One of the greatest books ever

By Andrew M. Mwenda

If you are thoughtful and want to read a book that is profound, Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation, the Political and Social Origins of our Times” is a must read. Each time I read it I feel I have not grasped even 50% of what it has to offer.

Reading it is like eating candy and having sex at the same time; it is delicious and exhilarating. Just read the first page of the introduction alone and you will get what I am talking about.

Nineteenth century civilization has come to an end. This book is concerned with the political and economic origins of this event, as well as with the great transformation that it ushered in.

Nineteenth century civilization rested on four institutions. The first was the balance of power system which for a century prevented the occurrence of any long and devastating war between the great powers. The second was the international gold standard which symbolized a unique organization of the world economy. The third was the self regulating market which produced an unheard of material welfare. The fourth was the liberal state.

Classified in one way, two of these institutions were political, two economic. Classified in another way, two of them were national, two international. Between them they determined the characteristic outlines of the history of our civilization. Of these institutions, the gold standard proved crucial; its fall was the proximate cause of catastrophe. By the time it failed, most of the other institutions had been sacrificed in a vain effort to save it.

But the fount and matrix of the system was the self regulating market. It was this innovation which gave rise to a specific civilization. The gold standard was merely an attempt to extend the domestic market to the international field; the balance of power system was the superstructure erected upon, and partly worked through the gold standard; the liberal state was itself a creation of the self regulating market. The key to the institutional system of the 19th century lay in the laws governing the market economy.

Our thesis is that the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surrounding into a wilderness. Inevitably, society took measures to protect it, but whatever measures it took impaired the self regulation of the market, disorganized industrial life, and thus endangered society in yet another way. It was this dilemma which forced the development of the market system into a definite groove and finally disrupted the social organization based upon it.


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