Thursday 30 July 2009

Holiday reading?

Its holiday time for many of us...or thereabouts. Before disappearing, I thought I would pass on a tip for that all-important holiday reading.

The author is Erik Olin Wright, and the book is Envisioning Real Utopias. The book itself isn't out yet, but Erik has posted the final draft of the manuscript on his webpage.

I'm going to stick my neck out on this one (what else are necks for if not to stick out once in a while): ERU is the most important work of socialist political theory in this decade - and may well be so for the decade to come.

The book is the outcome of the Real Utopias project which Erik has run at University of Wisconsin-Madison since the 1990s.

The project aimed (and aims) to elaborate and discuss practical proposals for radical reform and transformation in an egalitarian and democratic direction. The project has been one of the great intellectual successes of the left in recent years. Its a standing refutation of the view that the left no longer has anything to say that is both radical and workable, that the left has to trim its aspirations to a ever-so-slightly moderated version of neo-liberal capitalism (aka the 'Third Way').

It is also a challenge to those sections on the radical left who believe it is enough to critique existing capitalist society while offering only vague accounts of an alternative. There is a long-standing tendency on the radical left to say: 'We don't need to say now how socialism/an alternative will work - indeed, we shouldn't say how it will work because its up to 'the movement' to decide.'

Marx, in refusing to 'write recipes for the cookshops of the future', was typical in this regard. But this is to evade responsibility. There is no contradiction between careful institutional prescriptions and movement democracy. The prescriptions, carefully worked out, provide resources for the movement's reflection. Without the prescriptions, the movement's deliberation is impoverished. This diminishes the chances of actually ever changing anything in a constructive way.

Publications from the project have set out and critically discussed a range of 'real utopian' proposals including unconditional basic income, universal capital grants, new forms of participatory democracy, egalitarian education vouchers, and new kinds of pension funds to increase popular control over investment.

Wright does not merely restate some of these proposals. The book's ambition and achievement is much greater than that. In addition to reintroducing us to some of these proposals, Wright does three other important things as well.

First, whereas the previous Real Utopias volumes have, naturally enough, taken each proposal in isolation for critical scrutiny, this book offers a powerful sketch of how the various proposals might combine. In this way, we get a fuller, rounder picture of the sort of society the proposals imply.

Second, Wright connects the set of proposals back to a clear conception of the left's values.

Third, Wright provides a uniquely insightful discussion of political strategy - a welcome, unpretentious reappraisal of all those old basic questions about reform, revolution, co-operative self-help and their respective limits.

In other words, what makes this book so good is that it addresses, with considerable insight, all three questions that, as G.A. Cohen has argued, a left politics needs to address: What, institutionally, do we want? Why do we want it? How can we get it?

Nobody is likely to agree with everything that Wright says on all of these topics. What is impressive - and unusual, I think - is the way they are integrated in the one book. I am confident that anyone reading the book will come away with a deepened understanding of left politics.

On second thoughts, maybe this is not what most people want to be reading on the beach. But when you get back from the beach? Then, for my money, this is the book to read.

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