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Erik Olin Wright: LookLeft Forum 2pm March 2nd March 1, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left.



1. ejh - March 1, 2013

What point is the chess position on the poster trying to make?


2. ivorthorne - March 1, 2013

Don’t really play chess but I’d guess the Bishops are ducked?


3. Tomboktu - March 1, 2013

I’d guess it’s trying to convey a sense of thoughtful conflict, rather than, oh, say, a fist which would invoke protest and agitation.


daramcq - March 3, 2013

Thanks Tom, that’s exactly what it was trying to do. I spent *forever* trying to figure out an image that would work with the topic.


Paul Wilson - May 14, 2013

“We are not just pawns in your game” perhaps?


4. Tomboktu - March 1, 2013

For those in Cork

“The Concept of Transformation”: Prof. Erik Olin Wright

Tue, 5 Mar 2013

Erik Olin Wright is President of the American Sociological Association and Professor of Sociology at the University of Madison Wisconsin. Professor Olin Wright is a leading American ‘new left’ theorist known for his books Class, Crisis, and the State. New Left Books (1978); Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge University Press (1997). His most recent book is Envisioning Real Utopias. Verso (2010).

Opening Remarks:

Dr Laurence Davis, Department of Government, UCC. “The Concept of Utopia and Theories of Transformation”


Dr Tom Boland, Department of Humanities, Waterford I.T. “Historicising the Utopian Vision”

Date: Tuesday, March 5th

Venue: ORB 123 (O’Rahilly Building)

Time: 3.00pm – 5.00pm


Scabby Rabbit - March 1, 2013

And Limerick:

Public Lecture

Co-hosted with the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

‘Transforming Capitalism Through Real Utopias’

Prof Erik Olin Wright
Department of Sociology
University of Wisconsin – Madison

And President of the American Sociological Association


Lecture Theatre HSG037,

Health Sciences Building, University of Limerick

Monday 4th March, 6.30pm


5. RosencrantzisDead - March 3, 2013

Many thanks to the organizers for holding this. Hopefully, this represents the first of many LookLeft forums to come. I particularly commend the chair, who had a tricky task in moderating the Q&A. Prof. Wright’s talk was fascinating and I was sorry I only got to speak to him briefly afterwards.

Apart from that, I learned several things:

– Erik Olin Wright has a lot of patience;

– There is much common ground to be found between Trotskyists and Leninists, particularly when they are condemning something as ‘reformism’;

– That Erik Olin Wright had not considered revolution at all in his work;

– That the revolution is inevitable because of scientific socialism/climate change/the crisis capital is undergoing so we can all just go off and have a cup of tea;

– That the inevitable revolution will consist of the working class seizing control of the means of production overnight, the state will immediately disappear, and we shall all live in a communist paradise from then until the end of time.

– In light of the above, building any structures within the spaces not occupied by capital or working within existing structures is a waste of time;

– That interstitial or symbiotic strategies will not work in third world countries so we should not bother with them at all.

On a positive note, we were spared 15 minute speeches on the command economy and most of the questions did actually end in a question. I think that is progress although not quite revolutionary progress.


WorldbyStorm - March 3, 2013

Thanks for that outline of the day. I wasn’t able to make it myself (or to the SF 1913 day either) due to preexisting committments. What of others thoughts or reports on the day?

Re your tongue in cheek points, it is interesting, putting aside the humour for a moment, how deterministic some are … when the evidence is at best scant for same…


RosencrantzisDead - March 3, 2013

The points are tongue in cheek, but I do mean what I say above them – it was a very worthwhile conference and well done to the organizers. It was very tiresome to hear people making the same points (‘This stuff is not ‘revolutionary’ – revolutionary being whatever definition I am running with today- , so therefore it must be ‘reformism’ and reformism is a load of rubbish’).

This is not to say that Wright’s talk was above criticism. I had a very interesting discussion with a person who frequents these parts and they took issue with his notion that we should build a moral argument for socialism. The individual in question had several practical and philosophical objections to this. It would have made for an interesting question except that there were about ten querists ahead of them who wanted to lecture Prof. Wright on why the working class were going to seize power today right after the Liverpool match.

I did want to shout out at some of the interlocutors that, if their view of revolution precluded building structures, why were they at the Teacher’s Club having a debate rather than out throwing grenades or the like? Although, if the Tony Blair book launch/egg launch fiasco is anything to go by, the Trots could not hit the broad end of a barn.


