Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 6, 2007

Erik Olin Wright’s “Envisioning Real Utopias”

Filed under: Academia,economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Erik Olin Wright

I had kicked around the idea of responding to sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s manuscript-in-progress “Envisioning Real Utopias” a few months ago, but decided against it mainly out of respect for Wright’s overall scholarship. Although I have big problems with Analytical Marxism (his methodology) and utopian thinking of any sort, he did have an excellent track record when it came to the nitty-gritty empirical research around class questions, starting with the 1973 “The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America.” If more leftist professors did this kind of yeoman scholarship, we’d all be better off.

When references to Wright’s work-in-progress turned up on recently on Crooked Timber and Political Theory Daily Review, I reconsidered since these two websites are excellent barometers of academic trends. As an outsider to this world, I find it endlessly fascinating–especially when it takes up questions of how to eliminate the capitalist system. So without further ado, here are some scattergun observations on the manuscript.

To start with, we should thank Wright for using the Internet to get feedback in this fashion. Over the years, I have found people such as Robert Brenner to be extremely uncomfortable with email debates. The preferred mode of operation for established Marxist scholars is to go into the woodshed for a couple of years or so and then unleash their finished product on the outside world. I am not sure what motivated Wright to take a different approach, but I hope it inspires others to follow his example.

Part one of “Envisioning Real Utopias” deals with the question of “What’s so bad about Capitalism?” Since I obviously would have no problem with any sort of answer to this question, I will move on immediately to the next part, which has to do with alternatives to the capitalist system. Since Wright finds Marx’s approach to this question “unsatisfactory in certain key respects,” I felt compelled as a troglodyte-Marxist of long standing to defend orthodoxy–even on heterodox terms.

In chapter 3 (“Thinking About Alternatives to Capitalism”), Wright announces at the outset that Marx proposed a highly problematic theory of the “long-term impossibility of capitalism,” which can be divided into 5 sub-theses:

1. Long-term nonsustainability.

2. Intensification of anticapitalist class struggle thesis.

3. Revolutionary transformation

4. Transition to socialism

5. Communism Destination

Now these constitute a kind of catechism for Marxist activists. When I went through a new member’s class in the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, this is more or less how it was explained to me. Of course, if your Marxism does not advance beyond this level, it is unlikely that it will make much of an impact politically.

While there are certainly grounds for thinking in more subtle ways about alternatives to capitalism, I am not sure that Wright’s answers are what we are looking for. To start with, Wright casts doubt on the “self-destruction” thesis in terms that are highly familiar to anybody who has taken Economics 101:

The thesis that the crisis tendencies of capitalism will have a systematic tendency to intensify over time is critical to the whole argument, for this is the basis for the idea that the contradictions of capitalism ultimately destroy its own conditions of existence. If the most we can say is that capitalism will have a tendency for periodic economic crises of greater or lesser severity, but there is no overall tendency of intensification of disruptions to capital accumulation, then we no longer have grounds for the idea that capitalism become progressively more fragile over time.

Basically, this is a straw-man construction. All of the major Marxist economic works since WWII have dispensed with the idea that there are mounting contradictions leading to permanent crisis. Except for the journals of tiny sects, you simply don’t find such arguments about “self-destruction” over the past 50 years. Back in May 1958, Harry Braverman was writing about “Marx in the Modern World” in the pages of the American Socialist in terms utterly at odds with Wright’s reductionist version:

Marx and the movement he shaped operated on the basis of imminent crisis. If he never gave thought to the kind of living standard inherent in a capitalism that would continue to revolutionize science and industry for another hundred years, that was because he thought he was dealing with a system that was rapidly approaching its Armageddon. He thought the social wars that would usher in socialism would take place under the social conditions he saw around him. In that sense, the economic obsolescence we can easily find in him today is of a piece with his errors of political foreshortening.

I could also refer Erik Olin Wright to the writings of Ernest Mandel, David Harvey or a host of other Marxist theoreticians who have little to do with notions of inevitable “self-destruction”. Since this would complicate his task of coming up with new theories to replace Marx’s, I doubt if he would have much interest in them.

