Social Imaginaries as 8th Way to think like a 21st Century Economist

Recently, Kate Raworth of Doughnut Economics together with Rethinking Economics ran a competition in which applicants were invited to submit suggestions for the 8th principle of 21st century economics, following on the heels of the seven that Raworth argues for in her seminal book, Doughnut Economics.

My case for Social Imaginaries was selected as a winner in the University category. You can find a copy of the text below.

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Imaginaries: the 8th Way of Thinking like a 21st Century Economist Sam Earle

1. The Doughnut is premised on replacing the existing paradigm of economic thought with a new one that is fit for life in the 21st century, and hopefully beyond. In doing so it tacitly recognises that economics is not a discrete discipline, but is intimately connected with our shared personal and political lives: it helps shape the way we live – what we value, what we aspire to.

2. Another term for this interconnected web of values, norms, attitudes, practices and institutions that constitutes society is the ‘imaginary’.

3. The imaginary is intimately connected to the imagination: the capacity to reproduce existing tropes that helps to cement collective identity, and, conversely, the capacity to conceive of radically new ways of being in, and relating to, the world.

4. The Doughnut recognises that the tropes of the current neo-liberal imaginary are not only failing in their own terms, but undermining the very conditions for the existence of society. Thus, the Doughnut is seeking to reimagine social life, to create a new social imaginary, one that is founded on recognising the value of life, the rich interdependencies of the biosphere, and the limitations of a finite planet.

5. But if we are to successfully create and institute a new imaginary, I believe it is first necessary to understand the dynamics of imaginaries: How do they work? How can they be changed?

6. For this reason, I believe ‘imaginaries’ should be the 8th way of thinking.

7. To reiterate, the imaginary is the nexus of beliefs, attitudes, and norms that we commonly share, and which permeate every aspect of social life, even including our so-called ‘private lives’. The imaginary provides the frames and narratives through which we try to persuade each other how society should be.

8. However, in order for frames and narratives to have traction and salience, they must tacitly appeal to a collection of ideas, that, more often than not we are scarcely conscious of, but that underpin how we see the world.

9. I refer to these ideas as ‘keystone concepts’. They are the foundations upon which a given society and culture is built. Each society has a unique constellation of ideas, that are manifested in the imaginary as much in the language, behaviours, and attitudes of individuals as it is in specific policy proposals, and political and economic discourse.

10. Without these keystone concepts, a given imaginary would not be what is.

11. The purpose of studying imaginaries is to find patterns amid our complex social lives, and to uncover the keystone concepts they instantiate.

12. Once we are able to reveal the keystone concepts, which are the beating heart of a given imaginary, we are then able to identify how specific events in the imaginary – be they a turn of phrase, a film, a particular politician, or inanimate artefacts, for example – either serve to reproduce the keystone concept or, much more rarely, offer a challenging, radical perspective.

13. I suggest that the keystone concept of the current imaginary can be summed up as ‘proprietarianism’: the sovereign individual and his (sic) right to acquire. Proprietarianism betrays a metaphysics of radical atomism, in which the subject’s very existence is threatened by the sovereignty of others and which tries therefore to augment itself through acquisition. Proprietarianism manifests in our imaginary in several insidious ways: entitlement; patriarchy; exploitation; consumerism, for example.

14. I believe that to succeed, the shoots of a new imaginary must intentionally avoid resembling the existing keystone concept or its manifestations. The reason is that if the keystone concept is evoked, intentionally or otherwise, it is cemented, thus making it much harder to create the space necessary for new ways of imagining to emerge.

15. One example of this is the film Avatar. On one level, Avatar purports to show a community conscious of the dynamic life systems in which it is embedded, and which is now under threat of exploitation. On another level, however, the tropes of our current imaginary are never far from view: a male hero emerges, enslaving other sentient beings in waging war against the enemy. Sound familiar? Avatar ultimately succeeds only in boosting those very mores it hoped to bring into question.

16. Our current imaginary is a dangerous one: not only has it yielded unremitting and ongoing environmental destruction, as well as obscene inequalities between classes, races, nations, sexes, species, and generations, but it also, crucially, lacks the ability to see itself as an imaginary, as a way of living, as a choice. Instead, we hear that this is just ‘the way things are’, that it is just ‘human nature’ to be competitive, exploitative, self-serving. That is both wrong and dangerous.

17. When we understand, however, what an imaginary is and how it works, we come to realise not only that this is not how things have to be, that we can change society for the better, but it also gives us the tools to understand how such a change is possible.

18. And best of all, the study of imaginaries shows us that every single one of us contributes to the continuation of, or else the re-imagining of, our current predicament. This represents radical responsibility, but it is also radically empowering: we are not hopelessly at the mercy of the powers that be, but we each have an irreducible, if small, power to change how things are.

19. In sum, imaginaries offer us a set of concepts and tools that radical and bold thinking like Doughnut Economics needs in order to be able to usher in the new imaginary we all so urgently need.