P2P Foundation

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Envisioning Real Utopias - Erik Olin Wright

Envisioning Real Utopias - Erik Olin Wright

“Hugely rich and stimulating, Envisioning Real Utopias is many books in one: an incisive normative diagnoses of the harms done by capitalism; a masterful synthesis of the best work in political sociology and political economy over the past thirty years; an innovative theoretical framework for conceptualizing both the goals of progressive change and the strategies for their achievement; an inspiring survey 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 for leftist politics has to read this book”

Adam Swift, Balliol College, Oxford (from the back cover) 


Erik Olin Wright, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, wrote an important book that is not only of great value for the left in general, but also for everyone looking for an alternative on mainstream economic politics, including those who consider P2P as a sort of harbinger of a new society. “Envisioning Real Utopias” is in my opinion a highly balanced, multi-sided and critical analysis of different strategies towards “socialism”, rooted in present day society. Wright’s theoretical approach is perhaps a little “too academic” for most activists, so it probably needs to be “translated” into a language people understand (but this is also true for a lot of material on ¨2P on forums like these, including my own contributions). What I particularly liked about his book was its nuanced, non-dogmatic and non-judgemental approach to issues that divide the (radical) left for many decades.


Another interesting feature of this work is the fact that is the result of a conscious collective effort by hundreds of people around the world and discussions held in venues from China to Norway. “The most striking fact of my discussions in those venues,” Wright observes, “was the commonality of the issues raised, the commonality of criticisms and concerns, and also the commonality of the general enthusiasm for the agenda I laid out.” According to Wright, we need to do two things: stress the word “social” in “socialism” and understand that democracy is the core problem for transcending capitalism.


I apologize for the length of this review; I will make it shorter when I have more time.


1. Why Real Utopias

 “There was a time, not so long ago, when both critics and defenders of capitalism believed that “another world was possible. It was generally called socialism, ” Wright observes in his introduction. Today, most people lost this believe. Envisioning Real Utopias wants to provide empirical and theoretical grounding for radical democratic egalitarian visions of an alternative social world.


Wright looks closer at some examples of what he calls “real utopias”: Participatory city budgeting in the city of Porto Allegre (Brazil); Wikipedia as a profoundly anti-capitalist way of producing and disseminating knowledge; the Mondragón worker-owned cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, the idea of an unconditional basic income and its pilot project in Namibia. According to Wright, “A vital belief in a utopian idea may be necessary to motivate people to set off on the journey from the status quo in the first place, even though the likely actual destination may fall short of the utopian ideal. Yet, vague utopian fantasies may lead us astray, encouraging us to embark on trips that have no real destinations at all, or, worse still, which lead us towards some unforeseeable abyss.” It may be naive to say that where there is a will there is a way, but it is certainly true that without a “will” many “ways” become impossible. 


The belief in the possibility of radical alternatives to existing institutions has played an important role in contemporary political life,” Wright explains. “It is likely that the political space for social democratic reforms was, at least in part, expanded because more radical ruptures with capitalism were seen as possible, and that possibility in turn depended crucially on many people believing that radical ruptures were workable. The belief in the viability of revolutionary socialism, especially when backed by the grand historical experiments in the USSR and elsewhere, enhanced the achievability of reformist social democracy as a form of class compromise. The political conditions for progressive tinkering with social arrangements, therefore, may depend in significant ways of the presence of more radical visions of possible transformations.” And, importantly: (This) “does suggest that plausible visions of radical alternatives, with firm theoretical foundations, are an important condition for emancipatory social change.” 


Today “radical visions” are not taken seriously anymore. There is an ideological rejection of grand designs, even by many people on the left. “This need not mean an abandonment of deeply egalitarian emancipatory values, but it does reflect a cynicism about the human capacity to realize those values on a substantial scale. This cynicism, in turn, weakens the progressive political forces in general,” Wright observes.


2. The Tasks of Emancipatory Social Science 


According to Wright, any emancipatory social science faces three basic tasks: elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; envisioning viable alternatives; and understanding the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation. We must show that the explanation for suffering and inequality lies in specific properties of institutions and social structures, and that we need to start with the diagnosis and critique of the causal processes that generate these harms.  Behind every emancipatory theory lies an implicit theory of justice, Wright explains. His vision on justice, understood as “radical democratic egalitarian,” rests on two broad normative claims: social justice (all people need to have broadly equal access to the necessary material and social means) and political justice (all people need to have broadly equal access to the necessary means to participate in decisions about things affecting their lives). 


This struggle for social justice is fought on a national level: “Although the moral universe for egalitarian ideals is global, the struggle for these ideals are deeply shaped by the practical constraints of the existing nation states since these are the social units within which political agency for social change remains largely concentrated.” As for political justice, Wright claims that people should have as much control as possible over all decisions affecting their lives, including economic decisions since these have massive effects on our collective fate. Social alternatives can be elaborated and evaluated in terms of three different criteria: desirability, viability, and achievability. 


“The Marxist description of communism as a classless society governed by the principle ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability’ is almost silent on the actual institutional arrangements which would make this principle operative. But purely utopian thinking about alternatives may do relatively little to inform the practical task of institution building or to add credibility to challenges of existing institutions.” 



Radical egalitarian ideas are often met with comments like ‘sounds good on paper, but it will never work’: “The best-known example of this problem is comprehensive central planning, the classic form in which revolutionaries attempted to realize socialist principles,” observes Wright. “As it turned out, there is a range of “perverse” unintended consequences of comprehensive central planning which subvert its intended goals, both because of the information overload generated by complexity and because of a range of problems linked to incentives.”  People generally don’t believe that “another world is possible. Society and its social rules are seen as “natural”, even if one accepts the diagnoses and critique of existing institutions. Such fatalism poses a serious problem for people committed to “change the world”. And to make things even worse, Wright adds that: “The history of human struggles for radical social change is filled with heroic victories over existing structures of oppression followed by the tragic construction of new forms of domination, oppression, and inequality.” 



Therefore emancipatory social science needs to develop a scientifically grounded conception of viable alternative solutions. “The achievability of an alternative depends upon the extent to which it is possible to formulate coherent, compelling strategies, which both help create the conditions for implementing alternatives in the future and have the potential to mobilize the necessary social forces to support the alternative when these conditions occur” says Wright.


