Envisioning Real Utopias

Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright, Verso 2010


Rising inequality of income and power, along with recent convulsions in the finance sector, have made the search for alternatives to unbridled capitalism more urgent than ever. Yet few are attempting this task—most analysts argue that any attempt to rethink our social and economic relations is utopian.

Erik Olin Wright’s major new work is a comprehensive assault on the quietism of contemporary social theory. A systematic reconstruction of the core values and feasible goals for Left theorists and political actors, Envisioning Real Utopias lays the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system.

Characteristically rigorous and engaging, this book will become a landmark of social thought for the twenty-first century.

Read Chapter I:


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.” While the right condemned socialism

as violating individual rights to private property and unleashing

monstrous forms of state oppression, and the left saw socialism

as opening up new vistas of social equality, genuine freedom

and the development of human potentials, both believed that a

fundamental alternative to capitalism was possible.

Most people in the world today, especially in its economically

developed regions, no longer believe in this possibility. Capitalism

seems to them part of the natural order of things, and pessimism

has replaced the optimism of the will that Gramsci once said

would be essential if the world was to be transformed.

In this book I hope to contribute to rebuilding a sense of

possibility for emancipatory social change by investigating

the feasibility of radically different kinds of institutions and

social relations that could potentially advance the democratic

egalitarian goals historically associated with the idea of

socialism. In part this investigation will be empirical, examining

cases of institutional innovations that embody in one way or

another emancipatory alternatives to the dominant forms of

social organization. In part it will be more speculative, exploring

theoretical proposals that have not yet been implemented but

nevertheless are attentive to realistic problems of institutional

design and social feasibility. The idea is to provide empirical and

theoretical grounding for radical democratic egalitarian visions

of an alternative social world.

Four examples, which we will discuss in detail in later chapters,

will give a sense of what this is all about:

1. Participatory city budgeting

In most cities in the world that are run by some form of elected

government, city budgets are put together by the technical staff

of the city’s chief executive—usually a mayor. If the city also has

an elected council, then this bureaucratically constructed budget

is probably submitted to the council for modification and ratification.

The basic shape of the budget is determined by the political

agenda of the mayor and other dominant political forces working

with economists, engineers, city planners, and other technocrats.

That is the situation in the existing world.

Now, imagine the following alternative possible world: Instead

of the city budget being formulated from the top down, suppose

that the city is divided into a number of neighborhoods, and each

neighborhood has a participatory budget assembly. Suppose also

that there are a number of city-wide budget assemblies on various

themes of interest to the entire municipality—cultural festivals, for

example, or public transportation. The mandate for the participatory

budget assemblies is to formulate concrete budget proposals,

particularly for infrastructure projects of one sort or another, and

submit them to a city-wide budget council. Any resident of the city

can participate in the assemblies and vote on the proposals. They

function rather like New England town meetings, except that they

meet regularly over several months so that there is ample opportunity

for proposals to be formulated and modified before being

subjected to ratification. After ratifying these neighborhood and

thematic budgets, the assemblies choose delegates to participate

in the city-wide budget council for a few months until a coherent,

consolidated city budget is adopted.

This model is in fact the reality in the city of Porto Alegre,

Brazil. Before it was instituted in 1989 few people would have

thought that a participatory budget could work in a relatively

poor city of more than one and a half million people, in a country

with weak democratic traditions, plagued by corruption and

political patronage. It constitutes a form of direct, participatory

democracy fundamentally at odds with the conventional way that

social resources get allocated for alternative purposes in cities. We

will discuss this case in some detail in chapter 6.

2. Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a large, free-wheeling internet encyclopedia. By

mid-2009 it contained over 2.9 million English-language entries,

making it the largest encyclopedia in the world. It is free to anyone

on the planet who has access to the internet, which means that

since the internet is now available in many libraries even in very

poor countries, this vast store of information is potentially available

without charge to anyone who needs it. In 2009, roughly

65 million people accessed Wikipedia monthly. The entries were

composed by several hundred thousand unpaid volunteer editors.

Any entry can be modified by an editor and those modifications

modified in turn. While, as we will see in chapter 7, a variety of

rules have evolved to deal with conflicts over content, Wikipedia

has developed with an absolute minimum of monitoring and

social control. And, to the surprise of most people, it is generally

of fairly high quality. In a study reported in the journal Nature, in

a selection of science topics the error rates in Wikipedia and the

Encyclopædia Britannica were fairly similar.2

Wikipedia is a profoundly anti-capitalist way of producing and

disseminating knowledge. It is based on the principle “to each

according to need, from each according to ability.” No one gets

paid for editing, no one gets charged for access. It is egalitarian

and produced on the basis of horizontal reciprocities rather than

hierarchical control. In the year 2000, before Wikipedia was

launched, no one—including its founders—would have thought

possible what has now come to be.

3. The Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives

The prevailing wisdom among economists is that, in a market

economy, employee-owned and managed firms are only viable

under special conditions. They need to be small and the labor

force within the firm needs to be fairly homogeneous. They may

be able to fill niches in a capitalist economy, but they will not

be able to produce sophisticated products with capital intensive

technologies involving complex divisions of labor. High levels

of complexity require hierarchical power relations and capitalist

property relations.

