Reading Response 5

Envisioning Real Utopias has been one of the most realistic and optimistic approaches to speculative post-capitalist thinking that we’ve read so far. Wright himself says that this type of thinking creates “Utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potential of humanity” (pg. 6).

This reading was comforting at times, to know that those thinking about the future of our state are so completely understanding what it takes to make systematic change and not underestimating the unforeseen chaos that will inevitably accompany even our best ideas since we can’t count on the perfection of humanity. In fact, Wright recognizes that the unintentional consequences of intentional consequences can become quite grand. He doesn’t agree that the negatives are greater than the positives, but admits that they can’t be totally dismissed as we idealize. Here, we have to be honest with ourselves and Wright says “incremental tinkering may not be inspiring, but it’s the best we can do” (pg 7) and in his online lecture asks “can a capitalist state contribute to eroding capitalism?”. If we’re admitting that systematic change is necessary, we can’t just talk about what this will look like in 2038. We need to consider what being anti-capitalist looks like today.

At the end of chapter 2, Wright introduces the structure of thinking that he delves into in the lecture:

  1. Diagnose and critique
  2. Formulating alternatives
  3.  Elaborating strategies of transformation

Wright says that his work with Imagining Real Utopias was largely focused on the second step of brainstorming alternatives (some he lists in chapter 1, like participatory city budgeting, Wikipedia, mondragon worker-owned cooperatives, and unconditional basic income).

The part that spurred the most questions for me was his discussion on social justice, absolutely not the intention or rights of human flourishing, but the worry of the ways we might struggle to put into legal terms such a subjective place of contentment and satisfaction. How far can we go to define what people really need? From an honest and emotional standpoint, I worry that humans have a way of constantly failing to find satisfaction. The best we could reasonably do is ‘good enough’, which is just that, admittedly, completely good enough. But I feel we tend to strive and desire much more than that.

Wright compares finding our best potential as people to an acorn containing an oak inside of it. We can work towards equipping people to grow, and hopefully make that acorn to become an oak tree. I worry, what if the acorn decides it also wants to be artificially blue, and synthetically glittery, and wants the state to also support a branch cosmetic surgery and falls into a cycle where we work to support and supplement the oak? I think after each support beyond the full growth of the oak tree, the emotional state of the tree will somehow still leaving some level of emptiness.

It’s a vulnerable, sad, and honest thought to discuss this looming emptiness we tend to feel and live our whole lives feeding as humans, and something others might not feel, but my concern all in all is just that we will move towards a healthy and positive movement of social justice, and poison and abuse the system by trying to make the state feed our souls. We can absolutely ask to be treated well enough, but to be satisfied by this, is potentially a black hole we cannot fill.


Reading Response 5 · Akshat Srivastava

“Radicals and revolutionaries suffer from what Frederick Hayek termed the “fatal conceit” — the mistaken belief that through rational calculation and political will, society can be designed in ways that will significantly improve the human condition. Incremental tinkering may not be inspiring, but it is the best we can do.” (Wright, 7)

This idea of ‘incremental tinkering’ being the way forward rather than big, smashing changes intrigued me quite a bit, both in the book and in the talk. I especially appreciated the talk’s focus (or intent to focus, at least) on the process of transformation rather than adding to the already dense library of thought on status quo critique and alternative visions. The idea of incremental tinkering seems particularly strong because it acknowledges the ‘fatal conceit’ fallacy and instead proposes a path focused on incremental transformation over time. This mindset is precisely what I thought the previous set of readings on ideas such as full automation was missing — an acceptance of the fact that the transformation phase is going to be tough, and we need to mend our ways to account for that.

