Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso: London, 2010; 394 pp.: 978 -1-84467-617-0 £16.99 (pbk)
Unlike many books with brief prefaces, Envisioning Real Utopias has a lengthy preface, spanning nine pages. The preface puts the book in context, showing how its principal ideas have developed over time. The story begins with the author's graduate school days through the 1990s when he and his colleagues started the 'real utopias' project. It was in 2005 that he decided to write the present book, and in the intervening period the ideas expressed in it have been presented and discussed at more than fifty talks at universities in eighteen countries. So not only is this book the product of several social interactions, but it is also, in the words of the author, 'a collective product generated by the collaboration of hundreds of people around the world' (p. xv).
The book has three main parts, dealing with a critique of capitalism, alternatives, and transformation. The central aim of the book is to reignite interest in seeking the alternative to capitalism. It rejects the popular conception of this alternative as a statist, centrally planned economy. Instead, it advocates an alternative system where both the state and the economy are popularly controlled and guided by the vision of 'to each according to need, from each according to ability'. The book argues that such an alternative holds the key to avoiding the ills of the present capitalist order. Because Wright is not making a call of appeal to former statist forms of economic and social governance but to a new society, capitalism is compared not with past forms of societal regulation but to a possible world - a world promising better conditions economically, socially, politically, and environmentally than our present world.
The book shows how to achieve this end by espousing vision and ideas, while investigating, celebrating and defending specific anti-capitalist institutions. This combination of vision (utopia) and 'actually existing' experience (reality) is what the author calls 'real utopia'. Although this aim seems to be an oxymoron, the author explains that the element of utopia provides the driver and motivation to break away from the status quo, while the 'reality' supplies the ingredient necessary to 'ground' and propel the vision. Of the two elements, the more central to the book is vision: 'the political conditions for progressive tinkering with social arrangements, therefore, may depend in significant ways on the presence of more radical visions of social transformations' (p. 8).
It may thereby be argued that the book is more of a repository of ideas for empirical testing. Three of those ideas are particularly interesting. First is the notion of Universal Basic Income (ubi), which involves giving every citizen of a nation a basic income which is above the nationally determined poverty line. Next is the idea of participatory budgeting, wherein urban citizens are actively involved in the process of deciding what projects their city needs and how much money must be spent on them. Then there is the idea of worker co-operatives.
Each of these ideas is simultaneously interesting and controversial. The ubi, according to the author, may end poverty. Strictly speaking, this is true, but only if poverty is defined in absolute income terms. Invoking the notion of relative poverty and poverty as a multifaceted social condition characterised by multiple deprivations immediately makes the ubi idea look a bit simplistic. A similar problem arises with the participatory budgeting idea. It is truly more progressive compared with the technocratic and top-down methods practised in many countries, especially those in the 'Third World'. However, suggesting that it is a kind of model to be tried by other countries seems to be stretching the argument. To what extent is it applicable in societies which are ethnically and tribally heterogeneous? Also, how can this model be implemented in societies where the vote of a tribal chief signals to loyal tribesmen how they should vote? …