Home > methodology > Polanyi’s methodology in the Great Transformation

Polanyi’s methodology in the Great Transformation

from Asad Zaman

Polanyi’s book is widely recognized as among the most deeply original and seminal analyses of the origins and effects of capitalism. In a previous post,  I provided a brief summary of the main arguments of Polanyi.  Polanyi does not explicitly discuss methodology, but his analysis is based on a methodology radically different from any currently in use in social sciences. This methodology could provide the basis for an entirely new approach to the subject matter. In my paper entitled The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, I have articulated central elements of this methodology by showing how Polanyi uses them in his book. I provide a brief summary of the main ideas of the paper here.

Firstly note the Polanyi operates at a meta-theoretical level. The work analyzes emergence of theories as attempts to understand historical experience. This immediately leads to a historical context sensitive analysis, as opposed to current a-historical methods dominant in economics. In what is an extremely interesting twist, Polanyi argues that theories formulated by contemporaries to understand their experience are often wrong. Nonetheless, these theories are used to understand and shape responses to historical circumstances. This mechanism provides substantial room for human agency in influencing history. The key elements of Polanyi’s methodology, extracted from how he has utilized them in his book, are listed as follows:

1: Institutional Perspective: The book argues that institutions are the embodiments of human purpose. Thus they translate objectives into practice. Without institutions, intentions remain without effective incarnation. Contrary to current empirical perspectives, Polanyi puts central emphasis on the unobservable intentions, but also shows that institutions shape and limit the impact of these intentions on history.

2. Methodological Communitarianism:  this word has been coined by me to reflect Polanyi’s views which are a sharp anti-thesis of the methodological individualism that underlies modern economics. Polanyi argues that individual behaviour is strongly shaped by his community, and cannot be understood without reference to social norms prevalent in his community. In addition, he argues that social change is, almost by definition, a reconfiguration of constellations of communities and communal interests, and cannot be analyzed at an individual level.

3. Going Beyond Class Struggle:  Polanyi argues that typically no one class has sufficient power to enforce its will upon others. Thus success in class struggle depends on the ability of a class to act upon broader interests, to win sufficient allies to prevail. He gives several examples of classes acting against narrow class interests and in harmony with broader interests. This means that one must go beyond class struggle to understand the currents of history.

4. Interlinkage of Political, Social, and Economic Spheres. A key contribution of Polanyi is that these three spheres of human existence are deeply interlinked and cannot be analyzed in isolation, as current approaches to social sciences assume. For instance, he argues that surpluses created by industrial revolution strengthened market norms. Emerging market structures impacted on social structures, and social norms of paternalism and responsibility were replaced by market norms of individualism and hedonism. Similarly, the gold standard enabled trade and economic integration, leading to preservation of peace among European powers. Breakdown of the gold standard led to world war, as the economic benefits of peace disappeared.  Inter-linked analysis of the political, social and economic spheres lends depth and coherence to Polanyi’s analysis.

5. False Theories Shape History: A key insight of Polanyi is that contemporary analysts often make mistakes at guessing causes of emergent phenomena. These mistaken analyses are used to fashion a response to the phenomena and these mistaken responses shape history. A central example in Polanyi’s book is the Speenhamland episode, where laws to guarantee a minimal living to labourers backfired for a complex set of reasons. Classical economists were led to believe that there were iron laws which required poverty to exist, so that labor markets could function. This mistaken analysis continues to guide our approaches to poverty and the labor market, inflicting misery on masses.

6. Dynamics of Social Change: Polanyi argues that social change arises in response to some external stimulus, like invention of machines of mass production. The surplus generated provides power to merchant classes, upsets social structures, and provokes responses from parties hurt by the change. To understand the dynamics one must simultaneously analyze the actions of an emergent class trying to build power, as well as the counter-response of opposing classes – a double movement, in Polanyi’s terminology.

