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Envisioning Real Utopias

Envisioning Real Utopias: response from Bill Barnes

by John Quiggin on March 23, 2013

I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences. That Wright did not recognize this in the course of his five years of work on, and world-wide presentation and discussion of, the book’s arguments, mid 2004 to mid 2009 (pp. xi-xv– “I felt that I was part of a global conversation on the dilemmas of our time,” xv) – that in all those presentations and discussions no one ever raised the climate change/environmental degradation issues with sufficient force as to leave a footprint in the 2010 text – despite the scientific evidence and argument that was accumulating during those same years – that is very telling – a sign of our historic failure in meeting our responsibilities as intellectuals – one mark of the current world-historical failure of the social and policy sciences in general, of intellectuals at large, and of the modern state.
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By page 3 of Envisioning Real Utopias I was already disappointed. The Introduction starts with some examples of real utopias – they are participatory city budgets (ok, promising – new to me); Wikipedia (never, ever trust it on living people, or anything controversial); and Mondragon (always Mondragon – is this really still the best example of co-operative production? It was always cited when I was a student in the late 1970s).

So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food and Fair Trade. A bit of a revival of local currency schemes, the Bristol pound being one of the most recent and biggest. The campaign for a Living Wage, backed by anti-poverty bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
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Utopia means “nowhere” so I guess its appropriate that our seminar on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias has been in the vaporware category for years. However, we’re finally ready to go live. We’ll be putting up a post every day or two for the next couple of weeks, then Erik will respond. Some of the posts will be fairly conventional reviews, others will take some particular point as a license to jump off in new directions. Enjoy and comment!

At the suggestion of a commenter “m”, here are some useful links

buy and read the book,
http://www.versobooks.com/books/463-envisioning-real-utopias

or read chapters here freely accessible here
http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/ERU.htm

or read an article that summarizes many of the points, here

Click to access New%20Left%20Review%20paper.pdf

or listen to this talk that also summarizes a few points, starting at 54:00
http://videoarchive.asanet.org/presentations/2012ondemand_awards_presidential_address.html?plist=2012

Or this written version of the talk

Click to access Presidential%20address%20–%20uncorrected%20page%20proofs%20–%202012.pdf

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.

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.

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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.

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Envisioning unreal utopias

by Henry on June 17, 2010

John Gray on the disappearance of utopian dreams of social reform in science fiction “here”:http://www.newstatesman.com/fiction/2010/06/human-life-world-science-city. His taste in SF is excellent and he has several good lines.

bq. The role of science has been to gauge the limits of the species, with new technologies and extra-planetary environments being used as virtual laboratories for an ongoing thought experiment. If the mainstream novel employs the lens of the commonplace career – birth and education, marriage and divorce, ambition and failure – SF has pursued the inquiry by abducting the human animal and placing it in alien environments.

is particularly nice. It captures real (if not universal) differences without fetishizing the one as better than the other.

However, the main argument seems to me to say more about John Gray than it does about the genre he is writing about. [click to continue…]

One of my favorite, and most intense, writing projects this year has been preparing a contribution to an in-progress volume celebrating the work and life of my late friend Erik Olin Wright. The essay, provisionally called “If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project whether you like it or not”, was prompted by reading and hearing numerous criticisms of either Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias, or the Real Utopias Project more generally. So what the essay does is argue for the importance of the RUP against those criticisms in a way that is much more defensive, combative, confident, and irritable than I would ever be discussing my own work. It’s been fun, though also quite strange to so inhabit the thought of someone to whom I was so close for so many years: I have had ‘new’ conversations with him in my head as the paper has unfolded.

I’ll share the final section below the fold, which will give you a sense of what I think. But, taking a leaf out of JQ’s book, I also thought some of you might like to read the whole draft and, even better, might be able to give me some feedback on it.

For those of you with more sense than to read an entire paper, here’s how the essay (currently) concludes:

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Reflections on Real Utopias

by Erik Olin Wright on April 3, 2013

A very wide range of issues have been raised in the many interesting postings and comments during the Crooked Timber seminar about my book Envisioning Real Utopias which ran from March 18-28. In what follows I will give at least a brief response to the core themes of each of the eight contributions to the seminar. I will organize my reflections in the order of the contributions in the symposium.

