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

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  4,126 ratings  ·  246 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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W. Littlejohn
Oct 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.

Jan 04, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
E. G.
Foreword, by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Introduction, by Fred Block
Note on the 2001 Edition
Author's Acknowledgments

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

Notes on Sources:
1. Balance of Power as Policy, Historical Law, Principle, and System
2. Hundred Years' Peace
3. The Snapping of the Golden Thread
4. Swings of the Pendulum after World War I
5. Finance and Peace
6. Selected References to "Societies and Economic Systems"
7. Selected References to "Evolution of the Market Patt
David M
I read this a few years ago.

I've been thinking about it again after reading Streeck's stunning How Will Capitalism End?

Maybe the key concept here is embeddedness (

Capitalist society relies on pre-capitalist social formations to sustain itself. The market on its own is an insufficient foundation for the spiritual and social bonds that constitute a people (as opposed to just an aggregate of individuals).

Thus (it may follow) the total triumph of capitalism w
Dec 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Just re-read this book from start to finish and I could not believe how relevant it is. This may be the most important book written this century. While some parts are obviously outdated, his thorough takedown of neoliberalism, myths of colonization and money are essential. The fact that we’re still only reading Adam Smith or Marx is a tragedy.
Larry Lamar Yates
Dec 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) withdrawn
I have to admit that I took fifty-one weeks to finish this. The effect of that is that my take on it is somewhat disjointed. Hence no proper review.

The four stars (3.5 really) are because the author presents some excellent historical analysis and pulls that together to synthesize extremely original ideas of economic development. I'm surprised we don't see more references to Polanyi's theories.

I did have some concerns with his choice of historical events. As is often the case, he has chosen thos
Andrew Fairweather
I had never read this book in its entirety, but in fragments... and that was years ago. I remember thinking it was interesting at the time... years later, one of my favorite writers recommended it as *the* book to read for anyone interested in wrapping their head around the socio-economic national shift we might as well call the "populist" turn. My god, I couldn't agree more. This is a very important book.

Polanyi's basic argument is that the tenets of the free-marketeers rely upon strange assump
Randal Samstag
Jul 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: economics, favorites
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
Dec 27, 2008 rated it liked it
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

I discovered Polanyi's work through a provocative essay on The Market as God in which religious commentator, Harvey Cox writes: "Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts—all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other "gods." The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transfor
Jan 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Chelsea Szendi
May 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 15, 2009 rated it did not like it
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
Jun 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
"The Great Transformation" refers to what goes on with the reader's head before and after reading this book; it's really stellar!! ...more
May 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Michael Burnam-Fink
Aug 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2017, academic, history
Karl Polanyi sadly passed away before his writing could find its natural format, a 100+ tweet thread beginning with "It's Time For Some Game Theory..."

This book is nominally an account of the development of laissez faire capitalism, and a rebuttal to the arguments of Ludwig Von Mises that free markets naturally develop in the absence of political intervention, with a kicker about capitalism's responsibility for the rise of fascism (the book was published in 1944).

What this book is is a rambling
Bill Bogert
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Oct 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating book. Read for a seminar; detailed notes follow.

Ch. 1: Polanyi argues that the emergence of a “peace interest” explains the 100-year peace, which lasted from 1815-1914. (7) The peace interest became effective because it made the balance of power system serve its cause by providing social organs capable of dealing with internal forces active in the area of peace. (17) In the first part of the 100-year peace, the Holy Alliance organized a reactionary peace against the forces of Napo
Abubakar Mehdi
Feb 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
One of the most amazing and thought-provoking books I have ever read. Brilliant !
Charles Haywood
Dec 26, 2019 rated it liked it
The Great Transformation, published in 1944, is an ambitious book. It attempts two huge tasks. First, to refute the free market ideology, sometimes called market fundamentalism, represented at that time by men such as Ludwig von Mises, and now by the entirety of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Second, to explain the history of the nineteenth century through an economic lens that also purports to explain both World War I and World War II. Mostly, the book is a failure. It overshoots in its crit ...more
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018
Polanyi, The Great Transformation, like, finally. One of those books I've been meaning to read for at least 10 years. I must have come across this book a thousand times. It's a master piece, obviously, often referred to as the 20th century 'most prophetic' critic of capitalism. While the book is commonly associated with the Social Democracy/Keynes/Bretton Woods/New Deal-ish regulated market economy, Polanyi's critique of the market society, where the social, humanity in fact, is subordinated to ...more
Jan 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: dmingml, gml-dmin
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
If you're too daunted by Marx's 'Communist Manifesto' to read through it, too bored by Adam Smith's 'The Wealth of Nations' to sit down with him and his 1700s-era views...if you don't understand Maynard Keynes, if you have family members who avidly read the Wall St Journal, if you have colleagues who are rabid libertarians or who froth over the Dow-Jones Industrial Average...if you suffer too many acquaintances who vex you with too many opinions on politics or business or foreign relations or so ...more
Jeff Rowe
May 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Oct 14, 2008 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
Aug 17, 2013 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
Dec 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
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Karl Paul Polanyi was an Austro-Hungarian economic historian, economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher. He is known for his opposition to traditional economic thought and for his book, The Great Transformation, which argued that the emergence of market-based societies in modern Europe was not inevitable but historically conti ...more

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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...” 36 likes
“Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.” 28 likes
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