Eric Olin Wright struggles for a better world with his engagement in Real Utopias. I was impressed by the talk he gave at the World congress of ISA in Yokohama and his book „Envisioning Real Utopias“. I have assigned it to my students to read in a current seminar. His approach fits the theme of the 3rdrd ISA Forum in Vienna in 2016. Real Utopias are a useful concept in the struggles for a better world: they imply a vision, they are real, and they have a theoretical concept of transformation.
There is no sociology of utopias and a sociologist could not be surprised by that. Utopias are not the kind of societies sociologists deal with. One of the basic issues of sociology is social change, and therefore utopias do not get in focus. They are societies outside history, societies outside the world. Phantasies of the future. Interesting literary readings, not suitable for sociological analysis. Social utopias, starting with the name given to his „Utopia“ by Thomas Morus, construct an ideal state of social community. If they are not settled outside the continents on an Island, closed for immigrants without contact to the outer world, they are “gated communities”, as Robert Owens socialist utopia “New Harmony”. Utopias are societies on their own and perhaps it is not even appropriate to call them societies, as they lack one essential element: history.
It might be risky to deal with utopias in sociology, but the „real“ brings utopias back to the process of societal development. “Real Utopias” are no utopias in the sense of classical utopian literature as highlighted above. Real Utopias are examples, workable answers to mischiefs in contemporary society. Or more precise: to capitalism. The concept stands in the tradition of the emancipatory interest of sociology which Habermas formulated in 1968. Thus not only reflecting, analyzing, studying and understanding would be the task of sociology but also contributing to a better world, to emancipation.
Wright elaborates various examples of alternative forms already implemented in capitalist societies, some well-known and established as for instance the public library which has existed in many if not in all European states for a century. In the British Public Library Marx wrote his „Capital”. Some forms have been discussed continuously through the last century such as basic income for everybody – a long discussion in christian social ethics – though never implemented in broad economy. But Wright lets us know of several contemporary examples in many parts of the world, examples on participatory budgeting, the Quebec social economy or Wikipedia, just to show the range of possible projects.
Real Utopias must be desirable in moral terms. They have to give an answer to how they allow the access to resources for everyone. They must be viable, they must exist, they must work and they must be achievable in a negotiation process. Envisioning real utopias is rich and could be a good preparation for the ISA Forum 2016 with its theme „Struggles for a Better World“.
Why not – I address this to university lecturers – why not build reading groups, reading classes on that issue at your university? It will not only attract interest from your students, it might also enrich the preparation of the papers for the Forum. And why – session organizers – not ask the contributors to reflect at least in the conclusion paragraph how their issue could be transformed in a Real Utopia?
Rudolf Richter is the Chair of the Local Organizing Committee for the ISA Forum 2016, and a professor of sociology at the University of Vienna with special research interests in family, transitions in the life course, life styles, interpretive theory and qualitative methods. He served as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Vienna from 2004 to 2014 and was the president of RC06 Family Research of the ISA from 2006 to 2014.