Envisioning real utopias

Posted: 5 June 2010 in Uncategorized
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Throughout its history, capitalism has created its other—the idea of a postcapitalist utopia. So, it’s not surprising that, in the midst of the current crises of capitalism, utopian thinking has returned and been greeted with some degree of acceptance in mainstream circles.

Both Daniel Little and Will Wilkinson write approvingly of the “real utopias” project. What interests Little is “the idea of emancipatory agency: that it is possible for us humans to restructure our social institutions in a direction that fits our fundamental values better than the present institutions do”—although he is wary of the risks, that “many of the worst historical experiences of modern memory came from ‘utopian’ efforts to redefine society.” (What he seems to forget is that efforts to maintain the existing society have also created some of the worst historical experiences of modern memory.) Wilkinson, for his part, defends an “evidence-based, incremental, ‘realistically utopian'” approach to theorizing, one that is based on a “complex waltz of reciprocal determination between institutions and the mainsprings of human action.” (The problem in Wilkinson’s approach is that he envisions “unpredictable changes in future technology, institutions, and wants” but not changes based on collective attempts to criticize and move beyond the existing order of things.)

As it turns out, I was one of the respondents (at the most recent Left Forum) to Erik Olin Wright’s forthcoming book, Envisioning Real Utopias. Here are a few excerpts from my comments:

This is a great book. It couldn’t come at a better time, when, in the midst of the most severe crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, interest in alternatives to capitalism are at an all-time high, certainly in my lifetime. . .As it turns out, the “end of history” was a brief moment, which turned into a nightmare of war and a world economy that was taken to the brink of collapse, and now we’ve recovered our sanity. . .

To use Erik Olin Wright’s language, we have recovered—or, in more sanguine terms, are beginning to recover—the capability of criticizing capitalism and its consequences (on our lives, on the society in which we live, on the environment, and so on) and of criticizing the ideas of mainstream thinkers (in economics, political philosophy, and so on) that attempted to create a worldview according to which we simply needed to adjust our sights and make do with less. Less equality, less justice, less democracy. An age of diminished expectations, if you will, brought on by a steady immizeration of the living conditions of the vast majority of the population.

So, what do we need to do to overcome, move beyond, the mindset of diminished expectations? What are the conditions under which we can recover our ability to produce and sustain the forms of critique that re a sine quibus non of radical social change?

One of them clearly is the possibility of envisioning real utopias. In the context of an emancipatory social science. Wright is absolutely right. And what makes this book so compelling—even if not completely convincing—is his careful thinking through of what some of those real utopias are, and how we begin to think about moving from here to there.

It’s what many of our colleagues in the academy have forgotten about or chosen to ignore. Their eyes are set on garnering professional accolades, by publishing tiny studies of theoretical and empirical analysis—with lots of seemingly sophisticated bells and whistles—that leave the present order intact. They have given up the responsibility of being intellectuals. What Wright is doing is something quite different, taking seriously the idea that something is fundamentally wrong with things as they are, and the task of sociologists and other scholars (in the social sciences, and I would add the humanities and natural sciences) is to think through what the alternatives might be.

I then discuss what I think are the positive aspects of Wright’s book (of which there are many), and offer some criticisms (especially of his treatment of Marx and Gramsci). Here is my conclusion:

It is precisely the need to challenge the prevailing “common sense” that forces us to envision real utopias and to do the work of transforming them into a different, noncapitalist common sense.

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