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Review of Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers. The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 352 pp. Hardcover, $49.95.

Karl Polanyi is not an easy man to pigeonhole. He is best known as the author of The Great Transformation (hereafter GT). The hand which penned that story of transformation drew more vivid portraits of those he would vex and calumny than those whom he held closest to his breast. GT, we are told by the authors of The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (hereafter TPMF), was privately praised in letters by his brother, Michael Polanyi (a very notable and systematic critic of Marx and of positivism), yet was widely ignored by the dominant ideological factions of the Cold War. Only much later was this work discovered and adopted in North America, more especially by parties and partisans of the left. Like some contemporary economic thinkers, including E.F. Schumacher, Polanyi shares the unique mark of a man whose core insights should, technically, brand him as an heretic among all the established economic faiths and creeds of the age. It is only recently that he has been granted a certain beatification.

In light of the irony of Polanyi’s reception, one would be tempted to say that, if there were a Hegelian Spirit haunting the Earth, its chief feature would almost certainly be Comedy rather than Cunning. If a single maxim could sum up Polanyi’s insight into political economy and economics, it would be “The economy is always and everywhere embedded in society”(7-8).

Setting aside maxims and the humour of history, Fred Block and Margaret Somers have set for themselves a fairly pragmatic task. TPMF was written with the purpose of clarifying, explaining, and, in part, correcting Polanyi’s GT, and also speaking about current political affairs. Reasonably enough then, the authors devote the first four chapters of their work to the task of commentary and exegesis, rightly observing that Polanyi’s oeuvre majeure bears many rough and unfinished edges in need of fine sanding. Moreover, to the uninitiated tastes of the average reader, GT may easily strike the palate as being heavily peppered with peculiar obsessions and idées fixes (e.g., Polanyi’s insistence on devoting many pages to 18th century Britain’s Speenhamland system, and his lauding of so obscure a thinker and philanthropist as Robert Owen). These certainly require explanation and better knowledge of context than could be expected of the average 21st century reader.

The three following chapters of TPMF are then split between the empirical tasks of correcting the historical record and conducting a retrospective analysis of economic policies in the 20th and 21st century United States and 18th and 19th century Britain in light of the authors’ intellectual framework, which is in essence a revision of Polanyi’s. The final chapter is devoted to the hoary task of rendering Polanyi’s idea of society with greater conceptual clarity. This idea is central to his project, yet one which sometimes hovers in a liminal space between the boundaries of a critical concept and a mere topos. Such clarification is certainly a necessity in order to expound upon the meaning of GT’s final chapter, entitled “Freedom in a Complex Society”.[1]

For the purposes of this review, I shall largely leave aside the issue of analyzing Block and Somers’ critique of American history and American federal policies (leaving this part of the book to those better acquainted with such matters). Instead, I shall restrict my comments to three principle strands of the warp and woof of TPMF – utopianism, Speenhamland, and reductionism. I will analyse these strands in light not only of Karl Polanyi’s original work, but also in light of my own understanding of two of Polanyi’s own contemporaries – his brother, Michael Polanyi, and Eric Voegelin...

Scientism and the Market Economy - VoegelinView

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