transformation? The italics and capitalization would indicate you're talking about the book, but in which way is that a non-occuring revolution? Otherwise, in what sense did the revolution described in the book not occur?

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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    In reply to the OP, see: Granovetter, Economic Action and Social Structure. The Problem of Embeddedness: http://glennschool.osu.edu/faculty/b...vetter1985.pdf
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    Rightwing left liberalism/Careerism RevForum Administrator Nim Chimpsky's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Quote Originally Posted by Meridian View Post
    The book, or the transformation? The italics and capitalization would indicate you're talking about the book, but in which way is that a non-occuring revolution? Otherwise, in what sense did the revolution described in the book not occur?
    It appears that Polanyi's appeal has largely been reduced to academics. Although it seems the Net offered certain glimpses of the "social transformation" of labor Pol. discussed in the book and one can see a few faint glimmers of it in places like Latin America, the book's unbounded optimism has seemingly foundered on the rocks of reality.

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    Senior Voting Member Meridian's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Hm, okay. I suppose I have to revisit the book to have any idea of what you're talking about.

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    Paperback Writer RevForum Administrator Amoeba's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    By the way Meridian, if you read that article you'll also have (at least part of) an answer to your question.

    Also, check out the introduction to: Granovetter and Swedberg, The Sociology Of Economic Life.
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    Senior Voting Member Meridian's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Oh, I see now.

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    Rightwing left liberalism/Careerism RevForum Administrator Nim Chimpsky's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi


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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Quote Originally Posted by N View Post
    youtube;rSuz01zvOjE]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSuz01zvOjE
    A decent summation. It inspired me to take the book off the shelf and dust it off a bit.
    I don't see how one could "agree or disagree" with The Great Transformation, which is an ambitious and complex work. Polanyi's optimism certainly wasn't borne out but neither was Marx's. Optimism is the stupidest of isms.
    My favorite foreteller of the future is probably Mother Shipton.
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    Senior Voting Member Rosa Lichtenstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    I'm sorry, but what 'optimism' by Marx are you referring to?
    The emancipation of the working class will be an act of the workers themselves.

    http://anti-dialectics.co.uk/index.htm

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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Quote Originally Posted by Rosa Lichtenstein View Post
    I'm sorry, but what 'optimism' by Marx are you referring to?
    Probably the optimism that led him to declare the inevitability of communism...

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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    Some may find this article interesting, Nancy Fraser, A Triple Movement? Parsing the Politics of Crisis after Polanyi: http://bev.berkeley.edu/ipe/Triple%2...t-NLR31505.pdf
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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    https://www.dissentmagazine.org/arti...cf9a-101925729


    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 Marx for communism or Hayek for neoliberalism. Both disciples and critics have portrayed him as the master theorist of the welfare state, with verdicts on the thinker reflecting deeper judgments of the system. Admirers have seen his work as the theoretical underpinning for a strong and slow boring of hard boards: a model of decommodification that can tame the market without toppling it. And this in turn has engendered the beginnings of a backlash among those—predominantly Marxists—who charge that the Polanyi revival stems from mere nostalgia for a postwar social-democratic order that always contained the seeds of its own destruction.

    Does social democracy need a totem? And if so, is Polanyi the man for the job? Both sides of this debate have often accepted a model that deserves skepticism—one in which canonical theorists do battle on behalf of entire social orders, like ancient champions settling wars by single combat. To some extent Polanyi’s current popularity reflects the desire of the non-Marxist left for a champion of its own to compete with that other Karl. But this is likely a case of misplaced envy, since it is doubtful that either Marx or Marxism has been well-served by the identification of thinker and movement. Social democracy will stand or fall regardless of whether it has a master theorist to underwrite it.

    More importantly, Polanyi himself is an uneasy fit as spokesman for any specific social order. Like many other great thinkers, he was better at offering diagnoses than cures. (Origins of the Cataclysm, the working title of The Great Transformation, gives a truer sense of the book’s contents and its value.) Polanyi grasped the interplay between the expansion of markets and the protective reactions against them. But such reactions (as he was well aware) can take a variety of forms, many of them ugly. “Protection” was a notable keyword of Donald Trump’s recent inaugural address, second in prominence only to “carnage”—a pairing that would not have surprised Polanyi, although not even he could have anticipated The Donald in all his spray-tanned majesty.

    What, concretely, would a healthy rather than pathological kind of protection look like? Polanyi never answered with much specificity, except to make clear that the postwar Western order was not it. The coming transformation was one that he foresaw only murkily. And this murkiness is characteristic of his thought, for even the canonical Polanyian concepts—double movement, fictitious commodities, embeddedness—prove surprisingly elusive upon inspection. He was far from a systematic thinker, and could grow less convincing as he grew more systematic. But systematicity is not the only intellectual virtue, or even the most important; open-endedness, even at the price of tensions and ambiguities, may be just as valuable. What Polanyi offers is not so much a theoretical foundation or a practical program, but something vaguer and more inchoate: a vision of modern capitalism, a sense of its dynamics, an orientation toward what came before it, and what might come after.



