The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations
E-book Free! See below (about e-books)
So the Hugo nominees are here. Outside of the novels, the only nominated work I’ve read is Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature which I am entirely happy to recommend you go vote for, or, better still, buy. As for the novels, they’re:
I’ve read five of the six (and I got halfway through the first book in the series which Mira Grant’s Blackout ends), and I’ve got a serious case of the mehs. 2312 is the only one that I would recommend as doing something interesting. The other five seem to me solid, but not wildly exciting. Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a lot of fun – good sword and sorcery from a non-Christian Europe-centric perspective. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is perfectly fine, but while it isn’t the worst of Bujold’s books, it’s not close to being the best either. John Scalzi’s Redshirts didn’t grab me, perhaps because I never particularly liked Star Trek, and so was underwhelmed by the pathos.
But in the end, the Hugo nominees are no more and no less than a prestigious crowdsourced recommendation list. Which means that if your taste doesn’t gel with that of the Hugos crowd, you shouldn’t get bent out of shape about it, but also you shouldn’t take it as gospel. CT readers are a different crowd than Worldcon attendees/supporters, and I imagine would generate a different list. If people want to namecheck the books they liked in comments, I’ll undertake to write a follow up post next week that tries to pull these recommendations together in a more useful form. I’ve already listed some of my favorites here but take that as a conversation starter, not ender.
Send me your syllabi for this:
The two white guys are obviously enormous secret service agents – easily 7 feet tall – and the two white women (just wait until the right wing blogs find out about this!) are pretty big, too.
March 29, 2013
Registration for the RSA Summer Institute has been progressing at a brisk pace. We have nearly 250 participants registered! However, we still have many people who were accepted to seminars and/or workshops and have not yet registered. If you were accepted to a seminar and/or workshop, and you have not registered yet, NOW is the time to do so. The Registration deadline is midnight on Monday, April 1! (no fooling)
One might wonder whether the time, effort and money spent in these areas might better be used in other wings of the organization.
Facilitating a Collegial Department in Higher Education: Strategies for Success by Robert E. Cipriano
Publicly and formally recognize each deserving person. A faculty member should be recognized when he or she performs in an outstanding way. The chair should take the lead in making sure that the person’s achievement does not go unrecognized or unnoticed. The chair can organize a breakfast or lunch to honor this person’s success. He can make an announcement at a department or schoolwide meeting. The important thing is to recognize this person and her achievement in a public forum.
There is much to admire in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of our current situation (capitalism, and the injustices thereof), the aporias of old-style radicalism (standard issue Marxism-Leninism – maybe not so useful in explaining the early 21st century), and various small-bore examples of what a better world might be that could perhaps be expanded into something bigger. The examples of little quasi-utopias that Wright discusses are familiar ones – but in the case of popular budgeting in Porto Allegre, Wright can hardly be blamed, since his work with Archon Fung did a lot to highlight this case for English-speakers such as myself. And, of course, I’m biased. I start from a position that is in strong sympathy with Wright – I’ve been influenced both by his work, and the work of people who he’s engaged with in both friendly and argumentative ways over the last couple of decades (the various tendencies within the Politics and Society crowd). If I aspire to a political tradition, it’s Wright’s tradition of an interest in radical change, combined with a strong respect for empirically guided analysis.
Of course, I have critical things to say, or it wouldn’t be worth my writing this or people reading it. The book’s explicit intention is to provide a kind of socialist compass. As Wright makes clear, we don’t have any grand master plans which would allow us to see the road ahead. We know that one such plan – the one of the people who built the USSR and its cognates and satellites – worked horribly badly. So Wright’s implicit recommendation is that we build a better society through careful exploration, guided by a general set of principles rather than a strong belief that we know the answers already. I think Diane Coyle is wrong when she sees this as an effective accommodationism – the injection of homeopathic doses of socialism into a fundamentally capitalist system. Instead, it’s a process of careful, iterated search. In Wright’s words (p.108)
Alas there is no map, and no existing social theory is sufficiently powerful to even begin to construct such a comprehensive representation of possible social destinations … Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, perhaps the best we can do is to think of the project of emancipatory social change as a voyage of exploration. We leave the well-known world with a compass that shows us the direction we want to go, and an odometer which tells us how far from the point of departure we have traveled, but without a map which lays out the entire route from the point of departure to the final destination.
