(Neo-) Polanyian perspectives on Technology-Economy relations

Sally Randles, Chris Holmes (Editor)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


This article explores some enduring themes in Karl Polany’s work with particular attention to his life-long concern with the subject Freedom. In contrast to the dominant focus on Economy-Society relations, which perhaps results from disproportionate attention contemporary Polanyi scholars pay to his seminal work The Great Transformation (TGT); this paper calls for a broader thematic analysis of Polany’s life-work spanning concerns of Freedom-Society-Technology-Economy, and their inter-relations. These themes are visible in his writing from the 1920s to the early 1960s but were explicitly brought together in a normative critique that Polanyi and Rotstein began but never finished, in a book they had entitled Freedom and Technology. Polanyi expressed the concern that modern technologies have the capacity to ‘numb’ society because of their ubiquitous nature – the combination of omnipresence and invisibility. Technological Civilisation is the outcome of a set of conditions whereupon humanity is so submerged within the affective powers of mass technology, that there is a corresponding mass-desensitisation to its powers. But he was not anti-technology. Technology brings benefits as well as threats to society. What concerns Polanyi from a normative standpoint, is that technologies enable human relationships (in particular relations of economic organisation) to be conducted beyond the ‘human’ scale. At the same time actors immersed in these relationships are dehumanised. The mode of organising and facilitating the relationship overtakes the original purpose, meaning, and understanding of it. The consequence of dual expansion, namely technological expansion and expansion of economic organisation - indeed as a result of each providing the means for the expansion of the other – is that original logics of human wellbeing are lost. A particular expression of Technology-Economy relations takes over, mediated by the rationales of Technical Agencies. We add that a series of dialectical double movements are evident, beyond the market-society double movement that Polanyi puts forward in TGT. The paper illustrates these ideas in the contemporary case of designing a system of exchanges in order to trade in permits and credits of greenhouse gas emissions known collectively as ‘carbon markets’. The paper finishes by offering some preliminary (Polanyi-inspired) theoretical reflections on the notion of technologising processes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
EditorsChris Holmes
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventNew Directions in Polanyi Scholarship (workshop participants by invitation only) - University of Southampton
Duration: 1 Jan 2011 → …


ConferenceNew Directions in Polanyi Scholarship (workshop participants by invitation only)
CityUniversity of Southampton
Period1/01/11 → …


  • Karl Polanyi, Freedom, Society, Technology, Economy, Technologising Processes, Dialectical Double Movements, Carbon Markets, Emissions Trading


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