“Why Class Matters”: Erik Olin Wright
Erik Olin Wright on class, socialism, and the meaning of Marxism
When Erik Olin Wright “fell into Marxism” in the 1970s, it was “the only game in town” for a serious radical scholar.
By the 1990s this was no longer so, with Marxism retreating to the margins inside and outside the academy. Wright chose to stay. He set out to reconstruct a sociological Marxism by treating it not as a set of fixed ideas or as an idiosyncratic method, but as a distinctive set of questions and a conceptual framework for answering them.
Wright’s Marxism is ordinary social science, but guided by the pursuit of socialism.
His work over more than forty years has focused on rethinking two core parts of the Marxian tradition: class and strategies for social transformation. Wright’s new book, Understanding Class, bumps his own approach to class up against the likes of Thomas Piketty and Guy Standing. And the ebook Alternatives to Capitalism, recording a debate with Robin Hahnel, shows his recent thinking on socialist possibilities.
On a recent visit to Australia, Wright spoke with Jacobin editor Mike Beggs in a wide-ranging interview, discussing everything from Weber and Marx to markets and his views on left strategy.
Let’s start with the question of why class matters. David Grusky puts the question bluntly, arguing that class in the macro sense is just a scholarly construct. What’s your response?
I disagree with the claim that it’s not a real category. I think the answer to the question, “Is that a real category?” is, “Does it identify real mechanisms that have causal force in the lives of people, regardless of whether the actors themselves recognize that causal force or the legal categories draw boundaries around those mechanisms.”
The Marxist claim is that the social relations within a system of production identify real mechanisms that shape the lives of people and define a terrain of conflict, and that the heart of those mechanisms is a combination of exploitation and domination. These are the two words that are used to characterize the specific mechanisms that Marxian classes identify as causally relevant.
So the Grusky claim that these are not real has to be the claim that exploitation and domination are not real, that they are just figments of the analyst’s imagination. I think that’s a palpably incorrect diagnosis of the nature of capitalist societies.
The claim that exploitation and domination are mechanisms is separate from saying that they explain the whole range of concrete, observable phenomena that are of interest to class analysts.
Take the consciousness of people. How do people view the world? How do actors understand their condition? Do domination and exploitation, and how people are located with respect to those mechanisms, really explain peoples’ consciousness?
Well, no. It’s never been true that class, by itself, explains consciousness. Consciousness is shaped by all sorts of other things besides the particular mechanisms subsumed under the concept of class.
If all you care about is the explanatory power of those particular things which explain consciousness, then you would have to say, “No, class by itself is not the most important.” But of course, that’s an extremely narrow and limited way of understanding the relevance of these concepts and their explanatory power.
The idea that class matters — or at least, that inequality matters — now seems to be a mainstream position again, since the crisis, since Occupy, since Piketty. You are critical of some “common sense” approaches to inequality, in which inequality is discussed in terms of how people are sorted into positions. What do you think is missing from that view?
What’s missing is an account of why there are those kinds of positions available for them to be sorted into, and why the positions available have the properties they have.
It’s one thing to say that cultural capital and social capital and educational capital enables you to become a manager in a multinational corporation and be promoted up the ladder and eventually be a CEO. But why is it the case that there are CEO positions available to be promoted into? And why, if they’re available, do they have annual earnings that are four hundred times that of workers, as opposed to twenty times that of workers, as opposed to six times that of workers?
How do you explain the nature of the positions into which people are sorted?
There was a time when a particular term was used to describe that fact. Class positions were referred to as “empty places” into which people are sorted. As opposed to the view that people carry their class positions on their backs, that it’s an attribute of the persons themselves.
Now, of course, there’s a meshing of the attributes of persons and the attributes of positions in a stable, well-ordered class structure, but the attributes of persons and the attributes of positions are distinct. What class analysis in the Marxian tradition is about is the account of the positions themselves.
You suggest that both Marxian and Weberian approaches to class have something to say about the structure of the positions themselves. But Marxian and Weberian approaches have often been pitted against one another.
There’s an interesting thing to do for anyone who is unfamiliar with Weber: read the appendix to his book from the late 1890s, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. The appendix contains a long essay on the collapse of the Roman Empire, and why the slave economy eventually involuted and undermined the reproduction of Roman society.
If I assigned this essay to my really smart PhD students and they didn’t know who wrote it, and I said, “Give me a diagnosis of the theoretical embeddedness of this chapter,” they would say, “It’s clearly Marxist.” Weber’s view on class has a very Marxian character to it.
