Envisioning Real Utopias — Announcing a Book Event in the Fall

by Harry on June 16, 2010

We’ll be hosting one of our book events on Erik Olin Wright’s new book, Envisioning Real Utopias (UK) in the Fall (probably late September), so I thought I’d let people know that the book is out (and excellent) so you can get hold of it and read it in time, if you want to.

Erik has spent a long time working on the book, and even longer on the ideas (I remember a meeting in 1994, in which he announced his decision to name the broader project of which this is a part the “Real Utopias Project” — predating, I think, Rawls’s use of the phrase “realistic utopianism”). At the core of the RUP (more details here), and of the book, is a recognition that the anti-capitalist left has been strong on critique of capitalism, but weak on the presentation of feasible alternatives, and in particular on providing the kind of detail about those alternatives that demonstrates both how they would realize egalitarian values and makes them open to scrutiny and critique. Envisioning Real Utopias is both a manifesto and a guidebook, if you like: an argument for taking institutional design seriously, and a guide to how to do that. Its a book that sociologists will want to read, but also, frankly, that everyone in political theory and philosophy should be reading too (even if they do not think of themselves as egalitarians). To be honest, I’ve been living close to the book so long that it I realize my endorsement may not be unbiased. Here, then, is what Swift says about it on the back cover:

Hugely rich and stimulating, Envisioning Real Utopias is may books in one: an incisive diagnosis of the harms done by capitalism; a masterful synthesis of the best work in political sociology and political economy over the past thirty years; and innovative theoretical framework for conceptualizing both the goals of progressive change and the strategies for their achievement; and inspiring story of actually existing challenges to capitalism that have arisen within capitalism itself; and a compelling essay on the relation between the desirable, the viable and the achievable. Anyone interested in the future of leftist politics has to read this book.

I agree.

And here is Erik introducing the book:

Envisioning Real Utopias from West Coast Poverty Center on Vimeo.



Ingrid Robeyns 06.16.10 at 2:15 pm

Harry, how do you decide which of your friends you call with their first name, and which with their family name? (assuming ‘Swift’ is the Swift)

On a more serious note: Many congratulations to Erik OW and I’m looking forward reading this book! The first bookreview I saw (a note on FB) was very positive, and the other books in the RU series have been excellent, so can’t wait to read this one.


Louis Proyect 06.16.10 at 3:46 pm


Harry 06.16.10 at 4:14 pm

I’m glad that there are FB reviews. I refer to Adam as Adam normally, but for some reason not on CT. I also notice that I refer to you, here, as Ingrid, and Kieran (whom I’ve never met) as Kieran, but JQ (whom I’ve never met) and CB by their initials. There must be some underlying rule.


Kenny Easwaran 06.16.10 at 4:55 pm

Harry – I’m guessing that the “JQ ” and “CB” things are because their first names are common enough (or at least sound common enough) that it seems like it would be ambiguous to refer to them that way.


geo 06.16.10 at 5:52 pm

“a masterful synthesis”

No, no: “a masterly synthesis.”


Cian 06.16.10 at 7:03 pm

A fair bit of the final draft is on his website in case anyone is interested/too cheap.


Tomboktu 06.16.10 at 9:01 pm

And there is this interview.


Tomboktu 06.16.10 at 9:04 pm

Re Ingrid at comment 1: what id FB?


Anarcho 06.17.10 at 7:36 am

Well, anarchists have been sketching our ideas of what a free society would be like.

For example, Proudhon’s “General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century” is full of positive suggestions and he discussed the socio-economic federalism of mutualism in a number of places (see On Mutualist Society). Bakunin, likewise, made a few suggestions as did Kropotkin. A summary of these ideas can be found here:

The Economics of Anarchy

I should stress that we libertarians always made a point of linking our ideas of a possible future with working class anti-capitalist self-activity in the here-and-now. Thus Proudhon pointed to the co-operatives being created by French workers, Bakunin and Kropotkin to unions and strikes (as discussed here).

This has paid off in future developments. Thus both Proudhon and Bakunin predicted key aspects of the Paris Commune (aspects Marx subsequently embraced) — although Proudhon did influence the Commune directly as many of his followers participated in it and applied his ideas in it (as discussed here and here).

Suffice to say, I think it is wise for socialists (of all kinds) to think about the future they want. If Marx, for example, had been a bit more forthcoming in his ideas on communism then Lenin and Stalin would have found it harder to pass-off their state-capitalist party-dictatorships as socialism. Suffice to say, I would agree that any discussion of a future socialist society would need to take libertarian-socialist ideas into account rather than dismissing them (incorrectly) as “petit-boourgeois” or “individualist”.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.17.10 at 8:32 am

FB = Facebook = http://www.facebook.com


Harry 06.17.10 at 11:54 am

Anarcho — I think you’ll find that Erik does pay a fair amount of attention to anarchist ideas, in particular in his discussion of “interstitial” strategies (and I think it was in response to my urging that he took a good look at various anarchist thinkers in that context). More generally, the broadly speaking liberal version of a socialist political morality that Erik has developed, while not by any means anarchist, is responsive in various ways to anarchist critiques of state authority.


Russell Arben Fox 06.17.10 at 1:39 pm

Harry, I’m very excited to hear about this event (as are a few other members of my local DSA; we’re thinking that we may use his book as part of our monthly book club sometime in late summer). What I’ve read of Erik’s work before appeals to me for some the same reasons which come up in your exchange with Anarcho. I’m not particularly sympathetic to the “libertarian-sozialist” model, but much of the anarchist thinking contained therein, and which Erik in part responds to, opens up ways of conceiving sozialism and egalitarianism in more localist, mutualist, and politically communitarian ways. The more of that the better, I say.


