The impact of the primitive and of archaic forms was felt in every domain, in a process accompanying all modernity . That happens in a paradoxical way as the fascination with Pre-history and non-modern forms comes with the anachronism leading to project in the past ideas which are basically modern, but also to turn non-modern, economic forms against capitalism. This tendency was already present in Karl Marx (1818-1883).
It is within this context that the influence of Karl Polanyi’s work can be understood. His book The Great Transformation (1944) was a success. In that work, Polanyi analyses the privatization of common lands in nineteenth-century England, describing historically the development of modern capitalism and the logic of the market it is based on. For the author, capitalism inverted the economic order, just as they had been in force throughout history, where they were embedded in social relations. With capitalism, the opposite occurs, tending to destroy the pre-modern rules of reciprocity and redistribution. Polanyi still shows that this process of autonomization of the capitalist market was eased by the legislative and colonial practices of the modern State.
This strategy deeply changes the approach to economics. Although complex approaches to economics were found among sociology classics like Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Polanyi’s work emerges at a time when economics had become a highly formalized, mathematized and apparently autonomous subject, on which liberal politics were based, and that had entered in crisis after 1929. The substantialism Polanyi opposes to the formal vision of economics, to the genealogy of its forms and its apparent autonomy, to the way how economic «laws» are inscribed in society and culture, in mutual relationship.
Polanyi’s strategy can be defined as a variant of general economics which at that same time was enounced by Georges Bataille in the book La Part Maudite, written between 1946 and 1949, still extremely influent today. A characteristic trait of this tendency is the reduction of the capitalist economic form to a variant among others and the consideration of economics according to a long temporality. In Polanyi’s case, that led him to study the ancient «economies», from America or Ancient Mesopotamia, approached in the book he published, Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (1957). The attempt to apprehend the economy on its whole, and to oppose the archaic forms to the liberal forms of modern economics, explains the strong presence of primitive and archaic elements in his thought. It is worth mentioning within this context the volume of essays published in 1968, Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economics: Essays of Karl Polanyi.
Polanyi’s work triggered an intense debate and deserved criticisms which strengthened its importance. The great transformation was seeking a way out for the 1930-1945 crisis of the liberal model. The new interest in this author’s thought is now brought about by the present crisis of the neo-liberal models affecting economic and political thought. Once again, the demand for a new transformation, if not the reinvention of economics forms, is repeated.