On Belief on Economic Determinism

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[96] My main thesis is
(a) that economic determinism was pre-eminently a nineteenth century phenomenon, which …
(b) that the market system distorted our views on man and society;
(c) these distorted views are proving one of the main obstacles to the solution of the problems of our civilization.

DEFINITION OF THE PRESENT PHASE OF OUR CIVILIZATION. An historian should find no difficulty in defining the stage at which we have arrived. The tour is called industrial civilization. The first stage of the tour is over, and we are embarking on the second. The machine age, or industrial civilization, which started sometime in the eighteenth century, is still far from being over. Its first phase has been called by many names, such as liberal capitalism, or market-economy; […]

SUCH, in common sense terms, is the bird's eye view of our troubles. Meanwhile the first phase of the new civilization is, as we saw, already behind us. It involved a peculiar social organisation […]

[97] INDUSTRIAL civilization unhinged the elements of man's being. The machine interfered with the intimate balance which obtained between man, nature and work. Whether our distant ancestors were tree-climbing creatures or whether they squatted in the undergrowth, […]

OUR situation is thus peculiar to the utmost. In the nineteenth century the machine forced an unprecedented […]

SUCH a proposition was, of coure, true in respect to a market-economy.But only in respect to such an economy. If the term 'economic' is used as synonymous with 'concerning production' we maintain that there do not exist any human motives which are intrinsically 'economic'; and as tot the so-called 'economic' motives it should be said that economic systems are usually not based ion them.



LET us stop and consider. Is there anything intrinsically economic about these motives in the sense in which we speak of religious or aesthetic motives being based on religious or aesthetic experiences? Is there anything about hunger or, for that matter, about gain […] [99] fundamental results brought to light by research done by social anthropologists in the field […]

[100] makes no difference. Not hunger nor gain but pride and prestige, rank and status, public praise and private reputation provide the incentives for individual participation in production. Fear of having to forego material necessities, the incentive of gain or profit need to be absent. Markets are widely spread … […]

THIRDLY, there is the suddenness with which the transformation occurred. this is not a matter of degree but of kind. A chain-reaction was induced, and the harmless […]

THE every day activities of men and woman are, in the nature of things, to a large extent related to production of material goods. Since, in principle, the exclusive motive of all these activities was now either the fear of starvation or the lure of profit, these motives, now described as 'economic', were singled out from among [101] all other motives and considered to be the normal incentives of man in his everyday activities. All other incentives, such as honour, pride and solidarity, civic obligation, moral duty or simply a sense of common decency were regarded as being motives not related to everyday life, but of a rare and more esoteric nature, fatefully summed up in the word 'ideal'. Man was supposed to consist of two components; those regarded as 'material', the latter as 'ideal'. Productive activities were once and for all linked with the material. Man being strictly dependent upon means of subsistence, this amounted to a materialistic morality. All attempts to correct it in practice were bound to fail, since they now took the form of arguing for an equally unreal 'idealistic' morality. This is the source of that fatal divorce of the material and the ideal which is the crux of all our practical anthropology: instead of the 'mixed motives' in which man is at one with himself, his division into an alleged 'material' and 'ideal', man was hypostasied. The Paulinian dualism of flesh and spirit was merely a proposition of theological anthropology. It had very little to do with materialism. Under market-economy human society itself was organised on dualistic lines, everyday life being handed over to the material, with Sundays reserved for the ideal.

NOW, if this definition of man were true, every human society would have to possess a separate economic system, based on 'economic motives', such as existed in nineteenth century society. That's why the marketing view of man is also a marketing view of society.

THIS explains the current belief […]

LET me proceed to some conclusions.

THE task of adjusting the […]

THE civilization we are seeking […]


Text Informations

Original Publication: “On belief on economic determinism”, The Sociological Review, vol. 39, n°2, January 1947, p. 103-112
KPA: 35/08 (17 p., copy of the original)
Recent Publication in English: in Polanyi 2018b, p. 241-242

Lge Name
DE Über den Glauben an den ökonomischen Determinismus
FR « Faut-il croire au déterminisme économique ? »