A detailed discussion and explanation of all of the points listed above is given in my paper entitled: The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation. The methodology of Polanyi is radically different from any currently in use in the social sciences. It offers us solutions to the impasse we currently face, where dominant theories have clearly failed us, and no clear single coherent alternative has emerged. Polanyi’s analysis of social change also offers clues as to how to go about solving the enormous problems currently facing mankind. It is definitely worth a deep study

  1. William Neil
    July 14, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    Thank you very much Asad for publishing this. I have read the Great Transformation many times now, it requires that level of care and attention. I also have written that it would be one of the five required “left” reading books to make sense of our current predicament, with his handling of the gold standard in detail providing wonderful insights into today’s globalization, imbalance of payments, austerity formula (esp. on budgets) and huge speculative markets, a good part of which thrive on the uncertainties created by currency “arrangements” even as the overall financial dynamics seem to be driving the world economy to even greater instabilities. I sense the time is ripe for another large disruption or crisis, and you can have your pick of “external events” which might deliver the initial tremor.

    I might add that another book on my list is another James A. Morone’s 2004 “Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History.” You might logically ask what that has to do with Polanyi’s work; well, I’ve never read a better historical explanation of where the religious intensity in American economic fundamentalism comes from, but Polanyi tells us the enormous gamble and structure that the classical economists in England set in motion to set up the world’s first large national labor market, and the historic “double movement” it set off in reaction, which spiraled all the way down to 1917 and probably is still going to be with us as Piketty is showing now, tells us of the religious language the founders used to explain and justify what they were doing, and the intensity of the effort reminds us all of the Protestant Ethic and the great moral straining that a frenzied individualistic competitive capitalism sets off. As in early Protestants wondering where they stood in the light of God’s inscrutable power and grace, were they going to heaven and how would they know…in the world’s marketplace competition of standing…one’s worth would be determined by more worldly measures…self denial, hard work and striving being the measure of good character, but what if, as in the life and soul of our own American John Brown, the abolitionist, it didn’t lead to worldly success, but…well you get the drift. If you ever wondered about the philosophical and moral origins (hah) of Rick Santelli’s rant from the Chicago trading pits/floor on those unworthy purchasers of mortgage junk…then Morone and Polanyi will explain where he was unconsciously coming from, turning economic mistakes and failures into – Paul Krugman forgive, but he still doesn’t get it, Paul doesnt’ – it is, in the hands of the economic mainstream and the Right, one grand morality play, Paul. And I hope my readers here understand that’s not my ideal or value system, but one we are all still swimming in, like it or not, and its waters color every economic discussion held in the United States. Austerity has it deepest roots in these Protestant Ethic ingrained linkages between denial and virtuous suffering…even as the earliest classical economists gave them a pre-Darwin Darwinian twist. The intensity and uncertainty of the these capitalistic dynamics help explain why it can so easily turn predatory and barely conceal its Social Darwinian bent beneath the veneer of charity and good will philanthropy, the conscience easers.

    Enough for now. I look forward Asad to reading your full essay.

  2. William Neil
    July 14, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    How could I have forgotten, in moral terms of contemporary economics, the German higher institutional responses to the “southern” periphery nations, their lack of discipline, bad work habits and generally implied moral sloth… compared to well…Luther’s home’s habits. The whole undercurrent of the European crisis. The Wagnerian equivalent to Santelli’s rant?

  3. William Neil
    July 15, 2014 at 12:55 am

    With the deliberate intention of annoying the large number of economists out there who have not read Polanyi at all, or who may in some cases not have heard of him, I’m going to quote from two paragraphs to illustrate a number of the points Asad listed at the beginning. They come from Chapter Twelve, “Birth of the Liberal Creed,” which contains the most references, examples and inferences to support my assertion that Polanyi is really uncovering the roots of the intensity of market fundamentalists, and he repeatedly describes these attributes with religious and creedal terms without specifying the denominations.

    To add to professional irritation, I am also deliberately quoting the passage on International Free Trade. Smile now and come along with me and Polanyi:

    “International free trade involved no less an act of faith. Its implications were entirely extravagant. It meant that England would depend for her food supply upon overseas sources; would sacrifice her agriculture, if necessary, and enter on a new form of life under which she would be part and parcel of some vaguely conceived world unity of the future; that this planetary community would have to be a peaceful one, or, if not would have to made safe for Great Britain by the power of the Navy; and that the English nation would face the prospects of continuous industrial dislocations in the firm belief in its superior inventive and productive ability. However, it was believed that if only the grain of all the word could flow freely to Britain, then her factories would be able to undersell all the world. Again, the measure of the determination needed was set by the magnitude of the proposition and the vastness of the risks involved in complete acceptance. Yet less than complete acceptance spelled certain ruin.