Once he has dispensed with classical Marxist theory, Wright puts forward his new (“Wrightist”?) theory in chapter 4, titled “The Socialist Compass”. He starts off with the notion of a road map, but realizes that a compass is less rigid:

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, the best we can probably do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that tells us the direction we are moving and an odometer which tells us how far from our point of departure we have traveled, but without a road map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination. This has perils, of course: we may encounter chasms which we cannot cross, unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned. We may have to backtrack and try a new route.

Unfortunately, neither a road map nor a compass is the sort of metaphor that will be of much use to a socialist movement. Road maps and compasses are only useful when it comes to static realities, like a street, a lake, a rest stop, an ocean or a continent. Revolutionary politics defy any attempts to apply fixed categories since the ground is always shifting beneath your feet. Yesterday’s South might be tomorrow’s North. Indeed, there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.

Ultimately, the obsession with coming up with “feasible” socialisms is a bit like the “maximalist” socialisms put forward on May Day by the old SP. In between the elections of SP candidates on “sewer socialism” platforms and the grand finale of a socialist world, they had very little to say. One imagines that is why Wright poses the question in terms of “utopian” solutions, since they are disconnected from politics as such.

The chapter does not start off promisingly since Wright defines the need for “ideal-types”:

To explain what this means I will first need to clarify a number of key concepts: power; ownership; and the state, the economy, and civil society as three broad domains of social interaction and power. Second, I will develop an ideal-type conceptual map of capitalism, statism, and socialism as types of economic structures based on different the configurations of ownership and power linked to these three domains. And third, I will explain how this ideal-type typology of economic structures helps inform a conceptual map of empirical variability of the macro-structures of economic systems.

I would suggest that ideal-types are the last thing we need. To speak in these terms means that you are accepting the formal logic straitjacket of bourgeois social science.

While I have stated previously that I probably have no disagreements with Wright about the meaning of capitalism, I do have to part company with him on his use of the terms statism and socialism.

He defines statism as “an economic structure within which the means of production are owned by the state and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is thus accomplished through the exercise of state power.” Socialism, by contrast, is “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.'”

And what are some examples of an economic structure in which the means of production are “socially owned”? Wright states:

In Israel the traditional kibbutzim would constitute an example of social ownership: all of the means of production in the kibbutz were owned in common by all members of the community and they collectively controlled the use of the surplus generated by the use of those means of production. Worker cooperatives also can constitute examples of social ownership, depending upon the specific ways in which the property rights of the coop are organized.

It is rather remarkable to see the Israeli kibbutzim described in these terms at this stage of the game. Of course, you can only do so in the context of “ideal-types.” Once you step down from the Platonic clouds and deal with the reality of the kibbutz, you will understand that they always relied on the exploitation of Arab labor. In 1983, one out of five kibbutz workers was an Arab who could not even organize a trade union for higher wages. This is not to speak of the fact that the land was stolen from the original inhabitants. If such “social ownership” is supposed to be an advance over the nasty “statist” ownership of actually existing socialist states, then one wonders what kind of utopian dimension Wright hopes to introduce into our movement. For the Palestinians, the kibbutz have been rather lacking in the utopian department.

In considering the inadequacies of “statist” approaches (i.e., Marxist theories about the proletarian dictatorship), Wright resorts to the favorite villain of central casting, the old Soviet Union:

Whether because of inherent tendencies 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 potential for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of 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.

As is so often the case with these sorts of exercises on “what went wrong,” Cuba does not enter the discussion. With its obvious departures from Stalinist practices, Cuba does not easily serve as a cautionary tale against the evils of “statism.” This is particularly unfortunate since the recent period has been marked by invitations from the very highest levels of the party to discuss the role of “autonomous civil society” in the building of socialism. It would behoove Erik Olin Wright to study this plucky little island’s attempt to create an alternative to capitalism.

I will conclude with a look at chapters 5 and 6, in which Wright explores “a range of real utopian proposals.” I am glad that he is proposing real utopian proposals as opposed to imaginary utopian proposals of the kind that tend to get my dander up. Frankly, the more one looks into these proposals, the more has to ask what is particularly “utopian” about them.