WorldbyStorm - March 3, 2013

I tend to agree strongly re the dangers of a ‘moral argument’. It seems to me that the time when socialism of whatever stripe has been most powerful and attractive is when it has made a clear practical case for its benefits. Ironically, perhaps, the moralistic appeals seem to me to be closer to liberalism…


Anonist - March 3, 2013

Thanks for the review – most amusing.

I bought the man’s book, but haven’t got around to reading it yet. Once day… (sighs).


ejh - March 3, 2013

Don’t suppose anybody answered my important question about the chess position?


Tomboktu - March 3, 2013

I think the answer to a different question by daramcq just under comment no,3 indirectly answers it. 🙂


ejh - March 3, 2013

Ah, cheers, I missed that. Don’t suppose daramcq knows what the pawn’s doing on f6? Looks a bit ropey to me.


RosencrantzisDead - March 3, 2013

He is waiting for the revolution to get rid of the rook. He doesn’t need to move.


daramcq - March 4, 2013

Not a clue. My friend claims it’s the dragon variant on the Sicilian, but doesn’t seem right. I’ll admit I was more interested in getting the bloody leaflet done than analysing the position. More attempts to conflate chess and politics here: http://spiritofcontradiction.eu/rowan-duffy/2013/02/07/hypermodern-political-strategy#


6. John Cunningham - March 3, 2013

[The Moderator might wish move this to another page]

An Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class (ICHLC) was established earlier this year at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. The founding meeting on 1 February was attended by 30 lecturers, researchers and research students from a number of disciplines, including History, Politics, Sociology, Economics, English, and Law.
The initial aims of the ICHLC, briefly and in no particular order, are as follows:
• To encourage research on the history (including the contemporary history) of labour and class, especially in relation to Ireland and Irish people abroad;
• To promote interest in these issues within the university community through the holding of regular seminars, symposia and conferences, the development of new courses, and the expansion of digital archives;
• To raise consciousness about issues of labour and class in society generally, through the organisation of public lectures, debates and classes, through engagement with media, and through occasional publications.

For alerts about upcoming activities, go to the ICHLC Facebook page and clike ‘Like’
A number of forthcoming events are flagged:
Fri. – Sat., 8 – 9 MARCH 2013, Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and Harbour Hotel, Galway
FREE Conference: ‘The British Labour Party and 20th-century Ireland’, Speakers include Stephen Howe, Joan Allen, Gearoid O Tuathaigh, Emmet O’Connor
Programme: http://www.nuigalway.ie/history/news_notices/index.html
Thurs. 14 MARCH, 8 pm, Mechanics Inst, Middle St, Galway
(History Ireland hedge school with Ir. Centre for Labour & Class) Adm €5, €3
‘“The North began”: Volunteering, 1912-14’. Tommy Graham (in the chair) with John Borgonovo, John Burke, Mary Harris, Ann Matthews on UVF, Citizen Army, Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan
Thurs. 21 MARCH, 8 pm, Mechanics Inst, Middle St, Galway
(History Ireland hedge school with Ir. Centre for Labour & Class) Adm €5, €3
‘Locked out: 1913 in Dublin and Galway’. John Gibney with Mary Muldowney, Francis Devine, James Curry, John Cunningham on the labour movement in the heyday of Jim Larkin
Thurs. 28 March, 8 8 pm, Mechanics Inst, Middle St, Galway
(History Ireland hedge school with Ir. Centre for Labour & Class) Adm €5, €3
“‘Suffrage first”? Women at home, at work and in the public sphere, c.1911-14’, Caitriona Crowe with Mary Jones, Mary Clancy, Caitriona Clear & Sarah-Anne Buckley


7. Tomboktu - March 3, 2013

One of the problems with this kind of event is that I tend to not figure out what I would like to ask about until I have had some time to digest what was said. And that is what happened on the bus on the way home last night. So a comment there will have to do (but I might get to raise it at next Saturday’s larger conference in Maynooth).

I think the following is a fair summary of Olin-Wright’s key point: in the absence today of a game-breaking change towards egalitarian and democratic economic and social systems, one of the things we need to do it to use the opportunities that are there within the current systems to make that game-breaking change more possible. In particular, we need to work with capitalism where that helps our cause (the “symbiotic” strategy in his jargon), and we need to take the gaps in capitalism and expand them (the “interstitial” strategy in his jargon).

