Envisioning Real Utopias — Transformations

by Harry on March 13, 2007

As promised last week, an opportunity to discuss the 3rd part of Erik Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. Part III 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.

Fire away.



matt w. 03.14.07 at 12:59 am

This might be a bit of an unfair question since Erik admits that he needs more of a conclusion to Chapter 10, but I was wondering why we should view symbiotic transformation as superior to interstitial or ruptural transformations.

The dialectic of the earlier chapters and the criticisms of the other two types of transformations led me to believe that symbiotic transformations were supposedly more plausible than the other two types of transformation. However, I worry that symbiotic transformations might only help to ameliorate the negative effects of capitalism, but that they wouldn’t lead to a full transformation to socialism in the long run.

After all, symbiotic transformation seems to involve compromise with the capitalist elites. I’m wondering how much that compromise is compatible with full-blown transformation to socialism.


Tracy W 03.14.07 at 1:44 am

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.

Good lord – no one could accuse the bloke of lacking in ambition.

He does, however, appear to be lacking a theory of how the collective actors will agree on a strategy, or indeed on an end goal in the first place.


quentin 03.14.07 at 1:51 am

Referring to the discussion on the social economy in ch. 6:
This may not be applicable across countries, however in the US must of work done in the ‘private sphere’ is done by women. This includes talking care of elders, child-care, etc. Would the creation of a social economy lessen the gendered nature of work done within these sphere? If so, how? If not, is this something to be worried about?


lindsey 03.14.07 at 1:56 am

I think part of the reason why symbiotic transformations are more desirable stems from the prediction that they are the least likely to be undermined in the future by capitalist interests. If you have a rupture or interstitial change, they may do very well for the time being (if present circumstances allow), but they will eventually be challenged by those in favor of capitalism. These changes will be vulnerable because they have negative consequences for capitalists, so a counterattack is likely. If the rupture or interstitial change benefited capitalists, then it would then fall under the symbiotic category. Even if this does ameliorate capitalism, it could have an important effect on what is achievable in the future. One might argue that you can only go so far using the symbiotic route, but if you go as far as you can down that road then you may have changed the interests/ideologies/expectations of society enough to make other changes less vulnerable to attack.

I do have a question about what a symbiotic transformation might look light. Could a universal healthcare program (if designed correctly) be a possibility? Healthcare is a rather tricky and expensive fringe benefit that causes problems for both the worker and the employer. I can envision employers being happy to give that responsibility over to the government. In which case, those who are not covered (or poorly covered) would benefit, and the employers would be freed up from covering the costs. If done well, this could be a win-win situation that would arguably start to tip the scale in favor of other socialist changes. While this would, in effect, eliminate one of the harms of capitalism (seemingly rendering it stronger), it could also have the effect of changing society’s attitude (in a positive way) regarding the socialist agenda. I’m not sure if this would really work. Thoughts?


Shahin 03.14.07 at 2:22 am

I’ve only read chapter 7 so far, but I want to pose a question based on the following thought: if one of the principal mechanisms whereby social reproduction takes place is the set of beliefs that support such a system AND it is reasonable to think that the genuinely held ‘ideology’ of elites have the most influence in maintaining a social arrangement (like capitalism), then one reasonable element of a transformative strategy would be to focus on the education of the elite in such a way that they themselves see the wisdom of alternative approaches to social and economic organization. To what extent do you think this a viable type of strategy?


abb1 03.14.07 at 8:29 am

It is one thing to say that symbiotic strategies can potentially enlarge the space for social empowerment and create relatively stable forms of positive collaboration. But why should we believe that this also has the potential of cumulatively transforming the system as a whole? Why is a symbiotic strategy any more plausible than ruptural strategies or interstitial strategies as a strategy not simply for improvement of life within capitalism but for the transcendence of capitalism?

Once in a while I too feel like “the worse the better”, but, clearly, improvement of life isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the alternative is a ‘rupture’ followed by something defined as ‘utopia’. Or maybe I’m just too old.