This final destination will likely still involve some markets (Wright is politely skeptical about non-market utopias), but it will still, plausibly, be radically different from what we have at the moment. We don’t know what it will look like, so the best we can do at the moment is to look to what hopeful monsters there are, to broaden our sense of the possibility conditions, and to guide our search in useful directions. These examples may not scale in a capitalist environment (contrary to what Coyle says, Wright does discuss some reasons why this might be so), but they give us some intimations both that a better world is possible, and of where we might find it.
The problem, as I see it, is that these two desiderata are likely to cut against each other. If Wright wants to use Porto Allegre, Wikipedia, Mondragon (is he familiar with Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312, with its solar-system spanning Mondragon Collective I wonder?) and the rest to draw us towards the utopian project, he is likely to present them in one light. Specifically, he is likely to stress how they can, in their small way, be inspirations, treating them as utopias-in-miniature, acknowledging that they are flawed, but arguing that despite their flaws, they approximate an ideal well enough that we ought take hope from them. If he wants to use them in order to orient our compass, he should treat them in a different and more social scientific way, looking at them less as inspirations than experiments, where we can learn both from their strengths and their weaknesses. It’s extremely hard to do both at once. Too much idealization and it’s hard to think clearly about their flaws. Too much stress on their problems and it’s hard to feel inspired.
The book leans more heavily towards the idealization, and is skimpier on the flaws than I would like. Take Wikipedia: the one micro-quasi-utopia that I know something about. Wright argues that Wikipedia is a lovely example of how collective goods can be produced on a massive scale in reality. He acknowledges that it has informational flaws and weak spots, but seems highly impressed with its governance system (although he mentions in a footnote that his co-author got some flak from people at a technology conference for being too idealistic about its election system). He finds that
Taken together these four characteristics of Wikipedia – non-market relations, egalitarian participation, deliberative interactions among contributors, democratic governance and adjudication – conform closely to the normative ideals of radical democratic egalitarianism. …. Whatever else may be the case, Wikipedia shows that productive non-market egalitarian collaboration on a very wide scale is possible.
Much of this rings true to me – Wikipedia, whatever else it is, is an example of non-market collaboration on an enormous scale. That it works as well as it does is extraordinary. The question that I have though is whether it is truly egalitarian.
One possible refutation of this argument comes from Wales himself, who has argued that Wikipedia is actually largely written by a much smaller cadre of true volunteers than the raw numbers would suggest. And indeed, quantitative analyses have suggested that the distribution of Wikipedia contributors is skewed, so that a relatively small number of people do most of the edits. This might feed into arguments like Matt Hindman’s suggestion that in many aspects of the WWW, skewed distributions prevail, in which those who have most influence tend to be those with the characteristics of traditional social elites. A refutation to that refutation however comes from our much-missed friend, Aaron Swartz who finds that while a tiny fraction of users are indeed responsible for the vast preponderance of edits, most of these edits are housekeeping tasks, aimed at ensuring standardization and the like. The bulk of the actual material is indeed provided (or was, when Aaron did his research) by a large number of people.
But there are other, more troubling points. First and most obviously, there is strong evidence of gender imbalance in Wikipedia editing. Lam et al. (PDF) note evidence from a Wikimedia Foundation study that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women – the target is to raise female participation to 25% by 2015. They find that the average female editor is responsible for substantially fewer edits than the average male editor, and that women are less likely to be retained as editors than men. This may in part be because women editors are more likely to have their early edits reverted, prompting them to leave Wikipedia, than men. Coverage of topics of interest to women is worse than coverage of topics of interest to men. All this leads the authors to suggest that Wikipedia has “a culture that may be resistant to female participation.”
Second, the actual processes of Wikipedia editing are not always particularly egalitarian. There are aspects which are attractive, such as the use of ‘barnstars’ [PDF] to provide positive social feedback for particularly active volunteer editors. But there are less normatively soothing aspects too. Wikipedia `policies’ such as Neutral Point of View are more often used as bludgeons [PDF] in heated argument than as means to forge genuine consensus. Sometimes, consensus is never reached And what consensus there is very often reflects a battle between in groups and out groups in which the views of a dominant coalition batters others into submission. Articles on controversial topics hence become polarized between a group of “individuals who have, for the time being, claimed legitimate authority over the article and are able to enforce their own changes and those whose changes are likely to be rejected.” This is, bluntly, a new form of inegalitarianism, in which those who have more spare time and social cohesion are able to fend off changes proposed by those with less time and fewer allies.
This does not undermine Wright’s basic point – that utopians should learn from practical examples such as Wikipedia and use them to plot their course. However, it does perhaps suggest that a different kind of search is attractive. Rather than looking for cases such as Wikipedia as examples of what utopia might look like, one should treat them as cases from which we might learn both positive and negative lessons, about what works, and what does not.