    The Polanyi revival has now yielded the first full-length intellectual biography of the thinker. Gareth Dale is the author of a previous monograph on Polanyi, and his new biography Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left does not wade deeply into the various interpretive debates that were surveyed in the earlier book; instead, it offers a brisk but thorough account of Polanyi’s life and times. Despite this light touch, Dale’s invaluable portrait unsettles some of the received images of its subject, above all by tracing his intellectual journey in its full sweep. Polanyi is unusual in being so deeply identified with a single book, and the temptation is to read The Great Transformation as the authoritative distillation of his thought. But it was only one step—and not the final one—in a career than was itinerant in both literal and intellectual terms.

    Born in 1886, Polanyi grew up in Budapest to a prosperous German-speaking bourgeois family. His father made his money in railroads, but went bankrupt when Karl was a teenager and died five years later. Like Marx, Polanyi’s maternal grandfather was a rabbi; again like Marx, his immediate family was highly assimilated and felt a certain contempt for the “ghetto” of Jewish communal life. “Polanyi” was a Magyarized version of the Jewish “Pollacsek,” and although the family remained nominally Jewish—Karl remembered being raised with “an intense, if vague, religiosity”—both Karl and his brother Michael would eventually convert to Christianity. He grew up in the world of assimilated Budapest Jewry that would also produce his friends György Lukács and Karl Mannheim, and his eventual nemesis, Arthur Koestler.

    Polanyi got his start as a journalist and political impresario rather than as a scholar. In 1914, he helped his mentor Oscar Jaszi found the Radical Bourgeois (or Civic Radical) Party, aligned with the reformist socialism of Eduard Bernstein in Germany. The year after, he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, serving as an officer until a bout of typhus forced him home toward the end of the war. In the chaotic period following the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Polanyi and the Radicals joined with the Social Democrats in the government of the new Hungarian Democratic Republic. When its leader was replaced by the communist Béla Kun, Polanyi—although anti-Bolshevik himself—accepted Lukács’s offer to serve in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. But he left Hungary in June 1919 to undergo hospital treatment in Vienna, and two months later Kun’s government fell, replaced the next year by the right-wing authoritarian regime of Admiral Horthy. Polanyi would not return to Hungary until he was an old man.

    Polanyi lived in Vienna from 1919 until 1934, and it is in this period that his thinking began to mature. He was inspired by the city’s political culture under its new Social Democratic government; looking back upon it in The Great Transformation, he would write that Red Vienna’s attempt to transcend the market economy produced “one of the most spectacular cultural triumphs of Western history.” His politics shifted to the left, as he got to know the leading lights of Austro-Marxism and traded Jaszi’s reformism for guild socialism. In debates over the feasibility of a planned economy, he sought a middle way between central planners and free-market liberals, in the process crossing swords for the first time with Ludwig von Mises (who would serve as his main foil in The Great Transformation).

    The most lasting new influence he encountered in the Vienna years was the woman who would become his wife: Ilona Duczynska, a revolutionary communist in exile from the counterrevolution in Hungary. Duczynska was bolder and more radical than her husband: during the First World War, she had plotted to assassinate the Hungarian prime minister, and she would be expelled first from the Hungarian Communist Party and then from the Austrian Social Democrats for refusing to toe the party line. Yet the scholarly Karl and the activist Ilona complemented one another, and Dale suggests that their views converged gradually (if never completely) over the course of decades. Their forty-year marriage appears to have been a largely happy one—even if its outlines could sometimes be depressingly traditional, as Ilona reluctantly changed countries and continents to accommodate the vagaries of her husband’s career.

    After an initial flirtation with Marxism in his youth, Polanyi had turned against it in the years leading up to the First World War, and he never became any kind of orthodox Marxist. Yet the common tendency to set the two thinkers against one another obscures a more complicated intellectual relationship. In the Vienna years, he became increasingly sympathetic to Marx once again, and was particularly struck by the Marxian theories of alienation and commodity fetishism. Although Polanyi would distinguish his own theory of fictitious commodities from commodity fetishism, his broader vision of the “disembedding” of economy from society bears its imprint. He, too, envisions relations between persons becoming subordinated to relations between things—the rise of a “spectral world,” as he glossed Marx’s theory, in which nonetheless the “specters are real.” And if this spectral world served as an acute diagnosis, Marx’s “community of free individuals” provided an ideal and a path forward. Upon the publication of Marx’s early writings in German—the same writings whose appearance in English and French a generation later would inspire the New Left—Polanyi declared that they “may still save the world.”

    But Marx was not Polanyi’s only prophet. At the end of the First World War, confined to bed with typhus, he converted to Protestantism, and he would remain a Christian for the rest of his life. The specifically theological content of his faith is unclear, and perhaps unimportant. Polanyi’s Christianity was always a political creed, inextricable from his socialism. Jesus had revealed that the “true nature of man” was freedom achieved in communion with others; Marx had gone “beyond Jesus” by showing what attaining this ideal required in a complex industrial society. And so every true Christian must be a Marxist and every true Marxist a Christian. Leaving Vienna for London in 1934—once again, a step ahead of the counterrevolution—he immersed himself in the world of Christian Socialism and struck up friendships with stalwarts of the interwar British left like R.H. Tawney and G.D.H. Cole.