Weber very much sees classes within capitalism as systematically structured by property rights. That’s what he sees as the central axis of class relations: capitalist and laborer. Those two categories are the guts of his class analysis.
The difference between Marx and Weber is that Weber regards the systems of domination and inequality before capitalism as being based on status rather than class, so he sees class analysis as something appropriate only for capitalism, rather than class analysis as being a way of understanding the broad variations across historical periods in the structuring of domination and exploitation.
In the analysis within capitalism, there are also some important differences between Marx and Weber, particularly in the way Weber ignores the problem of exploitation. Nevertheless, the crucial distinction between these traditions is that Marxian class analysis of capitalism is anchored in a very bold proposition: that there’s an alternative to capitalism.
The central purpose of class analysis in Marxism is clarifying the conditions for the transcendence of capitalism and the creation of a socialist alternative. If you drop socialism as an alternative to capitalism, there’s hardly any point left to being a Marxist. There would still be some Marxian ideas that might be useful; but anticapitalism is the critical purpose of Marxist class analysis. That is clearly not the case with Weber.
The purpose of class analysis in Weber is to understand variations within capitalism. Weber’s analysis is about how classes are constituted in capitalist society and how various kinds of property rights help to structure class relations in terms of the life chances and opportunities that get blocked or opened up.
If you’re interested in the varieties of capitalism and understanding how class structures vary across capitalism, Weberian categories are pretty flexible for that. They have lots of possibilities of subdivisions based on the nature of the employment contracts, the nature of the technical training of workers; all of these create different market capacities, and different kinds of capitalism either validate or undermine those capacities.
So Marxist class analysis helps us understand the big epochal contrasts and the challenge to capitalism from the possibility of an alternative. Weberian class analysis helps us to understand variations within capitalism.
The reason I think these are compatible is that Marxists also are concerned about variations within capitalism, and when they study that, they sound awfully Weberian. They invoke the same kinds of issues: organized versus disorganized capitalism, capitalism with a strong labor movement that provides for secure employment rights versus capitalism with a disorganized labour movement, and so on.
You’ve often argued that Marxism shouldn’t be distinguished by a special methodology. Can you elaborate?
It’s not unthinkable that Marxists will have discovered some new methodology which actually helps identify real causal mechanisms that nobody else has talked about. It’s possible. So I don’t mean that Marxism couldn’t have a distinctive methodology. But if it has discovered a new methodology, this would be a new scientific methodology that everybody should adopt.
There’s no reason for there to be some peculiar esoteric methodology that is needed to analyze these problems, but not also needed then for everything else.
So if “dialectics” means something coherent, if it’s useful for understanding the transformations of systems, then it’s useful for understanding everything in which systems figure. When I try to understand ideas like “dialectics” or “contradictions” and try to give them precision, it can’t be something of the form, “For every thesis, there’s an antithesis out of which comes a synthesis.”
Why should that be the case? Why is there some underlying law of nature that says wherever there’s a thesis, there has to be an antithesis out of which comes a synthesis? No. Where there are certain kinds of causal processes, they may, for reasons that have to be explained, trigger forms of resistance and opposition. And out of that conflict comes some kind of new resolution. If that is a good argument, it’s an argument about mechanisms. This is not clarified by invoking an expression like dialectics.
I think that all of the substantive theses of Marxism that have credibility can be formulated as ordinary realist scientific explanations — causal processes. There are underlying mechanisms which generate effects, and then these mechanisms interact.
Mechanisms are not isolated; they’re not hermetically sealed; they interact. And out of that interaction of causal processes comes the phenomena which we observe in the world. The complexity is that all of this is occurring in the context of human consciousness and agency in which people observe the world itself and interpret it — that’s part of the process. So what does “dialectics” mean then?
One sociological formulation is what’s called “the structure-agency problem.” The structure-agency problem is not an obscure esoteric problem; it simply means that human beings are born into already-existing social worlds which constrain their actions.
That seems obvious — how can anybody object to that? There’s no sociologist who has ever lived who doesn’t realize that babies are born into worlds in which there are already-existing social relations not of their making.
But people grow up and become conscious agents and engage in practices, which generate those same relations. People are actors constrained by relations, but their actions affect those relations. Isn’t that just the structure-agency problem?
This is not a big deal. It’s ordinary common-sense sociology. But it is also a big deal because that’s the relationship that makes possible conscious, deliberate social change, which is what the purpose of a Marxian analysis is.