This theme of embracing the tension between alternative, dreamy visions and practical reality is what lays the foundation for Wright’s idea behind ‘real utopias’. He starts off by briefly discussing four examples of such ‘real[istic] fantasies’: participatory city budgeting, Wikipedia, the Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives, and unconditional basic income. He accepts the naïveté behind beliefs along the lines of “where there is a will there is a way,” but argues that the “ways” become impossible if there is no “will” in the first place. It is necessary to have faith in the possibility of a utopian reality if we ever want to actually progress towards it. I appreciate the rather strong, refreshing optimistic realism on display in these ideas and throughout the rest of Wright’s work. In fact, the timing of this reading now makes a lot of sense — as we transition into thinking about our final projects, this model of thinking will serve as a far more grounded, realistic basis as compared to some of our previous readings.

Wright describes the three basic tasks at hand for emancipatory social science: systematic diagnosis and critique of the status quo, envisioning viable alternatives, and understanding the potential obstacles and dilemmas of transformation. He argues that it is insufficient to merely show that certain issues exist; rather, it is crucial for a scientific emancipatory approach to show that the existence of these issues stems from specific attributes of current social institutions. The next step, of course, is to develop credible alternative approaches that have the potential to address said issues. These approaches need to be backed by strong empirical and theoretical reasoning for them to be considered scientific emancipatory solutions. Bringing his initial views on willingness being a key behind any such attempts at problem-solving, he states, “…social limits of possibility are not independent of beliefs about those limits,” (Wright, 23) Finally, he makes the case for developing a systematic path of transformation, i.e., how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be. I find this idea of transformation to be the most challenging among the three steps he lays out, and that is why, as I mentioned earlier, I especially appreciated the special focus on it in his talk.

I decided to look more into Wikipedia as part of my real utopia research, especially since it’s a concept that has always fascinated me but I haven’t had the chance to look at its history or the people behind it too much. Jimmy Wales is cool. Just read this interview here: When asked if he is ‘still’ the self-styled dictator of Wikipedia, he says, “No, I’ve always rejected that term. The community has always rejected the term. But I do say that I’m the constitutional monarch. Like the Queen. It doesn’t mean I have any actual power. I do a lot of waving.” He is one of the very few internet entrepreneurs running an enterprise this large who aren’t billionaires. As fascinating as that is, he calls it a “stupid thing to bang on about”. Much like the majority of the open source software movement, I find Wikipedia almost too good to be true. The most common criticism for the idea is that it’s too open; anyone can write anything they want. What this argument completely misses is that it the platform is also equally open to editing, and eventually it is the collective wisdom of contributors that wins. It truly is a shining example of a real utopia.

Reading Response 5 | Andrew Chambers

Erik Olin Wright gives us a glimmer of hope in “Envisioning Real Utopias”, a glimmer of hope that is far from within reach, but visible none the less. Although I do certainly believe that another world is a possibility, I agree when Wright states that this is no easy task. For me, the feat of coming up with a new and viable system for change is much less of a hurdle than fundamentally changing the way humans live. The very idea of social norms and powerful institutions that are ingrained into our minds from childhood push us to live passively and quietly, concerned not on how to live better but rather just on how to survive in the system. We all too often think that what we know as natural is also good and is working for us. This simply is not true.

In chapter two, Wright points to the fatalistic nature of humans as a major roadblock in creating a real utopia and I couldn’t agree more. We have become stuck in our routines so much so that most people have no grasp on the fact that our system is even broken let alone that alternatives can be achieved. I myself frequently find myself with a fatalistic mindset when it comes to societal change and humanity as a whole. I can see how this mindset, regardless of its origin, can lead to mass skepticism and hopelessness, leaving us unmobilized and doing nothing. This being said, I am not cynical to the possibility of a new system. A system that is desirable, achievable, and viable. Getting there is the problem.

When asked to envision ‘real’ utopias, I immediately think of Estonia or rather, e-Estonia. The small post-soviet state of Estonia is taking radical steps toward creating an entirely digital nation. This project is fundamentally redefining what it means to be a country, and this is the sort of thinking paired with realistic action that needs to be happening in order for widespread change.

