The global financial crisis and its aftermath, including ongoing economic turbulence and recession, sovereign debt crises and continuing state debt emergencies, unemployment and underemployment, and punishing (and increasingly embedded and institutionalized) austerity measures, have rendered the lives of increasing numbers of people precarious and vulnerable. This is witnessed not only in rising unemployment and underemployment rates (International Labour Organization 2015) but also in welfare and public service cuts, unmanageable household and personal debt, wage freezes and cuts, plummeting pensions, tax increases, and ongoing labor market reforms that are eroding the rights of the employed and the potentially employed and further entrenching the contingent and precarious contract of contemporary capitalism. Little wonder that one of the refrains heard across debt- and austerity-hit territories in the post–financial crisis era has been—and continues to be—“no future.” In Spain, for example, a protest movement emerging after the financial crisis organized under the banner of Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future). The self-defined precarious movement is disillusioned by a range of issues: skyrocketing youth unemployment rates (which have stood for some time at over 50 percent [Eurostat 2015]); ongoing government spending cuts; the privatization of education; labor market and labor law reforms; the prospect of a whole lifetime of unemployment and/or precarious employment; insecure housing; and last, no guaranteed retirement income. Prevailing socioeconomic conditions, the movement maintains, are dispossessing Spain’s youth of a future. Juventud Sin Futuro, therefore, rallies against the disappearance of the future as a horizon of possibility and hope. Its participants also demand mobilization and action against the ongoing process of dispossession. Juventud Sin Futuro may have no home, no job, and no retirement, but according to one of their slogans, they have no fear and refuse to become a lost generation (Juventud Sin Futuro 2011).1
It is not only Juventud Sin Futuro that decries diminished prospects or the absence of a future. In early 2012, at protests in Greece against the ongoing debt crisis and parliamentary approval of tough austerity measures, one protestor commented: “I wish I could hope for a better future . . . but Greece is just living day to day” (in Kakissis 2012). Another protestor proclaimed, “It’s like the end of the world” (ibid.). And while protestors condemned emptied futures, a young Greek woman—interviewed by a journalist reporting for The Guardian newspaper—observed: “The previous generation didn’t think so much about the future. They grew up dreaming of having work, money, a home and family and educating their children and here we are educated . . . but with no work or money. . . . [T]here is no way you can have dreams or make plans” (in Smith et al. 2012). Fears regarding an absent or hollowed-out future were also expressed at 2012 protests against labor reforms and ongoing spending cuts in Spain. One protestor said he was protesting because he was “worried about his grandchildren’s future” (in Goodman 2012). Another said she was protesting against the employment practices of commercial businesses: “[T]hey offer you internships for one year and then fire you without severance pay. There is no future for young people here” (ibid.). According to another protestor, who at the time was employed as a university researcher: “[C]ontracts are getting worse every year. They [the government] say they want to invest in the future while cutting research budgets. They’re not looking to the future but to the next election with cuts dictated from Brussels” (in Day and Cobos 2012). And while hundreds of thousands of people protested against the hollowed-out, precarious, and compromised futures brought about by labor market reform, in an ironic twist the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy remarked that “[w]hen we designed this reform we were thinking of the people who are out of work, who see no future” (ibid.).
Cancelling the Future
While desires and demands for better futures might be seen as leitmotifs of the post–global financial crisis era, they should nonetheless be treated with caution. This is so not least because, as Lee Edelman (2004) has argued, desires for better futures are very often structured by what he terms a reproductive futurism and yearnings for a heteronormative social order.2 Such futures, Edelman notes, are invariably imagined and conceived through heteronormative figures, including the figure of the innocent child. While such a reproductive futurism is clearly at issue in the cries of “no future” in post–financial crisis Europe, evidenced in the mobilization of the figure of the child to make such declarations, what is also of interest, and perhaps not incidentally, is the idea that the global financial crisis and the events that have unfolded from it have interrupted the proper flow of time, especially a time in which pasts, presents, and futures flow chronologically and in sequence, or to put it another way, that the global financial crisis and the events that have unfolded from it have dispossessed (and continue to strip) people of a future, especially a future that flows from the present and operates as a horizon of hope and possibility. Declarations of no future heard across austerity-hit and debt-torn Europe should thus be understood not only as protests against forbidding socioeconomic prospects but as declarations regarding the improper flow of time. This is, of course, not to suggest that the lives of growing numbers of people are not increasingly precarious, or to suggest that socioeconomic inequalities, especially those based on wealth, are not intensifying (Piketty 2014).3 Rather, it is to draw attention to how concerns about the lived present in the post–financial crisis era are often expressed as concerns about (and as demands for a different) time, especially concerns about the improper flow of time or, perhaps more precisely, about interruptions to the proper flow of time, in particular the flow of the future and its relationship to the present.
