Designing the future: a review of Economic Science Fictions

A little over a century ago, there was an expectation that the future was ours to map and manage.

Today, sometimes, it can be hard to look at the future other than through the gaps between our fingers. But a little over a century ago, there was a confident expectation that it was ours to map and manage. Utopia was less a nebulous, dangerous desire than a design problem, a puzzle that would soon be solved.

The new technologies that powered the Second Industrial Revolution, including electric light, flight, radio and film, seemed to promise a new era of abundance for all, if only they could be directed towards the collective good. Taylorist organisational theory worked out processes for their efficient employment, suggesting how, as Lenin put, an entire economy might be ordered as ‘a single office and a single factory’. And the brutal effectiveness with which Europe’s market economies were transformed into centrally organised war machines during the First World War encouraged a gathering confidence that economic development could be consciously shaped rather than left to capricious market cycles.

For the left, the possibility that rapid technological and economic progress might be guided by a benign technocracy promised to realise the advanced post-capitalist society to which the writings of the 19th century socialists had pointed. HG Wells thrilled European readers with shimmering visions of the city of the future in essays such as A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). In Russia, Alexander Bogdanov heralded the tradition of Bolshevik sci-fi with Red Star (1909), a vision of an advanced, rationally-planned Martian economy that influenced generations of Soviet economists who, like the Bolshevik commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, were inspired by the ‘crystal atmosphere of rationality that reigns on Mars’.1 Movements such as the Bauhaus and Constructivists sought to direct design and architecture towards the building of sophisticated new egalitarian worlds.

Though the faith in rational progress also generated unease, expressed in literary and cinematic dystopias such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Wells’s own The Sleeper Wakes (1910), the intellectual tide seemed to be moving with a confident wave of left futurism. The future wasn’t just going to happen: it would unfold according to a carefully designed blueprint.

‘Machines for designing the future’

Economic Science Fictions, a new collection of essays by academics, economists, designers and activists edited by William Davies, attempts to rediscover something of that same sense of agency: a belief that the present is contigent and that economic systems and technological change can be restructured and redirected for collective purposes.

Appropriately, the book is dedicated to and introduced by the late Mark Fisher, whose work did so much to illuminate the extent to which a prevalent attitude of capitalist realism inhibits our capacity to imagine that the world might be otherwise. Fisher’s introduction summons suitably constructivist imagery to recommend the book’s speculations as ‘engines for the development of future policy’, ‘machines for designing the future’.2

Davies’s fascinating opening chapter suggests that the fundamental challenge confronting advocates of some form of post-capitalism is the same today as it was a century ago: that of explaining how resources in a complex, technologically sophisticated economy can be allocated efficiently in the absence of robust market and price mechanisms.

That critique received its classic formulation in a 1920 paper by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which insisted that the price system is essential for the effective coordination of the fathomless flux of economic preferences expressed by members of a free society. Price signals give private producers the information they need to design rational strategies for giving people what they actually want, not what planners—forever ‘groping in the dark’3—think they should be given.

Davies suggests Mises’s critique allowed the right to present an alternative vision of modernity to that of the left. Where the socialist modernists imagined that the future might be designed and structured according to a universal, public vision, Mises and successors such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman pictured an ideal market place in which the private utopias envisaged by entrepreneurs compete for realisation through the backing of investors and consumers. Davies writes:

The futuristic spirit of modernism is in play, but it cannot be a basis for the reorganisation of society in any collective sense. Instead, the political challenge is reduced to that of coordinating between multiple, heterogeneous, potentially incompatible and private visions of the future.4

Over the course of the last century, the right’s open-ended, libertarian idea of modernity gradually eclipsed that of the left, as confidence in the possibility and desirability of ambitious economic planning diminished.

Stalin’s five-year plans compelled the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union’s rural economy, but owed more to the brutal power of a police state than the intelligent implementation of technology or Taylorist management techniques.

After the Second World War, the number-crunching potential of a new generation of mainframe computers and the possibilities afforded by the emerging field of cybernetics promised to allow the rationalisation of the powerful but lumbering Soviet economic machine. But hopes for the new era of ‘Red Plenty’—memorably fictionalised by Francis Spufford—were undermined by a Soviet planning bureaucracy unwilling to relinquish its influence and a military that wanted to keep its resources to itself. Those cybernetic dreams briefly flickered again a few years later in Salvador Allende’s Chile, for which British mathematician Stafford Beer designed a detailed blueprint for a planned economic system, but were soon snuffed out by General Pinochet’s coup.