One very interesting example of how this might be done can be found in the work of the late Lin and Vincent Ostrom. Indeed, I was a bit surprised not to see the Ostroms getting mentioned, as their ideas have some overlap with Wright’s, even if it is hard to situate them on the usual maps of left and right. As I understand their life project, it had two major components. One was a normative account of the benefits of ‘polycentric governance systems,’ a set of arguments which have much in common with Wright’s ‘recombinant decentralization.’ The second was a vast empirical project aimed at figuring out which local governance systems worked in managing resources and which did not, gathering data from thousands of cases. The two complemented each other directly, as Ostrom’s Nobel lecture suggests.
As Cosma Shalizi and I have argued, one might do something similar (for collective information processing of the kind that radical democrats are interested in rather than resource management) by taking advantage of the many, many cases provided by the Internet. The advantage of the Internet, here, is not that Internet based forms of collective cognition and decision making are inherently superior to more traditional forms (we have no necessary reason to think that they are). It’s that they can be studied in different ways – people’s conversations and arguments leave traces in the data that can then (with care) be used to understand what works and what does not. Here, Wikipedia and other such systems are less examples to be emulated, than cases to be carefully decomposed, so that one can figure out (some) of what makes them work, (some) of what makes them dysfunctional, and then use these positive and negative lessons to make a better and more grounded empirical case for specific radical democratic proposals. New forms of data analysis mean that one can do this, albeit quite imperfectly, at a very large scale.
This seems to me to offer a concrete way to begin to explore the possibility space for radical democracy. To be clear, it carries costs. It is a pragmatic program rather than an inspirational one. To quote from the concluding response of our last seminar:
It’s a lot easier to build a radical movement on a story of transformation, on the idea of the plan that makes another world possible, than it is on a story of finding out the partial good and building upon it. The legitimacy of the Soviet experiment, and of the ecosystem of less barbarous ideas that turned out to tacitly depend upon it, lay in the perception of a big, bright, adjacent, obtainable, obvious, morally-compelling other way of doing things. Will people march if society inscribes upon its banners, ‘Watch out for the convexity constraints’? Will we gather in crowds if a speaker offers us all the utopia that isn’t NP-complete?
Watching out for the convexity constraints isn’t the basis for a mass movement. But then, Wright isn’t providing the lessons for how to build such a movement. Instead, he’s interested in figuring out how to search an uncertain terrain for better solutions. This would at the least be one way to do this.
Not that we need another one. The old ones still work fine. But it seems to me there is one that hasn’t been offered, and isn’t half bad.
Defenders of ‘traditional marriage’ insist 1) that their position is, well … traditional; wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of Western Civilization, etc. etc.; 2) they are not bigots. They are tolerant of homosexuality, and the rights of homosexuals, etc. etc. Maybe they watch the occasional episode of “Will and Grace”, in syndication (even if they didn’t watch it back when it started.) They are careful to distance themselves from those Westboro Baptist Church lunatics, for example.
It’s gotten to the point where one of the main, mainstream arguments against same-sex marriage is that legalizing it would amount to implying that those opposing it are bigots. Since they are not just bigots (see above), anything that would make them seem like bigots must be wrong. Ergo, approving same-sex marriage would be a mistake. Certainly striking down opposition to it as ‘lacking a rational basis’ would be a gross moral insult to non-bigoted opponents of same-same marriage.
This ‘anything that implies we are bigots must be wrong’ argument has problems. But that’s old news. Here’s the new argument. Grant, for argument’s sake, that contemporary arguments against same-sex marriage have been scrubbed free of bigotry. Doesn’t it follow that these arguments must not be traditional but, somehow, quite new?
All the old arguments were steeped in bigotry, after all. We can hardly maintain that anti-homosexual attitudes 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 1000 years ago, were always already scrubbed free of bigotry to the high standards of “Will and Grace”. It’s hard to see how any argument against same-sex marriage that is genuinely traditional will not be a bigoted one, since it’s hard to believe it could be utterly disconnected from our traditions.
Defenders of traditional marriage make the point that it is absurd that adults are standing around arguing about whether there can be any rational basis whatsoever for attitudes that hardly any rational person doubted were rational even a quarter century ago. Surely we have to give tradition a bit more credit than that. But, for what it’s worth, the ‘traditional marriage’ position fares no better by this standard. Why bother denouncing this thing to do with homosexuality as a legally intolerable perversion while bending over backwards not to denounce homosexuality itself in the same terms? Where’s the sense in that? It wouldn’t have seemed sensible to many even 50 years ago.
