Erik Olin Wright was an American analytical Marxist sociologist, specializing in social stratification, and in egalitarian alternative futures to capitalism. Yet there has been a global retreat by the Left: on the assumption that liberal capitalism is the only game in town, political theorists tend to dismiss as utopian any attempt to rethink our social and economic relations. So long as a viable alternative to capitalism is not actively on the historical agenda –and with broad popular support linked to a political movement able to translate that support into political power- capitalism will remain the dominant structure of economic organization.”. “Encyclopedic in its breadth, daunting in its ambition, Envisioning Real Utopias is the culmination of Erik Olin Wright’s revamping of Marxism. Today “radical visions” are not taken seriously anymore. In other words, a theory that does not predict the course of development over time, but chart the range of possibilities for institutional changes under different social conditions. In April 2010 Erik Olin Wright presented a lecture on Envisioning Real Utopias as part of the West Coast Poverty Center’s seminar series on poverty and policy. “It is likely that the political space for social democratic reforms was, at least in part, expanded because more radical ruptures with capitalism were seen as possible, and that possibility in turn depended crucially on many people believing that radical ruptures were workable. What this means is that emancipatory transformations should not simply ignore the state as envisioned by evolutionary interstitial strategies, nor can it realistically smash the state, as envisioned by ruptural strategies. Envisioning Real Utopias aims to put the social back into socialism, laying the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. Taken together, these changes mean that the economic disruption of the break with capitalism will be less damaging than in the absence of such interstitial transformations. Erik Olin Wright (1947–2019) was Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. Socialism, in contrast, “requires a state with real power to institute and enforce the rules of the game and mechanisms of coordination without which the collective power of civil society would be unable to achieve the necessary integration to control either state or economy.”, The second source of scepticism centres on the problem of institutional mechanisms: “Why should we believe that such institutions are possible?” Wright asks. x 7.3in. Workers co-operatives and consumer cooperatives have developed widely and play a significant role in the economy; the social economy provides significant basic needs; collective associations engage in a wide variety of socially empowered forms of regulation; and perhaps power relations within capitalist firms have been significantly transformed as well. In this book, acclaimed sociologist Erik O. Wright has mapped out a framework for thinking about alternative possible societies and social mechanisms. Since his passing, I have read the most wonderful obituaries by many of his former students - many quite famous in their own right by now - leaving me thinking what a great human being and teacher EOW must have been. A theory of transformation involves four central components: - A theory of the gaps and contradictions within the process of reproduction, - A theory of the underlying dynamics and trajectory of unintended social change, - A theory of collective actors, strategies and struggles, “The final central component of a theory of social transformation is a theory of strategies of collective action and transformative struggle. By page 3 of Envisioning Real Utopias I was already disappointed. Socialism would replace private ownership of the means of production by some collective form of ownership and some form of comprehensive planning would replace the market. This is an essential property of ownership because it determines the allocation of the social surplus to alternative forms of investment, and thus the directions of economic change over time. that it can only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of the pre-revolutionary society; that, as regards social evolution, the hour of revolution is not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth – provided there was a begetting beforehand. These factors do not prevent that even in highly regulated economies private owners retain the right to buy and sell property from which they generate an income. A definite must-read for those interested in economic and social justice. As a result, considerable energy is expended fighting against the rejected strategic models. Magazine article Renewal. So even as working-class power increases, this power of capital is not seriously eroded. In most of Wright’s proposals the institutional designs for social empowerment leave a substantial role for markets, and thus they tend to envision some sort of “market socialism”. But such collective action will not necessarily be abetted by the increasing fragility of capitalism.”, The second major problem with he classical Marxist theory of the destiny of capitalism concerns the theory of proletarianization: “While it is certainly true that the course of capitalist development has incorporated an increasing proportion of the labour force into capitalist employment relations, in the developed capitalist world this has