Erik Wright on Envisioning Real Utopias

by Harry on March 4, 2007

Erik Olin Wright’s manuscript-in-progress, Envisioning Real Utopias is on the web. Erik has been working on the Real Utopias Project for about 15 years, cajoling and encouraging left-ish social scientists to think daringly but rigorously about reform ideas that may not be practicable in the short term, but, if enacted, would forward an egalitarian agenda, and would be internally workable. (I’ve been mentioning it a lot recently, in case you hadn’t noticed). I asked Erik to provide a brief intro for your edification, which is below the fold. He’s keen to get (useful) comments at this stage, so please either email him. Or, if your comments concern chapters one, two, or three, comment here (I’ll put up another post for discussion of subsequent chapters next week). If you have the patience to wait till publication to read the whole thing, this paper nicely motivates, and summarises some of, the project.

The book begins by laying out the central tasks of what might be called “Emancipatory social science”. Emancipatory social science, in its broadest terms, seeks to generate scientific knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging various forms of human oppression and creating the conditions in which people can live flourishing lives. To call it a form of social science, rather than simply social criticism or social philosophy, implies that it recognizes the importance of systematic scientific knowledge about how the world works for this task. To call it emancipatory is to identify a central moral purpose in the production of knowledge – the elimination of oppression and the creation of the conditions for human flourishing. And to call it social implies the belief that human emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world. To fulfill this mission, any emancipatory social science faces three basic tasks: elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; envisioning viable alternatives; and, understanding the obstacles, possibilities, and dilemmas of transformation.

Part I of the book explores the first of these tasks. The starting point for building an emancipatory social science is identifying the ways in which existing social institutions and social structures systematically impose harms on people. It is not enough to show that people suffer in the world in which we live or that there are enormous inequalities in the extent to which people live flourishing lives. A scientific emancipatory theory must show that the explanation for this suffering and inequality lies in specific properties of institutions and social structures. The first task of emancipatory social science, therefore, is the diagnosis and critique of the causal processes that generate these harms.

Part II explores the second task of emancipatory social science: developing a coherent, credible theory of alternatives to existing institutions and social structures that would eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, these harms. Social alternatives can be elaborated and evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. Of these three, the second is in many ways the most crucial task for the development of a scientific emancipatory theory. It is fairly easy to elaborate desirable alternatives to existing institutions so long as one does not need to worry about institutional and social viability – the problem of whether the desirable institution would actually generate the claimed desirable effects without perverse consequences and be sustainable if instituted. Achievability is obviously also important, but discussions that focus on achievability as such quickly begin to lose realism unless the time horizon is fairly short. We can know so little about what the world will be like in 40 years that it is almost impossible to have a coherent discussion of the problem of achievable alternatives in the long-run.

The first of the chapters of Part II briefly reviews and criticize the traditional Marxist approach to this problem and then propose an alternative way of approaching the analysis of alternatives to capitalism. The second chapter elaborates the substance of this alternative by elaborating a specific way of understanding the “social” in socialism, and proposing a conception of transcending capitalism through a trajectory of increasing social empowerment. The remaining two chapters of this part of the book explore more specific institutional designs for social empowerment and the state and social empowerment and the economy.

Part III of the book explores the difficult problem of a theory of transformation. Erik thinks of emancipatory social science as an account of a journey from the present to a possible future: the diagnosis and critique of society tells us why we want to leave the world in which we live; the theory of alternatives tells us where we want to go; and the theory of transformation tells us how to get from here to there. A fully developed theory of transformation has four interconnected components: a theory of the mechanisms of social reproduction which sustain existing structures of power and privilege; a theory of the contradictions in such systems of reproduction, contradictions which open up a space for strategies of social transformation; a theory of the developmental dynamics of the system which change the conditions for such strategies over time; and, crucially, a theory of the strategies of collective actors that can respond to those changing conditions in light of contradictions in order to challenge the institutions of social reproduction and move us in the direction of social emancipation.