Mondragon is a conglomerate of worker-owned cooperatives

in the Basque region of Spain. It was founded in the 1950s during

the Franco dictatorship and is now the 7th largest business group

in Spain and the largest in the Basque region with more than

40,000 worker-owner members.3 The conglomerate is made up

of some 250 separate cooperative enterprises, each of which is

employee-owned—there are no non-worker owners—producing

a very wide range of goods and services: washing machines, autoparts,

banking, insurance, grocery stores. While, as we will see

in chapter 7, it faces considerable challenges in the globalized

market today, nevertheless the top management continues to be

elected by the workers and major corporate decisions are made

by a board of directors representing the members or by a general

assembly of the members.

4. Unconditional basic income

The idea of an unconditional basic income (UBI) is quite simple:

Every legal resident in a country receives a monthly living stipend

sufficient to live above the “poverty line.” Let’s call this the “no

frills culturally respectable standard of living.” The grant is

unconditional on the performance of any labor or other form of

contribution, and it is universal—everyone receives the grant, rich

and poor alike. Grants go to individuals, not families. Parents are

the custodians of underage children’s grants (which may be at a

lower rate than the grants for adults).

Universalistic programs, like public education and health care,

that provide services rather than cash, would continue alongside

universal basic income, but with the latter in place, most other

redistributive transfers would be eliminated—general welfare,

family allowances, unemployment insurance, tax-based old age

pensions—since the basic income grant would be sufficient to

provide everyone with a decent subsistence. This means that in

welfare systems that already provide generous antipoverty income

support through a patchwork of specialized programs, the net

increase in costs represented by universal unconditional basic

income would not be large. Special needs subsidies of various sorts

would continue—for example, for people with disabilities—but

they would also be smaller than under current arrangements since

the basic cost of living would be covered by the UBI. Minimum

wage rules would be relaxed or eliminated since there would be

little need to legally prohibit below-subsistence wages if all earnings,

in effect, generated discretionary income. While everyone

receives the grant as an unconditional right, most people at any

given point in time would probably be net contributors since their

taxes will rise by more than the basic income. Over time, however,

most people will spend part of their lives as net beneficiaries and

part of their lives as net contributors.

Unconditional basic income is a fundamental redesign of the

system of income distribution. As we will see in detail in chapter

7, it has potentially profound ramifications for a democratic

egalitarian transformation of capitalism: poverty is eliminated;

the labor contract becomes more nearly voluntary since everyone

has the option of exit; the power relations between workers and

capitalists become less unequal, since workers, in effect, have an

unconditional strike fund; the possibility of people forming cooperative

associations to produce goods and services to serve human

needs outside of the market increases since such activity no longer

needs to provide the basic standard of living of participants.

No country has adopted an unconditional basic income,

although the most generous welfare states have incomplete,

fragmented versions and there has been one experimental pilot

program for a basic income in a very poor country, Namibia.4

It is a theoretical proposal which necessarily involves some speculation

about its dynamic effects. It thus could turn out that a

generous basic income, if implemented, would not be viable—it

might self-destruct because of all sorts of perverse effects. But,

as I will argue later, there are also good reasons to believe that it

would work and that it could constitute one of the cornerstones

of another possible world.

These are all examples of what I will call “real utopias.” This may

seem like a contradiction in terms. Utopias are fantasies, morally

inspired designs for a humane world of peace and harmony

unconstrained by realistic considerations of human psychology

and social feasibility. Realists eschew such fantasies. What we

need are hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving our

institutions. Instead of indulging in utopian dreams we must

accommodate ourselves to practical realities.

The idea of “real utopias” embraces this tension between dreams

and practice. It is grounded in the belief that what is pragmatically

possible is not fixed independently of our imaginations, but is itself

shaped by our visions. Self-fulfilling prophecies are powerful forces

in history, and while it may be naively optimistic to say “where

there is a will there is a way,” it is certainly true that without a

“will” many “ways” become impossible. Nurturing clear-sighted

understandings of what it would take to create social institutions

free of oppression is part of creating a political will for radical

social changes to reduce oppression. A vital belief in a utopian

ideal 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 unforeseen abyss. Along with “where there is a will

there is a way,” the human struggle for emancipation confronts

“the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What we need,

then, is “real utopias”: utopian ideals that are grounded in the

real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible

waystations, utopian designs of institutions that can inform

our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions

for social change.

The idea that social institutions can be rationally transformed

in ways that enhance human well-being and happiness has a long

and controversial history. On the one hand, radicals of diverse

stripes have argued that social arrangements inherited from the

past are not immutable facts of nature, but transformable human

creations. Social institutions can be designed in ways that eliminate

forms of oppression that thwart human aspirations towards

living fulfilling and meaningful lives. The central task of emancipatory

politics is to create such institutions.

On the other hand, conservatives have generally argued that

grand designs for social reconstruction nearly always end in

disaster. While contemporary social institutions may be far from

perfect, they are generally serviceable. At least, it is argued, they

provide the minimal conditions for social order and stable interactions.

