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.[1]

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.

39 thoughts on “Envisioning Real Utopias

  1. @Newtownian

    Ecotopia is also a fun speculative fiction book from the 70s, I think I had it next to Kinflicks and Erika Jong’s novels in my bookcase. Wikipedia claims it actually stimulated real utopian communities, and Ralph Nader saw it as technically feasible.

  2. @John Passant #16
    I looked at John Molyneux’s comments on Erik Olin Wright (EOL). Molyneux (a British SWP member I think) is of course right that there’s not much new in EOL’s proposals of utopian and pre-figurative experiments operating within a framework of “strategic reforms” by a “left government”: there is a huge track record of “soft” marxists supporting Popular Fronts, Coalitions of the Left etc. Molyneux rejects this framework as inconsistent with the classical Marxist analysis which says the state can’t be co-opted and must be smashed, not for dogmatic reasons but because it is a failure historically, stagnating or facilitating violent counter-revolution.

    But what does this mean in modern times? Surely it’s clear that historical lessons mainly from the 1920s and 1930s, and quoting at length from the Comintern’s Conditions of Membership in 1921 (yes, he does!) don’t connect well today. Perhaps he would be more persuasive if he explained what this means contemporaneously (blowing up buildings and shooting bureaucrats?). Also, as he admits, the vanguard Leninist model is on the nose everywhere, but he has no comment on how this might change, despite the “need” for it resulting from the “extremely high” likelihood of working class revolts in the next 20 years.

    The British SWP is probably the pre-eminent example of a mass non-Stalinist socialist party in the western world since the 1930s, so he or other comrades must have something useful to say about the updated Marxist message. (BTW, despite being a lapsed Brit SWP supporter, I’m not going to engage in a side-debate about the SWP with the angry ants who inhabit this blog – if you’re serious, then reduce your talking in favour of more reading and thinking, including some online homework.)

    Re the EOL book, I read chapter 3 (The Tasks of Emancipatory Social Science), but I’m not going to read the 50 pages of ch 4 What’s So Bad About Capitalism, including its Eleven Criticisms of Capitalism. Why? Because the title gives the clue: this is a book for academic marxists whose “praxis” is a 2 hour seminar in the university staff room on “wicked problems”. No value here for people who struggle with capitalist oppression in their everyday life, and want a pathway to fight it. I may read ch 6&7 on Real Utopias.

    The title and length of ch 4 (see above) reveals all: wordy philosophical musings in lecture theatre style directed broadly, including people who are not even convinced of the need for serious change eg. “The democratic dimension of political justice concerns equal access to the political means necessary to participate in collective decisions over issues that affect one’s life as a member of a society.” (p 19) Get the idea? It’s not a book for activists looking for answers to his diagnostic/alternative/strategy questions.

    In rhetoric this is so similar to most of the stuff I had to read in the early 70s for Political Inquiry undergrad tutes at Monash. And virtually no history (incl. econ history, sociology, philosophy (ie. real studies of real people, real struggles.) Does knowledge come out of the writers’ clever heads, or their lives? “The second task of emancipatory social science, therefore, is to develop in as systematic way as possible a scientifically grounded conception of viable alternative institutions.” (p 24) No role for praxis here.

    Is the EOL project a creature of the failure of pro-working class politics in the US? A place where the political culture is so debased and inauthentic that socialism is marginalised to pol phil depts?

    No other blog comments on the book itself? Anyone had a go at reading it?

  3. Kevin1, If the British SWP is probably the pre-eminent example of a mass non-Stalinist socialist party in the western world since the 1930s, how did it get only 20 more votes than the monster raving loony party in their only head to head contest in East Cardiff?

    • 62 communist and anti-capitalist parties have been elected worldwide to parliament in 39 countries see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_anti-capitalist_and_communist_parties_with_national_parliamentary_representation with strong communist blocs in Germany and France.

    • The Trots regularly get 4% in French presidential elections while the British SWP is still in the same league as the monster raving loony party.

    I sure this lack of success of the British SWP at the ballot can all be explained away by what Popper called the conspiracy theory of ignorance.
    • The conspiracy theory of ignorance interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some sinister power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instil a habit of resistance to knowledge. The truth is plain to see but for malevolent forces.

    • The possibility that are ignorance is large in the social sciences and many consequences are unintended is not as an exciting an explanation of capitalism.

    Why is utopia something that has a blueprint – the result of a central plan? Why is it not an emergence process?

    The key to utopias is freedom of exit.

  4. @kevin1

    Agreed – and many Ecotopias may be close to technically feasible – in the sense of plenty of labor saving technology without devastating the natural world – if you believe Amory Lovins at least.

    That said people will do what people will do including and especially the less/un predictable – which of course opens new options and gives much material and narratives for “science fiction” utopian and dystopian writers including some who might not call themselves such e.g. Aldous Huxley.

    What I have not seen is something that provides a good realistic ‘progressive’ and imaginative economic narrative as part of such Utopias. Classic Space Opera seems to either fudge the issue of money (Star Trek), cast capitalism as the melodrama villain pitted against the noble savage with a communication system the envy of Wall St (Avatar), implies there is something in place approximating capitalism, or completely ignores the issue by focusing on a military or religous setting where money doesnt exist or is irrelevant.

    A separate piece of evidence is that Ayn Rand’s fantasies dont seem to have stimulated a green/progressive competitor.

    Maybe this is why John posted this topic. He is interested in going back to the drawing board and trying to imagine economics and money/debt differently to the perspective we seem locked into.

