Saturday, 21 March 2009

Polanyi Quotes

Thirty years after I ignored the book on an undergraduate reading list, I'm tackling Karl Polanyi's 'The Great Transformation - the Political and Economic Origins of Our Time'. For a book originally published in 1944 it's holding up quite well.

I especially like his insistence that 'labor, land and money' are fictitious commodities.

"...labor, land 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...Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself...nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life... land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance."

So what would happen if the market mechanism was the sole director of these fictitious commodities? Well, 'the demolition of society':

" In disposing of a man's labor power the system would...dispose of the physical, psychological and moral entity 'man' attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprises, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society."

Suddenly I'm nostalgic for social democrats who meant it.


  1. It's a very important book. Glad that you like it. Still, if you think his ideas on commodities are odd, he's got some line on pre-history and Potlach (like the situationists, exchange without equivalent) that bears on this.

    It was recently that I finally got to reading it (he keeps getting quoted). The Great Transformation greatly impressed me largely for its account of the uprooting of society to fit the market. Even wrote something on the text (relates to workfare).

    Someone who, whatever you disgree with him on, reals very much with the essential of political economy.

  2. One of the books I keep meaning to have a crack at. What kind of read is it?

  3. Tom,
    If you've ever suffered your way through the dreadful prose of some things taught on mid-1970s sociology degrees (yes, M.Althusser, I'm pointing at you....) as I have then Polanyi is a breeze. It takes a while to get going but is increasingly rewarding as Coatsey suggests above.

    Since the days I suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous marxist structuralism as a spotty 19 year old I see that a whole sub-branch of academic practice called 'economic sociology' or the 'sociology of finance' has grown up. Polanyi seems to be one of their patron saints and that's the route that has brought me back to him. I think - I'm still reading - he originated the idea of 'embeddedness'.

    The contrast, for me, is with the first bit of Capital Vol 1, where Marx introduces the idea of capitalism as a generalised system of commodity production. But I think I ought finish the book before pronouncing on that subject...