Creating Real Utopias

by Edward Lewis, Erik Olin Wright

In the second part of this extensive discussion, Wright lays out a framework within which to conceive of strategies for radical social transformation, and discusses the fundamental challenges to such transformation in the world today.

First published: 25 June, 2010 | Category: Vision/Strategy

In the second part of this extensive discussion, Wright lays out a framework within which to conceive of strategies for radical social transformation, and discusses the fundamental challenges to such transformation in the world today.

Part one of this interview can be read here.

You describe three different approaches to social transformation - ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic. What are these different approaches? And do you think that the different strategies that characterise today’s leftist and radical movements all fall into one of these categories?

The central idea of ruptural transformation that through direct confrontation and political struggles it is possible to create a radical disjuncture in institutional structures in which existing institutions are destroyed and new ones built in a fairly rapid way. Smash first, build second.  A revolutionary scenario for the transition to socialism is the iconic version of this: a revolution constitutes a decisive, encompassing victory of popular forces for social empowerment resulting in the rapid transformation of the structures of the state and the foundations of economic structures. In contrast, both interstitial strategies and symbiotic strategies see transformation as a process of metamorphosis, as a gradual process without large scale, temporally-condensed radical breaks.  Interstitial transformations involve building new institutions in the niches, spaces, and cracks of the existing society. They embody the vision of the Wobblies: build the new society in the womb of the old. Worker cooperatives, alternative trade systems, social housing, wikipedia, are examples. Symbiotic transformation involve entering the dominant institutions of power and collaborating with elites to solve practical problems, but doing so in ways which expand the scope of social empowerment. These are what used to be called “nonreformist reforms”: reforms which both make the system function more effectively and expand the limits of popular power. If you want some slogans for these three strategic logics with respect to the state, ruptural logics say “smash the capitalist state”, interstitial strategies say “ignore the capitalist state”, and symbiotic strategies say “use the capitalist state.”

These ideal-type strategic logics are loosely associated with different long-standing ideological traditions on the left: ruptural strategies with revolutionary communism, interstitial strategies with anarchism, and symbiotic strategies with social democracy. In practice, left social movements combine elements from each of these in different times and places. While it may be that ruptural strategies no longer have much plausibility, at least in developed capitalist countries, aspects of ruptural strategies – confrontation, disruptions, disjunctures in particular institutional settings – could still play an important role in some situations. Often symbiotic strategies are needed to open up spaces for more effective interstitial strategies. The potential effects mentioned earlier of basic income – a state policy – on expanding the possibility of a vigorous social economy and worker cooperatives would be an instance. More generally, then, just as the institutional design of a social socialism is pluralistic in the sense of involving heterogeneous configurations of social empowerment, so too are the strategies of social empowerment.

Where does the strategy of reformism, in which leftist parties seek power through winning elections and then enact progressive reforms, fall in the picture you describe?

Electoral strategies are one aspect of symbiotic transformations: using the state to transform the state and economy. Symbiotic strategies are more than simply electoral politics – they also involve, for example, creating things like works councils within capitalist enterprises to solve problems of cooperation within production. Participatory budgeting is also a form of symbiotic transformation: solving practical problems of urban governance in a way that enhances social power. But electoral politics remain an important component of many such initiatives. The mistake is to imagine that a thorough transformation of capitalist societies would ever be possible simply through this specific strategic route.

What are the key problems involved in the strategies you describe? Which problems are of greatest significance for the contemporary left?

I would identify three key, interconnected problems faced by the left in grappling with the strategic problems of transformation: 1.The problem of time horizons; 2.The problem of fractured solidarities; 3. The problem of forming any kind of plausible strategy for radical transformation of a hegemonic system.

Time Horizons. The term “time horizon” refers to the length of time into the future that we can coherently organize our activities. There are three critical time horizons that bear on the problem of strategy: (1) the time horizons under which most people are prepared to engage in a political project; (2) the time horizons of our scientific knowledge about the conditions that are likely to exist in the future; (3) the time horizon of the trajectory of radical transformations leading to a transcendence of capitalism.  The key disjuncture is between (1) and (3): the time horizon for radical transformation stretches far into the distant future, almost certainly well beyond the lifetimes of people today, whereas the time horizons for political action of most people is very short, a few years or perhaps in some cases a few decades. There was a time when classical Marxism functioned in a way that brought these time horizons more into alignment through a particular form of the second time horizon: Marxism proposed a theory of the trajectory of capitalist development in which capitalist crises were predicted to intensify over time and capitalism was predicted to become more vulnerable to transformation over time. This prediction about the destiny of capitalism, then, helped lengthen the time horizons of many activists – the length of time they were willing to look into the future for results – and sympathetic followers. That particular theory of the future no longer seems plausible to most people (even given the experience of recent intense economic crisis). So, for the moment we really do not have a good theory of the trajectory of conditions we are likely to face in the future, and this makes it very hard to have a coherent strategy that occupies the same time frame as the transformations we want to accomplish. The implication is that whatever else we want to accomplish, our strategies need to be oriented to accomplishing things in the relative short term.

