Real Utopias Series

The Real Utopias Project embraces a tension between dreams and practice. It is founded on the belief that what is pragmatically possible is not fixed independently of our imaginations, but is itself shaped by our visions. The fulfillment of such a belief involves a "real utopias": utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials for redesigning social institutions. In its attempt at sustaining and deepening serious discussion of radical alternatives to existing social practices, the Real Utopias Project examines various basic institutions - property rights and the market, secondary associations, the family, the welfare state, among others - and focuses on specific proposals for their fundamental redesign. The books in the series are the result of workshop conferences, at which groups of scholars are invited to respond to provocative manuscripts.

2006: Institutions for Gender Egalitarianism

Institutions for Gender Egalitarianism: Creating the Conditions for Egalitarian Dual Earner / Dual Caregiver Families

Introductory statement

Erik Olin Wright

There was a time not so long ago when a majority of married women with children in economically developed countries were fulltime caregivers with husbands who worked outside the home to provide the family income. This was the era of the male breadwinner/female caregiver model of the family. While this model was never universal – poor women often worked to bring income into the household even when they had young children – it was pervasive, both as a normative ideal and as a practical reality.

2004: Using Pensions for Social Control of Capitalist Investment

Using Pensions for Social Control of Capitalist Investment

June 25-27, 2004
The Havens Center
University of Madison-Wisconsin

Conference Papers

Agenda for a conference in the Real Utopias project
Erik Olin Wright
August 2003
Printable Version

At the core of the traditional socialist critique of capitalism was the view that when investment decisions were made exclusively on the basis of private, profit-maximizing calculations the resulting patterns of capital accumulation would be both harmful to many people and in the long-term collectively irrational. Three familiar reasons for this diagnosis are particularly important. First, private profit-maximizing investments do not take into account negative externalities, and thus a wide range of “public bads” – pollution, resource depletion, social disruption, job dislocations, etc. – are likely to be generated by profit-maximizing investments. Second, investments driven exclusively by private profit-maximization will lead to an under-provision of public goods, particularly of things like skills and infrastructure. And third, private profit-maximizing accumulation will tend to generate significant concentrations of wealth, and such wealth not only confers power to actors in the market, but also enables them to deploy their economic power for political purposes, thus undermining democracy.

2002: Redesigning Redistribution

May 2-5, 2002
Organized by Bruce Ackerman, Anne Alstott, and Phillipe Van Parijs

Conference Papers

Thirty years ago, in the aftermath of the major expansion of welfare state programs of the 1960s, there was a lively political debate in the United States over whether or not a negative income tax should be adopted as a centerpiece of policies designed to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. In the end the Family Assistance Program, as the proposal was known, was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Congress, and so the existing welfare mechanism of Aid to Families with Dependent Children remained intact.

In that debate of 30 years ago the issue was what sort of institution of redistribution would best serve broader social and economic goals, not whether the state should get out of the business of redistribution altogether. The intervening three decades witnessed a massive shift in the ideological coordinates of public policy discussion. By the early 1990s, defenders of traditional redistributive policies of the affirmative state were on the defensive and virtually no one in the public debate argued that income redistribution was a worthy political goal. Instead of a political ethos in which the basic well-being of all citizens was seen as part of a collective responsibility, the vision was one in which each person took full "personal responsibility" for their own well-being. The nearly universal call was to "end welfare as we know it", replacing it with a vestigial welfare state that at most would provide a minimal safety net only for those people clearly incapable of taking care of themselves. Times were indeed bleak for progressives committed to an egalitarian conception of social justice.

Given this ideological climate, it might seem like an unpropitious time to propose radical strategies for reducing inequality through new programs of income and wealth redistribution. Redistribution is now broadly regarded as antithetical to economic efficiency and thus ultimately self-defeating; there is no vocal political coalition demanding new efforts at egalitarian redistribution; and talk of raising taxes and dramatically expanding the activities of the state is seen by most analysts as off the political agenda. The Real Utopias Project, which is sponsoring this conference, is based on the belief that it is important to engage in rigorous analysis of alternative visions of institutional change even when there seems to be little support for such ideas.

2000: Deepening Democracy

Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century — representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration — seem increasingly ill-suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially-based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth.

The Right of the political spectrum has taken advantage of this apparent decline in the effectiveness of democratic institutions to escalate its attack on the very idea of the affirmative state. The only way the state can play a competent and constructive role, the Right typically argues, is to dramatically reduce the scope and depth of its activities. In addition to the traditional moral opposition of libertarians to the activist state on the grounds that it infringes on property rights and individual autonomy, it is now widely argued that the affirmative state has simply become too costly and inefficient. The benefits supposedly provided by the state are myths; the costs—both in terms of the resources directly absorbed by the state and of indirect negative effects on economic growth and efficiency—are real and increasing. Rather than seeking to deepen the democratic character of politics in response to these concerns, the thrust of much political energy in the developed industrial democracies in recent years has been to reduce the role of politics altogether. Deregulation, privatization, reduction of social services, and curtailments of state spending have been the watchwords, rather than participation, greater responsiveness, more creative and effective forms of democratic state intervention. As the slogan goes: “The state is the problem, not the solution.”