In this context, it is important to register that the historicity of such concerns cannot necessarily be reduced to the post–financial crisis era alone. Indeed, reducing concerns about the emptying out of the temporal form of the future to the post–financial crisis era would be to sidestep analyses suggesting that at issue may in fact be a long-term process that cannot be tied to a particular set of socioeconomic events or to any particular mode of experience relating to socioeconomic position or positioning. Franco Berardi, for example, suggests that, in the contemporary present, the future is over. He posits that the twentieth century was the “century that trusted in the future” (Berardi 2011, 17). Fuelled by the experience of capitalist economic growth, especially by the experience of apparently limitless growth, as well as by the machinery of industrialization promising the endless transgression of limits, Berardi suggests that the idea of the future, and especially a progressive future, was central to the energy and principles of the twentieth century. The future, he maintains, reached its peak in the second part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, when it became not simply a belief but “true faith” (ibid., 18). Indeed, he notes how political action was reframed in the light of this faith in the future. Thus, all of the different families of modern political theory—from liberalism to anarchism—share one certainty: “notwithstanding the darkness of the present, the future will be bright” (ibid.).
Yet while the future fuelled economic, social, and political action in the twentieth century, the future—Berardi maintains—is now over. The slow cancellation of the future got underway, he claims, in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the perception of the future began to shift and a postfuturist mood began to emerge. Thus, in 1977 British punks adopted what at the time seemed to be a nonsensical cry of “no future.” This perception of the future, Berardi says, is now a generalized condition. We do not, he asserts, believe in the future in the same way. Of course we know that a time after the present is going to come, but “we don’t expect that it will fulfill the promises of the present” (Berardi 2011, 25). Our postfuturist mood, he continues, is based on the awareness that the future is not going to be bright. Yet, crucially, this postfuturist sensibility is not one that has simply emerged in light of or in response to problematic external events or moments of crisis. Thus, a postfuturist sensibility cannot be explained with reference to events such as economic crisis, climate change, or natural disasters that have blighted, interfered with, or interrupted the flow of the future and its relationship with the present. On the contrary, rather than concerning crises that have temporarily and violently cut agents loose from the future, the emergence of a postfuturist sensibility concerns a shift in time itself.
Berardi understands this shift to concern a colonization of the domain of time, or what he terms the colonization of the mind and perception, a colonization that has ensured that the future has collapsed. The collapse of the future, he argues, is “rooted in the acceleration of psychic and cognitive rhythm” (Berardi 2011, 23), an acceleration entangled with changes to capitalism and especially with how “the whole psychosphere of the human being becomes subject to the movement of capital, now operating at digital speeds” (Genosko and Thoburn 2011, 5). For Berardi, therefore, the collapse of the future is tied to the ways in which the capacities of capital to assemble and orchestrate labor have not only extended spatially but also intensified along a temporal dimension. Hence, while more and more workers are precariously employed on temporary, short-term, sporadic, and intermittent bases, work and production increasingly involve the elaboration of constantly moving fractal entities assembled only at the exact moment they are required. Today’s firms are interested mainly in these moments, but the entire working day of laborers is “subjected to this kind of production, pulsating and available, like a brain-sprawl in waiting . . . [b]lackberries and mobile phones ever ready” (ibid.). Workers are therefore in a state of constant expectation, or in stand-by mode, not knowing exactly when or if they may be required but nonetheless existing in a continuous state of restless availability.
It is these long-term shifts in capital accumulation, especially an intensification of the capacities of capital to assemble and mobilize labor in time, that, for Berardi, account for the closing down of the temporal form of the future—indeed, that have opened out an eternal present in which the future cannot be known or sensed and is beyond the grasp of human intervention. The future has, in short, closed down because capital requires workers to exist in a never-ending present. Understood from this point of view—that is, in terms of a long-term process of the closing down of the future—the cries of “no future” heard across austerity-hit and debt-loaded Europe should not necessarily be understood as evidence of forms of critique or as demands for different forms of time but as expressions of the eternal present of postfuturism, a present in which the future—or more precisely, the time after the present—can no longer deliver on hopes, promises, or dreams. Indeed, understood from this point of view, a postfuturist mood should not be attributed to or associated with the dispossessed—for instance, the unemployed, the precariously employed, mortgage defaulters, or the homeless—but understood as a generalized condition. As will become clear in what follows, such an understanding raises particular questions and challenges for prevailing understandings of the future and especially for claims that the global financial crisis concerned an excessive orientation to (and trading in) the yet-to-come. While this understanding raises such questions, however, I will also suggest in this chapter that Berardi is mistaken in his diagnosis of the shutting down of the temporal form of the future, not least because the context of financial expansion has witnessed a shifting relationship between time and events.