This isn’t a legal argument but it bears on the ‘rational basis’ test. Any actually traditional argument must be judged today to be facially motivated by animus to a legally impermissible degree. So the question is: what non-traditional argument for traditional marriage do the traditional marriage folks have? What new way of thinking about marriage and homosexuality, which obviously never crossed the minds of any of our ancestors, makes sense of this untraditional mix of tolerance and intolerance that is the hallmark of the ‘traditional marriage’ position today?
I quite appreciate that this is overkill. But I think the argument shows something interesting about arguments from ‘tradition’ generally.
Tomorrow, as a belated contribution to the Real Utopias seminar, I’ll be posting a piece which talks about manipulation of the Wikipedia process. As soon as I’d finished writing, I turned to Twitter, to read this interesting story by Benjamin Mako Hill about his experiences with the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (an organization that I only know of because they relentlessly spam me with unsolicited emails about tedious-sounding events – apparently it is effectively impossible to get off their mailing list). In any event, it appears that some mysterious individual called icd_berlin created a Wikipedia page on the Berlin based Institute, which was then built up by a series of anonymous contributors with Berlin IP addresses. Critical comments about their intern policy were removed (again by an individual with a Berlin IP address). And then things get worse …As Wikipedia editor, I was worried that Wikipedia’s policies on conflict of interest, advertising, neutrality, and notability were not being served by the article in its state. But as someone with no real experience or knowledge of the ICD, I wasn’t sure what to do. I posted a request for help on Wikipedia asking for others to get involved and offer their opinions. It turns out, there were several editors who had tried to improve the article in the past and had been met by pro-ICD editors reverting their changes. Eventually, those editors lost patience or simply moved on to other topics. … By raising the issue again, I kicked off a round of discussion about the article. At the termination of that discussion, the article was proposed for deletion under Wikipedia’s Articles for Deletion policy. A new Wikipedia editor began working enthusiastically to keep the article by adding links and by arguing that the article should stay. The new user edited the Wikipedia article about me to accuse me of slander and defamation although they removed that claim after I tried to explain that I was only trying to help.
On February 25, the Wikipedia article on ICD was recreated — once again out of process and by a user with almost no previous edit history. The next day, I received an email from Mark Donfried. In the message, Donfried said:
Please note that the ICD is completely in favor of fostering open dialogue and discussions, even critical ones, however some of your activities are raising serious questions about the motives behind your actions and some even seem to be motives of sabotage, since they resulted in ICD not having any Wikipedia page at all. We are deeply concerned regarding these actions of yours, which are causing us considerable damages. As the person who initiated these actions with Wikipedia and member of the board of Wikipedia , we would therefore request your answer regarding our questions below within the next 10 days (by March 6th). If we do not receive your response we will unfortunately have to consider taking further legal actions with these regards against you and other anonymous editors.… although I did not participate in the discussion, Donfried emailed again with more threats of legal action hours after the ICD article was deleted … Donfried’s threat has scared me off from attempts to improve the ICD articles. I suspect I will not edit ICD pages in Wikipedia in the future. The saddest part for me is that I recognize that what is in effect bullying is working. There are currently Wikipedia articles about the ICD in many languages. For several years, ICD has had an article on English Wikipedia. For almost all of that period, that article has consisted entirely of universally positive text, without criticism, and has been written almost entirely by anonymous editors who have only contributed to articles related to the ICD.
There are a lot of Wikipedia articles out there that seem determined to present positive viewpoints on people or organizations who might be viewed from a variety of alternative perspectives … for example, the article on Jacques Attali seems to me to have what one might describe as a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. I’d be quite interested to know who in fact has written and edited it, as with others of its genre.
The final post in our seminar on Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias is by Marc Fleurbaey, with the collaboration of his seminar students Inka Busack, Joaquin Garcia, Jacob Girard, Kathryn Long, Anthony Sibley, Jiemin Wei.
There are many details of the book which could be commented upon and praised or criticized, but this short text will focus on three questions which appear central in the Real Utopias project.
A final version of the response is now available here
As usual, the 4Cs was one of the highlights of my academic year. Brilliant panels, thoughtful conversations in smoke-filled hallways—each brilliant idea punctuated with the chime of slot machines celebrating the interest paid on a five-cent wager. What struck me this year, though, were the myriad of discussions concerning MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and LMS (Learning Management Systems). Panel after panel seemed to touch on these issues in some way and the conversation continues on many of our professional listservs and discussion boards.