The first chapter in Part III explains the central concepts in each of these components. The next three chapters explore in some detail three different strategic logics of transformation: ruptural, interstitial, and symbiotic.

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Erik Olin Wright’s “Envisioning Real Utopias” « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist
03.06.07 at 6:33 pm
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dearieme 03.04.07 at 8:16 pm

I was instructed, when young, that rigour is a property of mathematics, not of physics. So the idea of “left-ish social scientists to think daringly but rigorously” has caused me to pause.


harry b 03.04.07 at 8:25 pm

dearieme — I used the US spelling of “rigourously”… I’m a bit shocked you didn’t pull me up on that!


dearieme 03.05.07 at 12:08 am

If I’d been really frank, I’d have sneered derisively at the very idea of anyone leftish thinking, let alone thinking daringly. When last some leftists thought daringly, they ended up as neo-cons, for heaven’s sake. Spare us more.


asg 03.05.07 at 2:37 am

Social alternatives can be elaborated and evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability.

I hesitate to ask, but which of these 3 does “voluntariness” (sp?) fit into?


Invig 03.05.07 at 8:21 am

I like these ideas.

This diagram explains my version.

The critical part, I believe, is the information flow between the representations of the real world and the people with experience of it.

Good luck!


abb1 03.05.07 at 10:31 am

I’m very impressed. I’ve read chapters 2, 3 and 4 and it’s been fun to read.

This is in contrast with Roberto Unger’s Politics: The Central Texts, which I was trying to read a couple of years ago and had to quit; I was falling asleep every five minutes.

Which makes me wonder if this is really a popularization rather than serious science book. But if this indeed is a real science book, then I’m pleasantly surprised.


EOWright 03.05.07 at 1:24 pm

asg asks how “voluntariness” fits into the three criteria for evaluating social alternatives (desirability, viability, achievability). Voluntariness is most likely to be one of the many considerations that enters into the evaluating of the desirability of an alternative. Desireability is the rubric under which we would discuss all of the things which would make an alternative social world a good thing (or a bad thing), without worrying about whether or not it would actually work and be sustainable (viability) or whether there are political forces and processes through which it could be instituted (achievability).


harry b 03.05.07 at 2:16 pm

abb1 — it is certainly original scholarship, and in fact its not clear to me that anyone is doing anything really like it. It is driven by an interest in normative questions, so some may not want to call it science (maybe he wouldn’t) — it is a meld of social theory and political theory, well informed by empirical social science. I think what you are responding to, though, is that he writes in a straightforward and direct way, uninterested in displays of erudition. We should all write like this. (In Unger’s defence, although like you I’ve always found him close to unreadable, you must have been reading a translation, no?)


abb1 03.05.07 at 3:38 pm

I thought it was written in English, the cover says: “edited and introduced by “Zhiyuan Cui”.


Pablo G. 03.05.07 at 4:26 pm

Erik O. Wright summarized important aspects of his approach in the nice paper “Compass Points. Toward a Socialist Alternative,” which appeared in the New Left Review (sept. oct. 2006), pp. 93-124.


matt w 03.05.07 at 9:04 pm

Concerning Chapter 1, I had a bit of terminological question. In the “Diagnosis and Critique” section, the view advocated is called “democratic egalitarianism” and is a combination of radical egalitarian social justice with a radical democratic view of political power. Many of the diagnoses mentioned in this section seem to be in line with the “democratic egalitarian” view put forward by Liz Anderson in “What is the Point of Equality?” Is the view advocated here essentially the same? If not, how does it differ from her account?


abb1 03.05.07 at 9:53 pm

Talking about symbiotic transformation, I think Switzerland is an interesting case (though I’m not so sure about the ‘transformation’ part). The political system is (as it’s well-known, obviously) decentralized and with high level of democratic participation and and its economy is definitely symbiotic: businesses provide high wages and high level of employment, and in return the state limits the competition; not just competition from the foreigners, but it seems to be allowing (facilitating?) large domestic enterprises to form cartels. They seem to be operating as privately owned public utilities, something like electric utilities in the US before the deregulation campaign.

