This is my contribution to the Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias book event. One note: our event was originally supposed to kick off round about February 1st. You know how it goes with utopia. Delays, delays. I mention this because my rhetorical trick was going to be to check the newspapers, a week before our event, for signs of utopia. As a result, as of today, I’m quoting 7-week old newspapers. (I could have rewritten the post to suit last week’s news. But I find I like my even-more-vintage fish and chip papers better. I’m sticking with ‘em.)
Let’s start by locating our author’s project – Envisioning Real Utopias – with respect to a familiar dilemma.
On the one hand, the Marx option: we can rationally theorize our way to utopia in a strong sense. The problem with this option is: who believes it, these 21st Century days? But wait: why pick on Marx – rather than, say, Plato, or any other pie-in-the-sky political dreamer? Marx was a great one for scourging idle utopianism in others. I paste his name on this position, nevertheless, because of that famous line from Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” If you add ‘in a utopian spirit’, you get the thing no one believes anymore.
It’s idle to scheme every detail in advance. (Everyone can see that philosophers look silly when they sublimate into philosophy the sort of energy more healthily and naturally expended building an elaborate HO-scale model train set in their parents’ basement.) But beyond that: there’s no such thing as a rational, practical-minded way to aim at utopia at all. No rational scheme for utopia has a decent shot at causing – inspiring – change in the world, such that the world comes to look substantially more like the rational scheme. That’s just not how the world goes, because we just don’t know enough about how the world goes.
If it bothers you that I am calling this the Marx option, just because ‘Marxism’ is how everyone tags the failed leftist dreams of the 20th Century, let’s just call it the M-option or something. Let’s not get sidetracked by Marx exegesis, shall we?
On the other hand, there’s what I would call the Zizek option. Revolution as leap of faith. You see the cynic sitting there, waiting to say ‘you can’t get there from here’, in that irritating tone of complacent mock-regret. ‘I don’t know where the hell I’m going!’ That oughta wipe that smirk off his neoliberal face. But this is too anti-rational. It’s romantic posturing. In response to the criticism that no cost/benefit analysis makes any particular plan for revolution look like a good bet, because no plausible utopian benefit plan can be offered, you cultivate absurd indifference to costs and then act as though the dramatic distinctiveness of this indifference is actually, in itself, some kind of solution. I stick Zizek’s name on because book covers like this remind me of videos like this.
(You may say the Zizek book just has a bad cover. Yes and no. It’s a good cover, if the job of the cover is to express the spirit of the book. It’s a bad cover if the job is to make the book look like it’s worth taking seriously.)
A better Z-style option than Zizek himself might be Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. OWS was criticized for failing to make demands, which looks like a confession that no reasonable, utopian demands can be made. I think in this case it is reasonable to respond that OWS made real grievances and concerns and aspirations unignorable to many people who would have preferred to ignore them. It shifted the Overton Window. That’s not nothing. But it isn’t philosophical utopianism, in a theoretical sense. OWS is not silly, but neither is it proof-of-concept that utopian theory can be practical.
Feel free to lecture me, in comments, about how I have just been unfair to Marx and/or Zizek and/or OWS. But our subject is Wright and Envisioning Real Utopias. Oh, and here’s something worth mentioning right at the start. I’ve read the book, and then I read Wright’s 2011 ASA Presidential Address, and I wish I’d done it the other way round. The book contains a lot more detail, obviously, but I think most readers – including myself – feel the need to satisfy ourselves first about the big picture methodology, the ‘philosophy’ of the thing. I think the Presidential Address does a good job of laying that out. I don’t really feel there are major theoretical complications that are dealt with, with substantially greater nuance, in the book. This sounds like back-handed criticism of the book, and I suppose it is, but it is also sincere praise of the Presidential Address, which gets it all out there pretty efficiently.
