Erik Olin Wright. Envisioning Real Utopias (London and New York: Verso, 2010).

Although this book covers much of the same ground, and does much of the same work, as autonomist and post-capitalist theories like Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth and Mason’s Postcapitalism, Olin-Wright comes from the entirely different tradition of analytical Marxism. This school approaches Marxist theory from a background of analytic philosophy and public choice theory; Wright himself is a sociologist, rather than a political economist.

This may explain why he rules out any comprehensive theory of history from the outset. Specifically, in Chapter Four, he rejects Marx’s model of a historical trajectory which views capitalism as a historic system with an end as well as a beginning, and of socialism as something which will fully emerge following the terminal crises of capitalism. As I will argue below, this amounts to discarding some extremely valuable tools for anticipating the course of post-capitalist transition.

I will say right now, just in passing, that Marx is far from the only thinker with historical theories of terminal crises and transition. Anarchist thinkers like Bakunin shared a very similar materialist conception of history with Marx. And a wide variety of thinkers including Thomas Hodgskin and J.A. Hobson have proceeded from non-Marxist theories of surplus extraction to overaccumulationist/underconsumptionist theories of terminal crisis that functionally overlap quite extensively with Marxist theories of late capitalism. Michel Bauwens’s theory of the twin crises of capitalism, threatening both the artificial abundance of natural resources and artificial scarcity of information that it depends on, are also quite convincing.

In Chapter Five, ruling out any comprehensive, universal schematic for the one ideal socialist society, Wright sketches out a few axes along which progress towards basic socialist values can be measured. The metrics all cluster around the basic values implied by the “social” in “socialism.”
He is less interested in dogmatic definitions of socialism based on formal ownership of the means of production than in squishy details like transfer rights and rights over distribution of the product. He also contrasts the concept of socialism, in the sense of “common” or “social ownership,” with both capitalist and state ownership. Social ownership can mean ownership by everyone in a given social unit — including a cooperative enterprise or a kibbutz. That doesn’t mean that state ownership can’t be a form of social ownership — but it requires a state that’s deeply democratic in character. In addition, Wright deliberately refrains from specifying the role of markets in a socialist system, explicitly leaving open the possibility that markets might be part of a system based on social power.

Socialism, as an overall system, is one in which not only are the means of production socially owned but economic decisions are determined primarily by “social power” (i.e., “power rooted in the capacity to mobilize people for cooperative, voluntary collective actions of various sorts in civil society”). A “democracy” is a political system in which the state is firmly subordinated to social power

So the degree of “socialism” is measured by three basic axes specifying the extent to which various social functions are subject to control by social power: Social empowerment over the way state power affects economic activity, over the way economic power shapes economic activity, and directly over economic activity itself.

“Social empowerment” on these three axes can be exercised through a wide variety of means and under a wide variety of models, which Wright elaborates on in detail in the following two chapters.

In defining the state, Wright rejects Weber’s “territorial monopoly of force” definition in favor of Michael Mann’s: “the organization with an administrative capacity to impose binding rules and regulations over territories.” This can include a monopoly of force as one of the means of imposing those rules, but not necessarily the most important means.

And a state according to Mann’s definition can take on an only tenuously statelike character, if the binding rules apply only to a network of self-selected bodies for whom agreement on basic rule-sets is necessary. In this regard it is compatible with a number of Saint-Simonian theories of the state’s function devolving (or “withering away”) “from government of people to the administration of things,” including Proudhon’s and Marx’s. The most relevant contemporary theory is probably that of the Partner State, originally formulated by Cosma Orsi and recently popularized by Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives. In this vision, the Partner State functions less as a traditional state than as a basic support infrastructure, utility or platform on which a society of commons-based peer production depends.

In discussing alternative transitional strategies, Wright distinguishes between views of systemic change centered on rupture and those centered on metamorposis. The latter category he divides into interstitial and symbiotic strategies. Symbiotic strategies attempt to promote pro-working class transformations through changes that also simultaneously solve crises of capitalism (sounding a lot like Gorz’s “non-reformist reforms”).