    The utopian springs of the dogma of laissez-faire are but incompletely understood as long as they are viewed separately. The three tenets – competitive labor markets; automatic gold standard, and international free trade – formed one whole. The sacrifices involved in achieving any one of them were useless, if not worse, unless the other two were equally secured. It was everything or nothing….Thus the anti-Corn Law Bill of 1846 was the corollary of Peel’s Bank Act of1844, and both assumed a laboring class which, since the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, was forced to give its best under the threat of hunger, so that wages were regulated by the price of grain. The three great measures formed a coherent whole.”

    Anyone see any parallels between these passages from 1944 describing the increasingly cohesive ideology of the first great period of globalization, the role of the Royal Navy and the whole Utopian tinge of it…to the globalization of our day under neoliberalism and the burdens of the Empire taken up by our enormous military apparatus, with the utopian wish of all our intelligence agencies to sweep up all human electronic communication and store it forever, for active use and just in case…Don’t look now readers but these passages, adjusted for the language of the times, are describing the mindset of the American military and economic establishment, as well as the assumptions of most of the “e” profession, present good company excluded, of course.

    And happy Bastille Day to all!

  4. robert r locke
    July 15, 2014 at 9:58 am


    I wish economists studied more history. One of he fields that I took for my Ph.D qualifiying examinations was European High Middle Ages, which I studied under Lynn White, Jr. a specialists in Medieval Technology. I was fascinated with the richness of the civilization and its dynamism. I’ve attached a few pages about it. I do this primarily to say that Polanyi’s great transformation is not as important as people think. In terms of the development of the modern world, so much happened before, and in a political, social, religious, and cultural synthesis that was so different from our times.

    “The European High Middle Ages, which lasted from about 1050 to 1300, evoke for many people romantic images of knights in shining armor, magnificent castles, and glorious cathedrals. And to many people, the word medieval (Latin medium aevum; “middle age”) wrongly suggests a cultural intermission between the classical period of the Greek and Roman civilizations and the Renaissance. On the contrary, the High Middle Ages was a dynamic period that shaped European identity and development, stimulated in part by Europe’s interactions with other cultures in Eurasia and the Mediterranean. Many of the basic social and political patterns and institutions later associated with European history were formed during this era. Clear political boundaries and cultural identities emerged in the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, eastern Europe, Iberia, and Scandinavia. Between 1000 and 1300, a chain reaction of developments in economy, society, and political life contributed to new trends in religion, scholarship, literature, and other arts—trends that shaped European culture to the present day.
    Economic Expansion and the Emergence of Towns
    Territorial expansion, innovations in agriculture, and the development of cities and trade brought rapid economic change to medieval Europe. Changes in the availability and consumption of material goods and in population distribution radically altered European social relations and political organization. These changes created new, more independent classes. These classes competed against and balanced each other so that no one group gained absolute power.
    Migration and expansion of frontiers stretched the boundaries of European countries in the Mediterranean, eastern Europe, and Iberia. Much of this migration and expansion was led by warrior groups. One such warrior group was the Viking-descended Normans in France, who went to Sicily. Another was the Teutonic Knights, who moved German peasants eastward into Slavic territories. The Crusaders, warriors from throughout Europe, answered Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks. In the 11th-century Christian reconquest of Iberia, known as the “Reconquista,” the northern kingdoms of Aragón, Castile, and León expanded Christendom southward. This expansion took over the territories of the former Muslim caliphate of Córdoba, with its multicultural population of Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
    The clearing of land and new techniques in agriculture led to higher food production, a rise in population, and greater economic freedom. Agricultural tools, such as the heavy plow, along with new methods for harnessing animal power, such as the horse collar, enabled farmers to work the rich, dense soil of northern Europe using less labor. The three-field system replaced two-field crop rotation, allowing farmers to cultivate two-thirds, instead of half, of their land at once, while leaving one-third to rest and build nutrients. In the 12th century, energy-producing devices such as the windmill and tidal mill for grinding grain also increased productivity. Consequently, Europeans began eating better; they lived longer and grew in number. An improved diet with iron-rich legumes increased women’s life span and helped them survive childbearing. Europe’s population almost doubled between 1000 and 1350; in some regions, it tripled. Surplus food and population meant that more people could devote their energies to new crafts and trade instead of to subsistence agriculture.
    This increase in productivity from the 11th through the 14th centuries led to urbanization, or the growth of market towns and cities. Townspeople bought foodstuffs and raw supplies from rural areas, and sold crafts made by local artisans as well as items imported from other regions. Towns and townspeople became independent of the landholding aristocracy and were able to regulate their own businesses through charters granted by kings. Coins became a convenient medium of exchange, and a money-based economy, complete with banking, investing, and lending activities, emerged. European merchants and investors formed competing trade networks. The merchants of the older Italian city-states, such as Genoa, Venice, and Pisa, brought luxury goods from the east and from North African ports in exchange for Europe’s raw materials. In the 12th and 13th centuries, a group of northern German towns formed the Hanseatic League. The league monopolized the trade routes that transported raw goods, such as timber, furs, and metals, along the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and major rivers. In doing so, they linked Germany, England, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and eastern European countries. Although the majority of Europeans still lived in rural areas, towns increasingly dominated the landscape.
    Social Diversity
    The economic changes brought about by increased trade and the emergence of cities created new tensions in medieval society. These tensions permeated the boundaries of class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. The interaction between rural and urban classes led to the establishment of new political organizations and laws designed to balance the needs of competing classes.
    As towns emerged, new social classes—such as merchants and artisans—disrupted the established social patterns of medieval society. According to the traditional view, three orders worked together in the rural community: the warrior aristocracy, or people who fight; the peasantry, or people who work; and the clergy, or people who pray. These traditional communities were organized in a hierarchy and bound together like a family, with the noble acting as a father figure over his household and the village inhabitants. Townspeople, who earned their living through crafts or commerce, broke from these rural obligations and familial ties, so they created new social networks through associations called guilds. Merchant guilds protected the town’s interests by regulating trade with outsiders and providing benefits for members. Craft guilds organized by tanners, butchers, and weavers set wage and price controls and established rules for apprenticeship and membership. To some religious writers, the urban freedoms of the newly chartered towns seemed to undermine the traditional hierarchical order of society. Others thought merchants were worldly and materialistic because they did no work of their own but rather profited from others’ labor by buying and selling goods. Contrary to this opinion, guilds spread their wealth by giving alms to the poor and building churches to visibly demonstrate their members’ collective piety.
    The choices made by women in the patriarchal society of High Medieval Europe illustrate the new and increased variety of social classes. Women’s roles usually were defined in relation to men, with marriage and childbearing as women’s main social and political functions. Nevertheless, women were active and influential throughout society. Royal and aristocratic women wielded authority at court and managed complex households, as Blanche of Castile did when she reigned as France’s regent for her son, King Louis IX. Townswomen operated brewing and weaving businesses and even briefly formed their own guilds. Peasant women engaged in intensive manual labor, producing food and sustaining their households. Some women left such circumstances to become household servants in the manor or in towns, where their rights were minimal. Religious women chose to exchange the material life of marriage and family for a spiritual and intellectual life in a cloister. While women could not become priests, they did influence society as visionaries, spiritual advisors, and writers. One such influential woman was Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Germany (1098 to 1179) who frequently spoke out on the religious, political, and social issues of her day.
    In both the hierarchical and communal order of the Middle Ages, everyone had a place and knew it. One’s identity was linked to kinship, class, and faith; ignoring these boundaries threatened the order of society. In response to the perceived threat of non-Christian peoples, such as Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, and religious heretics, discriminatory laws placed those groups on the margins of society. Anti-Semitism, or the hatred of Jews, sometimes inspired Christian mobs to murder Jews as “Christ killers,”—as when the Crusaders passed through Germany in 1096. However, despite the discrimination and fear that oftentimes restricted their businesses and social contacts, Jewish communities maintained a strong internal network through family, synogogue, and contacts with Jews across and outside Europe. In fact, Jews played an integral role in medieval society by influencing medieval scholarship.
    Political Centralization and the Development of Government by Consent
    In the midst of the economic growth and social turmoil, the High Middle Ages witnessed the stabilization of Europe’s political boundaries and the growth of centralized governments throughout the continent. Building on the economic strength of towns and trade, the individual rulers of Europe developed competent bureaucracies to govern their domains, as is evident in the increased use of written legal documents. The power of these new rulers was limited, however, by pressure from competing social groups and political organizations, such as the aristocracy, townspeople, and the church.
    In the 11th through 13th centuries, the growing communities in Europe developed stable political identities, usually under a central ruler. Royal control expanded in Angevin England, Capetian France, and Germany under the Holy Roman Emperors. Meanwhile, newly unified Christian kingdoms emerged in Iberia, with the kingdoms of Léon and Castile and Portugal; in Scandinavia, with Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; and in eastern Europe, with the Magyar-ruled Kingdom of Hungary, the Piast dynasty in Poland, and Kievan Russia. The Slavic peoples of eastern Europe were influenced by both western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. For example, Russia’s Slavic population converted to Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, Christianity under the Kievan dynasty founded by Scandinavians in the 10th century. They formed a strong Slavic Christian culture that survived even the Mongol conquest of the 13th century.
    Medieval rulers did not have absolute power; rather their competence lay in developing strategic relationships with the aristocracy, the towns, and the church. Even while kings were centralizing their power, new representative assemblies in medieval England’s Parliament and France’s Estates General laid down the roots of government by consent of the people. For example, England’s Henry I, who reigned from 1100 to 1135, created an efficient government auditing system in the Exchequer, the body that managed the receipt and expenditure of revenue. His grandson Henry II, who reigned from 1154 to 1189, contributed to the development of common law that united the kingdom. But King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, a precursor to constitutional monarchy in England.
    Often conflicts between these competing sources of authority gave rise to new political theories and laws. In the 11th-century Investiture Controversy, for example, popes and secular rulers debated the right to invest, or appoint, bishops. As European religious leaders developed more systematic authority over their churches, reformers sought to free local churches from the control of lay aristocrats and kings. However, Europe’s kings were accustomed to appointing their own archbishops and bishops, as these men, who were usually from aristocratic families, served as royal administrators. When Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085, challenged the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s appointment of a bishop, he sparked a long conflict over the relationship of church and state. Subsequent popes, such as the dynamic Innocent III, pope from 1198 to 1216, used the same bureaucratic mechanisms that secular rulers used to develop legal theories freeing the church from secular influence. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the arguments made on both sides of the debate helped define the boundaries of political authority for both church autonomy and secular government.
    Religion and Scholarship
    Creative tensions in medieval society and politics led to new ideas, such as those exchanged in the debates over faith and reason in the new universities. They also led to the rise of new religious orders and forms of spirituality. New ideas emerged in popular religion during the struggle between orthodox Christianity and numerous heresies. The influence of Jewish and Muslim scholarship, the rise of an educated class of career scholars, and the growth of an urban reading public also contributed to this cultural and intellectual ferment in Europe.
    During the 12th and 13th centuries, universities arose in the major European cities. These universities met the demand for education in the seven liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music—education that became a significant path to career advancement. Universities specializing in the higher disciplines—law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, and theology and philosophy at Paris—became centers for intellectual debate. The 12th-century philosophical school known as Scholasticism developed new systems of logic based on Europeans’ rediscovery of Aristotle from Islamic and Jewish sources. Scholars debated how humans can know truth—whether knowledge of truth occurs through faith, through human reason and investigation, or through some combination of both means. Although none of these scholars denied Christian truth as it was revealed in the Bible, some, such as Anselm of Canterbury, placed faith before reason. Others, such as Peter Abelard, put reason first. The great 13th-century Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas produced a brilliant synthesis of faith and reason, while a group of philosophers called nominalists questioned whether human language could accurately describe reality. These inquiries into the nature of knowledge contributed to scientific inquiry, evident in the experimental theories of English scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon (1214?-1294).
    Meanwhile, many people sought a more spiritual, holistic experience of the world than what was offered through the intellect or through ordinary church rituals. Visionaries and reformers created new orders such as the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Saint Francis of Assisi rejected the urban materialism of his parents and local church. He established a mendicant, or beggar, lifestyle for the followers of his church-approved order—Franciscan friars for men and the Poor Clares for women. Many religious thinkers in the 1200s were influenced by the earlier philosophy of Christian Neoplatonism, a synthesis of Plato’s ideals and Christian mysticism. Under that influence, they rejected the Aristotelian focus on rationalizing religion and believed God’s divine revelation could best be understood through experience. The Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, feared that Abelard’s scholastic logic would deaden true spiritual understanding. Later, Bonaventure, a Franciscan who lived from 1221 to 1274, developed a mystical philosophy guiding Christians toward contemplation of the ideal realm of God.
    Popular religion also reflected this social and religious ferment. Most people in medieval Europe were Christian by baptism at birth and participated in church rituals throughout their lives. They did penance for sins, attended Mass, and went on pilgrimages to holy sites containing relics of saints. In the cities, lay people began seeking a more intense religious experience to counterbalance the materialism of their urban lives. Many were drawn into new religious movements, not all of which were approved by the church. This led to conflict between church-taught orthodox teachings and practices and heresy, beliefs and practices that were condemned as false by the church and considered a danger to Christendom. Like the religious orders, heresies such as the Cathars (also known as the Albigensians), the Waldensians, and the Spiritual Franciscans emphasized spiritual life; however, they also criticized the church’s materialism and challenged its authority. For instance, the Cathars rejected the body as evil and saw no need for priests. Church leaders condemned them as heretics, while secular rulers, bent on suppressing local rebellions against their authority, carried out a military crusade to destroy their strongholds in southern France. The church, whose doctrine and order were threatened by these groups, appointed preachers such as the Dominicans to teach correct doctrine and also commissioned inquisitors to detect heretics and recommend them for punishment.
    Literature and the Arts
    Growth in urban society, intellectual innovations, and the tension between spirituality and order in the church all contributed to the development of new creative styles in literature, the visual arts, architecture, and music. Trade and the money-based economy of Europe supported this creativity, as was evident in the importation of styles and materials from abroad, in aristocratic patronage of the arts, and in the craft and merchant guilds’ contributions for the construction of monumental churches in their towns.
    Literacy increased in medieval Europe, especially among the urban lay populations, who had more time to read. While most books were written in Latin, which was considered the dominant language of learning, more books were being produced in regional languages, such as English, French, and German. From this vernacular literature, new styles and genres evolved. At the courts, troubadours wrote and performed lyric poetry celebrating the love between knights and ladies. Epic tales of warrior heroism, such as Beowulf, gave way to romances celebrating courtly love and knightly chivalry, exemplified in Arthurian books such as The Quest of the Holy Grail and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The popular fabliaux, or animal fables, often emphasized the virtues and cleverness of working people over those traits of the higher classes. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales poked fun at all societal classes. Religious books—sermons, biographies of saints, and stories of miracles—provided enlightening literature for pious readers, increasingly women. Books were handwritten manuscripts, laboriously copied by scribes using quill or reed pens to write on animal skin parchment. Expensive manuscripts were decorated with illustrations painted in gold and brilliant colors— full page portraits of Christ and other saints or intricately drawn vines, plants, and fantastic beasts intertwined down the margins.
    Stylistic changes also occurred in visual arts, such as painting, sculpture, metalwork, stained glass, and architecture, and in performing arts, such as music and drama. Supported by religious and secular patrons and influenced by Islamic and Byzantine civilizations, an artistic renaissance developed the Romanesque style in the 11th and 12th centuries. Romanesque architecture featured solid, imposing cathedrals with rounded arches and fantastic stone carvings. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Gothic style introduced new engineering innovations and emphasized greater emotional expression. The pointed arches, vaulted ribs, and flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame in Paris, allowed engineers to build higher and lighter walls, while stained glass windows gave the interior a sense of heavenly illumination. On the exterior of Gothic cathedrals, tall, slender statues of beautifully calm saints portrayed an idealized humanity. During this period, music and notation, like Gothic architecture, developed in complexity. The single line melodies of monophonic Gregorian chant, instrumental dance pieces, and troubadour ballads evolved into more complex polyphonic music weaving together multiple parts. Music was an integral part of emotional expression in medieval life. Performances included the secular, from courtly lyrics and lively dances to drinking songs in taverns, and the religious, from sung portions of the Mass to mystery plays that reenacted biblical stories. Much of the art of this period is still admired today.
    The Middle Ages were marked by the diversification and growth of economy and society and by the subsequent social tension and political and religious conflict. These developments also led to creative new approaches in artistic expression, legal theory, and philosophy. The dynamic, lively culture that emerged from medieval European economy, society, politics, religion, scholarship, and the arts brought Europeans onto a world stage.

