Matthias Schmelzer, The Hegemony of Growth. The OECD and the making of the economic growth paradigm (Cambridge, 2016)


Schmelzer_2016_Hegemonyof Growth

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In modern society, economic growth is considered to be the primary goal pursued through policymaking. But when and how did this perception become widely adopted among social scientists, politicians and the general public? Focusing on the OECD, one of the least understood international organisations, Matthias Schmelzer offers the first transnational study to chart the history of growth discourses. He reveals how the pursuit of GDP growth emerged as a societal goal and the ways in which the methods employed to measure, model and prescribe growth resulted in statistical standards, international policy frameworks and widely accepted norms. Setting his analysis within the context of capitalist development, post-war reconstruction, the Cold War, decolonization, and industrial crisis, The Hegemony of Growth sheds new light on the continuous reshaping of the growth paradigm up to the neoliberal age and adds historical depth to current debates on climate change, inequality and the limits to growth.

  • Explores how the pursuit of economic growth evolved to become the core goal of economic policymaking
  • Offers a comprehensive historiography of the OECD, one of the least understood international organizations
  • Provides the first transnational analysis of the emergence of growth discourses
  • The dissertation upon which this book is based was awarded the 2015 Best Dissertation Prize (Twentieth Century) by the International Economic History Association
  • The dissertation upon which this book is based was awarded the 2015 Friedrich Lütge Prize by the Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte (German Society for Social and Economic History)
  • The dissertation upon which this book is based was awarded the 2014 Kapp Research Prize by the Vereinigung für Ökologische Ökonomie (German Association for Ecological Economics)

About the author: Matthias Schmelzer is currently a Permanent Fellow at the DFG-Research Group “Post-Growth Societies” at the University of Jena and works at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (Institute for New Economic Ideas). He has written on 20th century social and economic history, monetary politics, international organizations, and degrowth. After studies in Berlin, Berkeley, and Frankfurt, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva and at the Center for Social and Economic History at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. His current research interests include degrowth, 20th century social and economic history, economic expertise, neoliberalism, social movements, and capitalism.


“In this well-researched intellectual and institutional history, Schmelzer brings to light the story of how Europe and America in the mid-twentieth century embraced the cult of Gross National Product (GNP), and the role of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the process. By devising the system by which governments keep economic score, economists and bureaucrats revised the goals of economic policy to emphasize, almost to the point of worship, GNP growth. Schmelzer’s book explains lucidly how economic policy acquired its topmost priority of the past seventy years.” 
J. R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

“A magnificent accomplishment. Moving between deft analyses of the OECD and sweeping appraisals of global political economy, Matthias Schmelzer reveals the tumultuous history behind the seemingly timeless commitment to economic growth. Essential reading for scholars, The Hegemony of Growth is just as valuable for perplexed observers of the contemporary world. In the best tradition of historical research, Schmelzer rewrites the past, troubles the present, and opens up new ways of imagining the future.” 
Timothy Shenk, author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist

“This fresh and important work recovers the contested past of national accounts as a tool to study and manage the economy. The OEEC and the OECD is stage and actor in Schmelzer’s sophisticated appreciation of historically contingent value, and limits, of the idea of growth.” 
Patricia Clavin, author of Securing the World Economy

“Looking deeply into the question of whether the rich world can and should remain hellbent on growth is interesting and very useful. Agree or disagree, readers will find much here to spark their imaginations.” 
Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“Economic growth is our prime social objective. How this came to be is shown by means of a careful and critical scrutiny of the OECD since 1947, which also questions the concept of growth itself. You won’t find it anywhere else, let alone done so well.” 
Avner Offer, author of The Challenge of Affluence

“What are the origins of the idea of economic growth, and how and why did it come to be so hegemonic? Matthias Schmelzer’s in-depth analysis of ‘growthmanship’ in the OECD is a must-read for anyone interested in these questions.” 
Giorgos Kallis, editor of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era

“Schmelzer has written a first-rate, pioneering and highly differentiated historical study of the rise of one of the most powerful concepts of our times, the concept of economic growth, and the crucial role played by the OECD.” 
Hartmut Kaelble, author of A Social History of Europe