Moving right along: my criticism of the book is that it doesn’t succeed in threading the needle between these unsatisfactory alternatives – Marx and Zizek. How not? I think Wright does avoid the problems on both sides but doesn’t find a third way that is more winning, plausibly. I will conclude by arguing that this may be due to failure to size up the likely opposition, in a realistic way. Wright suggests that conservatives are all Burkeans. So we need to break the Burkean back, as it were. But they aren’t. Conservatives tend to be utopians, of a weird, cognitively dissonant sort. Wright’s strategy isn’t calibrated to deal with that, but that’s what we are in fact likely to be dealing with.
That’s where we’ll end up. But for starters, consider a very negative review of the book, by Russell Jacoby, in which he argues basically that Wright is plain old impaled on the old-fashioned Marx/Zizek horns:
“Real utopias” for Wright exist as a subset of the broader enterprise of developing an emancipatory social science. It is dirty and difficult work but some conceptually rugged professor has to do it. In fact a macho element wafts through his “Real Utopias Project,” which Wright has launched as an ongoing discussion and series of books. Real Men think about Real Utopias—or at least their punishing theoretical implications and lessons.”
I think this is nuts. Wright isn’t the least little bit like Zizek. One thing that seems to have ticked off Jacoby (one can only speculate) is a blurb on the back cover of the book, about which he grumbles: “In a blurb, Michael Burawoy, a previous president of the American Sociological Association and a prominent leftist sociologist, calls the book “encyclopedic” in its breadth and “daunting” in its ambition. He states, ‘Only a thinker of Wright’s genius could sustain such a badly needed political imagination without losing analytical clarity and precision.’”
I agree with Jacoby: that’s some seriously over-the-top blurbage. ‘Scattershot’ would be closer to the mark, where Wright’s evidence set is concerned (although one of his examples is Wikipedia, so I suppose the book is ‘encyclopedic in its breadth’, if you like misleading puns.) Just to be clear what I mean by ‘scattershot’, Wright’s other cases are: participatory city budgeting in Brazil, Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, and a guaranteed basic income. Nothing wrong with a grab-bag of examples, but inductive proof of the viability of socialism in a more general sense this ain’t. This ain’t your great-grandfather’s M-option utopianism.
But I wouldn’t blame Wright for the fact that someone – a friend, I take it – falsely puffs him up as doing something that, realistically, no one could be, and that Wright is at pains to say he is not: to wit, capturing the Big Picture about this subject without sacrificing analytic rigor. If you could do that, you could blueprint utopia, or draw a map from here to there (as Marx thought he could.) Wright’s whole point is to ask and try to answer: given that we aren’t such omnicompetent geniuses as all that, what lesser thing is the most we can do – rationally, theoretically, yet practically?
Let me amend that. I don’t entirely blame Wright for confusion as to what he is up to. But a little bit. Wright knows ‘real utopias’ is an oxymoron; no point pointing that out. But what is the non-oxymoronic, more modest thing he really has in mind? Envisioning reasonably ambitious reform? That’s fine: why call it ‘utopianism’?
Wright can tell me if he thinks I’m wrong to say that, in the following quote, ‘waystations’ is doing all the distinctive lifting. ‘Real utopias’ refers to: “utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible waystations, utopian designs of institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.”
Should the book title be Waystations To Utopia, then? I think that would, indeed, be a more descriptively accurate title.
The problem with this, seems to me, is that Wright needs us to build not just way stations but, as it were, weigh stations. At every resting place we need to drive up onto the scales and verify that in enough ways, if not every way, we are getting better and better. (Sort of a backwards metaphor. Weigh stations weigh trucks. We need something more like a truck that weighs stations, as it pulls into them. Well, never mind.) This seems to be the implication of the compass metaphor that Wright likes:
Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, perhaps the best we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go, and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route. There will be moments when we reach high ground, with clear views towards the horizon, and this will greatly facilitate our navigation for a while. But at other times we must pick our way through confusing terrain and dense forests with little ability to see where we are going. Perhaps with technologies we invent along the way we can create some artificial high ground and see somewhat into the distance. And, in the end, we may discover that there are absolute limits to how far we can move in the hoped-for direction. While we cannot know in advance how far we can go, we can know if we are moving in the right direction.
A number of Wright’s critics have faulted this compass metaphor. I predict others participating in this book event will do so. Well, here goes: the problem is that it is, at once, too demanding and not demanding enough.
