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Alf Hornborg, “How to turn an ocean liner: a proposal for voluntary degrowth by redesigning money for sustainability, justice, and resilience”

In an article published in the Journal of Political Ecology, Professor Alf Hornborg of the human ecology division of Lund University proposes that each country establish a complementary currency for local use only, which would be distributed to all its residents as a basic income. In this way, humanity as a whole would regain justice and sustainability.

In pre-modern societies, monetized exchange was largely limited to long-distance trade in preciosities, while most basic needs were met through socially embedded relations of reciprocity and distribution. Radical institutional changes in the nineteenth century then made money a medium for obtaining all kinds of goods and services – what we might call “general-purpose money”.

Efficiency is the inherent logic in general-purpose money. Adam Smith identified the benefits of general-purpose money at the local level. Yet when such efficiency is pursued at the level of a globalized economy (possible because fossil fuels have minimized transport costs), the potential for power differences, polarization, exploitation and collateral damage is vastly greater. In this way, the claimed “efficiency” is perhaps even inverted. As long as we subscribe to the assumption of general-purpose money as the medium of exchange organizing human societies, exploitation and underpayment are inevitable implications of production processes.

Economists often deplore such negative aspects of globalization: environmental damage, increasing inequalities, growing regulations, and resource depletion. Yet few tend to consider general-purpose money as a cultural peculiarity to which there are alternatives. Not even Adam Smith drew this conclusion, nor did Karl Marx.

Hornborg suggests that current concerns with climate change and financial crises offer a historical moment for reflection on how the operation of the global economy might be reorganized in the interests of global sustainability, justice, and financial resilience. The societal objective must be to strike a balance between such distinct interests and concerns as market principles and capitalism, everyday local life versus global finance, and long-term sustainability and survival versus short-term gain. In Hornborg’s opinion, the solution is to establish ways of insulating these competing values from one another, rather than allowing one to be absorbed by the other.

To increase sustainability, reduce vulnerability, and diminish inequalities, he advocates a complementary currency issued as basic income. To the long list of questions one may have regarding this policy proposal, Hornborg provides some preliminary answers in his article.

In fact, addressing the negative aspects of general-purpose money itself is not a new idea. Silvio Gesell (1862-1930), a German-born entrepreneur living in Buenos Aires, was an early pioneer of this endeavor. John Maynard Keynes mentioned Gesell in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

“It is convenient to mention at this point the strange, unduly neglected prophet Silvio Gesell, whose work contains flashes of deep insight and who only just failed to reach down to the essence of the matter. …their significance only became apparent after I had reached my own conclusions in my own way. …I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx. The preface to The Nature Economic Order will indicate to the reader, if he will refer to it, the moral quality of Gesell. The answer to Marxism is, I think, to be found along the lines of this preface.”

“Gesell’s specific contribution to the theory of money and interest is as follows. In the first place, he distinguishes clearly between the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital, and he argues that it is the rate of interest which sets a limit to the rate of growth of real capital. Next, he points out that the rate of interest is a purely monetary phenomenon…This led him to the famous prescription of ‘stamped’ money, with which his name is chiefly associated and which has received the blessing of Professor Irving Fisher. According to this proposal currency notes would only retain their value by being stamped each month, …with stamps purchased at a post office… The idea behind stamped money is sound… But there are many difficulties which Gesell did not face.”

From the above, the reader can identify the similarities between Hornborg’s and Gesell’s proposals, from different perspectives, for redesigning and constraining the power of ‘man-made’ general-purpose money.


Alf Hornborg, 2017, “How to turn an ocean liner: a proposal for voluntary degrowth by redesigning money for sustainability, justice, and resilience,” Journal of Political Ecology.

John Maynard Keynes, 1936, Chapter 23 of “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money,” Palgrave Macmillan.

Article Reviewed by Genevieve Shanahan.

About Furui Cheng

Furui Cheng has written 5 articles.

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