Envisioning realistic Utopias, realised utopias, Erik Olin Wright and Crooked Timber

There’s been a fascinating series on Crooked Timber on Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Realistic Utopias. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem yet to be a sidebar link which captures the posts, and Wright is new to blogging and hasn’t linked back to the various contributions in his concluding response. That makes it a little hard to get a quick overview of the seminar, and I hope that’s rectified soon.

John Quiggin very kindly asked me to contribute (after learning that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on The Phenomenology of Utopia), but unfortunately, I wasn’t able in the end to take up the invitation due to other pressing work commitments. So I’m a bit late to the party.

It’s fair to say that Wright’s book has been one of the most influential recent contributions to the social-scientific rethinking of progressive social change. An overview of his project is available at his website. Wright seeks to articulate what he calls “a sociology of the possible”, to research potential emancipatory interventions which could begin to change capitalism, a system he regards as causative of social harms, from within its interstices and its possibilities.

As for utopias, he writes:

The expression “Real Utopias” is, of course, an oxymoron: Utopia means “nowhere” – a fantasy world of perfect harmony and social justice. When politicians want to summarily dismiss a proposal for social transformation as an impractical dream outside the limits of possibility, they call it “utopian”. Realists reject such fantasies as a distraction from the serious business of making practical improvements in existing institutions. The idea of real utopias embraces this tension between dreams and practice: “utopia” implies developing visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations for a world in which all people have access to the conditions to live flourishing lives; “real” means taking seriously the problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world. The goal is to elaborate utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible way stations, utopian designs of viable institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.

I’m not aiming in this post either to assess Wright’s project overall or the Crooked Timber symposium. I’d urge those interested to read the posts there. I’m hoping to publish a paper, tentatively entitled ‘Erik Wright’s Utopias’, so I’ll save the academic critique for that exercise.

What I want to do today, because I agree with Wright that utopia is a useful (I would argue necessary) vector for thinking about social change and with his diagnosis of capitalism’s harms, is to pose a few questions about how we might think about the role of utopian imaginings. I will say something about what I think a key problem with his argument is, which is under-acknowledged in his work.

So, really, he’s providing me with a jumping off point as much as anything else.

I want to make two claims – about the necessity of utopia, about the fact that we live in realised utopias.

But before I do that, I want to make a point about the preconditions for a utopistics (as a project rather than a research agenda, to borrow a phrase from Immanuel Wallerstein). So it’s worth looking at two critiques of Wright’s thesis (always remembering that he replies here):

(a) Rather polemically, Diane Coyle writes:

And in the end, after all the machinery of ‘stochastic Marxism’ and ‘emancipatory social science’, Wright says that actual economies are always hybrid and so the thing to do is inject a little socialism where possible. So that amounts to incremental, pragmatic improvements in the direction of a fairer society. Who could disagree?… .Alas, this book shows no interest at all in real utopias, only in the one theoretical utopia or ‘no place’ of an abstract alternative to the market economy. It’s an arid scholastic exercise that at no point engages with our present economic disaster and the practical idealism of the many people responding to it.

(b) It’s touched on in the response of Marc Fleurbaey and his students regarding (inter alia) Wright’s views on capitalism and markets, but I question whether Wright’s proposed subordination of economic to social and political power is anything other than classic social democracy, in the sense that the aim of social democracy was not necessarily to supplant markets but to decommodify goods and services traded within markets, and to inject non-capitalist elements into the governance and design of markets. It’s not clear to me that this is a particularly radical project, or one that is actually transformational in the way Wright thinks realistic utopias should be. I suspect it’s also premature to pronounce the impending death of neo-liberalism. But my basic critique would be that Wright’s strategy is firstly one for interstitional reformism within capitalism, and secondly lacks an obvious subject to bring it about.

I don’t know that I agree with Coyle either, but there’s surely virtue in an approach that looks to agency, emergent design and real social and political movements within capitalist societies. Perhaps Wright’s location in the belly of the beast disguises somewhat the need to look around, precisely because the necessity he feels of arguing against capitalism draws his position back to a pole where it’s the norm. In other words, in the absence of the Marxist subject of history, Wright fails to see that one won’t be called into being through intellectual exercises, which gesture towards particular instantiations more as exemplars of the model than as indicators of the direction of resistance to neo-liberal capital per se.