A theory of transformation involves four central components:

-       A theory of social reproduction

-       A theory of the gaps and contradictions within the process of reproduction 

-        A theory of the underlying dynamics and trajectory of unintended social change 

-        A theory of collective actors, strategies and struggles 


“The final central component of a theory of social transformation is a theory of strategies of collective action and transformative struggle. The theory of social reproduction maps out the obstacles to social change we face. The theory of contradictions helps us understand the opportunities that exist in spite of hose obstacles. A theory of the dynamic trajectory –if we had such a theory- would tell us how these obstacles and opportunities are likely to evolve over time. And the theory of transformative strategy helps us understand how we can collectively contend with the obstacles and take advantage of the opportunities to move us in the direction of social emancipation.”


In Chapter 3, Wrights sums up eleven (well known) criticisms of capitalism:

1) Capitalist class relations perpetuate eliminable forms of human suffering:

2) Capitalism blocks the universalization of conditions for expansive human flourishing

3) Capitalism perpetuates eliminable deficits in individual freedom and autonomy

4) Capitalism violates liberal egalitarian principles of social justice.

5) Capitalism is inefficient in certain crucial respects

6) Capitalism has a systematic bias towards consumerism

7) Capitalism is environmentally destructive

8) Capitalist commodification threatens important broadly held values.

9) Capitalism, in a world of nation states, fuels militarism and imperialism

10) Capitalism corrodes community

11) Capitalism limits democracy


Reasons enough to look for alternatives, but do they exist? Wright comments on Marx’ theory of historical trajectory: “Marx had an intellectual brilliant, if ultimately unsatisfactory, solution to the problem of specifying an alternative to capitalism in a credible way. Rather than develop a systematic theoretical model to demonstrate the possibility of a viable emancipatory alternative, he proposed a theory of the long-term impossibility of capitalism”. Capitalism would ultimately become an impossible social order and be replaced by socialism. Wright: “The trick is then to make a credible case that a democratic egalitarian organization of the economy and society is a plausible form of such an alternative. (…) Here is where Marx’ theory becomes especially elegant, for the contradictions which propel capitalism along its trajectory of self-erosion also create a historical agent –the working class- which has both have an interest in creating a democratic egalitarian society and an increasing capacity to translate that interest into action. Given all of those elements, Marx’ actual theory of socialism itself involves a kind of pragmatist faith in the principle “where there is a will there is a way”, grounded in a spirit of experimental problem-solving by creative solidaristic workers.”


Marx was relatively vague about the actual process through which the destruction of the political superstructure of capitalism would occur, and provided only the slightest of hints about what socialist institutions would look like. Socialism would replace private ownership of the means of production by some collective form of ownership and some form of comprehensive planning would replace the market.  Wright concludes that “Marx proposed a highly deterministic theory of the demise of capitalism and a relatively voluntaristic theory of the construction of its alternative.” His final thesis on communism can be considered a utopian affirmation of the normative ideal of radical egalitarianism.


Wright acknowledge that there is much in the Marxist tradition of social theory that is of great value, particularly its critique of capitalism and the conceptual framework of its analysis of class. But there are also some important inadequacies in Marx’ theory of the future of capitalism, beginning with the theory of historical trajectory : “Crisis tendencies within capitalism do not appear to have an inherent tendency to become ever more intense over time; class structures have become more complex over time, rather than simplified through a process of homogenizing proletarianization; the collective capacity of the working class to challenge structures of capitalist power seems to decline within mature capitalist societies; ruptural strategies of social transformation, even if they were capable of overthrowing the capitalist state, do not seem to provide a socio-political setting for sustained democratic experimentalism.”


Capitalism has a tendency to periodic economic crises of greater or lesser severity, but there is no overall tendency of intensification of disruptions to capital accumulation, so we no longer have grounds for the idea that capitalism becomes progressively more fragile over time. “One can still hold the view that a severe and prolonged capitalist crisis, if it were to occur, might provide a historical “window of opportunity” for radical social transformation”, Wright argues, “but this is much weaker than a prediction about the increasing likelihood of such crisis over time”.  Wright claims that Marxists generally underestimate the extent to which state interventions can significantly moderate economic disruptions. Second, he does not see a long-term continuous tendency for the rate of profit to decline within mature capitalist economies and third, he considers the conceptual foundations of the “law of the falling tendency of the rate of profit” problematic.


On the other hand, can it be that the heightened globalization of modern capitalism undermines the capacity of the national states to moderate crisis tendencies? And if that is the case, will future economic crises not be far more intense than in the past since no effective global crisis management institutions are likely to develop? The financial crisis of 2008 may signal this new process of intensification. In addition, the environmental destruction generated by capitalist growth could ultimately destroy the ecological conditions for the existence of capitalism. And third, the shift from an industrial economy to a service economy, or a “knowledge economy”, could mean that it will be more and more difficult for owners of capital to dominate economic activity. “Intellectual property is inherently more difficult to monopolize than physical capital,” Wright explains. “Particularly with the advent of new information technologies it is simply too easy for people to subvert private property rights in information and knowledge. (…) Furthermore, the production of knowledge and information is most efficiently done as a collaborative, cooperative social activity, and thus the imposition of capitalist property rights on this process increasingly acts as a “fetter” on the further development of these forces of production. As a result, in the long run, capitalism will become more and more vulnerable to the challenge of non-capitalist ways of organizing the production and distribution of information and knowledge.”


These arguments do suggest that the long-term trajectory of capitalism will culminate in its self-destruction, but they remain speculative and underdeveloped, Wright concludes that capitalism may be undesirable, while still being reproducible. But this does not imply that it is impossible to transform the system: “Even if its internal dynamics do not generate a trajectory towards self-destruction, it could still be transformed through collective action. But such collective action will not necessarily be abetted by the increasing fragility of capitalism.”


What proletarianization?


The second major problem with he classical Marxist theory of the destiny of capitalism concerns the theory of proletarianization: “While it is certainly true that the course of capitalist development has incorporated an increasing proportion of the labour force into capitalist employment relations, in the developed capitalist world this has not resulted in a process of intensified proletarianization and class homogenization but rather in a trajectory of increasing complexity of class structure.”


