Economic Science Fictions

Will Davies argues for utopian thinking to unseat the dangerous myths of our current economic system.

March 6, 2018 · 10 min read

Is it still possible to go back in search of the future?

Fredric Jameson has argued that the first step towards resuscitating hope is simply to reassert utopianism as a necessary and viable project at all. ‘Utopianism,’ he argues, ‘must first and foremost be a diagnosis of the fear of utopia, or of anti-utopianism.’

Seeing as it stems from a deep human need, and not from expertise, utopianism necessarily has an amateur and artistic dimension that evades professionalism or expertise. To write science fictions about the economy is to insist on the possibility that imagination can intrude into economic life in a way that is not computable or accountable. To imagine wholly different systems and premises of calculation, for example, is in itself to resist the dystopian ideal promised by Wall Street and Silicon Valley, that there is nothing that can evade the logic of software algorithms, risk and finance.

In a time when capitalism and socialism have collapsed into each other, obliterating spaces of alterity or uncalculated discourse in the process, simply to describe unrealised (maybe unrealistic) economic possibilities is to rediscover a glimpse of autonomy in the process. The assemblage of humans and machines that makes up modern capitalism is fearsomely complex. Yet unlike the market price system there is no apparent reason to see anything magical or ingenious about a cybernetic system combining Goldman Sachs, iPhones, Visa, call centres, Facebook, credit- rating agencies, Google, the Federal Reserve, Jawbone wristbands, HSBC, high- frequency traders, and so on and so on and so on. Rather, this uncontrollable technical complexity is ripe for reimagining.

Each bit could be different, resulting in a whole that could be unrecognisably better or worse. This edifice has some vulnerable support structures, which allow virtually all human life to be capitalised and economised. None of those support structures is permanent . As Ursula Le Guin recently urged science fiction writers to consider, ‘We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.’ The science fictional imagination is not merely fictitious in its economic implications. This is because ‘the economy’ is already partly fictional in its constitution. Imagination and fantasy are internal to the space of calculation; indeed, it is the human capacity to think or believe that which does not materially exist that makes economic expansion possible, and provokes the explosion of risk management and calculative edifices as the more paranoid neoliberal response.

The economic sociologist Jens Beckert has explored the importance of ‘fictional expectations’ in the institutions of capitalism – that is, those things that we treat as real and dependable, but are not yet empirical. They therefore rely on collectively endorsed fictions. This includes the value of money, which exists only by virtue of our expectation that others will accept it; or a business plan, which an entrepreneur produces as a narrative into which an investor might place his or her confidence; or an advertisement, which is a quasi-utopian promise of how a product or service will enhance the purchaser’s existence.

Risk models, as generated by economists, actuaries and physicists, are all science fictions, inasmuch as they represent a reality that has not yet come about. In a system such as capitalism, which undergoes change over time, the division between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ value is not absolute or fixed. This, after all, is how financial bubbles occur: when collective imagination starts to become mistaken for an empirical reality. It was a similar ambiguity that led to the global financial crisis, whereby mathematical models of a non-empirical future started to be treated with the same level of confidence as the empirical past. Capitalism rests on traffic between the imaginary and the real; it’s not just that ‘all that is solid melts into air’, but that air is constantly materialising into solidity.

The marrying of fictional futures and empirical facts is what makes capitalism possible, but it is also what makes it unreliable and potentially dangerous. As Beckert argues: Under conditions of uncertainty, assessments of how the future will look share important characteristics with literary fiction; most importantly, they create a reality of their own by making assertions that go beyond the reporting of empirical facts. Fiction pretends a reality where the author and the readers act as if the described reality were true.

The key difference between the ‘fictional expectations’ that make up capitalism and ‘literary fiction’, Beckert argues, is that the former are ‘design fantasies’ that are scrutinised for their plausibility, not only for their seductiveness. Moreover, these ‘design fantasies’ seek to motivate people in a certain direction: to attract investment, to provoke a purchase, to accept payment. This is unlike a literary fiction, which exists to produce pleasure or engagement or provoke reflection, but less commonly seeks to change or reinforce behaviour.

And yet, by seeing how ‘real’ economic institutions bleed into ‘imaginary’ fictions (including literary fictions), the question arises of how this ambiguity might be harnessed and expanded. One way of doing this, perhaps, is to cultivate ambiguity between the role of ‘experts’ and that of ‘artists’ or ‘amateurs’, and to challenge assumptions about who really influences our political economy and how. The literary fiction of Ayn Rand, for example, has very clear ‘real-world’ consequences, in the form of the libertarian conservative clique that is inspired by it and now has access to the White House.