If we’re talking about state led social democracy, we may as well be upfront about it.

(Note that I’m not making either an argument against the virtues of social democracy or contending that putting social democracy into practice today as opposed to yesterday or in an imagined Nordic sphere would not be quite radical. I just don’t think that it’s as radical or transformative as Wright does, and I don’t see the incentives for the state to lead the harnessing of social and political power to counter and shape economic power. I think it’s just a dressing up of a sort of New Labour/New Democrat strategy, and risks falling into the holes such strategic paths inevitably lead to.)

So, to utopias.

Utopias are necessary

In his defence of utopia, Wright suggests that the utopian dimension of thought is under-utilised and under-valued. I look at utopia differently.

The Greek-French thinker, Cornelius Castoriadis, rightly (in my view) argued that all societies and forms of life are founded by ‘imaginary institution’. Whether we are talking about the cosmologies of ancient social formations, or the normative foundation in reason of modern states and cultures, at the heart of any mode of living in common is a certain set of commonly held norms, assumptions and ways of shaping thought and action. The horizon for all our individual and collective projects is what is possible within the terms of the social imaginary we share.

I take this further and argue that all modern imaginaries are utopian. That is, there is an implicit telos which structures the social imaginary, utopian in the sense that it motivates action to realise it and to re-realise it in the forms of social life, governance and culture and utopian in the sense that it takes meaning from a vision of how it might function most fruitfully and perfectly. The horizon of possibility is dependent on the adjustment of norms and purposes to approach better the meaning that utopia conjures for us. Tekhne then is dependent on Telos for its meaning. Otherwise, action becomes fruitless, meaningless, repetitive. Because much of our action is habituated, and meaningless in and of itself, it requires the injection of meaning from the utopian imaginary to transcend a pure technicism, where ends are goals in and of themselves.

We live in realised utopias

John Maynard Keynes said that “even the most practical man (sic) of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist”.

That’s true, and we also live in someone else’s utopia. In Australia, we have a particular utopia – not so much a “classless society”, but a nation state founded on civil peace and the absence of conflict (one reason why attempts to articulate war and Australian nationalism have caused distress in the past). Of course, that’s a fiction, but it’s a fiction that envelops us and structures our forms of governance and life. In some ways, it’s a truth (though not for the marginalised others). Similarly, capitalism and neo-liberalism are in themselves nested utopias. That’s not to say they are irreal, far from it. It is to say that the forms of thought, statecraft and living they embody and give life to structure our horizon, even for those of us who would rather it otherwise.

So, I would suggest, we need to imagine utopia otherwise.

Of course, that’s a slogan! But I think that thinking about things from this angle can help.


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11 responses to “Envisioning realistic Utopias, realised utopias, Erik Olin Wright and Crooked Timber”

  1. John D

    My experience is that if you ask “how can we improve by 5%?” you get a different set of answers to “how can we improve by 100%?”. If you don’t ask the 5% questions you can miss out on some easy short term gains. If you don’t ask the 100% question you never get around to starting the things that you need to survive. Japan is a good example of a country that was very good at incremental improvements but has been in the doldrums for years because it was not real good at asking the 100% questions.
    Howard, Gillard and Abbot are all 5% leaders. (OK, 5% is being a bit generous) They are all unpopular at the moment because the voters understand that, right now, the country is due for a dose of 100% leader even if that leader comes with serious flaws.
    What is crapping me off about climate action at the moment is that it all about 5% leadership. If we are chasing 5% we get a 23% carbon tax, minor subsidies and a planet still heading for climate disaster. If we ask “what do we have to do to get 100% renewable power without destroying the economy?” we get something like the
    BZE Stationary Energy Plan. We also get an understanding the we need something like a Snow Mountain Authority to make it happen properly – not a larger carbon price.
    The same can be said for transport. 5% gets you the Prius hybrid. Ask the 100% question you discover that the commercially available technology is there to support a credible plan for zero emission transport that doesn’t depend on stopping air travel or people being starved so that planes can travel on corn based bio-fuels.
    If nothing else, we need utopias and people who can articulate them if we are to avoid the accelerating slide to oblivion.