Co-ops, and worker-owned co-ops in particular, were given as an example of interstitial strategy at work. (I am not clear if Olin-Wright means it is the key singular interstitial strategy, or simply a very strong and feasible example.)

My question, then, arises from the following train of thought.

It is one thing for people to set up co-ops. In fact, one of the parallel sessions at Maynooth on 9 March will be by an activist trying to do that. I understand (or maybe misunderstand?) that his objective is to open a new mechanism for combating unemployment, and I do not know if he would see his work as part of an interstitial strategy of transformation. But even if he and others in co-ops do not see themselves as being part of an interstitial strategy (or even if they do not want to be), they could still be part of one.

However, my impression is that Olin-Wright is arguing that political activists need to engage with that kind of activity in some way, to help it form a part of a larger picture of creating the context in which fundamental social and economic structures can be changed.

He cited an example of an opportunity a situation that he sees arising with the baby-boomers moving into retirement. Many SMEs in the USA are owned by baby-boomers and have families that are not interested in taking over those businesses. A systematic plan to make it possible to turn those SMEs into worker-owned co-ops could help solve a problem facing the state: the firms would continue to produce and employ, while the sudden rise in the number of people with experience of worker-owned businesses could be a significant step in undermining the widespread assumption that the only way that businesses can work is as capitalist firms. A problem, though, is how those workers can get the capital needed to buy the businesses from the retiring owners. Capitalist banks are wary – or warier – of lending to co-op SMEs than to capitalist SMEs, and government could establish an investment bank for the specific purpose of supporting co-op SMEs.

Coming back to the broader point about using interstitial strategies, I think that there is a problem. On the one hand, political activists spend their time doing politics, and interstitial activists spend their time doing something that is not politics – setting up or running co-ops in the key example that Olin-Wright used as the key illustration.

And there is a key gap between them. In Ireland, it is actually legally harder to set up a co-op than it is to set up a company. But getting into the nitty gritty of law reform in the economy is not something political activists on the left are good at or do much of. For example, nobody on the left that I know of has identified the need for any of the banks in Ireland when they are “released” from government ownership to be returned to “the market” as a mutual. (Yes, I know that a mutual is not a co-op, but my point here is that even that minimum level of social ownership is not mentioned.)

And a second example is law reform for co-ops and companies. Again in Ireland, there have been two processes ongoing, and for a decade. Reforming the laws for companies has been a huge task (truly huge: I think the companies acts is the only Irish statute that is better summarized in kilograms than in numbers of pages). The heads of bill have been prepared, and the relevant minister has spoken a number of times about the bill being introduced soon. The parallel reform process for co-ops has not achieved anything like a similar output. And that should be a surprising disappointment: reform of the processes for co-ops was in at least one election manifesto, but nobody has given it any attention since the election.

From that I come to the question I would have asked if we’d suspended the forum to give me a few hours to get home and back again: Is here not a problem with the interstitial strategy as a process of transformation because it requires significant changes in what activists to do: those in the likes of the co-op movement would need to make their work more political, and political activists would need to start to master the details of on-the-ground economics and social systems rather than the high-level, abstract analyses that they are skilled at?


RosencrantzisDead - March 3, 2013

Good question. But is this a weakness in his theory? If it causes people to change or adjust their focus, this may actually demonstrate its worth.

I agree that there is a disconnect in resources. There will need to be significant law reform and a more careful engagement with smaller level politics. It might be easier to gather these resources if there was more a concerted effort to implement it.


dmfod - March 4, 2013

I’m a bit sceptical that coops are inherently political and once they are up in running within a broader capitalist market place won’t they be constantly pressured to compete and act like corporations by slotting into particular consumerist niches etc as a form of ethical consumerism say?

I’m thinking here a bit of Dublin food co-op, which was originally set up with political green intentions to provide affordable vegetarian food etc. but it ended up being just another middle class farmers’ market selling over-priced organics with not much political content.

Similar things happen to NGOs that end up competing with each other for market share and paying big executive salaries while paying everyone else peanuts on the grounds workers should suck it up and think of the starving/homeless etc.

