Bernard E. Harcourt | Six Questions for Utopia 13/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010) could serve as the epigraph to our new Utopia 13/13 series—or perhaps, even better, the “Real Utopias Project” that Wright spearheaded along with Joshua Cohen, Janet Gornick, Marcia Meyers, and others. Yes, it is more the spirit of that Real Utopias Project, begun in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that resonates with this 13/13 series—with a few important distinctions.

We share a central animating idea: to identify, explore, and develop the most promising projects for concrete utopias, to figure out their possible expansion in order to create a path forward in these dark times. As Wright explains, “What I and my collaborators in the Real Utopias Project wanted to achieve was a clear elaboration of workable institutional principles that could inform emancipatory alternatives to the existing world.”[1] Their efforts resulted in several books, including a book on gender equality and the transformation of the division of labor within the family structure, published by Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers in 2009, another book on universal basic income, written by Philippe Van Parijs, Bruce Ackerman, and Anne Alstott, and published in 2007, and other works on participatory democracy, associational democracy, and the remaking of markets.[2] Wright himself would take the project in the direction of a more systematic and comprehensive theoretical and structural exploration of the institutions, entities, practices, and pathways for a more just social and economic organization, leading to the publication in 2010 of Envisioning Real Utopias: an analytic discussion of the mechanisms of social integration necessary to achieve societal transformation. The book is a form of analytic practical sociology, replete with typologies of economic structures and taxonomies of theories of transformation, informed by both a Weberian sensibility and a Marxist framework. Wright’s book is anchored in the importance of analyzing social relations through the lens of class, although he updates the framework by focusing on the notion of the “social.” It is ultimately that notion that grounds Wright’s vision of a socialist economy.

But what is of even greater interest than the analytic sociology, are the examples of identifiable, “real” utopias and their potential and implications. At the heart of the book, Wright explores nine different projects that he places squarely under the rubric of “real” utopian innovations: participatory democratic budgeting processes in urban settings, the common creation of knowledge in an enterprise like Wikipedia, the social economy for caring for children and the elderly in Quebec, unconditional universal basic income (UBI), labor union solidarity pension fund investing, alternative tax schemes to support wage-earners throughout the economy, worker cooperatives like the Mondrágon group in the Basque region, market socialism, and “parecon” (“participatory economics”) and the reorganization of economic institutions using participatory councils. As Wright explains, no single one of these pathways are intended to be understood as the single way forward; but as he writes, “taken in combination they have the potential to shift the underlying configuration of power that controls economic activity.”[3]

Not all the experiments that Wright and his colleagues identified are necessarily as promising as others. The example of Wikipedia, for instance, seems unstable and somewhat parasitic on free labor. It depends on hundreds of thousands of unpaid volunteer editors, none of whom (or at least purportedly) are compensated for their work. It now depends, in part, on charitable contributions and the type of clunky call-for-donations that plagues public radio broadcasts during fund drives. There are masked forms of editorial hierarchy and control that are not apparent to the naked eye. More than anything, though, Wikipedia does not feel like a stable or replicable economic system or model for an ongoing mode of economic exchange, given that it depends on free labor. So, while Wikipedia may have utopian elements (knowledge creation and open access), it may not serve for us as a concrete utopia.

Some of the other real utopia projects, though, are precisely the kind of concrete utopias we will be exploring this year. The worker cooperatives of the Mondragón group—a diversified enterprise manufacturing heavy equipment that employs over 74,000 workers, with annual revenues in the billions of euros, now the seventh largest business enterprise in Spain—are a model of participatory democratic governance extended into the workplace. They form part of a broader vision of what I call “coöperism” and which can serve as a coherent economic system to replace others.[4] The participatory city budgeting model from the city of Porto Alegre, in Brazil, is another place where direct democratic participatory principles come alive and offer an alternative way of governing. As a result of those innovations in Porto Alegre, there has been “a massive shift in spending towards the poorest regions of the city,” high and sustained levels of citizen participation, “a clear thickening of civil society stimulated by the participatory process,” and high levels of legitimation for the parties behind the effort.[5] Wright also explores social economy projects like the Quebec Federation of Labor solidarity fund, begun in 1983, that serves as a pension fund designed to invest in small and medium sized firms in Quebec; organized by a labor union, it was an effort for the labor movement to play a role in the reallocation of capital.[6] Wright also discusses share-levy wage-earner funds, an idea developed in the 1970s by a Swedish social democratic economist, Rudolf Meidner: they essentially transform corporate taxes into the issuance of new shares in the corporation that are then paid into a wage-earner fund that represents all the employees in the economy and that is controlled through democratic processes. What this means is that the corporate tax is transformed into a growing mechanism for wage-earner-representation in the governance of corporations.[7]

But notice already a few displacements.

