Remembering Erik Olin Wright

Decades of research culminated in his 2010 magnum opus Envisioning Real Utopias. For Wright, “real utopias” were democratic and egalitarian “real-world alternatives that can be constructed in the world as it is that also prefigure the world as it could be, and which help move us in that direction.” Such institutions range from Wikipedia to the Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives in Spain. The short version of Wright’s thesis is that the left can erode capitalism with these institutions, while taming capitalism in the political sphere. The long-term result is socialism.

As he built his theory of transformation, Wright—in contrast to Dylan Riley and other thinkers he engaged in argument—was skeptical that capitalism could be smashed in a way that would engender full emancipation. He was critical of the Soviet Union and other states forged by revolution. For Wright, a socialist state is realized when social power—rather than economic power (capitalism) or state power (statism)—dominates. In socialism, individuals have a say to the extent that something affects them. A corporation, for example, cannot build its chemical plant in a neighborhood, unless the people living there agree. And the government cannot subordinate the interests of its constituencies to the interests of its politicians. The so-called socialist states of the twentieth century, like their capitalist counterparts, never achieved this form of political justice.

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