Fractured solidarities. This is a hugely complex problem. It involves both the issue of the developments in the class structure over the past half century or so, but also the transformation of other bases of solidarity. Solidarity is a critical dimension of any project of radical transformation. At one level this is a subjective phenomenon – with what categories of people do I feel I share basic identities and interests and for whom I am prepared to make sacrifices. (Note: I think that the concept of solidarity implies a willingness to make personal sacrifices for others, not merely to feel a shared identity. This is the dimension of solidarity that matters most for collective action.)  But solidarity is also closely connected to objective properties of social structure: how opportunities and real conditions of life are differentiated across a population. One of the central problems any left strategy faces is the problem of increasing complexity in the underlying conditions that shape potential solidarities. Strategy can have some impact on this. Some strategies tend to mute divisions – either by strengthening more universalistic identities or by proposing changes which in fact bring benefits to larger circles of people – others tend to intensify them. But it is also often the case that the problem of solidarities imposes severe trade-offs on the choice of strategy.

Hegemonic capitalism. We live in a world in which capitalism is hegemonic. Capitalism is not just powerful or durable. It is hegemonic in the specific sense that it continues to organize the daily lives and interests of most people so that their lives go better when capitalism does well than when capitalism does badly. This is true even in – or perhaps, especially in – a situation of economic crisis such as the one in which we find ourselves today: the lives of people who are currently unemployed will go better when capitalism begins to grow again. This is a reality with which all strategies on the left have to contend. It is one of the reasons why the advances of the left have mainly come through symbiotic strategies – sometimes combined with aspects of ruptural confrontations and interstitial institution building – since symbiotic strategies involve solving practical problems within the existing economic system while at the same time advancing the conditions for increased social power.

Is it possible to describe the outlines of a promising strategy for transformation?

I wish that I could outline in some decisive way “a promising strategy for transformation.” In a way no strategy seems really promising – at least if we mean by this that given what we know now, strategy X has a high probability of producing radical transformation. What Envisioning Real Utopias tried to accomplish is sharpen the theoretical tools we have available for thinking about these issues. But it does contain any distilled strategic advice.

Still, here are my ideas on the matter. I think system-wide ruptural strategies have no possibilities of success for the foreseeable future, and no strategies that we can adopt today have a plausible chance of making ruptural strategies more effective in the future. This is not the same as saying that I know for sure that in the future system-wide ruptural strategies might not become plausible. But at the beginning of the 21st century they seem off the historical agenda. As indicated earlier this does not imply that some elements from the ruptural menu aren’t potentially useful, but a revolutionary rupture with capitalism to create a democratic egalitarian socialism isn’t plausible.

This means that strategies need to mainly revolve around combinations 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.

There are, of course, well-founded objections on the left to state policies that strengthen the social economy and other non-statist forms of economic activity. Many initiatives in this direction go under the rubrics of decentralization, privatization, participation. The World Bank has been a big advocate of participatory budgeting and a supporter of all sorts of “social entrepreneurship”.  The Left is thus rightfully suspicious of many of these kinds of proposals. Instead of being a pathway of interstitial social empowerment, in practice practice they can easily become covers for an increasing role of markets and competition. Nevertheless, I think organizing strategies in ways that reinforce the democratic empowerment mechanisms of such interstitial transformation is one of the ways that the Left can connect with social movements, provide positive social changes within the time horizons of real world actors, contribute to widening solidarities, and – perhaps – counteract capitalist hegemony through the building of alternatives.

What effects do you hope the book will have, and on whom?

This book was produced through a long process of intensive dialogue, not simply internal reflection at my desk. In 2004 I had an initial version of the central argument finished in a paper called “Taking the ‘Social’ in Socialism Seriously,” and I began presenting that paper at various academic meetings and invited lectures. By 2006 I had a draft of much of the book. I posted this draft on my website and invited people to comment on it. I also decided to accept every invitation to speak on the themes of the book. So, for the next three and a half years, I traveled around the world giving lectures, seminars, workshops, and in a few places more extended lecture series on the book. Mostly these events were in academic settings, but there were occasions when I gave talks to social movement activists, trade unions, and other kinds of popular audiences. During these trips I took detailed notes on the discussions, and in a few cases recorded the discussions and prepared transcripts. (These can be found on my website at: After each trip I would revise the manuscript and post the new version. By the time I was done I had given over 50 talks in 18 countries other than the United States: Norway, Japan, Britain, China, South Africa, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Sweden, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Argentina, Chile. The final manuscript was deeply shaped by this extended process of dialogue. Intellectual production is always a combination of a social process of inter-subjective communication and internal reflection, but in this specific case the global dialogue was especially important.

I recount this history as part of my answer to this last question because it reflects how I think of the book and my hopes for its role in the world. I see the book as a stage in an on-going conversation: it was produced and refined through conversations and now my hope is that it will contribute to future conversations. My hope is not that everyone who reads it will agree with its arguments, but that it will generate productive discussions. While it is written for a relatively educated public, I have tried to write it clearly enough that it will be accessible to non-academics, especially activists. It will have succeeded in its goals if it expands the vocabulary for thinking about alternatives to existing structures of power and privilege, and helps clarify to people the ways in which they can contribute to the realization of those alternatives.

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