Bruce Baugh 06.17.10 at 5:58 pm

Oh, wow, this sounds fascinating, and I’m genuinely glad to know about it. Thanks!


Anarcho 06.18.10 at 8:02 am

“Anarcho—I think you’ll find that Erik does pay a fair amount of attention to anarchist ideas”

That is good is see. Hopefully we can inform 21st century left-wing ideas with those whose predictions came true rather than those whose were disastrously wrong :)


James Kroeger 06.18.10 at 10:25 pm

I’m not sure I understand why Utopian thinkers are so infatuated with the idea that Democracy—ideally experienced—is the key ingredient that is necessary for society to experience ‘economic justice.’ Their confidence in the collective wisdom of the tribe is impressive, but I just don’t see it.

I approach the subject of economic Utopia from a different analytical perspective. What I am able to envision is a society that provides the members of its working class with the ideal economy that they could ever wish for in their wildest dreams.

That’s the kind of economy we would have in America if Congress were to commit itself to the [very achievable] goal of creating and indefinitely maintaining a Labor Shortage. It could easily achieve this goal by simply spending more money on real economic investments. (Of course, it would be necessary to wrest control of the money supply away from the Federal Reserve and give it to the Treasury Department).

If Congress were to spend enough extra money on real economic investments, there would be more jobs available than there are people available for hire. If that condition were sustained indefinitely, working people would find themselves in the best of all economic worlds.

Yes, people would still lose their jobs as they do today, but it wouldn’t matter. New jobs would always be easy to find. Market forces would put constant upward pressure on wages & benefits packages, obviating the need for government ‘band-aid remedies’ like minimum wage laws and unemployment insurance. Many employers in a tight labor market would discover that they have an incentive to actually treat their employees with respect.

There is nothing that society could do for the underprivileged that would be more kind, more helpful, and more generous than to maintain a Labor Shortage for them. It would provide poor and Middle-Class Americans with both an increase in the amount of real wealth they consume AND a dramatic improvement in their Economic Security. No, they wouldn’t have specific-job security, but they would have employment/income security. Instead of just ‘doing something’ to help the poor; why not give them the optimum that they could ever [realistically] hope for?

We’re talking about the achievement of true economic perfection. All those who are able-bodied & able-minded would be producing something of value. In such an economy, the production & consumption of wealth would be optimized. Investment would be optimized. When production & consumption & investment are all at optimal levels, economic perfection is achieved.

Where would the money come from for these spending initiatives? Progressive (graduated) income taxation is the magical means to achieving the goal. It is ‘magical’ because it collects the necessary revenues in way that does not deprive the wealthy of any of their purchasing power. They are able to provide the state with the money it needs to make all these improvements, but at the same time they’ll continue to enjoy their privileged status at the top of the economic ladder.


Yes, their disposable incomes would drop dramatically, but then the price of all the luxury items they are accustomed to buying would simply drop to a price that they could afford. They’d lose nothing in terms of their purchasing power, but they’d gain dramatically from the improvements that are made in the nation’s infrastructure and from the dramatic drop in ‘idleness.’ How nice to have an underclass that is happy and busy and productive and no longer in need of a handout? Tax rates would be high, but informed taxpayers would understand that it’s not how much you’re taxed that matters; it’s how much money you have left after taxes, compared to everyone else.

If everyone else in your income class is taxed just as heavily, then you have lost nothing in real terms, i.e., in terms of lost purchasing power. Your smaller pile of cash will still buy you the same quantity/quality of stuff that your bigger pile of cash used to buy for you. The purchasing power of your household’s disposable income will not change if all those who had smaller pre-tax incomes than you STILL have smaller disposable incomes than you after taxes (and all those who had more pre-tax income than you still have more disposable income than you).

An ideal economic environment for the working poor could be achieved in a free market economy without depriving the wealthy of any of their current claims to the scarcest resources/luxuries/experiences. They would still have the highest disposable incomes in the land. The ultimate reality is that nothing short of a Bolshevik revolution can deprive them of their privileged positions at the top of the economic ladder, so long as they are still able to outbid all others who might want to compete with them for the privilege, and that is something that is preserved with progressive income taxation.

Concerned about inflation? Try familiarizing yourself with the research of:

Gerald Epstein
Professor of Economics and
Co-Director, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI)
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

…who wrote in 2003:

…there is a great deal of evidence that moderate rates of inflation, inflation up to 20% or more, has no predictable negative consequences on the real economy: it is not associated with slower growth, reduced investment, less foreign direct investment, or any other important real variable that one can find.


Does Erik Olin Wright make reference to this example of an Envisioned Real Utopia in his new book? No, he does not. But that may be because (A) he’s never been exposed to it, or (B) it lacks the political orientation that he is more focused on. But what really interests me is what Louis Proyect might have to say about this particular Utopian vision, given his belief that a radical solution is ultimately necessary.


Jerry 06.19.10 at 3:07 am

If anyone is interested, Erik Olin Wright was just elected president of the American Sociological Association.


david 06.22.10 at 6:47 am

You’ve never met Kieran? Does that mean you don’t get invited to Crooked Timber retreats? With the kayaking?


J 07.05.10 at 12:22 am

I got the book after first reading about it here and I’m really impressed so far. I have sped through half, with some obligatory world cup interruptions. EOW’s writing is crystal clear!

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