Saturday, December 22, 2012

Quilley: A New Great Transformation

Stephen Quilley, using primarily the work of Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, makes a case for a new Great Transformation in the context of economic degrowth. He explains Polanyi's thesis of the 'disembedding' of the free market economy from non-economic social relations and how that led to two conflicting policies: an unregulated and predatory free market and a nationalized attempt to redistribute some private wealth as public benefits in the form of welfare states. Quilley's thesis is that conditions of degrowth might mean a return to re-embedding of a more localized economy within localized social relations that influence the market with non-economic social values, such as a concern for local skilled production and ecological impacts. Quilley's article, though dense, is a nice work of classical sociological argument. He references the work of the Social Innovation Generation at the University of Waterloo, a good source of research in this ares. [Check out "Pathways to System Change" as an example of their excellent work.] Following Polanyi, Quilley proposes that:

"The disembedding of economic activity involves the systematic loosening of the relationship between processes of production and consumption on the one hand, and particular place-bound communities on the other. Globalization is but the latest phase in the subordination of specific places as generic, interchangeable nodes in an abstract economic space (Lash and Urry 1994). By contrast, in the context of regeneration and community development, social innovation frequently seeks:
  • to foster recursive and circular economic flows within communities and places
  • to link economic activity to the enhancement of social and cultural capital of local community members
  • to reduce the vulnerability of place-bound communities to the vagaries of market forces by embedding economic activity in the wider matrix of local social, cultural and political activity.8"
What I liked best about the piece is his conclusion that in a period of crisis and transformation, which I agree is certainly underway, we must not try to look for or latch on to any one or one set of possible solutions. Rather we should allow for maximum diversity and experimentation of as many social innovations as possible, in order to select out those that work under a variety of localized conditions.


  1. Alf Hornborg made several of these points in his book entitled "The power of the machine", to which this blog devoted four posts two years ago. As to experimentation, the late Lin Ostrom was a tireless supporter of facilitating this (e.g. the polycentric approach that de-emphasises the obsession with a single, global solution).