1998: Recasting Egalitarianism

Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis
Verso Books, 1998


The market -- defined roughly as uncoerced exchanges between people of goods and services -- is one of the many possible ways of organizing the allocation of things people want in a society and coordinating the complex decisions and practices that constitute an economy. No one believes that markets should be the only way goods and services are distributed. Even the most ardent free market libertarian believes in the necessity of some taxation for supporting the "night watchman state" and the appropriateness of parents coercing their children to perform household chores. And, equally, virtually no one today believes that a complex economy can function without some presence of markets. No serious thinker on the Left still upholds the vision of comprehensive centralized planning as a viable institutional design to replace capitalism. The issue, then, is how market exchanges are to be articulated with other institutional mechanisms, not whether an economically developed society can work effectively with only markets or with no markets. 

While there may be near universal acknowlegment of the need for markets, the Right and Left remain divided in their basic belief about how markets and nonmarket institutions should be linked to advance certain core values. The Right is highly skeptical of nonmarket institutions of economic regulation and allocation, and while acknowledging their necessity, has wanted to hedge them in, restrict them to the minimal possible domaines out of fear that nonmarket mechanisms are like Frankenstein -- once created they tend to run amok and be uncontrollable. Accordingly the Right sees the alleged virtues of the market -- especially enhanced individual freedom and economic efficiency -- as constantly threatened by the excessive encroachments of the state. The Left, in contrast, has generally been skeptical of the moral and economic virtues of markets, and while acknowledging the practical necessity of markets, wants to hem them in within effective political and normative limits on the grounds that markets are corrosive of other values and will constantly generate pressures to expand. The danger that such interference by the democratic affirmative state will become oppressive is seen as much less serious than the danger of weakly regulated markets generating socially explosive inequalities, perpetuating oppressive conditions of daily life for many, and fostering a moral callousness that is profoundly destructive of basic human values.

1994: Equal Shares: Making Market Socialism Work

John Roemer

London & New York: Verso, 1996

For a hundred and fifty years, struggles for radical egalitarian alternatives to capitalism have be waged under the banner of "socialism." While the precise meaning of this idea has always been the object of intense debate, radical egalitarians have usually believed that an economy based on private ownership of the principle means of production and the overriding search for profit maximization could be supplanted by one organized around the satisfaction of human needs through some kind of public or social ownership. Even among those social democratic reformers whose political efforts were directed mainly towards ameliorating conditions in the existing society rather than working for a rupture with capitalist institutions, socialism still served as a visionary backdrop which kept radical egalitarian values alive.

Increasingly in the last decade, this vision has seemed to many people to be a fantasy. This is perhaps ironic. One might have anticipated that the demise of the command economies in the USSR and elsewhere would have emancipated the idea of socialism from the liabilities the Soviet authoritarianism. After all, for decades democratic socialists in the West had been denouncing the undemocratic practices in the Soviet Union and arguing that socialism should be understood as the extension of radical democracy to the economy rather than bureaucratic control of production. At long last, one might have thought, the ideal of democratic socialism could gain credibility.

1992: Associations and Democracy

Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers London & New York: Verso, 1995

Few issues occupy a more central place on the political agenda around the world than democracy. In Latin America, military dictatorships have abandoned the direct levers of power in favor of more or less open, liberal democratic regimes. In South Africa, the anti-democratic apparatuses of apartheid have been replaced. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Communist regimes have collapsed, to be replaced with the conventional institutions of democratic representation. And while democratic breakthroughs still seem far off in some parts of the world -- in China, in the Middle East, in much of Africa -- it is clear that in most of these places, pressures for democratic politics are likely to increase in years to come.

This upsurge in democratic impulses in those corners of the world in which democratic institutions have previously either been absent or crippled has not been matched by impulses for a revitalization of democratic forms in the developed, capitalist democracies. Throughout the West the past decade has witnessed an erosion of belief in the capacity of democratic institutions to effectively intervene in shaping social and economic life and help solve our most pressing problems. A common refrain is that government is part of the problem, not the solution. Rather than seeking to deepen the democratic character of politics, the thrust of much political energy in the developed industrial democracies in recent years has been to reduce the role of politics altogether. Deregulation, privatization, reduction of social services, curtailments of state spending have been the watchwords, rather that participation, greater responsiveness, more creative and effective forms of democratic state intervention.