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 MPIfG Books



Jens Beckert
Imagined Futures
Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016
373 pages
ISBN 978-0-6740-8882-5 | $39.95 (hardback)

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Abstract | Contents | Author | Reviews




In a capitalist system, consumers, investors, and corporations orient their activities toward a future that contains opportunities and risks. How actors assess uncertainty is a problem that economists have tried to solve through general equilibrium and rational expectations theory. Powerful as these analytical tools are, they underestimate the future's unknowability by assuming that markets, in the aggregate, correctly forecast what is to come.
Jens Beckert adds a new chapter to the theory of capitalism by demonstrating how fictional expectations drive modern economies — or throw them into crisis when the imagined futures fail to materialize. Collectively held images of how the future will unfold are critical because they free economic actors from paralyzing doubt, enabling them to commit resources and coordinate decisions even if those expectations prove inaccurate. Beckert distinguishes fictional expectations from performativity theory, which holds that predictions tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Economic forecasts are important not because they produce the futures they envision but because they create the expectations that generate economic activity in the first place. Actors pursue money, investments, innovations, and consumption only if they believe the objects obtained through market exchanges will retain value. We accept money because we believe in its future purchasing power. We accept the risk of capital investments and innovation because we expect profit. And we purchase consumer goods based on dreams of satisfaction. As Imagined Futures shows, those who ignore the role of real uncertainty and fictional expectations in market dynamics misunderstand the nature of capitalism.



1. Introduction
I. Decision-Making in an Uncertain World
2. The Temporal Order of Capitalism
3. Expectations and Uncertainty
4. Fictional Expectations
II. Building Blocks of Capitalism
5. Money and Credit: The Promise of Future Value
6. Investments: Imaginaries of Profit
7. Innovation: Imaginaries of Technological Futures
8. Consumption: Value from Meaning
III. Instruments of Imagination
9. Forecasting: Creating the Present
10. Economic Theory: The Crystal Ball of Calculative Devices
11. Conclusion: The Enchanted World of Capitalism





Jens Beckert is Professor of Sociology and Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.



Francesco Boldizzoni: Capitalism's Futures Past: Expectations in History and Theory.
In: Critical Historical Studies 2017, 4 (2): 255–66.
"More than anything, Imagined Futures represents a momentous step toward overcoming the Weberian interpretation of capitalist modernity as an iron cage where calculative reason rules alone, freed from values and instincts."
Imagined Futures is "a clever, ambitious, and thought-provoking book, which sets a new standard for the history and theory of capitalism and opens up a panoply of research themes to be pursued in the years to come."

Esther-Mirjam Sent: Jens Beckert: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Economics and Philosophy 2017, 33 (3): 484–91.
"[T]he book offers an important and original contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of modern capitalism. It does so by establishing close connections between micro processes and macro outcomes. In the process, it convincingly develops a systematic analysis of the role of fictional expectations and offers a rich array of illustrations. The result is a tour de force, combining insights from political economy, political science, economics, sociology, literary theory, history and philosophy and addressing these in an empirical and theoretical manner."

Christopher Neumaier: J. Beckert: Imagined Futures.
In: H-SOZ-KULT – Kommunikation und Fachinformation für die Geschichtswissenschaft, 5. Oktober 2017.
"Jens Beckerts systematische, analytisch und argumentativ überzeugende Arbeit kann jedem empfohlen werden, der sich mit der Bedeutung von Zukunft und Zukunftsvorstellungen in der Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts befassen möchte."

Charles W. Smith: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Contemporary Sociology 2017, 46 (5): 538–39.
"Beckert provides a detailed account of how the four major 'building blocks' of capitalism – money and credit, investments, innovation, and consumption – embody and utilize 'imagined futures' and 'fictional expectations.' He expands on this overview by showing how both economic forecasting and economic theory formalize their own range of narratives that rely on 'imagined futures' and 'fictional expectations.' [...]  Taken together, the central themes of this book more than qualify it as a significant contribution not only to economic sociology but to the social sciences in general."

Mitch Murray: On Imagined and Science Fictional Futures.
In: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group 2017, 30 (2): 99–111.
"Beckert extends some much-appreciated bridges to those in literary fields, asserting that the narrative dimensions of economic forecasts, innovations and breakthroughs, projected earnings, and so on, all contribute to capitalism’s reservation of the future and, therefore, to its grip on the present."

Olivier Pilmis: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Revue française de sociologie 2017, 58 (2): 304–307.
"Cet ouvrage, consacré aux conditions dans lesquelles les acteurs économiques se projettent dans l’avenir en régime capitaliste, est à la fois un essai théorique ambitieux et l’esquisse d’un vaste programme de recherche que J. Beckert entend inscrire dans un projet plus général : dresser un pont entre la tradition de la political economy (orientée vers les dynamiques institu-tionelles et les phénomènes macrosociaux) et celle de la sociologie économique, plus encline à observer, au niveau microsocial, les actions et interactions individuelles."

Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Jens Beckert. Harvard University Press. 2016
"Imagined Futures achieves its objective of making a case for the significance of fictional expectations and their necessary (presumably insufficient) role in the capitalist system in a manner not previously done before. The book is therefore a great contribution to our knowledge about the sociological sources of psychological processes in knowledge creation."
In: Israel Book Review, Wednesday, June 7, 2017.

John L. Campbell: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: American Journal of Sociology 2017, 122 (5): 1575–77.
"[...] Imagined Futures:Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics , a wonderful book about how the most basic forms of economic activity are grounded less in conventional rational calculation than in how people imagine the future. [...] this book will not help us predict the future nor does it claim to. But it should make us skeptical of forecasters, investment advisors, pundits, econometricians, economic theorists, and anybody else who claims that they can."

Arjen van der Heide: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Acta Sociologica 2017, 60 (2): 191–93.
"Imagined Futures offers an impressive account of the secular enchantment of contemporary capitalist societies that synthetizes a large volume of somewhat fragmented literature in economic sociology (and beyond) of the past decades into a single theoretical framework from which new research may arise. While elsewhere scholars (including Beckert himself) have sought to re-imagine economic sociology (Aspers and Dodd, 2015), Imagined Futures paves the way for an economic sociology of imagination."

Lars Crusefalk: Fictionalizing the Economy and Reviewing Imagined Futures of Capitalism.
In: Economic Sociology and Political Economy, 24 February 2017.
"Beckert's book is an important and original contribution to the understanding of the underlying factors that drive modern capitalism and economic behavior."

Adriana Mica: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: European Societies 2017, 19 (1): 115–17.
"Beckert's book makes the argument that capitalist dynamics are grounded in processes of imagining the future and of creating and revising expectations that motivate actors to engage in economic actions. Imagined Futures is a book about the microfoundations of capitalism. It shows that in order to understand the amplitude and crises of capitalism, we ought to grasp the agency of actors, and not just the impact of great structural forces and tendencies. But Imagined Futures is also a book that revises the habitual framing of these microfoundations. It argues that economic and sociological perspectives that posit that the expectations of economic actors are rational or socially determined are sort of outdated or not universally applicable. These analytical traditions overlook the fact that the decisions to engage in economic actions are increasingly taken in conditions of uncertainty or that they carry the possibility of creative destruction. Hence, we instead need a model of action that proceeds from contingent expectations. [...] The book is an impressive construction in terms of literature review, critical discussion, analysis of empirical case studies and writing style."

Akos Rona-Tas: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Socio-Economic Review 2017, 15 (1): 241–58.
"Beckert's book is a marvelous invitation to rethink problems not just in economic sociology but in any field interested in social outcomes through the lens of expectations, imagination and fantasy. I can only imagine its future impact on the entire discipline."

Brooke Harrington: The Capitalist's Imagination.
In: The Atlantic, 13 July 2016.
"Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, makes a thorough, exhaustively documented argument in support of what many have suspected about capitalism: It's a castle in the air, built on fantasy shading into fraud. He makes a compelling case that no corner of the market is untouched by the process of generating imagined futures. The novelty of his work lies in offering a way to understand that process as a social system in which everyone, from individuals to institutions, is implicated."

Mehmet Kerem Coban: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics by Jens Beckert.
In: LSE Review of Books, 7 September 2016.
"Imagined Futures achieves its objective of making a case for the significance of fictional expectations and their necessary (presumably insufficient) role in the capitalist system in a manner not previously done before. The book is therefore a great contribution to our knowledge about the sociological sources of psychological processes in knowledge creation."

Ted Fischer: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Anthropological Observer Bloc: Anthropological Observations . . . on economics, politics, and daily life, 1 August 2016.
"Berkert's new book is exhilarating, opening up new possibilities for thinking about (and acting on) the market. It gives us a way to insert the social and the cultural back into the fundamental mechanics of capitalism, from wince it has long been banished."

Frank Dobbin (Harvard University): Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
"Beckert's breathtaking, erudite new book illuminates what is distinctive about modern capitalism. Traditional societies were oriented to the past and the never-ending replication of the social order – today everything we do is based on imagined futures comprising fictions about how the world might be. We innovate, build entire industries, and invest based on what we can envision. We are often wrong, but Beckert argues passionately that Homo economicus is far from a calculating actor who bases decisions on hard evidence – he is a fantasist and visionary."

Neil Fligstein (University of California, Berkeley): Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamic.
"Much of the literature in the sociology of markets has focused on making sense of the social structuring of markets by governments, firms, networks, and market devices. Jens Beckert's book reminds us that the people who produce markets have to figure out what the future is like in order to build it. This act of imagination and the leap into an uncertain future is at the core of the dynamics of markets, entrepreneurship, and the creation of new markets. His provocative book considers how the role of imagining the future affects money and credit, investment, innovation, and consumption."

Brett Christophers: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics.
In: Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 2016.

Ist die ganze Wirtschaft nichts als Fiktion? Rainer Hank im Gespräch mit Prof. Jens Beckert.
In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 12. Juni 2006, Wirtschaft, S. 35.

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