Review & Summary: Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright
I’ll post this since I already posted a review and summary for Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. Despite very similar titles they differ enough that they’re both worth a look. Between the two, I prefer Bregman.
Personally, I find “We should work less.” more compelling than “We should consider forming democratic workplace participatory planning committees” or whatever. To be fair it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive.
Still this goes a little deeper into strategy in a way that’s worth reading. (Skip to Methods of Transformation)
It also lays out a more diverse array of ideas often with tedious detail. General discussions of abstract ideas were easy to follow. Specific discussions of real life case studies were easy to follow. Extremely specific discussions of abstract ideas that don’t exist in the real world require multiple readings. Wright would write at great length about completely hypothetical systems and then add something like “This may be too complex to realistically ever be implemented.” I guess it’s better to be thorough than ignorant.
I almost always agree with his criticisms of each system/method. Wright seems to seek a more nuanced neutral view whereas Bregman knows what he believes. I prefer the latter. Life is short. Have an opinion.
Another difference is Bregman sees his suggestions as fulfilling the destiny of capitalism. Wright considers his suggestions to be post-capitalist. To me the rhetorical arguments over what is and isn’t capitalism is a waste of time, but it shows divergent means of maintaining mainstream credibility. Bregman takes the frame of saving capitalism, and advocates unapologetically for his ideas. Wright takes the frame of ending capitalism, but has a more neutral flavor towards each potential road.
Capitalism is bad because: It obstructs social and political justice.
- “Class relations perpetuate eliminable forms of human suffering.”
- “Blocks the universalization of conditions for expansive human flourishing.” (Includes alienation, material inequality, and destructive dehumanizing competition)
- “Perpetuates eliminable deficits in individual freedom and autonomy” (wage slavery)
- “Violates liberal egalitarian principles of social justice” (Pseudo-equality of opportunity)
- “Inefficient in certain crucial aspects” (Negative externalities, public goods, bias towards short term, private contract litigation, marketing, overjustification effect, opportunity cost of people with high potential dying in sweatshops. etc.)
- “Bias towards consumerism” (Potential gains in free time sacrificed for material with systemic deprivation of choice in the matter & ahistorical insistence that this is “human nature”
- “Environmentally destructive” (Externalities, short term bias, consumerism)
- “Commodifications threatens important broadly held values” (Childcare, safety, fine arts, religion)
- “Fuels militarism & imperialism” (Hickel, Blum, Stiglitz, Joon-Chang, Chomsky)
- “Corrodes community” “In greed other people are seen as possible sources of enrichment, and in fear they are seen as threats. These are horrible ways of seeing other people”
- “Limits democracy” (No democratic control over the means of production, or flow of capital, unequal political power. Economic inequality and democracy are incompatible. -Aristotle, James Madison, Chomsky)
We should recognize any system is a hybrid. Main three systems are capitalism, statism, and socialism.
Capitalism: Privately owned means of production. Capitalists use economic power to determine resource allocation.
Statism: State owned means of production. Resources allocated through administrative mechanism.
Socialism: Socially owned means of production, Democratic resource allocation, subordination of state power to social power.
The socialist hybrid is the ideal way forward, best fulfillment of radical democratic egalitarian justice. Social empowerment over economy. Private ownership of the means of production is replaced by democratic ownership.
Alternatives: Socialism pluralistic model with many pathways. Seven discussed.
Statist socialism: Working class coalition controls the state which controls the economy. Therefore in theory the state and economy are accountable to workers. Not favored by many socialists, but could play a role.
Social democratic economic regulation: Higher statist regulation of economic power.
Associational Democracy: Labor, employers, and state meet to determine economic regulations. Less susceptible to domination by elites.
Social Capitalism: Secondary associations control the way economic power is used. Worker representation on boards, replace shareholder councils with stakeholder councils.
Cooperative Market Economy: Worker co-ops. Democratic workplaces potentially with startup support from the state.
Social Economy: Production organized by collectives to satisfy human need not profit.
Participatory Socialism: Combine statist socialism with social economy. State more directly involved in production.
Real World Case Studies for Alternatives:
Urban Participatory budget planning: Porto Alegre Brazil Citizens meet in assemblies to deliberate on how budget should be spent.
Coordinated by government and community delegates.
Not perfect, but very successful and has improved the poorest parts of the city.
High participation, higher solidarity, lower corruption, politically expedient for the party responsible, higher tax compliance, and most importantly exceeded expectations by all.
Wikipedia: Donor funded, non statist support, free access, volunteer labor input, egalitarian participation, direct interactions among contributors, horizontal democratic governance and adjudication.
Quebec social economy for childcare and eldercare: Quebec is prone to cooperatives, higher solidarity due to distinct language.
State provides subsidies to non profit daycares run by workers and parent volunteers.
Eldercare cooperatives have employed thousands to help take care elderly people who pay based on what they can afford.
Government subsidizes wages for workers many of which used to be welfare recipients.
Called a “solidarity cooperative”
Unconditional Basic Income
Every living resident gets a stipend no matter what.
Ideally most people would be net donors and net recipients at different times in life.
Could potentially end wage slavery if high enough.
Give workers ability to say no therefore demand higher pay as well.
Jobs that are the most tedious or painful would be hard to fill and pressurized to automate.
Ends poverty traps, maintains high aggregate demand.
Potentially less resentment and racist dogwhistling for universal programs.