    Polanyi’s leftward turn in these years often put him at odds with intimates from his Budapest days—his former mentor Jaszi for one, but above all his younger brother Michael, the famous scientist, philosopher, and social theorist. Michael Polanyi was, among other things, a staunch anticommunist, whose writings on “spontaneous order” would be an inspiration to Hayek. The brothers clashed repeatedly over the decades on the subject of actually existing socialism, in ways that do not always do credit to Karl. Michael was angered by Karl’s credulous excuses for Stalin’s show trials, and particularly his mealy-mouthed response to the treatment of their niece Eva, who had emigrated to the USSR before being imprisoned and interrogated on trumped-up charges at the height of the Great Terror. (Eva’s ordeal was among the inspirations for her onetime friend Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.)

    The political tensions between the brothers would never fully subside. Yet they evidently shared a bond that kept them close when politics would otherwise have driven them apart. Michael was generous in his response to The Great Transformation, although he could hardly have agreed with much of its content; as Karl worked away at the manuscript during the war years, Michael described him to Ilona as “a man whose purpose must be to reap, to collect and bring to final shape the gains of a lifetime of thought. It is the only good he can do; to himself and to society.” Perhaps this was just fraternal loyalty. But reading the anticommunist insist to the communist on the importance of a work that bore her imprint far more than his, we can begin to get a sense of why so many have found the final product so compelling.



    Polanyi had begun The Great Transformation in England in the late 1930s—much of his research on economic history began as drafts for the adult education lectures that were his primary employment—but he wrote the bulk of it from 1940–43 on fellowship at Bennington College in Vermont. His tranquil environs stood in sharp contrast to the chaos engulfing the rest of the world, but the book remains unmistakably a product of the war years, with the same urgency that marks contemporaneous works like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. In 1943, itching to get back to Europe for the end of the war, he left the nearly finished manuscript with three friends who got it into publishable form: one a liberal, the second a conservative, the third a socialist, he noted proudly, each of them “believing it to be essentially true.”

    The Great Transformation is a mesmerizing and deservedly famous book, but it is not an orderly treatise. Some of this was due to the rushed circumstances of publication, some to Polanyi’s own cast of mind; even in less harried times he was never a methodical system-builder. The work is united by a set of broad themes: the impossibility of any society persisting on the basis of the market alone; the violence involved in attempts to impose a self-regulating market; the inevitable protective (and protectionist) measures by which society defends itself; the instability resulting from this “double movement.” Yet on the surface its changes of subject can be dizzying, as it jumps from the collapse of the international gold standard in the 1930s to the anthropological evidence of “primitive” non-market economies to the effects of the Industrial Revolution in England.

    Inevitably some parts have held up better than others. Polanyi’s English economic history—and particularly the enormous importance he attaches to the Speenhamland system of poor relief that began in 1795—has rarely found much favor with historians. The leading English socialist historians of the day, like Tawney and Cole, gave the book a polite but decidedly mixed response upon its publication; more recently, the sociologists Fred Block and Margaret Somers (in their sympathetic but not uncritical 2014 study The Power of Market Fundamentalism) have sought to salvage what is valuable in Polanyi’s Speenhamland narrative while discarding much of its historical account.

    Polanyi is hardly the only theorist to fall back on a little potted history. But the difficulties in the book extend to some of its main concepts. Notably, Polanyi’s theory of “fictitious commodities” holds that the commodification of land, labor, and money has uniquely destructive effects upon society. He writes that “land, labor, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them.” Although the theory is among Polanyi’s most well-known innovations, it has perplexed most commentators who have studied it closely—not least for the implication that other objects sold on the market simply are commodities in some natural and non-fictitious sense. However important decommodification might be as a political program, it is hardly obvious that it can or should proceed along the line demarcating Polanyi’s fictitious and non-fictitious commodities. And once again sympathetic critics like Nancy Fraser have tried to salvage what is valuable in the theory in ways that render it largely unrecognizable from the original version.

    Elsewhere, Polanyi’s arguments might best be described as productively ambiguous. Consider the most famous Polanyian concept of all, “embeddedness.” What does he mean by the claim that “[e]conomic systems, as a rule, are embedded in social relations”? It could be understood as a claim about human motivations; the same sentence goes on to specify that “distribution of material goods is ensured by noneconomic motives.” It could also be a claim about social structures: material distribution is governed by institutions other than price-making markets, and there is no economic sphere distinct from the broader society. Or it could be a claim about origins: markets do not exist naturally, but must be created by conscious and continuous political interventions.

    Most importantly, how should we read the phrase “as a rule”? Does it mean “universally,” or “typically”? The ambiguity speaks to a deeper question in Polanyi’s work: is it possible for an economy to be disembedded from society, and is this what has happened under modern capitalism? Or is every economic system, including our own, inevitably embedded? Polanyi emphasizes that the classical economists’ faith in a self-regulating market—that is, a disembedded one—was a utopian delusion. But was it delusional because a disembedded economy is impossible, or simply disastrous?

    Polanyi looks rather different depending on our answers to these questions. Take him as a theorist of what Block and Somers call the “always-embedded market economy,” and he begins to look like a contemporary economic sociologist, the discipline that made embeddedness into a catchword by seeking to show the inevitable social underpinnings of markets and the networks connecting actors within them. An eminently sober research program, and a useful check on the wilder speculations of the grand theorists—if sometimes a bit bloodless, bearing little resemblance to the Polanyi who aspired to grasp “the meaning of life in an industrial civilization.” Take him to be envisioning a genuinely disembedded economy, by contrast, and Polanyi begins to look more like a classic social theorist along the lines of Marx and Weber. (Or Ferdinand Tönnies, another major influence upon Polanyi, who had written of a “great transformation” separating Gemeinschaft from Gesellschaft.) This would be a more pessimistic Polanyi, envisioning the disembedded market as a specter that is nonetheless all-too-real.

