Real Utopias. Real Democracy.

On June 10, 2013, Democratic Perspective hosted University of Wisconsin Sociology Professor, Erik Olin Wright about his book, Envisioning Real Utopias.

Asked to define the term “utopia” Wright said, “It’s meant to be a provocative oxymoron. The Greek roots mean no and perfect – the perfect no place. I put real next to it to imply we should try to create real places in the world that have empirical traction that are viable and yet constitute a fundamental alternative to the way we do things.”

“We’re facing very grave dangers globally,” he stated. “It all seems out of control. The powers that be, themselves, don’t seem to be in control of a system that constrains the kind of lives that people want to live. Yet it just seems impossible to imagine how you can get out of this box; how you can create an alternative.”

Reminded of the problems with some of the alternative experiments of the 20th Century such as socialism, Wright countered, “The word socialism became associated with statism…the way the state controls our economic affairs rather than ordinary people democratically participating and controlling their lives.”

“I see socialism as fundamentally an extension of the idea of democracy,” he continued. “Democracy is just the simple principle that people, to the extent possible, should have meaningful participation in decisions which affect their lives… a term that kind of captures that idea is self-determination. That’s what I want for an economic order is an order of self-determination of individuals.”

“Now, I focus on the political economic side of these issues,” said Wright. “I don’t think that’s sufficient to solve all of our problems, particularly problems of race and gender, and the inequalities that are rooted in those systems of social interaction have a certain autonomy. But the harmfulness of gender inequality and racial inequality gets intensified by the way they intersect economic inequalities.”

How do we get from here to there?

“Of course, that’s the big question,” he responded. “I think it’s important to distinguish captialism from markets. Capitalism is a particular way of organizing markets. It’s a way of organizing markets in which capital, itself, is privately invested for purposes of maximizing returns. A cooperative market economy is one in which the entities that do the production are all owned by their employees; no outside investors; democratic governence within the firm.”

Wright explained, “One of the advantages of worker-owned cooperatives is that they are geographically rooted. You don’t have to worry about a worker-owned firm deciding to move its production to Mexico because they live there. That also makes it easier for those firms to be democratically accountable to the wider community…not just to their members…because they don’t have the possibility of escaping.”

“So a worker cooperative, as the central form of economic organization, creates a very different macro environment for the micro activities that individuals and firms engage in,” he added. “My feeling is what we have to do is to think about the ways in which, particularly in local and regional economies, we can create more space for cooperative forms of enterprise. Some of this involves public policy around credit markets, for example. We could have public policies that would favor geographically-rooted worker cooperatives as a form of enterprise.”

“I think the key idea is democracy,” Wright continued, “The idea of bringing democracy down to Earth in the fabric of everyday life, including in workplaces. And democracy combined with pluralism of institutions, experimentation, the many different forms this can take rather than just a one-size-fits-all vision of how you should transform the world. You can begin by building in communities, in neighborhoods and doing all sorts of things that are completely unexpected.”

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