For example, drive around Geneva and on any given day you’ll see virtually all gas-stations, all different brands, selling gasoline all at the same price, exactly the same, to a tenth of a cent. And it’s not just gasoline, it appears that there’s very little competition in anything.

I don’t really know any specifics of the socio-economic and political mechanics here, but if this is what a high-participation near-direct democracy produces, then, perhaps, capitalism is not necessarily the main villain; perhaps it can be tamed to the point of becoming almost completely benign. Or maybe not, I don’t know; maybe there’s something else going on here.


lindsey 03.05.07 at 10:06 pm

It seems clear that the underlying assumption of emancipatory social science is that existing institutions are responsible for their effects on human flourishing. At the least, institutions should not harm human flourishing, and at the most, institutions should promote the maximum amount of human flourishing possible. Much of chapters 1 & 2 rely on the assumption that human flourishing is an inherent good worth protection and promotion. While I agree with that assumption, what arguments can be given to explicitly outline the responsibility that economic and state institutions have in ensuring this good (over other goods such as the rights of individuals, for example) beyond the recognition that they currently harm it? In other words, how can you prove to the libertarian (for example) that harming human flourishing is bad enough to warrant an over-haul of the economic infrastructure?

Considering the probable audience of the Real Utopias Project, the assumption of the intrinsic value of human flourishing will most likely go unchallenged. I understand that the importance of human flourishing is a key element in the radical egalitarian understanding of justice, and I agree that a socially just society will meet this requirement. But what can be said to the opponent who claims that private institutions (family, religious orgs, etc) should be the real basis for this form of justice? Promoting human flourishing will inevitably involve a series of value judgments (and coercive action) that could be hard to agree upon in a pluralistic society. Others would go so far as to claim that the government has no business promoting any system of values whatsoever, which would prove problematic for the radical egalitarian (unless she could argue persuasively on its behalf). I happen to agree with views of the radical egalitarian, because I think the economy and the state should be responsible for this form of social justice, but I am unsure how to substantiate this belief. Thoughts on this?


EOWright 03.06.07 at 2:14 am

There are two separate issues being raised in lindsey’s comment. First there is the contrast between libertarian and egalitarian theories of justice, and second there is the focus on the problem of flourishing within the specific egalitarian theory I propose. There is a huge philosophical literature criticizing the foundations of the libertarian view, and relatively few political philosophers these days are really prepared to defend the libertarian position that people have such strong rights to property and non-interference, that even if this leads to massive harm to others, it is unjust to force people to do anything about it. Taxation is a form of coercion. Even if taxation could massively alleviate suffering, that is too bad; people have an absolute right to their income and taking it away from them is theft. Few people who look seriously at the foundations of such arguments find them satisfactory. In practice, in fact, most libertarians slip into a less absolute argument. Rather than arguing that taxation is necessarily theft and other forms of constraint on individuals imposed by democratic politics inherently illegitimate – i.e. that any state interference beyond protection of property rights is wrong – most libertarians simply argue that the state makes a mess of things and makes life worse for people than if things were just left to the market. This is, for example, Charles Murray’s argument. That is an empirical argument, and we can then argue the facts of that matter, but it no longer means that there is any problem giving priority to flourishing as a goal; the only issue is whether a libertarian model of what the state should do versus other models will do better for human flourishing.
But why “flourishing” over other sorts of things that might provide us with a criterion for “social justice”? I use flourishing because it is a kind of open-ended umbrella concept that can accommodate a very wide variety of “ways of life”. To say that we want to promote human flourishing does not make any claim about whether it is better to flourish physically, artistically, intellectually or in some other way. There is no claim the partially developing many talents is less or more flourishing than single-mindedly developing one. All that flourishing identifies is the value in developing ones capacities and exercising them in the world. The social justice criterion is then that in a just world all people have roughly equal access to the social and material means to live flourishing lives, defined in this open-ended way. It is unjust for some people (especially children) to be denied such access while others have it. This is quite close to the idea of “equal opportunity” as a principle of justice, but I think “equal access to the means to live a flourishing life” is better. After all, a lottery in which some people do very well and others starve is “equal opportunity,” but not “equal access to the means to flourish.


