Why Utopia ?

by John Quiggin on March 16, 2013

The first question to be asked about Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is whether it makes any sense to pursue, or even talk about, utopian projects.

At least rhetorically, conservatives have no time for utopian thinking, although, as Corey Robin has pointed out, the actual content of conservative politics bears little relation to this rhetoric. Both in its libertarian and reactionary authoritarian forms, actually existing conservatism has a strong utopian, or dystopian, streak.

The left also has also a long tradition of suspicion of utopianism. This begins with Marx and his denunciation of utopian socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier, which did not, however, prevent millions from investing utopian hopes the Soviet Union and its satellites or in the prospect of a global revolution against capitalism. In our own time it is the failure of those hopes that have done most to discredit utopian thinking. The Soviet Union is now just a bad memory, and its successor states have almost nothing positive to show for the massive suffering and deprivation it imposed on so many millions. Nostalgia for the project is displayed mostly by Russian nationalists, and focused on the military greatness achieved under Stalin.

In the decades after 1945, social democrats offered a more modest version of utopia, but came closer to realizing it. The starting point was the combination of the welfare state, macroeconomic stabilization and the mixed economy. The combined effect was to transform the lived experience of capitalist society, though not the capitalist order itself.

The risks of falling into destitution as a result of unemployment, illness or old age, previously an ever-present reality for the great majority of workers, were eliminated almost completely by social security systems and, except in the US, publicly provided healthcare. At the same time, the social democratic era showed the possibility of sustained economic growth without the grotesque inequality of wealth that had characterized all previous societies, at least since the rise of agriculture.

The gains weren’t just economic. At the beginning of the social democratic era, racial and gender-based discrimination was pervasive, widely accepted and legally entrenched in capitalist society. But the egalitarian logic of social democracy made such discrimination untenable. By the time the dominance of market liberalism, the situation had been reversed, at least in legal terms, with the advent of anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws. Race and gender inequalities remained substantial, but were generally declining.

Beyond these achievements, the social democratic moment provided space for various kinds of utopian thinking. At a minimum, most social democrats assumed that the progressive gains of the decades after 1945 would continue until, at some point, a genuinely socialist society would emerge. Meanwhile, the radical movements of the late 1960s broke with the Stalinist Old Left and embraced many different varieties of utopianism: anarchist, feminist and environmentalist.

The acquiescence of capitalists in the social democratic moment needs some explanation. In part, undoubtedly, it was due to the need to provide an attractive alternative to Soviet communism during the Cold War. More importantly, however, the experience of the Great Depression had discredited free-market capitalism, and the demands of a war economy had given governments the power they needed to control the economy. As long as economic management went well, and memories of the Depression were fresh, the prospects of a successful challenge to the social democratic settlement were not sufficiently attractive to tempt any more than the radical fringe of the business class.

The resurgence of a financialized form of global capitalism from the 1970s onwards came as a shock to the left. By the time the dominance of market liberalism was clearly re-established in the in the triumphalist decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, two main responses had emerged. The first was accommodation to the new realities, presented as a new ‘Third Way’, allegedly transcending the dispute between social democrats and market liberals. The second was a protracted defensive struggle which succeeded in protecting many of the core elements of the welfare state, but not in reversing the massive shift of power, income and wealth from workers to bosses and financiers.

Now that promise of endless prosperity under market liberalism has been replaced by the reality of a Depression that shows no sign of coming to an end, the choices facing the left have changed radically. The assault on the social democratic state has intensified under the banner of austerity, making the defensive struggle all the more urgent. But the failures of capitalism mean that a defensive struggle alone is not enough. A positive alternative is needed, going beyond the cautious managerialism that seems to be the best on offer from the Democratic Party in the US, and social democratic parties elsewhere.

In these circumstances, the time is right to think about Envisioning Real Utopias. Erik Olin Wright approaches the task as a social scientist, committed to the idea of an ‘emancipatory’ social science. He begins with a critique of capitalism on grounds such its adverse effects on human flourishing and the environment. The critique is generic; that is, Wright presents it as broadly applicable to all varieties of capitalism, while agreeing that state regulation, unions and community associations may constrain capitalism to a greater or lesser extent. This creates problems, since the partial realizations of utopia Wright discusses must also operate within a capitalist society. The question of whether particular reforms, and reform in general, operate to stabilize the system or to prepare the ground for further transformation is never far away.

The next section of the book discusses alternatives, first in theory and then in practice. Wright deals first with the Marxist tradition, sympathetically but negative. The core of Marxist politics is the claim that capitalism must inevitable collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, with the class rule of the bourgeoisie being overthrown by a proletarian revolution. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s now clear that the industrial working class is never going to be large or unified enough to form the kind of revolutionary mass envisaged by Marx, and there is no reason to see capitalism as heading for collapse. Hence, Wright argues we need to replace assumptions about trajectory with arguments about possibility.

Therefore, it’s necessary to talk about real utopias. This is the core of the book. But there is an obvious problem here, between the idea of utopia as a purely imagined alternative, useful mainly for inspiration, or for critique of the existing order, and the requirement to focus on what is real. There is a huge unfilled gap between the classic utopianism involved in drawing up blueprints for an ideal society, and the ‘realistic’ alternative of working within the terms of debate of present-day electoral politics. Within this space Wright locates partially realised utopian projects such as Wikipedia and the Mondragon project, and policy proposals such as the Universal Basic Income.