Trading the Future
While Berardi insists that the temporal form of the future as a plane of hope and possibility is over, and one implication of his analysis is that the post–financial crisis era should not be located as synchronous or coterminous with the emergence of a postfuturist mood, a frequently rehearsed (and popular) account of the financial crisis and its aftermath suggests that the financial crisis did, in fact, concern specific mutations to time. This is an account, however, that does not foreground a closing down of the future but instead an excessive orientation toward the forthcoming, to future-oriented action and future events—an orientation that is deleterious to and destabilizing of the lived present. At issue here is how financial practices, especially the practices and instruments implicated in the global financial crisis, have been (and continue to be) understood to constitute a trading of the future: specifically, as involving a betting on future events—a betting (and bets on those bets) on events that have not yet taken place and might never do so, a trade that is assumed to take place at the expense of the present. Since the financial crisis, finance traders, dealers, and finance capital more generally therefore stood accused, and continue to stand accused,4 of creating an unstable and compromised present due to irresponsible and excessive speculation on the future. At stake in particular here is alleged excessive and reckless speculation on not yet realized (albeit anticipated and calibrated) gains on the net worth of future income or payment streams. In volume 3 of Capital Marx refers to such forms of predicted (but not yet realized) gains, along with the bets placed on them, as fictitious capital. Bubbles of fictitious capital, so the story goes, inevitably reach a limit point and burst when claims on not yet existing value (or claims on the future) begin to excessively outstrip already existing or “real” surplus value.
Accounts of such excessive trading on the future abound. Thus, shortly after the financial crisis, Vicanne Adams, Michelle Murphy, and Adele E. Clarke declared that the economic recession (or Great Recession) that unfolded from the crisis was “sparked by finance capital’s delirious trade in futures and risks” (Adams et al. 2009, 254). Robin Blackburn described such trade, and especially the anticipation of gains before they have been realized, as being due to aspirations on the part of finance engineers to “move the world without securing the land on which they stand” (Blackburn 2008, 84). Indeed, along with a range of commentators, Blackburn paralleled the global financial crisis to the 1929 Wall Street crash.5 He suggested that, just as the latter was fuelled by the bursting of a speculative bubble centered on property bonds, in 2007–8 “speculative financial instruments based on property mortgages . . . also collapsed” (ibid., 93). This account of the global financial crisis as the outcome of excessive (and accelerated) speculative activity—of an excessive and unchecked trade on the future—is one that has continued to have traction in the post–financial crisis era. François Chesnais, for example, recently described the global financial crisis as concerning a “feverish attempt to make money without the intervention of the process of production” (Chesnais 2014, 79). He concedes that since the financial crisis, the “growth of the notional value of fictitious capital . . . has been spectacular” (ibid., 78), but nonetheless—and given that Chesnais positions this value as fictitious and not real—he suggests that within the mass of this fictitious capital lies “the threat of new episodes of major worldwide financial crisis” (ibid., 73). Indeed, for Chesnais (and despite apparent evidence to the contrary) the trade in and value of fictitious capital will inevitably falter when claims on the future excessively outstrip real surplus value. While Chesnais points to the threat of new financial crises immanent to trading on the future and always already existing structural limits on speculation set by the real economy (see also Thompson 2016), in a systems theory register Elena Esposito likewise notes how finance capital and finance markets trade the future (Esposito 2011, 1). But whereas writers such as Chesnais and Blackburn locate unfettered speculative practice as central to this trade and build-ups of bubbles of fictitious capital as posing immanent threats to the present, if not full-blown crises, Esposito elaborates on the significance of complex financial instruments and especially derivatives (including options, swaps, and forwards) in this process, especially in post–Bretton Woods agreement global finance markets.
I will come back to the idea that financial value and finance capital are fictitious and somehow less real than other forms of value and capital in later chapters, and I will return to the significance and capacities of financial instruments in post–Bretton Woods agreement finance markets later in this chapter. For now, however, I want to reflect a little more on the idea that financial trading—that is, speculative practices (and especially those practices widely posited to have culminated in the global financial crisis)—involves an excessive trade in and orientation to the future. I want to consider, in particular, the manner in which this understanding of financial practices and of the 2007–8 global financial crisis shares much in common with—and might be productively located in terms of—a broader strand of thinking within the contemporary social sciences and humanities. This is a strand of thought that posits that the present is characterized by an intensification in anticipatory ways of life or in states of anticipation. Adams, Murphy, and Clarke (2009) make this connection explicit in their proposition that the trade in futures and risks by finance capital makes plain that our current moment is defined by a state of anticipation, a thinking and living toward events that have not yet taken place and might never do so. As this suggests, at issue here is not merely practices in finance markets on the part of traders and dealers and/or the operations of financial instruments, but a generalized state of anticipation.
