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“Reclaiming Utopia”

An Introduction to the Project of Challenging the Financial Imagination

While 2016 was filled with global celebrations of the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, we still sorely lack a radical political imagination that is able to counteract today’s powerful financial utopias. The “Reclaiming Utopia” panel[i], part of the Utopia 2016 program, is the beginning of a project that hopes to remedy this lack. The project was conceived as an attempt to engage, given global conditions of political and economic uncertainty,[ii] with current debates on the social production of utopian and dystopian future(s). It builds an exciting collaboration between University College London and the New School for Social Research, the outcomes of which will include a series of essays to be published in the Public Seminar in the coming weeks, and the organisation of an international conference, titled ‘‘Imagining the future: financial capitalism and the social imagination” at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies in London, in July 2017.

Dithering between the naiveté of techno-utopias of a fully-automated post capitalism, and the banal indulgence in bureaucratic ‘utopias of rules’, utopian thinking today seems to offer meagre hope for articulating and enacting radical futures. Meanwhile, in the world of financial markets, a formidable imagined future is being methodically produced. Fictional expectations are at the heart of finance’s operation: through highly sophisticated instruments, such as derivative products, and through risk models developed in anticipation of future profits, financial actors work to ‘control’ the future’s indeterminacy, and in so doing they enact powerful imaginations. The dominating force of these imaginations originates on the one hand in their determination to ‘tame’ (and in so doing to commodify) uncertainty, while drawing recourses away from the ‘real economy’, severing the material consequences of financial crises. On the other hand, control of uncertainty remains necessarily illusionary, reinforcing financial fictions that skew reality, and triggering innovations that expand horizons of possibility.[iii] Financial imagination, the risk structures and debt dependencies it evokes, appear more complex, fast-pacing and resilient, than most ‘counter’ or ‘post’ capitalist utopias.

In this context, developing conceptual tools that engage critically with the social production of financial capitalism’s utopian/dystopian future(s), is an urgent task: a more upfront and sociologically informed inquiry of ‘imagination’ is needed, to unpick its role as a driving force in the social construction of futures. Such an approach would study imagination as a materially mediating social force, able to produce utopian as well as dystopian futures — and thus a far cry from being inherently ‘positive’, or ‘creative’, in the narrow sense of the term. Much like Durkheimian ‘social facts’, imagination encompasses at once limiting/constraining qualities and liberating/emancipatory potentialities. Moreover, as it has been ably and consistently shown by Cornelius Castoriadis, imagination transcends individual/collective and private/public dualisms: it contains an instituting (open, creative) and an instituted (closed) dimension, both of which exist in tension, and which sets in motion the imaginary constitution of societies.

Seen under this lens, the production of financial capitalism’s future(s) is indissociably linked to the political economy of imagination: all imagined future projections are conditioned by distributions of power, alongside other structural forces. Put another way, financial as well as counter-imaginations draw differentially on political economic structures to produce dominant futures. This process can be best described as a dialectical struggle between different types of imagination, the outcomes of which are experienced beyond the realm of finance: in the space of the personal, the individual, the home/familial (a process typically discussed as ‘financialization’).

Importantly for radical utopians, the project of constructing alternative models of social, political and economic organization in response to such prevailing systems cannot be conceived in separation from other dominant types of imagination (e.g. financial, neoliberal, populist, and nationalist imaginations). A fruitful path for sociological engagement with imaginations may zoom in on their various intersections. Intersections between the racist vision underpinning Trump’s victorious narrative and the neoliberal images of individualized hope; between the ‘algorithmic’ imagination shown in the calculative power of sophisticated financial tools and the continuous territorial expansion of neo-colonialist real estate in the American North. Therein lies the capacity of prevailing dominant imaginations to mutate, to coalesce and to transcend time horizons and spatial boundaries, thus producing ‘present futures’ that escape us yet materially deprive us.

Our “Reclaiming Utopia,” project then, is no naïve call for a return to our individual capacities to re-imagine (alternative) futures, but an invitation to lift the veil off the multiple imaginary struggles belied by the dominant financial imagination. It is a call to take seriously the ability of social imaginaries to construct counter-rationalities contra the ‘programmatic rationality’ of financial markets and neoliberal politics. In doing so, “Reclaiming Utopia” draws attention to the inseparability of the real and the imaginary economy. The multitude of global crises experienced at present (economic, political, border, moral) is a powerful manifestation of this increased complexification of the social imagination, and a testament to its ability to expand frontiers of domination that consolidate financial, neoliberal, neo-colonial futures. Such complexification of the forces of imagination that are at play today calls for more nuanced conceptual and empirical investigations into the causes and consequences of imagination crises: the global political economy of imagination.

Over the following weeks and months, our collaborative project will mobilize critical theoretical thinking in this direction, through a series of essays and talks, which will culminate in July 2017 with an international conference on “Imagining the future: financial capitalism and the social imagination.” The conference will invite theoretically-driven contributions that explore the ‘intersections’ between political, economic and social imaginations of financial capitalism. More details will follow soon — watch this space.

Footnotes:

[i] “Reclaiming Utopia: Challenging the Financial Imagination” took place on November 25, 2016 at King’s College London. It was organised with the support of King’s College London’s Doctoral Training Centre and Utopia 2016, a collaboration with Somerset House and the Courtauld Gallery. Speakers included Chiara Bottici (Associate Professor Philosophy at The New School), Max Haiven (Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University), and Cassie Thornton (Artist, the Feminist Economics Department).

[ii] A growing number of authors, from Mark Auge to Fredric Jameson, Peter Frase to Benjamin Kunkel, are articulating preoccupations with the meanings and implications of ‘futurity’ and ‘hope’ for today’s social and economic crises. Philosophically this surge of interest in ‘hope’ is reflected in a return of attention to the philosophy of Ernst Bloch. Within sociology there are serious attempts to rehabilitate the ‘utopian method’ for imagining alternatives to capitalism, most notably by Herbert J. Gans and Eric Olin Wright in the U.S., and Ruth Levitas in the UK.

[iii] Ha-Joon Chang aptly describes the dominance of finance’s risk modelling imaginaries as ‘science fiction economics’.

A video of the ‘Reclaiming Utopia’ Panel Discussion can be accessed here: http://www.publicseminar.org/2017/01/reclaiming-utopia-2/#.WH0i9bYrK2z”

 

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou

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