My main complaint about the book is that the discussion of these examples is too brief. Each of them could have justifiably taken a full chapter. I’ll talk more about the UBI in another post, but this time I’ll point to Wikipedia as an example where I think a lot more discussion could be useful. Wikipedia is interesting in itself, but also as an archetypal example of the process that gave us the Internet as a whole. It’s important to remember that the Internet was not the only system of communication between computers. There were also services offered by (mostly public) telecommunications enterprises, of which Minitel in France was the most successfully, and a number of for-profit networks such as Delphi and America Online.

The technology of the Internet was almost entirely created by voluntary spare-time efforts, while the content emerged from the interactions between the early users, mostly academics and students. The result was far more attractive than the commercial alternatives. Nevertheless, by the 1990s, the Internet had been opened to commercial activity and was generating dreams of unbounded profits. The collapse of the dotcom boom and the emergence of Wikipedia and the blogosphere saw a return to the early idealism of the Internet.

A decade on, though, Facebook, Google and Apple are battling for commercial supremacy and the free and open Internet is disappearing fast. Still the utopian ideal persists, even as the Internet has become fundamental to the operations of societies of all kinds. If the various attempts to recreate the walled gardens of the past can be defeated, the basic rationale for markets as the drivers of innovation, and for financial markets as the optimal guides for investment will be seriously undermined.

While the examples are suggestive, the big value of this book is embodied in its title. We need to reopen the space for utopia in our political discourse, and Wright has helped to open the way.

{ 56 comments }

1

Jerry Vinokurov 03.16.13 at 11:49 pm

This begins with Marx and his denunciation of utopian socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier, which did, however, prevent millions from investing utopian hopes the Soviet Union and its satellites or in the prospect of a global revolution against capitalism.

Presumably you mean “did not” here?

2

John Quiggin 03.16.13 at 11:55 pm

D’oh! This is so typical of me. In Utopia, spellcheck software will detect my true meaning.

3

gwern 03.16.13 at 11:56 pm

> To be sure,

Yes?

4

John Quiggin 03.17.13 at 12:01 am

Sorry for all the typos and leftover fragments. I’ve rechecked and can’t find any more but I’m travelling and a bit tired, so feel free to point out more.

5

Michael Hall 03.17.13 at 12:45 am

If you’re into reading science fiction–or just appreciate great prose in the service of cutting-edge science and thoughtful extrapolation–the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson are indispensable on this subject.

6

Peter Dorman 03.17.13 at 12:59 am

One of the problems with categorical thinking about “utopia” versus immediate reform is that it fails to differentiate the actually existing utopian tradition, at least as we’ve known it in the West, from other possible ways of thinking about utopia. To be specific, there is a tradition in European thought and social movements that goes back over two thousand years that brings together two particular types of transformation, one social and the other spiritual. It has elements of Edenism, messianism and purification/perfection. Modern socialism began life as an outgrowth of this tradition, a (partial) secularization.

When I teach Alternatives to Capitalism, which I will again this spring, I begin with Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium, along with other material on the messianic tradition. I want to clear away the expectations we all have about what an alternative society would have to look like or accomplish before getting into the nuts and bolts of refashioning what we have now.

Maybe there is a defensible political and intellectual space for utopianism today, and maybe there isn’t. But the kind of utopianism that was bequeathed to us by generations of religious purifiers won’t help us at all.

7

Sebastian H 03.17.13 at 1:00 am

Is the free and open Internet disappearing fast? It could be that I’m reading and looking at eclectic stuff, but other than Andrew Sullivan, none of it has gone anywhere. And his loss is minor, and I’m sure some would say a net positive. Are other people suddenly feeling cut off?

As far as Utopias, my main problem with them is they tend toward mono vision. Someone describes the perfect world for themselves and fails to deal with the fact that not everyone shares their vision

8

shah8 03.17.13 at 1:20 am

I don’t think we are in a competition with capitalist visions of society. I do think the Marx is correct about the inevitable collapse of capitalism, not in a rush of proletarian revolution, but in the discreditation of the public space visible to governmental and capitalist elite. I mean, the whole Cypriot banking bail in deal is dubious as fuck all, and as far as I can see, it’s being panned throughout the financial media from the left stance.

9

shah8 03.17.13 at 1:21 am

So any envisioning Utopia is going to be about building trust in institutions again, first and foremost.

10

Hector_St_Clare 03.17.13 at 2:04 am

I think that capitalism is going to inevitably collapse too, but I think running out of critical natural resources (and cheap energy) is going to be a big part of the cause.

11

shah8 03.17.13 at 2:11 am

Malthusian predictions always turn up false, in my impression. There is usually a great deal of give and wasted resources. Now, the stickiness of modes of utility, like wage stickiness, is highly frictional under compression. And that has to do with the government’s ability to organize activities and use patterns. Running out of critical resources isn’t necessarily a doom thing, failing to cope with renewed scarcity could be. This distinction may mean that the government is merely reorganized through coup or “throw the bums out” elections.

