Socialism in Civil Society


by Erik Olin Wright
Verso, 2010

Near the end of the third and final volume of his masterpiece, Capital, Karl Marx raises an important issue. He writes, “The question to be answered next is: ‘What makes a class?’” Marx had much to say about social class, but he never answered his own question very clearly. The book ends a few lines later with a cryptic note from his long time collaborator, Friedrich Engels: “At this point the manuscript breaks off. —F.E.” Since then countless people have tried to clarify what Marx thought about class. One of the most productive efforts has been sustained by the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. He continues to argue persuasively that class relations constitute a fundamentally powerful force in world history.

From the perspective of “analytical Marxism,” Wright argues that the goals of socialism are both compatible with rigorous empirical sociological research and plausible. In recent writing, he has actively turned toward a more accessible, public orientation, which is best exemplified in his ambitious new book, Envisioning Real Utopias. In this project he seeks to document, in a manner intelligible to a broad audience, the main problems of capitalism and the realistic possibilities for overcoming them. The inherent tension in the phrase “real utopia” is purposeful. Wright aspires “to achieve a clear elaboration of workable institutional principles that could inform emancipatory alternatives to the existing world.”

The book is divided into three loosely related parts. The first offers a concise summary of the problems in capitalism, which have mostly been elucidated in his previous work. Capitalism perpetuates unnecessary human suffering, fosters consumerism, corrodes community, limits democracy, fuels militarism, and damages the natural environment. This part and those that follow are free of naiveté, hyperbole, and hysteria. Wright is diligently candid about tradeoffs and uncertainties.

The second part, the most interesting in my view, delineates a number of “real utopias.” It begins by clarifying the strengths and weaknesses of Marxist theory in addressing the problems of capitalism. Among the shortcomings, we find four key predictions of Marx unfulfilled. The crisis of overproduction in capitalism is not imminent. Society has not polarized into two classes. The working class appears unwilling and/or unable to advance its own interests. Revolutionary transformation has been unsuccessful in realizing socialistic ideals. Therefore, the transition from capitalism to socialism will not unfold the way Marx suggested it might. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

But there is genuine possibility for “social power” in civil society. Therein people are impelled to make certain decisions by way of persuasion (in contrast to the bribery of the market or coercion of government). Under the right circumstances people could make collective decisions via inclusive, civil processes that are beneficial to many over the long run, thereby realizing the goals of socialism. But the first step is the expansion of imagination.

In this context, Wright reviews a broad range of real utopias (which are extant noncapitalistic activities that embody morally promising ideals), as well as realistic utopias (that is, comparable activities that appear viable but have not yet been attempted). He outlines large-scale frameworks, specifically market socialism and non-market democratic economics. He conjures untried radical programs, including “Unconditional Basic Income.”

But the most interesting possibilities are particular experiments currently underway. The participatory city budgeting of Porto Alegre, Brazil, offers a concrete model of inclusive government. The Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives of the Basque region exemplify collectively profitable and mutually beneficial enterprise. Wikipedia is celebrated as an egalitarian system for generating and sharing knowledge; thousands of unpaid editors participate in democratic governance while maintaining quality comparable to the profit-oriented and hierarchical organization of Encyclopedia Britannica. At a recent conference where Wright was discussing his book, he mentioned public libraries as an inspiring and ubiquitous example of socialism. At his local library in Madison, Wisconsin, he noted, tools and instruction materials for plumbing and other home improvement work are available as well as books, videos, and the usual stuff. There is more socialism alive in the world than we might notice at first glance.

The third part of Envisioning Real Utopias is about how to realize broad transformation. Here the argument begins with the basic sociological premise that all aspects of social life must be reproduced every day. Millions of people make countless decisions, consciously and unconsciously, in ways that serve the continuity of culture. This recognition suggests that just as specific choices serve the reproduction of society, different choices could activate its reconfiguration. In the efforts to maintain a society’s way of life, there are always gaps and contradictions, Wright explains. For example, the necessary autonomy of the modern state is persistently in tension with the goals of unregulated capitalist production. Such inconsistencies could be exploited by transformative strategies.

Wright outlines three categories of such strategies. The “ruptural” approach has been attempted in several revolutions with mixed results at best. “Interstitial” strategies refer to “various kinds of processes that occur in the spaces and cracks within the dominant social structure of power.”  Organic grocery cooperatives, fair-trade networks, women’s domestic violence shelters, and civic environmental councils are common examples. The third approach is “symbiotic” transformation, epitomized by class compromise among capitalists and workers. Such arrangements can yield creative solutions to mutual problems like underconsumption or weak buy-in on the part of employees. The book’s final chapter reviews the tradeoffs of these strategies and argues that no one approach is especially promising but that some combination is eminently feasible.