not resulted in a process of intensified proletarianization and class homogenization but rather in a trajectory of increasing complexity of class structure.”, Many locations in the classical class structure do not fall neatly in the two basic positions (worker versus capitalist): “In particular, class locations like those of managers and supervisors have the relational properties of both capitalists and workers and thus occupy “contradictory locations.” Professionals and highly skilled technical workers also occupy contradictory locations through their control over credentials. And… these are closely linked to the distinctions between capitalism, statist and socialism”. (…) This near-universal dependence of everyone’s material interests on the pursuit of profits by capitalist firms is perhaps the most fundamental mechanism of the social reproduction of capitalist society. Wright sees four implicit arguments in this interstitial strategy: - First, supporters of the necessity of interstitial transformation within capitalism claim that such transformations can bring into capitalism some of the virtues of a society beyond capitalism. In doing so we not only envision real utopias, but contribute to making utopias real”. 5) Capitalism is inefficient in certain crucial respects, 6) Capitalism has a systematic bias towards consumerism, 7) Capitalism is environmentally destructive. Here, he makes a very important point, clearly contradicting the so-called “death” of reformism” proclaimed many times by the radical left: “Given the robustness of capitalism and the strength of the institutions that reproduce it, at least in mature capitalist democracies, such class compromises are probably still a credible course of action for working-class organisations. The book educates very well on capitalism and alternative institutional models to expand social and political justice. Envisioning Real Utopias aims to put the social back into socialism, laying the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. 50% off. Review & Summary: Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin ... Erik Olin Wright’s major new work is a comprehensive assault on the quietism of contemporary social theory. Wright analyses the following theoretical models: (revolutionary) statist socialism, social democratic statist economic regulation, capitalist statist economic regulation, associational democracy, social capitalism, cooperative market economy, social economy and participatory socialism. (…) Here is where Marx’ theory becomes especially elegant, for the contradictions which propel capitalism along its trajectory of self-erosion also create a historical agent –the working class- which has both have an interest in creating a democratic egalitarian society and an increasing capacity to translate that interest into action. A systematic reconstruction of the core values and feasible goals for Left theorists and political actors, Envisioning Real Utopias lays the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. Unlike ruptural strategies which treat war as a central metaphor, interstitial ones are “more like a complex ecological system in which one kind of organism initially gains a foothold in a niche but eventually out-competes rivals for food sources and so comes to dominate the wider environment.”. Hoch intelligent und interessant und trotzdem verständlich und praxisorientiert. Third, socialism is also a hybrid. As a result, the empirical cases we have of ruptures with capitalism have resulted in authoritarian state-bureaucratic forms of economic organization rather than anything approaching a democratic-egalitarian alternative to capitalism.”. A Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Senior Labour figures, such as Ed Miliband and James Purnell, have used the opportunity of the financial crisis to denounce the myth of the selfregulating market - but at every turn, they have also … (https://c4ss.org/content/47250). empowerment. Ownership varies along three dimensions: the agents of ownership, the object of ownership and the rights of ownership. It is, as I see it, akin to a manual for thinking about the practice of socialism. “Social empowerment” on these three axes can be exercised through a wide variety of means and under a wide variety of models, which Wright elaborates on in detail in the following two chapters.". Capitalism has a tendency to periodic economic crises of greater or lesser severity, but there is no overall tendency of intensification of disruptions to capital accumulation, so we no longer have grounds for the idea that capitalism becomes progressively more fragile over time. Wright does not think that we need propose blueprints for the realisation of “socialism”, but we do need a “socialist compass”. Well-researched, with a look at efforts like the Mondragon cooperative and how they presently work, framed in a larger discussion providing a social theory in which we can evaluate economic systems in terms of how just they are for their participants. Following a talk given by one of my comrades, I determined to read the late, great. Envisioning Real Utopias aims to put the social back into socialism, laying the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. This does not mean that we are moving towards a sort of “people’s capitalism”, but it adds complexity to the class structure of capitalism. Wright: “The trick is then to make a credible case that a democratic egalitarian organization of the economy and society is a plausible form of such an alternative. And to make things even worse, Wright adds that: “The history of human struggles for radical social change is filled with heroic victories over existing structures of oppression followed by the tragic construction of new forms of domination, oppression, and inequality.”