    Which of these is the real Polanyi? The “always-embedded” interpretation tends to find more favor with scholars today, but the evidence in Polanyi’s own work is scattered and ambiguous. Block and Somers suggest that Polanyi had gradually, but not fully, left behind his Marxian roots in writing The Great Transformation; although he “glimpsed” the idea of the always-embedded economy, he was not able to name or develop it. Dale is less convinced by this developmental story, and he suggests that over time Polanyi became more the grand social theorist, increasingly attached to the vision of a chasm dividing modernity from what came before. It is probably impossible, and certainly unnecessary, to resolve the question definitively; Polanyi’s ambiguity on this central point is part of what has made his thought so fertile.



    Polanyi had agreed with his publisher to write a sequel to The Great Transformation (with the unpromising title The Common Man’s Master Plan) spelling out the concrete political proposals implicit in the first book. But he never wrote the sequel, and his failure to do so might indicate that he himself was unsure of the exact political implications of his argument. The two decades that passed between his masterpiece and his death saw the growth and zenith of the postwar welfare state that then began to disintegrate in the 1970s. This is the social order whose champion Polanyi is often held up to be. Yet anyone hoping to find a sustained justification of it in his later writing, or even a sustained analysis, will be disappointed; mostly it figures as an absence.

    This is not to say that he was entirely politically apathetic or withdrawn. He had initial high hopes for the Attlee government in Britain, as he had earlier for the New Deal, but this enthusiasm soon cooled. International rather than domestic politics occupied the bulk of his political attention, and as the war wound down he trained his sights on Bretton Woods. He saw the new monetary system as a continuation of the same impulses that had underlain the gold standard and free trade, those “primitive Trotzkyist forms of capitalism” which he blamed for the collapse of world order. Only by further insulating themselves from the forces of international capitalism could Britain and other countries hope to build socialism at home.

    Throughout the Cold War, Polanyi was determinedly anti-anticommunist, even as comrades from earlier days lined up on the opposite side. (He spent his final years planning a journal to counter the various “pseudo-scholarly American-sponsored organs that are carrying on Cold War propaganda” abroad—a scarcely-veiled jab at his brother Michael, who had gotten into bed with Koestler’s Congress for Cultural Freedom.) He remained uncritical of the USSR to a fault, and his postwar optimism about the Soviets’ willingness to tolerate democracy in the Eastern Bloc has not aged well, although he was deeply moved by the 1956 Hungarian uprising when it came. As for the situation at home, Dale notes the “ambiguity and ambivalence” of Polanyi’s occasional treatments of market society’s postwar evolution. On the whole, his gloomy view of the dawning “Machine Age” was consonant with that of other postwar critics of mass industrial society. What divided him from the nascent New Left was not so much his higher estimation of the Western status quo—for he shared many of their diagnoses—but his Old Left instincts when it came to actually existing socialism.

    Still, Polanyi’s postwar career was hardly idle or unproductive. Disappointed with the present, he turned his attention to the past. Ensconced at Columbia, he began sustained investigation into a topic that had figured importantly, but only briefly, in The Great Transformation: the nature of economic life in non-market societies. In that book, he had been largely content to follow anthropological studies on the economics of “primitive man”; now he cast his net wider, looking beyond these stylized portraits of tribal life to examine kingdoms and empires in greater detail. His work in these years became the wellspring of the so-called “substantivist” school of economic anthropology. Its influence is visible in the works of his students and collaborators—Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy, Marshall Sahlins’s Stone Age Economics—as well as in more recent works like Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by Sahlins’s own student David Graeber.

    What officially divided the substantivists from their opponents, the “formalists,” was a somewhat abstruse dispute about the proper definition of economics: the substantivists thought of it in terms of the satisfaction of material needs, the formalists (more abstractly) as any kind of rational choice under conditions of scarcity. In practice, however, the debate revolved around the broader question of whether economic concepts developed to analyze the workings of modern capitalism might legitimately be used to understand all societies across history. Polanyi and his followers insisted on the historical exceptionalism of modern market society, and the wide variety of ways that humans have organized economic life throughout history. Once we understand that market society is the aberration, Polanyi suggested, history will no longer appear as one long quest to achieve laissez-faire. We will instead see history as a catalog of other ways that societies have organized themselves, and might still again.



    Polanyi’s detractors across the political spectrum have always accused him of romanticism, of idealizing pre-capitalist societies and ignoring the forms of oppression that underlay them. In its cruder forms, the accusation is unfair, for Polanyi never suggested that a return to earlier modes of life was possible or desirable. He aimed at “freedom in a complex society” (the title of The Great Transformation’s coda), with “complex” understood to mean modern, differentiated, democratic, industrial. But on some level the charge sticks: a vision of Gemeinschaft is central to his work, and those allergic to that sort of thing will want to look elsewhere.