One of the examples of real utopia put forward by Wright is the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). In its simplest, and arguably most utopian form, the idea is that every member of the community would receive a payment sufficient to sustain a decent standard of living. Implementing a UBI in this fashion would pose a huge, arguably insuperable, financing challenge in the context of a market economy. The same isn’t obviously true of a closely related idea, a guaranteed minimum income (GMI)
A simple calculation using Australian data illustrates the point. A person over 65 with limited income and assets, and who does not own a home, is entitled to a pension of a little over $20 000 a year, including rent assistance ($A currently trades near parity with $US, but purchasing power is about $US0.80). This amount has been set to provide a minimum standard of living above the poverty line. (Other lower benefits, such as those paid to unemployed workers are assumed, not always accurately, to be temporary, and are admittedly inadequate for a decent standard of living on a long-term basis).
If everyone in Australia received this payment on an unconditional basis, the cost would be nearly $500 billion a year, or close to 40 cent of national income. There would be a limited offset from the replacement of existing benefits (amounting to around 10 per cent of national income in Australia). Given the need for public spending on health, education, defence, public infrastructure and so on, this would require governments to spend at least 60 per cent of national income, more than the Scandinavian social democracies at their peak.
So, there’s no doubt that such a policy would represent a substantial transformation, sufficient to justify the ‘utopian’ label. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to ask whether it can be made ‘real’, in the sense that there is some plausible path by which we might reach this position from our present starting point.
The obvious route would be to start with a small payment and increase it gradually to an adequate level. But if the payment was less than the value of the benefits it would eventually replace, it would make no difference to most people, while still requiring higher tax rates. It’s hard to see how to mobilize support for such a policy, and easy to see how it would attract opposition.
Now think about a closely related alternative, a guaranteed minimum income. This could be achieved by raising existing income support benefits to the target level, then making access to the basic income unconditional for those with no other source of income. I calculate here that this could be done for around 6 per cent of national income.
The guaranteed minimum income obviously lends itself to an incremental approach, based on gradual increases in rates and relaxation of conditions. To quote myself:We can imagine a few steps towards this goal. One would be to allow recipients of the minimum income to choose voluntary work as an alternative to job search. In many countries, a lot of the required structures are in placed under ‘workfare’ or ‘work for the dole’ schemes. All that would be needed is to replace the punitive and coercive aspects of these schemes with positive inducements. A further step would be to allow a focus on cultural or sporting endeavours, whether or not those endeavours involve achieving the levels of performance that currently attract (sometimes lavish) public and market support.
An Australian example might help to illustrate the point. Under our current economic structures, someone who makes and sells surfboards can earn a good income, as can someone good enough to join the professional surfing circuit. But a person who just wants to surf is condemned, rightly enough under our current social relations, as a parasitic drain on society. With less need for anyone to work long hours at unpleasant jobs, we might be more willing to support surfers in return for non-market contributions to society such as membership of a surf life-saving club. Ultimately, people would be free to choose how best to contribute ‘according to their abilities’ and receive from society enough to meet at least their basic needs.
Compared to a universal basic income, then, a guaranteed minimum income seems a lot more feasible. On the other hand, while a guaranteed minimum income would certainly represent a radical challenge to social values, it certainly seems a less utopian. It’s easy to imagine a capitalist system similar to the one we have today, or at least to the one that prevailed during the postwar ‘social democratic moment’ coexisting with a guaranteed minimum income – much less so with a universal basic income.
At least, that’s the way it seems to me. It’s worth observing though, that, in a certain sense, the two are theoretically equivalent. Think about a universal basic income, financed by a 40 per cent tax on market income. For people whose market income is more than the universal basic income, it would make administrative sense to use the some or all of basic income as an offset against the tax liability, so that the tax system would become, in effect, a flat tax with a threshold equal to the basic income. On the other hand, an income-contingent guaranteed minimum income could be implemented with a combination of a clawback rate and a marginal tax rate equal to 40 per cent over the relevant range, and a 40 per cent marginal tax rate on incomes above that level. I don’t think, however, that this equivalence would hold precisely in reality.
I’m going over this somewhat esoteric dispute because I think it raises some crucial questions regarding how we should think about utopian ideals. In particular, can utopia be realised within the context of a market economy, with significant private ownership of capital? If so, we can imagine a path of radical but incremental reform, starting by regaining some of the ground lost to global financial capital over the last few decades, and then revitalising the social democratic project that seemed, in the 1960s, to be on the verge of victory.
