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How to Be a Socialist in the Twenty-First Century

Erik Olin Wright devoted his life to figuring out ways the world could finally leave capitalism behind. His final book holds crucial lessons about which strategies belong to the past and which ones can build the bridge to a socialist future.

Erik Olin Wright was this era’s greatest class theorist, whose work combined clarity with a deep moral commitment to human emancipation. His posthumous book How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century is the perfect capstone of a career dedicated to deepening Marxist theory and socialist politics.

In a brief compass, Wright makes a case for both the injustice of capitalism and the basic principles that might guide the pursuit of a more humane social order. He persuasively argues that even though many of the institutional features of contemporary capitalism are very different from those that oversaw the rise of socialism a century ago, the core of the system — which motivated the search for a more just arrangement — remains much the same, and hence, the case for transcending capitalism remains compelling.

But how might a more free society be achieved? Wright observes that there have been a number of strategies embraced by the Left. But they can be broadly amalgamated into two — a revolutionary strategy, which seeks to replace capitalism in a decisive break, and a more gradualist one. The bulk of the book is devoted to unpacking these, and then to recommending how their lessons might be used to transcend capitalism in our time.

Smashing Capitalism

The first strategy, embraced by much of the socialist left in the twentieth century, is of smashing capitalism. This is the classic revolutionary road to socialism. It assumes a seizure of power by a cadre of radicals, typically achieved by violent means, but also potentially through elections. Its defining element is not so much reliance on revolution, but what happens after — that it suppresses the counterrevolution by force and then rapidly builds new socialist institutions.

Wright argues — correctly, in my view — that such a break with the system seems very unlikely today, at least in the advanced capitalist world. But, interestingly, he rejects it not on the basis of its feasibility but on its desirability. He observes that socialist parties have successfully led revolutions, but that these revolutionary states have established new systems that fail crucial moral tests. They have almost everywhere installed highly authoritarian political regimes — worse in most respects than bourgeois democracies — and even if they did manage to secure some material gains for their citizens, these hardly amounted to anyone’s vision of social emancipation. He infers that their morally objectionable features are a consequence of the road to power — that revolutions create systems such as these.

That might be true. But to push the point further, Wright might have also asked if a revolutionary road is even possible in today’s world. Most states are deeply embedded in their societies; they enjoy broad legitimacy, even if the neoliberal model has lost authority and the availability of democratic channels for expressing dissent has tended to sideline revolutionary strategies as the only road to social justice.

On the other side of the equation, ruling classes are powerfully united; the state itself has unimaginably greater resources than it did a hundred years ago to monitor and neutralize radical groups; and the possibilities of political breakdown seem remote at best. All of these factors suggest that what Lenin described as the basic conditions for revolution — when the ruling class is no longer able to rule in the old way, and when the lower classes are no longer willing to accept their rule — are missing across the advanced capitalist world. If this is so, then what we are left with is Wright’s second broad strategy.

Eroding Capitalism

This is the “social-democratic road to socialism.” In contrast to the first path, which envisions a sudden rupture, this alternative path is aggregative. In Wright’s schema, this strategy actually encompasses several distinct sub-strategies. It can take any of the following forms:

  • Dismantling capitalism. The idea here is to achieve office and then to enact economic reforms that undercut the structural power of the capitalist class. As their power is reduced, the conditions are established for a final push into socialism.
  • Taming capitalism. Whereas dismantling capitalism is geared toward transcending the system and replacing it with socialism, the strategy of taming has a more modest goal — to pass reforms that merely seek to mitigate its harms. This would be something like the New Deal in the United States or, more ambitiously, Nordic social democracy.
  • Resisting capitalism. This strategy differs from the first two in that while both of the former seek to attain state power, this one abjures it altogether. It seeks to blunt capitalism’s sharp edges by mobilizing power outside the state. Wright does not give examples, but perhaps what he has in mind is the “horizontalism” of the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • Escaping capitalism. What distinguishes this strategy is that while all the others seek to confront the system in some way, this one revolves around opting out. It relies on finding niches within the system to create more humane subcommunities, or more individualistic endeavors like changing your daily choices, growing your own food, or choosing different occupations. This is sometimes called “lifestyle politics.”