12

rootlesscosmo 03.17.13 at 2:25 am

Isn’t there a case to be made that although Utopian hopes were indeed invested in the Soviet Union, its reality resulted, at least in part, from the enthusiastic application of anti-Utopian–that is, pseudo-scientific–methods and principles? Everything was justified by “stern necessity,” “life itself,” “inexorable laws”–the whole lethally impersonal machinery claiming authority from Marx–and “utopian” was a sneer. And if this is the case, does the Soviet experience testify, not against Utopianism, but against its detractors?

13

Matthew Yglesias 03.17.13 at 2:48 am

Where has the free and open Internet disappeared to? Aren’t I posting comments to a portion of it right now?

14

Mario 03.17.13 at 3:06 am

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.

I’m not sure from the context whether this is supposed to be a gloss of EOW’s history or a contextual claim to situate some of the discussion, but either way it seems a stretch. I kinda doubt that any of these three qualify as utopian. While there are teleological elements in all three, does that make them utopian per se?

Utopian claims tend to be whole-picture views of society–e.g. Sir Thomas More, but also predecessor works like Plato’s Republic and so forth. Yet feminist and contemporary anarchist work tends to vigorously dispute the ontological possibility of macro-scale, “God’s Eye” views. I mean, is Donna Haraway a utopianist? Or Judith Butler? Or Karen Barad? It seems hard to argue that they are–if they are, then Kant was as well.

Actually, I think the case for Kant is stronger than the case for feminist theory, come to think of it. Kant, after all, had descriptive principles for agents to obey. So what’s useful about the term “utopian” if (as stated) so much (e.g. feminism, environmentalism, anarchism) can fall into it?

15

Mario 03.17.13 at 3:07 am

For “descriptive” above read “prescriptive.” Sigh.

16

Hector_St_Clare 03.17.13 at 3:08 am

Much of modern feminism seems rather dystopian to me.

17

Alan 03.17.13 at 3:30 am

Unrestricted free speech is now probably limited to the spacetime constraints of two people face to face sans digital transmission either actively or passively. Otherwise datapoints multiply any such shared interaction to being subject to interpretation from anyone acquainted with them. Concepts of utopias classically have not entertained such fractal infusions of shared social information in their narratives, and that destabilizes them in any predictive ways as useful narratives.

18

Matt 03.17.13 at 4:15 am

I think that capitalism is going to inevitably collapse too, but I think running out of critical natural resources (and cheap energy) is going to be a big part of the cause.

I’d bet on collapse coming from the other direction, continual crises of overproduction until there are no new markets to expand to and the overproduction just won’t stop. Poor old capitalists have to accept low rates of return on real production or gamble their accumulation at the financial casinos. Boom, bust, boom, bust, but the busts mostly change ownership of productive capacity instead of eliminating it from the competition. Even peak oil won’t stop the tide; the forces of production have been too electrified :-(

19

Salient 03.17.13 at 4:48 am

Am I misreading sarcasm as literal, or are people really disputing the statement that the free and open Internet is rapidly disappearing?

I mean, for fuck’s sake the Visa/Mastercard/Amazon thing alone should put everybody’s red flags on high alert, or whatever mixed metaphor you like best. But oh, what else. Peer-to-peer networking and dedicated distribution channels are now bulk monitored. Private entities have the right to intercept torrent connection attempts, record identifying information, and file civil and criminal suits against people who seem to be attempting to download something that seems to be that entity’s intellectual property (even if the content they did actually download was garbled unusable nonsense). Domestic unencrypted email transmissions are now routinely monitored (admittedly not a problem for most folks, provided you’re using an https web portal or an email client that opens an SSL connection). The requirements in order to obtain a warrant for accessing your personal information are nowadays laughably minimal, and mass “discovery” demands of the form “turn over everything to us that might be related to this, on an ongoing basis, including identifying information” — even when not technically legally binding — are still regularly complied with by Google, Yahoo, and most anywhere else people tend to use email/chat thinking it’s private and safe (which means using an https web portal or an email client that opens an SSL connection won’t matter squat). File-sharing and -hosting sites, with notably Youtube exceptions, are held legally responsible for verifying the legality and legitimacy contents of what they host. (This is enforced very selectively. Several medium-to-high-profile-sites have been taken over by the FBI in 2013 alone, which means any attempt to access them from US/UK gets intercepted, identified, recorded, and thwarted. Don’t follow your friends’ old links to where they uploaded stuff…)

And that’s just off the top of my head, and just in the U.S., of course. Matt’s comment in particular is troublesome — dude, you made such a big deal out of going to China; the least you could do is acknowledge that oh hey maybe they don’t have it as sweet as we do.

But hey, maybe there are popular avenues I just don’t know about, so let me ask the pertinent question? How, exactly, do you go about making something available to people, in a way that ensures they can find and get the right thing, reliably and for indefinite duration, and aren’t tracked or monitored in the process? Or let’s turn it around. How do you go about discovering and retrieving new content without subjecting yourself to surveillance? Because last I checked, if you want to engage with the free and open internet, you basically need to find a sympathetic web host in the Netherlands.

Sure, you can leave blog comments, and read others’ comments, on sites you frequent. You could still do that on a very, very closed Internet — if that’s the only thing you’re worried about losing, you’d probably still do ok on AOL, and might even benefit from the constriction (fewer places to visit means more people to talk with). However, note that if you post content the state finds threatening or worrisome, their wide-net monitors are likely to pick it up, and they can easily force the hosting site to divulge your identifying information and come have a chat with you about it.

