Futures and Futurology An Interview with Professor Jenny Andersson

Professor Jenny Andersson is Co-Director of MaxPo, a researcher at the Centre d’études et des recherches internationales at Sciences Po, and Principal Investigator of the Futurepol Project, which was funded by an ERC Starting Grant of 1,350,000 Euros in 2012. A member of the SASE/NYC 2019 program committee, Andersson is the author of Between Growth and Security: Swedish Social Democracy from a Strong Society to a Third Way (Manchester UP, 2006) and The Library and the Workshop: Social Democracy and Capitalism in an Age of Knowledge (Stanford UP, 2009). Our editor Valerie Arnhold got a chance to speak with Professor Andersson about her newest book, The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post Cold War Imagination (Oxford UP, 2018).

SASE: How would you introduce your most recent book to SASE members? What brought you to write this book?

Andersson: The Future of the World is an intellectual history of forms of future research and futures studies in the Cold War period. The aim was to provide an archaeology of key rationalities of prediction and to show that forms of future knowledge range over a very wide area of social engagement, from the scientist to uses of the radical imagination. For SASE scholars, the book has an interest in its contribution to a growing field around the problem of uncertainty and expectations, which in the book is taken as historic problems to do with the complexity of governance and order in an evolving global space after 1945. Many of the predictive technologies and forms of knowledge discussed in the book were direct reflections on an evolving socio-economic world order, in which the uncertainty of markets, behavior, democracy, and capitalism was key.

The topic of the next SASE conference will be “Fathomless Futures: Algorithmic and Imagined”. Futures are also one of the most obvious areas of “uncertainty” for our lives. However, different attempts to rationalize and understand our future have probably been going on for a very long time. From a historian’s point of view, what is distinctive for the social imaginaries and relation to the future – and to uncertainty – of the period you are interested in, that is, the Cold War period?

What is very important about this period I believe is the way that the problem of the mass society, which had been discussed since industrialisation, became transposed to the global level and thought of as a question of world development. The problem of the future was in many ways a problem of how to bring order to an emerging and unknown situation in which there was no longer an established East-West or North-South dimension, but a multitude of new actors and temporalities on the world stage. This problem is triggered by decolonization, which seems to unleash a form of disorder both in terms of global value revolutions and commodity markets. Predicting the future thus developed from a form of surveillance of East-West relations in the 1950s and 1960s, to a reflection on a much larger problem of the potential open-endedness of the world future. The notion of uncertainty in the period immediately after the oil shock refers exactly to this feeling of a global unravelling of the future, and it is important to historicize it, since the much debated ‘shaping of expectations’ that in many ways exploded in the period afterward – with forecasts and scenario tools, etc. – was precisely in reaction to this understanding of global economic disorder. This is partly in the book and partly in my on-going projects.

The more “professionalized” attempts to understand and predict the future are described in your book to be mainly related to reflections stemming from security and military concerns. Have you seen, maybe more on the margins of your fieldwork, relations to other types of actors inside or outside of academia, who were interested in or have taken up some of the predictive instruments? For instance economists?

Economics began experimenting with forms of prediction and modelling earlier than the other social sciences, and by the 1950s and 1960s, macro-economic modelling is an established field. It was interesting to me that the first experiments in so-called conjecture by the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel were understood as ways of transferring predictive claims to other disciplines and in particular political science and international relations. There is the idea that social science in order to be explicative has to be able to make predictive claims. This is a key notion in international relations theory in the 1950s and 1960s, inspired by what is also known as modernization theory in a larger field of the social sciences in the U.S. and Europe. Such predictive claims on the social world were very far-reaching in scope – to ideas of the accurate prediction of individual behavior in mass society, to ideas of the behavior of nation states or whole world systems. Quickly, however, forms of modelling are discarded in favor of methods and technologies that act as narratives or images of the future, for instance conjecture, the scenario method, or so-called Delphi exercises.

In the third chapter of your book, you describe the contribution of futurology to the construction of liberalism as opposed to Marxism as foundation of the new world after 1989. Could you tell us a little more about the specific role of future conceptions that were used to promote economic liberalism? And to what extent do they remain present in the contemporary liberal ideology?

Economic and political liberalism here are complicated distinctions, as futurologists were not mostly economists or free marketeers, but rather concerned with the political future of liberalism and in defending a Western model of liberal capitalism. This included for instance ideas about the plurality of interests, and also, in the 1960s, the necessity of certain forms of limited long-term planning. I do indeed suggest that this was exactly the relevance of futurology to a certain group of liberal thinkers including the American sociologist Daniel Bell: it was to plan ahead with the specific purpose of keeping social trajectories open for individual choice and market mechanisms. In the present, I believe it would be very fair to say that this version of futurology has endured, and that through networks such as the Global Business Network and the World Economic Forum, such a conception of the need to strategically think the future in order to retain a temporal space for entrepreneurial capitalism is central to contemporary liberal ideology.

Your work has a strong international dimension, both in terms of the construction of issues as transnational and in terms of comparisons between different countries. Especially, you describe a difference between the role of futurology in the U.S. and several European countries. How can we understand this transatlantic difference? 

My work does not only describe a transatlantic effect, but also highly complex transeuropean and in fact at least partly global networks of futurists. Futurology in the U.S. had a very strong military and industrial orientation – in Europe it developed in a much more welfare statist and planning orientation and became highly concerned with the so-called problems of growth and quality of life after 1968. That is not as such very surprising – more interesting in my view is the role of futurology as a form of developmentalism in Japan and India for instance (and this is where the transnational method has been key to my work).

In the context of the 10th anniversary of the economic and financial crisis [at the time of writing], this SASE newsletter also collects impressions and points of view of scholars regarding State intervention in (financial) markets. We would be glad to have your thoughts on the more recent transformations of State action (based on your previous work on the transformations of social democracy and the third way or on your current research). To what extent do you think this crisis transformed our future(s)?

I believe that the financial crisis in 2008 showed very clearly something that in fact was not new but debated in future research since the 1970s, having to do with the unforeseeability of consequences of action in a global space consisting of a multitude of economic decision-makers. It also showed us to what extent the deregulation and privatization logics at hand since this period have triggered fundamental forms of instability and chaos for social life. The welfare state was a stabilizing influence on capitalism and does not today have this role anymore, or at least to the same extent. Social democracy in my view was a mediator of key conflicts between labor and capital, economy and society, democracy and capitalism – and cannot today play this role any longer. In my view, the financial crisis has not been mitigated in the social and political arena – where its effects are enormous.

Our last question refers more to the role of the future for academia and the upcoming SASE conference. The interest in futures is huge and a very dynamic and expanding research area. What is your view on the reasons of this recent interest? What are the prospects of this field, maybe also based on your own current research projects?

My frank feeling is that there is a problem of over-theorizing this future field, and that a more fruitful path would be to very carefully situate forms of future knowledge, prediction, and expectation in precise historic, social, and economic circumstances. I think that futures are potentially absolute everywhere, and they are not by definition either ‘open’ or ‘closed’, but how we construct futures and how we collectively choose among the many potential futures that exist at each given point in time is a problem of power and knowledge and should be studied as such. I am interested in the links between forms of future thinking and big economic interests – it seems to me that since the 1970s at least large corporations have been as concerned with the construction of future images as public entities have. This is because they understood the powerful use of images as a way of de facto management of social expectations, and that, as demonstrated both in the financial crisis and in the climate context, has genuine effects on the future and on our capacity to imagine (or not) alternatives to current paths.


Interview conducted by Valerie Arnhold


* This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2018/19 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page*


This article is taken from
SASE Winter Newsletter 18/19
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