Austro-Hungarian economic historian and sociologist Although Karl Polanyi's life was one of virtual nomadism - he never achieved a comfortable academic appointment - this maverick economic historian nonetheless exerted a powerful influence on his ivory tower contemporaries.
Karl Polanyi was born in Vienna and raised in Budapest, to a well-to-do Hungarian family of Jewish origin (his younger brother was Michael Polanyi). Karl Polanyi studied law at the University of Budapest, joining , in his student days, the circle of such luminary radicals such as Georg Lukacs and Karl Mannheim. Polanyi served as an officer in Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was imprisoned on the Russian front but eventually released. After the war, Polanyi found his way to Vienna, where carved out a career in journalism, eventually rising to become an editor of the Der Österreichische Volkswirt, a prestigious business paper.
With the rise of Austro-fascism, Karl Polanyi found his position in Vienna untenable and emigrated to Britain in 1933, where he lived hand-to-mouth as a tutor. His Fabian friends found him a semi-stable job as an Oxford extension lecturer on English history, and it was in the course of this that he delved deeply into English social and economic history. In 1940, during a lecture tour in the US, Polanyi decided to accept an offer by Bennington College. It was then that he wrote his magnum opus - The Great Transformation (1944), based on the morass of notes from his extension lectures.
Polanyi's central thesis is well known among sociologists and economic historians: namely, that capitalism is a historical anomaly because while previous economic arrangements were "embedded" in social relations, in capitalism, the situations was reversed - social relations were defined by economic relations. In Polanyi's view, in the sweep of human history, rules of reciprocity, redistribution and communal obligations were far more frequent than market relations. However, not only did capitalism not exhibit them, its ascendancy actually destroyed them irreversibly. The "great transformation" of the industrial revolution was to completely replace all modes of social interaction with market interaction.
The details of this "ascendancy" was Polanyi's other main contribution. Far from a "natural" or "necessary" outcome, Polanyi argued that capitalism evolved from the demands placed by new mercantile and then bourgois classes upon the State to protect their fledgling enterprises and precarious social status. In this way, governments became the handmaiden of capitalism, helping to advance it with the necessary legislation and execution by virtual force of arms.
In some ways, Polanyi's thesis had a kinship to that of Marx, but one might also argue that it exhibited more fully the stamp of the German Historical School - particularly the latter-day versions of Weber and Simmel. Much, of course, was also owed to sociologists and economic anthropologists such as Durkheim, Malinowski and Thurnwald. Polanyi's work is still held as a classic in these fields. In contrast, the New Economic History of North and Fogel argues the precise opposite of Polanyi's - namely, of the universal applicability of market theory to different eras in economic history.
In 1947, Columbia invited him into their sociology department on the strength of his 1943 book. However, because his radical wife, Ilon Duczynska, had a prominent role in the failed Hungarian Revolution of the early 1920s, she was denied an entry visa into the United States. As a consequence, Polanyi was forced to move to Canada and commute to New York from Toronto for the rest of his career. Although he benefited much from his interdisciplinary work at Columbia - it was during this time that he put together his second great book, Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957) - Polanyi only held a visiting position as an adjunct at Columbia for the rest of his career. His extraordinary cross-country commute and his political and intellectual uniqueness led him to select himself out of Columbia's academic milieu. Unlike his better-established brother, the chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, Karl Polanyi was never able to set down roots. He remained in perpetual exile - from Hungary, from Austria, from America and finally, from academia as a whole.
Major Works of Karl Polanyi
Resources on Karl Polanyi
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