“[PDF version here]”:https://crookedtimber.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Erik-Olin-Wright-Reflections-on-Real-Utopias-Crooked-Timber-symposium.pdf
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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.

Full piece is here

The Port Huron statement and the Southern Strategy

by John Quiggin on October 20, 2013

A while ago, I listened to a fascinating talk by Erik Olin Wright about Envisioning Real Utopias, on which we held a book event a while back.[^1] He mentioned the Port Huron Statement, published by Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. I looked it up, and was struck by the fact that it envisaged, and welcomed, the political realignment later implemented by Richard Nixon as the Southern Strategy, and which still dominates US politics.

A most alarming fact is that few, if any, politicians are calling for changes in these conditions. Only a handful even are calling on the President to “live up to” platform pledges; no one is demanding structural changes, such as the shuttling of Southern Democrats out of the Democratic Party…. super-patriotic groups have become a politically influential force within the Republican Party, at a national level through Senator Goldwater, and at a local level through their important social and economic roles. Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements. It is to the disgrace of the United States that such a movement should become a prominent kind of public participation in the modern world — but, ironically, it is somewhat to the interests of the United States that such a movement should be a public constituency pointed toward realignment of the political parties, demanding a conservative Republican Party in the South and an exclusion of the “leftist” elements of the national GOP.

I don’t suppose the SDS activists thought that the combination of the Goldwater right and the Southern Democrats would form a majority coalition strong enough to dominate US politics for decades. Still it’s far from obvious that they were wrong in wishing for the emergence of a clear partisan division to replace the coalition politics of the time.[^2]

Any assessment of the realignment is complicated by the shift to the right that took place throughout the developed from the 1970s onwards. The fact that this shift seems to be going into reverse in the US.[^3], while it is accelerating in Europe, may be in part the product of the great realignment. Oddly enough, precisely because partisan politics is so new in the US, the Dems seem to be more willing to engage in it than their Social Democratic counterparts in Europe (of course, they’ve been schooled in it by the Repubs for twenty years or so). And while the objective position of the Dems is still well to the right of European SocDems, they seem to be breaking with neoliberal ideas like the Grand Bargain at precisely the time the SocDems are (for the most part) capitulating to austerity.

[^1]: We seem to be missing the link on this, but here’s my opening contribution.

[^2]: BTW, it seems bizarre to me, and to other non-US people I’ve talked to that the acryonym GOP is used to describe the Repubs, even by a group as hostile as the SDS. There’s no corresponding acronym for the Democrats – it would seem that DP and RP or just D’s and R’s would serve much better. Any thoughts on this?

[^3]: As evidenced both by the renewed electoral success of the Democrats, and more tenuously, by a shift away from the idea of a market liberal “Grand Bargain” and towards a reassertion of support for the institutions of the New Deal (minus the accommodation with Southern racism).

Socialism Without a Map

by Henry on March 28, 2013

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. [click to continue…]

Mainstreaming utopia (updated)

by John Quiggin on March 26, 2013

The final post in our seminar on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is by Marc Fleurbaey, with the collaboration of his seminar students Inka Busack, Joaquin Garcia, Jacob Girard, Kathryn Long, Anthony Sibley, Jiemin Wei.

There are many details of the book which could be commented upon and praised or criticized, but this short text will focus on three questions which appear central in the Real Utopias project.

* Why focus on capitalism versus socialism?
* What role for market transactions?
* What is the status of utopian research?

A final version of the response is now available here

A Little Bit Utopian?

by John Quiggin on March 20, 2013

Continuing in our seminar on Envisioning Real Utopias, a contribution from David Estlund. Like several of the contributions, it’s a bit long for a blog post, so I’m posting the opening paras, and posting it as a PDF. Read, enjoy and comment.

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This is my contribution to the Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias book event. One note: our event was originally supposed to kick off round about February 1st. You know how it goes with utopia. Delays, delays. I mention this because my rhetorical trick was going to be to check the newspapers, a week before our event, for signs of utopia. As a result, as of today, I’m quoting 7-week old newspapers. (I could have rewritten the post to suit last week’s news. But I find I like my even-more-vintage fish and chip papers better. I’m sticking with ’em.)

Let’s start by locating our author’s project – Envisioning Real Utopias – with respect to a familiar dilemma. [click to continue…]