The beginning of the new year seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the progress, and potential, of what must surely rank as one of the most astonishing and encouraging developments of 2011: the emergence and rapid spread of the Occupy movement. Most participants in, and observers of, the Occupy movement in the US agree that its ‘first phase’ – the seizure and occupation of public space for use as a base for political action, experimentation, discussion and organisation – is either over or approaching its end. What ought to come next is a matter of pressing concern.
Erik Olin Wright is Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. He is current president of the American Sociological Association and the author of many books, including Envisioning Real Utopias (selected chapters of which can be read here). He discussed with New Left Project the American Occupy movement’s character and achievements thus far, and the directions it might pursue going forward.
Have you been following the spread of the Occupy movement in the U.S.? What are your impressions?
I am writing now after the largest and most visible Occupy Movement encampments have been dismantled, so it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the experience of the fall of 2011. My basic impression is this: the Occupy Movement is part of a global wave of protests involving novel “technologies of protest” – Tahrir Square, the 17-day occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building in late winter 2011, the movements of the squares in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere in Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. All of these protests involved extended encampments in public spaces in which public discussions of political issues were held on a regular basis, General Assemblies to discuss strategies convened, and practical logistics of food, security and medical care were self-organized by participants. In all of these encampments the central modality of struggle was nonviolent, although occasionally in some of these violent incidents occurred. So, the first thing to note about OWS is that it is not a uniquely American event responding to special American conditions; it is part of a global wave of protests, in some ways not unlike the global wave of protests in 1968.
What do you think the eruption and spread of the occupations says about present social conditions in the U.S.?
The OWS says something about conditions in the world, not just the US: there is a global sense of impasse within the existing political-economic model. The crisis of the economic model is the result of the combination of accelerating economic inequalities combined with economic crisis and stagnation. When there is strong economic growth, inequality as such tends to be viewed by many people as relatively benign, as reflected in the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In the absence of a vibrant economy, harsh inequalities become increasingly illegitimate. The core slogan of the OWS movement – ‘we are the 99%’ – reflects this. But there is also a crisis in the political model of liberal democracy, both in the US and in Europe. Here the critical issue is the sense of these systems becoming both less democratic and less competent – less democratic in that powerful elites, especially bound up with global finance, are increasingly able to dictate public policy; less competent in that the state’s capacity to manage the capitalist economy and meet the basic needs of people has declined. This crisis of legitimacy of both the economic and political system has fuelled the kinds of protests we have seen.
Tactically there has been an ongoing debate among the occupiers and those sympathetic to them over whether the movement should crystallise around a set of demands, or whether it should focus instead on instantiating an alternative way of structuring social life. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I wouldn’t put the issue in quite this way. Of course it is important for any social movement if it wishes to have an impact over the long haul to articulate a project of transformation, but what is conventionally called a “set of demands” is only one aspect of this. “Demands” are part of a project of transformation insofar as you are acting on institutions of power and want some kind of change in the policies or practices of those institutions. But creating models of alternative institutions and ways of being are also part of formulating a project of transformation. The popular assemblies in the movement of the squares in Spain and elsewhere, and the public dialogues within the OWS encampments embody that spirit. Now, it would be an illusion to imagine that the processes instantiated in the scrappy encampments over a period of a few months somehow constitute by themselves viable models of new institutions for a complex society – “an alternative way of structuring social life.” But this does not mean that the public demonstration of democratic deliberation and participatory intensity isn’t an important part of articulating some of the values of an alternative society.
Some sympathetic commentators, for example Noam Chomsky, have expressed concern that the demands the occupations have made are either very moderate (so that even writers at the Financial Times can welcome them), or are so vague and far-fetched (“overthrow capitalism”, etc.) that they don’t threaten any existing power interests. Do you think that is a problem?
The OWS has had an enormous impact on public discussion after only a few months of existence in spite of being so vague about its transformative project. It has interjected concern about inequality and its ramifications for both the wellbeing of most people and the democraticness of American democracy into mainstream discussion. Whatever may be the long-term shortcomings of not having an elaborate program of “nonreformist reforms” – demands that fall between mild changes that don’t threaten anything and extravagant calls for changing everything – in the immediate context the occupy movement has had a much bigger impact than I think anyone would have anticipated.
