Radhika Desai

Though Polanyi referred to three distinct fictitious commodities, one, money, and the fate of the apex structure that commodified it, the gold standard, structured The Great Transformation’s narrative. Despite this centrality of money and its commodification to Polanyi’s masterwork, there is near-deafening silence in Polanyi scholarship on money as a fictitious commodity. This chapter ends it. It traces Polanyi’s understanding of fictitious commodities to its sources in classical political economy and explains how the near total dominance of the antithetical tradition of neoclassical economics obscures understanding. The chapter also argues that the resulting argument shared a great deal with the classical Marxist theories of imperialism and of uneven and combined development of previous decades, particularly their arguments about the centrality of powerful nation states to capitalism. It stresses another hitherto neglected aspect of Polanyi’s argument, that the double movement led to the emergence of ‘crustacean nations’. As such, the chapter argues, The Great Transformation contributes a great deal towards a new approach to understanding world affairs, geopolitical economy, which challenges Ricardian ‘universalist’ understandings and takes the ‘materiality of nations’ seriously. It, and Polanyi, are more relevant than ever in our ‘deglobalizing’ age of multi-polarity.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
From Polanyi to the new economic archaeology
Michael Hudson

Polanyi spoke of the commodification of money, and this chapter focuses on how interest-bearing debt became the major dynamic, also contributing to the commodification of land and labor. By the late third millennium BC the main way to obtain manual labor was to lend money and make debtors work off their debts as an antichretic interest charge. Personal debt became the lever for creditors to pry land out of the clan-based tenure system, mainly for sale under economic duress. Debtors who pledged their crop or land rights usually ended up forfeiting them. This alienation catalyzed the ‘commodification’ of land. By tracing these debt dynamics, the new economic archaeology is compatible with Polanyi’s intuitions and recognition that market relations are embedded in social relations, and extends his analysis in tracing how administered pricing and monetary valuations created the preconditions for market exchange. The earliest markets, credit and land tenure systems were regulated. Administered pricing was a precondition for creating weights, measures and price equivalencies to enable market exchange to evolve more flexibly.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
Polanyi’s framework in the age of neoliberalism
Claus Thomasberger

In these remarkably stirring reflections, delivered at the 2014 conference from which most of the contributions to this volume emerge, the late Abe Rotstein, Polanyi’s student and collaborator, recalls the projected sequel to The Great Transformation, to be titled Freedom and Technology. Whereas the former was built on a social sciences approach using institutional analysis, the sequel was to follow the intention Hegel expressed in the words ‘Wir die religiöse Vorstellung in Gedanken fassen’ (We want to turn religious expression into philosophical thought). Polanyi took religion seriously – not its outer ceremonial trappings but the important truths that lay behind and beneath these beliefs and practices. The sequel was to trace humanity’s progression through three major revelations: the knowledge of death, the discovery of our inner life and conscience, and the realization of freedom amid our social obligations. This was the idea of ‘the reality of society’ around which the whole book was to be built. It was the precursor of our cherished civil freedoms and closely connected with Polanyi’s idea of freedom in a complex society; it is also deeply threatened in an age of state and corporate cyber surveillance.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
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Karl Polanyi in the twenty-first century
Radhika Desai

This introduction places the contributions that follow in the context of Polanyi’s rising influence, its causes and effects, and of the key twenty-first century developments that make his oeuvre more relevant than ever. It emphasizes how the contributions push the boundaries of received understandings of Polanyi. While some contributions fill gaping holes, such as those on money as a fictitious commodity, others overturn received understandings, whether that of the double movement or fictitious commodities, or the provenance (Central European or American) of his principal ideas and concerns or how he understood socialism. Yet others demonstrate how amenable Polanyi’s ideas are to further development. Last but not least, the introduction outlines Polanyi’s historical diagnosis as it emerges from these innovative contributions and argues that the stark choice he felt faced European societies, socialism or fascism, is once again before us as we face the groundswell of nationalist and far right forces.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism

