The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
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The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

4.18 of 5 stars 4.18  ·  rating details  ·  1,578 ratings  ·  92 reviews
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 reve...more
Paperback, 360 pages
Published March 28th 2001 by Beacon Press (first published 1944)
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The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard KeynesThe Wealth of Nations by Adam SmithThe Road to Serfdom by Friedrich HayekDebt by David GraeberNaked Economics by Charles Wheelan
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19th out of 191 books — 183 voters
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W. Bradford Littlejohn
I foolishly took it upon myself to read not only the assigned chapters, but the whole of Polanyi's magnum opus, and for the past few days have been lost in the labyrinth of 19th-century poor laws and monetary policy in the Weimar Republic. But this book was immensely profitable, if I may borrow a market-based metaphor.

In particular, three of Polanyi's simplest, most commonsensical contentions were extremely illuminating to me and greatly bolstered my ability to criticize capitalist orthodoxy.

The...more
Larry Lamar Yates
Polanyi understood economics more realistically than most economists, and understood that economics does not stand alone, but exists within a larger social institutional context. I know that sounds a bit stiff. But until you get it, you will suspect that economists don’t know something you don’t. You might even believe in the “almighty market” as something that exists outside of culture and politics, like the revolutions of the planets. Economics is always, like religion or politics, something w...more
Naeem
I wouldn't think of reading this book without a guide. Because Polanyi is an impossible read -- more difficult than Marx (he doesn't have Marx's love of language or Marx's humor), more difficult than Hegel (he doesn't have Hegel's pointed sense of knowing that his prose is torturing the poor reader). If you have ever tried to read Aristotle, then you have some idea of how Polanyi writes -- tear-duct vaporizing dry.

But you get something here you won't get in hegel or marx (in part because he is...more
Hadrian
This is a fascinating book, I'm astonished I haven't heard of it earlier.

Polanyi is not your run of the mill economist - he does not use equations - he uses context and does not describe events in a vacuum, integrating various disciplines from the social sciences. He describes four elements which comprised 19th century civilization, and which have all been swept away by the great bloodbaths of the early 20th century - the gold standard, the international balance of power, the classical liberal s...more
DoctorM
Polanyi's "Great Transformation" is a classic of economic history in its older, political-economy mode, and a book too often forgotten in an era where economics is seen as a kind of physics, a discipline about ineluctable mathematical laws. Polanyi looks at the social consequences of unfettered capitalism in early 19th-c. England and at the way British society, through relief schemes and workhouses, tried to cope with a world where workers were expected to behave as mere inputs. A fine work, wel...more
Meru
I really didn't like this book, mostly because I felt that it was poorly formulated and based on a lot of incomplete examples. Every time Polanyi tried to prove something he'd give 4 examples of random indigenous populations in which the event occurred. All of his examples seemed like exceptions rather than base cases for a rule, and his strange statements like "previously to our time (the 1940s/Industrial Revolution period in general) no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was con...more
Bill Bogert
I came to this from a Marxist orientation, wanting to understand the roots of John O' Connor's ecosocialism. One of the books that changed how I think. Though I disagree with its implicit dismissal of working class struggle
Bill
I've been fortunate to read this book with a group of doctoral students, otherwise I would probably be still trying to wade my way through it.

Polanyi is not an easy read, but the thoughts he elucidates to challenge his readers are worth the effort. His basic thesis is that a "free market" economy (one which lacks governmental controls and regulations) is not only impossible to achieve, but undesirable as well. His assertion is that a truly free market could not exist for any length of time witho...more
Joel
The principle point made by this book is that the attempted transition from a market embedded in society to a society embedded in a self-regulating market resulted in the collapse of 19th century civilisation, in the form of global conflict and economic recession. Polanyi asserts that free markets, whereby labour, land and capital become fictitious commodities, result in massive social dislocation. Socialism exists to counter this, giving a 'double movement', as recognisable now as in 1944. In h...more
Chelsea Szendi
Reading this book was a truly enjoyable experience. It was also more than a little uncanny that the moment in which Polanyi wrote (the book was first published in 1944) resonates so strongly with today, inasmuch as we are still in thrall to the utopian vision of the free market. On Adam Smith's vision of Economic Man, Polanyi writes: "In retrospect it can be said that no misreading of the past ever proved more prophetic of the future." That misreading lingers.