It’s too demanding in the sense that it’s all too likely that things will have to get worse, before they get better. Not necessarily in a ‘heighten the contradictions’, Leninist sort of way (which I realize is not what Wright has in mind.) Just in a ‘turning apples into oranges, incrementally, is likely to result in some hybrids that are worse, as apples, and no better, as oranges, along the way’ sort of way. The compass metaphor provides no guidance whatsoever, if we are not on a path of steady improvement with respect to an unambiguous benchmark. I don’t mean to wallow in the proverbial imponderables of apples vs. oranges, as an excuse for not nurturing the ambition of transitioning from one system to another. I just think the compass metaphor is pretty empty, as it stands. (I don’t mean to hint that what Wright wants is impossible, because apples can’t be turned into oranges. He emphasizes, rightly, that political economies are always hybrid beasts, hence readily hybridized. He’s quite right about that much.)
I can only make sense of the metaphor if I read Wright as basically offering a strategic rule-of-thumb. If, ultimately, you would like a lot of change, don’t settle for halfway measures that look likely to lock you in. Always be looking for the gain that can double as a lever, to get you more gains. If you really, really want a loaf, and someone offers you either half a loaf, but no chance of getting a loaf tomorrow, or else just a slice, but some chance of getting a loaf tomorrow, take the slice. This makes sense, but it’s still just a rule of thumb; worse, it’s philosophically thin. In a sense, it’s just common sense. All good utopians need to take this heuristic nugget on board, but merely taking it on board doesn’t yet even make you a utopian. You might just be a shrewd operator (nothing wrong with that. Wright’s point is basically that utopians need to be ambitious yet shrewd. But you can’t define utopianism in those terms.)
Compare Wright’s compass metaphor with Seth Ackerman’s maze metaphor, from his recent – on the whole very good! – Jacobin essay:
Maybe the most fundamental reason the Left has been suspicious of such [utopian] visions is that they have so often been presented as historical endpoints – and endpoints will always be disappointing. The notion that history will reach some final destination where social conflict will disappear and politics come to a close has been a misguided fantasy on the Left since its genesis. Scenarios for the future must never be thought of as final, or even irreversible; rather than regard them as blueprints for some future destination, it would be better to see them simply as maps sketching possible routes out of a maze. Once we exit the labyrinth, it’s up to us to decide what to do next.
This is quite a different, metaphorical way of rejecting the map/blueprint metaphor as unsuitable. Ackerman is saying, in a nutshell: we need to be repulsed by some non-ideal point. Namely, where we are. The point of utopian theory is not to tell us how to get there from here, ideally, just how to get anywhere, from here, in practice. That’s very different from saying, in nutshell: we need to be attracted to a specific place (that’s what compasses do.)
I find Ackerman’s metaphor as unsatisfying as Wright’s. It’s easy enough to imagine plausible alternatives to what we’ve got. It’s just that they usually look worse – chaos, dictatorship. It’s only hard to imagine exiting the labyrinth at a point that looks better. So you need to specify your ideal implicitly if not explicitly. The question is not how to dispense with the need for ideal visions, then, but how to distinguish fruitful idealism from arid twiddling with implausible and/or delusive endpoints. I think both Wright and Ackerman get this, intuitively. That is, I don’t think they affirm the somewhat implausible things it seems to me their metaphors risk implying. I just think these metaphors – maze, compass! – to replace the unsatisfactory ones – blueprint! map! – are not much good. And the reasons they pick bad metaphors is that they genuinely are having trouble figuring out what they should say about this, because it’s really very hard to say. (It’s not that they know what they want, only they carelessly picked sloppy metaphors for it.)
Let me make a suggestion, which is mostly directed at Wright. He distinguishes three criteria, which are really possible points of utopian focus: desirability, viability, achievability. Wright mildly deprecates ‘ideal theory’ that focuses primarily on ideal desirability. Clarifying your ideals is well and good, but it is more critical to articulate what is ‘viable’, by way of building a waystation between any castle in the sky and what is truly achievable.
