In chapter three, Block and Somers examined some of the contradictions that appear in The Great Transformation. Of particular importance was Polanyi’s tendency to write as if market autonomy was a real possibility as opposed to a utopian construct of both economic liberals and (some) Marxists. This tendency created enough of an appearance of belief in an autonomous market that market fundamentalists later used large selections of his text to support their positions. Yet Polanyi’s argument was fundamentally opposed to the idea of market autonomy, and his view that markets are always embedded in social institutions led him to focus on the case of Speenhamland and the system of poor laws.
Chapters four and five take up these two topics–free market utopianism and Speenhamland–in greater detail. At the center of both chapters is the idea of “social naturalism,” which assumes that society is governed by the same laws that govern natural phenomena. Continue reading
I concluded part 2 in this series of posts on Fred Block and Margaret Somers’ The Power of Market Fundamentalism with several questions about the meaning of local in Polanyi’s global-national-local analytical framework. It seems that Polanyi is not so much focused on the local in any spatial or place-based sense but rather on the social sub-units that comprise groups interested in particular forms of protection from the market. This is significant, I believe, because of Block and Somers’ argument (one that I find convincing and important to this point) that not only Polanyi’s analytical framework but also the political-economic mechanisms that he identified (most importantly, the gold standard, which today’s system of international capital controls resembles) are useful for understanding the contemporary crisis we face today. However, the significance of the local today appears more consistent with the 15th century, when city-states ruled the European landscape, than the 19th century, when the nation-state form came to prominence. At the same time, today’s quasi-city-states resemble other metropolises around the globe to a far greater degree than neighboring places that are less integrated into this global urban network. And although they are networked, as Richard Sennett notes there is a tendency to think of these cities in terms of autonomy, approaching them as self-shaping entities. Of course, this strand of thought was present in the work of sociologists like Max Weber during the 19th century, but the structure of the city has changed in important ways since then. And, as Sennett argues, it must (and inevitably will) change again as global problems such as climate change alter the systems that underlie the illusion of autonomy (in this way, the autonomous city-state idea resembles the idea of the autonomous free-market).
If Polanyi’s use of the local suggests some spatial-analytical confusion in his work (and I’m not sure that it does), it is not the only point of confusion. In chapter three, “Karl Polanyi and the Writing of The Great Transformation,” Block and Somers take up the complicated relationships that Polanyi’s work has to both Marxism and economic liberalism. Continue reading