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. You only mention the environment once (and in passing) but it seems to me most of the utopian thinking these days – certainly from the ecocentrists and the deep ecologists – concerns taking the environment out of the market system and attaching intrinsic value to it. The back-to-the-earth movement is a practical form of utopianism, resembling a bit the old-fashioned agrarian socialism, and very much attuned to the major problems humanity now faces.

    Inequality and continued economic growth seem to be secondary issues in this utopian vision. The developing countries will plausibly develop – the only possible obstacle is environmental – and the vision of limitless economic growth in countries that are already rich doesn’t make sense given the sorts of resource constraints we face. Better that we focus on egalitarian concerns and see radical utopian visions in terms of more sustainably living with the natural environment rather than treating it purely as a productive input.

  2. You state; “… there is no reason to see capitalism as heading for collapse.”

    Actually, there is. The limits to growth will seriously challenge the capitalist model. Capitalism totally depends on endless growth, the exploitation and running down of natural capital and the encouragement of excessive consumption.

    The limits to growth have been reached now. In point of fact, we are in overshoot. For a time, overshoot is not recognized. As the term implies, growth continues for a time even after the productive and carrying capacity of the system has been exceeded.

    1. Endless growth. The capitalist financial debt and prouduction systems, at least as currently constructed, depend on endless growth. When growth fails, the system fails and massive defaults and mass unemployment will occur. Sovereign nation states will have to step in and take dirigist action to arrest the free-fall that will follow.

    2. Overshoot and the depletion of resources and natural capital. The planet is headed for 6 degrees C plus of global warming, the oceans are dying, topsoil is being depleted, CO2, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles are seriously disrupted and other key resources are running out. The poorer third (at least) of the world faces a food crisis within about 10 years.

    3. Encouragement of excessive consumption. The capitalist system is committed to the over-stimulus of appetites, wishes and desires for possession and consumption. This is antithetical to the real requirements of our situation which require real resource consumption austerity. However, any form of austerity, financial or resource-real, self-imposed or environment-imposed, will seriously depress capitalist economic activity (aggregate demand) and cause a great depression.

    4. The only way out of the conundrum is to abandon capitalism which implies unrestrained consumption of now critically constrained resources. Dirigist action to convert society from unrestrained capitalism to worker cooperative democratic socialism with a full change over to a renewables basis for all economic activity is the only way to save global civilization. Even then, the chances are slim as we have let the cancer of capitalism spread too far over the world and already probably have done too much biospheric damage for any recovery.

    5. Talking about utopias when we face a global emergency to prevent complete dystopia is to deny the grim realities we now face.

  3. Better that we focus on egalitarian concerns and see radical utopian visions in terms of more sustainably living with the natural environment rather than treating it purely as a productive input.

    The point is that more sustainable living with the natural environment is not utopian but a necessary condition for any social future we can envisage. The challenge to our imaginations is devising social futures that optimise equality, freedom, solidarity, opportunity, creativity, etc., within the constraint of sustainability.

  4. Paul, I think the view that the environment has value independent of humans – rejecting anthropocentrism – is certainly radical and utopian thinking for economists. It probably isn’t for almost all conservation biologists and ecologists. i agree with the list of other utopian objectives you mention – they are part of the ecocentrist philosophy. My focus on growth and equality was motivated by John’s post – these are almost exclusively the issues he focused on. My argument was that these are secondary to environmental conerns.

  5. What would the gates to utopia look like?
    • Andrei Shleifer in The Age of Milton Friedman found that as the world embraced free market policies since 1980, living standards and life expectancy rose sharply, education and democracy improved and poverty declined.

    • XAVIER SALA-I-MARTIN (2006) found that for 138 countries in 2000, poverty rates and head counts were between one-third and one-half of what they were in 1970 There were between 250 and 500 million fewer poor in 2000 than in 1970. All eight indexes of income inequality show reductions in global inequality during the 1980s and 1990s.

    Utopia, you’re standing in it.

  6. Jim Rose :
    What would the gates to utopia look like?
    •Andrei Shleifer in The Age of Milton Friedman found that as the world embraced free market policies since 1980, living standards and life expectancy rose sharply, education and democracy improved and poverty declined.
    •XAVIER SALA-I-MARTIN (2006) found that for 138 countries in 2000, poverty rates and head counts were between one-third and one-half of what they were in 1970 There were between 250 and 500 million fewer poor in 2000 than in 1970. All eight indexes of income inequality show reductions in global inequality during the 1980s and 1990s.
    Utopia, you’re standing in it.