. Interstitial strategies may create enlarged spaces for non-commodified, non-capitalist economic relations, but it seems unlikely that this could sufficiently insulate most people from dependency on the capitalist economy and sufficiently weaken the power of the capitalist class and the dependency of economic activity on capital accumulation to render the transition trough in the revolutionary scenario short and shallow. It underwrites broad public support for a wide range of state policies designed to sustain robust capital accumulation and acts as a systematic constraint on the pursuit of policies that might in other ways benefit a large majority of people but which might threaten capitalist profits. Free delivery for many products! It depends on how one defines reformism. We must show that the explanation for suffering and inequality lies in specific properties of institutions and social structures, and that we need to start with the diagnosis and critique of the causal processes that generate these harms. Wright considers several options, depending on the circumstances. In response to this criticism, Wright says that it presupposes that there currently is “an alternative strategy which does pose a ‘serious threat to the system,’ and… that this alternative strategy is undermined by the existence of interstitial efforts at social transformation.” But the fact is that no strategy poses a credible threat to the system under current conditions. A Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor Anarchist thinkers like Bakunin shared a very similar materialist conception of history with Marx. And :”Although it does make sense to elaborate the theoretical concept of a capitalist-type state, actual state institutions can combine capitalist and non-capitalist forms. Gramsci’s emphasis was on building political and ideological counter-hegemony. The theory of social reproduction maps out the obstacles to social change we face. Second, the voluntary associations that compromise civil society include many nasty associations, based on exclusion, narrow interests, and the preservation of privilege. One of the mechanisms, which tie the welfare of individuals to the effective functioning of capitalist structures are material interests: “Capitalism organizes the material conditions of life of people in such a way that nearly everyone fares better when the capitalist economy is doing well than when it’s doing badly. Wright’s pessimistic view of the limits of interstitial strategy seriously neglects the fundamental shift in correlation of forces resulting from the radical downsizing of the majority production technology in terms of both scale and cost (which reduces the significance of “seizing the means of production” as a strategic goal), and the possibilities of networked communications and stigmergic organization (which reduce the significance of the old “commanding heights” command-and-control institutions for coordinating activity and overcoming transaction costs). “Therefore, historical materialism, understood as the “theory of capitalism’s future”, does not seem to be an adequate theory of the trajectory of unintended social change on which to ground the problem of developing strategies for emancipatory transformation,” concludes Wright, who does not believe that such a theory at present exists: “At best our theories of the immanent tendencies of social change beyond the near future are simply extrapolations of observable tendencies from the recent past to the present or speculations about longer-term possibilities.”, He determines a disjuncture between the desirable time-horizons of strategic action and planning for radical social change and the effective time-horizons of our theories. Interests must always be understood within specific time-horizons, and if the transition trough continues for a sufficient extended period it is unlikely to be seen by most people as in their material interests.” As the economy declines political forces opposed to socialism will argue strenuously that the trajectory will continue downwards to catastrophe and that the transition should be reversed. Wright defines socialism as an economic structure within which the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of what can be termed “social power”. As I will argue below, this amounts to discarding some extremely valuable tools for anticipating the course of post-capitalist transition. It lends credibility to the claim that capitalism is in fact in everyone’s interest, not just the interests of the capitalist class, and it places a considerable greater burden on the argument that an alternative to capitalism would be preferable. All contain dilemmas, risks, and limits, and none of them guarantee success: “In different times and places, one or another of these modes of transformation may be the most effective, but often all of them are relevant. Nevertheless he considers them worthy of study not only to identify their shortcomings and delineate their differences with other strategies, but also because they may be more relevant under special circumstances or local conditions, and may become relevant on a large scale again as a result of unforeseen systemic changes. So, while it is indeed the case that the state in capitalist society is a capitalist state, it is not merely a capitalist state: it is a hybrid structure within which capitalist forms are dominant.”, At the centre of a socialist alternative to capitalism is the problem of economic institutions, specifically the social organization of power over the allocation of resources and control of production and distribution. Depending the democratic quality of the state is thus the pivotal problem in relation to direct state provision of goods and services becoming a genuine pathway to social empowerment.”