One of the great economists of the twentieth century had the misfortune of publishing his magnum opus, The Great Transformation, in 1944, months before the inauguration of a new era of postwar economic growth and consumer culture. Few people in the 1940s or 1950s wanted to hear piercing criticisms of “free markets,” let alone consider the devastating impacts that markets tend to have on social solidarity and the foundational institutions of civil society. And so for decades Polanyi remained something of a curiosity, not least because he was an unconventional academic with a keen interest in the historical and anthropological dimensions of economics.
As the neoliberal revolution instigated by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980 has spread, however, Polanyi has been rediscovered. His great book – now republished with a foreword by Joseph Stiglitz – has attracted a new generation of readers.
But how to make sense of Polanyi’s work with all that has happened in the past 70 years? Why does he still speak so eloquently to our contemporary problems? For answers, we can be grateful that we have The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique, written by Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers, and published last year. The book is a first-rate reinterpretation of Polanyi’s work, giving it a rich context and commentary. Polanyi focused on the deep fallacies of economistic thinking and its failures to understand society and people as they really are. What could be more timely?
The cult of free market fundamentalism has become so normative in our times, and economics as a discipline so hidebound and insular, that reading Polanyi today is akin to walking into a stiff gust of fresh air. We can suddenly see clear, sweeping vistas of social reality. Instead of the mandarin, quantitative and faux-scientific presumptions of standard economics – an orthodoxy of complex illusions about “autonomous” markets – Polanyi explains how markets are in fact embedded in a complex web of social, cultural and historical realities.