Such a program is well outside the bounds of current political reality, but political reality can change fast. In particular, the change in US political debate over the last couple of years has been striking. The facts about growing inequality and declining social mobility have finally been admitted, and the elite consensus on the need for drastic cutbacks in ‘entitlements’ has been shattered. The Occupy movement made a big contribution to this movement. In a negative way, so did the Tea Party, which emphasised the extent to which the Republican party base is disconnected from reality. In Europe and the UK, the failure of austerity policies is becoming clear to the general public, and opens the way for a radical challenge to grow out of current defensive struggles.
Leaving aside the political obstacles, we must confront the question of whether such a program is economically feasible in an economy where most production of goods and services is undertaken for the market. In such an economy, capital and profit would have to play an important role, but would nevertheless be subject to social control, through the state and through expanded ownership of capital by workers (as, for example, in the Swedish Meidner plan).
The crisis of the 1970s, and the subsequent resurgence of financial capital and market liberal ideology raises some important questions. My response, argued in more detail Zombie Economics, the crisis of the 1970s was the result of over-reach and excessive wishful thinking, rather than fundamental defects in the Keynesian social-democratic analysis and program. But that’s a minority view.
If, on the other hand, the only feasible utopias are those involving a complete end to capitalism, then the path must involve changes that make capitalism untenable. In this context, the impossibility, or great difficulty, of organizing a universal basic income within our current economic appears as a positive merit.
To sum up even more simply, there’s an inherent tension between the ‘real’ and the ‘utopian’ in Wright’s title. Any idea that appears capable of being realised can be criticised as falling short of the ideals that would justify the term ‘utopian’, and vice versa.
That doesn’t mean that this discussion is pointless. Even the prosaic goal of regaining the ground lost over the last three or four decades is far outside the range of ideas considered realistic within the frame of standard political debate. If we are ever to motivate large numbers of people to demand something more than an alternation between ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’ versions of capital managerialism, we need a utopian vision, and maybe more than one.
Ken Loach, Kate Hudson and Gilbert Achcar are calling for a new party to the left of Labour in the UK.
Labour is not alone in its shift rightwards and its embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Its sister parties across Europe have taken the same path over the past two decades. Yet elsewhere in Europe, new parties and coalitions – such as Syriza in Greece or Die Linke in Germany – have begun to fill the left space, offering an alternative political, social and economic vision. The anomaly which leaves Britain without a left political alternative – one defending the welfare state, investing for jobs, homes and education, transforming our economy – has to end.
Well there’s lots to agree with in their statement: we need to resist austerity, and Labour isn’t going to do that effectively. The Labour leadership’s current strategy seems to be a combination of keeping quiet, appearing “responsible” by not seriously challenging the austerity narrative, and pandering to the right on immigration. Last week’s shameful abstention on workfare was the latest manifestation of Miliband’s pusillanimity.
But there’s a lot missing too. Loach et al focus on domestic bread-and-butter issues and don’t seem to have anything to say about Europe, let alone the wider world. And there’s nothing at all on climate and the environment, a silence that is all too common on the left, as Bill Barnes’s contribution to the Real Utopias symposium underlines.
There’s also the key fact about British politics which means that talk of a British left “anomaly” compared to Syriza and Die Linke misses the mark. The UK just had a referendum on the alternative vote, and that referendum was lost. With first-past-the-post and no prospect of electoral reform, voters will reliably back the party that promises to end the ConDem coalition. That party is Labour, however hopeless it has been in the past and however useless it will be in the future. I can’t see a way round this, and that leaves me deeply pessimistic. I wish Loach et al success, but I can’t see it happening.
In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally. By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…
• • • • •
It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.
Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?
Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan—even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words—words, mind you, not deeds—of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?
Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday’s activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.
Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences—some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States—theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than to install a “summum bonum” (highest good). Reversing Augustine’s dictum that there is no such thing as evil—evil being only the absence of good—today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.
Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush’s empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.
Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today’s liberals are inspired by fear. This “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today’s liberal believes in fear as an idea—that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism “rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”
Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a “sleeping terror” of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like “the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey.” The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.
Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. “What liberalism requires,” according to Shklar, “is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights—which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles—but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.
Today’s liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. “Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal,” Shklar wrote, “moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument.” Once liberals realize that they are “more afraid of being cruel”—and of others being cruel—”than of anything else,” Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.
How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don’t just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who’ve spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?
The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill’s adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:
When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.
The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties—an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were “a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”
Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France’s Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on… Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: “No one loves armed missionaries.”
Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks—and their fellow fliers on the left—have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:
On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration…. here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…. On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.
More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation’s Spanish Civil War. Berman’s own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain’s civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender’s words, “a very personal involvement.” But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain’s foreign fighters “knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about.” Yet all Berman can do is talk… and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.