Estonia is transforming the way people interact with society in very real ways through an unparalleled use of technology. by 2002, the government built free wifi networks covering most inhabited areas. In 2007, e-voting was implemented, and by 2009 94% of tax returns were filled online and taking users under 5 minutes to complete. In addition, vast arrays of high-speed fiber-optic cable has been run across the country providing incredible access to its entirely online government. Currently, all bureaucratic processes can be done online, and all citizen’s data is easily accessible in times of need. This data is also not stored centrally, but via the blockchain, and thus in the event of attack or even invasion, the local government cannot be shut down. E-Estonia’s digital residency program allows for anyone in the world to become an e-Estonia resident for just $100 and a trip to the embassy. This type of change in the way we view residency and nationality provides yet another step in the right direction for widespread shift in thinking and allows for one to conceive of an entirely borderless nation.

This utilization of technology for greater societal good makes e-Estonia one of the most forward thinking, yet largely practical efforts in radically changing the very ideas of statehood and government. Though all of these achievements act as great strides towards to a true utopia, there are just as many dystopian possibilities that hang thinly in the balance.


noah | response 005

I frankly found the video more helpful than the two chapters, and even the video didn’t shed a lot of light on how to be a anti-capitalist in the modern society. I will admit that this past week was my first exposure to Erik Olin Wright, so there’s likely a multitude of information/strategies that i haven’t seen from him. With that said, my expectations for this week were to see a more-specific road map on the mind-frame and points of focus on how to go about anti-capitalism. EOW chose to stay on the more agreeable side of the fence, but that left his arguments pretty general. Although he was introducing some new vocabulary, it didn’t feel like new information was being presented, since a lot of the arguments were common sense. Wright proposed that in order to develop a robust and successful viable alternative to capitalism, the issues at hand would have to be “well thought out and understood” (Wright 22). This may be me being an overly-critical designer, but i didn’t need a to be told that quality solutions come from quality research.

I can agree with Wright that there’s no way for us to know what our speculative futures could be, since there is an insurmountable amount of influences that determine our future. Wright’s one node of systems thinking that i really appreciated was the hierarchy of criteria of evaluating social alternatives. This hierarchy recognized that in order to bring about a successful change, you need to propose a desirable solution to the population, which is an attribute that is often lost.

Relating our conversation of desirability with modern-day anti-capitalist examples, i looked into crowd funding through the lense of kickstarter. This platform initially worked to allow anybody with any background to find validation on their ideas. Unfortunately, it’s been taken over by the design community, meaning any poorly-designed campaign will generally fail. Kickstarter has pretty strict compliance standards that make it difficult without the aid of a graphic designer. This is all besides my point, i’m just ranting about its accessibility.

With the dawn and maturation of the internet, we’ve made it possible for factions of society to push the things they care about into fruition. This encourages innovation that pushes the larger companies, can create movements that could potentially hit the mainstream (like a portable dual-screen setup), or just creating interesting products that enrich our human existence. I found a campaign to help encourage reducing food waste by beautifying the “imperfect” produce that people find or grow. This creates a micro-case study on spreading the awareness on food waste by idolizing what society considers “the ugly.” I look a kickstarter (and sinilar sites) as a vote for change. People want to explore new solutions, and question the designs surrounding them by doing some problem solving themselves. We’re really crowd funding good ideas that larger pools of money can adopt and implement on a larger scale. If nobody adopts these desirable ideas, then the platform funds the company to upscale and hopefully reach the mainstream. It’s projects like the ugly foods kickstarter that give me hope that people want to see more environmental and logical aspects applied to our society. I Which in turn, i would assume Erik Olin Wright would be pleased.

Reading Response 5 / Sarah Fay

Reading Response 5:
Building Real Utopias

As Erik Olin Wright dove into dissecting different possibilities for future utopias, he made an effort to create almost a “formula” of what is needed to combine into utopia. The points he highlighted in this formula are that critique is needed in a society to pinpoint why we want to leave our current state, hypothesizing about alternatives tells us where we want to go, and speculating transformation tells us how to get there. Thinking of utopias with this structure adds validity and depth; dissecting and thinking about these topics with structured logic sepperates unfeasible ideas from potentially feasible.

