In the Marxist tradition, capitalism is understood as a commodified society based on markets. The article argues that the ultimate justification of this position does not lie in any ‘materialistic’ approach, but in the disembedding of markets that was the result of the historical ‘Great Transformation’ analysed by Karl Polanyi. Disembedded markets are not an economic subsystem within society but take the place of the most encompassing social system, which Durkheim had reserved for religion. The article distinguishes between spatial, social, material and temporal dimensions of disembedding, thereby elaborating and correcting the analysis of Karl Polanyi. As a genuine form of society, disembedded markets give rise to the epistemological dilemma, which, as Luhmann had shown, is fundamental to any encompassing social theory: Society as a whole cannot be viewed by any observer. According to this viewpoint, economic theories take on ‘theological’ functions, as they provide rationality and legitimacy to a reality that is unknowable.
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