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Imagined Futures, fictional expectations and capitalist dynamics

Published in Latest Posts, Theory by Mark Murphy on August 9, 2018

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Much of the current focus on automation, technology and change is tied up with the promise of imagined futures and sets of expectations regarding the persistence or otherwise of capitalist dynamics. One author has encapsulated this dynamic in a book entitled Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. In the book Jens Beckert argues that the imagined futures put forward by economists, such as forecasts for growth, wages, profit margins, but also regarding issues such as the ‘profitability of investments, projections about technological developments, assessments of the default risk for financial securities’ (p270), produce sets of expectations that then go on to generate economic activity by themselves. Beckert suggests that this fictional quality is a distinctive element of modern forms of capitalism: without the fantasy of profit capitalism would lose its engine of growth. This understanding of the uncertain and risk taking capitalist contradicts the usual depiction of economic actors as rational and calculating.

Beckert explicitly makes the connection to Benedict Anderson’s notion of nationhood as an imagined community in the acknowledgements – but instead of the national imaginary built on concepts of the past and the present, he characterises the capitalist imaginary as a set of fictional expectations that, combined, ensure the survival of the capitalist fantasy. In this way, Beckert makes a strong case for a temporal dimension to be taken more seriously in studies of capitalism. His argument that ‘the future matters’ is set alongside the usual focus on the importance of historical forces and a reliance on studies of the past. But he argues that a consideration needs to be given as to how actors perceive the future.

Berkert draws on the work of theorists such as Bourdieu, Weber, Luhmann, Simmel  and Appadurai to argue that the fictional expectations of economic actors constitute an imagined future (what he calls a ‘kind of parallel reality’ p. 270), a fictional and imagined world that has nevertheless real and serious effects – the financial 2008 crisis being a striking example of this. Fiction creates crisis. Innovation and destruction are tied up in the world of capitalist dynamics, and these fictional expectations are at the heart of this dialectic. A striking example of the power of this imagined future is depicted by Beckert in the case of credit and its role in the 2008 crisis, a seismic event that ruptured the global economy. The ill-advised investment in the US sub-prime mortgage market was itself based on a set of fictional expectations about credit: imagined futures regarding house prices and the capacity of debtors to pay back their home loans, a set of expectations that were themselves supported by one of the most powerful imagined futures out there – the American dream and the prospect of owning one’s own home. The borrowing and lending of capital are based on these fictional imaginaries, a highly risky set of projections that both provides capitalism with its immense dynamism while also imbuing it with a high level of fragility.

 

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About the author /


Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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