Indeed, across a range of disciplines a number of socioeconomic phenomena have been identified as evidencing such a generalized state of anticipation. In addition to speculative financial practices, these include consumers mortgaging their futures in the form of indebtedness to secure commodities in the here and now (Law 2009); farmers obtaining credit on the basis of what might happen to their crops (Adams et al. 2009); company and organization valuations not made on the grounds of present assets but on those of events yet to come (Marazzi 2007); calculations of the value of workers and workforces not made on the basis of existing skills, experiences, and capabilities but on their potential ability or ability to deal with events that have yet to take place (Adkins 2008; Beckert 2016; Sennett 2006); the emergence of consumer preferences that are anticipated before they have been chosen, via the predictive algorithms of big data (Amoore and Piotukh 2015); the advent of anticipatory policy and legal instruments that endeavor to both predict and preempt events that have not yet taken place (Amoore 2013; de Goede 2012; Kerr and Earle 2013); and the creation of liquidity (and profits) via financial tools and devices in relation to events yet to come (Esposito 2011).
Significantly for my concerns here, such anticipatory practices are very often identified and understood in negative terms. Adams, Murphy, and Clarke (2009), for example, display such a stance in a set of reflections on strategies of refusal in regard to anticipation, while Richard Sennett argues that the shift in skill from embodied and accumulated capacities to potential ability that he describes not only raises the specter of uselessness but also deprives people of a sense of narrative movement, of the accumulation of experience and connections between events in time. It also “eschews sensate impressions, divides analyzing from believing, ignores the glue of emotional attachment, penalizes digging deep” (Sennett 2006, 121–22). As such sentiments suggest, accounts of increasingly anticipatory forms of life often carry with them a set of normative assumptions regarding time (as well as social ordering). These include the assumption that the future should be at some distance from the present (or that a boundary should exist between the present and the future); the conjecture that the future can (and should) be protected via prudent action in the here and now; the assumption that the future should not be traded as a resource in the present (i.e., that the future should not be commodified and/or colonized); and the supposition that the future should not determine or govern the present. In her discussion of the global financial crisis, Elena Esposito makes such normative thinking explicit when she asks: “Why was it wrong to sell one’s own future and those of others in the present?” (Esposito 2011, 157). Her response to this question is that in making use of the future in the present—a process she refers to as de-futurization—finance markets limited (and continue to limit) the future as an opening and a space of possibilities.6 As a consequence, she claims, the present “has less available future” (ibid., 181). Indeed, she calls for what she terms a “conscious (and empirically appropriate) use of time” in finance markets (ibid., 186), one that rather than closing down the future via present use allows for relatively open possibilities via the embrace of (regulatory) techniques that do not allow for excessive de-futurization. We might then add to the list of normative assumptions made by writers concerned with anticipatory practices and modes of life the supposition that the future should stand in an appropriate ratio and volume to the present, that is, that the present have an appropriate quantity of future available to itself.
As I will make clear in Chapter 3, it is not only Esposito who positions the operations of finance markets and the process of financialization more generally as closing down the possibilities of time and especially of the future. For now, however, I want to highlight two further assumptions at play in accounts of increasingly anticipatory modes of life. The first of these is that the present, or more precisely, a certain version of the present—one in which, on Sennett’s account, experience can be accumulated and connections can be made between events in time—is being destroyed by a specific relationship to the future, namely, by the injunction to anticipate. For Sennett, then, a constant looking to the future creates a present that not only is deprived of any narrative potential but also cannot and does not promise or provide any form of security. The second assumption is the idea that the injunction to think and live in the direction of the future is relatively new, or at the very least, has intensified in our current moment.