To quote Marx, the point is not merely to interpret the world, but to change it. That would be a nonsensical statement if strategy is impossible. There has to be agency, but it would also be nonsensical if agency doesn’t confront structures that need transformation. The idea that we have to change the world means that there’s a world to be changed, independent of our will to change it. That’s all the structure-agency problem means, and I think that’s what “dialectics” must mean — otherwise I don’t know what it means.
Can you say what “Analytical Marxism” means to you, and whether it’s still a useful description of a living tendency?
The term was coined in the early 1980s as a way of describing what was held in common by a group of Marxist or Marxian or Marxist-inflected or crypto-Marxist scholars that met on an annual basis to discuss core Marxist ideas.
The cast of characters, I think, is pretty well-known. I think the most pivotal figure was G. A. Cohen, the Canadian-British philosopher. The other people most associated with it would be Robert Brenner, Adam Przeworski, John Roemer, myself, Jon Elster at the time, and a few other people. Sam Bowles became part of this group.
This was a group of people who engaged in the relentless, systematic, clear interrogation of broad Marxian concepts. Take the concept of exploitation. It had been originally formulated by Marx in terms of the labor theory of value. We then had a series of debates stretching over many years over how best to think about the concept of exploitation. I developed what I called a sociological account of exploitation that is quite independent of the labor theory of value.
All of this was in the effort to give precision to the underlying mechanisms that these concepts identified. The analytical rubric was derived from analytical philosophy, which is just, I think, a way of talking about the precise and clear use of terms so that you define everything in ways that make it clear exactly what you’re talking about.
“Analytical” doesn’t imply any substantive claim about the content of ideas, just about how we should assess them. It is also not the case that Analytical Marxism had actually any particular commitment to rational choice theory; this is just one of the currents that Analytical Marxists take seriously.
Analytical Marxism is thus about conceptual clarity and precision around the mechanisms in play. Now, rational choice theory is elegant precisely because it is so precise and clear about the mechanisms in play, and for certain kinds of problems, that gives you a very good way of anchoring a set of arguments.
And for some of the people in the group — John Roemer especially — that particular way of framing problems and searching for solutions does dominate their thinking. But even John Roemer wouldn’t insist at all that rational choice models are the way to explain everything.
The internal name that the group gave itself, perhaps a little arrogantly, was the “Non Bullshit Marxism group.” That was our internal joke about what defined us. And I think, in some ways, it better characterizes what its mission was: to get rid of the obscurantism from Marxism and to identify the most robust and defendable core.
In my case this helped consolidate my commitment to Marxism as the terrain on which I wanted to continue doing my work. For some other people in the group, it convinced them that, well, Marxism was a good little specialty area, but it’s really not for them any longer.
Adam Przeworski and Jon Elster both left the group. They felt that they had exhausted this particular task of interrogating Marx’s concepts. There wasn’t that much more to be gained from it, and that the questions they were more interested in would be most fruitfully pursued on a different terrain.
In A Future for Marxism?, Andrew Levine writes that his own trajectory — and he sees it as a natural trajectory — was from Althusserian to Analytical Marxism. That seems unusual because French theory and analytical philosophy often seen as polar opposites. Was that your path, or did you come from a different place?
The first piece that I wrote that was firmly engaged with these issues was about Poulantzas. I read Althusser as a graduate student in the early seventies, and Poulantzas even more than Althusser; I found in Poulantzas a much richer set of arguments. I think, so to speak, the bullshit quotient in Althusser was still pretty high: he waved his hand and invoked concepts without specification quite a lot. You had to cut through that to really get to the analytical core of it.
It’s still the case, though, that both Poulantzas and Althusser were concerned with specifying concepts, not just taking them off the shelf and then pushing an argument with these reformulated and clarified concepts.
I learned much from bouncing off of Poulantzas’s arguments. My first work on class was a critique of Poulantzas. Poulantzas proposed that what is commonly called the middle class was a new petty bourgeoisie. I made an argument as to why I think that did not properly identify the mechanisms involved — why the category “unproductive labor” was not a useful category for understanding class relations.
And then I proposed an empirical test of the debate so it would not just be a debate about definitions: we can develop evidence as to whether the new petty bourgeoisie conception actually identifies class boundaries better than my alternative conception in terms of contradictory locations within class relations.