Many locations in the classical class structure do not fall neatly in the two basic positions (worker versus capitalist): “In particular, class locations like those of managers and supervisors have the relational properties of both capitalists and workers and thus occupy “contradictory locations.” Professionals and highly skilled technical workers also occupy contradictory locations through their control over credentials. Somewhat less than half of the labour force in most developed capitalist countries occupies such contradictory locations.” Second, after a very long period of decline, in many capitalist countries there has been a market growth of self-employment and small employers. “To be sure, many of these small firms and independent self-employed persons are subordinated in various ways to large corporations, but nevertheless they are quit distinct from the working class,” Wright explains. Third, despite the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a small group of super rich, (especially in the US), it is also the case that an increasing proportion of the population have some corporate investments, either in the form of direct investments in stocks or in contributory pension funds. This does not mean that we are moving towards a sort of “people’s capitalism”, but it adds complexity to the class structure of capitalism. Fourth, with the large-scale entry of women into the labour force, the ways in witch many individuals are linked to the class structures have become more complex than in the past, since in two-earner households family members are linked to the class structure through two jobs, not just one. And finally, there is increasing stratification within the working class in many developed capitalist countries. “Non of these forms of complexity in class relations mean that class is of declining importance in people’s lives, or that class structures are becoming less capitalist in any fundamental way. They simply mean that the structural transformations predicted by the intensification of class struggle thesis have not occurred,” concludes Wright


The result of this increasing heterogeneity of interests amongst employees is that the capacity of the working class to challenge capitalism seems to decline within developed capitalist societies. This heterogeneity makes the task of building solidarity and forming stable political coalitions more difficult. “But the weakness of system-challenging class capacity also reflects ways in which capitalist democracies have offered people real opportunities to organize for significant improvement in their conditions of life within the constraints of capitalism” explains Wright, clearly referring to reformism. But… “The resulting “class compromises” -in the form of the labour movement and the welfare state- have enabled workers to make real gains.” Wright acknowledges that these gains have been eroded in the last decades, but claims that they remain sufficiently strong to obstruct anti-system solidarities. Here, he makes a very important point, clearly contradicting the so-called “death” of reformism” proclaimed many times by the radical left: “Given the robustness of capitalism and the strength of the institutions that reproduce it, at least in mature capitalist democracies, such class compromises are probably still a credible course of action for working-class organisations. In any case, in no developed capitalist society has the working class developed a collective capacity to challenge the foundations of capitalist power. “


Wright sees no examples of significant revolutionary challenges to capitalism in developed capitalist countries, only in less developed capitalist societies. In a few cases socialist revolutionaries have succeeded in gaining power, but “While there have been brief episodes of such egalitarian democratic participation within attempts at the revolutionary transformations of capitalism, such episodes have always been short-lived and relatively isolated.” The reason can be found in the extreme pressures, both economic and military, from powerful capitalist countries during the aftermath of these revolutions leading to an urgency to consolidate power and build strong institutions to withstand these pressures. “Since democratic experimentalism is inevitable a messy process, which depend heavily on an ability to learn from one’s mistakes over time, it is understandable that revolutionary regimes might have felt, they could not wait for this to work” Wright guesses. Another problem could be the low level of economic development of the economies within which revolutionary movements succeeded in seizing political power: “Revolutionary parties may in certain circumstances be effective “organizational weapons” for toppling capitalist states, but they appear to be extremely ineffective means for constructing a democratic egalitarian alternative. As a result, the empirical cases we have of ruptures with capitalism have resulted in authoritarian state-bureaucratic forms of economic organization rather than anything approaching a democratic-egalitarian alternative to capitalism.”


An alternative approach


Faced with the facts of life, Wright tries an alternative formulation of the problem:  “In the absence of a compelling dynamic theory of the destiny of capitalism, an alternative strategy is to shift our efforts from building a theory of dynamic trajectory to building a theory of structural possibility”. In other words, a theory that does not predict the course of development over time, but chart the range of possibilities for institutional changes under different social conditions.


According to Wright, there is no social theory sufficiently powerful to even begin to construct a comprehensive representation of possible social destinations or possible futures. More over, such a theory might be impossible in principle: “The process of social change is too complex and too deeply affected by contingent concatenations of causal processes to be represented in the form of detailed maps of possible futures”. Therefore, Wright suggests: “Perhaps the best way we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave to a well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go (…) but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination.” 


This approach retains a strong normative vision of life beyond capitalism, but acknowledges the limitations of our scientific knowledge of the real possibilities of transcending capitalism. This is however not the same as embracing the false certainty that there exist no limits one can cross for constructing a radical democratic egalitarian alternative. “We need to construct what might be called a socialist compass: the principles which tell us if we are moving in the right direction” concludes Wright.


5. The Socialist Compass


“Since the pivot of the concept of capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production, this has generally meant that socialism is understood as requiring public ownership of one form or another, most typically through the institutional device of state ownership.”  


Wright defines power as the capacity of actors to accomplish things in the world. He distinguishes three important forms: economic power, based on the control over economic resources; state power, based on the control over rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory; and social power, based on the capacity to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts. “Using slogans, we can say that there are three ways of getting people to do things: you can bribe them; you can force them; you can convince them. These correspond to the exercise of economic power, state power and social power. And… these are closely linked to the distinctions between capitalism, statist and socialism”. Wright goes on defining ownership as a multidimensional idea involving a bundle of different kinds of enforceable rights (i.e. effective powers) over things. Ownership varies along three dimensions: the agents of ownership, the object of ownership and the rights of ownership. But: “In practice, the actual ownership relations over the means of production in all capitalist economies are more complex (…) since the effective power over many aspects of the use of machines, buildings, land, raw materials, and so forth have been removed from the private owners and are held by the state (for example health and safety requirements, taxation…). And “The issue is further complicated by the well-known distinction between “ownership” and “control” in many economic contexts. Large capitalist corporations are owned by shareholders, but the actual control over the operation of the firms is in the hands of managers and executives”. These factors do not prevent that even in highly regulated economies private owners retain the right to buy and sell property from which they generate an income. This is an essential property of ownership because it determines the allocation of the social surplus to alternative forms of investment, and thus the directions of economic change over time.