  5. @Newtownian #29

    Yes, but it feels a bit indulgent to muse over fantasies when we see what’s happening in Europe, so I’ll get back to the here and now. For those who’ve looked at the book, EOL’s Fig 8.1 Three Models of Transformation; Ruptural, Insterstitial, Symbiotic is a nice summary of the premises, traditions and methods of revolutionary socialist/communists, anarchists and social democrats. We all know that most Australians are not rapt in the state of our representative democracy but it’s worth looking at some available measures: on 12/07/2011 an ABC online poll found that 52% of the 2968 people voting ticked the “What’s the point?” answer to the question “Would you join a political party today?” (The Drum Polls Archive). And in the 22 years after 1983 the membership of UK parties fell 65% to 1.3% of the adult population, around the same as the ABS measure for Australia today, according to Norman Abjorensen. http://inside.org.au/the-parties-democratic-deficit/

    EOL rejects the ruptural possibility outright, but different notions of “fairness” in the solution of Eurozone problems may bring further unrest: the existing liberal democratic institutions look dysfunctional and brittle. A “crisis of legitimacy” does not seem overstatement, and activism may rise to the occasion. Just on that aspect, my previous post admittedly overstated the size of the British Socialist Workers Party (reflecting times now past). But as a sign that a grassroots socialist party can develop strong support amongst non-socialists in the working class and elsewhere, have a large impact in fighting racism (Anti Nazi League, Rock Against Racism), promote rank and file unionism, and build a significant anti war coalition, they have demonstrated the possibilities for “bottom up” organisation. Much insight could be gained here, but no attention is paid by EOL to what are effectively “change projects” involving large numbers of people. ” As well, l think it is a repudiation of his view that the “rupture” option is an impossibility.

    An issue here with organisations built around principled means and ends is the tendency to fracture, and this seems endemic to all Left organisations. In a period where parties and stable formations of all types seem out of favour, this tendency does not assist the development of a continuity and clarification of beliefs, assembly of knowledge and skills and strategic approach.

    His own utopian proposals would be more convincing if he analysed them in greater length but he doesn’t, as JQ confirms; perhaps they would not look so promising if he did. As projects for change, logically deep analyses would be the core of the book.
    @Jim Rose – East Cardiff anecdote meaningless as usual, but a good laugh.

  6. fudge the issue of money (Star Trek)! Steven Cheung’s criticisms of communism as the only class-based society also applies to Star trek. Everyone’s rank and class was defined by party membership card and party rank in communist societies. Wild Swans is great on how everything down to the softness of your train seat is decided by party rank.

    In star trek, higher ranked officer had larger cabins and most of all they always beamed back from the planet.

    Anyone who beamed down with captain kirk who was dressed in the red tops were expendables!! Death and accommodation were class based on star trek.

  7. @Newtownian #29

    You may be interested in the crime mystery novels by Melb author Inge Melgaard, which are set a few centuries in the future, in Aust locations. I think she is a scientist, and they’re very well written – self-published under RedMatilda Press, I got mine from a public library. But 2 things you have to like: cats with ESP, and luxuriant descriptions of meals and genteel soirees.

    I have another response on more weighty matters parked (again) in moderation

  8. Jim, so you’re saying the Enterprise pretty much resembles any modern capitalist company? From the CEO down to the expendables at the bottom with no office and increased risk to health and safety (progressively crappier chairs and desks, more exposure to tools and machinery). And that even though they work harder and take more risks, they get paid less and have exponentially less chance of advancing up the ranks?

    Granted on the Enterprise, it probably wasn’t genetically determined who was going to start at the top. I assume you had to pass exams with flying colours, that kind of thing, and that everyone had the same access to quality education – not just those with a lot of inherited capital.

    Also admirable that Kirk and his officers were willing to take the risk of being outriders.

  9. Utopia?

    I think it’s possible to find a compass to use as a guide to the future instead of a map and to set a direction without defining a destination.

    I think it’s possible to be guided by the aim of making society more just and of eliminating, reducing, or mitigating injustices without having to attach that to a model of perfect justice.

    I think it’s possible to be guided by the aim of eliminating or reducing the most egregious social inequalities without having to attach that to a model of perfect egalitarianism.

    I think it’s possible to be guided by the aim of increasing the scope of liberty and of eliminating, reducing, or mitigating the harshest restrictions on liberty without having to attach that to a model of perfect freedom.

    I think it’s possible to be guided by the aim of making society more democratic without having to attach that to a model of perfect democracy.

  10. @Chris Warren
    ‘Marx demonstrated that capitalism would collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.’


    I will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    Chris Warren will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The International Olympic Committee will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The World-Wide Web will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The Tea Party will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The environmentalist movement will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The Sydney Harbour Bridge will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    Democracy will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    Autocracy will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The Marianas Trench will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The biosphere will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.
    The sun will collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.

    As the man himself wrote of one of his predictions, ‘one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.’

  11. @J-D

    Yes, exactly;

    All you have to do is identify the countervailing tendencies, their basis, and their ramifications.

    You will find that political and economic countervailing tendencies are different to those supporting the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

    But you need at least some intelligence to spot this. Only fools get confused.

  12. @Chris Warren
    ‘All you have to do is identify the countervailing tendencies, their basis, and their ramifications.’

    Yes, that’s ‘all’. Be sure to let us know when you’re finished.

  13. @J-D

    1) continuous population increase
    2) lower wages – including discriminatory labour market devices.
    3) increase in money (debt, inflation)
    4) selling offshore
    5) increase work pressures
    6) increased degree of monopoly
    7) commercial (and political) corruption
    8) bailouts
    9) capturing market share of smaller capitalists
    10) restrictive trade practices
    11) purchase media and political parties to provide for above


  14. @Chris Warren
    On the one hand that list might be the product of detailed systematic analysis of all available empirical data.

    On the other hand it might have been made up out of whole cloth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s