So I guess here’s my question: Given that “free and open Internet” means “stuff you wouldn’t probably still have on a web consisting mostly of AOL/Comcast/Amazon/Google commercially-approved sites”, are folks disputing that the free and open Internet is disappearing, or are they arguing that we don’t really need all that excess ‘free and open’ Internet stuff since basic everyday Internet stuff like Crooked Timber would still mostly be available?

20

Salient 03.17.13 at 5:09 am

tl;dr If you think Crooked Timber counts as “a portion of the free and open Internet” that’s just a sign you don’t know what other people mean by “the free and open Internet,” which is fine — in fact, maybe you have no interest in preserving the free and open Internet! And maybe you could argue that your more expansive definition is really the appropriate definition that everyone should understand and abide by, I dunno. But don’t go using that interpetation/understanding/misinterpretation/misunderstanding to mock well-meaning people who are concerned about something a little more specific.

It’s a bit like mocking someone who expresses concern about, I dunno, the decline in [rainforest] aviary diversity by saying, “A decline in aviary diversity? Whatever do you mean? There have been four different kinds of songbirds feeding at my birdfeeder, just in this week alone!”

21

Meredith 03.17.13 at 5:45 am

I was just teaching Aristophanes’ The Birds, which (truth be told) I hadn’t given serious thought to in many years, despite the effect reading it had on me in college and seeing a crazy wonderful production of it in college also had on me.
As Aristophanes so well observed, with every Utopia (eu as well as ou — the good place as well as the not-place or nowhere — More was making a bilingual pun) we re-enact the very vices we seek to escape or evade. Which doesn’t make the enterprise frivolous. Quite the opposite, if we are good readers and willing to accept — hell, celebrate — that the game will never be over.

22

Hoover 03.17.13 at 7:38 am

Without capitalism and automation, Wikipedia would never have happened. It required millions of hours of thinking and writing time; time that was unavailable until machines stole our jobs.

Wikipedia would puzzle a nineteenth-century farm labourer no end. “I work for ten hours every day, then come home and have to fix the fence round the chicken run, gather wood for the fire and repair my breeches. In short, squire, I don’t know where you find the time to craft a sentence about Wittgenstein that will likely be deleted by the next clever dick who comes along”.

23

bad Jim 03.17.13 at 7:46 am

It’s far from clear that issues of governance in developed countries are going to be the primary determinants of the course of events in the near future. Climate change and other environmental issues, like the despoliation of the oceans, are starting to bite us in the butt now. Drought in the American midwest depressed crop yields last year; this year doesn’t look much better, and the far west may be catching up.

Only a cock-eyed optimist would think that the end of cheap energy will be a worse problem than dealing with the consequences of the combustion of millions of years of sequestered carbon.

That’s even before we get to questions about international equity. Utopia in one country is a fine goal, but not only should it not be achieved by impoverishing another state, but its very success is called into question by the existence of poverty elsewhere.

I’m nearly two gigaseconds old, so I won’t be around to see how everything turns out, but neither will all of you, I hope, because things will keep on going.

24

Sebastian H 03.17.13 at 8:48 am

Salient, I share your concerns about government monitoring, but I was responding to this in the original post:

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.

I may be interpreting this quote too narrowly, but your concerns don’t immediately appear to be reflected in it. It sounds like JQ is contrasting free and open with commercial and walled garden. The criticism appears to be that attempts to commodify the internet have been successful or seem to be succeeding. I don’t really see much of that and to be honest I don’t really see how it connects easily with ideas of utopia.

25

novakant 03.17.13 at 9:09 am

It seems to me that the ordinary language use of “utopia(n)” is very close to “unfeasible”, carries some very negative historical connotations with it and, as already mentioned, describes a singular rather than pluralistic vision – so it’s rather unhelpful to use it if you want to achieve social change, no? It’s pretty easy to come up with alternatives that don’t carry all this baggage.

How, exactly, do you go about making something available to people, in a way that ensures they can find and get the right thing, reliably and for indefinite duration, and aren’t tracked or monitored in the process?

If you want to share something with your colleagues or friends there are several cloud services available that offer various levels of encryption, including client-side – or you can encrypt the files yourself very easily.

Of course, if you tried to share the latest blockbuster or whatever with millions of people in this way, I’m pretty sure they would notice the spike in bandwidth an pull your file – but then you’re not supposed to such things, tsk, tsk …

26

Marcus 03.17.13 at 10:52 am

One thing to be said for utopia is that it is much easier to understand for all. Just look where dialectics had gotten us, either into very complex philosophical arguments or the popular pseudo-science of Stalinist dialectical materialism. Not saying dialectics is useless in philosophy (far from it), but as a tool for steering the ship of state it has not proven to be very effective.

Another redeeming feature of utopia is that there are many different versions, hence if applied they can be in a kind of competition between each other.

I remember Ernst Cassirer making some comments on utopia in his Essay on Man, to the effect that they should not be taken as finalised blueprints but as cognitive devices for effecting social change.

