Continuing in our seminar on Envisioning Real Utopias, a contribution from David Estlund. Like several of the contributions, it’s a bit long for a blog post, so I’m posting the opening paras, and posting it as a PDF. Read, enjoy and comment.
Erik Wright’s extended reflection on problems with capitalism, along with his imaginative and rigorous exploration of desirable and viable alternatives, raises telling points about both theory and practice. In the world of practice, modern capitalism is, despite certain virtues, undesirable in certain ways, and his aim is to diagnose the central problems and to begin to construct alternatives. In the arena of theory, Wright tries to move our thinking outside of the usual complacent assumptions about what is possible, but without leaving the constraints of the real world entirely behind. This is a common aspiration, and it bears consideration in its own right. I will put aside Wright’s substantive arguments for or against certain social arrangements in order to concentrate on Wright’s methodological discussions of feasibility and utopianism. As interesting and important as his substantive suggestions are, I will take seriously his argument that the whole project is framed by a methodology that gives both realism and utopianism their due.
The title’s term, “Real utopias,” (anticipated by John Rawls’s “realistic utopia”) suggests that this will be a balancing act. It is intentionally oxymoronic, embracing a tension between two approaches to critical social theory. Are realism and utopianism compatible? There is something appealing about being idealistic. And yet no one, it seems, wants to be accused of being unrealistic. The challenge, plausibly, is to strike some kind of balance. But utopianism is a different concept from idealism, much as libertinism is different from liberality. There is no balancing libertinism, as distinct from liberality, with abstinence (any more than it is possible to be a little bit pregnant). Likewise, I think, there is no balancing utopianism, as distinct from idealism, with feasibility. There are, as a conceptual necessity, no abstemious libertines. I contend that, likewise, there is no feasible utopianism. Is there some way to be realistic other than a concern for feasibility? I return to that question toward the end, with a reflection on the “realistic utopianism” of Rawls.