Dissertation Abstracts

Economic growth and social question. On the sociological significance of Hans Christoph Binswanger's economic theory.

Author: Simon Mugier, simon.mugier@unibas.ch
Department: Seminar für Soziologie
University: Universität Basel, Switzerland
Supervisor: Ueli Mäder
Year of completion: 2019
Language of dissertation: German

Keywords: Economic growth , economic sociology , growth spiral , social question
Areas of Research: Economy and Society , Political Sociology , Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy


Simon Mugier examines the economic theory of Hans Christoph Binswanger (1929-2018) from a sociological standpoint. Binswanger's economic theory offers an alternative framework to that of the modern mainstream economy. Not only does neoclassical theory exclude the role of money but it also fails to integrate properly the role of nature as a factor of production. Binswanger’s claim is that his theory is the first to achieve an adequate theoretical grasp of the post-industrial-revolution economy. The economy appears as a growth spiral, entrained by a “growth imperative”, mainly caused by social institutions, and driven by a “growth impetus”, mainly caused by social psychology. The growth dynamic is primarily caused by the invention of fiat money (i.e. money created out of “nothing” by the banking sector) and sustained by the exploitation of nature. It was Binswanger’s conviction that sustainability will not be feasible until the dynamics of growth are correctly and profoundly understood. The significance of Binswanger’s theory is evident. However his theory remains rather unknown. This is particularly surprising in the realm of Economic Sociology, in which critical reflection on the economy is almost an essential part of its disciplinary identity. In order to understand what he regards as an unexpected phenomenon, Mugier also examines sociological debates which may have caused sociologists to ignore Binswanger’s theory or not to consider it seriously. The titles of the discourses Mugier discusses are: model Platonism, “Werturteilsstreit” (i.e. value judgment disputes), Rational Choice, and the Social Question. He concludes that the theory of the growth spiral embraces and differentiates many of the sociological critiques of mainstream economy. That’s why sociological theory would benefit from a stronger perception of Binswanger’s work. There is another more surprising result of the book regarding the social question. In his early works, Binswanger noted that social work was becoming increasingly scarce in the growing economy. Industrialization did indeed find a solution to the "old" social question, which was primarily about the supply of food and other essential goods. Technical production has made it possible to offer these goods industrially and thus relatively cheaply. At the same time, however, the industrial economy has brought an undersupply of social work. It thus raised a "new" social question. The reason is this: The structure of the modern market creates price advantages for industrial production and corresponding disadvantages for human labour. It is common knowledge that we pay little for industrial goods and much for services provided by people. Since social work cannot or at least not yet be replaced industrially, it remains expensive. Or rather: It is becoming increasingly scarce in the growing economy. The growth spiral is therefore accompanied by a vicious circle of ever worse social provision. Although Binswanger focused entirely on the ecological-economic question in his later work, his proposals for solutions to greater sustainability can all be interpreted as solutions to the social question. Growth must be moderated, and the formal monetary economy restricted and repressed. Through de-economization, space should be regained for humane living and working.