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The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time [Paperback]

Karl Polanyi
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

10 May 2002
One of the twentieth century's most thorough and discerning historians, Karl Polanyi sheds "new illumination on . . . the social implications of a particular economic system, the market economy that grew into full stature in the nineteenth century." -R. M. MacIver

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Product details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press; 2nd edition (10 May 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080705643X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807056431
  • Product Dimensions: 21.5 x 14.1 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 76,639 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is considered one of the twentieth century's most discerning economic historians. He left his position as senior editor of Vienna's leading financial and economic weekly in 1933, became a British citizen, taught adult extension programs for Oxford and London Universities, and held visiting chairs at Bennington College and Columbia University. He is co-author of Christianity and the Social Revolution; author of The Great Transformation; Trade and Market in Early Empires (with C.Arnsberg and H.Pearson) and posthumously, Dahomey and the Slave Trade (with A.Rotstein).

Joseph E. Stiglitz was formerly chair of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors, and chief economist of the World Bank. He is professor of economics at Stanford University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Fred Block is professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
By Jezza
I finally got round to reading this book. It's been on my list for several years, mainly because I'd heard that it was about the breakdown of the global economy that existed before WW1 - and that the pre-WW1 world had been much more integrated than was the case for much of the C20th afterwards.

It does cover that, and much else, but the Great Transformation of the title is about the move to a market economy during the C18th and early C19th. Polanyi demonstrates in great detail, and with many illustrative anecdotes and historical references, how the idea of a market economy in which pretty much everything is a commodity that finds its own level through the price mechanism had to be invented, and how the economy itself had to be created. Doing so required much violence and cruelty, and this was frankly acknowledged at the time.

It was well understood that the lower orders would not sell their labour power, or not sell it in the quantities and at the prices that the emerging capitalist economy needed, unless they were driven to do so by hunger to the point of starvation. If they earned too much they wouldn't work hard enough or long enough - preferring to the take increased productivity as extra leisure - so they had to be kept lean. Their cottage gardens and customary access to growing or grazing space had to be taken away too, so that they had nothing to fall back on if the labour market did not want to buy them at a 'too-high' price. The early political economists and 'reformers' were quite explicit about this, and it's there for all to see in their writings - especially the Utilitarians and Benthamites, who I'd learned at school were progressive liberal types.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why mess with good stuff? 12 Nov 2009
By bruno
This new edition has mucked about with the original. For example in the 1944 original there was a famous quote: 'the inherent absurdity of the idea of a self-regulating market would have eventually destroyed society'. It's not there any more. Why do they do that?
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A glimpse of what economics could have been 18 Dec 2007
This book, occasional hyperbole notwithstanding, presents a form of economics more nuanced and embedded in material life and social reality than that which is practiced in most of academia today. This form of economic thought, known as substantivism, suggests how economic activity can be understood as emerging from social practices based around material provisioning, and pre-exists the increasing domination of monetarised, market modes of exchanges from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards. If, as Polanyi suggested, mainstream economics had taken into account the relevance of anthropological and historical accounts of how households and communities (and not simply individuals) have engaged effectively in economic, 'provisioning' activities for millennia before the widespread adoption of monetarised market practices from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards. The substantivism of The Great Transformation suggests that conventional economic theory has 'inverted' reality, with social and human essences seen as subservient 'commodities' to be traded and exchanged within a market economy, and has lost sight of the insight that economic practices should serve social interests.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent analysis of free-market social systems 10 Jan 2014
By Yeti
This is by far one of the most important books on the side-effects of free market society, its emergence, and how it continues to affect economically developed and developing societies to this day.

A must-read!
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24 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The satanic mill 26 Nov 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Polanyi's great transformation starts in the 19th century with the installation of a self-regulating market system ('the satanic mill') for labor, land and money and by letting the whole society be run by the system without any intervention. It provoked a wholesale destruction of the `traditional fabric of society'.

Attack on the market economy and democracy
In fact, this book is not only an attack against `laissez-faire', but also against a `regulated' market system and against, for Polanyi, the main cause of this great transformation (democracy). His book is not less than a plea for a return to the `Ancien Régime', for Polanyi the Golden Age of mankind, `the traditional unity of the Christian society', `the social fabric of the village under the supremacy of squire and parson', the society of `the benevolent gentlemen of England with their compassion from the heart', when economics where `embedded' in the whole society.

What was this Ancien Régime?
A disaster for 999 out of 1000 individuals. The poor had only one option: 'steal to be hanged' (J. Swift, D. Defoe, E.J. Burford). But for Polanyi, `under the regime of feudalism and the village community, noblesse oblige, clan solidarity, and regulation of the corn market checked famine'.
The kings owned the salt mines and sold (!) as a monopoly their salt (a necessity for survival) dearly: one block of about 5 kg was worth a whole village, population included (the ancient salt mines of Krakow are well worth a visit). For Polanyi, `it is the absence of the threat of individual starvation which makes primitive society more humane.
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