. Erik Olin Wright, geb. Miscellaneous Readings on themes in Envisioning Real Utopias G.A. (Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 2010, p. 22-3) [unless otherwise indi-cated, all quotes are from the June 2009 version freely available on the internet and thus unencumbered by “capitalist intellectual property rights” (p. 232)] Wright’s article in Jacobin (Online) (12.2.2015) was a bit more concise. Paperback. A draft version is freely available online at. To speak of real utopias is to be paradoxical, given that the OED (for instance) defines it as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect” – and while cynics may see the paradox as lying in the ideal of perfection, the paradox of course lies in the utopia as imagined (and therefore unreal – so a real utopia is more than a paradox, it is an oxymoron). Envisioning Real Utopias – Live July 29, 2010 In April 2010 Erik Olin Wright presented a lecture on Envisioning Real Utopiasas part of the West Coast Poverty Center’sseminar series on poverty and policy. This does not imply all social injustices are attributable to capitalism, nor that the complete elimination of capitalism is a necessary condition for significant advances in social and political justice. Envisioning Real Utopias aims to put the social back into socialism, laying the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. Faced with the facts of life, Wright tries an alternative formulation of the problem: “In the absence of a compelling dynamic theory of the destiny of capitalism, an alternative strategy is to shift our efforts from building a theory of dynamic trajectory to building a theory of structural possibility”. But there are also some important inadequacies in Marx’ theory of the future of capitalism, beginning with the theory of historical trajectory : “Crisis tendencies within capitalism do not appear to have an inherent tendency to become ever more intense over time; class structures have become more complex over time, rather than simplified through a process of homogenizing proletarianization; the collective capacity of the working class to challenge structures of capitalist power seems to decline within mature capitalist societies; ruptural strategies of social transformation, even if they were capable of overthrowing the capitalist state, do not seem to provide a socio-political setting for sustained democratic experimentalism.”. Read preview. Philanthropy and Real Utopia. Let us know what’s wrong with this preview of, Published “But the weakness of system-challenging class capacity also reflects ways in which capitalist democracies have offered people real opportunities to organize for significant improvement in their conditions of life within the constraints of capitalism” explains Wright, clearly referring to reformism. In such periods new interstitial strategies must be devised which erode those limits. Cita: Wright, Erik Olin (2010). In any case, in no developed capitalist society has the working class developed a collective capacity to challenge the foundations of capitalist power. There might be contexts in which struggles against the state could be required to create or defend these spaces, but the core of the strategy is to work outside the state.” Symbiotic strategies, finally, envision treating the state as terrain for struggle “in which the possibility exists of using the state to build social power both within the state itself and in other sites of power. Capitalist firms driven by the profit motive are needed for innovation and efficient investment. He authored many books, including Classes, Interrogating Inequality, Class Counts, Deepening Democracy (with Archon Fung), and Envisioning Real Utopias.. For more information, please see Vivek Chibber’s obituary of Erik Olin Wright. by Andrew Levine, Elliott Sober, et al. This is however not the same as embracing the false certainty that there exist no limits one can cross for constructing a radical democratic egalitarian alternative. The trajectory of change through interstitial strategy, therefore, will bemarked by periods in which limits of possibility are encountered and transformation is severely impeded. By Davies, William. Erik Olin Wright (February 9, 1947 – January 23, 2019) was an American analytical Marxist sociologist and educator, specializing in social stratification and in egalitarian alternative futures to capitalism.He was known for diverging from classical Marxism in his breakdown of the working class into subgroups of diversely held power and therefore varying degrees of class consciousness. However, the control over investment remains probably the most fundamental