There is much to admire in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of our current situation (capitalism, and the injustices thereof), the aporias of old-style radicalism (standard issue Marxism-Leninism – maybe not so useful in explaining the early 21st century), and various small-bore examples of what a better world might be that could perhaps be expanded into something bigger. The examples of little quasi-utopias that Wright discusses are familiar ones – but in the case of popular budgeting in Porto Allegre, Wright can hardly be blamed, since his work with Archon Fung did a lot to highlight this case for English-speakers such as myself. And, of course, I’m biased. I start from a position that is in strong sympathy with Wright – I’ve been influenced both by his work, and the work of people who he’s engaged with in both friendly and argumentative ways over the last couple of decades (the various tendencies within the Politics and Society crowd). If I aspire to a political tradition, it’s Wright’s tradition of an interest in radical change, combined with a strong respect for empirically guided analysis.
Of course, I have critical things to say, or it wouldn’t be worth my writing this or people reading it. The book’s explicit intention is to provide a kind of socialist compass. As Wright makes clear, we don’t have any grand master plans which would allow us to see the road ahead. We know that one such plan – the one of the people who built the USSR and its cognates and satellites – worked horribly badly. So Wright’s implicit recommendation is that we build a better society through careful exploration, guided by a general set of principles rather than a strong belief that we know the answers already. I think Diane Coyle is wrong when she sees this as an effective accommodationism – the injection of homeopathic doses of socialism into a fundamentally capitalist system. Instead, it’s a process of careful, iterated search. In Wright’s words (p.108)
Alas there is no map, and no existing social theory is sufficiently powerful to even begin to construct such a comprehensive representation of possible social destinations … Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, perhaps the best we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go, and an odometer which tells us how far from the point of departure we have traveled, but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination.
This final destination will likely still involve some markets (Wright is politely skeptical about non-market utopias), but it will still, plausibly, be radically different from what we have at the moment. We don’t know what it will look like, so the best we can do at the moment is to look to what hopeful monsters there are, to broaden our sense of the possibility conditions, and to guide our search in useful directions. These examples may not scale in a capitalist environment (contrary to what Coyle says, Wright does discuss some reasons why this might be so), but they give us some intimations both that a better world is possible, and of where we might find it.
The problem, as I see it, is that these two desiderata are likely to cut against each other. If Wright wants to use Porto Allegre, Wikipedia, Mondragon (is he familiar with Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312, with its solar-system spanning Mondragon Collective I wonder?) and the rest to draw us towards the utopian project, he is likely to present them in one light. Specifically, he is likely to stress how they can, in their small way, be inspirations, treating them as utopias-in-miniature, acknowledging that they are flawed, but arguing that despite their flaws, they approximate an ideal well enough that we ought take hope from them. If he wants to use them in order to orient our compass, he should treat them in a different and more social scientific way, looking at them less as inspirations than experiments, where we can learn both from their strengths and their weaknesses. It’s extremely hard to do both at once. Too much idealization and it’s hard to think clearly about their flaws. Too much stress on their problems and it’s hard to feel inspired.
The book leans more heavily towards the idealization, and is skimpier on the flaws than I would like. Take Wikipedia: the one micro-quasi-utopia that I know something about. Wright argues that Wikipedia is a lovely example of how collective goods can be produced on a massive scale in reality. He acknowledges that it has informational flaws and weak spots, but seems highly impressed with its governance system (although he mentions in a footnote that his co-author got some flak from people at a technology conference for being too idealistic about its election system). He finds that
Taken together these four characteristics of Wikipedia – non-market relations, egalitarian participation, deliberative interactions among contributors, democratic governance and adjudication – conform closely to the normative ideals of radical democratic egalitarianism. …. Whatever else may be the case, Wikipedia shows that productive non-market egalitarian collaboration on a very wide scale is possible.
Much of this rings true to me – Wikipedia, whatever else it is, is an example of non-market collaboration on an enormous scale. That it works as well as it does is extraordinary. The question that I have though is whether it is truly egalitarian.
One possible refutation of this argument comes from Wales himself, who has argued that Wikipedia is actually largely written by a much smaller cadre of true volunteers than the raw numbers would suggest. And indeed, quantitative analyses have suggested that the distribution of Wikipedia contributors is skewed, so that a relatively small number of people do most of the edits. This might feed into arguments like Matt Hindman’s suggestion that in many aspects of the WWW, skewed distributions prevail, in which those who have most influence tend to be those with the characteristics of traditional social elites. A refutation to that refutation however comes from our much-missed friend, Aaron Swartz who finds that while a tiny fraction of users are indeed responsible for the vast preponderance of edits, most of these edits are housekeeping tasks, aimed at ensuring standardization and the like. The bulk of the actual material is indeed provided (or was, when Aaron did his research) by a large number of people.
