Speculative Societies – Towards a new Research Agenda

In times of lost futures, societies become speculative societies, whether they like it or not. As the financial crisis of 2007-2008 evolved in the years thereafter into a myriad of political crises, the spirit of a neo-Biedermeierian age, along with stability-oriented policy agendas, became the modus operandi of the West in economic contexts and far beyond. What remains is the disenchantment of liberalism and its political eschatology in a wide range of socio-cultural spheres on both sides of the Atlantic, and the aporia of societies that are trying to preserve a supposed “state of normality” although every “state of normality” that served as ideological orientation in the past has meanwhile lost its general public acceptance. Given all this, present societies become, even without wanting to, speculative societies.
Against this backdrop, asking for clarification when it comes to the notion of speculation itself – as exemplified in this text by using the example of the post-crisis regulatory framework Basel III – seems to be a philosophical experiment worth considering, if, to speak with Jürgen Habermas, we may permit some critical scrutiny of the “disarming of politics” in the name of supposedly inevitable security- and stability-oriented politics. This text is, consequently, a philosophical sketch. What follows are a series of thoughts about the concept of speculation beyond the frontiers of current financial or economic understanding and, finally, some considerations on how philosophical and social studies might make use of this concept. The main purposes of this text, therefore, are (1) to give a historical overview of the evolution of the concept of speculation (section two), (2) to trace the destabilizing effects of the aporia of “stabilitism” in the field of financial regulation (section three), and, finally, (3) to prepare the ground for a future concept of speculation which may prove helpful for philosophy and sociology in coping with the aporias of speculative societies (section four).

If philosophy cannot prevent thinking from being broad and insecure, it can perhaps – by recourse to the concept of speculation, understood as an “onto-epistemico-ethical hybrid”, as this text suggests – offer thought a form of language that makes it possible to hint at the “specularization” of social worlds at the beginning of the 21st century, as expressed in the shift from class to identity politics (representing cultures instead of classes), from industrial to cultural capitalism (selling values instead of functions), and from rational to curated actors (choosing between identities instead of preferences).