Market Economy Without Capitalism

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* Article: Werner Onken. A Market Economy without Capitalism. American Journal of Economics and Sociology Vol. 59, No. 4 (October, 2000), p. 609–622.


Source: Retrieved on 14th December 2021 from


From the Reading Notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006:

Gesell disagreed with Marx: exploitation does not primarily occur in the sphere of production, and labor, but in the sphere of distribution and money. Money reform is therefore more important than abolishing private property.

Why ?

- 1) because money can be hoarded and used for speculative purposes

- 2) it has superior liquidity to goods and services

Owners of money have a capacity to disrupt which has to be bought of with interest. Return on capital becomes prioritized vis a vis real human needs. This blocks the profit and loss mechanisms and creates monopolies.

Gesell's solution is to impose a carrying cost to money, a 'demurrage' fee. At the same time, cyclical problems such as inflation must be balanced by countermeasures, and the basic interest on capital would be gradually abolished. Gesell was also opposed to having land as a privately traded commodity. It should be a public resource, given out in trust.

The abolishing of interest would allow many workers to become independent producers, while land would be available to all humanity, without regard to origin.

A single tax on land would fully fund the state budget and mothers with children would be provided with an income. -

is related to the:

- liberal socialism of Gustav Landauer,

- who profoundly influenced Martin Buber

A growing German 'free economy' movement, oriented towards the social-democratic movement, ended up splitting with some making unfortunate accommodations with the Nazi regime, which outlawed them. Interest in Gesell reached a low point in the high growth epoch of the 50s and 60s.


Excerpts from Werner Onken:

Other Pioneers of a Market Economy without Capitalism

"Gesell’s theory of a Free Economy based on land and monetary reform may be understood a reaction both to the laissez-faire principle of classical liberalism as well as to Marxist visions of a centrally planned economy. It should not be thought of as a third way between capitalism or communism in the sense of subsequent “convergence theories” or so-called “mixed economy” models, i.e. capitalist market economies with global state supervision, but rather as an alternative beyond hitherto realized economic systems. In political terms it may be characterised as “a market economy without capitalism”. In this sense as he later came to realise and acknowledge, Gesell had independently developed and extended the critique of capitalism formulated by Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809- 1865), the French social reformer and contemporary of Marx who in the mid-19th century had cited the private appropriation of land and the power of interest-bearing money as being primarily responsible for the fact that a more egalitarian society had failed to evolve following the demise of feudal absolutism. Proudhon condemned privately appropriated ground-rent as robbery and denounced interest on money as cancerous usury. These forms of unearned income based on exploitation led to the emergence of the haute bourgeoisie as a new ruling class, which moulded the state and church into instruments of domination over the petit bourgeoisie and the working-class. Gesell’s alternative economic model is related to the liberal socialism of the cultural philosopher Gustav Landauer (1870–1919) who was also influenced by Proudhon and who for his part strongly influenced Martin Buber (1878–1965). There are intellectual parallels to the liberal socialism of the physician and sociologist Franz Oppenheimer (1861–1943) and to the social philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of the anthroposophic movement.

Free Economy Organisations in Germany and in Switzerland during the First World War

Gesell’s first co-worker, Georg Blumenthal (1879–1929), combined proposals for land and monetary reform with the concept of a droit naturel or natural social order, with which Francois Quesnay (1694–1774) and his fellow-Physiocrats had opposed feudal absolutism at the time of the French Enlightenment. In 1909 he founded the Physiokratische Vereinigung (Physiocratic Association) the first formal organisation of supporters of Gesell’s Free Economy theory which drew its members from the ranks of land reformers, individual-anarchists and syndicalists in Berlin and Hamburg. As soon as the association’s journal, Der Physiokrat (The Physiocrat), fell victim to censorship during the First World War, Gesell moved to Switzerland, where he found supporters among the local land reformers, educational reformers and other progressive circles. They organised themselves into the Schweizer Freiland-Freigeld-Bund (Swiss Free Land — Free Money — Federation). In two lectures entitled Gold oder Frieden? (Gold or Peace?) and Freiland die eherne Forderung des Friedens (Free Land — the Essential Condition of Peace), Gesell expounded in detail on the significance of his reform proposals as a way to social justice and peace among the nations.