But the real reason Berman’s analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday’s progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war—”if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed” for “the peoples of color” at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, “the war for democracy will not be won” abroad—Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.
Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad—or New York—is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil—and the fear it arouses—the basis of all politics.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the “contempt” that broken revolutionaries “acquire for the very convictions and passions” that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels “turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish—their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.”
Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom—that other sometime watchword of the left—is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the “androidal” complexion of sixties sectarians, with their “short haircuts” and “flabby muscles,” their “flat tones” of Marxism so “oddly remote from American English.” Others wince at the left’s lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.
Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. “Fear,” he wrote, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty.” And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria—and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.
So has it been with today’s liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism’s conquering thrusts abroad—and assaults on the left at home—that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left’s failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision’s periodic appearance at moments like ours—one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s—it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.
If Oscar Wilde is right—that you can’t reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into—it’s not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats’ defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won’t cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?
For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea—too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.
No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights and sexual freedom—each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.
Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America’s greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism’s promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism’s earliest armies marched against the personal—and physically coercive—rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea—of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us—is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.
Even America’s most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It “prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop.” Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that “it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet,” that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as “the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs,” which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have “safe housing…healthy diets, doctors, fresh air…well-stocked libraries open all week”—Sweden itself.
There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites’ resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe—just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march—and heads would have to roll—to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.
Liberalism’s radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America’s old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism’s only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.
Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for “the cause of all mankind.” Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy—and wild implausibility—of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what’s a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?
Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America’s most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. “Go where you may,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, “search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but “part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”
America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.
Liberalism’s past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it—not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it’s because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could—successfully, we now know—to destroy them.
It’s true that there are democratic movements today—in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia—that deserve and receive progressives’ support. But there’s always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and—until something fundamental changes in the United States—tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.
So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks—who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on—it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.
I can’t say that Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias provided me with any particular, brilliant insight, and I suppose someone better read in social theory or analytical Marxism than I might have found parts of the book belabored. Even I would agree that it was often repetitious, though I think I think Russell Jacoby was simply talking nonsense when he called the book a
Full piece is here
I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences. That Wright did not recognize this in the course of his five years of work on, and world-wide presentation and discussion of, the book’s arguments, mid 2004 to mid 2009 (pp. xi-xv– “I felt that I was part of a global conversation on the dilemmas of our time,” xv) – that in all those presentations and discussions no one ever raised the climate change/environmental degradation issues with sufficient force as to leave a footprint in the 2010 text – despite the scientific evidence and argument that was accumulating during those same years – that is very telling – a sign of our historic failure in meeting our responsibilities as intellectuals – one mark of the current world-historical failure of the social and policy sciences in general, of intellectuals at large, and of the modern state.
The essential question to be asked of any proposed “real utopia” is not the definitional, “is it reasonably possible that human beings, as we have known them in this world, could someday put such social arrangements into sustained practice in a way that is generally true to the ideals invoked, and that does not in practice betray other values of acknowledged importance?” Realistically, the essential question is, can you get there from here, given where we are now, given the history that’s already happened and its material consequences? By this, I do not mean to raise merely issues of “pragmatism” or “political realism,” or “path dependancy.” But rather the question of whether any such line of possibility (which in the past may have qualified as a real utopia) may have been definitively cut off for all of imaginable human history, because in real time we have blindly destroyed indispensable, unreconstructable, irreplaceable bridges, opportunities, way-stations, building materials? In other words, the question of the “realness” of a proposed “real utopia” must be historicized – and not just in the sense of the usual theories of “path dependency.”
For us humans of the early 21st century, the question has teeth, big teeth. At this point in our history, there is only one really real Utopia left to us: the creation of forms of political economy, and a world order, that can cope with and stabilize, in an at least minimally just and humanitarian way (de facto Social Darwinist solutions don’t qualify), the climate-changed, environmentally-degraded, resource-depleted world that is bearing down upon us. Holding open the possible realization of grander utopian visions, in some distant future, rests on achieving substantial success on this front over the course of this century. And such success is very much in question – in fact, as things stand in early 2013, a long shot.