lindsey 03.06.07 at 2:52 am

Thanks for the clarification. I asked the question in part because of a class discussion last week. It seemed that people wanted the government to push for “material” justice, but they didn’t seem to want the government to get too involved with more broad types of “social” justice (the kind of flourishing that may require developing virtuous characters). In the material respect, capitalism is clearly not helping, but capitalism is also doing lots of social harm (that people are less inclined to involve the government in). In so far as you are reforming monetary policies, these opponents would be fine with your proposals. But if you pushed for a reform of values (integrity, altruism, etc) that could very well increase the prospects of (or be required for) flourishing, not everyone would support those reforms. Some of your objections to capitalism, for example, were an appeal to other commonly held values beyond strict monetary equality. While I agree with that, apparently not everyone thinks that’s the state’s (or economy’s) problem. Though I’m inclined to think they should.


Ragout 03.06.07 at 5:08 am

Harry, are you saying Roberto Unger writes in Portuguese? He certainly speaks excellent English. I’ve seen him speak, and I thought his ability to speak extemporaneously in complete paragraphs was pretty amazing.


bekka 03.06.07 at 5:44 am

Clarification (see Lindsey’s comment, #15): Since Lindsey brought up the class discussion, I hope this is warranted: I certainly did not mean to imply (in class) that justice is limited to material considerations. It seems to me that under a broader conception of justice (Lindsey called it “social” justice), virtue and justice *could* still come apart–even given a quite broad conception of justice, I would deny that virtue is a necessary condition of justice.


EOWright 03.06.07 at 2:04 pm

re #12 — abb1: It is a bit of a stretch to describe Switzerland as a “near-direct democracy”. Capital accumulation is firmly rooted in private property and not subjected to collective deliberation. Economic regulation is bureaucratically organized rather than through democratic-experimentalist participatory processes. It may well be that certain aspects of capitalism have been tamed and this reduces the harms of capitalism, but the question — from the point of view of the arguments in my book — is whether this is because capitalism has been fused with a variety of noncapitalist mechanisms into a socioeeconmic hybrid that is systematically less capitalist. My argument about socialism-as-social empowerment centers around increasing the socialist (and possibly statist) components of economic structural hybrids: the pathway beyond capitalism is through a process of eroding capitalism through forging new kinds of hybrid structures which both neutralize the harmful effects of capitalism and undercut the power of capital.


harry b 03.06.07 at 2:24 pm

ragout — that’s what I was assuming (not saying) although I know he’s taught at Harvard forever. I’m clearly wrong, though. I’ve tried reading several papers and books, and assumed from the fact that he was so highly regarded by people I respect that the problem was that his work was translated from Portuguese, rather than that it wasn’t translated from lawschoolese.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.06.07 at 2:39 pm

Re: virtue and justice

‘…[I]f institutions are not knave-proof, it helps not to have too many knaves around.’

‘Just political and economic institutions and social institutions can easily be perverted by cultures of corruption.’

—Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (1996).

I do think our concept of flourishing should make some reference to our conception of goods and/or the Good or some basic, principled ethical desideratum as a baseline or form of circumscribing the parameters of what human flourishing entails. This need not mean the concept cannot remain ‘open-ended,’ as I believe it rightly should. I have to wait to another day to explain why I believe the concept cannot remain so vague…so perhaps Harry and E.O can permit me to respond later by e-mail correspondence.

And thanks for posting this material, which I’ve yet to read in full but hope to do soon. I thinks such work exemplifies political philosophy at its best.


lindsey 03.06.07 at 4:29 pm

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, the best we can probably do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that tells us the direction we are moving and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a road map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination.

