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Economic Science Fictions

by William Davies on September 25, 2018

Economics and science fiction have various overlaps. Science fiction is a genre that has long toyed with alternative economic institutions, imagining different types of production, property or money, and seeing where such changes might lead. Economics, as Jens Beckert’s recent work has emphasised, involves various ‘fictional expectations’ in the form of risk models, future income streams, a belief in the sustained value of money and so on. Both are responses to the condition of modernity, that requires us to face and produce representations of a fundamentally uncertain future. A key difference, one might add, is that science fiction writers remember that it’s uncertain, and their fictions are just that.

The recently published volume Economic Science Fictions, of which I’m the editor, seeks to interrogate the interface of economics and science fiction in new and surprising ways, that span the social sciences and humanities. As the work of Ursula K Le Guin best demonstrated, science fiction has often had a utopian streak that reminds us that no economic system is permanent, and there is nothing natural or inevitable about any model of political economy. The economy is a set of artifices, that will come and go over time, and can be re-imagined at any moment.

The revival of utopian thinking on the left, as manifest in books such as Inventing the Future, has greatly expanded the scope of critical political economy and radical public policy-making, following the long neoliberal era in which only minor adjustments to fiscal policy and public service management were viewed as credible. Ironically, the neoliberal pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s were themselves possessed of a certain utopian, inventive spirit, that they saw amongst the Left, and believed needed to be applied to the resuscitation of liberal economics and conservative politics. As Philip Mirowski has detailed, figures such as Friedrich Hayek were resolute modernisers and creators, looking to the future to create a different capitalism.

So how to facilitate this marriage of economics and science fiction? While there is a thriving and admirable field of science fiction studies within the humanities, I was keen that the book would not only involve readings of texts, so as to bring to light certain economic themes. I really wanted to smash different worlds together – to get economists writing about fiction, anthropologists re-imagining money or property, fiction writers engaging with economics, and to challenge the very ‘reality’ of ‘the economy’ and its constituent parts (corporation, market, price, money, work etc.) in the process.

One of the first pieces I commissioned was by the heterodox economist Ha-Joon Chang, who I knew was an avid science fiction fan. As a critic of neo-classical economics, he was able to point to the various fictions that are at the heart of economic orthodoxy, and some of the key utopian and dystopian themes from classic science fiction texts, that cast different light on contemporary capitalism.

Elsewhere, the volume contains pieces on (inter alia) the curious prevalence of the corporation as a trope of science fiction writing; a brief Soviet experiment in mass-produced housing; a depiction of a future world in which pain has become the central commodity to produce; the image of the vampire as a metaphor for capitalist extraction; the uses of ‘design fiction’ as a technique for redesigning economic institutions; and the fascination that money holds as an object of fictional reimagining. Rather than as a conventional academic volume, I see it more as a compendium of weird and wonderful responses to the challenge I set the authors: to think through the invented, malleable nature of economic institutions, and the role of fiction and literature in helping us to see, design or produce different ones. Hua Hsu described it in The New Yorker as “lively and deeply strange”, which I rather like.

However, there is one political aspect to all of this that extends beyond simple playfulness or inventiveness. The era that political economists know as ‘neoliberalism’ maps fairly closely on to that of ‘postmodernism’, both being responses to the crisis of Fordist, disciplinary, patriarchal societies, which had given a prominent role to planners and experts in the management of economies and social life. The years between 1968 and 1978 were not just a crisis of capitalism (specifically of Keynesianism and the Bretton Woods system), but also a broader political and cultural crisis of authority, that challenged the ability of states and authorities to shape the future in a legitimate and successful way.

Writers such as Frederic Jameson, Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher (whose own brief reflections on ‘economic science fiction’, which he’d intended to develop further, are included posthumously as a preface) have all made the argument that neoliberalism and postmodernism effect a destruction of the future, in the modernist sense of shared possibilities, that we can all work, plan and hope for collectively. For Jameson, science fiction holds a privileged place in the modernist imaginary, and the crisis of the 1970s represents a threat to the very notion of using fiction as a bridge to an alternative future.

In place of the collectively planned and democratically authorised society, postmodern neoliberalism offers private investment, private consumption, private cultural experiences, all bought and sold in a marketplace, to the point where there is a fragmentation of hope into personal life plans, self-reinvention and future income streams. Political institutions are presented as permanent, in order that consumer tastes and business ‘innovation’ can exist in a state of constant flux. Neoliberalism is rooted in a form of subjectivism, that ultimately casts doubt on the possibility of any consensus about the nature of economic or social reality, opting instead for all hopes and ideals to be channelled into the fragmented chaos of markets in general and financial markets in particular. Hopes for any broader political transformation are eradicated, so as to secure the legal and institutional conditions of individual competition.

This project has now itself lost credibility, revitalising political-economic thinking in the process and, with it, the preconditions of hope. Of course, there are all manner of reasons to expect a future that is far worse, from climate change, to authoritarian populism, to the rising oligarchy of tech billionaires. Nevertheless, we are in an interregnum now, without any dominant assumptions about how the economy should be governed and structured. For better or worse, the future has returned as a political phenomenon, and not just a set of calculable risks, trends and models.

William Davies
William Davies is Reader in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Co-Director of Goldsmiths’ Political Economy Research Centre. Economic Science Fictions is published by Goldsmiths Press.

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