The Great Transformation
By: Karl Polanyi
The title “The Great Transformation,” almost sounds like an action filled movie. In a sense Karl Polanyi’s account of the, political, social, and economic factors that led to the greatest period of transformation in Europe can be seen as an, action filled epic overview. The account has both historical and intellectual value since most of is considered to be the western world has its history entrenched with that of Europe. Being cognitive of the fact that before the west, Europe had its fists firmly entrenched on the necks of many countries in the then known world. These included, nations on the African continent, Asia (both far and the middle east), Australia, and even within Europe itself, less fortified nations changed hands among the more powerful, such as Britain, France, Russia, and Germany.
Polanyi ‘s account provides for some interested read into the rise of the current market economy that dominates the globe. The socio economic and political systems were all intrinsically inter-woven. Much of Europe’s wealth was controlled by vicious Lords and nobles who oppressed the poor. Polanyi noted that, “The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common”. (Polanyi kindle version: p36). These actions were destroying the fabric of European society. It took the combine efforts of the crown and its immediate leadership, as well as that church, to defend the welfare of the community.
Polanyi also helps us to see how several economic systems emerged providing a way for communities to participate in wealth sharing. These included, redistribution, a practice where individuals would give up a portion of their possession for the benefit of the community. The feudal was an exchange of goods. House holding was focused on production for one’s own use. Western Europe according to Polanyi “was organized either on the principle of reciprocity or redistribution, or house holding, or some combination of the three” (Polanyi p57). Growth of the economy and the demand for more goods and services catapulted Europe into the industrial age.
In assessing contributing factors, Polanyi took an inward approach. In others words, he focused heavily on conditions and contributors with Europe itself. For example, he paid tribute to the work of Adam Smith “The wealth of nations”. Despites the fact that he disagreed with smith on some of his conclusion, he sees Smith’s work as an essential part of the foundation for Europe’s economic transformation. John Leake is also given consideration for his contribution on government and citizens rights.
Despite the extensive review provided by Polanyi, I had difficulty with his treatment of the church, slavery, and the wealth of the new world. Christianity was not dealt with a favorable review. His description of the church as “empty husks” says it all. Further, most of his mentions of the church or Christianity projected negatively. He does not praise the church for its contributions which directly and indirect contributed to Europe’s economic success. One example would be in the field of education. In many parts of Europe the church played a vital role in the education of its people.
In regards to slavery, Polanyi made three passing references that are easy to go unnoticed. However, the fact that the period of Europe’s history under consideration, is also a period of history which saw millions of Africans being shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean as slaves. Here they labored on plantations producing goods and agricultural produce to satisfy newly acquired taste of their colonial masters. As Europe became more industrialized, the need for agriculture produce was essential to both to the sustaining and the expanding of industrial growth. African slaves provided the work force that kept the industrial engine moving. Coupled with this, was the vast among of wealth Europe was able to extract from its colonies in the new world. Resources which included gold, silver, and cotton a few among the many that benefited its economic expansion. Polanyi’s account would have been enhanced by the mention of these facts. His book serves as a historical review of forces that shaped Europe into an economic giant. Such an account cannot be considered accurate if essential factors such as the ones just highlighted are ignored.
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