Three domains of power and interaction: the state, the economy, and civil society


Wright uses Michael Mann’s definition of the state as the organization with an administrative capacity to impose binding rules and regulations over territories. “The legitimate use of force is one of the key ways this is accomplished, but it is not necessarily the most important way, Wright explains. “State power is then defined as the effective capacity to impose rules and regulate social relations over territory, a capacity which depends on such things as information and communications infrastructure, the ideological commitments of citizens to obey rules and commands, the level of discipline of administrative officials, the practical effectiveness of the regulations to solve problems, as well as the monopoly over the legitimate use of coercion.”


This idea of socialism rooted in social power is not the conventional way of understanding socialism The concept of socialism proposed by Wright is grounded in the distinction between state power and social power, state ownership and social ownership. Wright defines socialism as an economic structure within which the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of what can be termed “social power”. By that he means power that is rooted in the capacity to mobilize people for cooperative, voluntary collective actions of various sorts in civil society. In these terms the ideal of democracy is a society in which state power is fully subordinated to and accountable to social power. The people, organized into various associations (parties, communities, unions…) rule society collectively. “Democracy is thus, inherently, a deeply socialist principle” Wright concludes. “If “democracy” is the label for the subordination of state power to social power, “socialism” is the term for the subordination of economic power to social power.” 


The market and the notion of hybrids


Wright’s concept of socialism differs from conventional definitions also because it does not say anything explicitly about markets. Particularly in the Marxist tradition, socialism has usually been treaded as a rationally planned economy contrasted to the anarchic character of the capitalist market economy. Wright’s definition of socialism does not preclude the possibility that markets could play a substantial role in coordinating the activities of socially owned and controlled enterprises. Social empowerment over the economy means broad-based encompassing economic democracy.

In terms of the definitions used by Wright, no existing economic system has ever been purely capitalist, statist or socialist, since it is never the case that the allegation, control and use of economic resources is determined by a single form of power. He points out that “all existing capitalist societies contain significant elements of statism since states everywhere allocate part of the social surplus for various kinds of investments, especially in things like public infrastructure, defence and education, ” and that “Capitalist societies also always contain at least some socialist elements; at least through the ways collective actors in civil society influence the allocation of economic resources indirectly through their efforts to influence the state and capitalist corporations. The use of the simple, unmodified expression “capitalism” to describe an empirical case is thus shorthand for something like “a hybrid economic structure within which capitalism is the predominant way of organizing economic activity.”  


Pathways to social empowerment


We have a pretty good idea of the institutional arrangements of capitalism and statism, but not of socialism as an ideal of social empowerment over economic activity. Wright does not think that we need propose blueprints for the realisation of “socialism”, but we do need a “socialist compass”. In traditional socialist theories the essential route by which popular power was translated into control over the economy was through the state. “The basic idea was this: Political parties are associations formed in civil society with the goal of influencing and potentially controlling state power. People join parties in pursuit of certain objectives, and their power depends in significant ways upon their capacity to mobilize such participation for collective action of various sorts. (…) If a socialist party (…) controls the state, which in turn controls the economy, then one can argue that in this situation an empowered civil society controls the economic system of production and distribution”.


This “statist socialism” was at the heart of traditional Marxist ideas: the party was organically connected to the working class and accountable to associated workers. Thus its control over the state would be a mechanism for civil society to control the state. Revolutionary socialism also envisioned a radical reorganization of the state institutions and the economy, through councils or “soviets” allowing the involvement of workers’ associations in the exercise of power in both the state and production. “The party was seen as pivotal to this process, since it would provide the leadership (play the “vanguard” role) for such a translation of associations in civil society into effective social power,” says Wright. But it turned out differently “Whether because of the inherent tendency of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top, or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever what potential there was for the Communist party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the Russian Civil War and the early years of the revolution. By the time the new Soviet state had consolidated power and launched its concerted efforts at transforming the economy, the Party had become a mechanism of state domination, a vehicle for penetrating civil society and controlling economic organizations. The Soviet Union, therefore, became the archetype of authoritarian statism under the ideological banner of socialism, but not of a socialism rooted in democratic social empowerment. Subsequent successful revolutionary socialist parties, for all their differences, followed a broadly similar path, creating various forms of statism.”


Because of the failure of Stalinism, few socialists today believe that comprehensive statist central planning is a viable structure for realizing socialist goals. “Nevertheless”, says Wright, “statist socialism remains an important component of any likely process of social empowerment. The state will remain central to the provision of a wide rage of public goods, from health to education to public transportation. The central question for socialists, then, is the extent to which these aspects of state provision can effectively be brought under the control of a democratically empowered civil society. In capitalist societies, typically, these aspects of the provision of public goods by the state are only weakly subordinated to social power through the institutions of representative democracy. Because of the enormous influence of capitalist economic power on state policies, such public goods are often more geared to the needs of capitalist accumulation than to social needs. Depending the democratic quality of the state is thus the pivotal problem in relation to direct state provision of goods and services becoming a genuine pathway to social empowerment.”


From statist socialism to Parecon


Wright analyses the following theoretical models: (revolutionary) statist socialism, social democratic statist economic regulation, capitalist statist economic regulation, associational democracy, social capitalism, cooperative market economy, social economy and participatory socialism. The most prominent example of “associational democracy “, is the tripartite neo-corporatist arrangements in some social democratic societies in which organized labour, associations of employers, and the state meet together to bargain over various kinds of economic regulations, especially those involved in labour market and employment relations.


“Socialism can be defined as an economic structure in which social power in its multiple forms plays the dominant role in organizing economic activity, both directly, and indirectly through the ways social power shapes the existence of both state power and economic power. This is the equivalent of arguing for the radical democratization of both state and economy, and this in turn requires an associationally rich civil society” (my emphasis) says Wright. But there are sceptical notes to make. “First, a vibrant civil society is precisely one with a multitude of heterogeneous associations, networks, and communities, built around different goals, with different kind of members based on different sorts of solidarities. While this pluralistic heterogeneity may provide a context for a public sphere or debate and sociability, it does not seem like a promising basis for the kind of coherent power needed to effectively control the state or the economy. Second, the voluntary associations that compromise civil society include many nasty associations, based on exclusion, narrow interests, and the preservation of privilege. (take for example the KKK).