In highlighting this string of assumptions about time, and in particular, assumptions about how time should flow and how the future should stand in relation to the present, I seek to do more than draw attention to their operation in accounts of anticipatory modes of life: in addition, I want to make clear just how problematic such assumptions are when put side by side with many sociological accounts of time. They pull against, for instance, the account of time provided by Berardi, especially his account not of a present being destabilized by an excessive orientation to the future but of the opening out of a never-ending present. They also pull against Helga Nowotny’s influential account not of a present under threat, undercut, or destroyed by the future but rather of a loss of temporal horizons. In particular, they challenge Nowotny’s thesis of the disappearance of the category of the future and the emergence of what she terms an extended present. Central to the disappearance of the future, Nowotny maintains, is the emergence of a present geared to accelerated innovation, a present that “devour[s] the future” (Nowotny 1994, 11). Thus, she notes that a range of technologies and sociotechnical devices have increased the permeability of the boundary between present and future by facilitating temporal uncoupling and decentralization. Such technologies and devices also produce different models of time, and in particular, generate presents that are detached from linearity. Indeed, as Nowotny remarks, with the end of an age in which the belief in linearity and progress were maintained by the time structure of industrial production, “the category of the future is losing much of its attractiveness” (ibid.).
The parallels between Nowotny’s and Berardi’s accounts of time are obvious. But for my purposes, what is important to draw out here is not only how these accounts raise questions about the assumption that the present is being undercut by the future, but also that as substantive sociological accounts of time, especially of the changing boundaries between the past, present, and future and thus of shifts in and to the categories and experience of time, they challenge some of the fundamental presuppositions regarding time found in accounts concerned with the rise of anticipatory modes of life. Specifically, rather than assuming where the boundaries between past, present, and future should be or how time should be experienced, Nowotny’s and Berardi’s accounts alert us to how these boundaries and experiences might change—in short, how these are preeminently sociological, rather than normative, issues. In fact, Nowotny’s and Berardi’s accounts make clear that to make such normative assumptions regarding time is to close down the sociological imagination—indeed, to assume that time itself should (and does) remain the same. I have already mentioned that I will go on to challenge the view that the temporal form of the future has been shut down; notwithstanding this point of contention, however, Berardi’s and Nowotny’s accounts are significant in that they act as powerful reminders that the movements of time can in no way be taken for granted and that there is no necessarily correct or proper direction or path along which time should flow, including the relations between the present and the future.
1. For details of the ongoing campaigns and actions of this precarious movement, see www.juventudsinfuturo.net.
2. But see Brenkman 2002 and Power 2009 for critiques of Edelman’s analysis of reproductive futurism, especially for a conflation of social reproduction and sexual reproduction.
3. Piketty records widening socioeconomic inequality based on distributions of private wealth and the declining significance of the wage and other forms of occupationally based remuneration in the dynamics and formation of inequalities. He therefore charts the increasing significance of inherited wealth as well as stocks of capital (including income-yielding assets) in the formation of patterns of inequality. Piketty understands this pattern, taking hold from the 1970s onward across OECD countries, to be symptomatic of the emergence of what he terms a wealth or patrimonial society, in which the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of economic growth (income and output). He writes: “[T]he general evolution is clear: bubbles aside, what we are witnessing is a strong comeback of private capital in the rich countries since 1970, or, to put it another way, the emergence of a new patrimonial capitalism” (Piketty 2014, 125). It is important to observe that this “strong comeback” of private capital is coterminous with the developments I track across the chapters of this book.
4. Even accounts extolling the virtues of finance-led capitalism and financial expansion warn against an excessive trade on the future. Writing in the Financial Times, Peter Fisher, a former undersecretary of the US Treasury, has, for example, argued that the virtue of finance-led capitalism is that “we can convert our future income into current investment and consumption while creating savings vehicles for others” (Fisher 2015). He warns, however, that borrowing too much from the future has its risks: “[W]e might incur debt greater than our ability to repay and undermine the value of financial assets.” He continues: “[T]he inter-temporal trade-off of borrowing from the future might make us better off both now and in the future but there is no guarantee.”
5. See also Esposito 2011.
6. De-futurization, or the use of the future in the present, Esposito maintains, has taken place in a context where finance markets have progressively given up on external reference points (such as external forms of regulation) and are increasingly self-referential. Indeed, she argues for a program of re-regulation to interrupt and disrupt such self-referentiality and to anchor the dynamics of finance markets outside of themselves. Such an approach, however, sidesteps how the operations of contemporary financial markets are themselves institutionally anchored. As Martijn Konings (2010) has suggested, arguments for the re-regulation of finance markets as an antidote to financial excesses and instability rest on fundamental misunderstandings of financial expansion, in particular an erroneous assumption that the dynamics of contemporary finance markets are a simple outcome of state deregulation, that is, a subordination of state authority to the forces of finance markets. Such an assumption, Konings makes clear, downplays how the growth of financial markets has involved a “process whereby new organizational linkages were forged and particular relations of institutional control were constructed and consolidated” (ibid., 5). Fundamentally, Konings argues, financial expansion must be understood as a process of institutionalization (ibid.; see also Konings 2014).