This is a careful and detailed account, based on extensive archival research, of attitudes to the objective of economic growth at the OEEC and OECD. [… The] treatment is full, persuasive, and elegant.
James Forder, Journal of the History of Economic Thought,

Schmelzer subjects conventional ideas about economic growth to a history-based shock therapy. The notion of growth is not eternal, nor is it outside history’s arrow of time – it has had a birth and a development, and it may also die (or at least become aged) in the future.
[… T]here comes a time when history becomes more effective than theory at destroying false certitudes and inspiring a fresh train of thought. […] post-growth scholarship is currently way beyond that threshold. What we need now is not one more recycling of the well-known theoretical criticisms of growth, but a more mature understanding of the way in which growth, both as a notion and as lived experience, conquers society. Only that way dethroning growth may become what unfortunately it is not today – a feasible objective. By identifying what we may call the social bases of the growth paradigm as an intellectual construction, Schmelzer and the authors of the collective book make a remarkable advance in the conceptual part of this project. […]
All social scientists interested in development, welfare and progress may find his work useful and illuminating.”
Fernando Collantes, Iberoamerican Journal of Development Studies,

“Au terme d’une lecture exigeante mais riche, on peut se réjouir qu’un historien se soit saisi d’une question qui jusqu’ici apparaissait comme la chasse-gardée des économistes.“
Marieke Louis, La vie des idées,

“A new wave of scholarship is exploring the history and sociology of our present system of economic measurement, and Matthias Schmelzer’s The Hegemony of Growth is a welcome addition to this literature. It demonstrates that the development of GDP and the enthronement of GDP growth as a policy imperative were contingent on and negotiated through political and historical processes. This is a reminder that there is all to play for in the current debate about what will eventually succeed the ‘hegemony of growth’.”
Diane Coyle, Journal of Cultural Economy,

“Très bien documenté, sollicitant les archives avec précision, agréable à lire, l’ouvrage de Schmelzer ne manque pas de qualités.“
Antoine Missemer, Oeconomia,

“It is an excellent, well- documented historic account, from the events after the Second World War till 2015, of the ups and ups of the growth paradigm… The crux of Schmelzer’s book and its contribution to the degrowth debate is that it shows with empirical material and a rigourous historical research how the hegemony of growth has “colonized our imaginaries” by turning political and social questions into economic problems.”
Brototi Roy, Local Environments,

“The book is noteworthy in that it sets the twentieth-century modern concept of growth against the long-term development of economic theories on growth and the rise of national income accounting.”
Simone Selva, The Economic History Review 70/3 (2017),

“… eine überzeugend argumentierende und gut lesbare Studie… Dieser gelingt der Spagat, eine kritische Perspektive gegenüber dem Wachstumsparadigma zu bewahren, ohne dabei an analytischer Schärfe einzubüßen… Insgesamt gehört die Studie zu den exzeptionellen Beispielen einer gelungenen Verbindung von Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Ideengeschichte und Internationaler Geschichte, von denen es noch viele mehr bräuchte.”
Roman Köster, H-Soz-Kult, 30.11.2017,

Egil Kallerud, Forskningspolitikk 1 (2017),

“… ein Buch, das nicht nur Historiker lesen sollten, sondern auch jene, die an aktuellen Debatten über Wachstum und dessen Grenzen sowie an der zukünftigen Gestaltung von Wirtschafts-, Sozial- und Umweltpolitik interessiert sind.”
Martin Bemmann, Neue politische Literatur 62/2 (2017),

“Argumentativ sehr überzeugend und erfrischend eloquent… Die herausragende, ja bahnbrechende Studie beleuchtet, wie keine andere davor, das vielschichtige Räderwerk der OECD und birgt einen wesentlichen Schlüssel für das Verständnis, weshalb sich jegliche Politik vor dem Diktat des wirtschaftlichen Wachstums beugt – ein Kleinod für die Forschung der Nachkriegszeit.”
Regula Bürgi, International Journal of Higher Education,

Kirstine Dons Christensen, Vesten er en junkie på vækst, siger tysk historiker. Hvad gør vi, hvis stofferne slipper op?,

Alexander Myklebust, “Kritikk av den reine økonomi”, Salongen,