Wright disagree with the anarchist conception of transcending capitalism that “imagines a world in which the voluntarily coordinated collective action of people in civil society can spontaneously achieve sufficient coherence as to provide for social order and social reproduction without the necessity of a state”. Socialism, in contrast, “requires a state with real power to institute and enforce the rules of the game and mechanisms of coordination without which the collective power of civil society would be unable to achieve the necessary integration to control either state or economy.”



The second source of scepticism centres on the problem of institutional mechanisms: “Why should we believe that such institutions are possible?” Wright asks. “Most people are too passive to care about any form of real empowerment. We need experts to make decisions about complex technical matters. Capitalist firms driven by the profit motive are needed for innovation and efficient investment. Only centralized, professionalized state apparatus, relatively insulated from popular pressure and special interests, can properly regulate the economy in a technical efficient manner.”


The final source of his scepticism is that it is impossible to create such institutions within capitalist society: “Attempts at building such institutions (…) will inevitably provoke a backlash from elites whose power is rooted in the state and the capitalist economy. Social empowerment will only be tolerated as long as it is not a threat to the basic power relations of capitalism.”


Democracy, social empowerment and the state


In chapter 6 Wright explores a range of real utopian proposals that try to satisfy three main criteria: the institutional designs involved are desirable in terms of radical egalitarian emancipatory ideals; they constitute viable alternatives to existing arrangements and they should contribute in some way to movement along the pathways of social empowerment.


“When radical critics of capitalism become desperate for empirical models that embody their aspirations, wishful thinking can triumph over sober assessments.” (So) “what is needed are accounts of empirical cases that are neither gullible nor cynical, but try to fully recognize the complexity and dilemmas as well as the real potentials of practical efforts at a social empowerment.”


The abstract idea of democracy as “rule by the people” is translated into actual systems of democratic governance through three primary institutional forms: direct democracy, representative democracy, and associational democracy. Wright point out the main weaknesses of democracies in advanced countries: “When associations involved in democratic governance are themselves internally hierarchical and bureaucratic, when they represent only some interests in society and exclude the unassimilated, when they are subordinated in various ways to elite interests, or when they are run by professionals and membership consists of little more than financial donation, governance through secondary associations can become very undemocratic.” Wright defends the idea of direct democracy or what he calls new forms of empowered participatory governance. “The idea that people should have the power to participate in making decisions over matters which shape their collective fate evokes the idea of direct participation, not proxy participation.”


Wright refers once again to municipal participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre. He points out that “empowered, participatory forms of direct democracy can increase the involvement and commitment of citizens in public life, make officials and politicians more accountable, improve the effectiveness of government, and make social policies more just.” He does not share the common criticism that people are too apathetic, ignorant, or busy to participate: “Evidence from empirical cases suggests that when there are opportunities for people to become involved in decisions addressing practical problems that are deeply important to them, they do participate in substantial numbers. Poor people often participate more than wealthy ones when such opportunities are available.”


He also points out that “In order for bottom-up participation to be meaningful, it is essential that significant aspects of real decision-making power within the machinery of the state be devolved to local units of action such as neighbourhood councils, local school councils, workplace councils, and so on.”  But there is a substantial role for central government and central authority as well: “by coordinating and distributing resources, by solving problems that local units cannot address by themselves; by rectifying pathological or incompetent decision making in failing groups; and by diffusing innovations and learning across boundaries.”


Wright also believes that attempts at creating and consolidating institutions of empowered participation are very unlikely to be durable in the absence of “organized countervailing power such as popular political parties, unions, and social movement organizations.”


Four pathways to social empowerment involve the state: statist socialism, social democratic statist regulation, associational democracy, and participatory socialism. In all of these the key issue is the relationship between social power in civil society and state power. “Unless there are effective mechanisms for subordinating state power to social power in civil society, none of these pathways can effectively translate social power into control over the economy. If socialism as an alternative to capitalism is at its core economic democracy, it is essential (…) that democracy itself be democratized”, Wright argues. And :”Although it does make sense to elaborate the theoretical concept of a capitalist-type state, actual state institutions can combine capitalist and non-capitalist forms. The state can contain internally contradictory elements pushing it to act in contradictory ways. Sates, like economic structures, are structural hybrids. So, while it is indeed the case that the state in capitalist society is a capitalist state, it is not merely a capitalist state: it is a hybrid structure within which capitalist forms are dominant.”


Social Empowerment and the Economy


At the centre of a socialist alternative to capitalism is the problem of economic institutions, specifically the social organization of power over the allocation of resources and control of production and distribution. In the social empowerment conception of socialism that Wrights proposes, the problem of controlling economic processes is less clear-cut then under statist socialism: “There are multiple, heterogeneous institutional forms along the various pathways through which social power can be exercised over the production and distribution of goods and services”. In most of Wright’s proposals the institutional designs for social empowerment leave a substantial role for markets, and thus they tend to envision some sort of “market socialism”. “Few theories today hold on to the believe that a complex, large-scale economy could be viable without some role for markets –understood as a system of decentralized, voluntary exchanges involving prices that are responsive to supply and demand –in economic coordination,” Wright explains. (This implies) that “decentralised exchanges involving market-generated prices will play a significant role in economic organization. To most contemporary critics of capitalism, comprehensive planning whether organised through centralized bureaucratic institutions or through participatory decentralised institutions, no longer seems a viable alternative.” 


Wright defines the social economy quite broadly as economic activity that is directly organized and controlled through the exercise of some form of social power. It involves the production and distribution of goods and services- economic activity- organized directly through the use of social power. A prominent example is Wikipedia. Wrights claims that Wikipedia’s fundamental principles of organization are not simply non-capitalist; they are thoroughly anti-capitalist:


  1. Non-market relations: voluntary, unpaid contributions and free access;
  2. Full, open, egalitarian participation
  3. Direct and deliberative interactions among contributors;
  4. Democratic governance and adjudication. At its inception all Wikipedians were essentially editorial administrators (sysops) but as vandalism and other mischief intensified with the growing notoriety of the encyclopaedia, a kind of quasi-administrative structure was instituted which enabled users to acquire different levels of organizational responsibility and roles in adjucating conflicts. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the development of Wikipedia as a real utopian institutional design: the emergence and evolution of mechanisms of social control and adjudication suitable for such a freewheeling network structure.


