Fictionalizing the Economy and Reviewing Imagined Futures of Capitalism

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.
imagined-futures-beckertThe 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: )

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The Political Economy and Economic Sociology of Brexit

In the beginning, it is said, was Brexit. “Brexit is a revolution”, it is said from the right and by the left. Revolution, though, is a Janus-faced concept that “evokes dialectically linked oppositions: light and darkness; rupture and continuity; liberation and oppression; hope and disillusion”, determined Arno J. Mayer (2000: 23). But was Brexit the beginning? Well, this is debatable. Hannah Arendt rightly insisted that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning” (1963: 22). So while revolutions abruptly pose the problem of beginning, the question arises whether Brexit was nonetheless the end of the beginning? Let us hope, however, that was not the beginning of the end, as sighted in his time by Karl Polanyi.
Among the innumerable manifestations, Brexit is an additional substantial example of the ontological axiom of the mutual embeddedness of State-Economy-Society. This geopolitical shift certainly reflected deep socio-economic fault lines within and beyond the UK and Europe. This shift apparently projected the trajectory ahead.
brexit-adTwo days after the Brexit referendum, at the excellent SASE conference held in University of California–Berkeley was spontaneously organized a seminar to mull over this disconcerting passage. Socio-Economic Review, the SASE’s outstanding journal, then issued a call for short papers to tackle this topic. These initiatives resulted in SER’s Discussion Forum “Brexit: Understanding the Socio-economic Origins and Consequences” and an online collection “Brexit Special“.
 (Both are open-access, as it always should be regarding academic publications)
In these focused essays, leading economic sociologists and political economists shed light and analyze Brexit, from various theoretical perspectives  and empirical angles. They draw attention to the origins of the Brexit vote in socio-economic divisions (Jackie O’Reilly), widening differences in economic performance across sectors and regions of the UK (Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal and Karel Williams)
 and the growth of poor quality jobs (Chris Warhurst). Meanwhile, the political dynamics of the Brexit vote were also shaped by the fractured nature of UK business elites (Glenn Morgan), divisions between locals and cosmopolitans (Christopher Grey) and creative but muddled actions of elites that arguably generated consequences they themselves failed to fully anticipate (Geoffrey Wood and Mike Wright). Class matters and interests impact.
vote-leave-brexitRobert Boyer argues that Brexit reflects a history of dysfunctional economic policy in Europe that prioritized market competition in ways that neglected and ultimately undermined solidarity. According to Sabine Frerichs and Suvi Sankari, Brexit reflects a political strategy to both renationalize and recommodify solidarity in the face of fears over migration. However, Brexit is unlikely to provide a durable social and political solution to the wider tensions between globalization and democracy, which also affect all countries throughout Europe — asserts Akos Rona-Tas. Ultimately, the Brexit vote underlines social divisions that combine class inequalities with regional ones, not just in Britain but throughout Europe, concludes Patrick Le Galès.
Additional interesting insights concisely elaborated (here) by Eoin Flaherty in “Northern Ireland’s economy post-Brexit”; Özlem Onaran and Alexander Guschanki in “Rising inequality in the UK and the political economy of Brexit: lessons for policy”; Olivier Choinière and Bernier Arcand Philippe in “Brexit: is this truly a victory of the people against the elite?”; Bryn Jones and Michael O’Donnell in “Dangerous Myths in the post-Brexit Narrative”; Geoff Evans in “Brexit: The Democratic Expression of the Class Struggle”; gamble_with_your_futureJonathan Preminger in “The reemergence of the nation-state and an opportunity for the Left”; David McCourt in “Brexit and Britain’s Role in the World”; Gabriel Fernandes and Rocha Guimarães in “Brexit: the return of fascist ultra-nationalism?”; Christopher Cocking in “Brexit and psycho-social influences on aggression – I predict a riot?”; Thomas Prosser in “Populism, Brexit and the decline of civil society: two proposals for the rejuvenation of civil organizations”; Jayne Woolford in “The “questionable strategies and woolly outcomes” of EU funds in Wales: lessons and implications for post-Brexit regional economic development policy”; Jo Wilding in “Brexit and the future of UK immigration”; Tim Vlandas in “Labour market factors and the Brexit vote”; Ulrike Theuerkauf in “Socio-Economics, politics and the Brexit vote: Why the rise in racist incidents won’t just go away”; Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolsak in “Manufacturing Dissent: How The New York Times’ Covered the Brexit Vote”; David Bailey in “What does Brexit mean for UK Automotive, Manufacturing, and Industrial Policy?”; Edward Ashbee in “Brexit, the Leave campaign, immigration and processes of ideational change”; and by Jane Woods in “Impact of Brexit on Contract Law”.
To summarize, I shall turn to the beginning of this post, wandering about the essence of Brexit. Certainly, this is an ongoing institutional trajectory. Certainly, in the end, we’ll always have Brexit.