Ruptural and interstitial strategies, in particular, correspond fairly closely to (respectively) Old Left strategies based on organizational mass and insurrectional seizure of power, and contemporary horizontalist strategies based on prefigurative institutions and counter-power.

In ruptural strategies, classes organized through political parties are the central collective actors…. Interstitial strategies revolve around social movements rooted in a heterogeneous set of constituencies, interests, and identities. On one social category is privileged as the leader of the project of transformation. Different collective actors will be best positioned to engage in different kinds of interstitial strategies….

Ruptural strategies envision a political process that culminates in a frontal attack on the state. State power is essential for transcending capitalism…. Interstitial strategies in contrast operate outside the state and try as much as possible to avoid confrontations with state power. The core idea is to build counter-hegemonic institutions in society. There might be contexts in which struggles against the state could be required to create or defend these spaces, but the core of the strategy is to work outside the state.” Symbiotic strategies, finally, envision treating the state as terrain for struggle “in which the possibility exists of using the state to build social power both within the state itself and in other sites of power.

Unlike ruptural strategies which treat war as a central metaphor, interstitial ones are “more like a complex ecological system in which one kind of organism initially gains a foothold in a niche but eventually out-competes rivals for food sources and so comes to dominate the wider environment.”

Wright himself is “quite skeptical of the possibility of system-wide ruptural strategies” given the institutional situation in the early 21st century, and at one point seems to dismiss support for them as mainly the province of young, romantic activists. Nevertheless he considers them worthy of study not only to identify their shortcomings and delineate their differences with other strategies, but also because they may be more relevant under special circumstances or local conditions, and may become relevant on a large scale again as a result of unforeseen systemic changes.

At the same time, in considering circumstances where a ruptural strategy may be viable, he blurs the practical lines between ruptural and symbiotic strategies. In Western liberal democracies, he argues, a successful ruptural strategy will be likely to take a primarily parliamentary and electoral route, with broad popular support, rather than an insurrectional one. The rupture, in the sense of radical systemic transformation, may be real; but it will be accomplished through democratic seizure of the state and “deepening democracy,” rather than overthrowing the state from outside.

Wright’s “most likely scenario” for a successful ruptural strategy seems to reinforce his initial skepticism; he is pretty pessimistic for the retention of power and successful completion of socialist construction after electoral success. He concludes by suggesting that the interstitial strategy might be more realistic and promising.

Like the postcapitalists, Wright mentions the transition from feudalism to capitalism as an example of interstitial transformation. He mentions the reference to “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” in the I.W.W. Preamble and Colin Ward’s statement that “the parts are already at hand” in Anarchy in Action as examples of interstitialism as a conscious strategy. He also cites the WSF slogan “another world is possible”: “much of what they have in mind are anarchist-inflected grassroots initiatives to create worker and consumer cooperatives, fair-trade networks, cross-border labor standards campaigns, and other institutions that directly embody the alternative world they desire in the here and now.”

Wright’s main disagreement with the post-capitalists is his dismissal of materialist theories of terminal crisis behind the transition process.

Although interstitial and symbiotic strategies are conceptually distinct, and many of the advocates of each disparage the other, Wright considers them potentially complementary.

These differ primarily in terms of their relationship to the state. Both envision a trajectory of change that progressively enlarges the social spaces of social empowerment, but interstitial strategies largely by-pass the state in pursuing this objective while symbiotic strategies try to systematically use the state to advance the process of emancipatory social empowerment. These need not constitute antagonistic strategies — in many circumstances they complement each other, and indeed may even require each other.

Wright summarizes criticisms of the interstitial approach by insurrectionist movements, particularly Marxist ones:

Why many of these efforts at building alternative institutions may embody desirable values and perhaps even prefigure emancipatory forms of social relations, they pose no serious challenge to existing relations of power and domination. Precisely because they are “interstitial” they can only occupy the spaces that are “allowed” by capitalism. They may even strengthen capitalism by siphoning off discontent and creating the illusion that if people are unhappy with the dominant institutions they can and should just go off and live their lives in alternative settings. Ultimately, therefore, interstitial projects amount to a retreat from the political struggle for radical social transformation, not a viable strategy for achieving it. At best they may make life a little better for some people in the world as it is; at worst they deflect energies from the real political challenge of changing the world for the better.