Let me defend the alternative view that, in fact, being clear about what is ideally desirable is the proper point of focus. I must like to quote this bit from G. K. Chesterton, because I keep doing it:
No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want.
I take this to be a basically sound defense of the virtues of ‘ideal theory’ on grounds of practicality. I wish political philosophers offered it more often, instead of some other things they say that I regard as less plausible. But never mind that. For present purposes, this passage may be taken to express an argument that focus on ‘viability’ will have a hazardous tendency to decay into ‘pliability’. We are letting our ideals fade from view, obscured by pragmatic considerations, and this is likely to make us forgetful of what we truly want. Since obviously Wright wants the nearest thing we can get to what Chesterton calls ‘heroic consistency’, this would be a bad result. (For good measure, the politicians will have an analogous complaint, coming from the other direction. Focus on ‘viability’ takes the accent off achievability, hence takes the edge off our success and vigor.)
Wright’s response is obvious, so I’ll presume to give it on his behalf. No guarantees! Obviously you may start in life with high ideals and end as David Broder. That would be the death of utopianism, yes. The truth is that healthy utopianism is a three-legged stool. You have to have ideals, and they have to be the right ones. They have to be related to something viable. And the viable thing has to be related to something achievable. If any of the legs fails to a significant degree, the stool will collapse. This is not only possible, it is likely. (If it weren’t likely, we wouldn’t call it ‘utopianism’.) Chesterton is worried about the idealism leg breaking. The others can break, too, unfortunately.
Every politician (every activist) needs a philosopher whispering in her ear, reminding her what she really believes. For that matter, every utopian philosopher needs a politician in whose ear she can whisper. And the politician needs, as well, someone who can tell her what is viable, as opposed to ideal, as opposed to achievable. These being complicated questions, we expect a degree of division of labor. Some will focus more on philosophy, some on practical politics, some on sociology. But the whole business is so interrelated that everyone who thinks about any of these matters should think about them all. Philosophers should not be mooncalves about politics. Politicians should be able to see more than six inches in front of their noses. And those who consider the abstract range of viable social possibilities should not wander aimlessly in this wide field but keep a weather eye on the possibilities that look good, and the ones that might be – or might become – achievable.
Wright is, I see, the C. Wright Mills professor at the University of Wisconsin. As Mills writes, in The Sociological Imagination: “Were the ‘philosopher’ king, I should be tempted to leave his kingdom; but when kings are without any philosophy, are they not incapable of responsible rule?” Can’t we all just get along?
But there is still a question here, one that might be asked in the spirit of disciplinary jealousy, but let me do my best to rise above all that for the sake of methodological clarity.
Why does Wright think a focus on viability is likely to do more of the utopian pushing, at least at present?
From Wright’s 2011 Presidential Address to the ASA:
At this particular moment in history, I think it is especially important to focus on the viability problem. It might seem sensible to begin by establishing whether an alternative is really achievable and only then discuss its viability. Why waste time exploring the viability of unachievable alternatives? It turns out that the achievability problem is simply too difficult, at least if we want to understand whether something might be achievable beyond the immediate future. What public policy innovations and institutional transformations might be achievable in, say, 2040? There are too many contingencies to even begin to answer that question in an interesting way. But there is an even more fundamental reason why I think the question of viability should have priority over the question of achievability: developing credible ideas about viable alternatives is one way of enhancing their achievability. People are more likely to mobilize around alternatives they believe will work than around alternatives they think are pie in the sky. Moreover, such widely circulated discussions may enhance cultural resonance for actions in line with such viable ideas. Viability affects achievability. This reflects an interesting aspect of the notion of the “limits of possibility” in social contexts in contrast to the natural world. Before Einstein demonstrated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, it was still true that the speed of light was the absolute limit of possibility. The reality of those limits of possibility did not depend on their discovery. Limits of social possibility are not quite like that because beliefs about the limits of social possibility are one of the things that affect what in fact becomes possible. Evidence for the viability of alternatives has the potential to shape such beliefs.
