Imagined, real and moral economies

Clarke, John (2014). Imagined, real and moral economies. Culture Unbound, 6 pp. 95–112.



This article explores three different inflections of the idea of economy: imagined, real and moral. Each offers a distinctive way of thinking about economies and each raises the possibility of providing critical purchase on the formations of ‘actually existing capitalisms’. The article begins from the idea of imagined economies given the proliferation of such imaginaries, not least in the wake of the financial crisis. In political, public and policy discourse, economies have become the focus of intense fantasy and projection. The resulting imaginaries underpin a range of economic, public and social policies. Importantly, they articulate a foundational distinction between economic and other sorts of policy. The idea of imagined economies opens the space for a certain type of critical engagement with contemporary political economy. In a rather different way, ideas of the ‘real economy’ have also been the site of critical work – distinguishing between ‘real’ relations and practices involved in the production of material objects (and value) in the contrast with virtual, digital, financialised economies. This article treats the ‘real economy’ as one further instance of an imagined economy. Like the concept of the ‘real economy’, E.P. Thompson’s exploration of a ‘moral economy’ also offers a standpoint from which critical analysis of the current economic, political and social disintegrations might be constructed. Thompson’s articulation of a moment in which collective understandings of economies as fields of moral relationships and obligations dramatises the contemporary de-socialization of economies, even if it may be harder to imagine twentieth and twenty first century capitalisms as moral economies that the current crisis has disrupted. Again, the article treats ‘moral economies’ as another form of imagined economy, in part to make visible the shifting and contested character of what counts as ‘economic’.

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