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IES Occasional Paper 2/2011
The paper proposes an interpretation of Polanyi's Great Transformation based on a distinction between two meanings contained in the concept of the embedded economy (and its opposite - the disembedded economy). Polanyi's thesis that the market economy is a disembedded economy in fact comprises two main statements: (1) disembeddedness means the predominance of transactions and social interactions that are not submerged in social relationships but are based on economic self-interest and (2) disembeddedness also means the absence of social control over the economic process of production and distribution. Polanyian literature however usually does not distinguish these two meanings of disembeddedness. It is usually assumed that the concept may be used to summarize a larger sum of characteristics that distinguish a liberal market economy from other possible systems. As usually defined, the concept implies an antagonistic relationship between market and society, which provides a foundation for a particular Polanyian critique of the market economy. This assumption of an antagonistic relationship between the market and the society however contradicts the results of both economic sociology and institutional economics, which have extensively studied the ways in which markets and society become intertwined in modern society and the ways in which the regulatory framework of the welfare state has developed in a gradual manner within the market society. It is argued in this paper that the problematic assumption of an antagonistic relation between market and society is a consequence of the failure to distinguish the two meanings actually contained in the concept of disembeddedness. When interpreting Polanyi, it is useful to distinguish between two meanings of disembeddedness, calling one (1) anthropological disembeddedness and the other (2) economic disembeddedness. When we separate the two meanings of disembeddedness, the following question can be posed: does anthropological disembeddedness always imply economic disembeddedness? Inversely, we can ask: in order to assure anthropological embeddedness, do we need economic embeddedness? The paper argues that Polanyi's affirmative answer to this question was a part of a political argument justified only by the circumstances of a particular moment in history and, also, by his personal political preference for socialism. Polanyi's affirmative answer to this question was derived from a political choice and not from analysis and, therefore, if we want an analytical concept of embeddedness, we cannot accept Polanyi's original formulation uncritically.
Ludwig von Mises
Ludwig von Mises
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