The discipline of economics deals in all manner of things that do not exist outside the economics profession and its journals, conferences and models. And yet it is safely insulated from the realm of literary fiction, not least by the specialist language game it employs to insulate itself from the world (perhaps some enclaves survive postmodernity better than others). Lawyers, equally, traditionally see their role in terms of interpreting existing rules, but far less commonly in terms of inventing new ones or imaginatively recombining them. Meshing these professional identities with those of artists, activists, amateurs and dreamers would also mean weakening (or at least challenging) the rigidity of capitalist institutions, which are always partly imaginary.

Cultivating such ambiguity does return us to past utopias in one particular sense. As the sociologist Ruth Levitas has explored, before sociology was established as a discipline, circa 1890, its progenitors shared many characteristics with utopian dreamers, literary science fiction writers and reformers. One of these was H. G. Wells, who wrote:

Sociology must be neither art simply, nor science in the narrow meaning of the word at all, but knowledge rendered imaginatively and with an element of personality, that is to say, in the highest sense of the term, literature.

Social theory, especially anthropology, retains some connection to the task of writing good fiction. But the idea of an economic science fiction sounds somehow oxymoronic. The liberal market economy, Foucault reminds us, is governed so as to be a site of truth, and nothing else. Science, yes; fiction, no.

Why so dogmatic? What is there to be afraid of? It’s not as if the fictions of ‘incentive’, ‘preference’, ‘supply curves’, ‘utility’ and ‘efficiency’ have done an especially good job in keeping the economy under control over the past decade. Maybe it’s time to inject some new ones.

There is already an abundance of conservative visions of the future, even if they are not always recognised as such. An industry of ‘futurists ’ seeks to narrate futures in such a way that they can be brought under managerial control, pre-empted, off set and planned for via investment strategies and marketing. The vocation of the futurist is narrow and ahistorical, seeking the mitigation of risks and blame on behalf of existing powers rather than sources of hope. As Peter Frase puts it, ‘[S]cience fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise.’

Similarly, Jameson distinguishes science fiction from ‘fantasy’, as the latter involves imagination floating completely free from history. Science fiction matters politically because it treats the fictional as a means of accessing the non-fictional. If the fictions that make up capitalism are, as Beckert says, ‘design fantasies’, then this should pose the question of why there are no economic design schools. Where is the Bauhaus for economic reform? Where is the futurist manifesto for a different form of money or property? Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have provided one bold answer in Inventing the Future. Yet even that leaves hanging the design question of who is willing to design, implement, run, fix, improve systems of a different economy, in the way that Harvard Business School, PwC and the World Trade Organization do for this one.

In our present anti-technocrat political moment, there is a risk that we give up on the radical possibilities of economic techne altogether. ‘Innovation’ and ‘creativity’ are now tedious obligations of every middle manager and worker, having lost whatever modernist zeal they ever had. Unless possibilities for broader economic transformation are rediscovered, then the future will belong entirely to those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the utopias they bring with them.

Elements of the modern utopian imaginary are returning in any case, though not necessarily with the emancipatory or progressive implications they originally carried. The common historical fate of humanity has become a live political concern once again, though now in the context of the ‘Anthropocene’, which places the problem of nature (and not reason) at the heart of all politics.

As Andreas Malm has argued, this may well signal the end of the ‘postmodernity ’ that emerged in the early 1970s. We now have to see capitalist expansion as a gift granted millions of years in the past in the form of fossil fuels, and every continued year of that expansion as carrying consequences that will last thousands of years into the future. If we remain stuck in the cybernetic and financial imaginary of the perpetual present, constantly churning information to ensure that nothing truly changes, we will be doomed. A revived historical consciousness is therefore a matter of existential urgency, though that doesn’t guarantee that it will occur.

Under these conditions, the search for and construction of ‘enclaves’ takes on a new urgency. It is often the super-rich who are at the forefront of these efforts, as they seek out ever more elaborate ways of separating themselves from the public and the ecological disasters that are unfolding. As the very wealthy seek to secede from the rest of us, it is they who are now closer to realising a form of communism, albeit one that rests on vast concentrations of private capital that insulate insiders from the threat of everyone else.

With this paranoid mentality, utopia and dystopia dissolve into what Frase terms ‘exterminism’, in which the dreams and ideals of the very few rest on the possibility of excluding, surveilling, imprisoning and eliminating an ever larger share of the mass public. In our new post-neoliberal age of rising resentments, racisms and walls, the utopian desire to escape can be subverted in all manner of dark directions.


This is an extract from Economic Science Fictions (Goldsmiths Press)

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