Thus, in my personal case, it is certainly the case that reading Althusser and Poulantzas came before my engagement with what came to be known as Analytical Marxism, but I think that my stance towards Althusser and Poulantzas was still Analytical Marxist as opposed to Althusserian.
Although I wouldn’t have called it that, I think that the way in which I interrogated them was to say, ‘These concepts aren’t quite clear enough. Let’s try to give precision to the mechanisms. Let’s see if there are empirical ramifications that we can then use to feed back into our theoretical thinking.”
Then I read Jerry Cohen’s book and that, of course, like for many people, was an enlightening experience. When I read it, I said, “Ah ha, now I see that this is the way you should do it. This is how you get down to the root of explanations and make sense of them, rendering coherent ideas that were less clearly formulated.” I then wrote a critical review of Jerry Cohen’s book, which Jerry liked a lot, and so he invited me to join this Analytical Marxism group in its second year.
The person who started in the Althusserian position and has written the best pieces of work — which I would consider as an Analytical Marxist reconstruction of Althusser and Poulantzas — is Göran Therborn. The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology and What Does the Ruling Class Do When it Rules? — I think these are the two best books written in the Althusserian tradition. They are Althusserian in the sense that they take dead seriously the ideas of Poulantzas and Althusser, but give them the rational, coherent form that neither Poulantzas nor Althusser could do. I think those are astoundingly good books.
Those books came out at the tail end of the great flourishing of Marxism in the 1970s that ended in the course of the early 1980s, and neither of them have been taken up as core bodies of ideas in subsequent Marxist thinking. I think there’s a reasonable chance at some point that they’ll be rediscovered and given the prominence they deserve.
You have always been inclined to engage seriously in debate about your scholarly work and have been known to change your mind, sometimes about fundamental concepts. What has been consistent in your work from the beginning, and what has changed?
The most consistent idea is basically the Marxian core: the purpose of understanding the class structure of capitalism is to understand the conditions of transforming it. The reasons to focus on the nature of capitalist exploitation include both the normative commitment to eliminating capitalist exploitation, and the sociological commitment to understanding the conditions for the transformation of capitalism or the transcendence of capitalism into an alternative.
I would say that the anticapitalist analysis of capitalism runs throughout my work: the idea that the guts of what renders capitalism a harmful social structure is its class structure. There are Marxists who think that really the culprit is markets — that classes are bad, but really the culprit is the market. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel argue for an anti-market critique of capitalism. I disagree with that. What’s objectionable about markets is only objectionable if wherever you have markets you will have, eventually, capitalist exploitation and domination.
I would agree with the critique of markets if it were true that markets necessarily generate capitalist class relations. That is essentially Michael Albert’s view. He argues that a little bit of markets is like a little bit of slavery, or little bit of cancer. A little bit of markets is eventually going to kill you.
I just think that’s wrong. You can have pretty robust markets within which concentrations of capital are blocked, and democratic control over the allocation of resources is maintained. Robin Hahnel and I have engaged in an extended debate on these issues in our forthcoming book from Verso, Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy.
What does a socialist economy look like? What mechanisms would be there to prevent concentrations of capital?
First of all, I think the notion of a fully market socialist economy is incoherent. Just like the notion of a fully capitalist economy is incoherent. Every economy is going to be an ecosystem of heterogeneous, qualitatively distinct production and distribution mechanisms. The question is, “Which mechanisms dominate?” Not, “Which mechanisms take over everything?”
In any socialist economy, there will be a large public-good sector of amenities directly provided by state allocation. If education and health care and lots of public recreation space and an array of other things are all provided as decommodified public goods, this could easily constitute 60 percent of the economy. That’s not market socialism, that’s just socialism. At most, the market is going to be part of the economy.
In any socialist economy with markets, part of that market is not going be socialist either. I don’t see any reason why you can’t have small restaurants that are simply organized by people who want to run a small restaurant.
And maybe they don’t all have to be cooperatives. My predilection is to argue that small firms should be cooperatives — they should still be democratically run — but maybe not. There is maybe a space for certain kinds of non-cooperative entrepreneurial individual proprietorships in an economy dominated by socialist relations. I don’t know what the optimal mix of different forms should be.
The employees in the hypothetical private restaurant, they would have other options?
Absolutely. You give everybody a basic income so that everybody can say “no.” You have an expansive set of public goods, so that a significant part of everybody’s consumption is not market-based. People’s standard of living doesn’t depend simply on earnings; it depends upon the amenities that are publicly available plus your earnings. The combination of basic income plus public amenities means that you can live a decent life without engaging in capitalist relations of production.