Anyway, another example of a symbiosis is the way privately owned public utilities operate in parts of the US, where their (fairly detailed) modus operandi is determined by state utilities commissions with direct participation of unions, consumer and environmental organizations.


EOWright 03.14.07 at 12:40 pm

re #1. Symbiotic strategies are not generically superior to other strategies. My general view is that there is no universally adequate strategy for transforming a hybrid system within which capitalism is dominant into one in which capitalism is subordinate. The way to think of this, then, is that some combination of symbiotic, interstitial and ruptural is likely to characterize any historically plausible trajectory of transformation

re #2. Within each of the three strategies of transformation there would be specific theories of how collective actors are actually forged around given goals using given strategies. I don’t have any special insights on this – the existing collective action literature is a rich source of ideas about this problem.

re#3. The social economy is not inherently less gendered than private household provision of care services, but it is a more favorable terrain for struggle over gender equality because it is a public mode of provision, and thus subject to public norms and greater visibility.

re #4. Universal health care could certainly be a symbiotic reform and therefore be part of a symbiotic strategy. But note: not all symbiotic strategies are symbiotic socialist strategies – i.e. strategies for deepening the forms of social empowerment. Some are symbiotic statist strategies – linking expansion and deepening of autonomous state power with the solution of system-problems facing capitalism. Symbiotic strategies of social empowerment require that what is hooked together symbiotically is expanded power of social forces – associational power in civil society – with problem-solving. To the extent that a statist form of universal health care also strengthened democratic responsiveness of the state, then this would be one of the pathways of social empowerment – and thus this would be a specific instance of what I called in chapter 4 statist socialism.
One other comment here: the rhetoric of win-win generally tends to marginalize the fact that power-shifts are involved here and makes the problem seem to be simply one of agreement and enlightened understanding. Remember that symbiotic strategies are premised on the exclusionary limits that close off the optimal strategies for elites.

re #5 I am always skeptical of the view that one of the main obstacles to radical egalitarian democratic transformation is lack of enlightenment on the part of elites, at least if by “elites” one means that most power and privileged segments of the society. They will be losers in the transformations I am discussing – they will lose their privileges and their distinctive forms of power. They may, of course, gain lives of greater meaning and such changes may correspond to some broad humanistic values they hold – Engels, after all, was a capitalist. But it seems that a strategy that puts much hope in winning powerful, privileged elites onto the side of the dissolution of their class power is not likely to be very effective. That is why class struggle remains central to the arguments of socialist transformation, even one with the more benign view of the overall process.
If by elite you mean a much broader idea of people who do OK under existing relations, then of course I think education and ideological struggle is essential.

re#6. No strategy is “plausible” for transcending capitalism, for really pushing the system beyond the limits of a capitalism-dominant hybrid. The plausibility depends upon historical contingencies in which open up new spaces, which create tipping points. These are more likely to occur in periods of crisis and disruption, not because such periods are themselves the result of a strategy – a strategy to makes things worse in order for them to get better – because systems encounter crises. But most fundamentally, I don’t have an answer to the question of how symbiotic strategies actually push the system beyond such limits. This is why I think a “combination therapy” is needed.


abb1 03.14.07 at 5:07 pm

I think ‘subordinating’ capitalism (as opposed to eliminating it) is exactly the right term, because we probably still want to use the incentives capitalism creates. But it’s also a very subjective term; who is to say when capitalism has been subordinated enough? After all, as you say in the book, in every developed country capitalism is already limited, subordinated to a degree. So, how are we to judge that in any given social-democratic hybrid society capitalism (and statism for that matter) is still dominant or is not dominant any more; is there a test? [Is it in the book somewhere and I missed it?]


harry b 03.14.07 at 7:09 pm

I don’t want to lower the tone, but have you seen my favourite Masterpiece Theatre of all? (A Very British Coup) A left-wing Labour government pursues a symbiotic strategy, but is confronted by the full force of the ruling class. I won’t give away the ending, but I am now longing to watch it again in the light of the manuscript.


