My friend Erik Olin Wright died of cancer in January of this year at the very height of his intellectual influence.
Erik was a professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. More importantly, he was one of the world’s leading Marxist thinkers about social class in mature capitalist societies. All of Erik’s many path-breaking books retained the Marxist concept of class struggle, but focused on developing a realistic class analysis of mature capitalist societies like the United States, Germany, and Japan. Such an analysis, he felt, was imperative for building viable anti-capitalist movements in these societies.
Erik Wright was an extremely creative thinker who proposed many new concepts for understanding capitalist societies. He even proposed a new way of thinking about capitalism.
Any real society is a complex mix of economic, political, and cultural institutions. Thus any existing capitalist society is not purely capitalist. It contains capitalist institutions, hierarchical state institutions, and even socialist institutions. The society is considered capitalist because the capitalist institutions are dominant. Nevertheless it is possible to assess the degree of capitalist dominance in a capitalist society and to determine whether capitalist dominance is strengthening or weakening.
Such assessments are important for sustaining an anti-capitalist movement, because ending capitalist dominance in one fell swoop is simply not feasible.
Erik Wright challenged the traditional Marxist claim that capitalist development made the working class more homogeneous. Quite the contrary, capitalism differentiated the working class on income, job security, job difficulty, education, status, career opportunity, and many other things. And all sectors of this highly differentiated working class do not share a common economic interest. Unfortunately, this reality makes a transition to socialism far more difficult.
Wright used the concept of contradictory class locations to analyze the complex class structure of mature capitalist societies. These are class locations with contradictory (i.e. opposing) economic interests. For example managers, technocrats, and foreman are positions suspended between the working class and the capitalist class. Thus they have contradictory class locations.
Although Erik acknowledged the dramatic increase in economic productivity achieved by capitalism, he strongly favored democratic socialism because capitalism violated three basic values: equality/fairness, democracy/freedom, and community/solidarity. Violent overthrows of capitalism were, he maintained, extremely unlikely in mature capitalist systems. Moreover, if a violent overthrow did occur, it would not lead to an egalitarian and democratic society.
Erik posited four different routes toward eroding capitalism. Dismantling capitalism involves political reforms that introduce socialist institutions (such as free health care, public banking, and free higher education) into capitalist societies. Taming capitalism entails policies that neutralize the harm done by capitalism. Such policies might include guaranteeing employment, regulating investment, and preventing pollution.
Resisting capitalism means affecting the policies of capitalist elites through protest and resistance actions. Escaping capitalism involves building informal non-capitalist structures within capitalist societies. These might be intentional communities, consumer cooperatives, or free information sources like Wikipedia.
Any viable anti-capitalist movement, Wright claims, would involve all four ways of eroding capitalism. Such a movement must be propelled by a combination of class interests, ethical values (like those named above), and experiential identities (such as those based on race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity).
A viable movement must find ways of countering (a) the entrenched tendency to live entirely private nonpolitical lives, (b) the fragmentation of the working class, and (c) the conflicts induced by different experiential identities. Building such a movement will certainly be difficult, but Wright is convinced it is possible and extremely necessary.
I highly recommend Erik Wright’s brief final book, How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century. This eloquent and accessible volume was completed just a few months before his death and summarizes much of Erik’s incisive political analysis.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs Fridays in the Colorado Daily.