Wright suggests that any viable anticapitalist strategy will come from some combination of these four. There are two aspects of this bundle that merit some comment. The first is that it is somewhat surprising to find “escaping capitalism” described as an anticapitalist strategy. It is hostile to capitalism, or at least it can be; but it’s hard to see how it is a strategy, since this concept connotes a perspective on how to achieve political goals.

The escapist culture has not been one of supplanting capitalism with new social order so much as finding a way to build a new lifestyle within it. And Wright himself expresses some trepidation about including it as a means of eroding capitalism. Indeed, he was right to have doubts, for it has the potential of undermining the project altogether.

The second point worth noting is that Wright does not prioritize any one of these over the others — which is why he subsumes them into the larger category in the first place. The idea, presumably, is that different combinations and permutations will be resorted to, depending on the context. Breaking them into these subcategories is meant to help us better understand the distinctive trade-offs associated with each one, so as to better devise a political strategy. But it also has the effect of equalizing their political and moral standing.

Strategy Without Power

In recommending a multidimensional strategy for eroding capitalism, Wright resurrects an approach that was adopted by the socialist movement in its heyday. The classical left, up to the Second World War, also married the idea of changing the social relations in capitalism’s interstices with the strategy of dismantling its economic power and taming its excesses.

But there is a crucial difference between Wright’s approach and the classical socialist one. For the classical left, the multidimensionality of the strategy was organized as a functional hierarchy — the various components of its politics were all made to orbit around the task of building working-class capacity. So the creation of unions, the various organs of propaganda, the workers’ cooperatives, and the little “sharing economies” were all made to serve the end of creating a culture of solidarity and class identity, for the pursuit of power.

In Wright’s framework, there is an ambiguity in regard to this issue. It’s possible that he intends for the individual sub-strategies to be linked to a class project. But on those occasions when he addresses the actual course of transition from capitalism to socialism, the very idea of class struggle is missing. His preferred model is not an organized pursuit of power, as suggested by the first two sub-strategies, but rather a gradual slide into socialism by accretion of noncapitalist practices.

Wright veers very close to a kind of “interstitial” politics that was recommended by some of the Left in the 1990s. He describes it thus:

One way to challenge capitalism is to build more democratic, egalitarian, participatory economic relations where possible in the spaces and cracks within this complex system. The idea of eroding capitalism imagines that these alternatives have the potential, in the long run, to become sufficiently prominent in the lives of individuals and communities that capitalism could eventually be displaced from its dominant role in the system. [emphasis added]

Two aspects of this conceptualization are noteworthy. First, in this approach, socialist elements are not necessarily built up within capitalism’s core institutions, like the workplace, but in its interstices — precisely where capitalist power is absent. Wright variously describes these areas as spaces, interstices, and niches. Second, the construction of these niches is not directly tied to building class capacity, but rather to increasing their salience in the lives of individuals. The strategy seems to hinge on an aggregate increase of their weight within the system, such that they will displace prototypically capitalist practices at some point.

The problem with this strategy is straightforward. One can expect that capitalists will be quite content to allow for the colonization of the interstices — the widening scope of non-commodified relations in people’s lives — as long as it doesn’t touch the foundations of their power. So, for example, you can open up hundreds of libraries, start food cooperatives, and set up neighborhood committees to coordinate public services. All of these embody non-commodified and cooperative principles, which Wright sees as the foundation for building noncapitalist institutions in people’s lives. And capitalists will be perfectly happy to accommodate them. None of them touch the fount of their real power in society. But if and when the new institutions challenge capitalist power, one can predict that the reaction will be quite different.

Any recommendation to “increase socialist relations” in people’s lives has to consider that this can take two forms. They can be changes in lifestyle and interaction that improve people’s lives and enrich the texture of their social relations, but that leave the power and prerogatives of capitalists untouched — as with lifestyle politics. Or they can be changes that do all that and also encroach on employers’ prerogatives. A classic example is the trade union movement.