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Great academic opportunities: 9 calls for papers, 3 PhD positions, 2 job openings, and a summer school

call for papersSee below a list of great academic opportunities: 9 calls for papers for interesting conferences and workshops, 3 PhD and 2 Job openings, and a summer school on various topics in economic sociology and political economy, with February 20 – March 13 deadlines. Share this list with your colleagues and students. Good luck!

Calls for papers:

Job openings:

Summer School:

PhD fellowships:

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“I listen to money singing… It is intensely sad.”

  “Money”, by  Philip Larkin 

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

The “shave” in the 3rd stanza is the final shave that an undertaker gives a corpse (O.K.)


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BITS & BRIEFS: Privatization increases inequality // Class mobility in Iran // Sacred cow or car? // Sociology of consumption and culture


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Marx, Karl Marx – a Business Classic


karl marx capital

See also: Piggy bank for Das Kapital made in the Image of ‪Karl ‎Marx‬?! This is a blasphemy and sacrilegiousness! 🙂

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BITS & BRIEFS: Nancy Fraser on a crisis of care // Thomas Piketty on Anthony Atkinson // Politics of divination and neoliberalism // From Karl Marx to basic income


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Great academic opportunities: SASE conference and 10 additional calls for papers

call for papersSee below a list of great academic opportunities: 11 calls for papers for conferences and sessions on various topics in economic sociology and political economy, with January 31 – February 18 deadlines. Share this list with your colleagues and students. Good luck!

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Karl Polanyi on the Rise of Fascism and Market Economy