I just wanted to add that this analogy at the end of chapter 3 was great. It added that extra something that’s often missing in dry political philosophy articles. It also reminds us that sometimes you have stop over thinking and just act (as Kierkegaard would recommend), instead of spending all of our time over analyzing. If we make a mistake, we can always try a different route.

Note to Bekka, I agree with you now (upon further thought) that virtue isn’t necessary for justice. My new concern surfaced in part because of class, but it is somewhat different than the topic we discussed. I’m just wondering how you could justify (of if you can justify) policies that go beyond material justice (virtue-driven). Because that seems to be part (but definitely not all) of the critique of capitalism, and I’m concerned that I can’t think of a good way to justify my intuitions on that matter (though I still think it would be a good goal for the state/economy).


quentin 03.07.07 at 12:27 am

In ch. 1 you state ‘emanciatory social science seeks to generate scientific knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging various forms of human oppression.” Usually the word scientific describes ‘concert’ things that are ‘observable’, and things that are reproducible. Also, science claims ‘scientific knowledge’ can only be interpreted one way. In the context of this paper what do you mean by scientific knowledge?


jk 03.07.07 at 12:33 am

re: #21. that analogy reminded me of a favourite wittgenstein quote:
“What happens, I believe, is this: we do not advance towards our goal by the direct road — for this we have not got the strength. Instead, we walk up all sorts of tracks and byways, and so long as we are making some headway we are in reasonably good shape. But whenever such a track comes to an end we are up against it; only then do we realize that we are not at all where we ought to be.”


EOWright 03.07.07 at 4:42 am

Quentin (#23) asks what I mean by “science”. In this context I mean something fairly modest — the generation of knowledge about how the world works that is correctable through the use of empirical observation combined with theoretical argument. I know that this is not a fully satisfactory specification, but I think it will do for the purposes at hand. In social science few people claim that scientific knowledge can be interpreted in only “one way”, at least if by this you mean that for any given set of empirical observations only one possible interpretation (i.e. account of the mechanisms/processes that generate those observations) is allowable. It is frequently the case that a given set of observations is consistent with more than one explanation, which is why it is so hard to definitively resolve many debates in social science.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.07.07 at 6:25 am

Does not the phrase ’emancipatory social science’ orignate with Roy Bhaskar? I realize he holds no patent on the idea, but I do think he’s filled it out in a manner that is suggestive and helpful. In Philosophy and the Idea of Freedom (1991) he notes that emancipation ‘depends upon the transformation of structures rather than just the amelioration of states of affairs. And it will, at least in the case of self-emancipation, depend in particular upon a conscious transformation in the transformative activity or praxis of the social agents concerned. As such, emancipation is necessarily informed by explanatory social theory.’


abb1 03.07.07 at 8:21 am

#24, it reminds me of this, supposedly from Yosano Akiko’s tanka:

“They told me that the road I took would lead me to the Sea of Death; and from halfway along I turned back. And ever since, all the paths I have roamed were entangled, and crooked, and forsaken.”


hallie 03.08.07 at 12:14 am

My internet connection could be lost at any moment (I’m stealing it from my neighbors) so I have not had the chance to go through and read all the previous postings. I’m sorry if there is some overlap.

I have a question about the first chapeter of the book where Wright maps out the project for real utopia pursuers. He divides the project into the critique of the existing society, the offering of alternatives, and the transformation.

The Transformation stage involves four different components. I’m concerned with the first “A theory of social reproduction.” I am not going to make a complaint about this as an importnant step; I’m just going to raise a concern about how this component of realizing real utopias fits into the bigger picture.

Social reproduction is part of what distinguishes political problems from other problems. For instance, imagine I was trying to decide whether or not giving “stakes” of 80,000 dollars to all 21 year olds was a good idea in the US. If “stakes” are a good idea it is because some of the problems I see in the US are reproduced by our current policies in which some people inherit good arrays of opportunities and others very bad arrays of opportunities. The current policies of relying on parents to stake out what opportunities their children will inherit reproduces the inequality of opportunity generation after generation.

