EssaysFeatureImaginal PoliticsSpeculative futures: Explorations of the Financial Imagination

The City and the City

A Post-Financial Counter-Imaginary for London

London’s status as a world financial centre is central to the current imaginary of the city as projected by PR firms, web sites such as visitlondon.com or ‘official’ promoters of tourism like London & Partners. In this representation of London, the capitalized City – the financial district or ‘Square Mile’ – frequently acts as an advance guard for the broader city or metropolitan area, conferring upon it, by association, global heft and credibility. Yet The City’s continuity in this role is by no means guaranteed. Many banks and financial institutions are planning to move their European headquarters out of London – whatever kind of exit from the EU is implemented — while Oxford Economics predicts that a ‘hard’ Brexit (a comprehensive severing of ties with the EU, leaving the UK trading under World Trade Organization rules) could cost the capital in excess of £100bn over the subsequent five years. The City could lose 30,000 banking and financial services jobs in the process, a trend that is already underway; primary and international schools in Frankfurt are hugely oversubscribed for their autumn 2018 intake, reflecting the large number of people returning or moving to work in financial institutions that are relocating.

In fact, net outward migration from London has been growing for a number of years and unaffordable rents (even for junior bankers), counterbalanced by new rapid urban transportation infrastructure bringing workers into the centre from increasingly distant locations, is exacerbating the trend. London’s chronically financialised housing market is showing all the signs of a speculative property bubble that is close to bursting, with fifteen thousand unsold luxury flats (and many more under construction), double-figure annual house price deflation and land values for residential development falling across the capital.

Is a Financial imaginary of London sustainable?

To understand the potential collapse of the financialized imaginary of the City of London (and the ramifications for the broader metropolitan area of London of which it is a part), as well as to see what counter-imaginaries might be possible, we can fruitfully turn to the work of Cornelius Castoriadis.

Within his concept of the ‘social imaginary’ the philosopher, economist and psychoanalyst Castoriadis incorporated both an analysis of how the interlocking elements of a given society are produced and maintained and a creative tool for starting the process of creating society anew. Whilst the first meaning has been widely adopted across a range of disciplines, the second has gained less purchase, sometimes to the point where Castoriadis has been criticized as a theoretician who puts forth no plan for how and where his insights could be applied to an active process of change. But this complaint misses the point: for Castoriadis the next step into praxis is a deeply implicit, not explicit, component of any imaginary.

Not only that, but his conviction as to how the creative imagination catalyses the actioning of what it envisions is rooted in his notion of autonomy; for Castoriadis any schema of the future that is handed down from on high – whether by oppressors or liberators – has no actual power to effect transformation; the shape of the next society can only arise from the creative imaginations of groups of people acting autonomously.

Financial imaginaries have arguably become the most powerful of the multiple social imaginaries – which together comprise what Castoriadis calls ‘magma’ – that determine how the members of an advanced capitalist society perceive it and conduct their lives within it. Castoriadis himself observed that ‘it is the economy that exhibits most strikingly the domination of the imaginary at every level’; in other words, capitalists want to present capitalism as a super-rational system that is founded on concrete facts – whereas in fact it is a set of constructs that are maintained by the production of meanings.

The current imaginary of London, especially that of its financial subset, The City, comprises a specific set of constructs that is promulgated globally to attract capital flows and ultra-wealthy individuals looking for a place to store their cash, which often finds a home in the buildings that form the very fabric of the city. The buildings of the City itself, meanwhile, with their iconic locations, familiar nicknames, competitive verticality and relentless technical innovations, are designed to potently reinforce the dominant imaginary. Once one expands the frame of reference to the wider context of UK society, then this City-centric boosterism looks more like one polarity of a taut dialectic than a monolithic status; sharp divisions in voting for the Brexit referendum have been interpreted as indicative of antipathy to London’s financial hegemony, a refusal of its financialization-is-the-only way agenda for the rest of the country.

At the same time, the financialization of London is undergoing its own internal evolution away from its historic role as a provider of speculative capital to the world; recent US sanctions against Russia, for instance have put paid to a profitable decade during which more Russian corporations IPO’d in London than in New York. There is further complexity in the fact that this contraction coexists with a renewed expansion of private Russian funds into the ‘ultra-wealthy’ stratum of London real estate in the form of purchases by oligarchs and the funding of multi-million-pound basement extensions.

Castoriadis, would have found nothing surprising in such dialectical twists and turns: for him any illusion of fixity is nothing more than the dominant imaginary, one that has been ubiquitously embedded in the consciousness of a society in the current moment:

“I think that we are at a crossing in the roads of history. One road…is that of the tightening grip of the capitalist imaginary of unlimited expansion of “rational mastery,” …of an unlimited expansion of consumption for the sake of consumption and of a technoscience that has become autonomized along its path and that is evidently involved in the domination of this capitalist imaginary.”

