Renato Guttuso, La Vucciria

Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation

Instructor: Raphaële Chappe
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Markets have long existed, but market society is something radically new. So argues the economist and sociologist Karl Polanyi in his most famous work, The Great TransformationFor much of human history, economic life was organized by non-market mechanisms: kinship, religion, warfare, centralized authority. With the rise of the nation-state, social and economic life underwent a “great transformation,” resulting in the emergence of what Polanyi calls market society. Pre-existing economies were displaced, and social relations were re-ordered to subordinate society to the needs of a totalizing, self-regulating market. So thorough was the triumph of market logic, and so devastating its dislocations, that without countermeasures, Polanyi argues, “human society would have been annihilated.” What are the origins of market society—i.e., capitalism? And, what can The Great Transformation teach us about not only the nature of market society (and its apparent tendency to crisis), but also the collective and subjective experience of living within it?

In this course, we will read The Great Transformation in its entirety, paying particular attention to its accounts of pre-capitalist society, the emergence of so-called market society, the functions of markets, and the “countermeasures” that Polanyi argues are necessary to the maintenance of social life under market-dominant conditions. Why, for Polanyi, is market society so intimately intertwined with the political form of the nation-state? Are markets in some sense political creations (was laissez-faire, we might cheekily asked, planned)? How does The Great Transformation account for the economic, political, and human disasters of the 20th century? How does Polanyi differ from Marx? And, what can The Great Transformation teach us about market society in the context of hyper-technological, financialized, 21st-century life?

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
July 21 — August 11, 2020
4 weeks


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