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February 8, 2019 (1119 words) :: On Erik Olin Wright and his idea of a socialist compass.
Tags: personal

This post is day 39 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I had big expectations for today’s post, which I was going to 1) start early, and 2) put a lot of time and effort into. Sadly, these expectations were viciously shredded by the sudden onslaught of a rapid-onset cold. It’s very mentally debilitating. Thinking feels like trying to navigate through a dense fog. I tried to type the word “writing” earlier and it came out as “righting”, and I had to stare at it for several seconds before I figured out what was wrong.

You may be wondering, well why the hell am I doing this blog post then? It sounds silly, but I don’t want to break the streak. If I want to actually get something out of this admittedly ludicrous writing challenge, then I need to force myself to do it every day, even if I have been giving myself some leeway with the whole “before midnight” thing (it’s already past midnight, and I’m still writing this).

So for this blog post, since I’m not really capable of forming complex thoughts, I’m just going to embed some quotes by Erik Olin Wright alongside some pithy commentary by yours truly, and let those carry the post.

Erik Olin Wright passed away last month. He was a US-based Marxist sociologist whose work I wasn’t super familiar with, except in that I had his book “Envisioning Real Utopias” on my bookshelf and kept intending to get to it. But it’s an intimidatingly thick book, and I still haven’t gotten around to opening it.

A few days before he passed away, I came across a journal entry he’d written called “Clarifying my final weeks”. The whole thing is really beautiful, and you should just read it all, but here’s the part that stuck me the most:

sometime in my late teens to early twenties, I decided to take advantage of this extraordinary privilege that I had, not to live a life of self-indulgence but to create meaning for myself and others by trying to make the world a better place. The particular way in which I did this of course is historically bounded by the intellectual currents and turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s. I don’t think that means it should be thought of as merely an effect of that historical moment. I think my dogged attempt to revitalize the Marxist tradition and make it more deeply relevant to social justice and social transformation today is grounded in a scientifically valid understanding of how the world actually works. But without being embedded in a social milieu where those ideas were debated and linked in both sensible and misguided ways to social movements, I would never have been able to pursue this particular set of ideas. But I was enabled, and it’s made for an incredibly meaningful and intellectually exciting personal life. So no complaints. I will die in a few weeks, fulfilled.

My mind is way too bleary right now to say anything actually eloquent about this. But I guess what I felt when I read this was: connected. Reading that made this lightbulb go off in my head, that made me feel connected to a larger movement and tradition that was tightly woven with meaning. It made me mourn the impending loss of someone who could write so beautifully, but I also felt a little less alone, and a little more sure about my own political convictions.

After the news of his passing came out, a bunch of different left publications ran obituaries and/or reprints of pieces he had written. My favourite one was Compass Points: Towards a Socialist Alternative in Verso’s blog, which was originally published in the New Left Review in 2006 and which has some brilliant meta-reflections on approaches to socialism - its limits, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of knowing the unknowable. His writing style is gorgeous, lapidary, illuminating his ideas like a soft flame:

No existing social theory is sufficiently powerful to even begin to construct such a comprehensive chart of possible social destinations beyond capitalism. It may well be that such a theory is impossible even in principle—social change is too complex and too deeply affected by contingent concatenations of causal processes to be represented in plan form. In any case, no map is available. And yet we want to leave the place where we are because of its harms and injustices. What is to be done?

Instead of the metaphor of a road map guiding us to a known destination, we could think of the project of emancipatory social change as more like a voyage of exploration. We leave the familiar world equipped with navigational devices that tell us the direction in which we are moving and how far from our point of departure we have travelled, but without a map laying out the entire route from origin to endpoint. This has perils, of course: we may encounter unforeseen obstacles which force us to move in a direction we had not planned; we may have to backtrack and try a new route. Perhaps with technologies we invent along the way we can create some artificial high ground and see somewhat into the distance. In the end, we may discover that there are absolute limits to how far we can go; but we can at least know if we are moving in the right direction.

This approach to thinking about emancipatory alternatives retains a strong normative vision of life beyond capitalism, while acknowledging the limits of our knowledge about the real possibilities of transcending the capitalist system. This is not to embrace the false certainty that there are untransgressable limits for constructing a democratic egalitarian alternative: the absence of solid scientific knowledge about the limits of possibility applies not only to the prospects for radical alternatives but also to the durability of capitalism. The key to embarking on such a journey of exploration is the usefulness of our navigational device. We need, then, to construct what might be called a socialist compass: the principles which tell us whether we are moving in the right direction.

This was written over a decade ago, but it feels even more true now than it was. As the liberal political order crumbles around us, and as our planet displays more morbid symptoms, the viability of our current mode of production appears less and less certain.

And yet, where can we go from here? We certainly don’t have a detailed map, and there is no consensus on the exact list of directions to follow. But maybe we don’t need to know the final destination, as long as we start moving in the right direction.

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