A market socialist economy would have all sorts of other facilitations for different forms of cooperative production. I would expect that a market socialist economy would be biased towards public underwriting of cooperatives over individual entrepreneurship. And there are all sorts of ways of doing that — for example, in terms of the way you organize credit markets and the way you organize public space: creating makerspaces for small-scale modular advanced technology manufacturing and the like.
How do you prevent concentrations of wealth? We have regulations already in place that allegedly, but not effectively, prevent monopoly. To prevent concentrations of wealth, you need rules that put clear limits on private accumulation. Firms above a certain number of employees have to cooperativize, and if they don’t want to, that’s fine — they can just stay small. There is, after all, no imperative to become big.
Competition does not force firms to get larger unless there are bigger economies of scale, right? If there are no economies of scale, there is no reason whatsoever why firms have to grow in order to compete. Their competitive advantage doesn’t increase if they’re larger.
I think economies of scale are declining rapidly in many areas of production, which enables the reproduction of small-scale, high-productivity firms. That’s the recipe for a cooperative market economy.
This kind of vision is very controversial on the far left, correct? The presence of markets is going to offend some socialists, and some object to the very idea of working out “recipes for the cookshops of the future.”
Let me make just one quick terminological intervention. It’s the expression “far left.” I would say that markets are objected to by the rigid left. “Far” implies that it’s somehow more left; but more left doesn’t mean more simple-minded. It means more deeply committed to a sustainable democratic and egalitarian emancipatory alternative. I consider myself very far left. That’s precisely why I want institutional heterogeneity in the destination — I believe that’s our best bet. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that makes you less of a leftist.
I think the foundational principle for socialism is democracy all the way down, but you can’t decide in advance what the outcome of democratic deliberation should be. That’s for people engaged in democratic struggle to figure out, because we don’t know what the contingencies are.
My prediction is that a deeply, robustly democratic society will create space for markets because the people will see it as a cheap solution to a complex problem. Given all the trade-offs that are inevitable, it’s better to have a reasonable space for markets than to try to plan everything.
But that is a prediction as to what democratic deliberators will come up with, not a prescription for what they should do. Unless you believe there are no trade-offs, then inherently there will be ambiguities in figuring out precisely what the role for markets should be in a post-capitalist economy.
The challenge I presented to Hahnel (who believes the economy should be democratically planned without any role for markets), which I don’t think he answered, is: “Yes, if you believe that there are no trade-offs, that there’s no ‘too many meetings’ problem, that there aren’t going to be other unanticipated consequences of trying to have people figure out their consumption package for the next year in advance — which is part of their plan — maybe markets could be eliminated.” I’m skeptical. But unless you believe there are no trade-offs, then you can’t decide in advance what the mix is.
Your new book brings together the two main strands of your work — understanding class in a capitalist society, and the exploration of “real utopias” as a form of socialist strategy.
The original title was Challenging and maybe Transcending Capitalism through Real Utopias. But the new title, what I’m actually talking about, is How To Be An Anti-Capitalist For The 21st Century.
So tell us how.
Here’s the short punchy version. There are four ways to be anticapitalist: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, or eroding capitalism.
Smashing capitalism was the vision of nineteenth and twentieth century revolutionary communism. The scenario is familiar to most people: you organize a political movement, a political party being the standard form. In historically contingent circumstances, that political movement is capable of seizing state power. That could be through an electoral process — that’s not inherently ruled out — or through a violent insurrection.
Regardless of how you seize state power, the first task is to refashion the state itself to make it an appropriate instrument of transformation, and the second task is to smash the centers of power of the existing social structure.
That enables you to launch the long process of building the alternative. You can think of the smashing capitalism strategy as “smash first, build second.” That was the revolutionary ideal of the twentieth century.
I think the evidence from those experiments is pretty strong that capitalism is not the kind of social order — at least in its complex forms — that’s smashable. The last line of the Wobbly anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” is, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” What the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century showed is that it is possible to build a new world in the ashes of the old — it’s just not the world that anybody wanted.
There were achievements of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, of course, but they did not create a world of democratic egalitarian empowerment of ordinary people capable of fashioning their own destinies. That’s not what came out of those revolutions.
Whether that is just because of the historically adverse circumstances under which those revolutions took place or because this is an intrinsic consequence of the strategy of smashing, of burning down, of trying to build on the ashes — that’s debateable.
