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.