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on November 7, 2014
Historian and economist Karl Polanyi forcefully and credibly debunks the classic and optimistic interpretation of the rise of capitalism and the advent of the free market system during the Industrial Revolution, especially in England in the 19th century. Economic progress, he contends, came at the price of social tragedy and put in motion the ill-grounded complete extraction of the economy from its traditional position of "imbededness" within the social and political sphere. Although published 70 years ago, the book offers remarkable insights into the recent global financial crisis and its current sequels. I have only two reservations: it requires some knowledge of economic theory, and the author had a misplaced confidence that the Western powers would see the errors of their financial, free-market ways, in the aftermath of the Second World War. For the rest, a very good read.
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on December 21, 2015
The Great Transformation certainly is one of the more important works of the 20 century in the fields of economics, economic history and sociology.

The Great Transformation is a welcome historical and anthropological study of the rise of economic liberalism and how its assumed forces have operated in our economies essentially materializing a self-prophecy used 'a posteri' to justify an 'a priori' not substantiated historically or anthropologically throughout Human history. For the author, economic liberalism is the greatest social experiment unleashed upon the world in History.

For Polanyi, the essence of the Great Transformation is the framing of economic activity into a profit seeking and hence Capitalistic enterprise. The notion of 'economic profit' as understood in economic liberalism was not prevalent at any other time throughout history, furthermore where the profit motive did exist, profit was constrained by social norms and institutions--This is Polanyi's concept of Embeddedness. People over profit; profit as a means (instrument) to an end (social validation, social interdependence, etc). With the ascent of liberalism, the relationship became inverted. Profit became an end to purchase means--the commodification of Labour (people), Land (nature), and money inevitably lead to the mass exodus of rural populations to urban centers, creating slums, widespread pauperism and human degradation, the consequences of which were the great upheavals and revolutions throughout Europe in the 18-19 centuries that would set the table for the bloodbath of the 20 century.

To understand The Great Transformation's key arguments, however one needs a fair amount of finance & economics knowledge. I recommend this book to all, but particularly to my fellow economists and financiers too often molded in the myopic ideological economics of 'laissez faire' free market capitalism to the detriment of a more 'embedded' conception of Humanity.
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on December 26, 2002
IN this book written in late 1940s, Polanyi argues that free-market policies advocated by liberal economists were pushing human society to a breaking points -- he implies that the world wars were the results of these policies. According to Polanyi, these liberal theorists did not understand that the market has always been a human institution, inextricably tied to the social fabric. Their policies are distrastrous for the world because their theories assumed that human beings act solely for financial motives, Polanyi argued. Only the society's reaction to protect itself against the abuses of the market -- the second prong of what Polanyi calls the "Double Movement" -- was the damage of liberalization mitigated.
All this probably sounds obvious today, but I assume that it was quite revolutionary when Polanyi wrote it. So this book is worth reading as intellectual history. I wouldn't recommend it as economic history per se because Polanyi has a habit of glossing over the historical evidences that he uses to make his argument, and his rhetoric sounds over-heated to me at times. Perhaps this reflects his background as a journalist. It made me think that he was overreaching even though I am quite sympathetic to his arguments.
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on October 5, 2001
Polanyi's masterpiece, 'The Great Transformation' dealt with the same question as his forerunners like Marx, Weber, Durkheim: 'how our world come into being?' or as its subtitle, 'the political and economic origins of our time'. But he didn't suggest any name except banal title of 'The Great Transformation' which is barely used in his book and does barely play the explanatory role in the analysis contrary to his forerunners systemic edifice, for example, Marx's 'capital' or Weber's 'rationalization'. All his writings are the venture to overhaul existing concept, above all, the market. His world is different from forerunners' world 1 or 2 generation ago. The age of masters is over. Now it's time for exegesis. The weight of thought is realized through not only speculating but also historical event. His world was literally the aftermath of liberalism, he argued. His world located between 2 Great Wars one of which he participated in as army officer of the Habsburg Empire and another is the time when he wrote his influential work, 'The Great Transformation' (1944). We need to peep into what he had seen and felt then.
The chasm between generation before World War 1 and after, is reflected in the lack of optimism about path of western civilization in 'The Great Transformation'. Polanyi disdained that kind of optimism as '(liberal) cree'. That kind of attitude is different from his forerunners. Marx had unquestionable faith in 'progress'. And judging from his studies of religion, even pessimistic Weber seems to have shared that kind of view. His forerunners were optimistic about the attaining of rationality and liberty. But the confidence scattered away in the mid of 2 World Wars. Overarching intellectual climate of social scientists in Europe between wars, can be symbolized by the word, obsession. Polanyi's masterpiece was written in this atmosphere. For as Jews of Frankfurt school froze in front of Auschwitz, Polanyi was thus overwhelmed with the magnitude of catastrophe.
German citizen's confidence in Nazi lay not in the psychological disposition as Frankfurt school claimed or nihilist determinism as Krockow asserted but in disillusion caused by inability of Weimar republic to cope with Great Depression and political disorder. Their choice was not irrational but rational at that point. There were 2 choices before them: liberalism, communism. Liberalism seemed too inept to solve the problems they faced. Bolshevism seemed the serious threat to many classes who were troubled with riots since 1918. Nazism was the second best.
This was the bankruptcy of liberalism i.e., 19th century of civilization. It was not limited to Germany but worldwide phenomenon; the signal was sent by England's going off gold standard (1931). Collapse of gold standard means there is no standard for exchange between currencies. So next step in chain reaction was giving up free trade. The economic protectionism caught up world economy, which led in so called the bloc economy; Pound bloc, Franc bloc, Mark bloc, Dollar bloc, Yen bloc. Polanyi argued the failure of liberalism is traced back to fin de siecle and beyond.
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