My bet is that the chaotic forces that get unleashed in the smashing strategy are so unwieldy and dangerous that they lead to repressive responses to recreate the conditions of social integration. Social order and security is such a pressing need that it creates forms of domination in the new post-revolutionary society that then are extremely hard to dislodge, perhaps impossible.
We certainly have no evidence that if you smash the old structure, you can build an emancipatory, egalitarian, democratic participatory environment for human flourishing. I think smashing is off the historical agenda in complex societies.
A democratic transition, I think, is possible. That’s what I’m going to argue for. The problem is that the ruptural moment will unleash hugely chaotic processes, even under democratic conditions. That’s the Syriza problem. If they abandoned the euro, they would be plunged into an economic chaos. Then the question is, could they, at that point, engage in a rupture with capitalism, under democratic conditions?
What’s going to happen in the next election? Things are going to be miserable. In the next election, some parties say, “Come vote for us, and we’re going to bring Greece back into the euro.” And what’s going to happen? European bankers are going to say, “Yeah, yeah, vote for these guys and we’re going to help you out.” Then they’ll get the subsidies. There is no way that you’re going to be able to survive the number of elections needed under democratic conditions to traverse the transition trough, the decline in standards of living and material conditions of life.
In a complex society, where there’s so much interdependency, the amount of suffering that gets unleashed by an effort at rupture makes it unsustainable under democratic conditions. Under non-democratic conditions, the problem is that authoritarian transitions don’t result in democratic and participatory destinations. I am not prepared to formally proclaim an impossibility theorem. That’s too strong. There are too many contingencies, but my intuition is that a system-level ruptural transformation of capitalism is impossible.
The other options are taming, escaping, or eroding. Taming is the social-democratic solution. You still capture the state. You get state power in the formal sense. You don’t have societal power because capitalism is still very strong. Capital controls the means of investment.
You do have state power in the governmental sense. You have political power. You have enough mobilization behind that political power to negotiate a deal with capital where you create constraints on capital that are beneficial for workers, but there has to be a quid pro quo — collaboration by workers in a capitalist development project. It’s a class compromise.
Taming capitalism is meant to reduce and neutralize the worst harms that are generated by capitalism — risks to the individuals, deficits in public goods, negative externalities. You mitigate these harms, but you leave capitalism intact and just deal with the symptoms. Taming capitalism works pretty well. At least it worked for a while. It’s gotten a little ragged lately.
Neoliberal ideology says that the social-democratic solutions are permanently off the table. That’s just self-justification of elite privilege. Even in a relatively open, globalized, financialized world, there’s no reason to believe (aside from the political power of the forces of neoliberalism) that taming mechanisms can’t be reestablished. They just haven’t been reestablished yet.
One thought is that the global crises of climate change are going to kill off neoliberalism because there’s no way that the market is going to solve the adaptation problem, let alone the mitigation problem. The giant public works needed to deal just with the disruptions of climate change are going to open up another space for a new round of the affirmative state providing public goods and social justice goods through mitigating the adverse effects of global warming.
In any case, that’s taming capitalism. It’s certainly ragged today compared to thirty, forty years ago, but still part of the menu of anticapitalism.
Escaping capitalism is the more individualistic solution. The hippies indulged in it in the 1960s and 1970s. The pioneers in the Western movement in the United States were escaping capitalism. That was their central impulse: to move west, to get out of the clutches of the banks and the landlords. Voluntary simplicity movements or anti-consumerist movements are a kind of escaping capitalism — people wanting to scale back in order to live more balanced lives.
Escaping capitalism is an interesting form of anticapitalism. It has very little potential on its own to be transformative. It can, in some settings, provide useful experiments, useful models for things that could then be generalized in altered conditions.
Eroding capitalism is the least familiar. That’s more in line, I think, with certain anarchist tendencies. Proudhon can be thought of as an early eroder. His view was, “You create worker cooperatives. They’ll be attractive ways of life. Workers are going to flock to them. Capitalism will collapse because it can’t find anybody to work.”
It’s a simple-minded view of how worker cooperatives would survive and compete with capitalists. Marx, in his famous debate with Proudhon, thought this was ridiculous and dismissed it along with utopian socialist projects as just pointless little experiments. Worse than pointless — they were diversionary.
Later, Marx actually was pretty favorable to worker cooperatives and other forms of cooperatives, and felt that they were palpable demonstrations that workers could actually govern production and that the problem with them as a strategy was that they wouldn’t be tolerated. If they were ever a threat to capital, they’d just be destroyed.