There are specific and small windows in society that showcase utopia in action. A repetitive theme throughout these essays is the praise upon Wikipedia; a showcase sampling of anticapitlism in perfect order. An online journal entitled Dare to Edit by Epherma starts with a quote about encyclopedias in general The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble the knowledge scattered far and wide on the surface of the earth, to expose its general system to our fellow men with whom we live and to transmit it to those who will follow us, so that […] our sons, by becoming more educated, might become at the same time more virtuous and happy. (quoted in J. Creech, 1982: 183)” This same exact mindset is what keep Wikipedia successful and growing every day. It’s a window into utopia because there is no motive to add to the “community” other than for the sake of informing other users, and maintaining order and accuracy among global topics. Wikipedia is physical proof as Wright says “utopian ideals grounded in the real potentials of humanity.” Wikipedia thrives on the notion of “to each according to need, from each according to ability.” There are universal needs, and there are diverse and universal ways to fill these gaps when everyone taps into their unique abilities.

This goes on to exemplify that real freedom means that people have actual capacities to make choices that matter to them. In utopia, people would have the ultimate freedom to make decisions that affect them uniquely in every way, as well as the freedom to make decisions as a group that affect the outcome of the community. Capitalism is so ingrained into everything that, like Matt Wizinsky talked about on the very first day of class, it’s easier to picture the end of the world than it is to picture a world without capitalism. People are born into deeply rooted societies and raised to become a part of it. The society that occupies all facets of their life is all they know how to maneuver in, meaning people are just constantly coping and justifying the crippling effects of capitalism as their reason for life.

Though Wikipedia sounds like just a small detail in relation to the vast world of politics and humanity, it is an effective facet to dissect and relate to bigger pictures. In the same way that Wikipedia killed the author-god complex and now exists as one large entity, so could these notions theoretically be applied to the global scale. In the same way that Wikipedia has killed “authocracy”, open-source design sites are doing the same. Noun Project and Use+Modify are examples. With the killing of an author god, there is no discrimination or vetting; just infinite knowledge and resources growing for everyone to benefit from.

Reading Response 5 / Shelbi Howard

Erik Olin Wright presents a systematic approach to anti-capitalist alternatives in a world where he posits that capitalism is the source of social blight. He believes that this is resolvable and capitalism is not the only option. Through a process of the three following steps he proposes a theoretical way to assess and begin to achieve social change: “the diagnosis and critique of society tells us why we want to leave the world in which we live, the theory of alternatives tells us where we want to go, and the theory of transformation tells us how to get from here to there”.

This is a very pragmatic view of the reality of economic systems that accounts for unintended consequences, imperfect conditions, and current economic structures allowing for the discussion and possible implementation of a realistic utopian solution capable of creating a democratic egalitarian socio-economic system. Wright’s argument is very convincing as it addresses the complexity of the issue without idealizing true utopian ideals. His discussion has its foundation in historical movements and sociological truths that assess the reality of the situation from an honest, yet optimistic, viewpoint.

An important example that Wright uses in his presentation of “How to Be an Anti-Capitalist for the 21st Century” explains the history of economic change from the feudal to capitalist systems as a result of slowly eroding feudal values with capitalist activities. These activities allowed capitalism to slowly overtake feudalism as a result of independent strategies that were organized around decision-makers’ own self interest. The consideration of personal interest is a key factor in the unintended consequences of large-scale systemic decisions. Wright’s inclusion of these historical human behaviors that led to socio-economic shifts created the  foundation and reputability of his theoretical process of transformation.

Additionally, the slow, selfish shift from feudalism can be viewed as a similar process to what is occurring today in capitalism with the slowly expanding existence of the sharing economy. Similar to the spread of capitalism through economic need and convenience, millennials today are choosing to leave the middle class values of physical asset collection for the convenience of accessing goods where and when they want them.

