On Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias – Diane Coyle

by John Quiggin on March 22, 2013

By page 3 of Envisioning Real Utopias I was already disappointed. The Introduction starts with some examples of real utopias – they are participatory city budgets (ok, promising – new to me); Wikipedia (never, ever trust it on living people, or anything controversial); and Mondragon (always Mondragon – is this really still the best example of co-operative production? It was always cited when I was a student in the late 1970s).

So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food and Fair Trade. A bit of a revival of local currency schemes, the Bristol pound being one of the most recent and biggest. The campaign for a Living Wage, backed by anti-poverty bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

When I asked readers of my blog for examples, one replied that the online world is the place to look for utopia-builders. Better crowdsourcing examples than Wikipedia in terms of their capacity to bring about various kinds of social change are, say, Ushahidi, MySociety with its apps such as FixMyStreet, AshTag, and many others. The digital technologies have low entry barriers and start up costs. This, along with the lingering community ethic of the early internet days, seems to inspire direct, idealistic action.

However, none of these examples – nor Mondragon either – will bring about system-change of the kind the book seems to be after. It’s a bizarrely abstract, theoretical read given the subject is supposed to be ‘real’ utopias, but the theory is clearly anti-capitalist. Wright lists 11 things that are bad about capitalism. These boil down to three headings: that capitalism causes poverty and inequality; that there are market failures, including environmental externalities; that capitalism ignores non-monetary values.

The empiricist in me says that it’s all a matter of degree or context. Capitalism has also caused huge increases in prosperity, and declining inequality, at various stages of its history. Of course markets sometimes fail, but state or collective interventions fail in the same situations and for the same reasons – information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, pure externalities and so on. And in the end, after all the machinery of ‘stochastic Marxism’ and ‘emancipatory social science’, Wright says that actual economies are always hybrid and so the thing to do is inject a little socialism where possible. So that amounts to incremental, pragmatic improvements in the direction of a fairer society. Who could disagree?

An interesting reflection on real utopias would look at why practical idealism is hard to scale up or replicate, and why candidate examples seem to find it hard to survive in the market economy. There are relatively few economic mutuals, and those that exist are rather similar to their non-mutual competitors, albeit far better as employers. Perhaps it’s because a real utopia depends on personal relationships and individual trust, whereas the point about a market is actually anonymity – the identity of the seller or buyer does not matter. Perhaps the difficulty is linked to the character of the times. Mutuals were born out of the social problems and dislocations of Victorian times, so today’s austerity economy might help account for a bit of a revival in idealistic local currency or food-growing schemes. The ‘actually existing’ capitalism we have is clearly in need of system-wide change, and bringing about change requires pinpointing the barriers to social innovation and political reform at scale.

Alas, this book shows no interest at all in real utopias, only in the one theoretical utopia or ‘no place’ of an abstract alternative to the market economy. It’s an arid scholastic exercise that at no point engages with our present economic disaster and the practical idealism of the many people responding to it.

{ 22 comments }

1

Breviosity 03.22.13 at 8:00 pm

Most “real utopias” mentioned (participatory city budget of Porto Alegre, Wikipedia, Mondragon co-ops, Slow Food, and Fair Trade) are Western in origin.

What does this mean? That the West still innovates when it comes to anti-capitalist “real utopias”? That the world really is largely Eurocentric?

2

GiT 03.23.13 at 4:08 am

“Most “real utopias” mentioned (participatory city budget of Porto Alegre, Wikipedia, Mondragon co-ops, Slow Food, and Fair Trade) are Western in origin.”

Sampling bias?

3

Luis 03.23.13 at 4:35 am

Sampling bias and/or requirement for surplus resources.

For what it is worth, I don’t think slow food is a utopia in the sense Wright means it. It is a change to the social order, but not in a way that actually expands the social imagination. Rather, it reverts to an older way of thinking and doing that is widely understood to be plausible. Which isn’t to say it is valueless, but not very interesting as a challenge to capitalism (which is Wright’s long term project).