There are a lot of examples today of economic iniatives that fall under the eroding capitalism rubric. The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement’s project of land reform, land occupations, other new forms of community and agricultural production, worker cooperatives, and many other forms of cooperatives. Wikipedia destroys the three-hundred-year-old capitalist market in encyclopedias within a decade. It is way more productive than any capitalist model, as is Linux and other open-source software. That’s eroding capitalism.
Now eroding capitalism, I argue, is extremely appealing and utterly far-fetched as a strategy for transcending capitalism. It’s appealing because even with a really hostile environment, you can do something. And I think activists always are desperate to work out,”What can I do?” My students are constantly asking me, “What can I do? I want to do something constructive.”
Eroding capitalism builds these alternatives, and they all make life better. They are definitely illustrations of better ways of life. They may be effective, but is it likely that the accumulative effect of community gardens, worker coops, Wikipedia, and the like, is to actually undermine the possibility of capitalism and transcend it to an alternative? This seems pretty far-fetched.
I don’t think it’s plausible that the anarchist strategy of just getting on with the business of building the world you want in the world that exists is likely to succeed in transforming the world as a whole. But I do think if eroding is combined with new ways of thinking about taming capitalism, then it might be possible to create a long-term political strategy which combines the best of the progressive side of social democracy with the most constructive versions of anarchist community activism and bottom-up creativity.
This means combining anarchism and social democracy in a couplet where you erode capitalism to make it more tamable, and you tame capitalism to make it more erode-able. You span that political divide, rejecting the vision of smashing capitalism because of its impossibility and escaping capitalism because of its narcissism.
I think that couplet is not an easy one. It’s not a linear one. It’s not as if once you’ve figured out the formula, you then just let it rip and it’s going to take care of itself. No, it’s going to be filled with contradictions. That’s intrinsic to the process: the way in which you tame capitalism is by making deals with capital. Those deals are inherently unstable. They depend upon the balance of forces.
But what’s the alternative? It’s not that I’m making a prediction, “If you do this, we will win.” I’m saying that I don’t see any other strategy that has any plausibility of being able to transcend capitalism.
Some might say, “This is Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, minus the evolution, minus the certainty that it’s going to happen.”
Well it’s not, because Bernstein didn’t emphasize bottom-up mobilization to build alternatives in the spaces of society. His strategy was parliamentary socialism.
What then do you see as the role of parliamentary — or electoral — politics? Surely that is an essential part of the taming side of the strategy.
One of the traps of parliamentary democracy is the belief that it has to be at the commanding heights. I think that a very important arena for this is municipalities — local-level politics — and building national movements on the foundation of local mobilizations.
In the US, municipal governments are particularly strong and have particularly large responsibilities, whereas national politics are inaccessible, pretty well-defended against any kind of left strategy. So it might be different in different settings.
In some political systems there is no space at the local level. So, in the most centralized of capitalist democracies, cities are more like administrative units of national governments rather than autonomous sites of political struggle. It could be that in some contexts the struggle for more municipal autonomy is part of the political project needed in order to create more space.
I think the state is going to play a very important role, and the idea that you could influence the state primarily as outside actors causing trouble in order to force the state to do things is preposterous. It has never worked anywhere as a long-term strategy.
Sure, if you cause enough trouble and disruption you can get the state to do things, but then as soon as your mobilization declines, the gains are reversed. A strategy that focuses exclusively on outside pressure and disruption is not robust. The only way to have robust change is to have changes in the rules of the game, and that requires political parties that are capable of contesting power and changing the rules of the game.
And yet in the US it’s a very difficult strategic proposition either to engage through the Democrats or to get a third party off the ground.
That’s one reason why lower levels of government are more effective. A big continental state like United States is an unwieldy example. It’s certainly not the case everywhere in the world that the conventional parties are robustly inaccessible to social movements.
But even in the Democratic Party in the United States, the left wing has real proposals that are genuinely amenable to these things. It’s not the case that it’s homogeneously neoliberal. A very big part of the Democratic electorate and a non-trivial number of the elected politicians are for higher taxes, more public goods, more regulation, more environmental initiatives, and a reconstruction of the labor movement to increase popular power.
These are all on the agenda of public debate, if not immediate action. For all sorts of reasons this agenda has been marginalized in the sense of being able to translate this into policy, but that doesn’t have to be permanent.
