Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias

By Wright, Erik Olin | Soundings, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Guidelines for Envisioning Real Utopias


Wright, Erik Olin, Soundings


Erik Olin Wright offers insights into ways of thinking about alternative futures.

To be a radical critic of existing institutions and social structures is to identify harms that are generated by existing arrangements, to formulate alternatives which mitigate those harms, and to propose transformative strategies for realising those alternatives. There was a time when many intellectuals on the left were quite confident in their understanding of each of these: theories of class and political economy provided a framework for identifying what was wrong with capitalism; various contending conceptions of socialism provided models for alternatives; and theories of class struggle and socialist politics (whether reformist or revolutionary) provided the basis for a transformative strategy. Today there is much less certainty among people who still identify strongly with left values of radical egalitarianism and deep democracy. While left intellectuals remain critical of capitalism, many acknowledge - if reluctantly - the necessity of markets and the continuing technological dynamism of capitalism. Socialism remains a marker for an alternative to capitalism, but its close association with statist projects of economic planning no longer has much credibility, and no fully convincing alternative comprehensive model has become broadly accepted. And while class struggles certainly remain a central source of conflict in the world today, there is no longer confidence in their potential to provide the anchoring agency for transforming and transcending capitalism.

This is the context in which there has emerged on the left a renewed interest in thinking about broad visions and imagining new ways of approaching the problem of alternatives to the existing social world. The recent publications of Compass are good examples of this kind of work.1 Other examples include Michael Albert's effort at elaborating a comprehensive model for a participatory economy, christened Parecon; Gar Alperowitz's work, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming our Wealth, our Liberty and Our Democracy; Roberto Unger 's book, What Should the Left Propose; and the volumes published out of my project, Envisioning Real Utopias.2 1 call the problem of exploring alternatives 'envisioning real utopias' to highlight the inherent tension between taking seriously emancipatory aspirations for a radically more humane and just world, and confronting the hard constraints of realism. This is a difficult endeavour. It is much easier to be a realist about what exists than about what could exist, and much easier to dream of a better world without worrying about the practical problems of unintended consequences and perverse dynamics. But if we want to realise the values of egalitarian democracy in a sustainable way that creates the widespread conditions for human flourishing, then we must grapple with this tension.

In this essay I will elaborate five guidelines for these kinds of discussions of emancipatory alternatives to the existing social order:

* Evaluate alternatives in terms of three criteria: desirability, viability, achievability

* Do not let the problem of achievability dictate the discussion of viability

* Clarify the problem of winners and losers in structural transformation

* Identify normative trade-offs in institutional designs and the transition costs in their creation

* Analyse alternatives in terms of waystations and intermediary forms as well as destinations. Pay particular attention to the potential of waystations to open up virtuous cycles of transformation.

Desirability, viability, achievability

Social alternatives can be elaborated and evaluated by three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. These are nested in a kind of hierarchy: Not all desirable alternatives are viable, and not all viable alternatives are achievable.

In the exploration of desirability, one asks the question: what are the moral principles that a given alternative is supposed to serve? …

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