The sharing economy has been defined as “consumers granting each other temporary access to under-utilized physical assets (idle capacity), possibly for money.” by Koen Frenken, professor in innovation studies at Utrecht University, and Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College. This is similar to, but does not include, the gig economy where services are ordered on demand. By this definition, Uber would be considered a part of the gig economy while Turo, a car-sharing platform, is a part of the sharing economy.

Not only is the sharing economy gaining popularity with its data-driven on-demand availability, it is expected to grow by ~25 times its value from $14 billion in 2014 to $335 billion by 2025. Affected industries are increasing daily with travel, car-sharing, staffing, streaming and even financial lending leading the economic shift. Companies in the sharing economy align with Wright’s proposals to create a capitalist state that contributes to anti-capitalism through the “democratization of social relations that facilitate human flourishing.” Instead of providing services, these companies are facilitating transactions that break down barriers that otherwise exist to starting businesses. Similar to the slow shift from feudalism into a capitalist economy, we may be in the middle of an organic economic shift into a more democratized sharing-based economy beginning with millennials as a result of convenience, technology, and disillusionment with the current economic system.

Reading Response #5 / Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver


Speculative City

Reading Response #5

I think I’m too fatalistic for these utopias. I found myself agreeing frequently with Erik Olin Wright, but I can’t say his visions have brought me any philosophical reprieve. These are slow and wandering solutions, I’m worried they aren’t quick enough to escape the Acceleration Machine. While he frequently side-steps the philosophical qualms by claiming his methodology is scientific, I can’t help but see the shadow of “Fatal Conceit” hanging over his work.

He mentioned Focault once, which was necessary to sooth some of his statements about structure. I personally don’t see a way philosophy and society can escape Post-Modernism without massive technologic gains. Our structures of government and economy are sick caricatures of the WASPs that created them. Any structure can be seen as un-acted oppression waiting to be sprung. Without disassembling these structures and replacing them with some sort of non-hierarchical nervous system, I can’t foresee any sort of philosophical answers.

Deterritorialization may play a heavy hand in our future. This would put a lot of weight into the “escaping capitalism” box of the two by two grid. Our decentralizing of information and increasing complexity of existing in both a physical and digital sphere could lead us to a kaleidoscopic society, zooming in and out of localized and global systems with dizzying speed.

For this reason, I’ve chosen to focus on one of the earliest “real utopias” in America, the Shakers. This society was both incredibly progressive technologically and socially, but was only allowed this through their isolation from society as a whole. They embodied the idea of an escape from Capitalism —all wealth was owned by the community to further the community, they existed without private property— and yet they still relied on being able to trade with outside world to establish this.

One of the core tenets of beliefs was the cleansing power of hard work. Work, craft, and cleanliness were held in very high regard. These ideas that seem to be needed in capitalism, but could only exist in such purity out side of Capital’s gaze. Their emphasis on work and equality made them an incredibly progressive society. They were pacifists, believed in gender equality, and had no racial discrimination. They invented a variety of tools to make their work more efficient, including automatic seed planters, threshing machines, clothespins, an early version of the circular saw, and a wheel-driven washing machine. They valued education and ran a progressive system of schooling. All the while, they created iconic furniture and architectural designs that eventually leaked out to influence American design as a whole. Their value of material properties, craft, and function still serve a purpose today in the modern design ethos. As soon as the Scandinavian’s were able to get their hands on these designs they too began to embody these ideas and gave rise to a whole new era of furniture.

However, the isolation they had created lead to their downfall. Celibacy. What a fucking downer. No one wanted to be celibate forever, and they had no children of their own to raise in their beliefs. This in tandem with the rise of industry collapsed the value of their handmade work, and broke them back into to Capitalism.

Capitalism is one resilient son-of-bitch, waiting around every corner to pull us back in. Escaping appears to happen only momentarily.