Envisioning Real Utopias

Leading sociologist proposes a new framework for a socialist alternative.
Rising inequality of income and power, along with recent convulsions in the finance sector, have made the search for alternatives to unbridled capitalism more urgent than ever. Yet few are attempting this task—most analysts argue that any attempt to rethink our social and economic relations is utopian. Erik Olin Wright’s major new work is a comprehensive assault on the quietism of contemporary social theory. A systematic reconstruction of the core values and feasible goals for Left theorists and political actors, Envisioning Real Utopias lays the foundations for a set of concrete, emancipatory alternatives to the capitalist system. Characteristically rigorous and engaging, this will become a landmark of social thought for the twenty-first century.


  • “[Wright] builds a strong case for an emancipatory social science.”
  • “A benchmark contribution to necessary radical thinking.”
  • “Encyclopedic in its breadth, daunting in its ambition, this is the culmination of Erik Olin Wright's revamping of Marxism ... Only a thinker of Wright's genius could sustain such a badly needed political imagination without losing analytical clarity and precision.”
  • “Hugely rich and stimulating ... An incisive diagnosis of the harms done by capitalism; a masterful synthesis of the best work in political sociology and political economy over the past thirty years; and innovative theoretical framework for conceptualizing both the goals of progressive change and the strategies for their achievement; and inspiring survey of actually existing challenges to capitalism that have arisen within capitalism itself; and a compelling essay on the relation between the desirable, the viable and the achievable. Anyone interested in the future of leftist politics has to read this book.”
  • “This book is both a manifesto and a guidebook: an argument for taking institutional design seriously, and a guide to how to do that. It's a book that sociologists will want to read, but also, frankly, that everyone in political theory and philosophy should be reading too.”
  • “A fascinating book.”


  • "Real Utopias" and the "Revolutionary and Evolutionary" Culture and Politics of Detroit

    Drawing on the work of Jacques Ranciere and Erik Olin Wright, Vince Carducci at Deliberately Considered has written a remarkable reflection on the renewed experience of aesthetic and political community in Detroit. In the face of decades of blight and increased "demassification," the city has, in a stunning dialectical movement, recently begun to witness an unprecedented creative flourishing and reclamation of the city's downtown space. In his article, Carducci points to the ways that the city's neglected spaces, foreclosed homes and abandoned buildings have suddenly come to "open up a new field of cultural production" that has, of late, encouraged young artists to repurpose them and, in effect, reimagine and assert a robust new understanding of the "commons". That is, by using as their raw material the virtually abandoned ruins of the city, artists in Detroit are seizing opportunities to use them to boldly re-articulate new understandings of what public space, community and urban experience mean to them today.

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  • "Emancipatory social science"—Choice reviews Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias

    Following a string of arguments and rebuttals over Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias, a reviewer in Choice declares that Wright "builds a strong case for an emancipatory social science." The Progressive's Editor, Matthew Rothschild, described the book as a "vision of a radically democratic and egalitarian society—and some ways we might get there." 

    Sociologist Wright (Univ. of Wisconsin) uses critiques of capitalism and commitment to social justice as his starting point and builds a strong case for an emancipatory social science investigating what he calls desirable, viable, and achievable alternatives to capitalist social, political and economic organization. He clearly states analytical distinctions and definitions and supplies excellent examples; discusses capitalism and its critiques; and contrasts socialism (emphasizing the social), capitalism, and statism in his discussion of economic, state, and social power and the potential for social empowerment through civil society. Wright acknowledges challenges to achieving social justice goals in social transformation and gives examples of projects that he sees as indicative of democratic egalitarianism: Wikipedia; participatory city budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil; Spain's Mondragon cooperatives; community land trusts; and the fair trade movement. Of interest for sociology, labour studies, anthropology, political economy, and social work collections. Recommended. [E. Kingsolver, University of South Carolina]   

  • Michael Burawoy and Russell Jacoby head to head over Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias

    Following quick on the heels of publication of Russell Jacoby's review of Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias in Dissent, Michael Burawoy has written a detailed reply stressing the importance of Wright's project and rescuing it from the tangle of Jacoby's at times ad hominem attack, an excerpt of which reads:

    Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber's 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber's book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a "real utopia" with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron's suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled "Awakening from Utopia," sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the "real utopias" in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water. 

    Burawoy argues that, to the contrary, Erik Olin Wright is a model of meaningful empirical engagement, in a profession that is otherwise more remote than ever from the real world:

    The context of [Wright's] project is important. These days, social scientists are concerned with what is, perhaps with what has been, but very rarely with what could be. We spend our time building elaborate explanatory models of how things work, albeit with limited success—as we know from the mess economists have made of the world. The limitations of social science have led some to abandon it altogether, while others have intensified their commitment to an ever-purer science, remote from the concrete world in which ordinary people live. Most social scientists continue to tread the blind alleys of positivism, and those who deviate from this path often turn to navel gazing or esoteric modeling.

    Burawoy is careful to acknowledge Jacoby's "own important contributions to the study of utopias," but cannot avoid the conclusion that, 

    Sadly in his review [Jacoby] chose to ridicule Wright rather than to engage constructively with one of the most important projects of twenty-first century social science. Jacoby loves to be a bad boy, but here he is just an anti-intellectual.

    Visit Dissent to read Jacoby's review and Burawoy's response in full. And should you feel so inclined, you can also read Jacoby's reply to Burawoy's response

    For other worthwhile responses to Jacoby's review, please see "Disingenuous Men Write Disingenuous Reviews" and "Dueling Utopias."

Other books by Erik Olin Wright