While Polanyi's analysis of the natu...more
Eric
Nov 15, 2010 Eric rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anybody interested in history, social criticism, economics, ecology, the fate of the human race
Recommended to Eric by: Ivan Illich
"The transformation. . .: for the motive of subsistence that of gain must be substituted. All transactions are turned into money transactions, and these in turn require that a medium of exchange be introduced into every articulation of life. All incomes must derive from the sale of something or other. . . But the most startling peculiarity of the system lies in the fact that, once it is established, it must be allowed to function without outside interference. . . .

". . . Machine production in a...more
Jeff Rowe
This was written in 1944? Really? Because it works pretty well in today's global economy even though it focuses upon the collapse of the global system in 1914. Some books take one idea and build an ironclad case around it. This book, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas. Overflowing in fact. So many ideas that they can't all be proven, but that's okay. The author trods a novel middle ground in his reasoning that's neither Communist, nor Capitalist which was refreshingly new to me. The idea...more
Dylan
The ideology of economic liberalism is a bankrupt utopia. Private enterprise, "sound" currency, libertarianism, deregulation--the still familiar ideas that originated with Malthus, Smith, and Ricardo are shown here to be based wholly on fictions that defy the evidence of all human history.

Among those fictions are that:

* the motive of economic gain governs all "rational" social behavior--conclusively disproved by mountains of ethnographic evidence from all over the world;

* human labor, land, and...more
Brenda
Oct 14, 2008 Brenda marked it as to-read
Quote from Thomas Frank:
"Because of what's going on in the economy, this election is basically a referendum on what kind of nation we're going to be and what kind of democracy we're going to be. I'd like to recommend the literature of what's wrong with capitalism — how if you let it just run unregulated, it will self-destruct like it's doing right now, and it will drive millions of people into bankruptcy and kick up unemployment. People haven't written about that in a long time because we've bee...more
Nicholas
Anyone with an interest in history of the Western World, especially economic history, from 1700 onward will love this. Wide-ranging with quotes, statistics and a clear explanation of the inter-relation between political and economic forces, I found this invaluable to understand how political economy has brought the West where it is today. It opens up discussion on everything from wage-structures to taxation system to regulation of finance markets to the modernisation of commodity production to e...more
Sarah
As far as I know, Stiglitz was in diapers when Polanyi wrote the Great Transformation, so I don't know why he is listed as an author. I have the original edition of this book and it is a timeless economics classic and has yet to be surpassed in breadth and depth by any current economic theorist.
Also, Polanyi is about as sexy as economics gets.
Michael
Jan 05, 2008 Michael rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone wishing for an update on marx
That there is no hand of providence guiding the markets towards grace. That no one in the political sciences can write, and that professors educated at harvard yet pontificate elsewhere are worms.
Jason Clark
This books changed my life, literally. If you want to understand what is going on in the world at the moment read this book, written just after the second world war.
Rishi
Te underlying philosophy is that if development harms people right now, than don't do it; i.e., the ends don't justify the means, something I agree with very strongly.
Yupa
Mi spiace soprattutto per le mie sempiterne lacune in economia e ancor più per quelle voragini in storia moderna e contemporanea che mi trascino dentro dalle scuole superiori, ancor non sufficientemente colmate.
Altrimenti avrei avuto molta più facilità a comprendere il libro di Polanyi.