For example, Wright is impressed with the “participatory budget” that Lula’s party pushed for in the city of Porto Alegre:

In most cities that are governed by democratic institutions, the Mayor’s office prepares a city budget each year, which is then submitted to a city council for approval and amendment. But where does the mayor get the numbers? Usually this is done through a technical budgetary office filled with economists, city planners, political cronies and other associates of the Mayor. In Porto Alegre, in contrast, the budget is generated by a complex process centering on direct citizen participation in popular councils.

Given Wright’s distaste for “statist” economics, it is not surprising that he would gravitate toward municipal decision-making over how the local pie should be divided. If the voters of Porto Alegre decide to allocate 50 percent of the budget for better sanitation rather than cops, who could oppose that? Unfortunately, the major problems facing Brazil can only be resolved at the national level, including land distribution and an end to neoliberal economics. A “participatory budget” hardly amounts to some kind of “utopian” assault on the status quo. At best, it is a modern version of the kind of “sewer socialism” referred to above. Nobody would gainsay the right of the Brazilian people to find a more beneficial way to spend their tax dollars, but you don’t need to come up with a new tailor-made substitute for Marxism when Fabian Socialism is available right off the rack. When you strip away the social science jargon that Wright wraps his arguments in, that is what you are left with after all: Fabianism.

Wright, like other Analytical Marxists, is easily infatuated with what can best be described as individualistic solutions. John Roemer, for example, came up with the idea of coupon socialism, in which all citizens above 21 are supposed to receive coupons which they must invest in firms, but they are not free to sell or give the coupons to each other. This is supposed to reduce the concentration of wealth and open the door to socialism in some fashion. It is of course a silly idea from top to bottom.

Wright endorses a similar idea concocted by another left-leaning academic, but the instrument is a credit card rather than a coupon:

Bruce Ackerman has proposed a novel institutional device which potentially would have the consequence of both marginalizing the role of wealth in electoral politics and create a much more deeply egalitarian form of financing politics in general, not just conventional electoral campaigns. The basic idea is simple: At the beginning of every year every citizen would be given a special kind of debit card which Ackerman dubs a Patriot Card, but which I would prefer to call a Democracy Card.

I can’t say that I am one of Bruce Ackerman’s fans. After he and Todd Gitlin drafted an idiotic document titled “We Answer to the Name of Liberals” that “supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,” I cast him into the lower depths of liberal hell along with the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Albert Shanker. My response to the Gitlin-Ackerman article is here.

The rest of Wright’s chapter goes on in this vein with “Citizen’s Assemblies” selected at random and other gimmicks. Ultimately, this sort of thing is simply another sterile exercise in utopian thought, not much different from Albert-Hahnel’s “Parecon” or the Socialist Labor Party’s century-old prescriptions about how socialist industrial unions have to become the basis for a new world.

Alternatives to capitalism will not arise because a critical mass of the population has become smitten with such utopian schemas, but because the conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality. As that day grows near, it will become urgent to develop a revolutionary movement of the classical type no matter whether that is fashionable in the academy or not.



  1. Nice entry on Wright’s work-in-progress, though I wish you could have resisted giving the predictable advice that he should, before coming down too hard on Statism, turn to the glowing example of Cuba.

    Comment by md — March 7, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

  2. There is, needless to say, much with which I disagree in the evaluation of my work by Louis Proyect. I will here only address of few of the more important points:

    1. Concerning my exposition of Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism, especially “the self-destruction thesis”:
    I do not disagree with the basic point that most Marxist economists in the last half century or so have dispensed with the crisis-intensification thesis or the claim that the laws of motion of capitalism have a tendency to destroy capitalism’s conditions of existence. My characterization of this theoretical argument was directed at classical Marxism in general and Marx in particular, not to “Marxism”. My assessment in these terms is entirely in keeping with the quote of Braverman, which also criticizes Marx’s formulations. I presented this account because Marx’s theory of the destiny of capitalism offers such an elegant solution to the problem of showing that an alternative to capitalism is possible. The indeterminist view of the trajectory of capitalism in which there are no tendencies which increase capitalism’s vulnerability puts much greater burden on the argument that a viable alternative to capitalism is possible. Once you acknowledge that capitalism may be an indefinitely robust, dynamic form of economic organization, then one has to directly engage the issue of how to convince people that an alternative is possible, viable, and desirable.

