The Galbraithian Moment

In June 2020, our new edited volume Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia: Actors, Arenas, and Aspirations (Routledge) will be published. In the weeks to come, we will publish a series of samples from the book. This one is based on Björn Lundberg’s chapter.

In 1958, Canadian-born American economist John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society, which has been described as one of the most influential works of non-fiction in the postwar era.[1] While Galbraith was not the first public intellectual to critically examine the consequences of economic growth and consumerism, he introduced to the American public the idea that the extravagant tendencies of middle-class affluence could be countered by active public policy.[2]

My contribution to Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia explores critique of growth as public knowledge following the publication of The Affluent Society across the Atlantic (from its original publication), in Scandinavia. With a phrase borrowed from historian Daniel Horowitz, my chapter covers the ‘anxieties of affluence’ in Scandinavia from the late 1950s to the early 1970s by studying the reception and circulation of knowledge that took place in relation to Galbraith’s book.[3]

In the words of environmental historian John R. McNeill, growth became the ‘indispensable ideology of the state nearly everywhere’ during the twentieth century.[4] However, in recent decades the hegemonic status of GDP as a measure of economic success has been challenged. The environmental movement and the 1970s recession provided a new framework for debates on economic development, epitomised in the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth (1972).[5] Since then, critique of growth has been closely linked to sustainability and the so-called ecological turn. This perspective is also evident in the emerging field of degrowth studies.[6]

At the time of publication of the Club of Rome report, however, concerns regarding the social sustainability of growth had been present in public discourse for more than a decade, with The Affluent Society representing one of the seminal publications.[7] By addressing the concern for increasing affluence during the years preceding the breakthrough of environmentalism, the chapter contributes to the historiography of Scandinavian growth critique by examining the circulation of knowledge concerning a specific economic and social issue.

The primary aim is not to discuss Galbraith’s ideas per se, or how they came about, but rather to address how knowledge presented by Galbraith was to circulate and possibly transform in a Scandinavian setting. Historians of knowledge have argued that knowledge should not be regarded as a fixed or stable entity; instead it may take on different meanings and be employed in widely different contexts depending on time, location, language, and culture.[8] Hence, it is important to address how knowledge of the affluent society and its problems circulated, as well as which debates it tapped into, as a culturally and geographically specific process. By doing so, this chapter also explores transnational points of convergence and interaction in Scandinavia.[9]


Björn Lundberg


[1] Richard Parker, J K Galbraith: A 20th Century Life (London: Old Street Publishing, 2007), 292.

[2] Daniel Horowitz, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 101.

[3] Horowitz, Anxieties.

[4] John Robert McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 236.

[5] Eva Friman, No Limits: The 20th Century Discourse of Economic Growth (Umeå: Umeå universitet, 2002).

[6] Iris Borowy and Matthias Schmelzer, eds., History of the Future of Economic Growth: Historical Roots of Current Debates on Sustainable Degrowth (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

[7] Elke Seefried, “Towards the ‘Limits to Growth’? The Book and Its Reception in West Germany and Britain 1972–73”, German Historical Institute London Bulletin 33, no. 1 (2011): 10.

[8] Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad, “Cirkulation – ett kunskapshistoriskt nyckelbegrepp”, Historisk tidskrift 137, no. 2 (2017).

[9] A comprehensive account on similarities and differences in the Nordic region during the postwar era is offered in Mary Hilson, Nordic Model: Scandinavia Since 1945 (London: Reaktion, 2007). Other publications having traced the public reception of specific books as sites of knowledge circulation include Seefried, “Seefried, ‘Towards the Limits to Growth?’ and David Larsson Heidenblad, ‘Framtidskunskap i cirkulation: Gösta Ehrensvärds diagnos och den svenska framtidsdebatten, 1971–1972’”, Historisk tidskrift 135, no. 4 (2015). See also David Larsson Heidenblad, “From Content to Circulation: Influential Books and the History of Knowledge”, in Circulation of Knowledge, eds. Östling et al. (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2018).

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