Today, when the technological conditions for some form of planned system finally seem to be in place, the political conditions are no less hostile. Our computers are exponentially more powerful. AI is facilitating the automation of ever more intricate production processes and logistical systems. The vast banks of data accumulated through our obsessive and increasingly involuntary interactions with technology generates an abundance of information, one which the cyberneticians of the postwar years could never have envisaged.

But access to that wealth of technology and data is controlled by private interests. Today, supercomputers do indeed perform intricate economic calculations in Constructivist-style skyscrapers, but in the service of an uber-capitalist financial sector rather than some socialist commonwealth. Labyrinthine logistical networks work for Amazon, Walmart and other corporations, not communal luxury. And data generated through our digital interactions that might have been employed for the public good instead works for the benefit of a small group of platform corporations.

Indeed, towards the end of the century it had once expected to shape, the left gradually lost confidence. Not just in the possibility of planning as an alternative to markets, but even in the more modest set of tools that social democracy had evolved for constraining them, as neoliberal governments cleared away the Keynesian infrastructure of fiscal policy, international currency frameworks, incomes policies and credit controls.

Today, though there is little desire to rekindle the cybernetic dreams of the past, there is renewed interest in the possibility of fresh economic models. Confidence in the ideal of infallible self-correcting markets has been shaken by the banking crisis, widening inequality, and the degradation of our public and natural environments. The essays in Economic Science Fictions that follow Fisher and Davies’s fine introductions offer some intriguing contributions to that discussion.

Images of exploitation

Several of the contributions in the first half of the book explore contemporary capitalism’s dystopian tendencies through the lens of original or classic sci-fi. A pair of powerful short stories by Nora O Murchú and the AUDINT sonic research unit suggest where the logic of digital capitalism’s inexhaustible exploration for new seams of data may take it next. O Murchú foresees an all-too-believable future in which content generated for the platforms is compelled through ever more draconian means as the power of surveillance capital intensifies. AUDINT anticipates an era when exploitation is taken to its outer limits as pain itself is commodified, as the misery of surplus populations locked into urban ghettos generates energy that is then harvested by ubiquitous sensors and used to power corporate infrastructures.

Carina Brand complements those stories with an analysis of how classic and contemporary sci-fi has imagined exploitation, both of the material world and the human body. In Moon (2009) the solitary overseer of a lunar mining operation is replaced by a clone when his value to his employer declines. Humans themselves are mined with visceral brutality in Alien (1979) and Under the Skin (2013), where an enigmatic extraterrestrial intelligence harvests the organs of young men who, in another era, would have mined the resources of the Scottish central belt in which the film is set. Sci-fi’s ingenuity in imagining forms of extraction follows Marx, who derived some of his most powerful metaphors for describing capital’s vampiric qualities from Gothic literature, the speculative fiction of his day.

Where Brand examines exploitation, Laura Horn studies the exploiters, in an essay discussing sci-fi’s obsession with the ‘evil mega-corporation’. She notes that though examples are abundant—Tyrell in Blade Runner (1982), Delos in Westworld (1973), Weland-Yutani in Alien and Lunar Industries in Moon—resistance typically takes rather conservative forms, content to tell the stories of mavericks seeking to outwit and escape a system assumed to be inescapable.

Horn shows that the work of Kim Stanley Robinson is an important exception, showcasing sci-fi’s capacity to imagine fresh economic and political structures as well as new worlds and technologies. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-96) is an ambitious political drama, telling the story of how the first settlers on the red planet rebel against the corporations that put them there and then go on to develop cooperative systems for mining its resources, establishing worked-owned enterprises operating within economic frameworks managed by cooperative associations.

Robinson’s Mars books extended the themes of his Orange Country Trilogy (1984-90) trilogy, which charted the rebuilding of California following environmental catastrophe by a federation of self-governing communities. A more recent novel, 2312 (2013), returns to the theme of economic democracy, imagining a future economy extending through the Solar System managed according to the cooperative principles of a ‘Mondragon Accord’.

Inhabiting the future

Some of the collection’s most ambitious contributions follow Robinson in imagining how the many blueprints for alternative economic systems that haunt socialist literature might actually be realised in some future society.