I’m by no means completely pessimistic about the potential of coops – the most political ‘coop’ is a soviet after all – but there would have to be a lot of thinking about how to maintain a coop’s political focus and what exactly it’s trying to achieve and how it would relate to other organisations etc. on the left.

Otherwise Thurles, which has one of the few genuinely cooperative creameries left, would be a hotbed of radicalism!


WorldbyStorm - March 4, 2013

There’s a lot in that, though coops can be political and obviously more so than other forms that engage in commercial activities it doesn’t follow that they have to. And it’s hard to entirely credit the idea that political identifications will in and of themselves be generated by them without other forces in play. And unfortunately the same problems come into play in relation to the other forces and political identification – unions and campaigns are a real problem in this respect where actiism doesn’t per se lead to political activism. And of course political parties themselves are arguably marginal.

Still, an argument could be made that as example of left approaches in action – of which there are precious few in the contemporary period and where previous ones from other periods seem to be inapposite coops would provide both an exemplar and another useful base. It’s the old thing, isn’t it, no single route to success.


daramcq - March 4, 2013

One of the problems that the IAOS faced back in the day was down to their apoliticism. The various town and county councils, dominated by the nationalist middle class, kept making political decisions contrary to their interests. In the current context, perhaps the problem is that an isolated coop will likely be sectional. A bigger movement is needed, but hard to get. A cooperative bank seems necessary, but hard to come by.


Gavin Mendel-Gleason - March 4, 2013

It’s the case that cooperatives have the same market forces on them as non-capitalist companies when we look at the boundary to the company. There is also nothing that requires cooperatives develop sensible politics. However, internally they have very different dynamics. The worker/owners will have more egalitarian pay, and longer term vision for the company than a capitalist would regarding a company, and experiments with more sustainable production and more worker friendly production is much more viable.

Taking an overtly political view of cooperatives is absolutely necessary if they are to function usefully for progressive politics. Otherwise they can easily degenerate (in terms of control and pay ratio) or simply be sold to capitalists when the pay-off is high enough. The mere existence of lots of cooperatives is not sufficient.

We need to have a base in the working class from which can generate surplus so that we can have political expressions which aren’t dominated by mere profit making interests. In order for this to happen we need to politicise cooperatives, which an only happen if the left engages with them actively. Unions can also be filled with conservatism, but just as with cooperatives, they have the potential not to be so.

Some aspects which need to be paid attention to.

A) A cooperative bank which funds only cooperatives is absolutely necessary, and this is the institution which would have the most power to ensure that we build up a connected cooperative movement which retains decent politics. The structure of the company can be a requirement of obtaining credit, which means that it will at least remains democratic.

B) Having a federation of cooperatives, rather than atomised cooperatives can potentially yield important benefits. Experimentation with alternative internal trading (both on supply chain, and consumer goods) within a federation of cooperatives could help to reduce the need to work strictly off of exchange value.

C) We need to propose a series of legal reforms that can help cooperatives to function. These can include everything from limited liability to allowing cooperatives to provide goods in kind to members in lieu of remuneration. This can reduce the costs to the cooperative and make them more competitive in the market while still improving worker living standards. Tax breaks for cooperatives is another possibility, as are state finance for cooperatives.

D) The use of surplus for investment should be strongly encouraged. This is one of the reasons that Mondragón didn’t suffer as badly in the credit crunch, since they save at high rates and reinvest in new cooperative enterprise, while capital works on a less coordinated basis.

E) Historically there is a trend of forming cooperatives in areas with low margins. Getting involved in production of means of production themselves, or in other high tech areas which have the potential for high profit rates is crucial. The focus on making consumer capitalism nicer or more green directly is misguided.

F) A mass political party would have to explicate the wider vision of how to use cooperatives for a transition to a socialist society. Even non-market socialism can be much easier to transition to via a large cooperative sector.

Lenin remarked that the Bolsheviks had tons of problems trying to staff banks or make the bankers play nice. If we had politicised cooperative banks, we would have real experience in finance and such problems would be radically reduced. The potential for coordinated planning would obviously be much better as experiments over a period could take place, rather than some shock-treatment transition to state command economies.

The strategy may end up leading to coops which are apolitical, deficient or degenerate. While not a sufficient condition for progress, it looks to me to be at least like an important component of a modern socialist strategy.