Between the two World Wars

After the end of the First World War and the subsequent November Revolution in Germany, Gesell’s connections with Gustav Landauer led to his short-lived appointment as People’s Commissioner for Finance in the first Bavarian Räterepublik. Following the overthrow of the Räterepublik he was indicted for high treason but was acquitted of all charges. Afterwards Gesell took up residence near Berlin from where he observed and commented on the development of the Weimar Republic in numerous tracts and pamphlets, He suggested that by means of a graduated wealth tax of up to 75% an appropriate contribution to the economic consequences of the war should be extracted from the large landed estates and big business interests. At the same time he proposed to initiate the domestic accumulation of capital by means of his land and monetary reform program in order to enable Germany to fulfill the reparation demands of the victorious Allied powers. He criticised what he perceived to be the disastrous errors in the economic policies of the rapid succession of unstable governments. These errors included the effective expropriation of large sections of the lower and middle classes by massive inflation instead of introducing effective currency reform, protraction of reparation payments, making Germany dependent upon an influx of foreign capital and abandoning the stable Rentenmark in favour of the crisis-prone gold standard.

From his earliest writings onwards Gesell distanced himself from racist ideologies, aiming to develop an objective critique of structural defects in the economic order free from the subjective racial prejudice of anti-Semitic demagogues whose diatribes against so-called “Jewish” usurers he criticised as a “colossal injustice”. Like many of his contemporaries he was greatly influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and viewed his program of reform as a means for encouraging a more healthy evolution of human society. However, Gesell should not be classified as a “Social Darwinist” because he believed that extremes of wealth and poverty reflect structural defects in the economic order rather than real differences in aptitude and productivity. Opposed to ultra-nationalist triumphalism he advocated the promotion of mutual understanding between Germany and its eastern and western neighbours. He called for the abandonment of expansionist politics and the formation of a voluntary confederation of European states to promote international cooperation. Gesell also drew up proposals for an international post-capitalist monetary order, advocating an open world market without capitalist monopolies, customs frontiers, trade protectionism and colonial conquest. In contrast to subsequently established institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which act on behalf of the powerful within the existing framework of unjust structures, or the present preparations for European Monetary Union, Gesell called for the establishment of an International Valuta Association, which would issue and manage a neutral international monetary unit freely convertible into the national currency units of the member states, operating in such a way that equitable international economic relations could be established on the basis of global free trade. Although the precise degree of influence cannot be established reliably, it is interesting to note that echoes of Gesell’s ideas concerning the International Valuta Association can be found in J.M. Keynes’ original Proposals for an International Clearing Union submitted on behalf of the British delegation but rejected by their American counterparts at the Bretton Woods conference.

The massive inflation of the early post-war years led to a rapid growth of interest in and support for Gesell’s reform proposals, with the membership of Free Economy organisations reaching an estimated 15 000 persons. In 1924 a split occurred among Gesell’s followers leading to the formation of the moderate liberal (Free Economy Federation) and the more radical individualist-anarchistic and militant-sounding Fysiokratische Kampfbund (Physiocratic Task Force). The split was caused in part by a heated controversy which had been sparked off by Gesell’s treatise Der Abgebaute Staat, a wide-ranging polemic in favour of the “dismantled state”. Internal power struggles weakened the Free Economy movement which failed to transform itself into a mass movement, but made continuous efforts to canvass support among the Social Democratic Party and the Trade Union movement as well as among the various peace, youth and female emancipation movements which flourished in the Weimar Republic. During the Great Depression the Freiwirtschaftsbund addressed memoranda to all parties represented in the parliament, warning of the terrible consequences of the deflationary policy being adopted that time, and submitting proposals for overcoming the crisis. These memoranda generated little or no response. As soon as the success of practical experiments with Free Money organised by the Fysiokratische Kampfbund, such as the reopening of a disused mine at Schwanenkirchen, began to attract public attention they were outlawed by the German Finance Ministry under the terms of the Emergency Decrees of the Brüning government in 1931.