bekka 03.14.07 at 8:48 pm

I have a very basic question, possibly relevant to ch. 8. How broad is the category of “material interests”? (I am looking especially at pp. 2-3 of ch. 8, and the associated charts.) Wright’s distinction between motivations related to material interests and motivations related to “ideology and moral commitment” (p. 2). I am wondering, however, whether there might be important motivating interests of a third sort–perhaps interests regarding non-material aspects of well-being (happiness, leisure time, etc.). If these are part of the category of material interests, please stop reading here. :)

If not, it seems that some of these interests could, although not material, be self-regarding. Thus, I might favor revolution because I think that the post-revolution society will be one in which I am happier, even though my (material) standard of living is not quite as good as it was pre-revolution. If these could be non-material interests–and more importantly, *if* they were strong motivators for a significant number of people (which I admit is a big ‘if’)–then perhaps these interests combined with ideological interests could be enough to motivate ruptural transformation even if this were not “in the all-things-considered material interests” of many people.

Then again, maybe not.


J Ahlberg 03.15.07 at 12:05 am

Wright says (Ch. 9, p.2) that interstitial strategies “need not” be subversive, but what happens if they are? Napster, to use one of his examples, does seem like a subversive strategy to the extent that those who participated were rejecting the market entirely (in its original incarnation, when music was free). But then, in what sense is Napster more of an interstitial strategy, rather than a ruptural one?


hallie 03.15.07 at 12:34 am

It looks like Bekka and I were made curious by the same section. Wright’s claim that non-material motvations are not enough to sustain support for a long “middle” trajectory of decline in a ruptural tranformation may be able to use more investigation.

For instance, if (a) the median income earners of a community were experiencing a significant material decline but most people below the median (the entire poor) were experiencing a much less severe material decline, the situation would be very different then one (b) in which everyone was experiencing the same slight or severe material decline during the middle trajectory. In the former situation (a), the poor might have less, but be motivated by watching the people who have snubbed them all their lives make do with amounts comparable to their own. I could say this was a non-material motivation of the pursuit of equality, or it could just be the motivation associated with revenge (also non-material). Either way, if the middle trajectory in the rupture tranformation was more equalizing of incomes even in its overall material decline, there might be useful types of support generated to sustain the tranformation.

Bekka suggested that things like added leisure time might sustain the motivation for the ruptural transformation. I’m worried that, given some of the things we talked about in class last week, this might not work. Harry said that a person in one year, say 1995, when he is making 20 thousand a year, would rather have more leisure time and continue on at the same or only slightly higher salary instead of working the same amount for a large raise. However, if you talk to the same person in 2000 when he is making 30 thousand dollars, he does not prefer to give up the amount his salary has increased since 1995 in order to obtain more leisure time. It seems we get used to the amount we habitually consume and find those habits hard to part with, even for a benefit like large amounts of vacation time.

This makes me think that people whose material motivations are decreasing in the middle trajectory of the ruptural transformation might not experience compensating motivation from their increase in leisure time and the like.


david k. 03.15.07 at 1:47 am

A possible answer to Jamie’s question: it seems to me we should say that a strategy is ruptural or interstitial *relative to a goal* rather than absolutely. Napster might be interstitial relative to the goal of full-blown socialism (since it is, at best, just a “small incremental” shift in the direction of the goal), ruptural relative to the goal of providing an alternative to the market for music consumers (since it fully achieved that goal), and neither ruptural nor interstitial relative to the goals of certain kinds of libertarianism (since it represented a step away from those goals). Of course, when one is working within a certain framework in which the goals are assumed, we can drop the talk about “relative to goal X” and just say whether a strategy is interstitial, ruptural, or whatever.


