The credit system both provides opportunities for growth and enforces that growth. Firms that fail to produce sufficient surplus lose access to capital and are eventually wiped out from their markets. Economic and social competition and the financial system create both opportunities and a systematic demand for dynamic change, which forces actors to pursue the economic opportunities to be found in imagined futures.
This “restlessness” (Sewell 2008) keeps capitalist economies in “dynamic disequilibrium” (Beckert 2009), which is constantly upended through the decentralized decisions of market actors operating within the institutional constraints of competitive markets and a monetary economy. Capitalist economies destabilize and stabilize themselves by continuously undermining their own historical forms: firms relentlessly seek new profit opportunities, employees strive to build careers, consumers hunt for new consumption experiences. Surviving and thriving in an environment in which current forms will not last demands that firms, employees, and consumers be constantly oriented toward a future they cannot yet see.
Although temporal orientation toward the future is a cornerstone of capitalism, it is not a cornerstone of the study of capitalism; it is taken up far more often in popular culture than in the social sciences. The “American dream” is perhaps the most significant cultural representation of imagined futures assumed to shape economic attitudes and motivation. The dream of upward social mobility based on equal opportunity is a crucial motivating and integrating force in American society.