In response to this criticism, Wright says that it presupposes that there currently is “an alternative strategy which does pose a ‘serious threat to the system,’ and… that this alternative strategy is undermined by the existence of interstitial efforts at social transformation.” But the fact is that no strategy poses a credible threat to the system under current conditions.  So the real task is to imagine “things we can do now which have a reasonable chance of opening up possibilities under contingent conditions in the future.”

That leaves the question of the actual strategy of exactly how interstitial institutions and practices are supposed to be used to promote a post-capitalist transition — “how these interstitial activities could have broad transformative, emancipatory effects for the society as a whole. What is the underlying logic through which they might contribute to making another world possible?”

There are two principle ways that interstitial strategies within capitalism potentially point the way beyond capitalism: first, by altering the conditions for eventual rupture, and second, by gradually expanding their effective scope and depth of operation so that capitalist constraints cease to impose binding limits. I will refer to these as the revolutionary anarchist and evolutionary anarchist strategic visions, not because only anarchists hold these views, but because the broad idea of not using the state as an instrument of social emancipation is so closely linked to the anarchist tradition.

Even between the anarchists who envisioned a revolutionary rupture and the Marxists, there was a major difference in how they framed the relationship between prevolutionary practices and the actual revolution:

Where they differed sharply was in the belief of what sorts of transformations were needed within capitalism in order for a revolutionary rupture to plausibly usher in a genuinely emancipatory alternative. For Marx, and later for Lenin, the central task of struggles within capitalism is to forge the collective capacity of a politically unified working class needed to successfully seize state power as the necessary condition for overthrowing capitalism. The task of deep social reconstruction to create the environment for a new way of life with new principles, new forms of social interaction and reciprocity, would largely have to wait until “after the revolution.”

For revolutionary anarchists, on the other hand, significant progress in such reconstruction is not only possible within capitalism, but is a necessary condition for a sustainable emancipatory rupture with capitalism. In discussing Proudhon’s views on revolution, Martin Buber writes,

[Proudhon] divined the tragedy of revolutions and came to feel it more and more deeply in the course of disappointing experiences. Their tragedy is that as regards their positive goal they will always result in the exact opposite of what the most honest and passionate revolutionaries strive for, unless and until this [deep social reform] has so far taken shape before the revolution that the revolutionary act has only to wrest the space for it in which it can develop unimpeded.

If we want a revolution to result in a deeply egalitarian, democratic, and participatory way of life, Buber writes,

the all-important fact is that, in the social as opposed to the political sphere, revolution is not so much a creative as a delivering force whose function is to set free and authenticate – i.e. that it can only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of the pre-revolutionary society; that, as regards social evolution, the hour of revolution is not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth – provided there was a begetting beforehand.

A rupture with capitalism is thus necessary in this strategic vision, but it requires a deep process of interstitial transformation beforehand if it is to succeed.

Wright sees four implicit arguments in this interstitial strategy:

First, supporters of the necessity of interstitial transformation within capitalism claim that such transformations can bring into capitalism some of the virtues of a society beyond capitalism. Thus the quality of life of ordinary people in capitalism is improved by such transformation….

Second, the revolutionary anarchist strategy affirms that at some point such interstitial social transformations within capitalism hit limits which impose binding constraints…. Capitalism ultimately blocks the full realization of the potential of socially empowering interstitial transformations. A rupture with capitalism… becomes necessary to break through those limits if that potential is to advance further.