dimension of “private” ownership of the means of production within capitalism. Wrights claims that Wikipedia’s fundamental principles of organization are not simply non-capitalist; they are thoroughly anti-capitalist: 1. Social emancipation must involve, in one way or another, engaging the state, using it to further the process of emancipatory social empowerment. A democratic egalitarian project of social emancipation is a challenge to exploitation and domination, inequality and privilege, and thus emancipatory metamorphosis will entail power struggles and confrontations with dominant classes and elites.”, Wright explains that many projects within the social economy are the result of interstitial strategies. The political conditions for progressive tinkering with social arrangements, therefore, may depend in significant ways of the presence of more radical visions of possible transformations.” And, importantly: (This) “does suggest that plausible visions of radical alternatives, with firm theoretical foundations, are an important condition for emancipatory social change.”. VERSO, 2010 . Napster, the music-sharing site); open-source software and technology projects; fair-trade networks designed to link producer cooperatives in poor countries to consumers in rich countries; efforts to create global labour and environmental standards through various kinds of monitoring and certification projects.” Wright refers to these as “the revolutionary anarchist and evolutionary anarchist strategic visions, not because only anarchists hold these views, but because the broad idea of not using the state as an instrument of social emancipation is so closely linked to the anarchist tradition.”, “While interstitial strategies may expand the scope of social empowerment, it is difficult to see how they could ever by themselves erode the basic structural power of capital sufficiently to dissolve the capitalist limits on emancipatory social change,” Wright points out. Envisioning Real Utopias - Verso Books Erik Olin Wright. Wright’s theoretical approach is perhaps a little “too academic” for most activists, so it probably needs to be “translated” into a language people understand (but this is also true for a lot of material on P2P on forums like these, including my own contributions). Interrogating Inequality. If socialism as an alternative to capitalism is at its core economic democracy, it is essential (…) that democracy itself be democratized”, Wright argues. Envisioning Real Utopias. Erik Olin Wright writes, instead, that real world examples of functioning social alternatives can help us find ways to improve the human condition. But purely utopian thinking about alternatives may do relatively little to inform the practical task of institution building or to add credibility to challenges of existing institutions.”, Viability: Radical egalitarian ideas are often met with comments like ‘sounds good on paper, but it will never work’: “The best-known example of this problem is comprehensive central planning, the classic form in which revolutionaries attempted to realize socialist principles,” observes Wright. (https://c4ss.org/content/47250), Erik Olin Wright's rejection of a theory of history, EOW's Typology of Transitional Strategies, https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/index.php?title=Envisioning_Real_Utopias&oldid=102567, Desirability: “The Marxist description of communism as a classless society governed by the principle ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability’ is almost silent on the actual institutional arrangements which would make this principle operative. Wright claims also that a ruptural transition to socialism under democratic conditions requires a broad coalition between the middle class and the working class: “In addition to the general problem of a decline in political support in a prolonged transition trough, there is likely to be a particularly acute problem of middle-class defections from the socialist coalition (…) Then it is unlikely that a ruptural transition to socialism would be sustainable under democratic conditions. What are his main conclusions? Erik Olin Wright . They simply mean that the structural transformations predicted by the intensification of class struggle thesis have not occurred,” concludes Wright, The result of this increasing heterogeneity of interests amongst employees is that the capacity of the working class to challenge capitalism seems to decline within developed capitalist societies. Some Examples of Real Utopias 1. “Since democratic experimentalism is inevitable a messy process, which depend heavily on an ability to learn from one’s mistakes over time, it is understandable that revolutionary regimes might have felt, they could not wait for this to work” Wright guesses. “While revolutionary rhetoric has not completely disappeared, few critics of capitalism today imagine that a revolutionary overthrow of the state in the developed capitalist countries is a plausible strategy of emancipatory social transformation.” According to Wright, in developed capitalist countries with functioning liberal democratic institutions, the strategy towards socialism is submitted to ‘normal’ democratic processes. But Envisioning Real Utopias is more than a book. In addition, the environmental destruction generated by capitalist growth could ultimately destroy the ecological conditions for the existence of capitalism.