Capital flight/disinvestment is a fear as is potential labor shortage.
QFL Quebec foundation of labor provides direct investment in smaller firms, where quality working conditions, management style etc. actually matter to investors.
Higher involvement with company, training, education for employees.
Money comes from working class investors so a return is still needed.
Longer horizons. Subsidized by government.
Mondragon MCC Largest co-op in the world.
Started in the 1950s building heaters and gas stoves.
Large enough that if certain areas are struggling, firms with higher profits can help ease it temporarily.
Workers can be transferred from one co-op to another.
They hold general assemblies representative councils, individual co-ops can withdraw and sometimes do.
Future is uncertain due to globalization and market pressures.
Democracy card: P. 168 Everyone gets $50 to spend on any candidate in any election.
Candidates can’t accept money from any other source if they accept it.
Easy to see who’s accountable to who.
Citizens assembly P. 171 Jury duty for legislation.
Support staff and wonks present arguments for proposal and citizens selected can pass it, or in theory their opinion could be listed on the ballot to show its approval and inform citizens. British Columbia has done something similar with success.
Associational Democracy compromise between deregulation and ham fisted central regulation by allowing intermediaries to deliberate on issues on a more decentralized basis.
Milwaukee WRTP has had success training and placing workers to the benefit of both union and employer.
Share levy wage earner funds: Corporations pay profit taxes in the forms of new shares that go into a wage earner fund. Over time dilution of shares leads to higher and higher worker control. Shareholders still make profit, but not as much.
Market Socialism John Roemer’s tedious coupon system that will never happen. P. 247
Parecon Michael Albert’s Five principles:
- Equal ownership by all citizens,
- Egalitarian democratic empowerment based on participation proportional to effects, (People get a larger say in decisions that affect them more.)
- Jobs as balanced complexes (Everyone does everything, reduce specialization/alienation of labor)
- Remuneration according to sacrifice and need.
- Economic coordination based on participatory planning worker and consumer councils plan production and consumption. Likely too complicated to be workable.
Coercion: make direct action illegal, restrict unions, worker organization, right to work laws, does not always have to be from the state.
Institutional rules: If socialists want to participate in elections they have to play by the rules which erode militancy. If they abstain they miss out on power. When they achieve substantive improvements in a way they strengthen capitalism rather than weaken it. Electoralism filters out policies which threaten capitalism. Guided democracy…
Ideology: “System affirming ideas will be more prevalent disseminated more widely, cheaper to be exposed to, and backed by higher status media and institutions than are ideas which challenge structures of power and privilege.” P. 284
Socialization is built around instilling habits to function well in society, not to change it.
Material interests: If the economy is doing well workers are doing well, if not then workers will suffer the most. Disrupting capitalism would hurt in the short term.
Gaps in Reproduction:
Complexity and inconsistent requirements: The state which exists to prevent capitalist self destruction also has the potential to be hijacked to destroy capitalism.
Strategic intentionality: Institutions to solve problems have unintended consequences and use imperfect information. Designed to solve gaps in social reproduction, they create more down the road.
Institutional rigidity: It’s hard for these institutions to be flexible and respond to gaps as they arise. Health insurance via employer was designed to increase employer leverage over workers, as costs rise employers no longer want to pay, but due to institutional rigidity and interests of health insurance/pharma shareholders they’re stuck. This slow movement also exposes the failure of capitalism to take care of its participants.
Unpredictability: It’s hard to design institutions for long term stable social reproduction since the future is unpredictable.
Methods of transformation:
P. 327 The fact is that in present historical conditions no strategy credibly poses a direct threat to the system in the sense that there are good grounds for believing that adopting the strategy today will generate effects in the near future that would really threaten capitalism. This is what it means to live in a hegemonic capitalist system: capitalism is sufficiently secure and flexible in its basic structures that there is no strategy possible that immediately threatens it. The strategic problem is to imagine things we can do now which have a reasonable chance of opening up possibilities under contingent conditions in the future.
Ruptural: Revolutionary Confront the bourgeoisie.
The more traditional method doesn’t have a great reputation, and is even less likely to be successful in the present. Even with broad support there would likely be a temporary downturn in material quality of life. May be helpful on a small scale. Depending how long it lasts the movement may waver and fail.
Interstitial: Anarchist Ignore the Bourgeoisie.
Provide alternatives in the fringes of capitalism, maybe use small ruptural methods when limits are reached. Alternatives show potential changes and gain support steadily for more democratic egalitarian solutions.
Symbiotic: Social Democrat Collaborate with the Bourgeoisie.
Finding common ground or positive sum games with capitalist class. IE Keynesianism/demand side economics. High consumer demand and minimal economic crises are in the interest of all.
Interstitial organizations could help gain broad support in the long term for a slow but steady transformation. Although such a transition could be faster than we think due to tipping points. After a certain amount of growth in support there becomes a positive feedback mechanism that leads to rapid societal change or support for change.
Symbiotic In my opinion it is a good way to reduce suffering in the short term. That being said as power gets more concentrated these gains will be threatened.
Social democracy was quietly dismantled in the decades following the New Deal and the Great Society. Even the sacred Nordic model isn’t immune to the relentless needs of capital. Wright says something similar on page 128.
“If such a hybrid were to occur, then capitalist power over significant levels of economic resources would have an inherent tendency to erode the associational power of civil society over the economy to the point that capitalism would again become unequivocally dominant.”