Erik Olin Wright on Real Utopias – Part 2

Picking up from where he left off in the first part of the interview, Erik Olin Wright, in this second part, focuses more on social transformations per se. More specifically, he distinguishes between three types of social transformations:

  • Ruptural transformations – “smash the capitalist state” – are radical departures through political confrontation such as revolutionary changes.
  • Interstitial transformations – “ignore the capitalist state” – refer to the finding of niches and cracks in the system where one can produce gradual and small-scale change (think community gardens or urban / roof agriculture, coops). There can be an anarchic element to this.
  • Symbiotic transformations – “use the capitalist state” – involve entering existing institutions to try to expand the domain of social empowerment and justice. This is the more social-democratic model.

Here again, these are ideal-types. One can find hybrid forms, especially mixes of interstitial and symbiotic transformations.

What are the potential obstacles to social transformations? Wright identifies three specific problems:

  • Time horizons, especially the time horizon of political engagement, the time horizon of scientific discoveries affecting our way of life (think dealing with the coming energy crisis and global climate change) and the time horizon for social change. These are three different time horizons that may conflict with each other, the first one being rather short-term (one’s lifetime), the second one middle-term and the third one long-term.
  • Fractured solidarities (and I would add, especially as incarnated in individualization, as conceptualized by Beck and Bauman), that is, the fragmentation of social classes along identity lines which contribute to divisions and competition, if not downright hostility.
  • Dealing with a hegemonic system: the global capitalist system is a hegemonic system, sustained by political and ideological forces. It is individually internalized and thoroughly embedded in our daily lives.

As a result of these three issues, which transformations have the most potential for success? Because of the hegemonic nature of the capitalist system, for Wright, ruptural transformations are pretty much out of the question (see how radical change in financial and health care institutions was instantly ruled out by the elites even though the critical context made such change politically possible, no, necessary). So, social transformations have a greater chance of success in their interstitial and symbiotic forms to advance social power (through some of the concrete measures mentioned in the first part of the interview).

“This means that strategies need to mainly revolve around combination of symbiotic and interstitial transformations. In these terms I think the a promising (“a” rather than “the most”) way to think about this is to see symbiotic transformations as specifically directed towards opening up more space for expanded interstitial transformations.  For example, solidarity funds are a way of reducing the geographical mobility of capital by increasing the social control over the allocation of investment funds directly to small and medium enterprises. State policy can facilitate the expansion of solidarity funds in all sorts of ways. This is symbiotic insofar as it helps revitalize local conditions of capital accumulation, but also interstitial, insofar as it allows civil society organizations to increase their role in the regulation of local and regional economies.  More generally, a wide range of public policies can be imagined which would strengthen what is broadly called the social economy or solidarity economy and create greater space for bottom-up initiatives of expanded social power.”

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