Clearly, having this “theory of social reproduction” is an important first step in transformation. However, it seems like a step that comes into play much earlier in the real utopias project. Looking at the case of stakes for 21 year olds, it seems that in order to make a political critique, I need to have this theory of social reproduction. If not, then I don’t know that my critique is political in nature.

Also, in order to come up with desirable, viable alternatives to our current system I need to have this theory of social reproduction. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t know that “stakes” would change people’s opportunities at all- which means the stakes might not be viable. (Afterall, without my theory of social reproduction, I could speculate that poorer people whose children had fewer opportunities were genetically different from others). I need to be confident that it is this social reproduction that is causing the problem in order to be confient about the viability of an alternative method.

It seems like a theory of social reproduction is not just the first step in the tranformation part of the project. It seems like it’s a step that needs to be taken before the critique, the offering of alternatives, or the transformation can begin.


Brynn 03.08.07 at 12:36 am

I have only read through chapter 3 at this point, so perhaps this question is answered in a later chapter, but I have come across a question.

I realize that the idea here is not to focus on the American system, or any particular capitalist economic system, for that matter. Still, I was wondering whether a variation of capitalism might count as a good alternative to the capitalism that, judging from chapter 2, is pretty awful. This question arose when I was reading your explanation of why capitalism gives rise to (encourages?) exploitation. There, you say, “It is precisely because capitalism creates the potential to eliminate material deprivation, but itself cannot fully actualize that potential that it can be indicted for perpetuating eliminable forms of human suffering.” Indeed, several times during that chapter you clarify that the problem might not arise if we took non-capitalist measures to prevent it, but capitalism itself does not contain the solution to the problem it creates. Fair enough, but is a good alternative one that just results in less harm, or is it one that, in addition to resulting in less harm, also still creates the potential to eliminate material deprivation (or gives rise to the other benefits of capitalism)? I suppose this is a question about the desirability of a particular alternative, and we’d have to weigh losses in benefits against gains in a reduction of human suffering, but I am not quite certain, given chapter 2, that any alternative that is simply restricted capitalism will even be a candidate. Of course, I am one of the people who, as you say, takes capitalism for granted.


j ahlberg 03.08.07 at 12:41 am

While reading Wright’s section on destructive competition in Chapter 2 of the manuscript, I was reminded of Michael Marmot’s thesis in The Status Syndrome. Marmot argues that the psychological impact of inequality (particularly as it relates to social status) is a significant cause of bad health and decreased longevity. He claims that the diminished senses of autonomy and solidarity that results from low social status, in particular, are major causes of occupying a low position in the health gradient. If Marmot is right that health has a positional aspect, and with the assumption that health is important to everyone because it contributes to human flourishing, then the case that the culture of competition encouraged by capitalism is detrimental to human flourishing is strengthened.

One might respond that we can mitigate the effects of the “status syndrome” within capitalism itself by, for example, creating programs that encourage more civic and/or political participation (fostering a sense of autonomy and solidarity). However, to the extent that such programs involve redistributing resources away from markets, they would appear not to be capitalistic in spirit. Further, there remains the problem that, even with increased civic and/or political participation vast disparities in income in wealth would persist, which itself undermines the “real freedoms” of those with little income and wealth (which Wright also discusses in Ch 2). Being unable to pursue one’s life plans because of one’s low level of income and wealth is hardly likely to bolster one’s sense of autonomy.

One might also respond by pointing out that alternatives to capitalism are unlikely to eradicate inequality to the extent that people experienced no health-detrimental anxiety related to social status. This seems right, and certainly the question of how much status anxiety can be treated is complicated if not only material goods are sources of anxiety, but social positioning is as well (so that, even if material goods are distributed more equally, political position and influence is not). All this shows, however, is that the problem may extend beyond the difficulties posed by capitalism. It would not show that capitalism itself does not significantly detract from one dimension of human flourishing.

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