I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences. That Wright did not recognize this in the course of his five years of work on, and world-wide presentation and discussion of, the book’s arguments, mid 2004 to mid 2009 (pp. xi-xv– “I felt that I was part of a global conversation on the dilemmas of our time,” xv) – that in all those presentations and discussions no one ever raised the climate change/environmental degradation issues with sufficient force as to leave a footprint in the 2010 text – despite the scientific evidence and argument that was accumulating during those same years – that is very telling – a sign of our historic failure in meeting our responsibilities as intellectuals – one mark of the current world-historical failure of the social and policy sciences in general, of intellectuals at large, and of the modern state.
In an important respect, Wright’s statements here [re our inability to predict the future possibility of capitalist crisis, quoted in the full post] are out of date. In fact, we now have a body of very compelling theory, backed by strong evidence, of the mechanisms that have begun to generate such a long-term intensifying crisis. But this does not mean that “Capitalism’s” intensifying crisis opens the way to “emancipatory social transformation.” Quite the contrary. We have recently developed a good deal of relatively thick “knowledge of the conditions likely to be faced in the future,” and those conditions take “robust projects of emancipatory social transformation” entirely off the table in most respects for a long time. Instead we have to play defense against the unintended consequences of industrialization and high modernism, “capitalist” and every other kind.
The essential question to be asked of any proposed “real utopia” is not the definitional, “is it reasonably possible that human beings, as we have known them in this world, could someday put such social arrangements into sustained practice in a way that is generally true to the ideals invoked, and that does not in practice betray other values of acknowledged importance?” Realistically, the essential question is, can you get there from here, given where we are now, given the history that’s already happened and its material consequences? By this, I do not mean to raise merely issues of “pragmatism” or “political realism,” or “path dependancy.” But rather the question of whether any such line of possibility (which in the past may have qualified as a real utopia) may have been definitively cut off for all of imaginable human history, because in real time we have blindly destroyed indispensable, unreconstructable, irreplaceable bridges, opportunities, way-stations, building materials? In other words, the question of the “realness” of a proposed “real utopia” must be historicized – and not just in the sense of the usual theories of “path dependency.”
For us humans of the early 21st century, the question has teeth, big teeth. At this point in our history, there is only one really real Utopia left to us: the creation of forms of political economy, and a world order, that can cope with and stabilize, in an at least minimally just and humanitarian way (de facto Social Darwinist solutions don’t qualify), the climate-changed, environmentally-degraded, resource-depleted world that is bearing down upon us. Holding open the possible realization of grander utopian visions, in some distant future, rests on achieving substantial success on this front over the course of this century. And such success is very much in question – in fact, as things stand in early 2013, a long shot.
The limits we face now are limits set not only [as Wright argues] by our current (but changeable) beliefs about humans, social life, and the physical world, but also set, in part, independently, by unchangeable facts and laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and by the unchangeable facts of the historical record to date. Future humans may eventually be able to hedge or work around the second law of thermodynamics to some degree, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll ever be able to repeal it. And no matter what we believe, we can’t erase from our history the 200 years of massive deforestation of the planet, or the 150 years of intensive carbon-loading of the atmosphere, or the population explosion of the 20th century, or what 20th century industrial agriculture and the chemical industry have done to the planet’s fresh water supply, or the massive species-die-off of current times, or the place to which such historical realities, in interaction with the laws of science, have brought us as of 2013. (Unless, of course, we are economists of a certain ilk, in which case we can simply say, “assume a time machine.”) [Insert Toles cartoon.] Please note, I am not insisting that various imagined techo-miracles, in some sense “reversing” and remediating some consequences of our past history, are pure pipedream, forever. But even if someday it becomes possible to scrub the atmosphere of carbon and the aquifers and oceans of toxins, etc, the history between now and then will have been hell, taken a horrendous (in many ways fatal) toll, and will leave massive scar tissue. Personally, I find it hard to take comfort in the idea that, with luck, millennia from now it will all be water under the bridge.
One bottom line: The viable maturation and authentic living-up-to-avowed-ideals of “middle-class democratic capitalism,” and/or the radical transcendence of “capitalism” and realization of a viable and authentic “democratic socialism,” might each have been hundred-year “real utopias” (at least for half the planet) circa 1945-1965. But neither is any longer – given what humanity did, and failed to do, over the second half of the 20th century (coming on top of the unappreciated reality of what we’d done over the preceding 150 years). If those projects are ever to regain the status of real utopias, it will be only after, and thanks to, the realization of the only utopia that is really “real” for us at this point in our history.
We need something close to 100 years of sustained non-economistic, producerist Green Social Democracy – starting no more than 20 years from now. In Wright’s terms, what I’m arguing for is a symbiotic, class-compromise strategy that seeks to expand and defend the space for interstitial tactics, while fighting for a radical break with high-modernist and neo-fascist tendencies within “capitalism.” But where that gets us, if we’re lucky, is not any fully egalitarian, just or emancipatory political economy, rather, it gets us through hell, and back to a world of options akin to 1945, with our basic humanity in tact and a lot of hard lessons learned.
That’s a reasonably realistic utopia.
For a full-length version, click here.