I have referred throughout to “concrete utopias,” whereas Wright studied “real utopias.” The share-levy wage-earner funds are a good example of a proposal that may be realizable, but that did not see the light of day. It was vehemently opposed by Swedish capital holders and ultimately led to the loss of the Social Democratic Party for the first time in over 40 years. It has not been adopted nor led to concrete instantiations.[8] So, these are the kinds of proposals that I would not call “concrete.” They may be real, but they are not really-existing and concrete, not of this world. Our focus, in these 13/13 seminars, will be on concrete utopias. Not to invent new imaginaries, nor to reinvent the wheel, but to build on the practical and critical insights of others that have been realized.

Also, in this 13/13, our goal will not be to assemble pathways or proposals that “taken in combination” may shift economic relations. It is one thing to identify a promising working model, and another to match it or integrate it with other promising models. We’ll be taking the first step of identifying, assessing, maybe even reevaluating, the promising nature of concrete utopias.

Six Questions for Utopia 13/13

In our first session with Étienne Balibar, we read three manifestos: the accelerationist manifesto, the Zapatista manifesto, and the Communist Manifesto. All three raise important questions for us to ground the theoretical framework of this 13/13 series. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics (2013) embraces a new “accelerationist” approach to leftist politics that bears a unique relation to space and time, one that favors technology, complexity, speed, and the most advanced theoretical and practical tools to transform the world. The Zapatistas manifesto, the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandonia (2005), focuses on what they refer to as “their simple word,” during a moment of transformation from armed struggle to coalitional revolutionary action against not only the political regime in Mexico, but as well as and more broadly the struggle against neoliberalism and, as they write, “for humanity.” The selection from Marx and Engels’s manifesto, chapter 3 on “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism,” focuses on their critique of utopian socialists (such as the followers of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier) whom they accuse of deadening the class struggle and reverting to forms of conservatism, superstition, and fantasy.

These manifestos bring to the fore central questions for utopian thinking today, the answers to which may offer a theoretical foundation for the sessions to come. There are, to be sure, long histories of debate over these questions and critiques, far more than we can discuss in the inaugural session; but this is, after all, only the beginning of a year-long conversation.

First, does the notion of “utopia” undermine the ongoing struggle for social justice in the present moment? One of the classic critiques of utopianism—whether of religious notions of a heavenly hereafter or of idealized notions of an egalitarian distant future—is that it simply provides comfort and fosters complacency in the face of our present travails; it renders us passive in the current moment. This is a critique of the very term utopia, a place that does not exist, but pacifies us nonetheless—famously articulated by Marx and others. As I am sure you can tell by now, I find that the argument misses its target. What we are focusing on in this seminar is not an unachievable or distant utopia, not a “non-space”; but rather, concrete existing forms of social and economic organization that are promising. They actually do exist. They are more than just possible, they are here and now, and they are replicable and expandable.

Second, what is the relationship between utopian thinking and the degree of transformation necessary to achieve desired change? In other words, to what extent does a concrete utopia have to be radical or revolutionary? Is it possible to think of a concrete utopia as an incremental improvement? Erik Olin Wright addresses this question in the final part of his book, Part Three, on the elements of a theory of transformation. There, Wright develops three possible means of transformation, or what he calls “three models of transformation”[9]: the ruptural, interstitial metamorphosis, and symbiotic metamorphosis. He associates those, respectively, with revolutionary socialism/communism involving an attack on the state and a confrontation with the bourgeoisie; an anarchist vision that builds an alternative world outside of existing statist structures, one that is less confrontational or simply ignores other political actors and classes; and a more social-democratic, incrementalist, internal approach that works within the existing state and struggles to collaborate with others, develop coalitions, and adapt in order to move forward. In effect, the ruptural is the revolutionary break, the interstitial metamorphosis is anarchist separatism, and the symbiotic metamorphosis is incrementalist social-democratic reform. The question that arises is whether and to what extent a utopian vision needs to differ from our present dystopia for it to qualify as sufficiently transformative.

Third, what is the space of concrete utopias? Is it the household, a commune, a village, a region, a country? Should we think of it at the micro or the social scale? It was, after all, at the scale of a society that the term utopia was born with Thomas More in 1516. But should we think of concrete utopias today at a more humble scale? A commune? A neighborhood? Cooperation Jackson, which we will discuss at our next seminar Utopia 2/13, began in West Jackson, a small neighborhood in the city of Jackson, Mississippi; but it also built on earlier plans to create a Black self-determining region (in fact, a separatist sovereignty) of sixteen predominantly Black counties along the Mississippi River in the Western part of the state of Mississippi, Eastern Louisiana, Southern Tennessee, and Southeast Arkansas. What is the space of utopian vision we need today?