    2. The criticism that “there is absolutely no engagement in Wright with the social realities of present-day America, from the problems of immigrant labor to the decline of the trade union movement. It makes no sense of speaking about compasses to lead you in the direction of socialism while ignoring the pitfalls in your immediate path.”:
    The argument and analysis in the book is not meant to be a political proposal geared to the United States today. Nor is it meant to provide clear coordinates for formulating specific strategies of transformation anchored in specific historical-political contexts. Rather the idea is to provide some principles for thinking about strategy and context. The central thrust of those principles is that the guts of a socialist alternative to capitalism is radical egalitarian democracy – which I refer to as a socialism of social empowerment. What the book proposes is a variety of different ways in which we can move in that direction in any society/economy/context dominated by capitalism. Now, perhaps this is a useless enterprise and somehow a distraction from more important problems. Perhaps there is no need to provide general clarification of the logic and foundations of our understandings of alternatives to capitalism. But I do think this is important, and I think it is important to elaborate these issues in a way that is not narrowly anchored in a particular time and place. My experience in discussing these issues around the world with people in very different contexts is that everywhere it stimulates good debate and discussion, and that suggests that it is worthwhile.

    3. The critique of the use of ideal types:
    The purpose of formulating clear concepts with specified meanings is so that when we debate issues and grapple with the difficult problems of figuring out how the world works and how it might be transformed we know that we are talking about the same things. Perhaps the expression “ideal type” is suspect because of its association with certain strategies of theory building, but I do not see how it implies “accepting the formal logic straightjacket of bourgeois social science.” Marx elaborates ideal type – formal abstractions – all the time when he tries to identify the salient mechanisms within capitalism. The term “ideal” in “ideal” type just means “abstractly and systematically conceptualized”. It is a contrast to other kinds of concepts, for example the notions of an “average type” or a “modal type”, which are more descriptive concepts. Take the problem of capitalism. The “modal type” of capitalism would be defined by the most typical form of capitalism we observe in the world. The “ideal type” on the other hand, abstracts from all of the forms of variation and tries to identify those mechanisms in capitalism which are most systematically generative of its common properties across these variations. These are the mechanisms which make all capitalisms varieties of capitalism. If we are to talk about modes of production or systems of production – capitalism, feudalism, socialism, etc. – then we cannot dispense with such abstractions, whether or not they are called “ideal types.”

    4. My use of the example of the kibbutz:
    The example of the Israeli Kibbutzim is used to illustrate the viability of quite radical forms of democratic egalitarian economic organization. While the fact that the land for the kibbutzim was appropriated from local inhabitants is certainly relevant to the historical process by which this institution was created, in and of itself it is not relevant to the evaluation of its institutional form and progressive implications (unless for some reason you believe that the democratic egalitarian features of an agrarian cooperative can only have occur on stolen land, which does not seem plausible.) Also, the fact that by the 1980s the democratic egalitarian properties of many kibbutzim had already begun to seriously deteriorate does not necessarily undermine the usefulness of the empirical case for understanding democratic egalitarian forms of economic organization. All experiments of democratic egalitarian economic organization that occur in the capitalist world experience great pressures and have difficulty in reproducing their most radical elements.

    5. My analysis of “statism” and the fate of statist economies:
    Contrary to the characterization of my argument, I believe that any viable socialist project of transformation will have strong statist elements. The proposal for a socialism of social empowerment is not an anarchist, anti-statist proposal. At its core is the idea of hybrid forms. The problem I address is the extent to which statist forms of economic organization are or are not effectively subordinated to social power rooted in civil society (or, equivalently, whether they are subjected to meaningful democratic accountability). I do not believe that this was the case in general in the statist, centralized-administrative economies. Thus does not mean that such economic structures had no socialist aspects – they did. Nor does it mean that they contained no potential of evolving in a more socialist direction through a process of social empowerment through civil society. I am pretty skeptical that this is really on the agenda in Cuba, but I could be wrong about this and the framework I propose certainly does not preclude this in any way. Indeed, the framework is precisely designed to allow for such a pathway towards social empowerment.