Similarly, the glib dismissal of wikipedia is silly. It is a very direct challenge to how knowledge is organized, and also happens to impact 10x-100x as many people as slow food does right now. (And I think I’m being generous to slow food there.)

That said, the central paragraph’s point – that it would be good to understand why so many alternatives and challenges fail – is very right on. That would be a terrific book to read. But it just isn’t the point or audience for this book. That audience is, correctly, already plunging ahead and building what they want to build. The audience here is theorists who have dug a little too far into their ivory tower, or revolutionaries who haven’t yet come to terms with the successes of the mixed modern model.

Or to put it another way: when this essay asks “who could object” to a little more pragmatic socialism in a mixed economy, the answer appears to be “several of the other essayists on CT.” That suggests Wright is onto something, even if his book won’t be the talk of the town at the next slow food, Wikipedia, or Occupy conferences.

4

QS 03.23.13 at 5:17 am

I find this review to be as vapid as apparently the reviewer does Wright’s book. I’ll just focus on the lowlights:

“The empiricist in me says that it’s all a matter of degree or context. Capitalism has also caused huge increases in prosperity, and declining inequality, at various stages of its history.”

The empiricist in you might also note that this was not caused by “capitalism” but rather by organized labor forcing economic gains to be distributed in a more egalitarian manner. The Keynsian bargain that resulted has been blown to pieces.

“So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food and Fair Trade.”

Slow Food is a culture exercise by those who have the time and money to be gastronomes. It is specifically a romantic project, not a utopian one, trying to reclaim some lost past when terroir mattered. Fair Trade exoticizes Third World peasants in order to get American consumers to spend extra on chocolate. Its benefits only accrue to those lucky enough to have land or find work on such farms (oh, and the intermediary). It does nothing for the vast majority of those made landless and proletarian by the unholy combination of land reform, land grabs, and free trade agreements. In sum, Fair Trade is a valorization scheme, not a utopian project.

“An interesting reflection on real utopias would look at why practical idealism is hard to scale up or replicate”

No, this would be boring (unless you’re a good storyteller). The answer is always that “scaling up” means forming some sort of counter-hegemony that threatens those who are enriched by the status quo.

5

GiT 03.23.13 at 6:55 am

Capitalism hasn’t caused increases in prosperity, and rendered certain old inequalities moot? So much for “I. Bourgeois and Proletarians”…

6

Tim Worstall 03.23.13 at 10:00 am

“So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement”

That strikes me as very strange indeed. The globalisation of the last 30-40 years has at the very least coincided with if not caused the greatest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of the species. I would argue caused. Looking back at the verbiage spewed out by Paul Ehrlich in the 60s and 70s as an example, the thought that billions would rise up out of destitution into the petit bourgeois lifestyle of three squares a day would have been regarded as pretty utopian.

Yet protesting against this is regarded as utopian now?

7

Hidari 03.23.13 at 11:02 am

`Looking back at the verbiage spewed out by Paul Ehrlich in the 60s and 70s as an example`.

Whoa there tiger. Ehrlich wrote pop-sci books and was good on late night TV shows but he rarely published his must outrageous (and outrageously inaccurate) predictions in the peer reviewed literature. And of course what you have with him is just neo-Malthusianism….and the views of the Rev Malthus have always been criticised on the Left (not least of course by Marx and Engels)…and in any case Ehrlich`s own views could have been and were criticised by many on the left for reasons which turned out to have been entirely correct…..it was simplistic, it was vaguely racist, it was doom mongering etc.

Of course in the 1960s and even in the 1970s there were simply loads of people who predicted that the 21st century was going to be an age of plenty and wonder. Ehrlich et al were never in the majority.