Michel Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967/1984) trains the spotlight precisely on this question of spatiality. Though he refers only in passing to utopia (a single paragraph that dismisses it as a non-space), it is the spatiality of heterotopias that is so productive—heterotopias, which in many instances are dystopias (including the colony, the prison, the asylum, the boarding school as illustrations, but also museums and libraries, brothels and motel rooms, fairgrounds, and of course the ship). These are the spaces outside society, in tension, in contradiction with normal social institutions. They are of different sizes. They can be as small as a Persian rug representing a garden, or a country cemetery. (The cemetery is a particularly interesting space, one that can become magical. Visiting a cemetery allows one to experience a form of immortality almost. There’s something transporting about the relations that one can have, the way in which, within that space, one can so entirely transcend space and time in its ordinary form. The garden as well: a space that can be created to give an experience that transcends ordinary notions of temporality.) What then of the scale of concrete utopias? Are there any limits to how small or large they can be, in light of the fact that they must be concrete?

Fourth, to what extent must utopian thought engage matters of feasibility and effectiveness? If we set aside, for instance, the proposal for share-levy wage-earner funds on the grounds that they were merely a proposal and were never instantiated, and we focus only on existing concrete utopias, there remains the question of whether those can be expanded, replicated, or generalized. Is the concrete utopia portable? Can it grow? Are those questions legitimate? This is where the Mondragón example is so powerful. It is not, of course, without criticism; there are socialist and labor movement critiques of Mondragón, reflected for instance in the book by Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón.[10] (Kasmir concludes her empirical analysis of Mondragón suggesting that it undermines class conflict.[11]) Nevetheless, Mondragón is a good illustration of the fact that worker cooperatives can be scaled up—hugely. And this question of scaling is important because the goal is not just the concrete existence of a utopian project, but its expansion.

Fifth, what kind of work would it take to scale up a concrete utopia? Is it the kind of work that depends on convincing a majority of one’s peers or achieving an electoral victory? Or is it the kind of work that you and I, just the two of us working together, can begin to accomplish? Because my sense is that if we need first to convince a majority of our peers or win an electoral majority, then there is far less chance it is going to be realized. There is, inevitably, a collective action problem. So the question becomes, how can we expand concrete utopias—or which kind of concrete utopias can be expanded—without first having to convince a majority of our fellow citizens or international comrades?

Sixth, and finally for now at least, has everything changed in the age of global climate warming? Is it possible to think about concrete utopias today in the way in which we had traditionally thought about them in the 19th century, or in the 20th century, as possibly being small, enclosed spaces, a commune, for instance, or even the Paris Commune? Is there something new about our newfound interdependence in the face of global climate change that means that we are now, in the 21st century, in a different situation where we can no longer imagine creating a separate, self-sufficient concrete utopia? There’s a way in which the concept of utopia has become an all or nothing proposition today, given the crises that we face. Is the time of the Fourierist phalanstère—self-sufficient, autonomous, utopian microcosms of 1,200 people designed for the benefit of workers and their families—behind us? Cooperation Jackson, again, is an interesting example insofar as it has recently collaborated with Cooperation Vermont (actually serving as the nonprofit vehicle to buy a store in Marshfield, Vermont) in order to receive climate refugees (and now water refugees) from Jackson, Mississippi. Has the question of scale changed with climate warming?

These are challenging questions, I know, but these are urgent times. We need not address all of these questions today, but they will serve as guiding stars for our yearlong discussion. For today, let’s start the theoretical groundwork with our dear friend, the philosopher Étienne Balibar.

Welcome to Utopia 1/13!


[1] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010), x.

[2] Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, Gender Equality: Transforming Family Division of Labor (London: Verso, 2009); Bruce Ackerman, Ann Alstott, and Philippe Van Parijs, Redesigning Distribution: Basic Income and Stakeholder Grants as Cornerstones of a More Egalitarian Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007).

[3] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 368.

[4] See forthcoming book, Bernard E. Harcourt, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory at Columbia University Press (forthcoming 2023).

[5] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 158, 159.

[6] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 225-230.

[7] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 230-234.

[8] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 232-33.

[9] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 304.

[10] Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

[11] See also June C. Nash, “Foreword,” in The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), ix.