Miriam A. Cherry offers a wry alternative history of economics, in which the Luddite movement of the late 18th century succeeds in shaping the development of industrialisation according to principles of ‘smart growth and democratic technology’.5 Cherry suggests the process of economic modernisation would have actually have proceeded more rapidly under democratic oversight, allowing technologies overlooked at the time—such as the analytical engines designed by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace—to have realised their potential much sooner.

Mark R. Johnson explores how the ‘open-world’ experiences offered by the latest generation of computer games might help us inhabit, not just imagine, new worlds. The ‘megastructures, superweapons and global architectures’6 that form the backdrop of many of today’s games are immersive environments that can be entered and explored at will. Popular games such as Halo (2001) and Destiny (2014) take place in environments created by advanced civilisations which have moved beyond scarcity, allowing us, Johnson suggests, to imagine societies in which ‘the very idea of an “economy” is a phase, a point in the technological trajectory of a civilisation that will, eventually, cease to be relevant.’7

Owen Hatherley returns to the Khrushchev era of Sputnik futurism to help reanimate an idea that today seems as strange as science fiction: the possibility of mass social housing provided by the state. Khrushchev’s 1954 decree, On the Elimination of Excess in Design and Construction, sought to address the USSR’s post-war housing crisis through the largest programme of industrialised housing in history, in which millions of homes were to be manufactured from prefabricated elements like any other product of the factory assembly line. The programme offers a spectacular example of the possibilities and dangers of modernist social engineering: one third of the population were re-housed in just six years but, as Hatherley puts it, an ‘international style truly took hold in a way that those who coined that term couldn’t have imagined - precisely the same style, aesthetic and often constructional approach for a transcontinental territory that stretches from the borders of Scandinavia to the edge of Afghanistan to a sea border with Japan.’8

The Moscow suburb of Belyayevo, a vast labyrinth of ‘long slabs, tall towers and squat maisonettes, unrelieved by any variation or individuality whatsoever’9 and almost sublime in its monotony, is perhaps the most unnerving example, but the Novye Cheryomushki district, one of the very first to be built, still offers a good indication of the planners’ intentions. Though its once generous public spaces have been crammed with unsympathetic new developments, it is still possible to discern the outline of an attractive district well-resourced with health centres, créches, schools, cinemas, libraries, theatres and clubs, whose desirability was celebrated in an operetta by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Automating revolution

An intriguing essay by Brian Willems anticipates the charge of ‘technological determinism’ to which left futurism—including this collection—is vulnerable: a perennial temptation to excessive optimism that new technology will simply create the conditions for transcending capitalism without the necessity for political struggle.

Willems’ frames the discussion with reference to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), a novel by Robert Heinlein published when interest in cybernetics was at its peak, which imagines an AI responsible for governing an lunar prison colony going rogue under the pressure of its own relentless internal logic. Concluding that the penal system constitutes an inefficient use of the Moon’s resources, the computer takes upon itself the task of designing and organising a revolution that ushers in a new political and economic system. Here, a superintelligence undertakes the hard work of political and economic transformation on our behalf, prompting Willems to ask that ‘if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, then we need something else to do our imagining for us, to dislodge us from the limitation of ourselves.’10

The idea that today’s technologies are creating the conditions for transition to some form of automated post-capitalism has enjoyed a recent resurgence, associated with a cluster of writers including Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and Aaron Bastani. It’s a broad school of thought, held together by the observation that capitalism is finding it ever harder to contain a set of new technologies that point towards alternative forms of economic organisation.

Srnicek and Williams’ underground classic Inventing the Future (2015), building on their 2013 essay ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, argues that the automation facilitated by AI and machine learning is lessening demand for meaningful human labour, reducing the consumer base on which profit depends. Mason’s bestselling PostCapitalism (2015) contends that the abundance of free information released by the internet, together with additive manufacturing technologies, is driving the marginal cost of broad swathes of goods and services towards zero, making it possible to discern the outline of a networked system of free exchange in which the price system will be redundant.

As this strand of ‘left accelerationism’ has surfaced in mainstream commentary, helped by allusions in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Party conference speech as well as robust promotion through Bastani’s Novara Media platform, several lines of critique have been emerged. One of the most subtle, developed by Frederick Harry Pitts, is less concerned with charging the accelerationists with crude technological determinism than with a tendency to overestimate the salvific possibilities of technology.