A Theory of Transformation


In the third and final part of his book, Wright looks at the transformation process towards socialism. Even if one accepts the vision of social empowerment as both desirable and viable, the question remains: is it achievable?  What about the opposition of elites whose interests would be threatened by such changes? Social reproduction in capitalist society takes place through two sorts of interconnected processes, passive reproduction and active reproduction: “Active social reproduction is the result of specific institutions and structures, which at least in part are designed to serve the purpose of social reproduction. These include a wide variety of institutions: the police, the courts, the state administration, education, the media, churches, and so on,” Wright explains. “The basic (implicit) proposition of theories of social reproduction is this: Social structures and institutions that systematically impose harms on people require vigorous mechanisms of active social reproduction in order to be sustained over time. Oppression and exploitation (…) require active mechanisms of social reproduction in order to be sustained.”


The problem of social reproduction is grounded in the latent potential for people collectively to challenged structures of domination, oppression and exploitation. Institutions affect the actions of people, individually and collectively, mainly through four mechanisms: coercion, institutional rules, ideology, and material interests.  They interact in a variety of ways, some more effective than others in creating a system of coherent social reproduction. According to Wright, “The dilemma faced by socialist parties historically was basically this: if they participated seriously in electoral competition, the they would be subjected to a whole series of systematic pressures to act responsibly and play by the rules which over time would erode militancy; if, on the other hand, they abstained from electoral competition in order to avoid these pressures, then they risked political marginalization since other parties would be better positioned to champion the immediate economic interests of workers and other potential supporters of socialist parties.”  However, “This does not mean that socialist and social democratic parties have not in fact served important material interests of workers, but they have done so in ways which broadly strengthen rather than undermine capitalism.”


A central issue in the theory of social reproduction is the extent to which the ideology and culture contribute to the sustainability of structures of power, inequality, and privilege. “Institutions of socialization, such as the family and schools, are generally concerned with instilling habits and dispositions that will enable children to function well in the world when they are adults, to live the best lives possible given the constraints they are expected to face,” Wright points out. “This means that parents and teachers try as best they can to encourage dispositions that are the least compatible with effective functioning within existing structures of power, inequality, and privilege.”


Of the various aspects of ideology and belief formation that bear on the problem of social reproduction and potential challenges to structures of power and privilege, perhaps the most important are the beliefs about what is possible.


One of the mechanisms, which tie the welfare of individuals to the effective functioning of capitalist structures are material interests: “Capitalism organizes the material conditions of life of people in such a way that nearly everyone fares better when the capitalist economy is doing well than when it’s doing badly. (…) This near-universal dependence of everyone’s material interests on the pursuit of profits by capitalist firms is perhaps the most fundamental mechanism of the social reproduction of capitalist society. It lends credibility to the claim that capitalism is in fact in everyone’s interest, not just the interests of the capitalist class, and it places a considerable greater burden on the argument that an alternative to capitalism would be preferable. It underwrites broad public support for a wide range of state policies designed to sustain robust capital accumulation and acts as a systematic constraint on the pursuit of policies that might in other ways benefit a large majority of people but which might threaten capitalist profits. So long as capitalism can effectively tie the material interests of the large majority of the population to the interests of capital, other mechanisms of social reproduction have less work to do.”


The underlying dynamics of unintended social change


Any project of radical social transformation will face systematic obstacles generated by mechanisms of social reproduction, but these obstacles will have cracks and spaces for action because of the limits and contradictions of reproduction which, at least periodically, make transformative strategies possible” Wright explains. “The actual trajectory of large-scale social change that we observe in history is the result of the interaction of two kinds of change-generating processes: first, the cumulative unintended by-products of the actions of people operating under existing social relations, and second, the cumulative intended effects of conscious projects of social change by people acting strategically to transform those social relations. (…) In each of these cases people engage in actions not in an effort to change the world, but to solve specific problems which the face. The cumulative aggregate effects of such individual actions, however, are social changes with very broad ramifications.”


“Both deliberate and unintended processes of social change are crucial for emancipatory transformation,” Wright claims. “Significant movement towards radical egalitarian democratic social empowerment is not something that will happen just by accident as a by-product of social action, and since such popular empowerment threatens the interest of powerful actors, this strategic action typically involves struggle. But strategy and struggle are not enough. For radical transformation to occur conditions must be “ripe”; the contradictions and gaps in the processes of social reproduction must create real opportunities for strategy to have meaningful transformative effects.”


“In order to have a coherent long-term strategy we need at least a rough understanding of the general trajectory of unintended, unplanned social changes into the future,” Wright explains. “Classical Marxism proposed precisely such a theory. (…) Marx attempted to identify how the unintended consequences of capitalist competition and exploitation in the process of capital accumulation generate “laws of motion” of capitalism which push it into a specific trajectory of development, (…) marked by (…) an ever-expanding breadth and depth of market relations culminating in global capitalism and the commodification of social life; an increasing concentration and centralization of capital; a general tendency for capital intensity and productivity to increase over time; a cyclical intensification of economic crisis; a tendency towards both the expansion of the working class and its homogenization, and as a result, its increasing collective capacity for struggle; and a weakening of the mechanisms of active social reproduction as a result of the long-term tendency of the rate of profit to fall”


Wright agrees that many of the predictions of historical materialism have been borne out by the actual history of capitalism, in particular globalization, concentration of capital and commodification penetrating ever more pervasively into social life. But other predictions do not seem adequate, such as a systematic tendency towards intensification of crisis; the simplification and polarization of the class structure and the working class becoming ever more homogeneous. Finally, the economic mechanisms of social reproduction that tie the immediate material interests of most people to capitalism do not seem to have been dramatically weakened. “Therefore, historical materialism, understood as the “theory of capitalism’s future”, does not seem to be an adequate theory of the trajectory of unintended social change on which to ground the problem of developing strategies for emancipatory transformation,” concludes Wright, who does not believe that such a theory at present exists: “At best our theories of the immanent tendencies of social change beyond the near future are simply extrapolations of observable tendencies from the recent past to the present or speculations about longer-term possibilities.”