27

Random Lurker 03.17.13 at 11:52 am

I always tought that “utopia” is a term to tar theories you don’t agree with.
For example I don’t understand how people that tought that a bureaucratic state like the soviet union could work well can be described as utopists.

28

Mao Cheng Ji 03.17.13 at 11:55 am

Maybe a ‘utopia’ is more or less any positive vision. As opposed to a criticism or negative (in the logical sense) prediction, like ‘capitalism is going to collapse’.

Criticisms and negative predictions are convincing, because nothing is perfect, nothing is infallible, nothing is forever. And positive visions tend to invite mockery. For the same reason. Deservingly, perhaps?

29

chris 03.17.13 at 12:11 pm

#7: As far as Utopias, my main problem with them is they tend toward mono vision. Someone describes the perfect world for themselves and fails to deal with the fact that not everyone shares their vision

I tend to agree.

#16: Much of modern feminism seems rather dystopian to me.

…and this is an excellent demonstration. A society that makes Hector happy must make, say, Jessica Valenti unhappy and vice versa.

Practically any society needs to make a serial killer unhappy and we pretty much accept the fact that their wants can be disregarded in order to protect their victims’ wants, but in practice this kind of thing has to extend well into the gray areas, one way or another. Even a hands off approach will disappoint people who were expecting society to have and enforce standards.

30

Tim Worstall 03.17.13 at 1:41 pm

As usual I’m confused here. Throughout there’s a conflation of “market liberalism” with “capitalism”.

But I thought that as part of the Red Plenty bookfest we’d all agreed that markets have to be there: and liberal ones too. There simply isn’t any other method of calculating the economy.

Who owns what (specifically productive assets) is different between capitalism and socialism. But neither precludes market liberalism, does it? Nor insists upon it either?

31

Anarcissie 03.17.13 at 2:28 pm

… The acquiescence of capitalists in the social democratic moment needs some explanation. …

I thought the whole point of social democracy was to preserve capitalism by providing the working class with some of the imagined features of socialism without transferring any actual power to them, other than maybe some modest entitlements. For the capitalists, this was one way to keep control (soft cop), the other was being overt repression (hard cop). Soc-dem, as a movement, was successful as long as the capitalist ruling class was afraid of the Soviet Union and other competitors. With the failure of the competition, the r.c. is rescinding it. No?

32

Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.17.13 at 2:47 pm

While Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fourier were in one sense “utopians,” let’s not forget that they saw themselves in the terms of their day as “social scientists” (yes, even Fourier). As Vincent Geoghegan* explains, Saint-Simon’s constant and overarching aim was to construct a science of humanity and he drew widely from the learned literature of his day. He is rightly considered one of the founders of modern sociology.” Or consider Robert Owen, who “prided himself on having tested his theories in reality.” Owen believed those who deserved to be truly labeled unrealistic visionaries adhered to the “a priori dogmatism of religion and political economy.” In contrast to the “idle visionary who thinks in the closet, and never acts in the world” (Owen), defending, writes Geoghegan, “the indefensible in the teeth of all evidence to the contrary,” “Owen was quite clear that he was the practical, realistic reformer who had demonstrated a workable future and that it was those who promoted illusions of a religious or political economic nature who were the really dangerous fantasists.” Fourier too, fancied himself a realist in a sea of illusion: “The actual peddlers of utopias, in [a] pejorative sense, were for Fourier all those contemporary practitioners of the ‘inexact’ or ‘philosophical’ sciences—moralists, philosophers, economists, politicians who, through an ignorance of the real world, promised heaven and delivered hell.” Whatever the polemical rhetoric to the contrary, all three theorists, Geoghegan reminds us, had considerable influence on Marx and Engels, and the latter was certainly not against the “utopian” enterprise as such. No less than Lenin understood the three “sources” of Marxism to be left-Hegelianism, critical political economy, and utopian socialism!

Over time, it became clear that the critique by Marx and Engels of the “utopian socialists” was not the notion of utopian anticipation of the new society as such, so much as “the failure to root this anticipation in a theoretical framework cognizant of the essential dynamics of capitalism.” Geoghegan rightly points out that Marx and Engels “underline the critical element in the early utopian socialists and maintain that is still has continuing validity: ‘They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.’” In the end, their desire for political recruitment and mobilization prompted Marx and Engels “to stress the political distinctiveness of their own stance,” which “led them to be less than fair to their ‘utopian’ predecessors.” The dispute between the visions of the utopian socialists and the Marxist communists boiled down to “methodology” in the grandest sense. After describing the considerable debt Marx and Engels owed the utopian socialists, Geoghegan concludes that “Marx and Engels left an ambiguous legacy in which vigorous attacks on utopian accompanied clear utopian speculation.”

The gulf that later opened up between utopian socialism and Marxist socialism is owing to the silly endeavor of ideologically calcified Marxists to wrap themselves in positivist scientific garb that granted fledgling movements and parties the political authority to “describe those not in a scientific state of grace—‘utopian.’” However much they “differ greatly among themselves,” Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, André Gorz, and Rudolf Bahro in our time help us appreciate the necessity of overcoming this scientistic, polemical, and, yes, pernicious political divide between utopian and scientific socialism.

* See his indispensable book, Utopianism and Marxism (Methuen, 1987). For a somewhat belated but no less articulate and important appreciation of the relevance of “utopian” thought for socialism, see Michael Harrington’s last book, Socialism: Past and Future (1989).

