This article is a preview from the Summer 2018 edition of New Humanist

This is an extract from "Economic Science Fictions", a new anthology exploring how science fiction can motivate new approaches to economics, edited by Will Davies and published by Goldsmiths Press.

Economists are notoriously unimaginative people, while the writers and the readers of science fiction (SF) tend to reside at the other end of the creativity spectrum, so this may seem to be a very odd pairing. I believe that a greater interaction between the two fields can improve both fields, however, thereby ultimately enhancing our understanding of the world.

To begin, let me point out that much of economics – especially, but not exclusively, neoclassical economics, which is the dominant school of economics today – is SF in two senses. First of all, many economists believe in the fiction that they are practising “science”. In talking of “iron laws”, classical economists such as David Ricardo implicitly argued that economics can be like physics, chemistry and other natural sciences. Karl Marx styled his approach as “scientific socialism”, denouncing other socialists, such as Robert Owen, as “utopian”. Today most neoclassical economists operate with the notion that economics is a science. They are at pains to separate what they call the “positive” aspect of economics, which allegedly does not involve any value judgement, from the “normative” one, which does. Most of them say that, insofar as they practise positive economics, economists are scientists.

Of course, these economists know that economics isn’t quite like physics; it is said that many neoclassical economists have “physics envy”. They are very cocky about the “scientific” progress that they have achieved, however. For a very embarrassing example, Robert Lucas, a leading free- market economist, declared back in 2003 in his presidential address for the American Economic Association that “the problem of depression prevention has been solved”, only for the world to experience a few years later the biggest depression since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The second sense in which economics is SF is that many economists believe, at least implicitly, that progress in science (and thus technology) is going to – or at least can – solve virtually all economic problems. Free-market economists say: “Give people the right incentives by, say, giving them stronger property rights, and they will come up with the necessary technologies to solve any economic problem we face, such as climate change or water shortage.” Marx and some of his followers imagined a world in which science and technologies are so advanced that capitalism is abolished and people can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” Unfortunately, these views are highly misleading.

The view that economics is a science that does not involve ethical and political judgements is downright wrong. It is not simply that government regulations are often based on ethical and political considerations. It is also that the very definitions of economic actors and markets have ethical and political foundations.

For example, before the rise of capitalism, people didn’t exist as “free-contracting individuals” but members of communities. For another example, today we may think that the corporation as a separate legal entity from its shareholders is a natural thing, but many people, including Adam Smith himself, objected to the very idea well into the 19th century.

For the ultimate example, the markets themselves are not as “natural” as neoclassical economists believe them to be. Markets are fundamentally political (and ethical) constructs, as their boundaries and their legitimate participants are politically and ethically determined. A most telling example is that, when the first reforms were proposed to regulate child labour in the early 19th century, many people objected to them on the ground that they undermined the very foundation of a free-market economy – namely, the freedom of contract.

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The fact that markets are political and ethical constructs confirms my assertion about the second sense in which economics is SF, namely its belief that scientific progress will ultimately solve all economic problems. If markets have political and ethical foundations, economic problems will not disappear even with sufficient progress in science and engineering, as political and ethical disagreements will never disappear – unless you live in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, in which all dissent is stamped out. Indeed, as I will discuss later, many SF writers imagine worlds in which scientific progress has created a very high level of material prosperity but made people miserable, or has even destroyed their very humanities in one way or another.

To say that much of economics is science fiction in the negative sense of the word doesn’t mean that the relationship between economics and science fiction has to be negative. As I mentioned at the beginning, both science fiction and economics can benefit from greater interaction with each other.

First of all, SF writers could do with a more solid understanding of economics. For example, brilliant though it may be in many ways, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee failed to totally convince me, because its alternative future starts from the utterly implausible premise that the South won the American Civil War.

