From the category archives:

Erik Olin Wright Seminar

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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by John Holbo on May 13, 2013

This is, in a silly way, a footnote to my previous Kevin Williamson post, but, more seriously, to my contribution to our Erik Olin Wright event. In my post on Wright I remarked that, in a sense, he’s pushing against an open door: he wants Americans, who think ‘socialism’ is a dirty word, to be more open to utopian thinking. The problem, I pointed out, is that thinking ‘socialism’ is a dirty word is positively, not negatively, correlated with utopianism, because conservatives are, typically, very utopian, especially in their rhetoric – more so than socialists these days; certainly more so than liberals. Wright responded that his project “is not mainly directed at ideologically committed Conservatives whose core values support the power and privilege of dominant classes. The core audience is people who are loosely sympathetic to some mix of liberal egalitarian, radical democratic and communitarian ideals.” [click to continue…]

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]”:
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Socialism Without a Map

by Henry Farrell 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 Q 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

One of the examples of real utopia put forward by Wright is the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). In its simplest, and arguably most utopian form, the idea is that every member of the community would receive a payment sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living. Implementing a UBI in this fashion would pose a huge, arguably insuperable, financing challenge in the context of a market economy. The same isn’t obviously true of a closely related idea, a guaranteed minimum income (GMI)
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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

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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A Little Bit Utopian?

by John Q 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…]

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,
Envisioning Real Utopias

or read chapters here freely accessible here

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

Or this written version of the talk

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

Why Utopia ?

by John Q on March 16, 2013

The first question to be asked about Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is whether it makes any sense to pursue, or even talk about, utopian projects.

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