Saturday, February 6, 2010

How Are You Finding Polanyi?



  1. Out of all the texts we've read so far, The Great Transformation seems to be the densest one. Its language is targeted at intellectuals or at least college educated folk. It is utterly unlike Hazzlit's style, which makes it unfit for mass persuasion. It requires, above all, patience.

    Polanyi has a tendency to numb the reader with a deluge of complicated and specific examples. This makes the book harder read but I found that there is always a clear-cut sentence that summarizes his point either before or after he unloads his academic knowledge.

    In the fourth chapter for instance, Polanyi presents the reader with countless anthropological evidence pertaining to the Trobian Islanders, Kwakiutal, Bergdama,ancient Greeks, African society, etc. He also introduces notions such as reciprocity, symmetry, centricity, etc. It's very difficult to process and to remember this flood of information, but if one looks at the point in the text before he shifts into Mr. Pedant you'll find the key point he is trying to make: "The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships."

    Geez, why does he have to give us a litany of anthropological data? Someone should make a reader's digest version of this...

  2. I particularly found illuminating the point made in the beginning of the book, Page 4.

    "Civilizations, like life itself, spring from the interaction of a great number of independent factors which are not, as a rule, reducible to circumscribed institutions".

    This is a view I see playing out in our group discussions.

  3. It might be helpful to compare the more straightforward arguments of the Hazlitt to the ways Stieglitz tries to reframe Polanyi's arguments in a more straightforward way in his Foreward (which was new to me, the edition I read before predated it). I am very interested in the status and force (and problems) of deductive arguments we talked about last week and what Polanyi calls "empirical definitions" and what Polanyi is doing with all his deduction-deflating counterexamples and qualifications. I'm excited to see where our conversation takes us this week...

  4. I'm curious about the way Polanyi talks about the "spontaneous" generation of the counter-movement -- "lasseiz faire was planned; planning was not". Makes me interested in how spontaneity might figure into economic arguments in general.

  5. Emma, that makes me think about the issue of spontaneity in general in terms of economics. For a "science" so mutually influenced by human behavior and so inherently dependent on human nature for its predictive models the conundrum seems to be how an economic theorist accounts for human spontaneity--a spontaneity which human beings are quite capable of enacting and are often prone to choosing, especially in masses (as exemplified by the panicky reactions of ordinary investors during the moments leading up to the Great Depression). It makes one wonder if that's the driving force of economics: an attempt to schematize or organize human spontaneity (at least in terms of common economic behavior).

    Just a thought. A small burst of brain energy.

  6. I find it strange to talk about economics in terms of spontaneity because a lot of economics is about predictability. There are iron laws (as mentioned by Polanyi) that cannot be broken and are often substantiated by mathematical models (i.e. the science of ultimate non-spontaneity). Yes, Mr. Moo, humans are spontaneous, but economists [are supposed to] know how the "market"* will react to people's supposedly rational behavior and expectations. So yes, I think you're right to say its an attempt to organize, predict, categorize, control human spontaneity.

    *(since we established in class today that it doesn't exist I feel compelled to put it in quotations)

  7. Does Polanyi really argue that markets in general are fictitious? Or does he just argue that only free, self-regulating markets are fictitious?

    Doesn't he explain in great detail how markets existed throughout human history? He says for instance that in the Medieval period markets were "contained" in the towns, keeping their corrupting influence away from the countryside.

  8. Let me rephrase. I don't think he is arguing that an economy (a "market" as a meeting place for exchange of goods) doesn't exist. I think he is saying that the market, as defined and talked about in his time, is completely fabricated on seemingly arbitrary, but widely accepted, theories. He says specifically that markets have always existed as accessories to society in the following three frameworks: reciprocity, redistribution, or household (or some combination). The problem, however, is that markets have become the very fabric from which society is made. That it is inextricable from society is problematic because that isn't natural. Hope that made sense? Its early.

  9. Terri, Jon, et al. Polanyi defines "markets" as "meeting place of long-distance trade" (61). If we find that this definition waivers or colors other definitions dealing with markets in locality or specificity, perhaps this might provide an interesting exploration in class tomorrow. For example, the definition he provides for the "market economy" ("an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by market price; order in the production and distribution of goods is entrusted to this self-regulating mechanism") already introduces a radical departure from "markets" so-defined in "Evolution of the Market Pattern" (71).


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