That’s an argument. But why isn’t G. K. Chesterton right that being very explicit about our ideals – doing ideal theory, in effect – is the way to keep the utopian flame at least flickering (if not positively burning)? Thinking about what is viable is necessary but not, in itself, the engine part that keeps a utopian engine utopian. Why does Wright think his viability concerns are, in fact, more pressing?
Wright says less about this, but at several points – and in the above passage – he drops strong hints that he thinks resistance to his anti-capitalist, social-democratic, socialist ‘real utopias’ will be, by and large, pessimistically pragmatic, not philosophically idealistic. He has two epigraphs to his ASA Presidential Address:
Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative”.
World Social Forum motto: “Another world is possible”.
‘Viability’ is what separates these two, so if you can just get a breakthrough there, you may tip the balance from Thatcherism to socialism.
Stating the argument more fully. Conservatives (let’s just focus on conservatives, although liberals will also be mighty skeptical) are basically Burkeans/Hayekians at heart. They don’t so much object to Wright’s values as they doubt that we can get there from here. Certainly they doubt that we can plan/theorize our way much of anywhere. ‘It always looks good on paper; it never works.’ If the real argument against utopia is, in effect, this sociological one; if the reason socialist arguments are rhetorically unpersuasive is that people (Americans, in particular) are allergic to ‘let’s clean the slate’ talk; then the way to break through all that is to expand everyone’s ‘sociological imaginations’, to use a Millsian term. Indeed, the whole ‘way station’ strategy is, in effect, this style of argument-by-example writ large. Seed the existing system with little reforms that are incremental/interstitial, not ruptural in themselves (to borrow some terms Wright uses in his Presidential Address). If they work, people will see this kind of thing can actually work and they will naturally want more. That’s the form of Wright’s proposed slippery slope to socialism. It is lubricated with the fact of viability, which was previously denied, but will no longer be, in the face of real evidence to the contrary. Real utopias, writ small.
This is Wright’s argument. But the counter-argument runs as follows: conservatives aren’t actually – never have been, aren’t now, probably will never be, in significant numbers – conservatives in the sense Wright seems to assume they mostly are. They aren’t Burkean (starting with Burke himself). This is basically Corey Robin’s thesis, in The Reactionary Mind. We’ve posted about it quite a bit here at CT. Let me just jog your memory (or give you the gist, if you missed all that, first time around.) Robin writes: “For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” And: “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of … animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.”
At greater length:
Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty—or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere.
This event is for Wright, not Robin, so I’m not going to argue for Robin. But I do think there’s a lot of truth in what Robin argues. And if that’s right, then Wright is wrong to think focus on viability is the most promising strategy (least unpromising. There isn’t any such thing as a promising utopian strategy.) There’s no harm in what Wright is doing, if he does it well. Also, he’s a sociologist, so that in itself is a sufficient reason for him, personally, to bear down on sociology. But has he given anyone else a reason to think this is the most workable angle?
If I’m right about Robin being right, conservatives differ with Wright about basic values more than sociology – about ideal theory more than about the abstract possibility that different ways of running the place might be viable. Conservatives don’t mind utopianism, so Wright is banging on an open door. They only say they are opposed to utopianism when it’s the other fellow’s style of utopianism that is in question. (Ideal markets are fine, after all. Indeed, they are believed to be approximately actual. Very sunny hypothesis, locating us near the Form of the Good.) This isn’t to say that conservatives aren’t sincere when they say socialism is always doomed. But their conviction is a hybrid complaint: socialism would be inefficient because utopias conservatives disapprove of always are; and they disapprove because its values are inherently repugnant. So even if it worked as advertised, it would be a hideous Brave New World, to trap us all. Just showing it would be viable, after all, is not a winning argument against this type of resistance.