Contrary to what most people think, the American Civil War was more about the country’s economic development strategy than slavery as an ethical issue. The early economic development strategy of the United States was dictated by the then economically more powerful Southern states. It was a strategy based on exporting agricultural products – especially cotton and tobacco produced by slave-using Southern plantations – and importing manufactured goods from Britain and other European countries. In this environment, it was very difficult for the American manufacturing industries to develop, because European manufactured goods were not only better but also cheaper, even including the cost of transportation, which was very high at the time. The Anglo-American war of 1812, however, persuaded many Americans that their country could not even guarantee its own safety without a strong economy. A strong economy, they realised, could only be based on a strong manufacturing sector, which was what was then allowing Britain to power ahead of other countries.

The Northern states used this shift in national sentiment as an opportunity to introduce a new development strategy, based on the idea of “infant industry protection”, namely the idea that the government of an economically backward country needs to protect and nurture its young manufacturing industries against superior foreign competition. Very interestingly, the idea was invented by none other than Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary of the United States.

As a result, over the next half a century the Northern manufacturing industries grew rapidly behind the wall of high protective tariffs, reaching 30 to 40 per cent on average. And by the 1860s, when the Civil War started, the disparity in economic power between the North and the South was so large that there was no way the South could win the war. Rhett Butler, the leading male character in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, put it brilliantly when he told his Southern friends that the Yankees would win the war because they had “the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines – all the things [we the Southerners] haven’t got”. Given this economic reality, Ward Moore imagining the South winning the Civil War is seriously deficient, even as a fictional plot device.

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Having said that SF writers would benefit from having better knowledge of economics, I would hasten to add that the main beneficiaries from the interaction would be economists. From the beginning SF has been a very powerful way for us to imagine alternative realities in which very different technologies have changed our institutions and thereby individuals, forcing us to rethink the assumptions about institutions and individuals that economists take for granted in analysing the economy.

So, for example, countless dystopian science fictions depict a world in which the destruction of modern technologies by some disaster has brought down modern institutions, such as the state (democratic or not), democracy, the ban on the class system or other explicit forms of discrimination, or moral norms restraining aggressive or apathetic behaviour by individuals. The technological retrogression is most frequently the result of a nuclear war, as in John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series or Hayao Miyazaki’s animation Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. But it can be caused also by other man-made disasters, such as the depletion of oil and climate change, as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Almost invariably, in these alternative worlds, life is very harsh, because the destruction of modern institutions has made people closer to the self-seeking rationalists idealised in neoclassical economics – the most extreme depiction of this being the Mad Max movies.

Of course, more science fictions depict a world in which technologies are far more advanced than they are when the the texts are written. Indeed, for many, that’s the whole point of SF: exploring how more advanced science and technology change social institutions and human nature, or imagining an alien world, usually with much more advanced technologies than humans have, in which our usual assumptions about human institutions and moralities do not hold.

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As I pointed out earlier, however, unlike what many economists would say, most of these science fictions actually do not say that these technologically more advanced worlds are better. And we are not even talking about worlds in which technologies are so advanced that they get out of human control and destroy humanity, such as the Terminator or The Matrix movies. Many of these tell us that, even when superior technologies are apparently serving humans better in some ways, they can make people unhappier, because they have been developed on a faulty understanding of human nature or institutions.

For example, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano imagines a world in which technological progress in production has reached such a level that we don’t need human workers any more, except a very small number of engineers and managers. So, in that world, no one has to work while not wanting in any material need. According to today’s dominant economic vision, in which people strive to maximise their income (and thus consumption) and leisure time, this should have made people ecstatic. In Player Piano, however, people are desperately unhappy, because they feel bored and useless. Vonnegut is saying that work is a key aspect of our life, unintentionally criticising the neoclassical view of human goals and social life.

Or think about Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In that world, the development of human cloning and other reproductive technologies has enabled humanity to control its numbers, reducing resource demands. It is also a world in which the manipulation of subconsciousness has made people hold caste-appropriate ideas, thereby guaranteeing industrial and social peace, and also adopt extreme consumerist culture, which ensures high levels of demand – thus indeed solving “the problem of depression prevention”, to use Robert Lucas’s phrase. This world is arguably a modern neuro-economist’s paradise, as described in the book The Happiness Industry by William Davies (reviewed in the Autumn 2015 New Humanist), but, once again, this is not a world that most people would want to live in.