A spectre is haunting Europe and the world — the spectre of Fascism (veiled as defensive democracy and common-sense patriotism) and authoritarian neoliberalism (disguised as social protectionism and perceived by laymen as decisive populism). The bothering question of our troubling present is not whether history repeats itself — it does; but at what stage are we now: tragedy or farce? and what does the future hold?
the-great-transformationKarl Polanyi was deeply concerned by the essence of Fascism and focused on the institutional structure from which Fascism starts its march. He devoted the final parts of his magnum opus The Great Transformation specifically to this crucial topic and elaborated a bright analysis of the dark rise of Fascism between the two world wars.
The following passages I selected from this insightful classic book and assembled them as a short article. I urge you to delve into this piece (and then to read the full original chapters) and to mull over the substance of fascist situations and moves, as well as their linkage to free market and economy of self-interest, which generate anti-individualistic and repressing endeavors directed to change not only the political sphere and societal fabricsbut human consciousness itself.
[T]he moment would come when both the economic and the political systems were threatened by complete paralysis. Fear would grip the people, and leadership would be thrust upon those who offered an easy way out at whatever ultimate price. The time was ripe for the fascist solution. (p. 236)
If ever there was a political movement that responded to the needs of an objective situation and was not a result of fortuitous causes it was fascism. At the same time, the degenerative character of the fascist solution was evident. It offered an escape from an institutional deadlock which was essentially alike in a large number of countries, and yet, if the remedy were tried, it would everywhere produce sickness unto death. That is the manner in which civilizations perish.
The fascist solution of the impasse reached by liberal capitalism can be described as a reform of market economy achieved at the price of the extirpation of all democratic institutions, both in the industrial and in the political realm. The economic system which was in peril of disruption would thus be revitalized, while the people themselves were subjected to a re-education designed to denaturalize the individual and make him unable to function as the responsible unit of the body politic. This re-education, comprising the tenets of a political religion that denied the idea of the brotherhood of man in all its forms, was achieved through an act of mass conversion enforced against recalcitrants by scientific methods of [mental] torture.
The appearance of such a movement in the industrial countries of the globe, and even in a number of only slightly industrialized ones, should never have been ascribed to local causes, national mentalities, or historical backgrounds as was so consistently done by contemporaries.(237)
In fact, there was no type of background— of religious, cultural, or national tradition—that made a country immune to fascism, once the conditions for its emergence were given.
Moreover, there was a striking lack of relationship between its material and numerical strength and its political effectiveness. The very term “movement” was misleading since it implied some kind of enrollment or personal participation of large numbers. If anything was characteristic of fascism it was its independence of such popular manifestations. Though usually aiming at a mass following, its potential strength was reckoned not by the numbers of its adherents but by the influence of the persons in high position whose good will the fascist leaders possessed, and whose influence in the community could be counted upon to shelter them from the consequences of an abortive revolt, thus taking the risks out of revolution.
A country approaching the fascist phase showed symptoms among which the existence of a fascist movement proper was not necessarily one. At least as important signs were the spread of irrationalistic philosophies, racialist esthetics, anticapitalistic demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the “regime,” or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set-up… In no case was an actual revolution against constituted authority launched; fascist tactics were invariably those of a sham rebellion arranged with the tacit approval of the authorities who pretended to have been overwhelmed by force. (238)
Fascism was an ever given political possibility, an almost instantaneous emotional reaction in every industrial community since the 1930’s. One may call it a “move” in preference to a “movement” to indicate the impersonal nature of the crisis the symptoms of which were frequently vague and ambiguous. People often did not feel sure whether a political speech or a play, a sermon or a public parade, a metaphysics or an artistic fashion, a poem or a party program was fascist or not. There were no accepted criteria of fascism, nor did it possess conventional tenets. Yet one significant feature of all its organized forms was the abruptness with which they appeared and faded out again, only to burst forth with violence after an indefinite period of latency. All this fits into the picture of a social force that waxed and waned according to the objective situation.
What we termed, for short, “fascist situation” was no other than the typical occasion of easy and complete fascist victories. All at once, the tremendous industrial and political organizations of labor and of other devoted upholders of constitutional freedom would melt away, and minute fascist forces would brush aside what seemed until then the overwhelming strength of democratic governments, parties, trade unions. If a “revolutionary situation” is characterized by the psychological and moral disintegration of all forces of resistance to the point where a handful of scantily armed rebels were enabled to storm the supposedly impregnable strongholds of reaction, then the “fascist situation” was its complete parallel except for the fact that here the bulwarks of democracy and constitutional liberties were stormed and their defenses found wanting in the same spectacular fashion. (239)
The nascent fascist movement put itself almost everywhere into the service of the national issue; it could hardly have survived without this “pick-up” job.
Yet, it used this issue only as a stepping stone; at other times it struck the pacifist and isolationist note…
