One of the most influential works in my thinking about the commons has been Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times. A Hungarian economic historian and anthropologist, Polanyi argued that world history dramatically changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when “Market Society” arose to displace societies that had been based on kinship, religion and social relationships. Where once people were embedded in communities of reciprocity and redistribution, capitalist markets gradually turned societies into the alienated collectives of rational, utility-maximizing individuals dominated by the market order. The Great Transformation is a brilliant historical account of this transition from a commons-based world to market society.
Polanyi's book had the misfortune to be published at the wrong time, 1944, just as the nations of the world were racing to embrace market economics and soar into modern times. In the 1950s and 1960s climate of the Cold War, go-go economic growth and gee-whiz technology, few serious people wanted to hear about how “the market” should be tamed and made to serve society – Polanyi’s primary theme. The overriding goal of that period was to grow, grow, grow, with little thought for the long-term social and ecological consequences.
As a result, The Great Transformation has been largely exiled from the canon of mainstream economic literature for the past 70 years. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, also published in 1944, was far more in sync with the postwar cultural wave and went on to become a foundational book for modern corporatists and conservatives. For decades the curious reader could only find archaic-looking reprint editions of The Great Transformation until Beacon Press came out with a new edition in 2001, with a new introduction by economist Joseph Stiglitz.
All of this is by way of background to the news that Concordia College has just gone live with a massive online archive of Polanyi’s work. Exciting news! The archive is housed at the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy, which was founded in 1988 at Concordia. The archive has an estimated 110,000 documents, which range from correspondence and unpublished papers to lecture notes, articles and manuscripts in Hungarian, German and English. Here is the official announcement of the archive at the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy.