But the state could not play a similar role in the Industrial revolution. It could only play an opposite role, tearing down old laws to allow laissez faire free reign. Why? Polanyi claims that the machinery needed to produce commodities in the Industrial Revolution brought with it necessities that were socially transforming:
“But how shall this Revolution itself be defined? What was its basic characteristic? Was it the rise of the factory towns, the emergence of slums, the long working hours of children, the low wages of certain categories of workers, the rise in the rate of population increase, or the concentration of industries? We submit that all these were merely incidental to one basic change, the establishment of market economy, and that the nature of this institution cannot be fully grasped unless the impact of the machine on a commercial society is realized. We do not intend to assert that the machine caused that which happened, but we insist that once elaborate machines and plant were used for production in a commercial society, the idea of a self-regulating market was bound to take shape.
The use of specialized machines in an agrarian and commercial society must produce typical effects. Such a society consists of agriculturalists and of merchants who buy and sell the produce of the land. Production with the help of specialized, elaborate, expensive tools and plants can be fitted into such a society only by making it incidental to buying and selling. The merchant is the only person available for the undertaking of this, and he is fitted to do so as long as this activity will not involve him in a loss. He will sell the goods in the same manner in which he would otherwise sell goods to those who demand them; but he will procure them in a different way, namely, not by buying them ready-made, but by purchasing the necessary labor and raw material. The two put together according to the merchant's instructions, plus some waiting which he might have to undertake, amount to the new product. This is not a description of domestic industry or "putting out" only, but of any kind of industrial capitalism, including that of our own time. Important consequences for the social system follow.
Since elaborate machines are expensive, they do not pay unless large amounts of goods are produced. 6 They can be worked without a loss only if the vent of the goods is reasonably assured and if production need not be interrupted for want of the primary goods necessary to feed the machines. For the merchant this means that all factors involved mast be on sale, that is, they must be available in the needed quantities to anybody who is prepared to pay for them. Unless this condition is fulfilled, production with the help of specialized machines is too risky to be undertaken both from the point of view of the merchant who stakes his money and of the community as a whole which comes to depend upon continuous production for incomes, employment, and provisions.
Now, in an agricultural society such conditions would not naturally be given; they would have to be created.”
The creation of those conditions was the creation of a new way of looking at life – through the money economy:
“But the most startling peculiarity of the system lies in the fact that, once it is established, it must be allowed to function without outside interference. Profits are not any more guaranteed, and the merchant must make his profits on the market. Prices must be allowed to regulate themselves. Such a self-regulating system of markets is what we mean by a market economy. The transformation to this system from the earlier economy is so complete that it resembles more the metamorphosis of the caterpillar than any alteration that can be expressed in terms of continuous growth and development. Contrast, for example, the merchant-producer's selling activities with his buying activities; his sales concern only artifacts; whether he succeeds or not in finding purchasers, the fabric of society need not be affected. But what he buys is raw materials and labor - nature and man. Machine production in a commercial society involves, in effect, no less a transformation than that of the natural and human substance of society into commodities. The conclusion, though weird, is inevitable; nothing less will serve the purpose: obviously, the dislocation caused by such devices must disjoint man's relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.”
What is obvious to Polanyi may not be obvious to us all. But the book is devoted to making us see the process of that dislocation and its consequences. Among other things, Polanyi has a much less romantic view of the relation between state and private enterprise than Hayek. For Polanyi, laissez faire is the result of state planning.
But that gets us off on another topic.
LI has been thinking of Polanyi as we’ve been contemplating our emotions essay. It is essential to this essay to get across the fact that the shift in the way the emotions were ordered had to do with Polanyi’s Great Transformation. What we are seeing is a dislocation in emotional habitation, or – as I’m going to call it – emotional custom. Following the rise of a certain way of talking about emotions – the rise of valence, in psychology, and the diffusion of a classificatory system related to it, and yet not synonymous with it, in everyday life, is simply following a thread in the shift of emotional custom.