What Polanyi Teaches Us: The Platform Economy and Structural Change


The rise of the platform economy marks the latest phase in the ongoing digital revolution. Indeed, the platform is to this digital era what the factory was to the industrial era, both a symbol and an organizing mechanism. Gernot Grabher and Jonas König (2020) used Karl Polanyi’s analysis of what he termed the “great transformation” to frame the rise of platform economy. The platform economy is remarkable as it confirms Polanyi’s (and Marx’s before him) insight that the reach of the market is based upon increased commodification as it has been able to reach into ever more parts of social life. We introduced the term “platform economy” in 2015 because we recognized that the digital platforms were changing the dynamics of capitalist accumulation – an analysis framed by regulationist school of political economy. The intuition was that the sociotechnical innovation of digital online platforms was the critical fulcrum for an economic restructuring that would rewire the flows of data and ultimately money and power. The firms we have termed the mega-platforms, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have become the most valuable and powerful firms in the world. Importantly, the reach of these platforms is global and yet local and personal. Moreover, platform power has been reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Publication date: 
August 4, 2020
Publication type: 
Working Paper