Unlimited And Eternal Growth

Whilst studying political economy during the late 1980s in St Gallen, I was deeply inspired by the pioneer of ecology and economics Hans-Christoph Binswanger (born 1929, Zürich). The director of the University of St Gallen's Institute for Economics and Ecology from 1962 to 1994, he is now in his eighties and is being rediscovered by younger artists and activists (e.g. Tino Sehgal) who often quote him as an influence.

The wisdom of Bingswanger's work is that he recognised early on that endless growth is unsustainable, both in human and planetary terms. The current focus in mainstream economics is, he argues, too much on labour and productivity and too little on natural and intellectual resources. Dependency on endless growth, as the crisis that always emerges at the end of each cyclical bull market should teach us, is unrealistic.

Binswanger's goal was to investigate the similarities and differences between aesthetic and economic values through an examination of the historical relationship between economics and alchemy, which he made as interesting as it (at first) sounds outlandish. In his 1985 book Money and Magic, he showed how the brash concept of unlimited growth was inherited from the medieval discourse of alchemy, the search for a process that could turn lead into gold.

A focus of Binswanger's research has been on Goethe, especially his role in shaping social economics while finance minister at the court of Weimar. In Goethe's Faust, the eponymous character thinks in terms of infinite progress, while Mephisto recognizes the destructive potential of such an idea. At the beginning of part two of the play, Mephistopheles urges the ruler of an empire that is facing financial ruin because of profligate government spending to issue promissory notes, thus solving its debt problems. Binswanger had been fascinated by the Faust legend since his childhood, and during his studies, he discovered that Goethe's introduction of paper money into his play was inspired by the story of the Scottish economist John Law, who in 1716 was the first man to establish a French bank issuing paper money. Strikingly, after Law's innovation, the Duke of Orleans got rid of all his alchemists because he realized that the immediate availability of paper money was far more powerful than any attempt to turn lead into gold.

Binswanger also connects money and art in a novel way. Art, he points out, is based on imagination and is part of the economy, while a bank's process of creating money in the form of promissory notes or coins is connected to imagination, since it is based on a prospective idea of bringing into being something that has yet to exist. At the same time, a company imagines producing a certain good and needs money to realize this, so it takes out a loan from a bank. If the product is sold, the 'imaginary' money that was created in the beginning has a counter-value in real products.

In classical economic theory, this process can be continued endlessly. Binswanger recognizes in Money and Magic, that this endless growth exerts a quasi-magical fascination. He produces a way of thinking about the problems of rampant capitalist growth, encouraging us to question the mainstream theory of economics, and to recognize how it differs from the real economy. But instead of rejecting the market wholesale, he suggests ways in which to moderate its demands. Thus the market does not have to disappear or be replaced, but can be understood as something to be manipulated for human purposes, rather than obeyed.

Another way of interpreting Binswanger's ideas is as follows: for most of human history, a fundamental problem has been the scarcity of material goods and resources, and so we have become ever more efficient in our methods of production and created rituals to enshrine the importance of objects in our culture. Less than a century ago, human beings made a world-changing transition through their rapacious industry. We now inhabit a world in which the overproduction of goods, rather than their scarcity, is one of our most fundamental problems. Yet our economy functions by inciting us to produce more and more with each passing year. In turn, we require cultural forms to enable us to sort through the glut, and our rituals are once again being directed towards the immaterial, towards quality and not quantity. This requires a shift in our values, from producing objects to selecting amongst those that already exist.