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The Globalization and Development Reader: Perspectives on Development and Global Change, 2nd Edition by Nitsan Chorev, Amy Bellone Hite, J. Timmons Roberts

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32 From Polanyi to Pollyanna: The False Optimism of Global Labor Studies (2010)

Michael Burawoy

In recent years there has been a spate of interest in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation among social scientists in general, and among labor scholars in particular.1 Nor is this surprising since Polanyi warned us of the dangers of what he called the ‘liberal creed’ – belief in the self-regulating market whose pursuit brought economic misery and cultural devastation to modern civilization. Written in 1944 The Great Transformation traces the rise of the self-regulating market – the relation between the idea and the practice – from the end of the 18th century, through the 19th and into the 20th century generating protectionist counter-movements which brought social democracy and the New Deal but also Fascism and Stalinism. The reaction to market fundamentalism could be as bad as the curse itself, leading Polanyi to believe that never again would humanity indulge in such a dangerous experiment. Yet that is what we now confront.

Like Marx, Polanyi could see the downside as well as the potentialities of markets. Indeed, there are powerful resonances between Marx and Polanyi – Polanyi draws on Marx’s early writings on money and alienation as the basis of his own moral indictment of unregulated commodification. But there are also fundamental divergences between their commentaries. Time and again Polanyi rails against Marxian theories of history that are based on the law-like dynamics ...

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