Karl Polanyi (1886–1964) returned to public discourse in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union imploded and globalization erupted. Best known for The Great Transformation, Polanyi’s wide-ranging thought anticipated twenty-first-century civilizational challenges of ecological collapse, social disintegration and international conflict, and warned that the unbridled domination of market capitalism would engender nationalist protective counter-movements. In Karl Polanyi and Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, Radhika Desai and Kari Polanyi Levitt bring together prominent and new thinkers in the field to extend the boundaries of our understanding of Polanyi's life and work. Kari Polanyi Levitt's opening essay situates Polanyi in the past century shaped by Keynes and Hayek, and explores how and why his ideas may shape the twenty-first century. Her analysis of his Bennington Lectures, which pre-dated and anticipated The Great Transformation, demonstrates how Central European his thought and chief concerns were. The next several contributions clarify, for the first time in Polanyi scholarship, the meaning of money as a fictitious commodity. Other contributions resolve difficulties in understanding the building blocks of Polanyi's thought: fictitious commodities, the double movement, the United States' exceptional development, the reality of society and socialism as freedom in a complex society. The volume culminates in explorations of how Polanyi has influenced, and can be used to develop, ideas in a number of fields, whether income inequality, world-systems theory or comparative political economy. Contributors: Fred Block, Michael Brie, Radhika Desai, Michael Hudson, Hannes Lacher, Kari Polanyi Levitt, Chikako Nakayama, Jamie Peck, Abraham Rotstein, Margaret Somers, Claus Thomasberger, Oscar Ugarteche Galarza.

An investigation of the theoretical lineage to Giovanni Arrighi
Chikako Nakayama

This chapter brings Karl Polanyi into dialogue with Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The dialogue is intended to make visible key aspects of Polanyi’s theoretical framework while also suggesting limitations in Piketty’s approach to political economy.  Specifically, the authors use the concept of ‘predistribution’ – implicit in Polanyi – to critique Piketty’s emphasis on redistribution as the solution to growing wealth and income inequality. Predistribution conveys the idea that the initial market distribution of income is not natural but is shaped by the systematic exercise of political and economic power.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
Polanyi, The Great Transformation and the American exception
Hannes Lacher

In the last decades, Karl Polanyi has gained recognition as one of the most important social scientists of the twentieth century. His seminal book, The Great Transformation, is listed among twentieth- century classics. How can this book, written more than seventy-five years ago, be applied to the current conditions? In order to answer this question the chapter not only compares the civilization of the nineteenth century in Europe with our own epoch. It also reconstructs some of Polanyi’s most important insights, such as his critique of the liberal utopia (in its classical and neoliberal version), his interpretation of the double movement, his vision of the meaning of the industrial revolution, his understanding of the problem of freedom in a complex society and his idea of a necessary ‘reform of human consciousness’. The chapter closes with a discussion of the question of how Polanyi’s categories can be used fruitfully so as to throw light to the post-war era and our society today.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
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Jamie Peck

This chapter discusses the theoretical and historical relationship between Karl Polanyi’s book, The Great Transformation, and Giovanni Arrighi’s 1994 work, The Long Twentieth Century. Arrighi was already acquainted with Polanyi’s works in the 1970s in his critical inspection of the concept of imperialism. But then, he rediscovered Polanyi in the discussion of globalisation around the turn of the twentieth century, after becoming conscious of the vital importance of Fernand Braudel’s perspective and of economic sociology for understanding historical capitalism. He put Polanyi’s discussion of the rise and decline of British hegemony in the longer historical perspective and in a more complex structure of the world-systems theory, and investigated it in connection to the American hegemony. In this way, Arrighi has accomplished a very unique theoretical contribution to the globalised world of our age.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism
Piketty through the lens of Polanyi
Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block

The chapter reconstructs the emergence and formulation of Karl Polanyi's central research question: How is responsible freedom possible in a complex modern society? The origins of this question in the time before the First World War and the confrontations with the challenge of neoliberalism and fascism are discussed. It is shown that Karl Polanyi's concept of freedom has four dimensions. Polanyi connects negative, positive, substantial and social freedom with each other and formulates a highly innovative research programme which forms the basis for The Great Transformation and later works.

in Karl Polanyi and twenty-first-century capitalism