Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The price is right…?

Written by: on February 2, 2017

A review of “The Great Transformation” by Polanyi


This book looks at how we used to live before we turned everything into something that has a price.

The great transformation of the title refers to the before and after of the industrial revolution and the transition from a society based on householding (living off your own land, slaughtering the family pig and so on), reciprocity (sharing and bartering) and redistribution (by a squire, a King or a Bishop) to a “market society”, a juxtaposition of a modern nation state and a modern market economy. It deals with the destruction of the traditional fabric of society as was by the “satanic mill” and the creation of the fictitious commodities of land, labour and money.

It is an examination of the social and political changes that took place during the rise of the market economy.

People now became commodities, rather than simply inherently valuable human beings. A labour market was developed and labour was transformed into a commodity.  There was a human and environmental cost to allowing people and nature to be included as a part of the production process and social dislocation followed as a result of the spread of market forces.

This resulted in the so-called “double movement”. As market forces spread, there was a backlash from society and attempts at social protectionism. This was marked by the ongoing political struggle of the “dis-embedding” force of the free market, and the “re-embedding” efforts at social protection.

This can be seen as a useful way of understanding the current day politics of modern capitalism and the poles of social welfare and protectionism on the one hand, and the proponents of free market forces and unrestricted capitalism on the other.


There are, of course, some very interesting modern-day equivalents and similarities. The global financial crisis of recent years and the Eurozone crisis are reminiscent of the Gold Standard of earlier times. The problems with the Euro, the financial and devastation to southern European countries such as Greece, and the resulting social costs are all plain to see.


Equally, the fightback that we are witnessing against unfettered globalisation and free market forces are self-evident. We are now seeing attempts at social protectionism in the United States (American jobs for American people and Trump) and Great Britain (British jobs for British workers and Brexit) as people react to the social and environmental disintegration and costs of the market society and commodification of people.


The book is a consideration of the impact of the economy on society and the side effects of a free market society. It is an argument against the sustainability of such a society and its destructive effects on human nature.


In our day, we are certainly seeing such an upheaval and a reaction to unfettered globalisation, the enrichment of a very small section of society at the expense of large swathes of the workforce and social disintegration.


It will be very interesting to see what happens next.



About the Author

Geoff Lee

6 responses to “The price is right…?”

  1. Wow, this sentence grabbed me: “People now became commodities, rather than simply inherently valuable human beings.” Having just come back from Thailand where I observed people as commodities, regardless of their age or gender in the sex industry, I couldn’t agree more. This will be one of the great joys of heaven for me: no more devaluing of humans. I wish we could learn from history how using people as a commodity is a solution that brings more problems.

  2. Mary Walker says:

    Geoff, Well Polanyi’s book is one way to an “understanding the current day politics of modern capitalism and the poles of social welfare and protectionism on the one hand, and the proponents of free market forces and unrestricted capitalism on the other.” It left many unanswered questions for me.
    For one – what about the global government? Where does the IMF get its money to loan countries that are in trouble. Polanyi said, for example, that the Rothschilds bowed out of politics. That is because they felt they could have more power if they went underground. Today the Rothschild total fortune exceeds the amount of the next 8 billionaires combined. How did they make their money? Mostly investing in war. They didn’t care which side was right or wrong – which side might win and give them more investment opportunities.
    No, I’m not a “conspiracy theorist”. Just ‘google’ Rothschild.
    My point is that neither socialism or secular capitalism will continue without tyranny. What happened in Russia is a good example of the failure of socialism. The injustice to the poor and marginalized is an example of the unbridled greed of secular capitalism.
    Yes, indeed, it will be interesting (though probably not very happy) to see what happens next.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Geoff, I enjoyed your post. You make some great points.

    It seems that the political winds of change in the UK have blown a wave across the ocean and it landed on the shores in the USA. I think that you’ve clearly identified one of the political states that precipitated the changes in the UK and the USA, namely the tension between, “modern capitalism and the poles of social welfare and protectionism on the one hand, and the proponents of free market forces and unrestricted capitalism on the other.”

    The dichotomy is evident and so are the results. Just as Brexit did not “just” happen, the political change and unrest in the USA did not just happen. There are many factors, of course, the Euro, the British Pound, the Dollar, security, terrorism, politics as usual and unusual politics. In the middle of it all are people who feel—as you aptly define—like the “commodities” of our post-modern culture. This may be one of the greatest times for the church. That is if we can keep focused on the commission of the church, which has been and always will be reaching and caring for the world filled with “inherently valuable human beings.” Thanks for your post!

  4. Your statement on people are a commodity is a true statement. We have been a commodity all through the scriptures which I believe some take it as the way to do things and not looking at it as an act not pleasing to God.

  5. Great post, Geoff! Your concise evaluation of Polanyi’s thoughts is helpful, especially the concept of double movement and how it is being reflected in our time. It seems we have been engaged in this cycle for some time now. As you mention, the church is even divided. I also wonder what will happen next but, more than that, I wonder what is going to happen to the church (specifically the evangelical church) as we become more aligned with politics.

  6. Katy Lines says:

    “It will be very interesting to see what happens next.”
    Nooooo! I can’t believe you stopped the narrative there. You succinctly summarized Polayni and drew us into the connection between his conclusion and current global events. I was poised to hear, then, your analysis of what will happen next. While Polayni may not have been a prophet, his description of the social adjustments to an unsustainable market economy seem strangely prescient. I was truly hoping you were going to go the next step and suggest where we go from here. Alas, we are dwelling in a cliffhanger, waiting for the next episode to begin.

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