He determines a disjuncture between the desirable time-horizons of strategic action and planning for radical social change and the effective time-horizons of our theories. “This may simply reflect the lack of development of good theory,” Wright adds. “But it may also reflect the inherent complexity of the problem. It is possible, after all, to have very powerful theories explaining the historical trajectory of development in the past without being able to develop a theory of future tendencies. This is the case for evolutionary biology, which has sound explanations for the trajectory of living things from single-celled creatures to the present, but virtually no theory of what future evolution will look like. This may also be the case for the theory of social change: we may be able to provide rigorous and convincing explanations for the trajectory of change up to the present, but still have almost no ability to explain very much about what the future holds in store.”

The lack of a compelling theory of the long-term immanent trajectory of unintended social change places a greater burden on the theory of transformative strategies, “for it is forced to grapple with the problem of transformative struggles without a satisfactory understanding of the trajectory of conditions such struggles are likely to encounter” Wright argues.


Strategies of Transformation


The final element of a theory of transformation focuses directly on collective action and transformative strategy. Ruptural transformations envision creating new institutions of social empowerment through a sharp break within existing institutions and social structures: “The central idea is that through direct confrontation and political struggles it is possible to create a radical disjuncture in institutional structures in which existing institutions are destroyed and new ones built in a fairly rapid way. Smash first, build second. A revolutionary scenario for the transformation to socialism is the iconic version of this: a revolution constitutes a decisive, encompassing victory of popular forces for social empowerment resulting in the rapid transformation of the structures of the state and the foundations of economic structures. “


In contrast, interstitial transformations seek to build new forms of social empowerment in the niches and margins of capitalist society, often where they do not seem to pose any immediate threat to dominant classes and elites. “This is the strategy of building institutions of social empowerment that is most deeply embedded in civil society and which often falls below the radar screen of radical critics of capitalism,” Wright points out. Third, symbiotic transformations involve strategies in which extending and deepening the institutional forms of popular social empowerment simultaneously helps solve certain practical problems faced by dominant classes and elites. “The democratization of the capitalist state had this character: democracy was the result of concentrated pressures and struggles from below, which were initially seen as a serious threat to the stability of the capitalist dominance, but in the end liberal democracy helped solve a wide range of problems, and in doing so contributed to that stability.”


These three visions correspond broadly to the revolutionary socialist, anarchist, and social democratic traditions of anti-capitalism. In ruptural strategies, classes organized through political parties are the central collective actors. According to Wright, none of these strategies is simple and unproblematic. All contain dilemmas, risks, and limits, and none of them guarantee success: “In different times and places, one or another of these modes of transformation may be the most effective, but often all of them are relevant. It often happens that activists become deeply committed to one or another of these strategic visions, seeing them as being universally valid. As a result, considerable energy is expended fighting against the rejected strategic models. A long-term political project of emancipatory transformation with any prospect for success must grapple with the messy problem of combining different elements of these strategies.”


Ruptural Transformation


Wright does not believe that large-scale ruptural strategies for constructing a democratic egalitarian socialism are plausible in the world in which we currently live.

 “While revolutionary rhetoric has not completely disappeared, few critics of capitalism today imagine that a revolutionary overthrow of the state in the developed capitalist countries is a plausible strategy of emancipatory social transformation.” According to Wright, in developed capitalist countries with functioning liberal democratic institutions, the strategy towards socialism is submitted to ‘normal’ democratic processes.  However, “This does not mean that the ruptural strategy would not include fundamental transformations of the form of the state itself –democratic deepening of the state is certainly a central part of the agenda of social empowerment”. But “If a ruptural strategy of transformation is at all feasible, it will not take the form of a violent insurrectionary assault and overthrow of the state by extra-parliamentary means in the model of classical revolutions.”


Under what conditions is a ruptural strategy for socialism sufficiently in the material interests of the majority of people to render it a plausible strategy for transformation? Wright considers several options, depending on the circumstances. The first he calls the socialist fantasy path, an unrealistic view that imagines that a rupture with capitalism will immediately improve the material conditions of people. The pessimistic path predicts economic collapse, whereas the optimistic path recognizes that any rupture with capitalism would necessarily entail significant economic disruption and thus sacrifice: “Supply chains, systems of distribution, credit markets, pricing systems, and many other pivotal elements of economic integration would be deeply disrupted. This would certainly precipitate a significant decline in production and standards of living for some period of time. This would be intensified by capital flight and disinvestments in the run-up to a socialist rupture. Since many capitalists would pre-emptively respond to the “writings on the wall”.


Wright continues: “Depending upon how deep and prolonged the transition trough is, it may not be in the material interests of most people to support a ruptural path to socialism even if the firmly believe that life would be better once the transition was weathered. Interests must always be understood within specific time-horizons, and if the transition trough continues for a sufficient extended period it is unlikely to be seen by most people as in their material interests.” As the economy declines political forces opposed to socialism will argue strenuously that the trajectory will continue downwards to catastrophe and that the transition should be reversed.


Wright claims also that a ruptural transition to socialism under democratic conditions requires a broad coalition between the middle class and the working class: “In addition to the general problem of a decline in political support in a prolonged transition trough, there is likely to be a particularly acute problem of middle-class defections from the socialist coalition (…) Then it is unlikely that a ruptural transition to socialism would be sustainable under democratic conditions. (…) This means that a democratically elected socialist government attempting to build socialist institutions through a ruptural strategy would either face political defeat in a subsequent election or, in order to stay in power and traverse the transition, would have to resort to undemocratic means. “


Interstitial Transformation


Does this mean that Wright defends the ‘reformist path’ towards socialism? It depends on how one defines reformism. “The only real alternative is some sort of strategy that envisions transformation largely as a process of metamorphosis in which relatively small transformations cumulatively generate a qualitative shift in the dynamics and logic of a social system,” Wright argues. “This does not imply that transformation is a smooth, non-conflictual process that somehow transcends antagonistic interests. A democratic egalitarian project of social emancipation is a challenge to exploitation and domination, inequality and privilege, and thus emancipatory metamorphosis will entail power struggles and confrontations with dominant classes and elites.”