Of course, if this is right, it might seem just as useless to argue with conservatives about ideal values as about sociological viability. If they don’t think ‘may all human beings enjoy freedom and the opportunity to flourish!’ is appealing, then to hell with them, at least philosophically (and presumably in the afterlife, should there prove to be one.) There’s nowhere to start, if we can’t get an ‘amen!’ to something as basic as that. But this is obviously not quite the situation we are in. Conservatism, it seems to me, is in a perpetual and strikingly deep state of cognitive dissonance about all this. The objection to socialism is always, officially, on behalf of freedom and opportunity, which socialism allegedly destroys. But the deeper truth is that conservatives constantly paper over conflict between the values Wright espouses – freedom, equality, opportunity for all! – and the values that Robin correctly attributes to conservatives – hierarchy and privilege. This papering over is managed with anti-viability arguments. Perverse consequences arguments. ‘If we gave the poor more money it would only make everyone, including them, poorer.’
Since most of these arguments are bad, we should rip back the paper to see the sorry mix of confused values conservatives are concealing back there. We should argue about ‘viability’, as Wright says. And yet: since conservatives can always generate new, bad arguments of this sort, the fight on this front is eternal. I don’t see that Wright-style meditations on ‘real utopias’ are likely to do much more than set off another chorus of ‘unintended consequences’ wailing. (And some of that wailing is likely to prove valid, even if it is self-interested confabulation.)
I am actually inclined to say that going straight to the ideal theory level may be the more winning utopian strategy, for more or less Chestertonian reasons. Don’t worry so much about what is achievable, or even viable. Just force people to be clear about what they truly want, in principle. Don’t let them derail that question onto the ‘viability’ track, because that actually makes it easier to conceal the sorry state of their ultimate value commitments.
Let me conclude this post with clippings from the newspaper, and a few final thoughts about conservative utopianism. While I was preparing to write this post I resolved to keep an eye out for utopianism in the news, to illustrate or complicate my thesis. I came up with two bits, one from the Democrats, one from the Republicans.
From the WaPo, January 21: “Let’s not focus on what’s possible or doable,” Obama has advised, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “Tell me what our goal should be, and let me worry about the politics.”
Good for Obama! But do I hear the ghost of Chesterton, having a good laugh? The very notion that an Obama-ite would only confess, on condition of anonymity, that Obama did anything as extreme as convene a meeting to consider what would be (cue spooky music!) … best! Liberals truly are too shy, where utopia is concerned. They are concerned that they will be painted as unrealistic dreamers. But the truth is: they should cultivate a rhetoric of ‘ideal theory’ to strip the paint off anyone who tries it. ‘Are you actually opposed to people having ideals? Do you yourself not know what you want? If so, how do you decide between the things you can get? What sort of a crazy person are you?’
Conservatives, on the other hand, are consistently enthusiastic when it comes to wiping the slate clean, in a thought-experimental way, to highlight what’s viable, hence make it more achievable. Bobby Jindal gave a speech last week, generally recognized as an opening salvo in the 2016 Republican Presidential race.
Read the whole thing, if you haven’t. It’s all about how none of the options actually on the table are serious, so the only options people consider to be ‘serious’ are the unserious ones. It’s all about how weird our system looks if you step back from it and try to see it from the outside. It’s all about how we should have the courage to put ‘all our eggs in the basket’ of something we don’t actually have, but we might get if we are willing to go for it. It’s all about how we need a utopian ‘compass’, in effect.
In short, it’s all stuff that flows from “If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper …” (Yes, that is a quote from the speech.)
No liberal could get away with that sort of metaphor. But the response to Jindal’s speech has not been that it is dangerously utopian but that it is conservative red meat – entrepreneurship! growth! – or (if you don’t buy it) tired conservative boilerplate – entrepreneurship, growth. (Didn’t Reagan give this speech already in 1980?)
Only Nixon can go to China. Only conservatives can go to Utopia. And they like it so well they never leave.
Not that they really are utopians. Not real utopians.
It’s so confusing that the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is down to a few percent, tax-wise. And yet this must be painted as a deep, philosophical divide – socialism! Capitalism! (Not that it doesn’t matter who is elected. I don’t buy that Ralph Nader line. As Kevin Drum remarks: “Should federal spending be limited to around 19 percent of GDP—Paul Ryan’s preferred goal—or should we accept the fact that society is aging and we’re eventually going to need to spend 23 percent of GDP whether we like it or not? I think the latter makes a lot more sense, but we all need to understand that this really is what the argument is about.” It’s a big deal, but, to repeat, not a divide that is generated by a clear difference in philosophical first principles.)