As a professional sociologist who takes the ideals of socialism seriously and who aspires to live in accordance with Judeo-Christian values, reading this book was illuminating, inspiring, and troubling. I thought to myself: Has there ever been a bigger gap between what sociologists have learned through careful study and what public discourse says about the social world? And has there ever been a time when the insights of sociology were more urgently needed in coming to terms with the volatile ways we are all connected? At a moment when many of us have a harder time picturing the containment of unbridled corporate capitalism than we do the collapse of civilization as a whole, the effort to calmly conjure up other viable scenarios is a heroic act of conscience with potentially enormous practical implications.

However, there are troubling aspects of this work that represent missed opportunities. First, Wright mentions the importance of ideology in contributing to the ongoing reproduction of capitalist relations, but only in passing. Why did Americans forget the culprits behind the recession so quickly? In the wake of the BP oil spill, how has the Tea Party been able to depict our problems in terms of too much government? Why is taxation of those enjoying record profits in the context of a hemorrhaging economy a hard sell? Amid legitimate threats of terrorism, why will so few elected Republicans and Democrats talk seriously about the waste of voluntary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? These questions are all tied up with the potent use of ideology. Moreover, so is any effort to imagine a different future. How we understand the moral order of society as it is and the one we hope for is fundamental to our perception of such issues.

A second problem involves religion. Like Karl Marx before him, Wright is not interested in religion. He briefly acknowledges that church groups often facilitate social empowerment and help people deal with the big questions—and then moves on. In fairness, though, organized religion does not seem interested in Wright or Marx either. Robert Putnam and David Campbell document in American Grace that Americans across religious traditions are less concerned about social justice than are those people reporting no religion. The moral sensibilities that most distinguish Americans of faith, according to their data, revolve around conservative stances on abortion and sexuality. Putnam and Campbell do corroborate the familiar finding that religious people generally give more money away and volunteer more. People of faith care about the needy. But the expectation that a broad overhaul is in order or that the government will take active steps to help facilitate economic justice is very limited. In general, American religious practices remain cozily embedded in the dominant culture driven by capitalism.

However, this complicity is neither permanent nor inevitable, as historical traditions of liberation theology among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews remind us. Nor is it the whole story, as the persistent efforts of the Catholic Worker Movement, the American Friends Service Committee, Lutheran Services, the Emerging Church, B’Nai B’Rith, Jewish Funds for Justice, and many specific emancipatory projects across religious categories demonstrate.

Wright recently described himself as committed to the principles of the Enlightenment and the study of “facts.” He suggested that any ideological framing of the Left would be just as much a lie as the spin used by the Tea Party, were progressives to employ such tactics. This stance, which is perhaps consistent with the stance of the secular Left more broadly, is separated by a wide chasm from the views of the religious Left. Many religious progressives who feel rooted in sacred texts understand the struggle for justice to be a matter of competing narratives of what is possible in the world.

In any case, the common ground that progressives of a secular or religious bent can muster around is the pragmatic possibility of collaboration among different elements of civil society. That is, many ideals of social transformation delineated by Wright concern organized religion as well as organized labor, academia, journalists, artists, voluntary associations, and various civic groups and social movements.

Those people who care about social justice, including religious progressives, need the sober analysis of Wright’s critique of capitalism. They need to understand and bear witness to the unnecessary degradation perpetrated by corporate capitalism. They need to grasp, in both senses, the possibility of realistic solutions. Most of all, they need to be shaken from their cynicism, complacency, and narrow-mindedness.

But it occurs to me that Marxists like Erik Olin Wright might benefit from collaboration with religious progressives as well. Although Envisioning Real Utopias could be read by a broad audience, it won’t be. Certainly not by those with the most to gain. They would not recognize themselves or their stories in the pages of this book. In the meanest book review I have ever read, historian Russell Jacoby says this of Wright: “His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water. Wright is a man of the Left and undoubtedly supports with his heart, mind, and resources good causes. Yet only sociologists force-fed as graduate students will not choke on this book.”

As depressing as Jacoby’s take is, in all his self-congratulatory cleverness, he has a point. The book’s theoretical focus and academic tone will ensure a narrow audience. By ignoring religion in particular, Wright is overlooking a potentially important set of allies who could help translate his ideas into a broadly accessible narrative of hope and serve on the front lines in its pursuit. On the ground where people live and hurt, down beneath the aloof prognostication of the ivory tower and the church steeple—that is where ideas really matter.


(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


One thought on “Socialism in Civil Society

  1. I met Rabbi Lerner in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly exhibitor’s booth. I bought and read “The Left Hand of God” and have found it very helpful.