Even if technology can be wrested free of capitalist control, Pitts argues, the challenge of making it serve human ends will never go away. For Pitts, left accelerationism indulges in a selective reading of Marx, placing too much focus on the Fragment on Machines, a brilliant thought experiment that Marx nevertheless chose to confine to his notebooks. The fragment speculates about a future in which the accumulated knowledge invested in technology—or, as Marx put it, the ‘general intellect’ embodied in machines—will blow the foundations of capitalist system ’sky high’ as human labour becomes increasingly obsolete, and profit margins fall to zero as the cost of production falls.

For Pitts, the Fragment, for all its startling originality, is transcended by the subtle argument of the book for which the notebooks were mere preparation—Capital. Here Marx develops his celebrated analysis of the power of our creations to enslave us, whether they be markets, laws, political frameworks, commodities or technologies. As Pitts argues, ‘the entire material and intellectual world we create resembles a double-edged sword whereby our labour realises our desires and designs but disappears into products and structures on which we then become dependent.’ The liberatory potential of new technology does not lie simply in its capacity to set us free from wage labour but in allowing us to engage in ever more fulfilling forms of work, an aspect of Marx’s thought with which today’s post-work theorists fail to adequately engage. The author of Capital is at the same time their greatest inspiration and their most subtle critic.

Rethinking capitalism’s ‘collectively endorsed fictions’

Science fiction’s value as a mode for the critique of economic orthodoxies does not consist solely in the fascinating but speculative venture of projecting new worlds. Davies’ essay indicates how it can also be used to highlight the ‘collectively endorsed fictions’11 on which those orthodoxies themselves depend. Transformation needn’t require the abandonment of the building blocks of the market economy—money, accounting, ownership, intellectual property, etc.—but rather their reinterpretation.

Take ‘money’, for example. The popular assumption is that it is scarce, representing a rare physical asset or metal such as gold or silver. A central bank creates money by issuing notes and coins which are exchanged, accumulated and saved by individuals, organisations and companies, then deposited in bank accounts in the form of savings, and in turn lent to borrowers.

This relationship is, however, one of both appearance and real mechanisms; commercial banks are not mere intermediaries shuffling a fixed quantity of money between creditors and debtors: they literally create money ‘out of thin air’ in the form of credit by entering numbers into a computer and digitally transferring that figure into a borrower’s bank account. They lend not on the basis of how much money they have deposited in savings accounts, but on the basis of a promise made by borrowers to repay at a certain time and a certain rate of interest.

There is, therefore, a certain mysticism to the stable monetary system which, backed by taxpayers and properly regulated, is an engine for making funds available for whatever economic activity a nation wishes to prioritise. Money is both a social resource allowing investment in the projects—housing, social care, transport, clean energy, vocational training—that societies deem most essential, and a finite wage which homes, workers, and even capitalists must often scrabble for. As Ann Pettifor argues in The Production of Money (2016), quoting Keynes: ‘What we create, we can afford.’ It sounds like a revelatory declaration, but this is precisely what modern monetary systems were designed to enable.

This dual character is apparent across many mechanisms through which abstractions of capitalism are experienced. For example, ‘accounting’ can offer measures of value beyond the maximisation of profit, such as the effectiveness of an enterprise’s contribution to social regeneration or impact on the environment. ‘Intellectual property’, as the Creative Commons license and open source software projects illustrate, doesn’t have to mean the sequestration of innovation for private gain. To borrow Erik Olin Wright’s formulation, ‘real utopias’ already exist within capitalism, signposting alternative modes of organisation beyond it.

Science fiction and revolutionary ambition

The primary value of Economic Science Fictions consists in its appeal for a mode of radicalism that combines imagination and rigour. Any realisable new economics, like the best sci-fi, must both extend the imagination and be constructed according to a robust internal logic. As Davies asks: ‘Where is the Bauhaus for economic reform? Where is the futurist manifesto for a different form of money or property?’12 This collection captures something of the energy of those early 20th century manifestos, offering windows onto new horizons that excite because they seem within our reach.

  1. Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star, Indiana University Press, p. 13. 

  2. William Davies (Ed.), Economic Science Fictions, Goldsmiths Press, p. Xiv. 

  3. ibid., p. 5. 

  4. ibid., p. 14 

  5. ibid., p. 334 

  6. ibid., p. 237 

  7. ibid., p. 251 

  8. ibid., p. 228 

  9. ibid., p. 223 

  10. ibid., p. 84 

  11. ibid., p. 23 

  12. ibid., p. 26