33

Bill Barnes 03.17.13 at 2:49 pm

“the whole point of social democracy” — whole lot of reification going on here.

34

Anarcissie 03.17.13 at 4:02 pm

Read it for the poetry.

35

Harold 03.17.13 at 4:55 pm

@26 Agreed with Marcus that utopias are useful “cognitive devices.”

@32 Also, truly, Marx and Engels were “less than fair to their ‘utopian’ predecessors” to whom they owed a “considerable debt” and in consequence “left an ambiguous legacy in which vigorous attacks on utopian accompanied clear utopian speculation.”

This propensity to “vigorous attacks” on those whom they see as rivals, potential rivals, and each other, characterizes Marxists, who like all ‘utopians’ are moral thinkers. The fact that “scientific” in German means “rigorous” and only later acquired the more restrictive meaning it now has in English, adds to the confusion. But then their point is not to understand, but to change the world.

36

godoggo 03.17.13 at 5:03 pm

I just have to give my favorite quote from The Birds: “Do you take me for a Lydian or a Phrygian and think to frighten me with your big words?”

I wonder if George Russell ever read that.

37

Bob Winter 03.17.13 at 6:24 pm

With apologies, but I am lost in your discussion. I have little idea of what you mean by “real Utopias” other than a vague sense that it would suggest greater social justice and be wholly unlikely to be achieved. I should note I have not read the book, which I expect puts me at a disadvantage. I also do not know know what you believe is inherent in the nature of capitalism. Many of the obvious and terribly destructive faults in recent economic performance in developed economies practicing some version of capitalism, including increasing disparity in income distribution, seem to me to follow from numerous policy decisions that often turn out not merely to be wrong in the sense that they fail to achieve what their advocates contended but were unfair and unjust when made; and, were intended in many instances to favor the better off to the detriment of the poor. Assuming a belief in democracy, it seems to me that the better thing is to focus upon the elimination of destructive policies in the here and now rather than trying to construct utopian models that are extraordinarily unlikely to be achieved on the hope that they will suggest a better fundamental system that a few might find convincing or a guide.

38

Salient 03.17.13 at 7:10 pm

@Sebastian H: I may be interpreting this quote too narrowly, but your concerns don’t immediately appear to be reflected in it. It sounds like JQ is contrasting free and open with commercial and walled garden. The criticism appears to be that attempts to commodify the internet have been successful or seem to be succeeding. I don’t really see much of that and to be honest I don’t really see how it connects easily with ideas of utopia.

I honestly don’t grok ‘commodify’ but will try to draw in the reflection/connection I had in mind. A part of my point was that ‘free and open’ isn’t synonymous with ‘user-generated content exists.’ User-generated content isn’t what makes the Internet open and free, it’s what makes the Internet the Internet.

The biggest threat to utopially complete openness and freeness — Internet as a medium through which people can say anything, do anything, produce anything, find anything, have anything, share anything, learn anything, etc — still appears to be direct state intervention. Even commercial entities turn to state intervention in order to restrict and curtail openness and freeness.

So I’m going to sort of assume, haphazardly, that ‘commodify’ in this context works is basically a synonym for ‘censor.’ (I should insert the standard disclaimer here, that the ‘free’ part of ‘open and free’ means free as in free speech, not free as in free beer.)

If what we’re worried about is censorship, the threat to an open and free Internet has two parts:

1. the potential distributor is averted from disseminating something through the Internet

2. the potential audience is averted from seeking and acquiring it

In both cases, the aversion could be caused by the plausibility of state violence,getting arrested, or by the plausibility of humiliation, e.g. getting publicly identified/associated. My argument is that these things, as well as the threat of them, would have to come from the state. (Or from ISPs. Let me set them aside for now.) Intimidation, the threat of force, is every bit as important as intervention, the actual use of force. And nonsecret or ‘open secret’ surveillance is indistinguishable from intimidation.

So maybe I’m sidestepping the commodification part entirely. I don’t know. But I am pretty sure that the Internet can’t be under commercial control except through extensive state enforcement. (Again, setting ISPs aside.) And the best enforcement regimes rely on implied intimidation to accomplish aversion. And there’s no better way to imply intimidation than through surveillance.

So, in my mind, it does actually all come down to, basically, surveillance and direct takedowns of problematic sites. I dunno if this helped, but hopefully it at least clarifies the connection I saw, even if it doesn’t really get at what you were noticing.

@novakant: If you want to share something with your colleagues or friends

The changeup from ‘people’ to ‘colleagues and friends’ there does all the work for you, and more — if you want to share something with your colleagues and friends, you can use a USB flash drive and hand it to them or mail it to them, no Internet needed. So, okay, I should have specified “people who you don’t know personally and don’t regularly see” in that particular sentence. But establishing a direct interactive social connection with people you don’t know personally and don’t regularly see is, like, basically, essentially, the entire point of the Internet. Sharing all the audiovisual/written stuff you have, with people you don’t know. Obtaining all the audiovisual/written stuff you don’t have, from people you don’t know. Utopia.

(Lest I invite nitpickiness, ‘stuff’ means audiovisual/written stuff only. At least until 3d printers can fabricate cheeseburgers on the fly.)

