Envisioning Real Utopias

By Davies, William | Renewal, Autumn-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Envisioning Real Utopias

Davies, William, Renewal

Erik Olin Wright

VERSO, 2010

The new consensus amongst political elites in Britain is that we have been over-reliant on both the market and the state. Senior Labour figures, such as Ed Miliband and James Purnell, have used the opportunity of the financial crisis to denounce the myth of the self-regulating market--but at every turn, they have also confessed that New Labour was excessively credulous of the state's capacity to affect micro-social outcomes and alter behaviour. The Conservatives' critique of big government is less of a departure for them, but it is now framed in communitarian terms of promoting a 'Big Society', rather than in the neo-liberal language of relinquishing control to the market. Liberal Democrats might, with some justification, claim that this is what they've been arguing for all along.

Erik Olin Wright agrees. But he agrees not on the utilitarian grounds that state and market have both failed to 'deliver' adequately, but on the radically democratic grounds that neither state nor market (as currently constituted) allow people to exert meaningful power over their own lives. Socialism, for Olin Wright, prioritises 'social power' over both 'economic power' and 'state power', and the task for socialists is to work strategically on the socialisation and democratisation of both the economy and the state. Social power lies in civil society, and understanding how it might practically be grown and mobilised under conditions of contemporary capitalism is the purpose of Envisioning Real Utopias.

It is in many ways the author's sad, reluctant farewell to a lifelong partner--Karl Marx. The political anger, the frustration and the yearning that fuel this work are Marxist to the core. But analytically and pragmatically, Olin Wright wants to start from scratch. He ditches core tenets of historical materialism--the inevitability of capitalist collapse, the intensification of class processes, the inevitability of socialism--on empirical grounds. Against this, his goal is to provide a 'compass' via which to pursue socialist forms of ownership and control that are 'desirable', 'viable' and 'achievable'. There is a grown-up realism to this project, perhaps even a mildly regretful one. In a chapter ultimately dismissing the benefit and likelihood of a 'ruptural transformation' of capitalism, he recognises the idea's sustained value to younger activists, of which he once was. It's not you, Herr Marx, it's me.

How, then, to start from scratch? It is an often laborious process. Stage by stage, the book addresses such vast questions as the particular harms enacted by capitalism, the possible institutional configurations of modern societies, the hybrid and socialist alternatives that are already available, and the genres of resistance and transformation. In an age when even post-modernism feels tired and the loss of grand narratives is no longer even a surprise, this is a piece of resolutely Enlightenment theory, confident of our collective capacity to think, rationalise and do better.

In contrast to a typical 'utopia'--which in Greek means 'no place'--'real utopias' are not perfect, but can be practically instantiated with tangible benefits for at least some people. Institutions such as workers' co-ops, union controlled investment funds and a minimum income guarantee (all discussed) do not promise to eradicate inequality and exploitation of all forms and do not, manifestly, represent the death-knell for statism or capitalism. Yet they are each 'desirable, viable and attainable'.

In its vast scope, engulfing the ideal of socialism and the various technicalities of ownership and governance, the book is as much an argument for minor policy experimentation as it is for the design of a better society. Or rather, by showing what policy experimentation might share with utopian, modernist ideals, it potentially infuses the former with a socialist zeal that otherwise has few outlets or sources of optimism in an age when, as Slavoj Zizek says, 'it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism'.

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