While capitalists will be perfectly content to accommodate, and even encourage, the former, there is no reason to assume they will stand idly by as the latter unfolds. Indeed, if history is any guide, we should expect that they will move swiftly to dismantle and roll back innovations that challenge their power. This, in essence, is the experience of the past four decades, in which capitalists across the advanced world have been pretty unified in rolling back those elements in social democracy that threatened their interests — such as trade unions, hitherto decommodified services, and environmental controls.

Any proposal to build “socialist” institutions in capitalist society has to confront this dilemma: How do we sustain these institutions and build on them when, the moment they actually challenge capitalist power, they will trigger a hostile response? The classical left’s answer to this was to support the innovations in labor’s organized power — to anchor them in a class strategy. But in Wright’s book, there is a disquieting silence on this matter.

It cannot be that he was unaware of the problem — Wright’s entire career was dedicated to theorizing class struggle and class capacity. Even in this book, there is an entire chapter devoted to political agency. But the discussion is almost entirely conceptual, not strategic. Wright mostly confines himself to defining the core elements of political agency — interests and moral commitments — and defending the importance of morals in political engagement, which is entirely laudable. But he never directly addresses the issue that, for anticapitalists, has been at the core of all debates around agency: how to build the capacity to push forward our political project, and who the constituency for anti-capitalist politics might be.

This reluctance is indicative of a shift that was underway in Wright’s views by the time he wrote this book. On the one hand, he still takes the economic system to be capitalist in a classically Marxist sense, and hence to be dominated by that class. But he seems to be ambivalent, even pessimistic, about placing any great weight on the labor movement as the anchor for socialist strategy.

There are ample grounds for this pessimism, of course. The traditional organs of working-class politics are in decline everywhere and have been for some time. We can hope that they will recover, but we have no real evidence that they will. Perhaps the days of organized class politics are behind us. Wright has every reason to be cautious in his treatment of agency. But in never confronting this issue head-on, he places himself in a difficult position. For if he agrees, as he seems to, that the capitalist class is still dominant, then he cannot avoid the issue of how anticapitalists will confront that power once they construct institutions designed to undermine it.

How, then, will the anticapitalist agenda move forward? Wright seems to rest his strategy on a much broader base than just the traditional working class. In what appears to be a Polanyian twist, he suggests that the power to push ahead with the anticapitalist agenda will derive from a growth in solidarity — not within the working class per se, but in society more generally.

This solidaristic ethos will develop out of the noncapitalist institutions that the Left implants in the niches of capitalism. As new norms of cooperation and trust become generalized, they will comprise the moral infrastructure of new social movements and new coalitions that propel the anticapitalist agenda. Hence, Wright retains the idea that socialism will require political agency. But the agent will be more diffuse and more fluid than the working class itself.

This argument rests on the assumption that the development of a solidaristic ethos will rejuvenate the Left. But Wright needed to have defended it at greater length, because it is a dubious proposition. Solidarity can be put to quite divergent political uses. Indeed, as sociologist Dylan Riley has shown in his work, the countries that slid into fascism in interwar Europe were also the ones with the richest civil societies, the highest density of civic associations, the most vibrant civic culture — all indicators of a solidaristic culture. The reason they went in that direction instead of in a socialist one was precisely because capital was able to set the parameters for political contestation, and it was able to do so because it overwhelmed the organized labor movement. What might have been a social infrastructure for an emergent socialist movement ended up becoming a seedbed for its opposite.

A rich solidaristic culture does not and cannot substitute for class organizational strength. In the case of Wright’s argument, there is a clear-cut implication. Suppose we follow his recommendation to build solidaristic institutions within capitalism’s interstices, but we do so not as the classical left did — as part of a working-class movement — but as a diffuse, citizen-led initiative that stretches across classes. Now let’s say some of these institutions trigger a hostile response from the “1 percent,” and they use a combination of threats and inducements to dismantle them. On the other hand, they leave untouched those innovations that do not threaten their interests. If all the Left has at hand is its solidaristic ethos, without a countervailing power to that of the employer class, it is difficult to see how it will successfully defend the onslaught.