8

Hidari 03.23.13 at 12:15 pm

Also….` The globalisation of the last 30-40 years ….Why not globalisation since 1945? Was no one raised out of poverty in the UK or the US after 1945? Obviously some people were, but you chose that time period because between 1945 and (very roughly) 1979 in the UK and the US we still had a social democratic framework….nationalised industries (in Western Europe), a welfare state, the remains of the New Deal and the Johnsonian War on Poverty in the US etc. etc. Remember average growth FELL in those countries after the Thatcherite-Reaganite `revolution`.

As for the fall in global poverty as the Econonomist tells us `The new estimates show that in 2008, the first year of the finance-and-food crisis, both the number and share of the population living on less than $1.25 a day (at 2005 prices, the most commonly accepted poverty line) was falling in every part of the world.`

BUT….

`A lot of the credit goes to China. Half the long-term rate of decline is attributable to that country alone, which has taken 660m people out of poverty since 1981….. If you exclude China, the numbers are less impressive. Of the roughly 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2008, 1.1 billion of them were outside China. That number barely budged between 1981 and 2008, an outcome that Martin Ravallion, the director of the bank’s Development Research Group, calls “sobering”.`

Now. Two points.

1. In the gospel according to Jung Chang Mao Zedong was the most evillest man who ever evilled his way out of Evil Town and spent his whole life writing `Evil Things To Do Today` in his little red `Book of Evil`. But as Will Hutton (no socialist) writes `The negative side of the Maoist balance sheet is well-known: mass murder, famine, injustice, and economic waste. But there are less well-known positives. Industrial output climbed 13-fold, albeit from a tiny base. The rail network doubled. Half of Chinese land became irrigated. There was a dramatic lowering of illiteracy. Near universal healthcare was established. Life expectancy rose; and despite Mao’s appetite for imperial-style concubines, women were given the same right to petition for divorce and education as men. Their position was transformed.

And if Mao created an economy that while desperate for reform at least existed to be reformed – a statement that could not be made in the hyperinflation of 1949 when the Communists took over – he also bequeathed an ideological legacy that would permit reform. `

Etc. etc. etc.

2. Since 1981 of course the Chinese have ignored the `Washington Consensus` and have instead pursued protectionism and kept their industries under state control which is of course a good thing as it protects their growing industries from unfair competition. American led globalisation leads to poverty. no `ifs` `ands` or `buts`.

As the Economist also goes on to argue `All this is good news. It reflects the long-run success of China, the impact of social programmes in Latin America and recent economic growth in Africa.` By “socıal programmes” of course the Economıst means Chavism and other socialist programmes although it can`t quite bring itself to name him. The improvement in Africas fortunes comes mainly from an end in Russian and American meddling in their affairs-….in the last few decades the US Empire has been bogged down in the middle east and has lacked the firepower to cause havoc elsewhere.

Finally the real silence is not about the reduction of poverty in India and China. The real silence is about how they got poor in the first place.

http://www.economist.com/node/21548963

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jan/18/comment.china

9

The Cardiff Kook 03.23.13 at 2:05 pm

“The empiricist in you might also note that this was not caused by “capitalism” but rather by organized labor forcing economic gains to be distributed in a more egalitarian manner. “

I am interested in hearing this empirical proof. I will grant that union power was beneficial in countering corporate coercion and in this way was good, though not exactly necessary (there are other ways to counter coercion). Supply and demand, comparative advantage and rising productivity explain workers wages quite well. Adding in some magical property to unions just muddies the water with romantic tales.

10

Stephen 03.23.13 at 2:19 pm

JQ: ” the thing to do is inject a little socialism where possible. So that amounts to incremental, pragmatic improvements in the direction of a fairer society. Who could disagree?”

In the context of society in the USA, or maybe even Australia, very few. In a wider context, I think you provide a good example of something I mentioned on an earlier thread: the path towards utopia in the US is not necessarily the path towards utopia in other countries, or towards a world-wide utopia. At some places and times, improvements in the direction of a fairer society have involved a considerable reduction in socialism.

