Envisioning Real Utopias
Over at Crooked Timber, we are running a seminar on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. Here’s my first contribution. Feel free to discuss here or go over to CT.
The first question to be asked about Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is whether it makes any sense to pursue, or even talk about, utopian projects.
At least rhetorically, conservatives have no time for utopian thinking, although, as Corey Robin has pointed out, the actual content of conservative politics bears little relation to this rhetoric. Both in its libertarian and reactionary authoritarian forms, actually existing conservatism has a strong utopian, or dystopian, streak.
The left also has also a long tradition of suspicion of utopianism. This begins with Marx and his denunciation of utopian socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier, which did not, however, prevent millions from investing utopian hopes the Soviet Union and its satellites or in the prospect of a global revolution against capitalism. In our own time it is the failure of those hopes that have done most to discredit utopian thinking. The Soviet Union is now just a bad memory, and its successor states have almost nothing positive to show for the massive suffering and deprivation it imposed on so many millions. Nostalgia for the project is displayed mostly by Russian nationalists, and focused on the military greatness achieved under Stalin.
In the decades after 1945, social democrats offered a more modest version of utopia, but came closer to realizing it. The starting point was the combination of the welfare state, macroeconomic stabilization and the mixed economy. The combined effect was to transform the lived experience of capitalist society, though not the capitalist order itself.
The risks of falling into destitution as a result of unemployment, illness or old age, previously an ever-present reality for the great majority of workers, were eliminated almost completely by social security systems and, except in the US, publicly provided healthcare. At the same time, the social democratic era showed the possibility of sustained economic growth without the grotesque inequality of wealth that had characterized all previous societies, at least since the rise of agriculture.
The gains weren’t just economic. At the beginning of the social democratic era, racial and gender-based discrimination was pervasive, widely accepted and legally entrenched in capitalist society. But the egalitarian logic of social democracy made such discrimination untenable. By the time the dominance of market liberalism, the situation had been reversed, at least in legal terms, with the advent of anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws. Race and gender inequalities remained substantial, but were generally declining.
Beyond these achievements, the social democratic moment provided space for various kinds of utopian thinking. At a minimum, most social democrats assumed that the progressive gains of the decades after 1945 would continue until, at some point, a genuinely socialist society would emerge. Meanwhile, the radical movements of the late 1960s broke with the Stalinist Old Left and embraced many different varieties of utopianism: anarchist, feminist and environmentalist.
The acquiescence of capitalists in the social democratic moment needs some explanation. In part, undoubtedly, it was due to the need to provide an attractive alternative to Soviet communism during the Cold War. More importantly, however, the experience of the Great Depression had discredited free-market capitalism, and the demands of a war economy had given governments the power they needed to control the economy. As long as economic management went well, and memories of the Depression were fresh, the prospects of a successful challenge to the social democratic settlement were not sufficiently attractive to tempt any more than the radical fringe of the business class.
The resurgence of a financialized form of global capitalism from the 1970s onwards came as a shock to the left. By the time the dominance of market liberalism was clearly re-established in the in the triumphalist decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, two main responses had emerged. The first was accommodation to the new realities, presented as a new ‘Third Way’, allegedly transcending the dispute between social democrats and market liberals. The second was a protracted defensive struggle which succeeded in protecting many of the core elements of the welfare state, but not in reversing the massive shift of power, income and wealth from workers to bosses and financiers.
Now that promise of endless prosperity under market liberalism has been replaced by the reality of a Depression that shows no sign of coming to an end, the choices facing the left have changed radically. The assault on the social democratic state has intensified under the banner of austerity, making the defensive struggle all the more urgent. But the failures of capitalism mean that a defensive struggle alone is not enough. A positive alternative is needed, going beyond the cautious managerialism that seems to be the best on offer from the Democratic Party in the US, and social democratic parties elsewhere.
In these circumstances, the time is right to think about Envisioning Real Utopias. Erik Olin Wright approaches the task as a social scientist, committed to the idea of an ‘emancipatory’ social science. He begins with a critique of capitalism on grounds such its adverse effects on human flourishing and the environment. The critique is generic; that is, Wright presents it as broadly applicable to all varieties of capitalism, while agreeing that state regulation, unions and community associations may constrain capitalism to a greater or lesser extent. This creates problems, since the partial realizations of utopia Wright discusses must also operate within a capitalist society. The question of whether particular reforms, and reform in general, operate to stabilize the system or to prepare the ground for further transformation is never far away.
The next section of the book discusses alternatives, first in theory and then in practice. Wright deals first with the Marxist tradition, sympathetically but negative. The core of Marxist politics is the claim that capitalism must inevitable collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, with the class rule of the bourgeoisie being overthrown by a proletarian revolution. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s now clear that the industrial working class is never going to be large or unified enough to form the kind of revolutionary mass envisaged by Marx, and there is no reason to see capitalism as heading for collapse. Hence, Wright argues we need to replace assumptions about trajectory with arguments about possibility.
Therefore, it’s necessary to talk about real utopias. This is the core of the book. But there is an obvious problem here, between the idea of utopia as a purely imagined alternative, useful mainly for inspiration, or for critique of the existing order, and the requirement to focus on what is real. There is a huge unfilled gap between the classic utopianism involved in drawing up blueprints for an ideal society, and the ‘realistic’ alternative of working within the terms of debate of present-day electoral politics. Within this space Wright locates partially realised utopian projects such as Wikipedia and the Mondragon project, and policy proposals such as the Universal Basic Income.
My main complaint about the book is that the discussion of these examples is too brief. Each of them could have justifiably taken a full chapter. I’ll talk more about the UBI in another post, but this time I’ll point to Wikipedia as an example where I think a lot more discussion could be useful. Wikipedia is interesting in itself, but also as an archetypal example of the process that gave us the Internet as a whole. It’s important to remember that the Internet was not the only system of communication between computers. There were also services offered by (mostly public) telecommunications enterprises, of which Minitel in France was the most successfully, and a number of for-profit networks such as Delphi and America Online.
The technology of the Internet was almost entirely created by voluntary spare-time efforts, while the content emerged from the interactions between the early users, mostly academics and students. The result was far more attractive than the commercial alternatives. Nevertheless, by the 1990s, the Internet had been opened to commercial activity and was generating dreams of unbounded profits. The collapse of the dotcom boom and the emergence of Wikipedia and the blogosphere saw a return to the early idealism of the Internet.
A decade on, though, Facebook, Google and Apple are battling for commercial supremacy and the free and open Internet is disappearing fast. Still the utopian ideal persists, even as the Internet has become fundamental to the operations of societies of all kinds. If the various attempts to recreate the walled gardens of the past can be defeated, the basic rationale for markets as the drivers of innovation, and for financial markets as the optimal guides for investment will be seriously undermined.
While the examples are suggestive, the big value of this book is embodied in its title. We need to reopen the space for utopia in our political discourse, and Wright has helped to open the way.