That being said, for the OWS to have a sustained positive programmatic impact it does need to articulate a set of policy proposals that can be adopted as demands by various political forces in the country, both within the left of the Democratic party and outside the party. At the moment the occupy movement as a movement has no mechanism for generating any kind of coherent manifesto, but perhaps that will emerge in the course of the next phase of its development.
You’ve written a lot about “real utopias”. What do you mean by that?
Real Utopia is a way of talking about alternatives to existing structures or domination and inequality. The expression “Real Utopias” is, of course, an oxymoron: Utopia means “nowhere” – a fantasy world of perfect harmony and social justice. When politicians want to summarily dismiss a proposal for social transformation as an impractical dream outside the limits of possibility, they call it “utopian”. Realists reject such fantasies as a distraction from the serious business of making practical improvements in existing institutions. The idea of real utopias embraces this tension between dreams and practice: “utopia” implies developing visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations for a world in which all people have access to the conditions to live flourishing lives; “real” means taking seriously the problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world.
The core of the task of exploring real utopias is to look for social institutions around the world that embody, however imperfectly, emancipatory ideals and thus potentially prefigure broader alternatives. We need to understand how these cases work and identify the ways in which they facilitate human flourishing, but we also need to diagnose their limitations, dilemmas and unintended consequences in order to understand ways of developing their potentials and enlarging their reach. The temptation in such research is to be a cheerleader, uncritically extolling the virtues of promising experiments. The danger is to be a cynic, seeing the flaws as the only reality and the potential as an illusion.
What kind of real utopias could the Occupy movements demand, given their concerns about the political power of big capital, increasing inequality of wealth, and the unfair distribution of suffering in the wake of the economic crisis?
The OWS movement, as I indicated earlier, is a response both to an erosion of democracy and to the grotesque increase in economic inequality in the context of the economic crisis. Perhaps the most obvious real utopia that might resonate with the occupy movement on the democratic dimension is “participatory budgeting”, the institutional innovation in how city governments determine their budgets that began in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the 1990s. In participatory budgeting, the discretionary part of city budgets is decided through a process of direct, participatory democracy in neighbourhood assemblies rather than in city councils or administrative planning. This has proved quite successful in some cities – but not all – in redirecting city spending towards the needs of the poor rather than the wealthy elites. Participatory budgeting is now being experimented with in some wards in Chicago and New York, so it may have some traction as an urban reform.
Demands around the economic dimension are in some ways more challenging, since it is harder to envision transformations that can occur at the local level that would make a significant difference on the concentration of wealth and income. There are, of course, some obvious policy demands – like tax fairness and strong public regulation of finance – which fall within the ordinary spectrum of reformist policies and are consistent with the policy stances of progressive Democrats. In terms of real utopia institutions which in the long run could alter the shape of economic inequality, I think the following are especially relevant:
• Solidarity finance: This is an institutional arrangement pioneered by the labour movement in Quebec. It involves using part of union-controlled pension funds for private equity investment (rather than simply buying stocks on the stock market through mutual funds) in geographically rooted small and medium sized firms. In Quebec the funds allocated for this purpose by the unions was initially matched by funds from the Provincial government. Solidarity finance is a way of strengthening geographically-rooted capital and of getting labour representation on boards of directors and more collaborative labour relations within those firms.
• Unconditional basic income: This is a proposal for a fundamental redesign of the mechanisms of income distribution by providing a monthly stipend to all legal residents sufficient to provide for a no-frills basic standard of living. Basic income is, of course, completely off the political agenda at this time in the United States, but is being discussed actively elsewhere in the world.
• Worker-owned cooperatives: Creating a more favourable economic environment for worker-owned cooperatives is a way of promoting a more egalitarian form of market economy. Public policy in principle can do much to facilitate this by helping solve credit constraints for worker cooperatives, helping develop networks of cooperatives, and providing various kinds of technical support.
Do you think the Occupy movement should see itself as being directed against ‘capitalism’ as such?
Capitalism is a central part of the problem, so of course ultimately it is necessary to be anti-capitalist. But this does not mean that it is necessary to accept the binary vision of economic systems as being either capitalist or noncapitalist (or socialist). Economic systems are hybrids. What we call “capitalism” is really a complex hybrid of capitalist, statist and socialist forms within which the capitalist form of economic activity is dominant. To be anti-capitalist means to reduce the weight of the capitalist component of the hybrid by in various ways subordinating capitalism to democratic control and expanding the space for socially-empowered forms of economic activity.
You’ve written about the need for social movements to have a “transformational strategy”. Why is that so important?