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Another similar – though less controlled – world is described in Andrew Niccol’s movie Gattaca, in which developments in genetics and reproductive technologies have put humanity on the cusp of weeding out genetically imperfect individuals. It is a world in which talent (or at least potential talent) is almost perfectly matched with people’s jobs, but it is a horrible world, in which genetically imperfect people are not even allowed to try for better things.

In other words, Brave New World and Gattaca are saying that being imperfect, being not totally predictable and having free will (including the will to try what science says is impossible, as in the case of Vincent Freeman, the leading character in Gattaca, played by Ethan Hawke) are key features of our humanity. They are saying that we don’t want a “perfect” world brought about by scientific progress, if it denies our humanity.

Now, an interesting extension of the idea that SF is a way to imagine another economic world is to say that history is a dystopian science fiction without even memories of advanced technologies. In the past, largely because we had different (and mostly less productive) technologies, economic institutions were different from what we have today. I have already discussed the case of child labour. Child labour was so widespread and so problematic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe and North America because of the particular technologies that were being used. Poor children had always worked, but most of them tended the family goat, ran errands, picked pockets or whatever; they did not do adults’ work.

The machine-based technologies that emerged from the 18th century meant that adult males’ muscle power was no longer necessary for a lot of jobs, so they made it possible to hire children more widely. At the same time, these technologies were not sufficiently productive that societies could afford to take every child out of work, as the richer countries do today.
Because technologies and institutions were different, individuals were different. Individuals may have free will, but what they are, what they want and even what they can imagine are deeply shaped by the technologies and the institutions that they live under. This is why many countries regarded today as being hard-working and organised – the Germans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans – were denounced as having lazy, dishonest and irrational people when they were poor.

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Of course, I am not advocating a strictly materialist view, in which technologies define institutions and institutions define individuals. The causality is much more complex. Individuals may be formed by technologies and institutions but they also change and newly create technologies and institutions. Institutions influence how technologies are used and changed; for example, Marxist commentators have argued that capitalists have often chosen certain technologies because they give them the greatest control over their workers rather than because they are the most efficient. Technologies may set ultimate boundaries to the institutions that you can have, but there is a lot of room for diversity, depending on how individuals exercise their agencies in designing institutions and depending on the shape of existing institutions. And so on.

If you understand history in this way, you can very easily see that the economic realities that we believe to be the outcomes of some so-called scientific, natural laws are really the results of technological changes, institutional changes, political decisions and the influence exercised by individual agencies. Used in this way, historical research becomes similar to writing and analysing SF, except that the alternative realities are not as much imagined. Please note here that I have just said “not as much imagined” rather than “not imagined”, as the recording and the deciphering of history involve important elements of imagination – about the perceptions and the motivation of the actors, unwritten social rules that later historians can only infer and imagine, and so on.

Finally, as the British novelist L. P. Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If you say that one of the utilities of studying history is to allow us to imagine other realities, you can say the same about studying foreign countries, or doing comparative studies. When that foreign country is a country with very different technologies (and thus very different institutions, very different individuals, etc), the comparison almost becomes a historical study from the viewpoint of the technologically more advanced country.

Conversely, when seen from the viewpoint of the technologically less advanced country, the comparative study becomes an analysis of SF. Or, if you see it from the point of view of the researcher conducting the comparative study, it is like travelling in a time machine – the ultimate SF fantasy.

To sum up, in trying to understand the economy and reform it for the better, we can be immensely helped by science fiction, the study of history and comparative studies. These all allow us to see that the existing economic and social order is not a “natural” one: that it can be changed; that it has been changed; and, most importantly, that it has been changed in the way it has only because some people have dared to imagine a different world, and fought for it.

This essay appears in “Economic Science Fictions”, edited by William Davies and published by Goldsmiths Press