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.