A Free Economy party contested the 1932 Reichstag elections without success. After the Nazi Party’s seizure of power by the in 1933 many Free Economy supporters suppressed their misgivings about the true character of the Nazi ideology and succumbed to the illusory hope, that Hitler might in fact act on the earlier rhetoric of Gottfried Feder concerning “the smashing of interest-slavery”. They tried to exert influence on leading functionaries of the Nazi Party hierarchy in the hope of bringing about a change of course on economic matters. Despite rather dubious tactical efforts to conform to the requirements of the new order, in the spring of 1934 the various Free Economy organisations and publications which had not already voluntarily disbanded were finally outlawed. Initial misjudgements concerning the totalitarian regime had been encouraged not only by the painful memories of rejection by the political parties of the Weimar era, but also by uncertainty about the most appropriate way to realize land and monetary reform. Free Economy associations in Austria (until 1938) and Switzerland continued their work. English, French and Spanish translations of Gesell’s main work were published. Introductory brochures were produced in a wide range of languages including Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, Romanian and Serbo-Croat as well as Esperanto, reflecting the work of smaller groups in England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. In North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Free Economy associations were established by German emigrants.

After 1945: New Beginning, Neglect and Renewal of Interest Towards the End of the 1970s

Free Economy organisations were reestablished throughout post-war Germany. In the Soviet occupation zone they were outlawed in 1948; the Soviet authorities regarded Gesell either as “an apologist of the monopoly bourgeoisie” or, in the same way that Marx had dismissed Proudhon, as “a socialist of the petit bourgeoisie” whose aims were incompatible with “scientific socialism”. In Western Germany the majority of the surviving followers of Gesell voted to form their own political party to contest elections because of their negative experiences with the established political parties of the Weimar era. They founded the Radikalsoziale Freiheitspartei (Radical Social Liberal Party), which received just under 1 % of the votes at the first election to the Lower House of the German Parliament in 1949. The party’s name was later changed to the Freisoziale Union (Free Social Union) but its support remained at a negligible level in subsequent elections. A Silvio-Gesell-Haus was established as a meeting center between Wuppertal and Neviges, where seminars and conferences on Free Economy and related topics are still held on a regular basis.

In spite of the fact that prominent economists like Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes had recognized the significance of Gesell’s work in the inter-war period, the West German economic miracle of the 1950’s and 60’s largely extinguished public interest in discussion of alternative economic models. It was only towards the end of the 1970’s that mass unemployment, environmental destruction and the growing international debt crisis led to a gradual revival interest in Gesell’s ideas which had suffered almost complete oblivion. In this way it became possible to pass the insights of the Free Economy school onto a new generation.