11

shah8 03.23.13 at 7:03 pm

Hidari, Mao was bad for China, in the sense that there were many revolutionary peers who were more able and far more humane. That a successor, like Deng Xiaoping, managed that snakepit of inperial politics as well as he had, made Mao’s incompetence rather clear. Of course, broadly speaking, the main issue was just how few competent people there were in China and how little they could get heard (or keep from dying/exile) until the CCP faced repeated disaster from incompetence that they could not really spin–like the dam failures of August 1975, the response to the Tangshan earthquake, and the disastrous attempt at a punitive expedition against Vietnam.

In short, the real gains happened in the 1981-1987 era. Most of the ’90s were lost to expensive and time consuming retooling. From 2003 on, it was the usual strategy of inequity, by extracting every ounce of productivity per kuai possible.

12

Jason Weidner 03.23.13 at 7:06 pm

“Of course markets sometimes fail, but state or collective interventions fail in the same situations and for the same reasons – information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, pure externalities and so on.”
This is based on the false distinction between capitalism and the state, when the particular state that I assume you are referring to is the capitalist state.

13

John Quiggin 03.23.13 at 7:12 pm

@Stephen: Just to be clear, this review is by Diane Coyle. I’ve posted it as the seminar organizer.

14

QS 03.24.13 at 5:37 pm

@ #9

Compare the precipitous drop in strikes in the last 30 years with the simultaneous increase in income inequality. I use strikes as a proxy for the activity of organized labor. We could use other metrics, like percentage of labor force belonging to a union, which has had a similar bottoming out.

Work stoppages data:
http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.t01.htm

Income inequality:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/10/24/us/politics/income-stagnation-and-inequality.html?_r=0

Corporate profits:
http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?id=CP

In addition, the idea that increased labor productivity leads to higher wages has been definitively disproved by the experience of the last 30 years.

http://www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/

Indeed, there is no reason to think that being more productive on the macro level leads to a macro response in terms of higher wages. Rather, we’d expect (in a market “freed” of interference by organized labor) that more productive workers means you need less workers which increases the size of the unemployed labor pool, driving down the price of labor.

15

clew 03.24.13 at 8:47 pm

I can think of a couple of non-Western market alternatives off the top of my head; e-Choupal (sp?), CSAs were originally Japanese, some cooperative arrangements to protect fish spawning grounds in Oceania. I don’t think it even makes sense to expect them only with big surpluses; I’d expect them where there are *unpredictable* surpluses, which can be protected by group action.

16

SusanC 03.24.13 at 10:23 pm

I think Wikipedia is a pretty good example. For some reason, Internet projects often have a strong utopian flavour to them. While many of these attempted techno-Utopias fail disastrously, Wikipedia is a partial success: it’s not so good on controversial topics, and often the writing quality is mediocre, but on a non-controversial topic, it’s usually mostly right. That a project as utopian as Wikipedia worked at all is somewhat remarkable, and deserving of attention.

Linux probably also counts a sucessful utopian project in the technological domain; and furthermore, it’s one that offers an alternative to the usual capitalist way of doing things. (Definitely works well when it’s geeks producing software for other geeks… less clear how far its model can be extended, e.g. to software intended for use by people who aren’t programmers, or to the production of things other than software).

17

SusanC 03.24.13 at 10:37 pm

It occurs to me that several of the utopian Internet projects are more or less capitalist attempted-utopias. Their utopianism lies not in imagining an alternative to capitalism, but in imagining an extreme form of capitalism. Candidates include: Second Life [the dystopia from the novel Snow Crash re-imagined as a utopia, and actually implemented as running code], BitCoin (a libertarian utopia where you can all buy your drugs anonymously over the Internet, and there’s not a damn thing the governement can do to stop it). Note that I am not suggesting that either of these utopian projects was necessarily succesful.

18

clew 03.25.13 at 3:31 am

Is Wikipedia actually worse than paper encyclopedias at controversial topics? I grew up with three sets of encyclopedias, published thirty-forty years apart, which were extremely educational for comparing contemporaneous and current views.