39

Hidari 03.17.13 at 8:04 pm

FWIW I used to think, as is the received wisdom, that Marx `never` spelled out how he expected socialism or communism to work. But actually if you read between the lines, especially what he wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, his writings on the Russian Agriculture Communes, his writings on the French Commune and the his writings on the Iroquis, it makes it pretty clear how he thought at least the early stages of Socialism would work. Of course since Marx would claim that since these were actually existing forms of so to speak `existing` communism that he was not being `Utopian` in adopting them as a model, but then again, no one had thought of putting them all together in this specific way before either. So you could argue either that this was a Utopian or anti-Utopian idea depending on your point of view.

@30 FWIW Marx seems to have thought that money (and therefore presumably markets at least in their capitalist forms) would be replaced by Labour Vouchers. And from whom did he get that idea? From Robert Owen (although Marx in his usual style was quick to point out why Robert Owen had got it the use of the vouchers all wrong). Marx`s language is fairly gnomic but there is not any real doubt that that`s what he meant. Whether this would work or not is anyone`s guess (probably not) but certainly it`s never been tried.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labour_voucher

40

Tim Wilkinson 03.17.13 at 10:18 pm

Tim Worstall: I thought that as part of the Red Plenty bookfest we’d all agreed that markets have to be there: and liberal ones too. There simply isn’t any other method of calculating the economy.

Wrong. We most certainly had not all agreed on this narrative. The locus c. must be ‘In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You’ by Cosma Shalizi, May 30, 2012.

A substantial number of comments address the idea that ‘markets’ (i.e., something like: resource allocation by adversarily-negotiated bilateral transactions under a liberal property regime) are necessary for ‘calculating the economy’ adequately. Of these, the vast majority reject it directly or by implication.

The clearest example (that is, most clearly an example) comes from yrs trly: http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/30/in-soviet-union-optimization-problem-solves-you/#comment-416141 , and is not, FWIW, seriously challenged.

The indispensibility of ‘markets’ on technical, cybernetic grounds is one of the biggest and most shovel-in-the-face-resistant of zombie ideas in economics.

See also a more recent comment about the mirage of efficient/optimal market allocation, referencing the work of Robert Axtell: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/03/08/austerity-as-an-idea/#comment-457311

41

novakant 03.17.13 at 10:45 pm

Sharing all the audiovisual/written stuff you have, with people you don’t know. Obtaining all the audiovisual/written stuff you don’t have, from people you don’t know. Utopia.

So you are talking about illegally “sharing” copyrighted material? If so, I think you’re wrong, but I’m not interested in yet another silly debate.

I do think that the very valid concerns regarding the erosion of privacy and the kraken-like surveillance state are being diluted by people who think it’s their birthright to get everything for free, instantly, just because it’s technically possible.

42

Murray Reiss 03.17.13 at 11:06 pm

I think there’s a distinction needs to be made between capitalism collapsing, from whatever combination of circumstances strikes your fancy, and it being overthrown by a coherent revolutionary force, which for marx was going to be the proletariat and now … ?

43

Salient 03.17.13 at 11:13 pm

So you are talking about illegally “sharing” copyrighted material?

What in the fuck is your fucking problem?

44

Salient 03.17.13 at 11:24 pm

At slightly greater length: novakant, goddamnit, stop trolling. You know it’s idiotic to treat the Internet as though it consists entirely of (1) things you share privately with close personal friends and colleagues and (2) mass-distributed pirated material. You know in part because we have discussed various alternatives at excruciating length right here on Crooked Timber at least, like, three times now.

If you act as if can’t envision any other type of thing people might want to share with people they don’t know, that’s only because you’re deliberately being obtuse. And if you’re going to be deliberately obtuse, why the fuck shouldn’t I just call you a fucking idiot and have done with it? I pulled back and was polite in my first response, and apparently you took that as an invitation to spit at me. Enough already.

45

Bill Barnes 03.17.13 at 11:47 pm

John Q,

Most of this thread entirely ignores Wright’s book, and largely ignores your post. We need another contribution, and an admonition to pay some attention to the intended subject.

46

EricD 03.18.13 at 12:42 am

As best I can tell from skimming book reviews and sniffing the web with search terms, Envisioning Real Utopias doesn’t engage with questions raised by the rise of pervasive surveillance, yet these questions have driven substantial discussion on this thread, and rightly so.

Surveillance is one of several technology-saturated areas in which an emerging social order may offer a more malleable target than social orders already in place, and in which the potential for dystopian outcomes is more than obvious.

There’s more to consider than the usual impoverished range of ideas. To self-plagiarize from a soon-to-be-published book:

“Options for managing information-intensive security in a civil society are surprisingly broad, yet the range of potential patterns of information collection, access, response, and accountability has scarcely been explored in public discussion, even in outline… institutions, law, digital technologies, and procedural rules must be considered together—and in creative, culturally appropriate combinations—or much will be missed.”

More generally, real[istic] utopias must build on, incorporate, or successfully resist oncoming transformative technologies, and some of those technologies can be understood well enough to formulate useful questions and to explore radical options. The prospect of shaping profound change calls for a frame of mind willing to consider utopias, if not as objectives, then as idealized models and direction markers. I don’t think we can rely on techno-libertarians, corporate planners, or security agencies to ask the necessary range of questions or to offer good answers.