  2. Peter Murphy

    When I think of utopia, I think of Iain Banks’s Culture: a post-scarcity and post-capitalist society. It’s something more pleasant to aim for than the authoritarian “utopias” catalogued in John Gray’s Black Mass.

    However, the Culture depends on several things – like a large supply of benevolent and altruistic robots – that may be hard to come by in real life.

  3. akn

    Thanks for this Mark. I’m waiting for clear air to settle in and read closely. My honours thesis was on environmentalism and the renewal of utopias; utopianism is as fine a way in to political philosophy as any other and better than most.

  4. Shingle

    I like U/eutopia as a double entendre (no place/good place). This is a fascinating topic which takes me back to my golden age of undergraduate lingering in the library pondering the great questions. I am sick in bed today (not the best of all possible worlds for clear thinking) and I’m not really au fait with all the academic terminology used above and in the links provided, so I apologise for being tempted to join in: sometimes in spite of,or even because of our imperfections we strive toward something higher and so it is with politics and utopia. I still like that question about politics and human nature – what conception of humanity underlies a particular political world view? I think that gives a clue to what its proponents think or hope is possible… Utopia or some less ambitious goal … What provides their inspiration? (Maybe contemporary politics restricts this to e.g. A view of who Australians are and what is the ‘narrative’ or ‘big picture’ that could capture their imagination/votes). We were taught to juxtapose Hobbes (in nature, all are at war with each other hence the need for the state) against Rousseau (we are born free but are in chains due to ‘progress’). Surely now, politics must engage beyond human nature, linking our own future to the nature of the planet and the limits to its exploitation. So there’s not only the question, does human nature (fixed/malleable? Tending to cooperation/conflict?) restrict or enable a better society, but the urgent question of, how capable are we as a species of understanding the nature of the planet and the limits to its exploitation, and how capable are we of acting on that knowledge? Not the only question, but fairly pressing. I can understand why a proponent of deep green ecology might imagine utopia as a place without us. A light green utopia might be a place where everybody recycles. I have just stumbled on the term ‘bright green’, another word with double meaning – bright as in intelligent alternative technologies/design radical social & political innovation and bright as in optimistic. …’society can neither shop nor protest its way to sustainability’…perhaps this is the left wing ‘can-do’ (sorry for the Campbell Newman reference).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bright_green_environmentalism. But for a few vested interests standing in the way it sounds like an idea for a ‘realistic utopia’ (maybe the kind John D above would approve of?). Sorry also for the long ramble which probably doesn’t address your exact interests above. As for my own utopia? That’s probably the old days of Woodford folk festival before I discovered it and if I had learned to play an instrument, which I have not.

  5. Roger Jones


    Interesting piece. I’ve always taken the view that utopias are not for this world because of the perfection aspect. Despite enjoying the essay, I still think that. Can the telos still be fruitful, just not perfect?

    Dreams are fun and can inspire, but if we impose them on reality with insufficient care, we deny the things around us and make the world that much less perfect. Thinking of the ultra right and their situational science here.

  6. FDB

    Mark – a perfect world has paragraphs.

  7. John D

    Shingle: Thanks for “Bright Green Environmentalist” It is probably a good way to describe me when I am being practical and trying to save the planet. On the other hand, if you asked me to describe my Green utopia it would be all about my love of the wild woods rather than a tool for achieving practical goals. Then there is………

  8. jules

    Peter @ 2 same re the culture.

    Not just robots tho, post singularity AIs with more than just a physical existence… a mind exists in “hyperspace” not reality as we experience it.

    In some ways the culture is just humans with godlike beings actually being there running their day to day affairs written to sound plausible to rationalist or scientific materialists. In that sense its a utoipia in the original sense – a fantasy. (Tho perhaps one to aspire to.)

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