Fred Block stands as one of the most important contemporary expositors of Karl Polanyi. This is not to say, however, that Block is without his fair share of critics. As Gareth Dale argues in Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market, Block overemphasizes Polanyi’s understanding of the embedded economy, and thereby downplays Polanyi’s grasp on the uniqueness of the modern market society. The great Polanyian insight, according to Block, is that capitalism and democracy can coexist, provided robust political structures are in place.

Block may be wrong about his reformist interpretation of Polanyi, but I think he might be onto something here with his understanding of how capitalism actually operates:

I once had a conversation with the late Paul Sweezy where I was talking about some visions of reforming capitalism, and he said, “well, you can’t get the capitalist leopard to change its spots…” Capitalism was very powerfully being described as a beast and its seems to me that that natural imagery, which is there very deeply in Marx’s work, and he used it, I think, very self-consciously as a way to protect Marxism from reformism. From the threat that workers would accept half a loaf rather than radical transformation. And so he always talked about that you had to transform capitalism root and branch; you had to pull the whole thing out. You couldn’t just change a little bit. So he used the image of capitalism as a natural system that had to be completely destroyed. And I think that natural imagery is part of what has gotten us into deep trouble. And the kind of alternative metaphor that I have been trying to work with is to think rather of market societies and the contemporary global economy as not as a natural entity at all, but rather as a kind of jerry-built structure; a bunch of elements put together at different times that fit together very uneasily which are constantly having to be patched and readjusted. And so the notion is that it’s a system which is always under construction because the parts of it don’t fit together very well. It’s riven by contradictions, tension, lack of fit. And it’s precisely that always-under-construction quality which it what gives the political openings, because that which is recognized to be under construction can be reconstructed in different ways, better ways, to promote different kinds of values.

Fred Block, “Towards a Polanyian Theory of Contemporary Capitalism,” transcribed from David Cayley’s “Markets and Society” podcast, episode V.

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