    In a way Karl, like his brother Michael, remained a theorist of spontaneous order, the difference lying in which forces they took to be organic and which to be artificial. Karl’s aphorism that “[l]aissez-faire was planned; planning was not” is sharp and suggestive, but equally it illustrates the ways in which (as scholars like Philip Mirowski have pointed out) his thought often moved within the same dichotomies as his opponents’. The market becomes the artificial product of conscious intervention, society’s self-defense against the market becomes spontaneous and natural.

    A more effective response to the errors of classical liberalism would leave behind the unhelpful category of the “spontaneous” altogether. Doing so would let us see both sides of Polanyi’s double movement as products of willful and concerted interventions of various kinds. Certainly this seems a better angle from which to analyze our own predicament. Will society protect itself against the present ravages of the market? We may hope so, but if it does there will be nothing inevitable or spontaneous about it. Polanyi, writing in the wake of fascism, was certainly aware that the second side of the double movement had its own dangers, but his categories risked eliding this fact, and subsequent Polanyians have often forgotten it. The current political moment should remind us that we cannot fall back on romanticized entities like “society” or “the people” to do our work for us.

    Still, what traces of romanticism remain in Polanyi’s work have a value of their own. If he can glide over the oppressions involved in past forms of social life, he nonetheless offers a useful corrective to the more frequent tendency to see history as consisting of nothing but oppression and resistance to it. The longing for a pre-capitalist or pre-industrial past has played an enormous role in the popular history of the left, yet the movement’s resolutely modernist theoreticians have generally treated this impulse with embarrassment or outright contempt: at best a useful myth for the moment, ultimately destined to be swept away along with the rest of the idiocy of rural life. The theoreticians have often tried to purge all traces of nostalgia from the culture of the left, but have never been entirely successful in doing so—and, probably, we should not wish them to be.

    Polanyi offers a different orientation toward the past, one found infrequently among the left’s intellectuals and scarcely at all among its social theorists. Without surrendering to nostalgia—he remained, in his own way, very much a modernist—he took it seriously as more than mere myth or misrecognition, and thought hard about what resources an industrial or post-industrial society might draw from other times and other places. Perhaps we should be more suspicious of the past than Polanyi sometimes was. But he reminds us that we cannot hope to leave it behind altogether—certainly not today, as we try to come to grips with our own cataclysms.

    Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate in the humanities at Yale University.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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    Default Re: The Great Transformation by Polanyi

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017...rce=Newsletter





    The Man from Red Vienna
    Robert Kuttner
    December 21, 2017 Issue
    Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left
    by Gareth Dale

    What a splendid era this was going to be, with one remaining superpower spreading capitalism and liberal democracy around the world. Instead, democracy and capitalism seem increasingly incompatible. Global capitalism has escaped the bounds of the postwar mixed economy that had reconciled dynamism with security through the regulation of finance, the empowerment of labor, a welfare state, and elements of public ownership. Wealth has crowded out citizenship, producing greater concentration of both income and influence, as well as loss of faith in democracy. The result is an economy of extreme inequality and instability, organized less for the many than for the few.

    Not surprisingly, the many have reacted. To the chagrin of those who look to the democratic left to restrain markets, the reaction is mostly right-wing populist. And “populist” understates the nature of this reaction, whose nationalist rhetoric, principles, and practices border on neofascism. An increased flow of migrants, another feature of globalism, has compounded the anger of economically stressed locals who want to Make America (France, Norway, Hungary, Finland…) Great Again. This is occurring not just in weakly democratic nations such as Poland and Turkey, but in the established democracies—Britain, America, France, even social-democratic Scandinavia.

    We have been here before. During the period between the two world wars, free-market liberals governing Britain, France, and the US tried to restore the pre–World War I laissez-faire system. They resurrected the gold standard and put war debts and reparations ahead of economic recovery. It was an era of free trade and rampant speculation, with no controls on private capital. The result was a decade of economic insecurity ending in depression, a weakening of parliamentary democracy, and fascist backlash. Right up until the German election of July 1932, when the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the pre-Hitler governing coalition was practicing the economic austerity commended by Germany’s creditors.

    The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

    As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “dis-embedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society—“the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

    Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

    In The Great Transformation, Polanyi emphasized that the core imperatives of nineteenth-century classical liberalism were free trade, the idea that labor had to “find its price on the market,” and enforcement of the gold standard. Today’s equivalents are uncannily similar. We have an ever more intense push for deregulated trade, the better to destroy the remnants of managed capitalism; and the dismantling of what remains of labor market safeguards to increase profits for multinational corporations. In place of the gold standard—whose nineteenth-century function was to force nations to put “sound money” and the interests of bondholders ahead of real economic well-being—we have austerity policies enforced by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the American Federal Reserve tightening credit at the first signs of inflation.

    This unholy trinity of economic policies that Polanyi identified is not working any more now than it did in the 1920s. They are practical failures, as economics, as social policy, and as politics. Polanyi’s historical analysis, in both earlier writings and The Great Transformation, has been vindicated three times, first by the events that culminated in World War II, then by the temporary containment of laissez-faire with resurgent democratic prosperity during the postwar boom, and now again by the restoration of primal economic liberalism and neofascist reaction to it. This should be the right sort of Polanyi moment; instead it is the wrong sort.

    Gareth Dale’s intellectual biography, Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, does a fine job of exploring the man, his work, and the political and intellectual setting in which he developed. This is not the first Polanyi biography, but it is the most comprehensive. Dale, a political scientist who teaches at Brunel University in London, also wrote an earlier book, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market (2010), on his economics.