These institutions have evolved through a process of

slow, incremental modification as people adapt social rules and

practices to changing circumstances. The process is driven by

trial and error much more than by conscious design, and by and

large those institutions that have endured have done so because

they have enduring virtues. This does not preclude institutional

change, even deliberate institutional change, but it does mean that

such change should be very cautious and incremental and should

not include wholesale transformations of existing arrangements.

At the heart of these alternative perspectives is a disagreement

about the relationship between the intended and unintended consequences

of deliberate efforts at social change. The conservative

critique of radical projects is not mainly that the emancipatory

goals of radicals are morally indefensible—although some

conservatives criticize the underlying values of such projects as

well—but that the uncontrollable, and usually negative, unintended

consequences of these efforts at massive social change

inevitably swamp the intended consequences. Radicals and revolutionaries

suffer from what Frederick Hayek termed the “fatal

conceit”—the mistaken belief that through rational calculation

and political will, society can be designed in ways that will signifi –

cantly improve the human condition.5 Incremental tinkering may

not be inspiring, but it is the best we can do.

Of course, one can point out that many reforms favored by

conservatives also have massive, destructive unintended consequences.

The havoc created in many poor countries by World

Bank structural adjustment programs would be an example. And

furthermore, under certain circumstances conservatives themselves

argue for radical, society-wide projects of institutional design, as

in the catastrophic “shock therapy” strategy for transforming

the command economy of the Soviet Union into free-market

capitalism in the 1990s. Nevertheless, there is a certain apparent

plausibility to the general claim by conservatives that the bigger

the scale and scope of conscious projects of social change, the less

likely it is that we will be able to predict ahead of time all of the

ramifications of the changes involved.

Radicals on the left have generally rejected this vision of human

possibility. Particularly in the Marxist tradition, radical intellectuals

have insisted that wholesale redesign of social institutions is

within the grasp of human beings. This does not mean, as Marx

emphasized, that detailed institutional “blueprints” can be devised

in advance of the opportunity to create an alternative. What can

be worked out are the core organizing principles of alternatives

to existing institutions, the principles that would guide the pragmatic

trial-and-error task of institution building. Of course, there

will be unintended consequences of various sorts, but these can be

dealt with as they arrive, “after the revolution.” The crucial point

is that unintended consequences need not pose a fatal threat to the

emancipatory projects themselves.

Regardless of which of these stances seems most plausible, the

belief in the possibility of radical alternatives to existing institutions

has played an important role in contemporary political life.

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 on the presence

of more radical visions of possible transformations. This does not

mean, of course, that false beliefs about what is possible are to

be supported simply because they are thought to have desirable

consequences, but it does suggest that plausible visions of radical

alternatives, with firm theoretical foundations, are an important

condition for emancipatory social change.

We now live in a world in which these radical visions are often

mocked rather than taken seriously. Along with the postmodernist

rejection of “grand narratives,” there is an ideological rejection of

grand designs, even by many people still on the left of the political

spectrum. 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 progressive political forces in general.

This book is an effort to counter such cynicism by elaborating

a general framework for systematically exploring alternatives that

embody the idea of “real utopia.” We will begin in chapter 2 by

embedding the specific problem of envisioning real utopias within

a broader framework of “emancipatory social science.” This

framework is built around three tasks: diagnosis and critique;

formulating alternatives; and elaborating strategies of transformation.

These three tasks define the agendas of the three main

parts of the book. Part I of the book (chapter 3) presents the basic

diagnosis and critique of capitalism that animates the search for

real utopian alternatives. Part II then discusses the problem of

alternatives. Chapter 4 reviews the traditional Marxist approach

to thinking about alternatives and shows why this approach is

unsatisfactory. Chapter 5 elaborates an alternative strategy of

analysis, anchored in the idea that socialism, as an alternative to

capitalism, should be understood as a process of increasing social

empowerment over state and economy. Chapters 6 and 7 explore

a range of concrete proposals for institutional design in terms of

this concept of social empowerment, the first of these chapters

focusing on the problem of social empowerment and the state,

and the second on the problem of social empowerment and the

economy. Part III of the book turns to the problem of transformation—

how to understand the process by which these real utopian

alternatives could be brought about. Chapter 8 lays out the central

elements of a theory of social transformation. Chapters 9 through

11 then examine three different broad strategies of emancipatory

transformation—ruptural transformation (chapter 9), interstitial

transformation (chapter 10), and symbiotic transformation

(chapter 11). The book concludes with chapter 12, which distills

the core arguments into seven key lessons.

1 Parts of this chapter appeared in the preface to the first volume in the Real

Utopias Project, Associations and Democracy, by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers

(London: Verso, 1995).

2 See Jim Giles, “Special Report: Internet Encyclopaedias Go Head to Head,”

Nature 438 (2005), pp. 900–1.

3 Mondragon Annual Report 2007, p. 3. Available at: http://www.mcc.es/ing/


4 Claudia Haarmann, Dirk Haarmann, et al., “Making the Difference! The

BIG in Namibia: Basic Income Grant Pilot Project Assessment Report, April

2009”; http://www.bignam.org.

5 Frederick A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1991).



~ by Cory Morningstar on October 14, 2010.

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