This is not mere conjecture. The history of the neoliberal era is not just the dismantling of erstwhile noncapitalist institutions, but the steady erosion of the very solidaristic ethos that social democracy had built up over five decades. In other words, what we have witnessed is the inability of civil society to stand up to the power of capital — once the labor movement went into decline. The ethos lasted as long as it did because the unions and the parties were there to protect and nurture it. Take them out of the picture, and the culture goes into decline.

Now, if solidaristic culture will not be enough to defend noncapitalist institutions, there will inevitably be a process of social selection — institutions that threaten capital will be selected against, while those that are neutral with respect to capitalist interests will remain standing. But this is just to say that the strategy is self-defeating.

As social actors find that they lack the ability to sustain institutions that actually threaten capital, they will settle into practices that improve the quality of their social relations, but that never make it out of the niches and interstices of the system. Or, put differently, the broad strategy of eroding capitalism will collapse into just escaping capitalism.

This is the irony of Wright’s schema. In dignifying this particular component of it as a strategy, he gives license and justification to something that was never an anticapitalist strategy at all. What’s more, his evasiveness on the power problem makes it highly plausible that this will be the only part of the framework that survives.

For a Renewed Anticapitalism, We Need Working-Class Renewal

The simple fix to Wright’s argument is to embed it in a project of working-class renewal. This would amount to a resuscitation of the classic social-democratic strategy, but with the benefit of hindsight gained from a century of political experience. If we approach it in this fashion, if we insist that the various institutional innovations that he describes — democratic budgeting, workplace democracy, basic income grants, community finance — be hitched to a project of increasing labor’s class capacity, then the book takes on a very different cast.

Now all the democracy-enhancing innovations he recommends can be tested by how well they enable the Left not just to build new social relations within capitalism, but to change the political balance between labor and capital. This will require that we ditch the notion that socialism will be brought about when the aggregate weight of non-commodified social practices slowly displaces the commodity form, as Wright’s argument implies. It will mean a return to the idea that nothing serious can be achieved without a fight.

But there is a rub. We cannot dismiss Wright’s skepticism about the possibility of working-class politics simply because it is an unwelcome thought. It has been more than three decades now that the labor movement has been in decline. And while there are some signs of life reemerging, with strikes in some sectors, it is still quite modest by historical standards.

There is no hard evidence that the Left has figured out how to organize labor in the new work settings, in a deindustrializing capitalism with small shops replacing the giant factories of yore. It is entirely possible that the massive, organized labor movement that was once associated with the Left is now a thing of the past. We will only find out as we press forward, as socialists try to embed themselves in the working class again — or, rather, if they decide to do so.

In any case, it is certainly possible that Wright’s skepticism is warranted. But even if it is, I doubt that his strategic vision is a viable one. The central challenge to the Left is still, as it always was, that their goals are and will always be opposed by the most powerful social agent in modern society, capitalists, and that the second most powerful agent, the state, is largely controlled by that first one. For this reason, no viable anticapitalism can sidestep the issue of power.

So, if the possibility of resurrecting a labor movement has passed, the most likely scenario is that the prospects for socialism go down with it.

The Left is at a crucial moment. The organizations and political institutions it constructed over the course of a century are either falling apart or in deep crisis. Most of the progressive intelligentsia has been overtaken with a narrow, tribal outlook and a deep contempt for working people. The obstacles to an egalitarian, humane social order are so daunting that many erstwhile socialists have thrown up their hands and given up the game. It is to Wright’s credit that, even while he came to doubt some of the beliefs he had held for decades, he refused to surrender his commitment to social emancipation. And even more, he retained Marx’s fundamental insight that there were real and unacceptable limits to emancipation within capitalism.

There is perhaps no contemporary theorist who did more than Wright to clarify the structural sources of injustice in modern society. Even while the strategic proposals How to Be an Anticapitalist recommends might be dubious, it still contributes mightily to the project of rebuilding the Left — because it reaffirms the essential link between social justice and anticapitalism.