Where Castoriadis sees domination, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work see abject weakness: ‘While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.’ The authors make an explicit and vital connection between envisioning a different way of arranging human relations and the capacity to create it, albeit in a negative formulation that echoes the dictum quoted by Frederick Jameson that it is ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’.

Castoriadis emphasizes the complementary, active role of the imaginary: ‘The other road should be opened: it is not at all laid out. It can be opened only through a social and political awakening, a resurgence of the project of individual and collective autonomy, that is to say, of the will to freedom. This would require an awakening of the imagination and of the creative imaginary ’ Key to this is the distinction in his thinking between the ‘radical imagination’ and the concept of the ‘social imaginary’; it is the former – the psychoanalytical source of representation and meaning – that equips humans to create the latter.

This sense, of the imaginary as a creative force that can open up the road to a different future, is currently enjoying a new lease of life, revivified in the context of a growing awareness, among those who seek to transcend the status quo, of the historical cul-de-sac that Srnicek and Williams evoke; the term can be found in texts as far apart as politically engaged science fiction and policy documents produced by the British Labour party.

The Social Imaginary as a concept

The ways in which Castoriadis uses the term, though, are complex and not always immediately comprehensible: firstly, there’s the transformation into a noun of a word – imaginary – which, in English at least, is mostly familiar as an adjective. As a noun, it had history before Castoriadis, and has been applied beyond philosophy to fields as diverse as literature, geography and psychoanalysis; it appears in the writings of novelist André Gide, in Sartre’s L’Imaginaire, and in the work of both Lacan and Deleuze. It has also had a busy other life in anthropology, where it acts as a widely applied yet somewhat contested alternative to the concept of ‘cultural beliefs’.

For the critical geographer Arjun Appadurai, it is a key tool to understand how the identities of contemporary cities, regions and nations are constructed and communicated. Past the adjective-into-noun challenge, the term has a tendency to elide into related but for Castoriadis, crucially different, words and their habitual meanings. ‘Imagination’ is probably the closest, not least because it is easy – visually on the page or screen – to read one word for the other.

Indeed, in the way Appadurai closely associates it with ‘mediatisation’, the dissemination of imaginaries though a plethora of global media channels, the meanings start to merge. And, because the content created to flow through these channels is predominantly visual (the promotional materials employed in international real estate sales, for example) a further elision suggests itself: imaginary-imagination-image. For Castoriadis, social imaginaries are ‘imaginary’, not because they are Disneyesque fictions, but because they arise – originally – from human imaginations, the creative capacities of actual people.

Castoriadis’s implicit principle of the social imaginary as a driver of, or catalyst for, social action is captured in his characteristically serpentine prose: ‘In praxis, there is something to be done, but what is to be done is something specific: it is precisely the development of the autonomy of the other or of others’. As Suzy Adams writes in Cornelius Castoriadis: Key Concepts: ‘revolutionary praxis seeks to create a new society whereby ‘its object is the real as such and not a stable, limited, dead artefact.’’

Castoriadis’s ‘stable, limited, dead artefact’ is the dominant social imaginary, taken as a given by the majority of people in that society; reified in Marx’s term, into something that is no longer understood as the creation of specific people in a particular time and place, but appearing as an immutable truth. One consequence of Castoriadis’s post-Marxian ‘turn’ in the late 1960s was that he came to regard all pre-configured social imaginaries – whether they arose in state socialist or social democratic societies – as ‘dead artefacts’. These imaginaries were inherently lifeless as a result of their not having arisen from the creative imaginations of individuals acting autonomously but, instead, originating in ‘rational’ planning for the future by technocratic political actors in a positions of authority within their respective societies.

From 1969 – when he began his training in psychoanalysis – Castoriadis started to forge connections between the role of the creative imagination, the politics of autonomy and the development of the individual’s self-reflective awareness of their active role in bringing society into being. He described a state of consciousness in which ‘each person’s self-understanding is a necessary condition for autonomy. One cannot have an autonomous society that would fail to turn back upon itself, that would not interrogate itself about its motives, its deep-seated [profondes] tendencies.’

How might a post-Financial imaginary unfold?

If ‘the other road should be opened: it is not at all laid out’, as Castoriadis insists, then where might such openings be found and what might they lead to?

