Erik Olin Wright: Real Utopias




Real Utopias as Destination, Process and Strategy


Erik Olin Wright




Real Utopia is a self-contradictory expression. The word “utopia” was first concocted by Thomas More in 1516 by combining into “u” two Greek prefixes – eu, which means good, and ou, which means no – and placing this before the Greek word for place, topos. U-topia is thus the good place that exists in nowhere. It is a fantasy of perfection. How then can it be “real”? It may be realistic to seek improvements in the world, but not perfection. Indeed, the search for perfection can undermine the practical task of making the world a better place. As the saying goes, “the best is the enemy of the good.”  There is thus an inherent tension between the real and the utopian. It is precisely this tension which the idea of a “real utopia” is meant to capture. The point is to sustain our deepest aspirations for a just and humane world that does not exist while also engaging in the practical task of building real alternatives to the world as it is. Real utopias transform the no-where of utopia into the now-here of creating emancipatory alternatives of the world as it could be in the world as it is.(1)

Real utopias can be found wherever emancipatory ideals are embodied in existing institutions, practices, and proposals.


There are many examples of actually existing institutions that embody to a greater or lesser extent emancipatory ideals. For the moment, let’s just consider two: public libraries and worker cooperatives.

Public libraries might at first glance seem like an odd example. They are, after all, a durable institution found in all capitalist societies. Nevertheless, they embody principles of access and distribution which are profoundly anticapitalist. Consider the sharp difference between the ways a person acquires access to a book in a bookstore and in a library. In a bookstore you look for the book you want on a shelf, check the price, and if you can afford it and you want it sufficiently, you go to the cashier, hand over the required amount of money and then leave with the book. In a library you go to the shelf (or more likely these days, to a terminal to see if the book is available), find your book, go to the check-out counter, show your library card, and leave with the book. If the book is already checked out, you get put on a waiting list. In a bookstore the distribution principle is “to each according to ability to pay”; in a public library the principle of distribution is “to each according to need”. What is more, in the library, if there is an imbalance between supply and demand, the amount of time one has to wait for the book increases; books in scarce supply are rationed by time, not by price. A waiting list is a profoundly egalitarian device: a day in everyone’s life is treated as morally equivalent. A well-resourced library will treat the length of the waiting list as a good signal that more copies of a particular book need to be ordered. Libraries can also become multipurpose public amenities, not simply repositories of books. Good libraries provide public space for meetings, sometimes venues for concerts and other performances, and a congenial gathering place for people. Of course, libraries can also be exclusionary zones that are made inhospitable to certain kinds of people. They can be elitist in their budget priorities and their rules. Actual libraries may thus reflect quite contradictory values. But, insofar as they embody emancipatory ideals of equality, democracy and community, libraries are a real utopia.

Worker cooperatives are a different kind of example of a real utopia. Two important emancipatory ideals are equality and democracy. As we will see in chapter 2, both of these are obstructed in capitalist firms, where power is concentrated in the hands of owners and their surrogates, and internal resources and opportunities are distributed in a grossly unequal manner. In a worker owned cooperative, all of the assets of the firms are jointly owned by the employees themselves who also govern the firm in a one-person-one-vote democratic manner. In a small cooperative this democratic governance can be organized in the form of general assemblies of all members; in larger cooperatives the workers elect boards of directors to oversee the firm. Worker cooperatives may also embody more capitalistic features: they may, for example, hire temporary workers or be inhospitable to potential members of particular ethnic or racial groups. Like libraries, they often embody contradictory values. But again, they are a real utopia to the extent that they embody anti-capitalist emancipatory ideals.


Another place we can find real utopias is the concrete activities of people living and working together. This is the real utopia of lived experiences. It is found in natural disasters where people in a community come together in mutual aid. It is found is joy of collaborative creativity in artist performances in music, theater, dance. It is found in the exhilaration of solidarity and connection experienced in social movements and struggles. The feminist cry “sisterhood is powerful” is a claim about the collective capacity to change the world, but also about the real utopian realization of the value of community in the form of sisterhood-in-struggle. Comradeship, sisterhood, brotherhood – these are powerful expressions of emancipatory struggles. They all express both the longing for a world where people feel deeply connected working together for common purposes, and the actual experience of such connection in the process of struggling for that world. When such lived experience is shared among participants in a social movement and becomes expressed in music, art, stories, and other cultural forms, we can talk about the real utopian dimension of culture.(2)


Real utopias can also be found in proposals for social change and state policies, not just in actually existing institutions and practices. This is the critical role of real utopias in long-term political strategies for social justice and human emancipation.(3)

Progressive policy proposals can be divided roughly into two categories: ameliorative reforms and emancipatory reforms. Ameliorative reforms look at the problems and injustices in the world and seek ways to make things better. Emancipatory reforms also look at the problems and injustices in the world, but then envision a world in which emancipatory values are realized and seek ways to solve existing problems by building elements of that alternative world in the present. Emancipatory reforms attempt to create real utopias.

All emancipatory reforms are ameliorative, but not all ameliorative reforms are emancipatory. Consider, for example, food stamps as a way of reducing hunger among poor people. Government provided food stamps are an improvement over a form of capitalism in which the poor are left to fend for themselves or receive charity from private philanthropic institutions. But they are not a real utopia: they are not a constitutive element of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism. In contrast unconditional basic income – a proposal we will examine in detail in chapter 3 – is a real utopian proposal. Unconditional basic income simply gives everyone, without conditions, a flow of income sufficient to cover basic needs. It provides for a modest but culturally respectable standard of living. In doing so it also solves the problem of hunger among the poor, but does so in ways that put in place a building block of an emancipatory alternative.

The idea of Real Utopias is thus a way of evaluating institutions that exist, our experiences of future possibilities in our present activities, and proposals for new initiatives to realize emancipatory alternatives. It defines a destination, a process and a strategy.


This discussion is adapted from Erik Olin Wright, “How to be an Anticapitalist for the 21st Century”, (unpublished manuscript, 2015).
(1) The quip “from no-where to now-here” comes from Owen Holland, “Utopia and the suspension of the political: an unfinished conversation between E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson”, paper presented at the 2015 annual conference of the Marx & Philosophy Society.
(2) For a discussion of the utopian moments of everyday life, and their ambiguities, see Ruth Levitas, Utopias and Method (Palgrave McMillan, 2013).
(3) For an extended analysis of real utopian proposals as a basis for strategies of transformation, see Erik Olin Wright Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).


ErikOlinWrightErik Olin Wright received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and has taught at the University of Wisconsin since then. His academic work has been centrally concerned with reconstructing the Marxist tradition of social theory and research in ways that attempt to make it more relevant to contemporary concerns and more cogent as a scientific framework of analysis. His empirical research has focused especially on the changing character of class relations in developed capitalist societies. Since 1992 he has directed the Real Utopias Project, which explores a range of proposals for new institutional designs that embody emancipatory ideals and yet are attentive to issues of pragmatic feasibility. His principle publications include The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America; Class, Crisis and the State; Classes; Reconstructing Marxism (with Elliot Sober and Andrew Levine); Interrogating Inequality; Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis; and Deepening Democracy: Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (with Archon Fung), and Real Utopias. Professor Wright was the 2012 President of the American Sociological Association (ASA).


Banner Image: Activists organized a camp in the struggle for another world (Photo: JD).

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