    What exactly is your argument? No one denies that the stock of technology increases over time. No one denies that dictatorships are generally terrible places in which to live in which living standards are sacrificed for various ideological ends. Now prove that the current era has been an era of excess returns in technology and economic growth over that of the preceding period of the mixed economy. I am willing to wait a very long time for your proof.

  7. Pr Q said:

    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.

    Thats true, with one critical correction: the term “conservative” should be replaced by the phrase “Right-wing”. Neither “libertarians” or “reactionary authoritarians” could reasonably be termed “conservative”. More generally, American political discourse is hopelessly confused by mid-identifying Right-wing elite statists as economic rationalists as “conservative” and Left-wing elite statists as political correctors as “liberals”.

    “Conservatism” is dedicated to the consolidation of institutional integrity in order to maintain cultural identity. There are virtually no principled conservatives in post-modern liberal era. Thats why we are in the post-modern liberal era.

    What is called the “conservative” side of politics has essentially fallen victim to Right-wing ideologues. “Right-wing” simply means the politics of establishing the higher-status. Most establishment Right-wingers are intent on concentrating power & pelf for their immediate group and could not care less about their institutional patrimony so long as their golden parachute is properly deployed.

    Since the end of the Cold War Right-wingers have been seduced by ideological ‘rationalism in politics”, indulging in all kinds of “risky schemes” that tempt fate in areas where traditional conservative politics would have avoided like the plague. The US Right-wing coalition is mostly made up of un-conservative politicians, whose project has been conveniently summarised by Steve Sailer as the “invade-the-world/invite-the-world/indebt-the-world”.

    Examples of US Right-wing ideological utopianism: the “libertarian” open borders push to “elect a new people” and remove American workers traditional safety net. Neo-con militarists trashing of traditional alliances and dont rock the boat strategy in order to promote democracy at the point of a smart bomb. National security authoritarians undermining traditional constitutionl liberties and processes in the War on Terror. Wall Street sharks taking a bet by leveraging the big banks to finance NINJA loans to “under-served communities”. Starve the Beast tax-cutters putting the nation in hock to finance budget-busting tax-cuts. And then there is the epic Right-wing fail on global warming,completely antagonistic to Teddy Roosevelts conservationism.

    The true practitioners of “conservative” politics in the post-modern era are establishment Centrists who have some institutional memory and a bit of the common touch: managerial social-democrats, statesmen-like nationalists and old-school bureaucrats. Mostly the Centrists are occupied in the practical conservative project of shoring up the fiscal foundations of the welfare state, holding the line for whats left of the industrial regulations protecting the “workfare state” and damage control from the financial excesses of the “wealthfare statists”.

    The Centre does sometimes hold. Examples include Buttons Car Plan, Howards GST, Costello’s Wallis Committee, Gillards bolstering of care-providers award, Swans fiscal stimulus.

    More generally, those of a conservative spirit need to come out from their closets and re-claim this worthy, even noble political calling. The imminent “rise of the robots” will pose a formidable challenge to what it means to be human, both in personal & professional domains. I don’t see any evidence of conservative humanism on either side of politics, either Right or Left.

  8. @John Quiggin

    I could make a detailed critque of your Aeon magazine article but I would break the rules of this thread. Quite a bit of what you say is true in itself but it is only about deals with about 10% of the problems we must face. The devil is both in the detail and in the sheer wide extent and interconnectness of these problems.

    You say, “The ultimate barriers to achieving a good life for all, free of the lash of financial necessity, are neither technological nor environmental.” Then you go on to assert they are basically of a socio-political nature (from memory). This was true. I have serious doubts that it is still true. There is a cut-over point or tipping point with these problems where, if ignored too long, they do become environmental. They become hard ecological and hard physical.

  9. Pr Q said:

    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.

    This is one of those Zombie ideas that refuses to die, despite being refuted many times, including your humble commenter. The technology of the internet was initially a product of military statism, followed up by Johhny-come-latelys in the university sector, then Open Sourcer commoners and finally e-commerce. In fact the entire process of IT development, production, distribution and transaction is a perfect example of the different components of the mixed economy – the ecology of economic pluralism = more or less working as it should.