It is important for people to feel that the short-term struggles in which they engage are part of some larger project, serve some broader purpose. In old-style Marxist perspectives this involved believing that socialist struggles were following the dynamics of history which propelled social change in an emancipatory direction. Few people now believe that “history is on our side” in some immanent way, and thus in order to feel that current struggles are making history it is important to have a transformational vision.
In Envisioning Real Utopias you describe three models of transformational strategy – ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic. Could you briefly describe the differences between them?
Here are the definitions from the book (chapter 8):
Ruptural transformations envision creating new institutions of social empowerment through a sharp break within existing institutions and social structures. The central idea is that through direct confrontation and political struggles it is possible to create a radical disjuncture in institutional structures in which existing institutions are destroyed and new ones built in a fairly rapid way. Smash first, build second. A revolutionary scenario for the transition to socialism is the iconic version of this: a revolution constitutes a decisive, encompassing victory of popular forces for social empowerment resulting in the rapid transformation of the structures of the state and the foundations of economic structures.
Interstitial transformations seek to build new forms of social empowerment in the niches, spaces and margins of capitalist society, often where they do not seem to pose any immediate threat to dominant classes and elites. This is the strategy of building institutions of social empowerment that is most deeply embedded in civil society and often falls below the radar screen of radical critics of capitalism. While interstitial strategies are at the centre of some anarchist approaches to social change, and they play a big practical role in the activities of many community activists, socialists in the Marxist tradition have often disparaged such efforts, seeing them as palliative or merely symbolic, offering little prospect of serious challenge to the status quo. Yet, cumulatively, such developments can not only make a real difference in the lives of people, but potentially constitute a key component of enlarging the transformative scope for social empowerment in the society as a whole.
Symbiotic transformations involve strategies in which extending and deepening the institutional forms of popular social empowerment simultaneously helps solve certain practical problems faced by dominant classes and elites. The democratization of the capitalist state had this character: democracy was the result of concentrated pressures and struggles from below which were initially seen as a serious threat to the stability of capitalist dominance, but in the end liberal democracy helped solve a wide range of problems which contributed to the stability of capitalism. The increase in social empowerment was real, not illusory, but it also helped to solve problems in ways that served the interests of capitalists and other elites. Symbiotic transformations thus have a contradictory character to them, both expanding social power and strengthening aspects of the existing system.
Which of these strategies has the Occupy movement been adopting? What are the costs and benefits associated with that kind of strategy?
The occupy movement, at this point, is a protest movement that mainly has what could be called an expressive rather than a transformative strategy. That is, the main logic of its activities is the diagnosis and critique of existing institutions rather than attempts to create alternatives. This is important since the critique of the world as it is always forms the point of departure for struggles to make a new world. But eventually, such expressive activities need to be connected to a more transformative strategy if real change is to be generated.
Given the relatively anti-statist character of many of the participants in the occupations, interstitial strategies are the most likely to be organically connected to the occupy movement. Ruptural strategies have little credibility, at least when they are formulated as strategies for system-level ruptures. And symbiotic strategies require working within established institutional structures and centres of power, especially the state, which many occupy activists seem to reject. So what are really left are interstitial strategies.
Ultimately I think that the prospects for opening space for democratic-egalitarian transformations depend on linking interstitial and symbiotic transformations. Since at present this seems so implausible at the national level (at least in the U.S.), it may be necessary to focus more energy at local and regional levels of politics. This means thinking about concrete projects of building new institutions at the local level that embody non-capitalist principles – solidarity finance, worker cooperatives, social economy enterprise, community-based urban agriculture, new forms of urban planning rooted in participatory budgeting – and struggling for the kinds of local and state level public policies that would make such initiatives more successful.
Pushing for these kinds of interstitial and symbiotic projects of institution building does not mean abandoning protests against the more macro-level injustices of inequality and corporate power, nor dropping demands for system-level redress of these injustices. The broad vision for a democratic egalitarian alternative to capitalism which promotes human flourishing should continue to anchor interstitial and symbiotic strategies at the more local level. For the moment, however, the prospects for substantial progressive change at the national level seem very limited. And, perhaps, in the longer term, the success of more locally-directed projects of institution building will strengthen the prospects for broader transformation by showing, on the ground, that another world is possible.
Jamie Stern-Weiner studies politics at Cambridge, and is a co-editor of New Left Project. He can be found on twitter@jamiesw