Lives and Livelihood

J. R. Stanfield

Ever since I've grown politically aware, economics and market fundamentalism have always been one of those things I struggled with as common parlance. Yet, I could never fully explain what exactly about them rubbed me the wrong way. For all unfettered markets were said to create, I've only known them to destroy. Libertarians may still expound “free markets” as a means of collective egalitarianism, but the result of their logic always seems to be atomized societies and massive corporations with large concentrations of wealth. Was economics a science meant to explain observable phenomena? Or does economics only exist to justify and continue pre-existing market conditions? Eventually, I heard a radio documentary on the somewhat obscure Hungarian-Canadian economist, Karl Polanyi, and it was the first time I had clear words given to my hitherto unspeakable fears.

As a contemporary rival to early monetarists and neoliberals like Milton Friedman, Polanyi was an anthropologist who studied the economies of ancient societies. He later laid the groundwork for a comparative economics, where the industrial-capitalist marketplace was only one of many possible routes of social organization. Even later, he turned to criticism of the methodology of economics itself: where it would not be enough to have an alternative economics, but instead have an alternative to economics altogether. Polanyi died in 01964, a ways before my time, so I searched out this book as a precursory review of his theories. It's all here, from the economistic fallacy, to market embeddedness, the problems of fictitious commodities, the double-bind which led to the corporate welfare state, and even a long summary on the meaning of personal freedom in a complex-industrial society.

Sadly, Polanyi's work is aged. For example, his criticisms of economic formalism's scientific evasion and semi-religious character would be given the contemporary name of praxeology. Even Stanfield notes that Polanyi's theories of disembedded economies did not lead him to point at the corollary of a disembedded polity, despite it logically following. Nonetheless, all I've studied about Polanyi thus far has made him the first economist I could openly tolerate! ... at least, without fear of supporting some ulterior motive.

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