The Possibility of Little Utopias: Russell Fox on Erik Wright

by John Quiggin on March 24, 2013

I can’t say that Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias provided me with any particular, brilliant insight, and I suppose someone better read in social theory or analytical Marxism than I might have found parts of the book belabored. Even I would agree that it was often repetitious, though I think I think Russell Jacoby was simply talking nonsense when he called the book a
“morass.” Overall though, nearly three years since I first read it, I still consider it a masterful work. Wright’s case for separating the socialist project from the conceptual apparatus of traditional Marxism—from its theory of history to its necessarily revolutionary implications—in favor of a “compass” which orients us as we move down numerous different, possibly hybrid routes, towards a greater level of social power and democratic egalitarianism, was entirely persuasive to me. Of all those routes, the one which most intrigues me is one which invites reflections that are rarely identified as “socialist,” but more usually localist, communitarian, even Burkean (hence my title of this review). But let me come around to that conclusion the long way.

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{ 7 comments }

1

William Timberman 03.24.13 at 11:51 pm

Yes. For the left, Envisioning Real Utopias>/i> manages to encompass a mea culpa, a modern catechism, an encyclopedia of the arguments, and a summary of the best practices identified to date, all in one modest volume. Masterful is exactly the adjective I would use to describe it. Even to a pessimist like me, it seems as worthy as anything out there to serve as a vade mecum for those who still retain a little optimism even after they’ve dined at the Tree of Knowledge.

2

William Timberman 03.24.13 at 11:53 pm

Tags win again. Rats!

For the left Envisioning Real Utopias manages to encompass a mea culpa, a modern…

3

Luis 03.25.13 at 3:07 pm

a summary of the best practices identified to date

As others have complained here, it is pretty skimpy as a summary of best practices. I hope, though, that it inspires more work in that direction.

4

William Timberman 03.25.13 at 3:54 pm

Yes there’ve been complaints, most of them valid in their own terms — I’ve indulged in some of them myself in a previous thread. There’s the global-warming-makes-this-all-seem-irrelevant complaint and the ignoring-the-global-south-eurocentrism complaint, and the we-haven’t-got-the-time-or-patience-for-all-this complaint, all of which have their own resonances, but are also tangential to the Wright’s main goal.

In my view, his use of utopia(s) in the title may be the only real flaw in the book. It seems to inflame people who are looking at issues that appear to them to overwhelm his methodology. As a taxonomy of the Left and its concerns since Marx, though, I find it useful. As a methodological blueprint, it’s probably less useful, not only because, as Bill Barnes has pointed out, time is awfully short, but also because, as Bruce Wilder explains in great detail over time, far more crockery will have to be broken than any associational democracy will– or can — ever have the means to break.

Despite all this, I think Wright’s book is, as RF says here, masterful, largely because it doesn’t blink at the very real problems of creating a world in which all of us are subjects as well as objects. This act of creation can always be reduced to a willfulness of the utopian imagination, i.e. it’s always been unreachable by any empirically testable hypothesis, and undoubtedly will remain so no matter what the ultimate consequences of of Capitalism’s long sueño de la rasón. That can hardly be Wright’s fault.

5

someofparts 03.25.13 at 7:22 pm

Thanks!

I’ve been doing my own fumbling research on social change by reading histories – Edgar Snow on the Chinese, Orwell on the Spanish civil war, Goodwyn on the Populists, E P Thompson on the British working class. Wright’s work looks like a valuable addition to my the list.

6

Tim Wilkinson 03.26.13 at 12:08 am

I do agree that the ‘Eden of the gaps’ approach calls to mind various right-wing tropes – it’s not a million miles from Nozick’s Utopia, or indeed the Cameron govt’s Big Society. The difference I suppose is that Wright is using it to start a conversation rather than end one.

7

Luis 03.26.13 at 3:35 am

Which is a big difference, no?

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