The philosopher Fredric Jameson once wrote that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Indeed, the U.S. political spectrum seems to range from unbridled libertarian dreams and Silicon Valley techno-utopianism at one pole to Nordic-style social democracy at the other. As we fret over the future, we worry about rising sea levels and robotic job-snatchers, but the economic and political supremacy of the capitalist market doesn’t seem to be up for discussion.
The world of professional futurism—the futures industry—is no exception to this dearth of imagination. Card-carrying futurists work in-house or as consultants to corporations, governments, militaries, and nonprofits, helping them to be better prepared for eventualities likely and unlikely, to be nimbler in their decision-making and to make more informed investments and hedges. For example, in late 2016, Ford’s futurist, Sheryl Connelly, predicted that tomorrow’s consumers will come to see their cars as sanctuaries from overstimulation. This insight will guide Ford’s R&D for the onboard media hubs that have become commonplace in recent years. Futurists working with energy companies like Shell inform decisions with planetary import, like whether and how much petrochemical conglomerates should shift away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, futurist nonprofits like the Institute for the Future tackle issues of broad public relevance, like sustainable food systems and caregiving for elders and people with disabilities.
No matter how radical these predictions are, they tend to take the long-term durability of capitalism utterly for granted: Responding to decades of stagnating wages and sliding labor force participation, the Institute for the Future’s report “10 Strategies for a Workable Future” (which is in many ways quite sharp and informative) acknowledges deep problems with our current labor ecosystem and digs into important issues of benefits, collective bargaining, and education. But it doesn’t even consider the idea that the challenges it identifies are inherent to a system whose primary objective and value is capital accumulation, not equity and the common good.
The futures industry wants to be radical and cutting-edge—its denizens live in the future, right? Futurists are admirably imaginative about major public policy changes like universal health care or cap-and-trade and are often incredibly sensitive about how technologies like artificial intelligence will change our homes, workplaces, and even intimate relationships. But that imagination is constrained by the economics that undergird the industry.
Futurism runs on a patronage system: Futurists work for and on behalf of corporations large and small, or government agencies, or sometimes for nonprofit organizations. Their work is a form of change management: Fundamentally, futurism is a tool to help an institution survive and prosper in the midst of all species of upheaval. And all of the entities that employ futurists are working within the constraints of a capitalist system. Their way of doing business is premised on capitalist economic and social relations; a company like Ford or a major government agency like the Department of Commerce would be unrecognizable after a radical shift in our economic system, even if the name or the senior personnel stayed the same. In this way, futurism is about maintaining the status quo; Ford might hire a futurist to figure out how to design cars for tomorrow’s roadways and energy systems and consumer preferences, but radical economic transformation is a bridge too far. Organizations with the cash to hire futurists are doing well enough under capitalism that it’s in their interest to keep it afloat.
This is equally true where I work, the Center for Science and the Imagination, a research center at Arizona State University, a public institution. (Disclaimer: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) We’re academics who do a bit of futures work alongside other kinds of research, teaching, and public outreach, but when we dabble in futurism, the effort is generally supported by a private-sector partner or a nonprofit or U.S. government agency. Everyone is interested in patching leaks in the hull of capitalism, making things better in one way or another—which is often inspiring and exciting work. But let’s be real: Nobody is putting cash on the barrel to hear about a radical redistribution of social and economic resources. Helping people forge healthier and more rewarding relationships with technology, for example, might be a key question in a futures project. A project might focus on managing the transition away from fossil fuels or designing more sustainable cities. Post-capitalist speculations aren’t verboten; they’re invisible, not even part of the conversation.
Thinking about the future should be more than just a business strategy. If we want to drastically change the facts on the ground—acidifying oceans, stultifying wealth inequality, nuclear proliferation—futurists and their foresight skills could be incredibly valuable for creating actionable ways forward. Futures thinking could easily become an intellectual and cultural project dedicated to securing the well-being of all people. But since its institutionalization in the latter half of the 20th century, it’s been yoked to the project of refining, sharpening, and shoring up capitalism.
Science fiction, close kin to futurism, shows us that there is ample artistic energy and an audience for alternative economic futures. Many freelance futures consultants are also science fiction authors—people tend to need to do both to make a living—so the discipline of futurism is closely entangled with science fiction. That genre has spawned a number of richly imagined post-capitalist worlds, most notably Star Trek’s Federation but also Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, most of the oeuvre of novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson’s unjustly obscure Fire on the Mountain, and more.
People on the left are beginning to appropriate the tools and language of the futures industry to imagine, and prepare society for, a future without capitalism. In the last year, Verso Books, an offshoot of the journal New Left Review, has published books titled Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (marketed as “a new manifesto for the end of capitalism”), Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility, and Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, in which author Peter Frase disclaims the term “futurism” and instead says he is creating “social science fiction.” Nonetheless, Frase uses a tried-and-true futurist method of scenario-building, a process that involves crafting four different potential outcomes based on two dualities—in the case of Four Futures, equality vs. hierarchy and abundance vs. scarcity. This is quite similar to methods used by the eminent Peter Schwartz and other leading futurists, and Frase even acknowledges his debt to an article in the magazine the Futurist, published by the World Futures Society, a major futures-industry professional organization. Frase’s innovation is that he premises his speculative work on the “existence of capitalism as a system of class power” and the idea “that capitalism is going to end.”
In 2015, the left magazine Jacobin published an article about the privatization of space that ends with a call to “start building a democratic futurism” as a corrective to an emerging “laissez-faire extraterrestrial system” typified by private-sector space companies like Planetary Resources and laws like the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which limits near-term regulation of commercial spaceflight and gives private firms the right to nonliving resources they extract in space, like water and valuable rare-earth metals. That same year, the Canadian left-anarchist magazine Adbusters published a feature that simultaneously indulges in and lampoons futurist forecasts by stepping through a boom-and-bust environmental future for Earth, starting in 2025 and extending 10 billion years forward. The piece predicts that political quietism, wars, pandemics, and fossil-fuel stubbornness will lead to civilizational collapse and a long dark age. Over time, thousands of global human civilizations rise and fall. Eventually, other intelligent life-forms rise to displace humans, including hyperintelligent crows. The piece ends with the death of the sun and the destruction of Earth.
Left activists in movements like Black Lives Matter frequently employ language like “radical imagination” to describe the importance of articulating affirmative visions for a more just society, to complement their critiques of existing oppressive arrangements around race, gender, sexuality, politics, and economics. Among many other places, this rhetorical turn toward “imagination,” a common keyword in futurist circles, is evident on Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson’s podcast Pod Save the People. At the end of his introductory soliloquies, Mckesson frequently exhorts his listeners to hit pause on the daily grind of activism and dedicate time and energy to imagining a future where major transformations have taken place—both to keep themselves motivated in the face of setbacks and to ensure that their work is actually building toward the more equitable future they want to bring into being.
Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously used “There Is No Alternative” as a slogan to discredit and pronounce irrelevant any opposition to her free-market capitalist orthodoxy. The futures industry, even in its most corporate incarnations, is premised on the idea that alternatives abound, that we can and should plan for change and surprise. Perhaps a new wave of futures thinkers, bankrolled not by deep-pocketed entities but by curious readers and politicized activists, will push futurism to approach economics and politics with the same rigor and freewheeling energy as they currently bring to product design and technological innovation.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.