Here are some pointers, products of a creative envisioning that forms the beginnings of a post-Financial imaginary of London: unsold and un-let residential towers and luxury apartment blocks are appropriated as autonomous spaces for living, educating or organizing; abandoned office spaces house a shifting population of inventors and innovators freed from the constraints of capital accumulation to solve real problems; creators of art and culture are supported by self-managed, decentralized, distributed organizations; independent retailers, street food outlets, pop-up bars and clubs in quirky venues replace long-gone luxury shops; no-one is homeless amidst so much unused, yet usable, space; urban industries flourish by applying new technologies to making real things that real people need; and urban planning becomes focused on creating openness and possibilities whilst securing the basic conditions of humane living for the everyone.

For Castoriadis this process of opening up another road is fundamental: ‘History is impossible outside of the productive or creative imagination, outside of what we have called the radical imaginary.’ It is possible to posit – without collapsing into technocratic determinism – a reading of Castoriadis that, whilst accepting his psychoanalytical principle that the radical imagination gives rise to creative imaginaries ex nihilo, acknowledges that in practice the resultant creative imaginings are themselves often generated by using combinatory processes, hybridizing already known models, examples, structures, processes, narratives and so forth into fresh syntheses.

The places from which we can borrow some of the raw materials needed to create a financial counter-imaginary might include: speculative and science fiction; activism in other cities such as Berlin, Madrid or Barcelona; in theories of immanence developed by critical thinkers such as Deleuze and Guittari or Berardi; in the new platforms for collaboration and governance built on blockchain technologies, or in actually existing autonomous spaces and organizations like Free Riga, the ZAD (zone a defendre) outside Nantes in western France or Rojava in northern Syria.

The reactions of the French government to the ZAD and of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to Rojava — ferociously militarized campaigns bent on erasing these autonomous communities — indicate the level of threat felt by incumbent states when alternative imaginaries become too real, too thoroughly realized: Castoriadis is vindicated, and granted a backhanded compliment in the shape of a tank.

A post-Financial counter-imaginary

The power of social imaginaries – dominant and alternative – not only derives from their ongoing imaginative creation and putative emergence into existence but in their status as representations. Writing half a century ago, Castoriadis was not exposed to the explosion of channels of communication and media formats triggered by digital technologies, which enables imaginaries to be continuously disseminated globally and in real time. Generous budgets, access to high-end equipment and ‘talent’, global distribution and reach may appear to deliver a communications dividend to the promoters of dominant imaginaries such as the specialist PR agencies, trade bodies and ‘ambassadors’ who boost London’s Finance sector around the world.

In fact, digital technologies such as online distribution, high-spec tools built into everyday devices, the opportunity to rent rather than own capacity via cloud services, the devolution of media software to the ‘desktop’ and so on, also mean that the proponents of counter-imaginaries are able to access significant capacity for dissemination. It is this imagistic power that the representatives of dominant imaginaries fear as much as – if not more than – the actual emergence of alternatives on the ground. The tools accessible to counter-imaginaires, of course, are of a different order of technology to those deployed by financial capital itself; it’s the ability to upload a video clip shot on a mobile phone of gendarmes firing tear gas at unarmed ZADistes to a blog site, compared to the London Stock Exchange where a single platform that supports automated trading can process $100bn of risk calculations daily. Quantitatively, there’s no contest; yet qualitatively it is arguable that dissemination of that video clip – however limited the distribution and however self-selected the audience – contributes more to the potency of a counter-imaginary than sheer technological processing power does to the dominant version; as Byung-Chu Han argues persuasively, such ‘Big Data’ is devoid of either meaning or reason, leaving it ‘blind to the future’.

If the role of the City of London as a global hub for Finance capital does weaken – to the point where a dominant imaginary based on this declared status cannot be sustained – will that create space for other imaginaries, for counter-imaginaries? Could ‘definancialization’ open up Castoriadis’ ‘other road’? Who will kick-start the task of imagining a future for the city (and the City), post-Finance: radical economists, artists, urban planners, a new type of ‘rogue trader’, novelists, academics, activists?

In the two decades since Castoriadis’s death his conviction that there is no future if one cannot be imagined has been grimly confirmed by the non-appearance of a coherent radical project to challenge the norms of neoliberalism. We still wait for – to recontextualize words that spiritedly give the lie to the cliché of Castoriadis as an obscurantist armchair philosopher – ‘the moment when it will be shattered by the explicit positing of another norm.’

Steven Taylor is a full-time MRes graduate student in Architecture at University of East London who worked for many years as an innovation consultant for corporations and startups worldwide. His focus is on urban re-industrialization, post-growth economics and what William Davies has described as “innovation without entrepreneurism,” with a special interest in the City of London.

Also for you:

Steven Taylor 

Previous post

A Conversation on The Black Panther

Next post

CFP: Remaking American Political History