    The first working computer was developed by the UK DoD, the legendary Colossus used in conjunction with Turings Bletchley Park Enigma decrypting team. ENIAC, the worlds first programmable electronic data storing computer was commissioned by the US Army Ordinance Corp, partly designed by von Neumann who was basically employed by the Air Force (RAND) as the militarys go-to boffin. The basic packet switching/data routing protocols was invented by the US DoD, specifically DARPA which was commissioned by Ike to find a way for rerouting the Pentagons signals systems to survive a Soviet first strike. The GPS was developed as part of the Space Race, basically the Arms Race taken to the heavens to develop spying & missile guidance satellites. Cutting edge AI has largely been financed by the military, essentially to pilot supersonic jets which operate at speeds exceeding human reaction times.

    It is no accident that the military state has pioneered technological advance. Fear concentrates the mind wonderfully.

  10. I started reading this book once before but was put off when he defined his task (on first page of the Preface) as designing institutions which would be responsive to people’s needs. It looked like a technocratic/academic and elitist project divorced from agency (who decides?) and context (power relations) – a fantasy of its own. His project description doesn’t mention any role for collective struggle in educating minds and liberating people from self-imposed constraints: a key agency issue.

    But I will suspend my disbelief – I’ve read the Preface and Intro and will read some more, although the language of academic Marxists is often opaque to me. He is addressing both socialists and humanist democrats – will see how he can do that. He’s given talks on the project in 18 countries from 2005-9 but not in Australia – I wonder if the European interest in Karl Polanyi’s work (which I’ve never really “got”) is a point of intersection for them.

    His framework has 3 aspects: diagnosis and critique, formulating alternatives, and strategies for change. I don’t know if he’s said it, but I guess it’s agreed that the Left can be very good at the first, but usually terrible at the others. Interestingly, he gives the view (p xvi) that the central axis of “transcending” capitalism is democracy, rather than exploitation – “the ruptural logics of class struggle” are not plausible any more. I would see the demand for democracy in workplaces and institutions as a response to perceived exploitation – in the word’s wide sense – and obviously context determines this.

    So I hope he talks about the attraction of many people towards the potential – and limitations – of capitalist attempts at solutions to environment and emancipatory issues – philanthropy, sustainable capitalism (social responsibility, Triple Bottom Line, World Business Council for Sustainable Development etc.) Some of these characters eg. the late Ray Anderson of InterfaceFLOR are pretty impressive advocates for deep change (see Youtube).

  11. Its passingly strange to me that a group of well educated and high-minded intellectuals can discuss the possibility of utopia without noticing let alone focusing on the most impressive social revolution of our time, and perhaps all time: Deng’s post-Mao top-down re-formation of the PRC, both institutionally and instrumentally.

    It is hard to imagine less propitious circumstances for a progressive social reformation than the just rehabilitated Deng faced in 1978. In the preceding generation the PRC had been repeatedly convulsed and damaged by Mao’s madness: Let 100 hundred flowers bloom, the Great Leap Forward & the Cultural Revolution. All of them spectacular failures.

    Yet Deng’s new model of Market Socialism and “Four Modernizations” has generated the greatest & fastest sustained rise and diffusion of living standards in the history of mankind. But intellectuals have studiously ignored this might achievement as your standard North East Asian industrial juggernaut, situation normal, nothing to see here folks, just keep movin’.

    I beg to differ. Dengs State Owned Enterprise system offers a promising model for reconciling the best elements of capitalism and socialism. Party high-fliers get insider equity to encourage technological initiative and market responsiveness whilst the State majority owner gets a steady and reasonable return on investment to finance social expenditure plus overall control of the commanding heights of the economy.

    No one seems to have noticed that the floating of SOEs onto the Shanghai exchange has solved Weber/von Mises/Hayek’s challenge of forcing state enterprises industrial investments to undergo the discipline of capital market economic calculation.

    And the CCP has promoted the Marxist technological imperative of focusing on science & engineering as the dynamic of economic progress. Sensibly exploiting the China’s massive population of Tiger Mom whipped high-IQ nerds & swots.