  5. William Neil
    July 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Asad, I feel for you from the insult by indirection delivered by Mr. Locke. He is free to argue that any historical period of his liking may or may not be more or less important than the time periods Polanyi has focused on, but he makes no case that the religious or ethical ideas of the Middle Ages now have a greater influence on policy makers of today than the rise of the classical economists and their laissez-faire system that arose in the first three decades of the 19th century, which heavily influences both the profession of economics and today’s policy makers.

    It is also curious that he makes no reference to any of Polanyi’s extended comments about “feudalism,” which have 11 different entries in the Index. In addition, In Polanyi’s Chapter 8, “Antecedents and Consequences,” there is much historical discussion on the origins of England’s Poor laws and other legal precedents for treating workers and the poor, many of which had their roots in the Medieval world view. It was Church and Crown who had the greatest resistance to the pressures for releasing the poor upon the soon to be constructed “laissez-faire” labor market, and indeed, it is impossible to understand the evolution and emergence of capitalism without seeing it as a struggle, for better or worse, to free economic life from all the previous ethical strictures on free trade, usury, the guilds and wage and price regulation. Polanyi offers informed insights and commentary on all these dynamics, and by his concept of economies having been long “embedded” in the broader ethical strictures and structures of the broader societies, he has offered Mr. Locke a wonderful opportunity to comment in detail on these matters. Instead, from Mr. Locke we get a grand put down and dismissal of Polanyi for having chosen, I guess its fair to say, an era of high irrelevance compared to the Middle Ages, without, in my opinion, making any good case for the Middle Age’s impact on the thinking of Wall Street and Centrist democrats today, or even the religious Right. The current Pope has far more to say about the relevance of Christian theory upon economic conduct, and I’m waiting for him to cite Polanyi and his concept of embeddness.

