POSTED: March 13, 2017 |
Blog | Meanings & Moral Framings

Reflexive realism and hope for the future – a response to Will Davies


We are rarely encouraged to think of ourselves as good ancestors, but that’s what we need to become. After all, we represent the past the future relies on to have a viable present.

CC.0 :: Krystian Maliszewski / Pexels

This temporal perspective is a key feature of Will Davies’s working paper Moral Economies of the Future – The Utopian Impulse of Sustainable Prosperity which is highly recommended.

The field of ‘moral economy’ is introduced and it connects quite closely with the recent CUSP event with Andrew Sayer on Social Science and Moral Economy. Moral economy might be thought of as ‘sane economics’, or more precisely the analytical lens that makes the implicit morality of economics explicit, so that the value and purpose of the institutions of political economy can be discussed more fruitfully and honestly.

Will’s paper reflects on various ideas of Utopia, but it is ultimately about how we came to lose an intentional stance towards the future, and how we might reclaim that. The defining contribution is a lucid insight about the role of neoliberalism in closing down not only our imagination about the future, but the validity of considering the future as a normative question for the public realm. Will’s most succinct definition of neoliberalism is ‘the state-led remaking of society around the model of the market’ which applies powerfully to the core point here.

The paper draws on Mirowski’s argument that neoliberalism rests on an epistemological premise, namely that there is no reliable knowledge on which authoritative public policy can be founded. Consider this in the context of the striking neoliberal claim that “the function of the state is not to represent or design the future”. ‘State-led market societies’ struggle with any normative notion of the future that goes beyond aggregate preference satisfaction, in which preferences are either simply given or shaped by the market through advertising. Suddenly the lack of vision for the future in our political culture makes more sense. The state forgoes responsibility for the future, and its responsibility towards society is not to create civic spaces to develop stories of the future, but rather to outsource the future through an act of faith in market norms relating to measurability, monetization and competition.

What that means in practice is that states trust markets to shape societal narratives, which is deeply problematic when markets typically operate on the assumption of ecological plenitude and within relatively short temporal horizons. The rhetorical expression ‘carbon bubble’ for instance is partly a response to the enormous effort required to bring the future more firmly into the present. Carbon Tracker offer meticulous data about the investment risks associated with fossil fuels, but for the bubble to burst or – much better – to deflate, we all have to act like literary agents, selling not just a story but the story’s saleability. For the carbon bubble to be properly acknowledged in the present we need a credible story of the future; broadly one in which political will responds to ecological awareness with an act of heroic restraint, whereby countries including USA, Russia, China and India keep otherwise valuable coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.

The paper contains many rich ideas, but I want to focus on responding to the absurdly important challenge that lay beneath the sophisticated analysis, namely: how do we think about the future? And here there is a desperation to that ‘how’; not only ‘in what manner?’ but also ‘how is it possible?’ It is as if we’ve been deskilled.


The pervasive lack of vision for our shared future may well be a casualty of the neoliberal imaginary. The harmful cultural and psychological features of neoliberal political economy that we internalise as common sense (e.g. Must compete, must succeed.) have been well documented, for instance by Paul Verhaege. However, we also have to factor in the social influence of globalisation and secularisation which means contending with neo-nationalism too, as populations fill the need for meaning with tribal identities.

Our alienation towards the future is therefore part of a broader crisis of perception and imagination in the developed world. Just over a year ago I left the RSA to create my own research institute – Perspectiva to work on this ‘meta-crisis’. Rowan Williams, who recently gave a keynote for CUSP put the challenge as follows in an article in the New Statesman last year:

“There are crises and there are meta-crises: a system may stagger from one crisis to another but never recognise the underlying mechanisms that subvert its own logic…If we are now panicking about the triumph of a politics of resentment, fear and unchallengeable untruthfulness, we had better investigate what models of human identity we have been working with. Our prevailing notions of what counts as knowledge, our glib reduction of democracy to market terms, our inability to tackle the question of the limits of growth – all these and more have brought us to the polarised, tribal politics of today and the thinning out of skill, tradition and the sense of rootedness. Treating these issues with intellectual honesty is not a sign of political regression but the exact opposite.”

In other words, achieving sustainable prosperity may depend on our capacity to back up and zoom out, and therefore calls for precisely the kinds of deep and diverse inquiries that characterise the work of CUSP. Here are a few sketches of the ideas I think need to be developed as part of re-establishing a health relationship with the future.

Firstly, sustainability narratives may have paradoxically been part of the problem, which is partly why, despite deep ecological concern I try to avoid using ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainable’ as far as possible.