The limits we face now are limits set not only [as Wright argues] by our current (but changeable) beliefs about humans, social life, and the physical world, but also set, in part, independently, by unchangeable facts and laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and by the unchangeable facts of the historical record to date. Future humans may eventually be able to hedge or work around the second law of thermodynamics to some degree, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll ever be able to repeal it. And no matter what we believe, we can’t erase from our history the 200 years of massive deforestation of the planet, or the 150 years of intensive carbon-loading of the atmosphere, or the population explosion of the 20th century, or what 20th century industrial agriculture and the chemical industry have done to the planet’s fresh water supply, or the massive species-die-off of current times, or the place to which such historical realities, in interaction with the laws of science, have brought us as of 2013. (Unless, of course, we are economists of a certain ilk, in which case we can simply say, “assume a time machine.”) [Insert Toles cartoon.] Please note, I am not insisting that various imagined techo-miracles, in some sense “reversing” and remediating some consequences of our past history, are pure pipedream, forever. But even if someday it becomes possible to scrub the atmosphere of carbon and the aquifers and oceans of toxins, etc, the history between now and then will have been hell, taken a horrendous (in many ways fatal) toll, and will leave massive scar tissue. Personally, I find it hard to take comfort in the idea that, with luck, millennia from now it will all be water under the bridge.
One bottom line: The viable maturation and authentic living-up-to-avowed-ideals of “middle-class democratic capitalism,” and/or the radical transcendence of “capitalism” and realization of a viable and authentic “democratic socialism,” might each have been hundred-year “real utopias” (at least for half the planet) circa 1945-1965. But neither is any longer – given what humanity did, and failed to do, over the second half of the 20th century (coming on top of the unappreciated reality of what we’d done over the preceding 150 years). If those projects are ever to regain the status of real utopias, it will be only after, and thanks to, the realization of the only utopia that is really “real” for us at this point in our history.
We need something close to 100 years of sustained non-economistic, producerist Green Social Democracy – starting no more than 20 years from now. In Wright’s terms, what I’m arguing for is a symbiotic, class-compromise strategy that seeks to expand and defend the space for interstitial tactics, while fighting for a radical break with high-modernist and neo-fascist tendencies within “capitalism.” But where that gets us, if we’re lucky, is not any fully egalitarian, just or emancipatory political economy, rather, it gets us through hell, and back to a world of options akin to 1945, with our basic humanity in tact and a lot of hard lessons learned.
That’s a reasonably realistic utopia.
For a full-length version, click here.
By page 3 of Envisioning Real Utopias I was already disappointed. The Introduction starts with some examples of real utopias – they are participatory city budgets (ok, promising – new to me); Wikipedia (never, ever trust it on living people, or anything controversial); and Mondragon (always Mondragon – is this really still the best example of co-operative production? It was always cited when I was a student in the late 1970s).
So are there better examples of ‘real utopias’, or rather idealism put into practice? Yes. From the anti-globalisation movement, Slow Food and Fair Trade. A bit of a revival of local currency schemes, the Bristol pound being one of the most recent and biggest. The campaign for a Living Wage, backed by anti-poverty bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
However, none of these examples – nor Mondragon either – will bring about system-change of the kind the book seems to be after. It’s a bizarrely abstract, theoretical read given the subject is supposed to be ‘real’ utopias, but the theory is clearly anti-capitalist. Wright lists 11 things that are bad about capitalism. These boil down to three headings: that capitalism causes poverty and inequality; that there are market failures, including environmental externalities; that capitalism ignores non-monetary values.
The empiricist in me says that it’s all a matter of degree or context. Capitalism has also caused huge increases in prosperity, and declining inequality, at various stages of its history. Of course markets sometimes fail, but state or collective interventions fail in the same situations and for the same reasons – information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, pure externalities and so on. 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?
An interesting reflection on real utopias would look at why practical idealism is hard to scale up or replicate, and why candidate examples seem to find it hard to survive in the market economy. There are relatively few economic mutuals, and those that exist are rather similar to their non-mutual competitors, albeit far better as employers. Perhaps it’s because a real utopia depends on personal relationships and individual trust, whereas the point about a market is actually anonymity – the identity of the seller or buyer does not matter. Perhaps the difficulty is linked to the character of the times. Mutuals were born out of the social problems and dislocations of Victorian times, so today’s austerity economy might help account for a bit of a revival in idealistic local currency or food-growing schemes. The ‘actually existing’ capitalism we have is clearly in need of system-wide change, and bringing about change requires pinpointing the barriers to social innovation and political reform at scale.
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.
I've only attended RNF twice. For Comm rhetors, RNF is an annual day where young scholars submit works in progress for feedback by a roundtable of other young scholars and one senior scholar per table. (Additionally, there is a display of editor's tables at the lunch hour where you can talk about whether an idea you have might be well-pitched for a journal.)
It's a great setup, which is why it has been "borrowed" by RSA, among other conferences.