    Polanyi was born in 1886 in Vienna to an illustrious Jewish family. His father, Mihály Pollacsek, came from the Carpathian region of the Hapsburg Empire and acquired a Swiss engineering degree. He was a contractor for the empire’s growing rail system. In the late 1880s, Mihály moved the family to Budapest, according to the Polanyi Archive. He magyarized the children’s family name to Polanyi in 1904, the same year Karl began studies at the University of Budapest, though he kept his own surname. Karl’s mother, Cecile, the well-educated daughter of a Vilna rabbi, was a pioneering feminist. She founded a women’s college in 1912, wrote for German-language periodicals in Budapest and Berlin, and presided over one of Budapest’s literary salons.

    At home, German and Hungarian were spoken (along with French “at table”), and English was learned, Dale reports. The five Polanyi children also studied Greek and Latin. In the quarter-century before World War I, Budapest was an oasis of liberal tolerance. As in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, a large proportion of the professional and cultural elite consisted of assimilated Jews. In the mid-1890s, Dale notes, “the Jewish faith was accorded the same privileges as the Christian denominations, and Jewish representatives were accorded seats in the upper house of parliament.”

    Drawing on interviews and correspondence as well as published writings, Dale vividly evokes the era. Polanyi’s milieu in Budapest, known as the Great Generation, included activists and social theorists such as his mentor, Oscar Jaszi; Karl Mannheim; the Marxist Georg Lukács; Karl’s younger brother and ideological sparring partner, the libertarian Michael Polanyi; the physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller; the mathematician John von Neumann; and the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, among many others. In this hothouse Polanyi thrived, attending the Minta Gymnasium, one of the city’s best, and then the University of Budapest. He was expelled in 1907 following a shoving match in which anti-Semitic right-wingers disrupted a lecture by a popular leftist professor, Gyula Pikler. He had to finish his doctor of law degree in 1908 at the provincial University of Kolozsvár (today Cluj in Romania). There, he was a founder of the left-humanist Galilei Circle and later served on the editorial board of its journal.

    Polanyi became a leading member of Jaszi’s political party, the Radicals, and was named its general secretary in 1918. He was drawn to the Christian socialism of Robert Owen and Richard Tawney and the guild socialism of G.D.H. Cole. He mused about a fusion of Marxism and Christianity. Polanyi is best classified as a left-wing social democrat—but a lifelong skeptic of the possibility that a capitalist society would ever tolerate a hybrid economic system.

    After World War I broke out, Polanyi enlisted as a cavalry officer. When he came home in late 1917, suffering from malnutrition, depression, and typhus, Budapest was in the throes of a chaotic conflict between the left and the right. In 1918 the Hungarian government made a separate peace with the Allies, breaking with Vienna and hoping to create a liberal republic. Events in the streets overtook parliamentary jockeying, and the Communist leader Béla Kun proclaimed what turned out to be a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic.

    Polanyi decamped for Vienna, both to recover his health and to get off the political front lines. There he found his calling as a high-level economics journalist and the love of his life, Ilona Duczynska, a Polish-born radical well to his left. Their daughter, Kari, born in 1923, recalls, as a preteen, clipping marked-up newspaper articles in three languages for her father. At age ninety-four, she continues to help direct the Polanyi Archive in Montreal.

    Central Europe’s equivalent of The Economist, the weekly Österreichische Volkswirt, hired Polanyi in 1924 as a writer on international affairs. He continued his quest for a feasible socialism, engaging with others on the left and challenging the right in ongoing arguments with the free-market theorist Ludwig von Mises. The debates, published in agonizing detail, turned on whether a socialist economy was capable of efficient pricing. Mises insisted it was not. Polanyi argued that a decentralized form of worker-led socialism could price necessities with good-enough accuracy. He ultimately concluded, Dale recounts, that these abstruse technical arguments had been a waste of his time.

    A practical answer to the debate with Mises was playing out in Red Vienna. Well-mobilized workers kept socialist municipal governments in power for nearly sixteen years after World War I. Gas, water, and electricity were provided by the government, which also built working-class housing financed by taxes on the rich—including a tax on servants. There were family allowances for parents and municipal unemployment insurance for the trade unions. None of this undermined the efficiency of Austria’s private economy, which was far more endangered by the hapless policies of economic austerity that were criticized by Polanyi. After 1927, unemployment relentlessly increased and wages fell, which helped bring to power in 1932–1933 an Austrofascist government.

    To Polanyi, Red Vienna was as important for its politics as for its economics. The perverse policies of Dickensian England reflected the political weakness of its working class, but Red Vienna was an emblem of the strength of its working class. “While [English poor-law reform] caused a veritable disaster of the common people,” he wrote, “Vienna achieved one of the most spectacular triumphs of Western history.” But as Polanyi appreciated, an island of municipal socialism could not survive larger market turbulence and rising fascism.

    In 1933, with homegrown fascists running the government, Polanyi left Vienna for London. There, with the help of Cole and Tawney, he eventually found work in an extension program sponsored by Oxford University, known as the Workers’ Educational Association. He taught, among other subjects, English industrial history. His original research for these lectures formed the first drafts of The Great Transformation.