LeftAtTheCross - March 4, 2013

+1 to all of that Gavin.


seedot - March 4, 2013

just as a clarification on the Dublin Food co-op – it is still resolutely vegetarian and regularly has quite fractious AGMs, EGMs and SGMs which in part discuss the politics of food, whether consumer boycotts are something the co-op should support etc.

while nobody could accuse it of being class conscious and the relationship of the workforce to the consumer co-op body is a fascinating, ongoing saga, Dublin Food Co-op is still an explicitly political co-op. (not to contradict the general point of degeneration).


fergal - March 5, 2013

Looks like the Emilano-Romagna region in Italy is what’s being pointed to here. An “economy” with over a third being in cooperatives,with everything from banking,housing,tiles,food. Coops that are joined up and provide a percentage of their turnover over to R+D..A rich tradition of Left led regional government and councils,from the post-war PCI on.I think 1/8 of the workforce is self-employed in small family businesses/workshops…side-stepping the alienation in large-scale industry and the bitter class conflict in Italy’s
other industrial regions. And it actually works. It’s the second “richest” region in Italy and in ton ten in Europe. Its unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Europe today as its economy is insulated form bigger world shocks thanks to its cooperative fianancing options and the the self-suffienct nature of its economic base. When asked of a palce where Left wing ideas work I always cite Emiliano Romagna and not Cuba or Norht Korea!!!(smiley face)


fergal - March 5, 2013

plaes excuse all the typos-half asleep here!


8. LeftAtTheCross - March 3, 2013

Good comments from Rosencrantz & Tomboktu above. I don’t have the energy today after that session to engage in the discussion here this evening. I’ll just comment that the fact that some people came away from the LookLeft Forum with more questions than they went in with is perhaps the best measure of success. If more people went away feeling that there’s a struggle to be won within the Left against knee-jerk rigidity then I’ll +1 to that in spades. It’s a real shame that the discussion descended into a defense of a purely ruptural approach, when the living reality of the political approach being promoted by those who voice that rhetoric is in fact based on the immediate reality that interstitial and symbiotic approaches are necessary in the present political circumstances. The self-denial, perhaps self-delusion, needs to be recognised and addressed. In saying that I’m nor arguing for purely any single approach, I’m arguing that the reality is that those organisations do not act in a revolutionary mode and that they should be less defensive about insisting that there is only one path to one nirvana, and that the magic cloak of rhetoric must be discarded if there is to be any meaningful engagement with the sorts of questions raised by Oli-Wright, about how to build a road to socialism that is desirable and viable and which wins the popular support which is essential to its survival beyond the tipping point of rupture.


9. Tomboktu - March 5, 2013

Olin-Wright saw the importance of co-operatives being worker co-ops. I think the main Irish experience with co-operatives has been the agricultural producer co-operatives (and, I suppose, the special case of the group water schemes which are essentially not-for-profits which have chosen co-operatives as a legal structure).

If I understood Olin-Wright correctly, his primary concern is not so much the politicisation of co-operatives, but the “coperativisation” of political activists — not in the sense of turning parties, etc., into co-operatives, but in looking at the opportunities as politcal activists to make economic activity more hospitable to enterprises with socialist values (and co-operatives were presented as the key examle of that).


10. CL - March 6, 2013

A piece by Gar Alperovitz on worker-owned businesses.

“Worker ownership works in the US, as well. It’s not often realized that there are over 10 million Americans who work at jobs they also own—more than are members of unions in the private sector. In Cleveland an innovative complex of worker owned cooperatives, linked through a revolving fund and a non-profit corporation—and in part supported by procurement from non-profit hospitals and universities—has become a model for several other community efforts. A large part of this recent boom in worker ownership is due to federal policy; specifically, legislation that created substantial tax advantages for business owners who sell their ownership stake to their workers.”



11. daramcq - March 6, 2013
12. LookLeft Forum: Erik Olin Wright Video | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - March 6, 2013

[…] afterwards is available now at the LookLeft website for your delectation, as pointed out by Daramcq […]


13. Tomboktu - March 17, 2013

If the discussion above and the video on LookLeft, linked to in comment 12, interest you, then you might like to know that Crooked Timber has started a seminar on Olin-Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias.


14. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - March 17, 2013

This is supposedly an article about the Olin Wright talk, though it’s really about why you shouldn’t trust Owen Jones or Laurie Penny. (And why we must keep schtum about a rape case)



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