While projections about the collapse of natural systems have drawn attention to the future, they have subsumed or displaced other stories about what it means for us. We also have to deal with, inter-alia, the enduring appetite for rising living standards, the incursions of big data (what Will elsewhere calls ‘surveillance capitalism’), the growing influence of artificial intelligence and automation, the loss of confidence in democratic institutions, the degrading of truth and so forth. The point is that we need an approach to the future that is intentional and transdisciplinary, not reactive and primarily environmental. The value of ‘understanding sustainable prosperity’ is that we need a capacious and multi-faceted notion to invest hope in. We don’t have the luxury of dealing with emerging challenges discretely. They will happen simultaneously, and our thinking needs to be of sufficient depth and breadth and integration to deal with them together.

Second, Will seeks ‘credible optimism’ and I think it lies untapped elsewhere in the paper, where he highlights the centrality of reflexivity: “The neoliberal replacement of collective futurism by calculable financial risk encounters a substantial philosophical problem. This is a problem of reflexivity or performativity that economistic techniques of risk analysis cannot compute: the present that occurs now is shaped by how an imaginary future was acted upon in the past. Risk assessment doesn’t just represent the future; in altering behaviour in the present, it also changes the future that ultimately elapses.”

This statement is entirely sound, but more can be said about reflexivity as a source of political hope, because it applies beyond risk. Billionaire George Soros believes reflexivity is the fundamental variable in making sense of collective human behaviour at scale, he uses it to guide his investment and philanthropic activities and has expressed bemusement that the concept is almost completely ignored. Reflexivity is self-awareness of the conditions of action in action, such that those conditions of action begin to change. The core idea is that we make something more likely to happen by acting as if it were possible that it could happen. St Francis of Assisi intuited this idea in the 13th century: “If you first do what is necessary, and then do what is possible. Soon you find you are achieving the impossible.”

Relatedly, in my work on the case for divesting in fossil fuels – Money Talks (p22-25) I introduce the idea of ‘reflexive realism’ as the key attitudinal response to climate change: “…When the direction of causation is from world to mind, reality is supposed to determine the participants’ views; but when the direction of causation is from the mind to the world, the intentions of the participants have an effect on the world…This is the sweet spot of climate realism. ‘World to mind’ is what you get when you read projections by the international energy agency about continued demand for coal or oil, or read the IPCC forecasts; it evokes optimism and pessimism, but it is a passive assessment. ‘Mind to world’, however, is where the higher quality of realism lies, because there is scope to act in ways that change the conditions of action, whether that’s the price of solar or the presumed climate indifference of your political representative…If the world acts as if the future will be based on renewables and storage, the chance of it beginning to happen is that much greater. For example, it is estimated that every time the volume of solar power doubles, the cost reduces by about twenty percent, a phenomenon known as ‘Swanson’s law’.”

Third, towards the end of the paper Will states: “Arguably, meaning and moral commitment are unthinkable without some sense of transcendent, non-mortal matters of concern…These philosophical and psychological commitments need to be understood, such that their implications for economic value can be imagined and articulated.”

This point chimes with a rhetorical question posed by Robert and Edward Skidelsky right at the end of their fabulous book about rethinking the good life and the common good: How much is enough?  “Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it.”

The issue is not that we have to make a particular metaphysical commitment. The point is rather that we may need to make an intellectual commitment to metaphysical questions remaining ‘in-scope’ as part of discussions of sustainable prosperity. In this respect note the inclusive possibilities of ‘entirely devoid’ and ‘religious impulse’ in that context, alongside ‘some sense of transcendent, non-mortal matters of concern’. At its most controversial and difficult that might means being open to the possibility of God, yes, but in principle it just means that ontological and epistemological divergence is part of the plot and part of the setting. We need to face up to the challenging fact that making a moral commitment to a substantive vision of the good life (eg love, craft, care) that isn’t merely procedural (eg free markets, rule of law) is difficult without some kind of metaphysical commitment or cosmological framework. This challenge is largely what my 2014 RSA report, Spiritualise is about – something I hope to write more about for CUSP in future.

Fourth, and finally, reflecting on Utopias reminds us that what is currently absent is not so much visions of the future that are viable and desirable but ones that are achievable. There are visions, for instance, of a revised Nordic model with shorter working weeks, UBI, better relationships, intellectual and artistic pursuits etc. What is missing however is any credible vision of the transition from here to there (or elsewhere). The challenge then is not so much to imagine viable and desirable futures, but to conceive of credible transition narratives based on enough people and power finding the requisite willpower. If the idea of Utopia invites us to imagine the future, it is up to us to make a path towards that future discernible in the present.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Founding Director of Perspectiva – a new research institute that studies the interaction of systems, souls and society through transdisciplinary inquiry. As CUSP fellow he is working within the Meanings and Moral framings strand with a focus, as he puts it, “on the ‘U’ in the context of the hidden epistemic demands of ‘understanding’ sustainable prosperity”.

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