Why do we spend so little time analysing the socio-economic catastrophes which almost happened?

I like Peter Fleming’s idea of speculative negativity: haunting of present by those “dystopic and grisly futures that have not yet materialised … only faintly detectible in the signs which drift by on the daily commute”. However it makes me wonder about the socio-economic apocalyptic near misses which have been averted in the last two decades and what understanding them might mean for how we conceive of the future. For example Adam Tooze’s Shutdown left me newly aware of how close capitalism came to collapsing in on itself early in the pandemic when a ‘dash for cash’ began to lead to a firesale of all assets. What would a ‘full scale meltdown’ have looked like in practice‘? I’m out of my intellectual comfort zone with (counter-factual) political economy of this complexity but I would understand this to be a similar question to the averted socio-economic catastrophe of 07/08 except not only would the financial system have stopped operating but so too would the wider infrastructure of market-based exchange.

I’m gripped by the question of how this would play out, in part because this is clearly not the last systemic crisis I’m going to see in my lifetime. As Tooze points out in his book, one of the key features which enabled the policy innovation to forestall these crises was a sense of capitalism’s hegemony. Something which, he plausibly suggests, wouldn’t have been the case if Bernie Sanders had been the democratic candidate and won the presidential election. This suggests how the infrastructure of capitalism and the balance of political forces intersect in responding to the systemic shocks which it seems are liable to become more frequent and, as a corollary of this, more likely to overlap.

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