In Switzerland, a significant collection of Free Economy literature is to be found in the Free Economy Library of the National Economic Archive in Basel. In Germany the Stiftung für Reform der Geld- und Bodenordnung, a foundation promoting the reform of the monetary and land order began to establish a German Free Economy Library in 1983. To provide a basis for academic research into Gesell’s life and work it also commissioned an 18-volume edition of his collected works in 1988. In addition to this, a series of secondary literature entitled Studien zur natürlichen Wirtschaftsordnung (Studies on a Natural Economic Order) is under development; the first two volumes published were a centenary review of the history of the Free Economy movement and an edition of selected writings by Karl Walker, Gesell’s most important student. The foundation also promotes other publications relating to land and monetary reform and in collaboration with the Sozialwissenschaftliche Gesellschaft (Social Sciences Society) publishes a quarterly periodical, Zeitschrift für Sozialökonomie, commenting on social and economic issues. It has awarded a Karl Walker Prize for academic papers dealing with the problems arising from the increased decoupling of financial markets from the real economy (1988) and with proposals for overcoming unemployment (1995). The Seminar für freiheitliche Ordnung (Seminar for a Liberal Order) is responsible for the issue of a series of publications entitled Fragen der Freiheit (Questions of Liberty). The Initiative für eine Natürliche Wirtschaftsordnung (Initiative for a Natural Economic Order) endeavours to promote popular awareness of Gesell’s ideas in cooperation with associated organisations in Switzerland and Austria. An association called Christen für gerechte Wirtschaftsordnung (Christians for a Just Economic Order) promotes the study of land and monetary reform theories in the light of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious doctrines critical of land speculation and the taking of interest. Margrit Kennedy, Helmut Creutz and other authors have examined the contemporary relevance of Gesell’s economic model and tried to bring his ideas up to date. Of particular importance in this respect have been he various efforts to examine the correlation between the exponential growth of financial assets and debts and the environmentally-destructive “growth imperative” driving the real economy along with suggestions for overcoming the growth imperative and efforts to combine land and monetary reform ideas with proposals for an ecologically-based tax system. The book entitled Gerechtes Geld — Gerechte Welt (Just Money — Just World) offers a survey of the present state of theoretical developments. It is a compilation of essays and discussion papers examining the socio-economic implications of the monetary order presented at a congress commemorating the centenary of Gesell’s first monetary reform publications held in 1991 in Konstanz under the title: 100 Jahre Gedanken zu einer natürlichen Wirtschaftsordnung — Auswege aus Wachstumszwang und Schuldenkatastrophe (100 Years of Thought related to a Natural Economic Order — Solutions to the Growth Imperative and Debt Crisis).

The collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe has led to the temporary triumph of Western capitalism in the ideological struggle between competing economic models. However, as long as the disparity between rich and poor continues to increase, as long as exponential economic growth continues to cause accelerating environmental destruction and as long as the “developed” nations of the Northern hemisphere continue to ruthlessly exploit their “undeveloped” Southern neighbours, it remains necessary to search for alternatives to the prevailing economic order. Under these circumstances Silvio Gesell’s Free Economy model retains its relevance and may yet begin to receive the wider recognition which it deserves."


More information

  • Suggestions for further reading: [1]

Silvio Gesell, The Natural Economic Order (translation by Philip Pye). London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1958. >

Irving Fisher, Stamp Scrip, New York: Adelphi Company, 1933.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1935, Chap. 16, 23 and 24.

Dudley Dillard, Proudhon, Gesell and Keynes — An Investigation of some “Anti-Marxian-Socialist” Antecedents of Keynes’ General Theory, University of California: Dr.-Thesis 1949. Hackbarth Verlag St.Georgen/Germany 1997. ISBN 3-929741-14-8.

Dudley Dillard, Gesells Monetary Theory of Social Reform, in: American Economic Review (AER) Vol. 32 (1942), Nr. 2, p. 348–352.

Roy Harrod, Towards a Dynamic Economics — Some Recent Developments of Economic Theory and their Application to Policy. London: Macmillan & Co., 1948, Chap. “Is Interest out of Date?”

Leonard Wise, Great Money Reformers — Silvio Gesell, Arthur Kitson, Frederic Soddy. London: Holborn Publishing, 1949.

Lawrence Klein, The Keynesian Revolution. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1966 and 7 1980, Chap. 5, p. 124–152.

International Association for a Natural Economic Order, The Future of Economy — A Memoir for Economists. Lütjenburg: Fachverlag für Sozialökonomie, 1984/1989.

Dieter Suhr, The Capitalistic Cost-Benefit Structure of Money, New York and Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1989.

Margrit Kennedy, Interest and Inflation Free Money — Creating an Exchange Medium That Works for Everybody and Protects the Earth. Okemos/Michigan, 1995.

William Darity jr., Keynes’ Political Philosophy: The Gesell Connection, in: Eastern Economic Journal Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1995, p. 27–41.

Mario Seccareccia, Early Twentieth-Century Heterodox Monetary Thought and the Law of Entropy, in: A. Cohen, H. Hagemann and J. Smithin, Money, Financial Institutions and Macroeconomics. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Marvin Goodfriend, Overcoming the Zero Bound Interest Rate Policy, in: Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking Vol. 32, No. 4 (November 2000, Part 2), p. 1007–1035.