Third, if capitalism has already been significantly internally transformed through socially empowering interstitial transformations, the transition trough will be tolerably shallow and of relatively short duration…. Successful interstitial transformations within capitalism mean that economic life becomes less dependent upon capitalist firms and capitalist markets as as capitalism continues. Workers co-operatives and consumer cooperatives have developed widely and play a significant role in the economy; the social economy provides significant basic needs; collective associations engage in a wide variety of socially empowered forms of regulation; and perhaps power relations within capitalist firms have been significantly transformed as well. Taken together, these changes mean that the economic disruption of the break with capitalism will be less damaging than in the absence of such interstitial transformations. Furthermore, the pre-ruptural transformations are palpable demonstrations to workers and other potential beneficiaries of socialism that alternatives to capitalism in which the quality of life is better are viable. This contributes to forming the political will for a rupture once the untransgressable limits within capitalism are encountered….

And finally, egalitarian, democratic social empowerment will be sustainable after a rupture only if significant socially empowering interstitial transformations had occurred before the rupture. In the absence of such prior social empowerment, the rupture with capitalism will unleash strong centralizing and authoritarian tendencies that are likely to lead to a consolidation of an oppressive form of statism. Even well-intentioned socialists will be forced by the contradictions they confront to build a different kind of society than they wanted.

Interestingly, Wright compares this interstitial strategy to Gramsci’s war of position:

An alternative way of expressing these arguments is to use the language of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that in the West, with its strong civil society, socialist revolution required a prolonged “war of position” before a successful “war of maneuver” was possible. This means that the period before a rupture is a period of building an effective counter-hegemony. Gramsci’s emphasis was on building political and ideological counter-hegemony. While he did not directly discuss the issue of interstitial transformations in the economy and civil society, they could be viewed as transforming key aspects of the “material bases of consent” necessary for such a counter-hegemonic movement to be credible and sustainable.

The primary way that theories centered on Exodus differ from Wright’s pro-interstitial argument, I would point out in addition, is that they seriously downgrade their estimate of capitalism’s ability to impose insurmountable constraints, and of the need to seize control of the state to finish the transformation (more about which below)

Wright adds that for evolutionary anarchists, the apparent limits to transformation at any given time are not necessarily hard and fast, but the limits themselves may be bypassed or altered by an interstitial strategy.

Capitalist structures and relations do impose limits on emancipatory social transformation through interstitial strategies, but those limits can themselves be eroded over time by appropriate interstitial strategies. The trajectory of change through interstitial strategy, therefore, will bemarked by periods in which limits of possibility are encountered and transformation is severely impeded. In such periods new interstitial strategies must be devised which erode those limits. In different historical periods, therefore, different kinds of interstitial strategies may play the critical role in advancing the process of social empowerment. Strategies for building worker cooperatives may be the most important in some periods, the extension of the social economy or the invention of new associational devices for controlling investments (eg. union controlled venture capital funds) in others. The important idea is that what appear to be “limits” are simply the effect of the power of specific institutional arrangements, and interstitial strategies have the capacity to create alternative institutions that weaken those limits. Whereas the revolutionary anarchist strategic scenario argues that eventually hard limits are encountered that cannot themselves be transformed from within the system, in this more evolutionary model the existing constraints can be softened to the point that a more accelerated process of interstitial transformation can take place until it too encounters new limits. There will thus be a kind of cycle of extension of social empowerment and stagnation as successive limits are encountered and eroded. Eventually, if this process can be sustained, capitalism itself would be sufficiently modified and capitalist power sufficiently undermined that it no longer imposed distinctively capitalist limits on the deepening of social empowerment. In effect, the system-hybridization process generated by interstitial strategies would have reached a tipping point in which the logic of the system as a whole had changed in ways that open-up the possibilities for continued social

Of course it’s possible that an insurmountable block (like an authoritarian state) may genuinely require shifting to a ruptural strategy. The point, Wright argues, is that there’s nothing in capitalism as such that prevents gradually changing capitalism from within through interstitial activities.

Despite his obvious sympathies for the approach and openness to incorporate it as a significant part of any hybridized transitional strategy, Wright’s view of the practical limitations of interstitial strategy is faulty.

Interstitial strategies may create enlarged spaces for non-commodified, non-capitalist economic relations, but it seems unlikely that this could sufficiently insulate most people from dependency on the capitalist economy and sufficiently weaken the power of the capitalist class and the dependency of economic activity on capital accumulation to render the transition trough in the revolutionary scenario short and shallow. And while interstitial strategies may expand the scope of social empowerment, it is difficult to see how they could ever by themselves sufficiently erode the basic structural power of capital to dissolve the capitalist limits on emancipatory social change.