But there are other, more troubling points. First and most obviously, there is strong evidence of gender imbalance in Wikipedia editing. Lam et al. (PDF) note evidence from a Wikimedia Foundation study that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women – the target is to raise female participation to 25% by 2015. They find that the average female editor is responsible for substantially fewer edits than the average male editor, and that women are less likely to be retained as editors than men. This may in part be because women editors are more likely to have their early edits reverted, prompting them to leave Wikipedia, than men. Coverage of topics of interest to women is worse than coverage of topics of interest to men. All this leads the authors to suggest that Wikipedia has “a culture that may be resistant to female participation.”
Second, the actual processes of Wikipedia editing are not always particularly egalitarian. There are aspects which are attractive, such as the use of ‘barnstars’ [PDF] to provide positive social feedback for particularly active volunteer editors. But there are less normatively soothing aspects too. Wikipedia `policies’ such as Neutral Point of View are more often used as bludgeons [PDF] in heated argument than as means to forge genuine consensus. Sometimes, consensus is never reached And what consensus there is very often reflects a battle between in groups and out groups in which the views of a dominant coalition batters others into submission. Articles on controversial topics hence become polarized between a group of “individuals who have, for the time being, claimed legitimate authority over the article and are able to enforce their own changes and those whose changes are likely to be rejected.” This is, bluntly, a new form of inegalitarianism, in which those who have more spare time and social cohesion are able to fend off changes proposed by those with less time and fewer allies.
This does not undermine Wright’s basic point – that utopians should learn from practical examples such as Wikipedia and use them to plot their course. However, it does perhaps suggest that a different kind of search is attractive. Rather than looking for cases such as Wikipedia as examples of what utopia might look like, one should treat them as cases from which we might learn both positive and negative lessons, about what works, and what does not.
One very interesting example of how this might be done can be found in the work of the late Lin and Vincent Ostrom. Indeed, I was a bit surprised not to see the Ostroms getting mentioned, as their ideas have some overlap with Wright’s, even if it is hard to situate them on the usual maps of left and right. As I understand their life project, it had two major components. One was a normative account of the benefits of ‘polycentric governance systems,’ a set of arguments which have much in common with Wright’s ‘recombinant decentralization.’ The second was a vast empirical project aimed at figuring out which local governance systems worked in managing resources and which did not, gathering data from thousands of cases. The two complemented each other directly, as Ostrom’s Nobel lecture suggests.
As Cosma Shalizi and I have argued, one might do something similar (for collective information processing of the kind that radical democrats are interested in rather than resource management) by taking advantage of the many, many cases provided by the Internet. The advantage of the Internet, here, is not that Internet based forms of collective cognition and decision making are inherently superior to more traditional forms (we have no necessary reason to think that they are). It’s that they can be studied in different ways – people’s conversations and arguments leave traces in the data that can then (with care) be used to understand what works and what does not. Here, Wikipedia and other such systems are less examples to be emulated, than cases to be carefully decomposed, so that one can figure out (some) of what makes them work, (some) of what makes them dysfunctional, and then use these positive and negative lessons to make a better and more grounded empirical case for specific radical democratic proposals. New forms of data analysis mean that one can do this, albeit quite imperfectly, at a very large scale.
This seems to me to offer a concrete way to begin to explore the possibility space for radical democracy. To be clear, it carries costs. It is a pragmatic program rather than an inspirational one. To quote from the concluding response of our last seminar:
It’s a lot easier to build a radical movement on a story of transformation, on the idea of the plan that makes another world possible, than it is on a story of finding out the partial good and building upon it. The legitimacy of the Soviet experiment, and of the ecosystem of less barbarous ideas that turned out to tacitly depend upon it, lay in the perception of a big, bright, adjacent, obtainable, obvious, morally-compelling other way of doing things. Will people march if society inscribes upon its banners, ‘Watch out for the convexity constraints’? Will we gather in crowds if a speaker offers us all the utopia that isn’t NP-complete?
Watching out for the convexity constraints isn’t the basis for a mass movement. But then, Wright isn’t providing the lessons for how to build such a movement. Instead, he’s interested in figuring out how to search an uncertain terrain for better solutions. This would at the least be one way to do this.