Part II of my review of this book.
I’m well into the second half of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and, while I’m getting a crash course in 18th & 19th English history through looking up all his references to events and people I’ve never heard of or that are just names to me, tedium is setting in. Late last night, while plowing through a few pages, I broke down and did something I almost never do and advise against doing until after you’ve read the book for yourself: looked at what other people say about this work. Read what the authors themselves say as much as possible, to avoid the inevitable biases and lacunas that predigested takes contain by their nature. In my frustration, curiosity about who, if anyone, takes Polanyi seriously got the better of me. Yes, I am weak.
Criticism fell into two distinct groups, with no one in the middle: Marxists critical theorists who love, love, love Great Transformation and consider it the seminal work on economics of the last 100 years, and non-Marxist economists – real economists, in other words – who would hurt themselves if they rolled their eyes any harder.
The criticisms I laid down in my preliminary comments here and here were echoed and reinforced by his negative critics. For example, one critice makes a point Chesterton also made a couple of times in other contexts: primitive peoples alive today are not our ancestors. Rather, they are as much modern people as we are, except that for whatever reasons they have not made much technological or cultural progress. While our actual European ancestors were inventing science and technology and cities and architecture and experimenting with complex social relationships, the Trobriand Islanders were cultivating yams and developing ritual trading designed to reinforce social relationships to keep the peace.
To point to tribal peoples living today as examples of man in nature is to ignore that our actual ancestors, who did develop what eventually became the modern world, were every bit as natural in the sense ‘natural’ is used here. Our actual ancestors, despite what Rousseau may think, were also natural men who did whatever they did by nature – they eventually developed the gold standard and international trade just as naturally as islanders grow yams and murder each other. A ‘primitive’ Italian like Marco Polo, for example, clearly did engage in international truck and barter – around the time the Trobriand Islanders first arrived in their little paradise and started building grass huts. Polo is an ancestor to the West. The islanders are not.
Enough. Returning to my reading, here is a paragraph from the second half of the book I find quite revealing of how Polanyi thinks:
Let us return to what we have called the double movement. It can be personified as the action of two organizing principles in society, each of them setting itself specific institutional aims, having the support of definite social forces and using its own distinctive methods. The one was the principle of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market, relying on the support of the trading classes, and using largely laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection aiming at the conservation of man and nature as well as productive organization, relying on the varying support of those most immediately affected by the deleterious action of the market—primarily, but not exclusively, the working and the landed classes—and using protective legislation,
restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods.
Notice anything odd? How about the odd use of the word ‘personified’? Polanyi is here saying that two competing ‘organizing principles’ are – persons?
It would be easy to explain this away, a little goof in the midst of a long book, something a good editors maybe should have caught, but clearly I don’t think so. I think that this personification of abstract forces is exactly what this book is about. The individual is nothing, the masses everything, after all. And the masses is a seething, suffering – abstraction.
To Polanyi, great lumbering forces, abstractions that manifest themselves in Capital, or the Gold Standard, or the Labor Market are the persons of History, while people are just at best the raw material History acts upon. These persons, these gods-who-are-not-gods, correspond to Hegel’s Spirit, in that History is not made from a cumulation of millions of little decisions by millions of little people, but rather History acts upon the little people, with their decisions merely reflecting the gradual expression of Historical forces.
History, then, is always inevitable, even if we can’t see it until our illusory choices have slipped into the past. Marx’s claim to see the future is a claim that History is as deterministic as a wind-up clock. In 3 hours it will be 5:45; in the fullness of time it will be the Worker’s Paradise.
Hidden here is the perennial bait and switch, or perhaps motte and bailey: our sympathies are engaged by the very real suffering (usually) of the Little People, but the analysis and proposed solutions are always about presumed inevitable forces. The Polanyis of the world flip from one to the other with greater or lesser skill: questions about the framework are answered by implied or, increasingly, shrill accusations that you don’t care about the little people; focus on practical steps directed at the little people, get reminded that it’s the system, man.
I’ll try to get this finished off and post a final review soon.