Anyone who has bought a house, started a business, purchased a stock, or spent a few dollars on a lottery ticket has fantasized about how their future might change based on those decisions. Each of those economic acts was also a flight of imagination, combining expectations with calculations of gain. Of course, it's not just individuals who do this, but institutions, such as the banks that make loans to the home buyers or entrepreneurs, or the firms that provide earnings projections for their stocks. While some part of those projections are based on seemingly rational calculations, the uncertainty of the future is unavoidable, and that is where fiction and fantasy come in. The act of imagining the future in finance goes by other names—"vision" and "invention" are among the more respectable euphemisms—in order to disguise the presence of the non-rational in financial activity. But rarely do scholars explore the role of imagination in economic life systematically. In a realm dominated by economic and financial scholarship that aspires to be "scientific," fantasy and creativity in envisioning the future are often ignored; they don't fit well into a model of research whose aim is to reduce unknowns and to eliminate surprises as much as possible.
German sociologist Jens Beckert tackles this problem head-on, making imagination the focus of an extended meditation on the role of the unpredictable future in creating modern capitalism. His new book, 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.