by Lars Crusefalk*
In the book Imagined Futures – Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, a leading economic sociologist Jens Beckert argues that social scientists need to put more emphasis on how actors in modern capitalistic societies handle uncertainty in relation to their economic behavior. Beckert emphasizes how institutional mechanisms, like competition and credits, in modern capitalism enforce future orientation on the actors. In doing so it propels economic behavior forward, toward an uncertain future, where fictional expectations and imagined futures shape our economic actions.
The eleven chapters of this thoroughly crafted book are divided into three parts: Decision-making in an uncertain world, Building blocks of capitalism, and Instruments of imagination. Beckert begins by presenting his overarching argument and concepts, a description of why the temporal order of future, uncertainty and fictional expectations are such an integral part of modern capitalism, and how symbolic value and narrative help to justify economic action. In the second part Beckert further explains the dynamics of modern capitalism and the importance of fictional expectations by turning to, what he argues are, the four building blocks of capitalist economy: Money and Credit, Investments, Innovation, and Consumption. In the third and last part of his book, Beckert discusses the importance of power and discourse in relation to what types of fictional expectations we see as credible, and how they are an integral part for political and economic agenda setting and decision-making.
Beckert asserts that when traditional society gradually transformed into modernity and capitalist orientation the understanding of the future changed, and went from being circular and repetitive into something open, containing opportunity and risk. Beckert points to what he calls two institutional mechanics in modern capitalism that enforce future orientation upon actors: competition and credit. Competition forces the actor to always think about other actors in relation to their future behavior, and their possible competition. Because of this, competition creates economic markets that are in a constant change where new threats are always lurking. The actor must therefore be on the lookout for new possibilities and opportunities to strengthen and adapt its competitiveness with regards to other actors. Credit on the other hand enables future economic activity that is otherwise not possible by letting the actor use potential future capital now. At the same time credits entail enforced economic growth to be able to pay back the loan. This means that credits are both an opportunity for growth and a catalyst for increased growth.
Just like Mark Granovetter (1985), Beckert argues that different academic fields in social science have a tendency to focus too much on specific models when trying to explain economic behavior. Researchers in sociology and political economy tend to emphasize how “history matters” and how structures, socialization and meaning-making shapes our economic behavior. Researchers in economics on the other hand have a tendency to put too much faith in commonalities, known information and rational actors. This, Beckert argues, poses a fundamental shortcoming understanding modern capitalism and economic behavior. While Beckert, like Granovetter, concludes that a combination of the two approaches in understanding economic activity are in order, Beckert also points to the need to consider the temporal order of future and concepts of uncertainty.
While both approaches contribute to the understanding of economic behavior in their own way, both neglects the importance of the future and how economic activity in modern capitalist society is based around uncertainty, fictional expectations and imagined outcomes. Those fictional expectations and imagined outcomes are maintained and legitimized through what could be described as narratives, very much like those in fictional literature. Just like authors trying to create an immersive story to captivate the reader, analysts and economic theory use symbolic props to legitimizes and persuade actors of what is likely and possible when it comes to economic outcomes.
As mentioned above one of the main criticisms Beckert has in relation to sociology and political science is the tendency to overstate the importance of history and structure, and in so neglecting the actor. While Becket’s criticism could be valid in relation to a lot of research in economic sociology and political economy, his focus on imagined futures, fictional expectations and how these are maintained, legitimized and used as levers for political and economic agenda, does not automatically imply that the actor has the ability to act outside of a set structure. Because of the significance of social and cultural capital, power and symbolic value in relation to how persuasive and credible a narrative is perceived, only a limited number of actors will be able to influence and legitimate economic behavior. As such, what could be seen as something that pushes actors towards innovation, adaptation and finding new ways of outsmarting the competition, is in a sense collective, institutionalized and socially constructed. In other words, the individual becomes a victim of circumstance because she/he lacks necessary resources to control and form the narrative that is at the same time legitimized and upheld by existing power structures.
Beckert’s book is an important and original contribution to the understanding of the underlying factors that drives modern capitalism and economic behavior. By shifting the focus from history and rationality towards the notion of the future, uncertainty and the imagined, Beckert highlights the importance of how economic behavior is driven by future value, risk aversion and being competitive in an environment that is made up of contingent facts and assumptions. One of the books biggest merits is how Beckert succeeds in creating a link between both micro and macro, and in so doing draws a line between individual actor’s behaviors and issues such as economic crisis and fundamental dynamics of modern capitalism.
Beckert, Jens. 2016. Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Granovetter, Mark. 1985. “Economic Action and Social Structures: The Problem of Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91 (3): 481-510.
* Lars Crusefalk is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at Lund University. His research focuses mainly on consumption and consumer credits and he is currently doing a study on young adults’ practices and views on consumer credits in Sweden. He has previously contributed with a chapter on young adults credits usages in the report “Vardagslivets Finansialisering” (Financialization of daily life) published by the Centre for Consumer Science at the University of Gothenburg (email: firstname.lastname@example.org )