19

LFC 03.25.13 at 4:37 am

Hidari @8
quoting the Economist
‘If you exclude China, the numbers are less impressive. Of the roughly 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2008, 1.1 billion of them were outside China. That number barely budged between 1981 and 2008, an outcome that Martin Ravallion, the director of the bank’s Development Research Group, calls “sobering”.`

Yes; and note that China itself could have taken more people out of poverty if it had followed a more equitable, even if somewhat slower, growth path.

20

The Cardiff Kook 03.25.13 at 3:03 pm

QS@14

Thanks for the links. I certainly agree that shorter term, productivity alone will not necessarily lead to higher wages, it can also lead to lower prices relative to wages (which feeds into better living standards) or higher corporate profits (which leads to more investment in pursuit of profits and thus eventually back to more demand for workers).

There are some other trends which dwarf the union membership trend though. The most important of which is supply, especially the supply of low skilled workers in the marketplace. Since 1980 there has been a massive increase in minority and female participation in the work place. Much, much more important though was the entrance of about 2 billion lower skilled workers from previously communist and third world nations.

Indeed, I would argue that this massive influx of competitive supply of labor is the same thing which both suppressed wages and undermined unions. Another way to frame it is that workd wide workers are finally getting a fair shake, but the returns are going to what were previously peasants that were unfairly kept out of the market.

Labor is doing great. More people have risen out of poverty worldwide in the past decade than ever before in history. American workers are not capturing much of this dividend because they lost their previously “privileged ” status of protection from competition with these newcomers to the market.

21

Luis 03.27.13 at 5:17 am

Linux probably also counts a sucessful utopian project in the technological domain; and furthermore, it’s one that offers an alternative to the usual capitalist way of doing things. (Definitely works well when it’s geeks producing software for other geeks… less clear how far its model can be extended, e.g. to software intended for use by people who aren’t programmers, or to the production of things other than software).

The way in which this fails is informative, I think. Design and construction of operating systems is part of the mandatory CS curriculum in most places; that provides a wealth of people with the relevant skills. Design of good user interfaces is not in the standard curriculum, and correspondingly there is not a wealth of people with the relevant skills. It shouldn’t be too surprising that a mainly volunteer-driven exercise fails where it does not have access to a broad pool of skilled volunteers. But on the flip (and positive side) it suggests that education can indeed lead to the creation of volunteerism if focused in the right areas.

(I could write on this subject for hours… on a day where hours were to be had.)

22

Martin Bento 03.27.13 at 11:27 am

Although I’m critical of Marx in most respects, one thing I agree with him on is that an alternative social order to capitalism is going to have to solve a problem capitalism cannot solve or cannot solve efficiency. It is best if it is not purely a moral problem, as the stunning human capacity for leaving moral problems unsolved is evident all over history. We have such a problem now, but it is not one Marx predicted, nor one that fits well into his theory. It is that the material of the economy is increasingly disembodied information (as opposed to information that is part of the value of a material good), Once produced there is no natural scarcity of disembodied information given contemporary technology. Markets are a technology for addressing scarcity, but are useless without it. Hence we have DRM and excessive IP laws to try to create scarcity. But it would be more efficient to fund development differently and not constrain the distribution of information, as information gains in value the more it is combined with other information. IP is inefficient.

Of the projects discussed here, only Wikipedia seems concerned with this, and it is not the best example, as what it is displacing – encyclopedias and, to a degree, libraries – were never at the core of capitalism anyway. In the 90s, major players like Microsoft and Oracle made serious plays to rule the web server space. They ran into a wall named Apache.

There are I would say, two alternative ways to fund production: socialist and anarchist. Socialist is government funding of universities, research, the arts…. well established in our society, but restricted to certain domains. Anarchist is patronage, like Kickstarter. I think the question now is which combination of these approaches can fund the development of all the informational goods our society can use. Either could be seen as utopian, but it seems clear that one or both are necessary. And necessity can propel even the outlandish.

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