Photo: Ye Jiabin and Guy Standing

Throughout history, capitalism has evolved, changing character and changing the class structure defining each era. The changes in the 20th century can be understood by reference to what Karl Polanyi called the Great Transformation.[i] Briefly, in his formulation, in the 19th century, mainly in Britain, there was an initial period in the evolution of industrial capitalism that was dominated by financial capital, in which old systems of distribution, regulation and social protection were dismantled, in what we would call the pursuit of a ‘free market economy’.

In Polanyi’s terminology, this was a period in which the economy was ‘dis-embedded’ from society, that is, out of control by civilising social forces. As a result, inequalities and economic insecurities multiplied until there was a systemic crisis, and in his words ‘a threat of the annihilation of civilisation’. This manifested itself in the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism and a dehumanised form of state socialism in the Soviet Union.

[i] K.Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York. Farrar and Rinehart, 1944).

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