    As Krugman recently pointed out, the future of the world economy may largely be in the hands of Robber Barons and their Robot Serfs. Its vital that public authority get some equity in the next industrial revolution as robots gradually replace humans in the process of production.

    Dr Knopfelmacher used to joke that that Left-wing intellectuals only liked communism when it reached a peak of diabolic savagery under Stalin & Mao. When it got better under Kruschev (or Deng) they started to leave the Party in droves and denounced it for selling out to state capitalism. Plus ca change.

  12. PS I am certainly no uncritical admirer of the current administration of SOE’s where “Red Princelings” and corrupt officials collaborate to hog much of the financial benefits flowing from SOE insider privileges & economies of scale.

    But the answer to this problem is not to abandon state ownership, which would put the whole economy into the hands of Triads, as happened with the Oligarchs in post-Soviet economy.

    Rather it is to make SOEs more accountable and diffuse the benefits throughout the whole of government. One would hope that intellectuals would study this problem and maybe come up with some spun off ideas.

  13. JQ — “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.”

    Its a canyon alright ! In Aust we live with fabulous levels of wealth, (almost) unimaginable just 50 years ago (less than a single lifespan (for the lucky )) . But in general we may be less happy now .These days most extra wealth made is wasted on disposable goods by short sighted consumers exercising “choice “. Neo- lib policy makes selfish and anxious people .

    Govt needs some of this massive excess of wealth to invest in infrastructure and fill in gaps free markets cant . Some of the political class (representing those who have it) say govt has no right to it, and, others (representing those who dont ) cant get it anyway . Its hard to change 30 years of social engineering achieved in the name of freedom and choice . For the vast majority of the populace this way of life is now transparent , not even accepted – its before acceptance , acceptance implies recognition of alternatives .

    Maybe a better place can only be reached from the ruins of the old one ?.
    Maybe there is more appetite for change in countries affected by the global western economy recession? .
    Maybe the young are more open to alternatives than the babyboomers who wont let go ?.

    jim rose – a rising tide may lift all boats eventually, but billions still die in horrible circumstances waiting for their boat while we die from over consumption – could we have done better ?

  14. Pr Q said:

    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.

    I am not sure that this gets the direction of social causation right. The political pressure to end the hegemony of whiter, maler establishment generally and the push for equal opportunity that is the basis of equity & diversity anti-discrimination laws is derived from the “egalitarian logic of” liberal democracy. This overlaps with, but is not identical with, social democracy.

    You can see this in the evolution of the Progressive movement from the 1848 revolutions through to the Great Depression. The movements to end “racial- and gender-based discrimination” were championed by the 19thC& early 20thC abolitionists, suffragettes and temperance movements, Leftist & liberal to be sure, and often religious.

    And the political gains they made meant that, in the Anglosphere at least, biological discrimination was no where near as “pervasive, widely accepted and legally entrenched” in 1920 as it had been in, say, 1820. By the end of WWI, slavery was abolished & women had the vote.

    But most of these gains pre-dated the formal establishment of Keynsian-Beveredgian social democracy by at least 50 years. If anything, the establishment of trade union-based social democracy in the first half of the 20thC, tended to reinforce the dominance of race-based national populism. The early 20thC socialists were unabashed race realists to a man (or woman, in the case of Stopes & Sanger).

    This was embarrassingly obvious in the case of the populist Australian labor movement which was second to none in its promotion of White Australia as a way of protecting industrial awards. But even, or perhaps especially, the elevated circles of the Fabian Society & the Bloomsbury set, the intellectual dynamo of social democracy, were prominent promoters of eugenics. Both Beveridge & Keynes (and the Webbs, Shaw, Wells) were high officials in the Eugenics Society, a fact that most social democrats have conveniently air-brushed out of their received history.

    All this changed abruptly around about the year 1946 for reasons to obvious to dwell on.

    And its certainly true that from then onwards most modern states promoted policies to counter race- and gender-based discrimination. But these policies were remarkably bi-partisan, generating support from liberals, socialists and even fuddy-duddy conservatives alike. Remember it was Ike, hardly a social-democrat, who desegregated federal institutions. Churchill opened the UKs borders to non-white immigration from the the Commonwealth.

