Michael Polanyi on Self-Organization and Polycentricity

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Agnes Festre:

"For Polanyi, self-organization is an essential principle of coordination in societies, not only for economic activities, but also for science or academic activities. He expressed his views in his 1962 article “The Republic of Science”, where he argued that the market-like spontaneous order13 should be the organizational principle of science rather than social demand:

- What I have said here about the highest possible co-ordination of individual scientific efforts by a process of self-co-ordination may recall the self-co-ordination achieved by producers and consumers operating in a market. It was, indeed, with this in mind that I spoke of “the invisible hand” guiding the co-ordination of independent initiatives to a maximum advancement of science, just as Adam Smith invoked “the invisible hand” to describe the achievement of greatest joint material satisfaction when independent producers and consumers are guided by the prices of goods in a market (Polanyi, 1962, p. 56).

In this context, Polanyi paid explicit tribute to Hayek in an article he wrote in 1969, where he elaborates on polycentricity, an alternative terminology for spontaneous order:15 “I think I have proved in earlier writings that the production and distribution of modern technological products can be conducted only polycentrically, that is, by essentially independent productive centers distributing their products through a market” (Polanyi, 1969/1997, p. 183).16

Polanyi mentioned the idea of polycentricity for the first time in his 1941 essay “The Growth of Thought in Society”, where he developed his vision of the organization of science and contrasted two organizational orders: the corporate order and the dynamic order. The first one “consists in limiting the freedom of things and men to stay or move about at their pleasure, by assigning to each a specific position in a pre-arranged plan (Polanyi, 1941, p. 431). By contrast, in the dynamic order, which characterizes both natural and human settings, “no constraint is applied specifically to individual particles (...). The particles are thus free to obey the internal forces acting between them, and the resultant order represents the equilibrium between all the internal and external forces” (Polanyi, 1941, p. 431). Interestingly, we find in Polanyi (1948, pp. 248–249) a demonstration, through the use of graphs, of the impossibility of economic planning through the comparison between two opposed coordination devices that characterize the two kind of orders, namely, corporate authority and spontaneous order (see Figs. 1-5 in the Appendix). More precisely, the demonstration shows the superiority - in terms of efficiency - of spontaneous order over corporate authority when the number of interacting individuals becomes significant. It is based on the notion of span of control:17 The impossibility of central economic direction lies in the much shorter span of control [the number of adjustable relations] of a corporate authority as compared with a self-adjusted system (Polanyi, 1948, p. 256)."