    His mentor Oscar Jaszi was also now in exile and teaching at Oberlin. To supplement his meager adjunct pay, Polanyi was able to put together lecture tours to colleges in the United States. He found Roosevelt’s America a hopeful counterpoint to Europe. After war broke out, one of those lecture trips evolved into a three-year appointment at Bennington College, where he completed his book.

    The timing of publication was auspicious. The year 1944 included the Bretton Woods Agreement, Roosevelt’s call for an Economic Bill of Rights, and Lord Beverage’s epic blueprint Full Employment in a Free Society. What these had in common with Polanyi’s work was a conviction that an excessively free market should never again lead to human misery ending in fascism.

    Yet Polanyi’s book was initially met with resounding silence. This, I think, was the result of two factors. First, Polanyi belonged to no academic discipline and was essentially self-taught. Dale writes that when he was finally offered a job teaching economic history at Columbia in 1947, “the sociologists saw him as an economist, while the economists thought the reverse.” Midcentury America was also a period when political economy, institutionalism, the history of economic thought, and economic history were going into a period of eclipse, in favor of formalistic modeling. Polanyi’s was not a hypothesis that could be tested.

    Second and more important, Polanyi’s ideological adversaries enjoyed subsidy and promotion while he had only the power of his ideas. Mises, like Polanyi, had no academic credentials. But he conducted an influential private seminar from his post as secretary of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. The seminar developed the ultra-laissez-faire Austrian school of economics. Mises’s prime student was Friedrich Hayek. As a laissez-faire theorist financed by organized business, Mises anticipated the Heritage Foundation by half a century.

    Hayek later contended in The Road to Serfdom that well-intentioned state efforts to temper markets would end in despotism. But there is no case of social democracy drifting into dictatorship. History sided with Polanyi, demonstrating that an unrestrained free market leads to democratic breakdown. Yet Hayek ended up with a chair at the London School of Economics, which was founded by Fabians; the “Austrian School” got dignified as a formal school of libertarian economics; and Hayek later won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944, was a best seller, serialized in Reader’s Digest. Polanyi’s Great Transformation sold just 1,701 copies in 1944 and 1945.

    When The Great Transformation appeared in 1944, the review in The New York Times was withering. The reviewer, John Chamberlain, wrote, “This beautifully written essay in the revaluation of a hundred and fifty years of history adds up to a subtle appeal for a new feudalism, a new slavery, a new status of economy that will tie men to their places of abode and their jobs.” If that sounds curiously like Hayek, the same Chamberlain had just written the effusive foreword to The Road to Serfdom. Such is the political economy of influence.

    Yet Polanyi’s book refused to fade away. In 1982, his concepts were the centerpiece of an influential article by the international relations scholar John Gerard Ruggie, who termed the postwar economic order of 1944 “embedded liberalism.” The Bretton Woods system, Ruggie wrote, reconciled state with market by “re-embedding” the liberal economy in society via democratic politics.The Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, a major historian of social democracy, used the Polanyian concept “decommodification” in an important book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), to describe how social democrats contained and complemented the market.

    Other scholars who have valued Polanyi’s insights include the political historians Ira Katznelson, Jacob Hacker, and Richard Valelly, the late sociologist Daniel Bell, and the economists Joseph Stiglitz, Dani Rodrik, and Herman Daly. On the other hand, thinkers who seem quintessentially Polanyian in their concern about markets invading nonmarket realms, such as Michael Walzer, John Kenneth Galbraith, Albert Hirschman, and the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, don’t invoke him at all. This is the price one pays for being, in Hirschman’s self-description, a trespasser.

    Having been exiled three times—from Budapest to Vienna, from Vienna to London, and later to New York—Polanyi had to move yet again when the US authorities would not grant Ilona a visa, citing her onetime membership in the Communist Party in the 1920s. They ended up in a suburb of Toronto, from which Polanyi commuted to Columbia until his retirement in the mid-1950s.

    Though his enthusiasts tend to focus only on The Great Transformation, Dale’s book is valuable for his discussion of Polanyi after 1944. He lived for another twenty years, working on what was then known as primitive economic systems, which gave him yet another basis to demonstrate that the free market is no natural condition, and that markets in fact do not have to overwhelm the rest of society. On the contrary, many early cultures effectively blended market and nonmarket forms of exchange. His subjects included the slave trade of Dahomey and the economy of ancient Athens, which “demonstrated that elements of redistribution, reciprocity, and market exchange could be effectively fused into ‘an organic whole.’” Dale writes, “For Polanyi, democratic Athens was truly antiquity’s forerunner to Red Vienna.” Athens, of course, was far from socialist, but its precapitalist economy did blend market and nonmarket forms of income.

    Dale also addresses Polanyi’s views on the escalating cold war and on the mixed economy of the postwar era that many now view as a golden age. The trente glorieuses, combining egalitarian capitalism and restored democracy, should have felt to him like an affirmation. But Polanyi, having lived through two wars, the destruction of socialist Vienna, the loss of close family members to the Nazis, four separate exiles, and long separations from Ilona, was not so easily convinced. While he admired Roosevelt, he considered the British Labour government of 1945 a sellout—a welfare state atop a still capitalist system.