Che, facendo un po' di violenza alla sua unitarietà, porta avanti sostanzialmente due tesi, due interpretazioni: una del liberismo economico del XIX secolo e una del fascismo (dei fascismi) del XX.
Con la prima, l'

...more
James Culbertson
When I was in graduate school, I read Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958) and was impressed with the way in which he argues that positivism gives a false account of knowing. Having had to endure the righteous fundamentalism of positivist professors as an undergraduate, it was wonderfully refreshing to encounter a book that, in a few pages, was able to dismantle thoroughly the positivist view of knowing. (I realized later that these folks had only read...more
Randal Samstag
Polanyi’s book traces the history of the rise of industrial civilization in England from 1795 through the Great Depression. The book was written during World War II, but it remains as important as ever to us since the “Reagan / Thatcher Revolution” has resurrected the illusions of an earlier age of naive worship of the free market. Now that we are in the midst of our Great Recession, perhaps we are in a better position to appreciate his comprehensive critique of liberal economic theory, the theo...more
Andrew
Aug 24, 2013 Andrew added it
Shelves: sociology
Karl Polanyi's claims that the spirit of liberal capitalism will be extinguished by a more modern and humane socialism sound like so much wishful thinking now. But he's quite right about the market system being nothing natural, and about the violent tumult and human misery engendered by free markets reinforced and perpetuated by the modern state. All of that being said, I'm not really familiar with a lot of the history of early 19th Century England-- which is the critical example that Polanyi us...more
Laura
In this absolutely marvelous book--his magnum opus--, Karl Polanyi analyzes free-market ideology in an absolutely brilliant and accessible way.

It is unfair to say that this book is prophetic. As he was arguing with the founder of modern economics, the author was going on far more than intuition. (Karl Polanyi was the intellectual rival of the founder of modern neoliberalism--that is, of the man who later became economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.) It is, however, the best cr...more
Sam
A credible overview - based on my limited experience - of the history of the unregulated free market, and how it was created with utopian aims of reducing all societal relationships to commodities, and how an organic resistance formed in the realms of labor, land, and money. Written in a direct style that anybody with an interest in the subject can easily understand, although it exposed my lack of knowledge of classical economics and sent me on many an internet search. You can use this book the...more
Brian
Other reviewers have pretty much said it all, but, yeah, the main ideas here are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. I'm not sure I agree with all his social-democrat, reformist and functionalist conclusions, but Polanyi exposes the "free market" as an impossible Utopia invoked to justify the horrors of industrial capitalism. "Embededness", "fictitious commodities" and the "double movement" are all incredibly useful concepts. I should have read this earlier and am sure I will refer back...more
Tim
This is probably one of the least-read of the most important books of the 20th century. Part of Polanyi's problem is that his book does not easily fit into one field - neither sociology nor history, neither political science nor economics, this work is hard to categorize - but he presents a unique and insightful critique of modern capitalism without falling into simple Marxist criticisms. Although his writing is less than perfect, and I disagree with many of his ideas, this book is a mind-crunch...more
D
This is a pretty cool economic, political, and intellectual history of economic liberalism that focuses especially on the 19th century. Polanyi argues that markets should be understood in terms of society, not as "natural," and furthermore that 19th century industrial nations are totally unique in that they've disembedded markets from their social moorings. This, he argues, is an unsustainable situation, and protectionist measures are spontaneous responses to protect society from the market.
Will
A Great Book. Must Reading! -- Not much to add to the many fine reviews here. However, I learned a great deal by Polanyi's discussion concerning reciprocity and redistribution. He only starts his discussion here in the Great Transformation, and furthers these points in his later works which also recommended. --- For challenges to Polanyi, check Sondra Halperin's criticism of this work. She is correct to argue that Polanyi is wrong about Europe's century of peace.
Tommy
Sep 15, 2008 Tommy rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: free market worshippers and bashers
Polanyi delivers precise, cutting and thorough criticisms of an unfettered market economy. He uses effective historical examples to explain why barter and markets are not the natural outflows of human interaction and the positive and negative aspects that flow out of varying levels of regulation and restraint in the market economy.

Polanyi can be very dry and overly dense at times but his points are well taken and extremely well thought out. Definitely worth a read.
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“...To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity, "labor power" cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity. In disposing of a man's labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity of "man" attached to the tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the 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, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rovers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed...” 13 likes
“In the half-century 1879–1929, Western societies developed into close-knit units, in which powerful disruptive strains were latent. The more immediate source of this development was the impaired self-regulation of market economy. Since society was made to conform to the needs of the market mechanism, imperfections in the functioning of that mechanism created cumulative strains in the body social. Impaired self-regulation was an effect of protectionism.” 2 likes
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