    The evolution of liberalism, especially in the post-modern era, tends to erode the social solidarity that provides the moral foundation for social democracy. So it is no accident that the era of post-modern liberalism, from the mid-seventies onwards, has seen the steady erosion of the social democratic state.

    My reading of social democracy is that it has worked well under conditions of mildly authoritarian populist nationalism, inflected with “practical Christianity”. That was the political culture held sway in the Anglosphere from about 1920-1960. Its not really surprising, as that is after all the philosophy of the founding father of actual & existing social democracy: Count Otto von Bismark. I can’t see the Iron Chancellor getting much of a hearing in a Crooked Timber seminar.

  15. 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.

    Humanity deserves utopia – but this manner of proceeding (above); ie “there is no reason to see capitalism as heading for collapse” works in the opposite direction – to deliver catastrophe.

    We all need to become better acquainted with Marx and his analysis. He demonstrated that capitalism would collapse after countervailing tendencies are exhausted.

    Statements that “no reason for capitalist collapse” are simply untenable if not unintelligent. There is no reason for collapse IF there remains viable countervailing tendencies (CT). This has been the case since WWII. However one CT, debt creation has no reached its limits, and another CT, reduce wages, has also proceeded long enough that final consumption is now inadequate for maintaining the circular flow. The destruction of workers share has been global, profound and long run. See:

    1) Wages receiving less of their own product over time, at

    [tinyurl.com/Marxist-Exploitation]

    2) Capitalist profits accumulating a greater and greater share of wealth, at

    [tinyurl.com/Marxist-Crisis]

    So which university course provides the necessary tools to cope or even understand such long-run structural tendencies?

    How do our so-called “post-Keynsians” explain this?

    What papers by the Treasury, Department of Finance, EPAC (defunct), Productivity Commission, or Bureau of Industry Economics (defunct) predicted this? Surely they were aware of IMF warnings in 2003 “an onset of deflation in a number of economies is seen to be relatively high and has drifted upward over the past several years … Japan in particular … (but there was) no evidence to support strong concerns of generalised global deflation” [Here]. Unfortunately for the IMF – Japan was the ignored warning, and the subsequent 10 years have led to a possible global depression, hidden temporarily by unbelievable, astronomical, quantities of debt and stimulus. Reality has to break through eventually.

    The real question for those claiming “no collapse” is; what CT’s are permanently available that are sustainable and do not lead to ratcheting macroeconomic instability?

    But then they also need to explain what they mean even using the word capitalism if not Marx’s clear usage.

  16. @Will Nozick’s framework for utopias has the following features:
    • The main problem in any utopian project is people are different, and their preferences for an ideal community probably also differ;

    • Utopia will consist of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions

    • People in these utopias are free to leave.

    • if they do not enjoy any of the worlds available, they can create the world they would prefer to live in,

    Nozick’s framework tries to open up as many options as possible for as many people as possible with people are free to leave for a better place

    A utopia is many federal systems with a right to emigrate to other states or countries. People and their talents and capital being free to leave are not part of a Left utopia?

    Any utopia must have exit, voice and loyalty. That has been the case as the world embraced free market policies and democracy since 1980. A major step towards utopias was the collapse of communism and the rejection of big government.

    Exit, competition from abroad, and new entry are the cornerstones of utopia.

    The Left talks of a utopia. The Right talks of utopias where people lead lives under different institutions they can vote in and out or reject and migrate to somewhere better. Welfare state utopias are free to compete with Hong Kong style utopias.

  17. @Jack Strocchi
    You were looking credible for a while until you quoted Frank Knopfelmacher in support! I recall him as a Cold War refugee notorious for his disturbed emotions, but wasn’t aware how he continuously traversed the political spectrum until i saw his Wikipedia entry. Pretty ridiculous to apply Dr K’s poke at Stalinists and fellow travellers to this discussion – or perhaps you can explain it.

    I don’t deny the economic strides China has taken – informed by the failed experiments you mentioned, by the way. But where is the the non-economic progress in your Post-Maoist enthusiasm for a factory state in service to the Party, similar to state control of the justice system, media, unions, SOEs etc.? And applauding Tiger Moms and their force=fed children as a desirable “educational” outcome doesn’t show much regard for human development in my book.

    Totalitarian subjection of citizens to the state is a negation of the utopian objectives we are discussing here. How do you expect the democratic deficit to be addressed?

