No limits : the 20th century discourse of economic growth

University dissertation from Umeå : Institutionen för historiska studier, Umeå universitet

Abstract: The breakthrough of the concept of economic growth in economics marks a paradigm shift in thinking about the economy and its place in 'reality.' This thesis analyzes the 20th century discourse of economic growth, focusing its unlimited connotations. The thesis consists of four case studies, two introductory parts and a concluding dis­cussion.Part II first gives an etymological outline of how the concept 'growth' transformed: from signifying natural processes, to become crucial within economics. The main focus is on the historiography around Adam Smith and the classical economists as 'fathers of growth.' It is argued that though Smith introduced new ideas on eco­nomic prosperity, it is anachronistic to view him as 'father of growth' in terms of modern economic discourse. The difference between conception of economic progress in classical economics - with a 'stationary state' - and the post-war concept of economic growth - without absolute limits - is interpreted by sketching four periods in economics regarding the issue of limits. Finally the label 'dismal,' often used for classical economics, is reinter­preted. The neoclassical 'Self and classical 'Other' is seen as a useful construction for legitimizing the growth discourse.Part III deals with economic thought at the turn of the century 1900. There were different ideas on what relative priority to address to individuals and communities as the basis of economy, as well as disagreements over how to organize economic policy to solve the 'social issue.' However, these differences did not result in different views on economic expansion per se. Neither to left- nor right-wing advocates was economic expansion an objective. Rather, economic expansion was a means to construct and manage a welfare state, and thus solve the social issue. If welfare could be distributed by expanding the total, there would be no sacrifices.The way economic growth was perceived in the early development discourse is studied in Part IV. The idea of unlimited growth is framed within a Western understanding of development and progress, and it is shown that hegemony on economic growth formed. Development economics made use of new and fashionable growth models, and thereby gained influence in policy. Development was reduced to economic development, which was reduced to economic growth. With a few modifications, this version of development and progress was to be implemented globally - 'no limits' became a master narrative.Part V analyzes the debate on economic growth in the 1960s and 70s. The environmental issue gave rise to thoughts on ecological limits, and thus had a key role in designating economic growth and growth ideology as a scapegoat within a longer tradition of civilization critique. As a response, professional economists put up a uni­ted defense for growth, and a polarized debate followed. Different basic assumptions underlying the polarized positions are analyzed, and the concept modernist economic ethos is introduced to explain the polarization at a fundamental level. In the dominant discourse, critics were called pessimists, and advocates were optimists. It is argued that these value-laden labels reveal the power of language and point at a trap of discourse.Economic growth and ecological sustainable development is analyzed in Part VI, and the focus is on crisis responsive economists. Two different conceptions of the economic system are found among these. The first is the economy as free-floating, which by technical inventions is minimally restricted by ecological boundaries. The second is the economy as a dependent subsystem restricted by fundamental ecological limits. Conception of the system is conclusive for understanding economic growth and its environmental effects. The free-floating approach allows the concept of 'sustainable growth,' while the subsystem approach makes it contradictory. Part VI includes a continued discussion on the power of language, and the dichotomy of pessimism and optimism. 'Optimism' is a eulogy, and works normatively. The pessimist label has functioned, at best, as a 'discourse trap;' at worst, as a means of exclusion.In Part VII results from the case studies are summarized, and general results with implications are presented. The post-war discourse on economic growth is connected to 'ecomodernism.' Three explanations for the intro­duction and strong appeal of the discourse of unlimited economic growth are introduced: the internal cause (economic theory), the external cause (context), and the professionalization cause (connecting the internal and external). The thesis ends in a discussion on growth, language and power in the context of modernism and progress.

  This dissertation MIGHT be available in PDF-format. Check this page to see if it is available for download.