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The Socialist Compass of Erik Olin Wright

by Progress in Political Economy on January 30, 2019
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It is with great sadness that we heard of the passing of Erik Olin Wright, Honorary Professor to the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney since 2015 but with ties going back much longer, on 22 January 2019.

In 2015 Erik delivered the 8th annual Wheelwright Lecture entitled “Challenging (and maybe transcending) Capitalism through Real Utopias”, as Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Still perhaps the most well-attended lecture in the long-running series with close to 500 audience members present, Erik delivered an address for the Wheelwright Lecture that was marked by all his strengths, being full of erudition and clarity, emancipatory knowledge of viable alternatives, and Marxist commitment to solidarity and human compassion. The signature 4×4 table of anti-capitalist struggle that guided his lecture sparked long and lively debates between attendees and Erik on whether to tame, smash, escape or erode capitalism in the Q&A and at the accompanying social event.

Aside from the marquee occasion of the Wheelwright Lecture, Erik brought his energy and commitment to the Department through a bumper set of events revolving around his work and experience. Erik’s commitment to collective intellectual work was shown when he invited colleagues at Sydney to gather for a workshop to discuss the implicit social theory in Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, to inform his contribution on the issue later published in Nature Climate Change. This commitment extended to engaging with the work of other colleagues, as shown by his dedicated seminar on Sociological Marxism, which responded to Adam David Morton’s article on the topic with some mind-bending debate on the philosophy of internal relations. Most importantly, Erik generously supported students in the Political Economy Honours, Master’s and PhD programs by running masterclasses including ‘speed dating’ sessions where he would enthusiastically dive into any and all thesis topics for ten minutes at a time (ending with his duck-quacking phone alarm) with the aim of solving research problems.

The above contemporary developments build on Erik’s longstanding and pathbreaking scholarship. Erik was perhaps the most significant contributor to our understanding of class since E.P. Thompson inter alia in publications such as Class, Crisis and the State and Understanding Class. He sought to update Marx’s theory of class to understand a changing capitalist society and he extended Marx’s incomplete formulation of class into a more precise analytical tool. Throughout his life he pioneered new ways of understanding class and brought Marxism into productive conversation with other traditions of thought.

In the 1970s he put forward the concept of ‘contradictory locations within class relations’. It was an attempt to adapt Marxist theory to a changing capitalist economy – especially the growth of white-collar workers in the advanced capitalist countries or what others called the ‘professional managerial class’ or ‘new middle class’. Erik took Marx’s basic formulation of the social relations of production as the defining element of class but argued that people could occupy contradictory positions within these relations. Some workers, for example, relied upon waged work, yet enjoyed significant autonomy, or exercised managerial control over others and this affected their interests, and their relations to both capital and labour. It had a profound influence upon Marxist studies of class in particular, and became a touchstone on the topic.

In the 1990s, although still working on the same core problem, Erik jettisoned the concept of ‘contradictory locations’ in favour of a more nuanced schema, notably evident in The Debate on Classes. Class, Erik reasoned, was defined by one’s relationship to the forces of production but it was cut by one’s position of authority and one’s skill and how this articulated with the labour market. While Marxist at its core, the Weberian influence was obvious and this wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Yet Wright continued his iconoclastic approach in the early twenty-first century by arguing that each of the major conceptual approaches to class – the Marxist, the Weberian and the stratificationist – was useful in understanding particular elements of class, but that no single tradition was capable of apprehending actually existing class formations in their complexity. While arguing for the superiority of Marxism as the only theory of class that recognised the centrality of exploitation to the production of value, which linked production with exchange and contained a normative agenda for human emancipation, he simultaneously recognised that Marxism alone didn’t possess the requisite tools for apprehending the multifaceted phenomenon of economic class under capitalism.

Throughout his career Erik was unflinching in his commitment to a rigorous and intellectually defensible Marxism, shorn of metaphysics and obfuscation – to a ‘no bullshit’ Marxism, as the analytical Marxist tradition, in which he participated, has been described.

Most recently, attention was cast toward the task of emancipatory social science in the project of Envisioning Real Utopias. Based on three pillars of diagnosis and critique; seeking viable alternatives; and the consideration of ruptural transformation as well as ruptures within capitalism in the pursuit of alternatives, the envisioning of real utopias was a milestone in confronting capitalism and delivering a socialist compass. In the eleven criticisms of capitalism in Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik is cognisant of and perhaps anticipates much of the enlivened debate on “authoritarian neoliberalism”, recognising how much capitalism limits democracy evidencing ‘many examples of authoritarian states in capitalist societies’. Also evident in the book is his envisioning of a social economy that could be promoted if the state, through its capacity to tax, provided funding for socially organised non-market production: the institution of an unconditional basic income was developed as one such policy. By partially delinking income from employment earnings, an unconditional basic income, he argued, would enable voluntary associations of all sorts to create new forms of meaningful and productive work in the social economy. The result would be economic democracy by creating conditions of social power, organised through civil society to establish social empowerment.

This focus was shaping his next book How to be an Anticapitalist that featured across his University of Sydney engagements. Those debates sparked an exchange about Capital, Vol.1 where Marx argues that there is a struggle for socialism that seeks to eliminate the antagonism between money and commodities based on abolishing money while perpetuating the production of commodities. Marx held that this was self-defeating because ‘one might just as well abolish the Pope while leaving Catholicism in existence’. It was in his last lecture at the University of Sydney, Unconditional Basic Income: Progressive Potentials and Neoliberal Traps, that Erik Olin Wright delivered his insights on UBI as one of those necessary first steps in not only abolishing money and commodities, the Pope and Catholicism, but also in creating, consolidating, and expanding spaces of non-capitalism.

We all miss the energy, buzz and appeal to everything that Erik Olin Wright was involved in.

Rest in Power.

Progress in Political Economy
Launched in 2014, the Progress in Political Economy (PPE) blog is an island of heterodoxy edited out of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney that is a home for many kinds of economic thinking that no longer fit easily in economics departments, including Marxian, post-Keynesian, Polanyian, institutionalist approaches, feminist and postcolonial perspectives, development studies, economic history and sociology, and the history of economic thought. In 2017, PPE was the recipient of the International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group). In 2018, it was the recipient of the International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies.

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