1 November, 2010Issue 14.2Politics & Society

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A Rough Guide to Utopia

Tom Cutterham

foerErik Olin Wright
Envisioning Real Utopias
Verso, 2010
416 Pages
£16.99
ISBN 978-1844676170


For a moment it is difficult to identify the image on the cover of Envisioning Real Utopias. A pause, then realisation: it’s a mountaintop, emerging from thick cloud, below a pale sky. But everything is upside down. Like the idea of real utopias, the image is a paradox, impossible and possible at the same time. The world turned upside down has been the goal of revolutionaries since the English Civil War. This book is as brave and as contradictory as its title, for it offers not just visions of an upturned world, utopia, but an agenda firmly set in 21st-century reality.

Erik Wright has been running Real Utopias, based at the University of Wisconsin, since 1991. Verso have published six volumes of the project’s ideas on radical social change, from Deepening Democracy (2003) to Redesigning Distribution (2007). This new book is the culmination of that process, bringing together many of the earlier proposals and tying them into a broad analysis of social problems and solutions. It is as much about the process of envisioning utopias, and steering them from vision to reality, as it is about the individual proposals themselves. What Wright provides is not so much a manifesto as a handbook for contemporary socialists.

It has three parts: a diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, an array of (not necessarily mutually compatible) proposals for new democratic and egalitarian institutions, and a discussion of transformative strategies. In other words, where we are, where we should go, and how we could get there. The first of these is necessarily familiar. Utopia as literary form has always been more adept at critiquing the real world than constructing plausible alternatives. But Wright insightfully points out that positive ideals, “an implicit theory of justice”, must underlie our negative evaluations of the world. Envisioning Real Utopias gives form to those implicit theories, emphasising the prescription rather than the diagnosis.

The plausibility of this vision for change, the reality of the utopia, is integral to Wright’s persuasive purpose. We can only do what we believe possible, but at the same time “what is pragmatically possible is not fixed independently of our imaginations, but is itself shaped by our visions.” Rejecting Marx’s view that history’s trajectory could be predicted and that it led toward inevitable socialism, Wright seeks instead “a theory of structural possibility”. Unlike in simple historical materialist accounts, ideas and beliefs are central to this theory, because “the actual limits of what is achievable depend in part on the beliefs people hold about what sorts of alternatives are viable.”

So the ideas that populate the middle section of the book are carefully delimited and analysed for viability. The aim is not to indulge in “propagandistic cheerleading”, but it is to bring possibilities to our attention. In many cases the ideas under discussion are actually being put into practice somewhere in the world, from directly democratic city budgets in Brazil to “the world’s most successful group of worker-owned cooperatives” in the Basque region. The very fact that such exemplars can exist within the global capitalist structure is part of the argument. Change doesn’t necessarily require massive revolutionary victories, which don’t seem possible in any case. A new world can and must be built “within the shell of the old”.

Wright’s enthusiasm for expanding the social economy—enterprises motivated by fulfilling social needs rather than profit—can sound eerily similar to Tory Big Society schemes. That tension is part of a carefully explained strategy for radical change, but it will be an uncomfortable read for activists whose instinct is to fight reactionaries at any opportunity. The main proposition is that “symbiotic transformation” is the best hope for real, lasting change: “advances in bottom-up social empowerment within a capitalist society will be most stable and defendable when such social empowerment also helps solve certain problems faced by capitalists and other elites.” Leftists should, in a way, help Cameron in order to help themselves.

Still there are plenty of provocative proposals that would never be adopted by right-leaning governments, but do have the potential to come to the foreground of mainstream political debate. One of these is “unconditional basic income” (sometimes also called the citizens’ allowance), which pretty much does what it says on the tin. Unlike welfare, you receive it whether you’re in work or not, and everyone from banker to busker is eligible. Not only would the system instantly lift every person to a basic minimum standard of life, but it would make workers independent of employers, giving them more power to fight for conditions and pay. Those who would benefit most are the most exploited workers of today, those who are trapped in jobs below the poverty line just to keep their heads above water.

Another idea is “share-levy” pension funds, in which companies would be obliged to pay into their workers’ pension funds not cash but new—non-transferable—share issues. Gradually, as these share levies start to outnumber privately held shares, overall control of companies would pass to their own workers and retirees, who would use their shares to elect board members and ultimately set strategy. Such a scheme was partially implemented in Sweden before being disbanded by a Conservative government in 1992: at the time, the funds owned 7% of the Swedish stock market.

Particularly characteristic here is the aim of achieving social ownership and communal control without the use of total state control: the state has an important, but a limited role. In the third section of the book, on transformations, Wright discusses the potential of an anarchist-inspired “interstitial” approach, where radical new institutions are to be built “in the niches and margins of capitalist society”. But as we have seen, he finally prefers the “symbiotic method” that perceives the modern liberal-democratic state as one arena among many where victories can be won. What we get is an eclectic set of goals and methods, each with its own advantages and problems, and each offering a well-wrought facet of a better world.

By focusing in this way on specific, narrow but high-impact ideas, Wright makes his commitment to a larger overall change tough to ignore. The key words that appear in different combinations on almost every page—radical, democratic, egalitarian, social, emancipatory—serve to keep these guiding ideals constantly in mind. But the gentle, sober tone does little to imbue these words with inspirational value. For socialist polemics, readers would be better off with Žižek. Wright’s book is aimed at winning minds, not hearts. Yet there is something stirring about real utopias—ideas that actually seem like they would work. Maybe we can, after all, do more than just envision our utopias.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.

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