The Moral Economy of the Capitalist Crowd: Utopianism, the Reality of Society, and the Market as a Morally Instituted Process in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation

Abstract: In an age of egregious inequality and rising authoritarian, many call for a new “moral economy” and turn to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for inspiration. Yet Polanyi’s great insight is that those who cannot reckon with the moral economy of “market justice”—the claim that market outcomes, however unequal, are morally just—fail to understand the power of capitalism. Justified by its original claim to rest on natural science, market justice laid the predicate for democracy as mortal threat. Polanyi reveals market justice as based not on natural law but on predistributive political power, and builds his democratic socialist vision on the “reality of society.”

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About Margaret R. Somers

Margaret R. Somers, professor of sociology and history, University of Michigan, specializes in political economy, citizenship rights, and the work of Karl Polanyi. She is the author, with Fred Block, of The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard, 2014), named “Book of the Year 2014” by Economic Sociology and Political Economy ( Her previous book, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to have Rights (Cambridge, 2008), winner of the Giovanni Sartori Award from the American Political Science Association, is a study of how market fundamentalism transformed large sectors of the American population from rights-bearing citizens into internally stateless surplus peoples. Her work in-progress focuses on the moral economy of market justice, the hidden powers of predistribution, and the Polanyian vision of a predistributive democracy.