Did I just contradict myself by admitting that Republicans really aren’t utopians, but I said they were?
I hope I just entangled myself in their contradictions for illustrative purposes. (But contradiction is contagious, admittedly, so maybe I’ve caught the bug.) Conservatism is, characteristically, an extremely volitile mix of unviablism – Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” – and utopian optimism. Jindal, in his speech, says American exceptionalism means, simply “the idea that this country is better and different than any other on the planet.” Utopia is not just viable, not just achievable, but substantially achieved. And yet: we stand on the cusp of dystopian nightmare. Stephen Colbert’s book title, America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t, comes to mind.
Getting back to Wright: what’s my point? If your goal is to get people to accept socialism, as viable, or even as notionally ideal – or even if you just wish they would stop taking Bobby Jindal seriously – it seems to me that trying to get very clear about basic philosophical commitments is a less hopeless strategy than trying to argue about ‘viability’, which I fear will just get lost in the shuffle of conservative contradictions, at conservative convenience. You have to bring out how ‘rebecoming the greatness we never weren’t’ doesn’t make sense. Talking about how the Mondragon worker cooperatives really works is not going to cut it, I think.
Get everyone to say what they really, really want. Don’t let them paper it over with excuses about what is viable, as opposed to ideal. If they say that America is perfect as she stands, then don’t let them play generic anti-utopian cards. It is evidently not a sin to dream that what is exceptional could be real. If they say America is in a wretched state, and we must transform her, then don’t let them play generic anti-utopian cards. It is evidently not a sin to dream of something much better than we’ve got. Now that we’ve got that cleared away and we are all utopians here: what would be best?
Suppose Bobby Jindal sought credible, intellectual, philosophical backing for his boilerplate? Where might he look? Just for example – hell, there are so many! This shelf of conservative utopian tracts is groaning – he might pick Luigi Zingales’ recent book, A Capitalism For The People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity. That seems about the right level: academically respectable, but popular. (He left off the ‘that was never truly lost’ bit of the title, preserving himself from obvious Colbertianism. But that extra bit of the title is strongly implied in the book itself. It’s an important piece of his argument that Americans still possess this species of lost genius. Otherwise, we couldn’t hope to get it back.)
Suppose Wright wants to argue with Zingales’ really rather pie-in-the-sky vision of an ideal capitalism, unfettered by the unfortunate cronyism and imperfection of our existing system? A lot of Zingales’ rhetoric – populism, democracy, enabling human flourishing! – is like Wright’s, yet in a right-wing register. We now have dueling real utopianisms.
Would it be most effective to meet Zingales on grounds of ‘viability’? I don’t deny Wright might score a few points that way, but Zingales is full of things to say about what ‘works’, or at least might. Therefore, I would recommend starting with Zingales’ strong commitment to equality of opportunity. He tries to paint this as a distinctively conservative value, to which liberals and leftists are hostile. But that depends on conflating the drawbacks of second-best affirmative action measures with liberal first-best ideals. If he is really, truly committed to equality of opportunity, in a first-best sense, he is on the hook for more leftism, ideally, than leftists are currently holding out serious hope for, in practice.
Is that truly the case?
I’m not suggesting that Zingales ever says, or strictly implies, that he shares all of Wright’s socialist ideals, just because he is in favor of equal opportunity. Wright is quite clear that he doesn’t regard equal opportunity as sufficient. He wants ‘equal access’, which is something a bit different. Maybe Zingales commits himself to that, too? He starts his book with a personal story about how much he loathed the Italian academic system, with its cronyism and ‘bag carrying’; how relieved he was to get to the U.S., where access to opportunities was not a function of who you were ‘connected to’. He could climb the ladder of success based on what he himself achieved, largely in an educational sense. What irritated him about Italy – what struck him as fundamentally unjust – was the unfair lack of access he suffered, in more or less Wright’s sense.