  18. You say:
    “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]”
    Do you have a reference? I am interested in long term sustained growth equal to or superior to the rest of the world by socialist societies of any sort.

  19. Thanks John – very timely/great topic.

    My personal penchant would be to comment on sustainability. But since the basics have been done to death above maybe I can offer a caveat conundrum for discussioon which stumps me. And incidentally goes against all the utopias – religious, neoliberal, Tasmanian Green, Owenite, town planner, other than the Shakers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakers who had reached Nirvana – wonder what Jim Rose thinks of them). Who also show that progessive intelligent insightful and cooperative people can also be total loonies.

    – the concept of Utopia suggests a static state of bliss – a materialist heaven with much strumming of guitars in the 70s variant. But this flies in the face of “the only constant is change” – which has a very old provenance http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus – and arguably should be an ecological nostrum as much as sustainability.

    – this saying is fully consistent with biological and indeed universal evolution theories and is hard to argue against unless you are a dunderheaded religious literalist who thinks the earth was formed 6000 years ago and is about to be consumed by an Apocalypse set out by some deluded crank high on magic mushrooms.

    – ‘change as a constant’ begs the question of whether the whole Utopia question is being wrongly or at least incompletely framed. My feeling is that this is the case but anyone got any thoughts out there because it has a lot of implications whatever your politics?

    – by way of proof that weird ‘irrational change is still happenning I offer the example of ‘The Selfie’ -large numbers of today’s culture are every day taking a picture of themselves in various poses which gives new meaning to the word narcissism http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/thelist/the-list-15-mar/4576016 . I for one am totally puzzled. But it does at least confirm that predicting/planning for the future in 20-30 years time is a tad delusional if we impose the idea that people and things will be like the present. Paul Ehrlich talking the other day at UTS made this point using the fall of the Soviet system as an illustration.

    – also by way of proof that the idea of a fixed ‘Utopia’ is a post modern nonsense, I once owned of Utopias through the ages. It starts with the tower of babel and the last entry was a Milton Keynes poster complete with freeways, bikini girls, tennis player and sunny days (this in England??!!). This strand in urban planning continues http://books.google.com.au/books/about/Urban_Utopias_in_the_Twentieth_Century.html?id=65g2VjsxSswC&redir_esc=y

    And its all terribly laughable – in part.

    To sum up – the idea of an Ecotopia greatly appeals to me and I think it is essential for societal survival. But I cant reconcile this yet with constant change and evolution.

  20. This repost is an experiment to test a theory on why some of my relatively innocuous posts go to moderation. Still went to moderation, no idea why – JQ

    Amended repost follows;

    Utopia is not possible for reasons inherent in animal evolution and physiology. Physiologies, including the human, evolved and adapted through struggle against continuous existential cheallenges and adverse circumstances. Our bodies (and minds) are adapted in evolutionary terms to be in conflict with want or scarcity and in conflict with our surroundings and many other species from viruses to large predators.

    What happens when peace breaks out? Some call it civilization. We remove the challenge of continuous infections and our immune systems react against relatively harmless ambient irritants and even against our own bodies. We have the rise in allergies and auto-immune diseases. We remove the cheallenge of starvation or near starvation and what happens? We have the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and so on. We lenghten life spans and what happens? We have a great rise in the numbers of very old people being maintained in a semi-vegetative state with minds that have long succumbed to alzheimer’s or similar dieseases. We make life easy and unchallanging and what happens? We have boredom, anomie and angst.

    Our bodies are not adapted to ease. Our minds are not adapted to utopia. Actually, compared to the living conditions of even a few hundred years ago (50% of infants died before age 2 in Horatio Nelson’s father’s parish when H.N. was an infant) we have utopia now. However, this utopia contains the seeds of the next dystopia. And this is the crux of the issue. Ultimate utopia is not achievable. It runs counter to our evolutionary adaptedness to struggle as well as counter to the limited resources of the environment. Even relative utopia brings its own ills and indeed germinates the next dystopia.

  21. @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.

  22. @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?

  23. 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.

  24. @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.

  25. @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.

  26. 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.

  27. @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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

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

    Hmm.

    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.’

  31. @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.

  32. @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.

  33. @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

    Finished.

  34. @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.

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