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February 28, 2017

Professor Discusses Fiction in Capitalism, Imagined Future in Market Economy

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What do literature and economics have in common? More than you might think, according to Jens Beckert, director of Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany.

Becker argued that the fictional expectations that propagate in the market economy are comparable to aspects of literary fiction in a lecture on Monday.

“[Literary] fiction creates a reality of their own — the ‘doubling of reality,’” he said. “This capacity of humans to imagine a world different from the factual world is one of the fundamental anthropological quality. It is also fundamental to the economy.”

Beckert added that fictional expectations about the future are the crucial backbone to an innovative capitalist society.

“Nobody can know what the future will bring,” Beckert said. “In situations where we cannot rely on facts of the future, fictional expectations are crucial placeholders that provide confidence and conviction despite the uncertainty of the future. They help us to act, coordinate and create in the economy.”

Beckert concluded that the capitalist system is unstoppable as long as there is a steady supply of stories about the future, even if those stories may appear to be anti-capitalist.

“Capitalism is able to integrate all these counter-narratives — these ‘fictional expectations,’” he said. “For capitalism to function, the content of these stories are completely irrelevant. … If you think the normative perspective that capitalism as a system to be stopped, than the outcome for this is very pessimistic.”

Yet despite this similarity, literary and economic fiction are different since the latter only pretends to be representative of the factual world, according to Beckert.

“In literature, there is not even the intention to represent the fact,” he said. “[On the other hand,] in economics, it is not possible to represent facts of the future, because they do not exist yet. And yet, these ‘fictional expectations’ [function] as as-if statements that pretend to be certain knowledge of the future.”

Beckert’s view on the bridge between capitalism and literature were not universally agreed upon, however; Michaela Brangan grad contended with Beckert’s methodology comparing literary and economic fiction.

“I think there is a difference between literary fiction as an aesthetic object used as a lens to see reality and fiction that is used specifically to deceive people or keep people hanging on,” said Brangan. “They are related, but they are different.”