EOWright 03.15.07 at 2:15 am

re #8. The issue how to evaluate the relative weight of different principles within a hybrid is a very murky one. Consider for a moment a simpler situation in which we have only two principles at work – capitalism and socialism – and we postulate a variable hybrid containing capitalist and socialist elements. The “socialist compass” is an idea which suggests that the more the allocation and use of resources is governed by social power, the more that hybrid has a socialist character. But this does not specify a precise meaning to the idea that socialism might become “dominant” within the hybrid. (This is similar to a more general problem when we see a problem within which there are multiple causal processes at work and we ask “which is the most important.” ) One intuition in play here is that dominant means that when conflicts occur between the two principles, the dominant power has a higher probability of prevailing.

re #10 On material interests: I think it is important to have a fairly expansive, but not all-encompassing, notion of “material interests.” I would include leisure time in the concept, since this is so closely connected to productivity, income, etc. To say a worker has a material interest in higher wages and shorter work hours, is very close to saying that they have an interest in leisure. I would not want to pack into the concept all aspects of quality of life. Sometimes in these chapters I slide between these different criteria. In chapter 7 I talk mainly about material interests, but in the interstitial strategy chapter the discussion is pitched around quality of life.
Now, I agree completely that happiness and material interests are not the same thing. And if it were the case that a revolution would make you durably happier even if there was a drastic decline in your material standard of living, and you were motivated by that, then the transition trough problem would be significantly reduced for you: your support of the revolution would not be weakened by the decline in your material conditions of life. However, I do not think that this is a plausible empirical scenario for a society as a whole, because if material standards of living drop significantly there will be considerable struggle over how the burden of this decline is distributed and the incentives of people to displace costs on others will increase considerably.

re #11. Napster was an interstitial strategy which – conceivably – over time could have precipitated a system rupture (or contributed to one), but it was not itself a rupture in the system: it coexisted with conventional property rights, worked in the niches and spaces of the system. That is what made it interstitial: it did not constitute a rupture in the system of power. Now, it turns out that because of the ways in which it was corrosive of property rights, it was repressed, and therefore it is possible that a rupture was needed for it to be sustained.

re #12. My general view on the transition trough problem can be stated this way: the deeper and more prolonged is a transition through in the material conditions of life, the more difficult will it be to sustain a ruptural transition to socialism under democratic conditions. There may be mitigating factors, factors which make a transition more stable – or less stable – even with a deep and prolonged trough. But if an alternative to the transition is seen as available (and thus the rupture is reversible), and if democratic competition is maintained, then reversal becomes increasingly attractive if a transition trough is deep and prolonged. And remember: none of this includes the additional problem of violence and chaos under a transition (violent counterrevolution, etc.). The conditions under which these predictions might be neutralized are a) where reversal is impossible, b) where the future prospects of the capitalist alternative are dismal (i.e. the crisis scenario which makes the trough not so deep compared to the alternative), c) a distributional situation in which even if the mean income declines, the median rises because of massive redistribution.


matt mitterko 03.15.07 at 1:52 pm

To focus on a small point in Chapter 9, I don’t see how either Napster or Fair Trade can be called interstitial strategies. It appears that Napster is simply a ruptural strategy that failed, not an interstitial one. It may have operated in the niches of the system, but it also fundamentally rejected the property rights of musicians, and I would take property rights to be central to functioning within the market. Such a strategy seems subversive (if such intentions were even explicitly held by those using Napster), and hence ruptural.

Fair Trade, however, utilizes the market for its power of distributive efficiency, but attempts to correct for inequalities in wealth that are concentrated in the pockets of a few producers. Advocates of market capitalism might claim that this is no interstitial strategy; it’s just a part of the robust functioning of the market that non-economic values might be considered in market exchanges. So I’d hesitate to call it an interstitial strategy as well. I guess I wonder how we discern which type of strategy an act might be (interstitial, ruptural, or symbiotic) unless we have the hindsight to evaluate the outcome. I feel like I might be missing something, so feel free to interject.


sarahL 03.15.07 at 5:17 pm

I too am curious about characterization of the present-day examples provided in the manuscript, especially the distinction between interstitial and symbiotic strategies. In reading descriptions of the modes of transformation in Ch. 7 (p. 21), it seemed clear enough to me that interstitial strategies operated outside of capitalist institutions, and that symbiotic strategies acted within them. But when it comes to examples like Napster and Fair Trade, it was much less obvious to me which strategy they illustrate—Fair Trade in particular seems to harness capitalist institutions to deepen social empowerment, which I thought was a hallmark of symbiotic transformation.

Comments on this entry are closed.