    6. On the Porto Alegre participatory budget and its relationship to the problems of Brazil:
    I completely agree that the problems of Brazil cannot be resolved at the local level – they are bound up with both the national structure of power and domination in the country and the location of Brazil in the world capitalism system. I would not suggest that the PB itself is a plausible basis for a transformation of capitalism. But I also disagree that it is just a nicer way of allocating resources: it is an experiment in a new form of participatory governance, and for all of its problems is an advance in our understanding of how democracy can be deepened. It is in these ways dramatically different from past versions of “sewer socialism” because it involves a transformation of the form of the state. To be sure this is limited – it is at the local level and it only concerns one aspect of local governance (although one should add that other forms of participatory governance have been developing alongside the participatory budget). But it is real, it is happening, and we can learn from it.

    7. The critique of my use of Bruce Ackerman’s proposal for electoral financing:
    The fact that Ackerman supported the war in Afghanistan does not demonstrate that his proposal for public financing of democratic competition is undesirable, unworkable, stupid, or anything else. Now, perhaps one could argue that in a socialist society elections between competing parties would disappear, or even that elections are no longer needed. This has sometimes been suggested by revolutionary socialists. But more plausibly, if we are serious about socialism as a profoundly egalitarian democratic society, then there will be a problem of how elections would be organized, how parties would get resources, and all of the other issues connected with this dimension of democracy, since even if direct democracy becomes more important, there will still be need for representative processes and institutions as well. The Ackerman proposal is an interesting one in this regard and should be evaluated, not dismissed through ad hominem arguments. The character of the attack on my use of Ackerman reflects a lack of serious intellectual commitment to these problems.

    8. The accusations that my cases are mainly “gimmicks”:
    It is easy to dismiss without discussion various institutional designs, such as randomly selected empowered Citizens Assemblies as simply “gimmicks”. I take a different stance: these are real-world experiments and innovations which we need to study and understand in order to increase our repertoire of possibilities. To derisively reject such analysis and say we have no need to understand these cases is to impoverish the imagination of people engaged in struggle for social justice and social change. Even if it is the case that alternatives to capitalism will only arise when “conditions of daily life have become so onerous that they revolt against the system in its totality”, it is still crucial what kinds of models, designs, experiments, innovations are part of the menu of political debate. I suppose if you believe strongly that “where there is a will there is a way” and “necessity is the parent of invention” then there might be no need for a prior exploration of democratic-egalitarian institutional designs, but the historical record of the failure to build democratic egalitarian alternatives in the aftermath of system-challenges is not very encouraging. Furthermore, if you skeptical that a transformation of capitalism in developed capitalist countries will take the form of a “revolt against the system in its totality” leading to a massive ruptural break, then it becomes even more important to understand such cases and to worry about how the spaces for them can be enlarged.

    Comment by Erik Olin Wright — March 7, 2007 @ 4:30 pm

  3. I was wondering if you could tell me where you found the statistic that one in five Kibbutz workers is Arab?

    Comment by Jessica Schubert — April 10, 2007 @ 1:58 am

  4. […] In effect, the Chinese Communist Party is today emulating the successes of the Qing Dynasty by empowering a non-capitalist market system throughout the country. Although Arrighi does not use the term “market socialism”, it is clear that his views overlap with Eric Olin Wright, another Marxist totally committed to China’s economic development path today. (I took up Wright’s ideas here. […]

    Pingback by Giovanni Arrighi’s Vico-Marxism « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 21, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

  5. […] also Louis Proyect’s critique of the book in manuscript form from 2007 and Erik Olin Wright’s […]

    Pingback by Irish Left Review · New Left Project | Erik Olin Wright Interview — June 17, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

  6. […] active presence on the Internet and who does not mind duking it out with his ideological opponents, including me, Jacoby is a rather aloof and remote figure whose output is almost completely restricted to print […]

    Pingback by Dueling Utopias « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 26, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  7. An Alternative to Capitalism (which we need here in the USA)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: “There is no alternative”. She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to an essay titled: “Home of the Brave?” which was published by the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:


    John Steinsvold

    Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as including our own.
    –Georg C. Lichtenberg

    Comment by John Steinsvold — May 6, 2011 @ 3:15 am

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