Wright explains that many projects within the social economy are the result of interstitial strategies. “A wide variety of internet-based strategies that subvert capitalist intellectual property rights (e.g. Napster, the music-sharing site); open-source software and technology projects; fair-trade networks designed to link producer cooperatives in poor countries to consumers in rich countries; efforts to create global labour and environmental standards through various kinds of monitoring and certification projects.” Wright refers to these as “the revolutionary anarchist and evolutionary anarchist strategic visions, not because only anarchists hold these views, but because the broad idea of not using the state as an instrument of social emancipation is so closely linked to the anarchist tradition.”


“While interstitial strategies may expand the scope of social empowerment, it is difficult to see how they could ever by themselves erode the basic structural power of capital sufficiently to dissolve the capitalist limits on emancipatory social change,” Wright points out. “The basic problem of both scenarios concerns their stance towards the state.” (…) Then follows a very important point: “While the state may indeed be a capitalist state which plays a substantial role in reproducing capitalist relations, it is not merely a capitalist state embodying a pure functional logic for sustaining capitalism. The state contains a heterogeneous set of apparatuses, unevenly integrated into a loosely coupled ensemble, in which a variety of interests and ideologies interact. It is an arena of struggle in which contending forces in civil society meet. It is a site for class compromise as well as class domination. In short, the state must be understood not simply in terms of its relationship tot social reproduction, but also in terms of the gaps and contradictions of social reproduction. What this means is that struggles for emancipatory transformation should not simply ignore the state as envisioned by evolutionary interstitial strategies, not can they realistically smash the state, as envisioned by ruptural strategies. Social emancipation must involve, in one way or another, engaging the state, using it to further the process of emancipatory social empowerment. This is the central idea of symbiotic transformation.” 


“The basic idea of symbiotic transformation is that advances in bottom-up social empowerment within a capitalist society will be most stable and defendable when such a social empowerment also helps solve certain real problems faced by capitalists and other elites” Wright argues. He refers to the work of Joel Rogers and Wolfgang Streeck: “The democratic left makes progress under capitalism when it improves the material well-being of workers, solves a problem for capitalists that capitalists cannot solve for themselves, and in doing both wins sufficient political cachet to conquest capitalist monopoly on articulating the ‘general interest’.” Forging the conditions, which make such class compromise possible, has been at the centre of the more progressive currents in social democratic politics.


Wright argues that “As a great deal of comparative historical research has indicated, as working-class political power increases, the capitalist state tends to become more redistributive: the social wage increases and thus the reservation wage of workers is higher; taxation and transfer policies reduce income inequality; and in various ways labour power is partially decommodified. All of these policies have negative effects on the material interests of high-income people in general and capitalists in particular.”


However, the control over investment remains probably the most fundamental dimension of “private” ownership of the means of production within capitalism. So even as working-class power increases, this power of capital is not seriously eroded. At a certain “theoretical maximum”, however, the right of capitalists to control the allocation of capital is called into question, and this is the heart of the definition of democratic socialism: popular, democratic control over the allocation of capital.


Conclusion: Making Utopias Real


“At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, capitalism is once again in a period of serious crisis,” Wright observes. But he thinks capitalism will survive for the foreseeable future. “Suffering and irrationality are never enough to generate fundamental social transformation. So long as a viable alternative to capitalism is not actively on the historical agenda –and with broad popular support linked to a political movement able to translate that support into political power- capitalism will remain the dominant structure of economic organization.”


What are his main conclusions? First, capitalism obstructs the realization of both social justice and political justice. This does not imply all social injustices are attributable to capitalism, nor that the complete elimination of capitalism is a necessary condition for significant advances in social and political justice. But it does imply that the struggle for human emancipation requires a struggle against capitalism, not simply a struggle within capitalism. Second, Economic structures are always hybrids. All actually existing contemporary economic systems are complex configurations of capitalist, statist, and socialist forms. Within such hybrid configurations, to call an economic structure ‘capitalist’ is to identify the dominant form of power within this configuration. This has critical implications for our understanding of the problem of transformation: emancipatory transformation should not be viewed mainly as a binary shift from one system to another, but rather as a shift in the configuration of the power relations that constitute a hybrid.


Third, socialism is also a hybrid. Transcending capitalism in a way that robustly expands the possibilities for realizing radical democratic egalitarian conceptions of social and political justice requires social empowerment over the economy. Fourth, there are multiple pathways of social empowerment. Socialism should not be thought of as a unitary institutional model of how an economy should be organized, but rather as a pluralistic model with many different kinds of institutional pathways for realizing a common underlying principle. Fifth, There are no guarantees: socialism is a terrain for working for social and political justice, not a guarantee for realizing these ideals. The argument for socialism defined as democratic power over the allocation and use of productive resources is not that socialism guarantees social and political justice, but rather that it creates the most favourable socioeconomic terrain on which to struggle for justice. Complex social systems can never conform to the idea that a social system without contradictions and without destructive unintended consequences of individual and collective action is possible. No institutional design can ever be perfectly self-correcting. We can never relax. Sixth, movements towards radical democratic egalitarian ideals of social and political justice will not happen simply as an accidental by-product of unintended social change; it will be brought about by the conscious actions of people acting collectively to bring it about. Seventh, just as there are multiple institutional forms through which social power can be increased, there are multiple strategic logics through which these institutions van be constructed and advanced. And finally, we cannot know in advance how far we can go in the trajectory of social empowerment.


“Once the theory of the demise of capitalism is dropped, it becomes much more pressing to demonstrate that socialism itself is viable” claims Wright. “It could be the case, however, that a radical, democratic egalitarian economic system might not be viable under the conditions of scale and complexity of the contemporary world. (…) But it could certainly be the case that, under future conditions, which we cannot anticipate, those limits will be radically different from what they are today and that dramatic advances in social power would become possible”. (…) “The best way we can do is treat the struggle to move forward on the pathways of social empowerment as an experimental process in which we continually test and retest the limits of possibility and try, as best we can, to create new institutions which will expand those limits themselves. In doing so we not only envision real utopias, but contribute to making utopias real”.  


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