In its struggle for political power fascism is entirely free to disregard or to use local issues, at will. Its aim transcends the political and economic framework: it is social. It puts a political religion into the service of a degenerative process. In its rise it excludes only a very few emotions from its orchestra; yet once victorious it bars from the band wagon all but a very small group of motivations, though again extremely characteristic ones. Unless we distinguish closely between this pseudo intolerance on the road to power and the genuine intolerance in power, we can hardly hope to understand the subtle but decisive difference between the sham-nationalism of some fascist movements during the revolution, and the specifically imperialistic nonnationalism which they developed after the revolution. (241)
In reality, the part played by fascism was determined by one factor: the condition of the market system.
During the period 1917-23 governments occasionally sought fascist help to restore law and order: no more was needed to set the market system going. Fascism remained undeveloped.
In the period 1924-29, when the restoration of the market system seemed ensured, fascism faded out as a political force altogether.
After 1930 market economy was in a general crisis. Within a few years fascism was a world power. (242)
In 1924 and after, Europe and the United States were the scene of a boisterous boom that drowned all concern for the soundness of the market system. Capitalism was proclaimed restored…
It was in the third period—after 1929—that the true significance of fascism became apparent. The deadlock of the market system was evident. Until then fascism had been hardly more than a trait in Italy’s authoritarian government, which otherwise differed but little from those of a more traditional type. It now emerged as an alternative solution of the problem of an industrial society. (243)
Nineteenth Century civilization was not destroyed by the external or internal attack of barbarians; its vitality was not sapped by the devastations of World War I nor by the revolt of a socialist proletariat or a fascist lower middle class. Its failure was not the outcome of some alleged laws of economics such as that of the falling rate of profit or of underconsumption or overproduction. It disintegrated as the result of an entirely different set of causes: the measures which society adopted in order not to be, in its turn, annihilated by the action of the self-regulating market. Apart from exceptional circumstances such as existed in North America in the age of the open frontier, the conflict between the market and the elementary requirements of an organized social life provided the century with its dynamics and produced the typical strains and stresses which ultimately destroyed that society. External wars merely hastened its destruction…
The true criticism of market society is not that it was based on economics—in a sense, every and any society must be based on it—but that its economy was based on self-interest. Such an organization of economic life is entirely unnatural, in the strictly empirical sense of exceptional. Nineteenth century thinkers assumed that in his economic activity man strove for profit, that his materialistic propensities would induce him to choose the lesser instead of the greater effort and to expect payment for his labor; in short, that in his economic activity he would tend to abide by what they described as economic rationality, and that all contrary behavior was the result of outside interference. It followed that markets were natural institutions, that they would spontaneously arise if only men were let alone. Thus, nothing could be more normal than an economic system consisting of markets and under the sole control of market prices, and a human society based on such markets appeared, therefore, as the goal of all progress. (249)
Economic history reveals that the emergence of national markets was in no way the result of the gradual and spontaneous emancipation of the economic sphere from governmental control. On the contrary, the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends. And the self-regulating market of the nineteenth century turns out on closer inspection to be radically different from even its immediate predecessor in that it relied for its regulation on economic self-interest. The congenital weakness of nineteenth century society was not that it was industrial but that it was a market society. Industrial civilization will continue to exist when the Utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory. (250)
The passing of market-economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedom generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.
Yet we find the path blocked by a moral obstacle. Planning and control are being attacked as a denial of freedom. Free enterprise and private ownership are declared to be essentials of freedom. No society built on other foundations is said to deserve to be called free. The freedom that regulation creates is denounced as unfreedom; the justice, liberty and welfare it offers are decried as a camouflage of slavery. (256)
With the liberal the idea of freedom thus degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise—which is today reduced to a fiction by the hard reality of giant trusts and princely monopolies. This means the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property. Nor is that all. Nowhere did the liberals in fact succeed in re-establishing free enterprise, which was doomed to fail for intrinsic reasons. It was as a result of their efforts that big business was installed in several European countries and, incidentally, also various brands of fascism, as in Austria. Planning, regulation and control, which they wanted to see banned as dangers to freedom, were then employed by the confessed enemies of freedom to abolish it altogether. Yet the victory of fascism was made practically unavoidable by the liberals’ obstruction of any reform involving planning, regulation, or control.
Freedom’s utter frustration in fascism is, indeed, the inevitable result of the liberal philosophy, which claims that power and compulsion are evil, that freedom demands their absence from a human community. No such thing is possible; in a complex society this becomes apparent. This leaves no alternative but either to remain faithful to an illusionary idea of freedom and deny the reality of society, or to accept that reality and reject the idea of freedom. The first is the liberal’s conclusion; the latter the fascist’s. (257)

Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives man indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom. As long as he is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, he need not fear that either power or plan­ning will turn against him and destroy the freedom he is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need. (Polanyi 1944: 236-258; bold emphasises are mine, italics by the author)


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BREAKING NEWS from Davos: 2500 people controlling the world economy got out of their limos and recalled the “problem of inequality”


It would be funny if it wasn’t disgracefully true…

See also: “I don’t see any income inequality!” “Me neither!”

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