I’m skating over a lot of technical detail, to put it mildly. But the point I am making is precisely that if we skate over all that, it’s clear at what level Wright is most likely to win the argument against Zingales. Namely, at the level of ‘ideal’ theory. If they start trying to negotiate the distance between equal opportunity and equal access, they will both be arguing far to the left of the Democratic Party, in terms of policy implications (should any of this ideal stuff ever come down to earth).
After all, the US is a country in which the best predictor of your financial success is your parents’ income-level.
I just finished reading Seth’s Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea, his illustrated, edited volume of his father’s bitter recollections of a Depression childhood. “It is unfortunate that we cannot select our own parents and the time and place of our birth. If we could, I would never have picked my parents nor would I have been born and raised in St. Charles in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Whoever made that decision made an awful mess of it for me and he should have been fired.”
Capitalism, in which family membership determines who gets a leg up, is crony capitalism. (It’s who you are connected to, not what you’ve got in you.) Whoever permitted Seth’s grandparents to raise his father that sorry way should have been fired.
Ideally, Zingales wants to uproot crony capitalism. You do the utopian math. (Yes, maybe it would be impractical to fire all the bad parents, as Plato originally proposed. I can anticipate the storm of anti-viability arguments Zingales is preparing to unleash. I quite agree, actually. Child protective services can only be expected to do so much. But we are asking about ideals here. Ideally, every kid should get a fair start in life. Once you have admitted that, you’ve admitted a lot.)
Zingales to the far left of the Democratic Party, then? Dare I say it – a new Z-option, to rival Zizek’s own? Obviously not. But, stepping down a level from that: Zingales’ ‘ideal theory’ is not honestly advertised. It’s a bait-and-switch. He opens by making the case for justice. His treatment under the Italian system was unfair. Thank goodness he escaped. But once he gets to America, he sloughs off that easily-punctured skin of justice and a hard carapace of efficiency forms in its place. Now a lot of things you could do for justice are dismissed, not even considered, because they are not maximally market inefficient. (You can’t help all these kids! All you can do is work to make a perfect market! Classic mix of unviabilism and perfectionism.)
Keeping the accent on ideal theory – on justice – means not letting the bait-and-switch happen. Arguing that the Mondragon cooperative is actually viable means letting the switch happen, then trying make up a lot of fallaciously lost ground.
Conservatives suffer from severe cognitive dissonance regarding their ideals. (Liberals do, too. Everyone does except utopians.) Bringing this out is, I think, the best way to make a leftist case for utopia. By contrast, focusing on ‘viability’ provides only more opportunities for losing track of your ideals in the thicket of sociology that lies between should and can.
Then again, I could be wrong about what is most likely to work, as an argument. And it’s probably not absolutely necessary, when people are weighing very slim chances for success, to get in knock-down, drag-out arguments about which chances are the utterly slimmest, and which ones are merely very, very slim indeed. Utopians should agree to disagree about what the least unlikely strategy might be.
Pulling together the first and the second halves of this post, here is what I have argued: Wright’s approach is distinctive. He’s neither Marx nor Zizek, at any rate. But his approach is not distinctively winning. In a world in which the opponents of utopianism were conservatives Burkeans, the Wright way might be the right way. But we don’t live in such a world. We live in a world in which conservatives are more like Luigi Zingales. So maybe that bad old thing, ‘ideal theory’, still deserves a serious a look-in.
Did I just resuscitate the M-option, after all? Doing ‘ideal theory’ is, by definition, theorizing our way to Utopia in a strong sense? “If you worry about desirability and ignore viability or achievability, then you are just a plain utopian.” That’s what Wright says in his Presidential Address. I don’t agree. (This is the fallacy those poor Obama-ites are falling for, afraid to say what they want, lest they get tarred and feathered for flying to Cloud Cuckooland.) Saying what you want is not utopian at all. Articulating your first-best ideals is not the same as drawing a blueprint of an ideal state, let alone drawing a map from where we are to a place where we could start to lay the foundations. Done right, it has no tendency to confuse you about all that. It may be more useful than you might think for winning arguments against people who pretend that their objection to utopianism is that nothing of the sort could be viable.