Polanyi’s trap

To return to our bunch of scholars who speculate concerning a ‘partly capitalist international market economy’ in the ancient Near East: I suggest that they are caught in what may be called Polanyi’s trap – a double trap. They know that the overwhelming nature of the evidence is of exchange in preciosities; they know that the overwhelming feature of economic life was agriculture; they know that in order to postulate an international market economy they need to find evidence of trade in bulk staples. And so they clutch at straws, speculate, build firm conclusions from ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’. A few extra sheep bones, a small bug, some fish bones, a collection of pottery sherds, soon become solid evidence of such a market in bulk goods. Thus, Polanyi is proved wrong, for markets did indeed operate.

Yet they are trapped, for they uncritically work within Polanyi’s framework of reciprocal, redistributive, and market forms of exchange. All they have done is move from one term to another. But now the trap doubles, for they both neglect Polanyi’s point that no market operates outside social relations and they fail to notice that Polanyi himself was thoroughly mistaken about the idea of the “market” itself. He assumed that “market” has the sense given to it by Adam Smith and other classical economics – that human beings engage in truck, barter, and exchange for the sake of profit. Now the trap closes: the vast majority of markets throughout history have not been profit-making ventures, since they were by-products of state driven activities for requisitioning goods. Many continue to fall into this trap, including those who write on biblical economics and the ancient Near East.


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