At the end of Chapter 10, as a segue to the next chapter, he raises the question of the state’s role and the differences over that issue between the interstitial and symbiotic approaches.

The basic problem of both scenarios concerns their stance towards the state. The anarchist tradition of social emancipation understands that both civil society and the economy are only loosely integrated systems which allow considerable scope for direct action to forge new kinds of relations and practices. In contrast, anarchists tend to view the state as a monolithic, integrated institution, without significant cracks and only marginal potentials for emancipatory transformation. For revolutionary anarchists, in fact, the state is precisely the institution which makes an ultimate rupture necessary: the coercive power of the state enforces the untransgressable limits on social empowerment. Without the state, the erosion of capitalist power through interstitial transformation could proceed in the manner described by evolutionary anarchists.

This is not a satisfactory understanding of the state in general or the state in capitalist societies in particular. The state is no more a unitary, fully integrated structure of power than is the economy or civil society. And while the state may indeed be a “capitalist state” which plays a substantial role in reproducing capitalist relations, it is not merely a capitalist state embodying a pure functional logic for sustaining capitalism. The state contains a heterogeneous set of apparatuses, unevenly integrated into a loosely-coupled ensemble, in which a variety of interests and ideologies interact. It is an arena of struggle in which contending forces in civil society meet. It is a site for class compromise as well as class domination. In short, the state must be understood not simply in terms of its relationship to social reproduction, but also in terms of the gaps and contradictions of social reproduction.

What this means is that emancipatory transformations should not simply ignore the state as envisioned by evolutionary interstitial strategies, nor can it realistically smash the state, as envisioned by ruptural strategies. Social emancipation must involve, in one way or another, engaging the state, using it to further the process of emancipatory social empowerment. This is the central idea of symbiotic transformation.

Wright’s pessimistic view of the limits of interstitial strategy seriously neglects the fundamental shift in correlation of forces resulting from the radical downsizing of the majority production technology in terms of both scale and cost (which reduces the significance of “seizing the means of production” as a strategic goal), and the possibilities of networked communications and stigmergic organization (which reduce the significance of the old “commanding heights” command-and-control institutions for coordinating activity and overcoming transaction costs). These intellectual blinders are part and parcel, in my opinion, of his earlier rejection of all historical theories of material causation behind the transition process.

He is entirely correct, I think, in refusing to treat the state as a monolithic entity and raising the possibility of engaging or transforming parts of it. And the possibility of “non-reformist reforms” should not be dismissed. But that’s not to say his vision of class compromise on the New Deal model is anywhere near as centrally important as he makes it out to be in Chapter Eleven. To the extent that class compromise is useful (in our day it might take the form of land value taxation plus basic income plus radical rollback of “intellectual property” law), it’s more for the purpose of creating a congenial environment for the primary tasks of transition, which will be carried out through interstitial institution-building.

The New Deal/Social Democratic model of class compromise that Wright takes as his paradigmatic example, on the other hand, treats the institutional forms of mass production society — institutional forms which today are technologically obsolete — as its core logic. That really entails, as Negri and Hardt argued in Commonwealth, incorporating new technology into an archaic institutional framework in order to integrate or re-integrate the working class into the wage system. And, in turn, it means actively promoting such hierarchical, centralized and high-overhead models at the expense of interstitial counter-institutions based on opposing principles.

Also Wright’s rejection in principle of all historical theories of terminal systemic crisis or phase transition severely constrains any hope of a class compromise that transforms the fundamental character of the state — unlike Bauwens’s development of the partner state as something defined by its relationship to a fundamentally altered society with commons and networks as its core logic.

So Wright’s analysis, despite its weaknesses, is extremely useful to post-capitalist theories based on the hierarchies-to-networks transition, stigmergic organization and self-organized, prefigurative institutions. But it becomes far more valueable when rendered more coherent by grounding in a proper theory of history.

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