    Thanks Mr. Locke for a grand and irrelevant diversion.

  6. William Neil
    July 15, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I think one of the truly important ways the Middle Ages and its achievements does, or could have great relevance for today is this, remembering that distinct historical periods must be understood upon their own terms, ideals and constructions: the Middle Ages represent the time, an apogee when all of society, and especially its economy, was woven or embedded in the religious world view of the time and thus it serves, as it partly did for Polanyi, as a great measuring rod when we look at the emergence of capitalism and its evolution in first half of the 19th century, and the related rise of neoliberalism today, when I would argue that economics and the economy in their own right have now maximum freedom from any other governing morality other than ones that the theologians of the Right and the Chicago school construct to measure it by. The Christians of the Middle Ages and the Christians of the Religious Right have come to entirely different conclusions about the morality of “capitalism” and the role of economics. You might have had something interesting to say about this Mr. Locke, but I couldn’t find it.

  7. robert r locke
    July 15, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    “the Middle Ages represent the time, an apogee when all of society, and especially its economy, was woven or embedded in the religious world view of the time and thus it serves, as it partly did for Polanyi, as a great measuring rod when we look at the emergence of capitalism and its evolution in first half of the 19th century, and the related rise of neoliberalism today”

    Read Henry Adam’s Mont St-Michel et Chartre, the chapter on the Virgin and the Dynamo, read Edwin Panofsky’s little book, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Pierre Boissonade’s Life and Work in the Middle Ages, etc. and you’ll find people who agree with your insight. But why must you see what I wrote as a put down for Asad. I just do not believe, and never have, that the English-American view of the world is much but a passing fad. Their dominance of the world of thought in 1944 has nothing to do much with the thought itself, which readers of this blog know is pretty shaky stuff, a lot to do with the fortunes of history that put the US, by chance, in charge of the world at the time. Embeddedness? All my work is about it. I’ll bet you haven’t read anything I have written.

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