47

engels 03.18.13 at 1:00 am

Most of this thread entirely ignores Wright’s book, and largely ignores your post.

You’re new here, aren’t you?

48

joe koss 03.18.13 at 1:20 am

Was it foolish and/or ironic of me to go to amazon to see if I could download the book on my Kindle and partake in the excuse to read the book while living in a third world country?

I thought John’s introduction was “poetic” too, and Salient – take no prisoners, I like your style.

49

Luis 03.18.13 at 1:28 am

What Bill B. says at 45. So many (most?) of the critiques and questions here are directly addressed in the book, and it is a shame so many have dived in here without at all engaging with it. Go buy a copy; these threads will still be here when you’ve finished. If you can’t buy a copy for some reason, several chapters of the book were posted online by the author; I would recommend in particular Chapter 5 (especially “taking the social in socialism seriously”) and Chapter 10 (“Interstitial Transformation”).

To help a little bit, here is what I would add to John Q.’s post that is sort of a missing link in his explanation of the book, and that I think will help commenters who have not read it.

The reason why Wikipedia is important to EOW, is not that by having it, we have magically resolved all the other problems of the internet. (EOW would be the first to agree that much of the current internet is fairly dystopian!) The importance of Wikipedia, rather, is that revolutionary change (what he calls “ruptural transformation”) is very hard, and perhaps in some cases undesirable. So instead, in many cases, serious socialists would be well served to work on “interstitial” transformation: having smaller-scale, self-contained “utopias” that point towards a variety of ways that life can be improved and made more social within the larger capitalist-democratic framework. In this framework, Wikipedia is a mechanism for “interstitial transformation”. For example, Wikipedia reminds many people (including many non-socialists) that things of value can be produced by non-capitalist mechanisms. Therefore, Wikipedia helps open the door ever so slightly for other such experiments, that eventually, gradually, will improve the world. By having a privacy policy quite unlike the privacy policy of any other top-ten website, it suggests that the surveillance-focused internet is not necessarily inevitable, making political action (and other small utopias) with similar principles more possible. And so on and so forth.

I’ve not done a good job of capturing Wright’s thesis here, but it’s really quite critical to understand this part of EOW’s argument to answer the title question here.

50

Luis 03.18.13 at 1:31 am

Most of this thread entirely ignores Wright’s book, and largely ignores your post.
You’re new here, aren’t you?

I’m quite old here, and I don’t recall ever seeing a book post go so completely, pointlessly off the rails as this one. Changing the topic is fine, and ignoring the post is fine, and not having read the book is… well, not fine, but not uncommon… but the mix of those three things here is really particularly obtuse.

51

Yarrow 03.18.13 at 2:55 am

Luis @ 49: Go buy a copy

I did, when the symposium was first announced several centuries ago. It’s packed away somewhere. (I moved). I don’t remember enough to comment much more intelligently than someone who hasn’t read it.

And this post went up right after the “we’re really doing it” post. The next one may have more comment from people who (re)read the book.

52

Yarrow 03.18.13 at 3:11 am

Tim Wilkinson @ 40: Thanks for posting the link to http://crookedtimber.org/2012/05/30/in-soviet-union-optimization-problem-solves-you/#comment-416141 — I’d missed it the first time ’round.

And it wouldn’t be out of place as a top-level post in a symposium where “Some of the posts will be fairly conventional reviews, others will take some particular point as a license to jump off in new directions.” (OK, you’d have said something about the book if it were such a post. Nevertheless.)

53

Anarcissie 03.18.13 at 3:27 am

I’m going to read the text. I found a few PDFs of it online, one being http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ERU_files/ERU-full-manuscript.pdf
I am hopeful (from the promise of the URL) that it’s all there.

54

Bill Barnes 03.18.13 at 3:29 am

Here’s the url for Erik Wright’s text version of his presidential address at last year’s ASA in Denver. It’s a good summary of the book.

http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Published%20writing/Presidential%20address%20–%20uncorrected%20page%20proofs%20–%202012.pdf

55

Luis 03.18.13 at 5:32 am

Yarrow: fair enough; I also read it when a symposium was first mentioned, so yes… I’m sure my summary is missing a lot as well :)

56

m 03.18.13 at 7:19 am

I share the sentiment of Luis and others: for a fruitful discussion more here should buy and read the book,
http://www.versobooks.com/books/463-envisioning-real-utopias

or read chapters here freely accessible here
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ERU.htm

or read an article that summarizes many of the points, here
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Published%20writing/New%20Left%20Review%20paper.pdf

or listen to this talk that also summarizes a few points, starting at 54:00
http://videoarchive.asanet.org/presentations/2012ondemand_awards_presidential_address.html?plist=2012

Or this written version of the talk
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Published%20writing/Presidential%20address%20–%20uncorrected%20page%20proofs%20–%202012.pdf

Wright gives easy access to much of his writings so it is sad to see many jumping into discussion without attempting to engage with the work.

I wish the Crooked Timber team added the links and suggestions above in the text of the initial post. Each subsequent post in the series could at the top also add links to the discussed book chapters. Or hyperlink them in the text itself. Such helpful structuring would benefit the discussions a lot. Good that you will do the posts a few days apart.

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