In the American context I think this has to be fought out within the Democratic Party. I don’t think the idea of a third party is viable. I think the task is to make the progressive wing of the Democratic Party more resilient, and to figure out ways of mobilizing the electorate in order to give it electoral credibility.
This is tough to do. The system is heavily rigged against us. But still, I don’t see what the alternative is. If you say, “Okay, because it’s so inaccessible, we’ll just abandon the state,” that means retreating to the eroding corner of my fourfold strategy without attempting the taming component. Change the world without seizing power, or even contesting power, as Holloway proposes.
Well, maybe that’s possible. I’m not saying that I know for sure that you can’t erode capitalism just by building from the bottom-up alternatives. I’m just skeptical that the space for those alternatives will be secure enough.
And yet you are quite positive about a lot of those projects, right?
Absolutely. I’m positive about all of them because they’re all examples that prefigure an emancipatory alternative. The task is for these prefigurative examples to be generalized.
Now there’s another piece of this equation which is a kind of wild card. This is a very classic Marxist idea: the new forces of production that we are just entering into the twenty-first century are going to be, in my prediction, enormously disruptive of existing forms of capitalism. We’ve already seen that in some sectors. And this could radically open up new possibilities.
The example I often give — just because it’s cute — is Wikipedia destroying a three-hundred-year-old market in encyclopedias. You can’t produce a commercially viable, general-purpose encyclopedia that anybody’s going to buy. Wikipedia is produced in a completely non-capitalist way with a few hundred thousand free, unpaid editors around the world, contributing to the global commons and making it freely available to everybody. And then it has a kind of gift economy to provide the necessary infrastructural resources.
Wikipedia is filled with problems, but it’s an extraordinary example of cooperation and collaboration on a very large scale that’s highly productive. I think that’s the leading edge of what is going be a very disruptive phase for capitalism.
The issue here is bound up with the problem of economies of scale. If you have technologies which have very limited economies of scale, so that the per-unit costs of producing small batches of things are no different than producing huge quantities, then it is much harder for capitalists to monopolize the means of production. The monopoly depends, in significant ways, on the fact that you need large amounts of capital to produce anything competitively.
3-D printers are an example. I don’t think we’re there yet, so let’s just imagine ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. Imagine if 3-D printers could print 3-D printers. Then we have a self-replicating machine. A self-replicating machine that was a general purpose machine capable of making a vast array of goods would completely undermine the possibility of monopolizing the means of production unless some very new mechanisms of capitalist monopolization were introduced.
There are, of course, some things that are not going to be produced by a 3-D printer. Land will not be produced by 3-D printers, nor will be the physical space in which you place your 3D printer. Many of the inputs used in 3-D printer — resins and other kinds of feedstocks — will not themselves be made by 3D printers. Some of these inputs have to be dug up from the ground and processed. So it’s possible that capitalist monopoly of the means of production is going to shift back to the natural resource space of production.
So this is not a post-scarcity argument. It’s the transformation of relations by forces of production.
Absolutely. That’s what I’m saying — this is classic Marxism involving the intensifying contradiction between the relations and forces of production.
Here’s the point: the accelerating irrationality of a private-property-based system of production when the means of production can no longer be monopolized. Everybody can have their means of production, but they can’t use them properly because of a monopolization of natural resources by private property.
The glaring character of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production in that context makes it a pretty simple matter to argue for the necessity of transforming the property relations that are impeding the proper use of the forces of production.
If it’s just land and natural resources that are being monopolized in this selfish, self-aggrandizing, monopolistic way, that’s a simpler problem than when it’s complex commodity chains and large capital-intensive complexes of production.
These new productive forces — if these anticipations are correct — will set the stage for a different environment of political struggle.
And intellectual property as well.
And intellectual property, right. All these developments means I think capitalism will be more erodible in the future than it has been in the past because it will be easier to fill the spaces with alternative forms of production. But it’s only going to be more erodible if it can also be more tamable, because of the need to tame the rampant escalation of intellectual property rights and property rights over land and the like.
The environmental crisis may provide an opening for that as well. Clearly the question of who controls and regulates access to natural resources is also going to be on the agenda in the context of global environmental problems.
Just to reiterate my main point: real utopias become viable when they span these two strategies, taming and eroding capitalism. That’s why it’s different from old-fashioned Bernsteinian evolutionary socialism. The role of the state in such a transformational project is to defend and expand the spaces in which alternatives are built from below, rather than for the state to provide, to be the central actor in the provision of needs.
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