    Half a century later, that concern proved all too accurate. Others saw the Bretton Woods system as an elegant way of restarting trade while creating shelter for each member nation to run full-employment economies, but Polanyi viewed it as an extension of the sway of capital. That may also have been prescient. By the 1980s, the IMF and the World Bank had been turned into enforcers of austerity, the opposite of what was intended by their architect, John Maynard Keynes. He blamed the cold war mostly on the Allies, praising Henry Wallace’s view that the West could have reached an accommodation with Stalin.

    Dale makes no excuses for Polanyi’s blind spot about the Soviet Union. At various points in the 1920s and 1930s, he notes, Polanyi gave Stalin something of a pass, even blaming the 1940 Molotov–Ribbentrop pact on Whitehall’s anti-Sovietism. And he was sanguine about the intentions of the Russians in the immediate postwar period. As a member of the émigré Hungarian Council in London, he broke with its other leaders over whether the Red Army should be welcomed as a harbinger of democratic socialism. The Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe, Polanyi insisted, would bring “a form of representative government based on political parties.”

    Having been proven badly wrong, Polanyi cheered the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1956, yet after it was crushed by Soviet tanks he also found reasons for hope in the mildly reformist “goulash communism” that followed. This was naive, yet not totally misplaced. Though Polanyi was no Marxist, there was enough openness in Hungary that in 1963, a year before his death and well before the Berlin Wall came down, he was invited to lecture at the University of Budapest, his first visit home in four decades.

    On the centennial of his birth in 1986, Kari Polanyi-Levitt organized a symposium in his honor in Budapest. The conference volume makes a superb companion to the Dale biography. The twenty-five short articles are written by a mix of writers based in the West and several from what was still Communist Hungary—where Polanyi was widely read. The writing is surprisingly exploratory and nondogmatic. Even so, when her turn came to speak, Polanyi-Levitt took a moment to plead: “If I may be permitted one more request to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences…it is that The Great Transformation be made available to Hungarian readers in the Hungarian language.” This was finally done in 1990. Like many in the West, the Communist regime in Budapest was not quite sure what to do with Polanyi.

    Today, after a democratic interlude, Hungary is a center of ultra-nationalist autocracy. Misguided policies of financial license played their usual part. After the 2008 financial collapse, Hungarian unemployment steadily rose, from under 8 percent before the crash to almost 12 percent by early 2010. And in the 2010 election, the far-right Fidesz Party swept a left-wing government out of power, winning more than two thirds of the parliamentary seats, which made possible the “illiberal democracy” of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It was one more echo, and one more vindication, that Polanyi didn’t need.

    What, finally, are we to make of Karl Polanyi? And what lessons might he offer for the present moment? As even his champions admit, some of his details were off. Earlier friendly critics, Fred Block and Margaret Somers, point out that his account of late-eighteenth-century Britain exaggerates the ubiquity of poor relief. His famous case of the poor law of Speenhamland of 1795, whose public assistance protected the poor from the early perturbations of capitalism, overstated its application in England as a whole. Yet his account of the liberal reform of the poor laws in the 1830s was spot on. The intent and effect were to push people off of relief and force workers to take jobs at the lowest going wage.

    One might also argue that the failure of liberal democracy to take hold in Central Europe in the nineteenth century, which paved the way for right-wing nationalism, had more complex causes than the spread of economic liberalism. Yet Polanyi was correct to observe that it was the failed attempt to universalize market liberalism after World War I that left the democracies weak, divided, and incapable of resisting fascism until the outbreak of war. Neville Chamberlain is best remembered for his capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938. But at the nadir of the Great Depression in April 1933, when Hitler was consolidating power in Berlin and Chamberlain was serving as Tory chancellor of the exchequer in London, he said this: “We are free from that fear which besets so many less fortunately placed, the fear that things are going to get worse. We owe our freedom from that fear to the fact that we have balanced our budget.” Such was the perverse conventional wisdom, then and now. That line should be chiseled on some monument to Polanyi.

    A recent article by three Danish political scientists in the Journal of Democracy questions whether it was reasonable to attribute the surge of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s to the long arc of laissez-faire and economic collapse. They reported that the well-established democracies of northwest Europe and the former British colonies Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand “were virtually immune to the repeated crises of the interwar period,” while the newer and more fragile democracies of southern, central, and eastern Europe succumbed. Indeed, fascists briefly assumed power in northwest Europe only through invasion and occupation. Yet that observation makes Polanyi a more prophetic and ominous voice for our own time. Today in much of Europe, far-right parties are now the second or third largest.

    In sum, Polanyi got some details wrong, but he got the big picture right. Democracy cannot survive an excessively free market; and containing the market is the task of politics. To ignore that is to court fascism. Polanyi wrote that fascism solved the problem of the rampant market by destroying democracy. But unlike the fascists of the interwar period, today’s far-right leaders are not even bothering to contain market turbulence or to provide decent jobs through public works. Brexit, a spasm of anger by the dispossessed, will do nothing positive for the British working class; and Donald Trump’s program is a mash-up of nationalist rhetoric and even deeper government alliance with predatory capitalism. Discontent may yet go elsewhere. Assuming democracy holds, there could be a countermobilization more in the spirit of Polanyi’s feasible socialism. The pessimistic Polanyi would say that capitalism has won and democracy has lost. The optimist in him would look to resurgent popular politics.
    Einstein on marxology:
    "In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority.
    Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods."

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