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Erik Olin Wright has died January 23, 2019

Posted by Tomboktu in Class/Class politics, Socialism.

Erik Olin Wright has died, aged 72.

He visited Dublin in 2013, and spoke on a Saturday afternoon in the Teachers’ Club at a public meeting on ‘Realising a Left Alternative’ (videos here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4).

I’m not qualified to assess his contribution to ideas on the Left. However, I point to work that I encountered and found helpful in my own thinking about what needs to be done to make this world a better place. I will mention three of his own writings and another trio of books that he shepherded into being as a series editor.

One of my most-borrowed books in his Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010). It sets out an analysis of capitalism, alternatives to it, and forms of transforming our current social and economic organisation. His 2004 essay ‘Taking socialism seriously‘ condenses some of the key ideas that were to form the spine of Envisioning Real Utopias. The third piece of his own work that I will point to is a little more niche, and was an essay he co-wrote with Harry Brighouse in 2006: ‘A Proposal to Transform the House of Lords into a Citizens’ Assembly‘. (I have cited it here on CLR a few times when the subject of reforming the Seanad has been in the air.)

As the series editor for the Real Utopias Project, he commissioned Equal Shares: Making Market Socialism Work by John Roemer [and 16 respondents] (Verso, 1996), Recasting Egalitarianism: New Rules for Communities, States and Markets by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis [also with 16 respondents] (Verso, 1999), and Redesigning Distribution by Anne Alstott and Philippe Van Parijs [only seven  responses for this one!] (Verso, 2005). Of these, I read Redesigning Distribution first. I did not find it satisfactory as the proposals left the grossly unequal outcomes of capitalism as possibilities, preferring instead to equalise the starting positions in the system, but the book was a ‘gateway drug’ into economic thinking on equality.

Erik had been ill for a year. On Saturday, as his death was approaching, he wrote about it:

Journal entry by Erik Olin Wright Jan 18, 2019

Yesterday, I had a bone marrow biopsy to see if there were any prospects at all of a rejuvenation of my bone marrow.  Alas, there is not. My bone marrow is virtually empty and what cells are there are to a significant extent blasts.  Dr. Michaelis told me that even if we were to wipe out the remaining blasts, I would be far too weak to even attempt another transplant.  A transplant is off the table, and a transplant was always the only prospect for a cure. The only thing that’s keeping me alive right now are blood transfusions of red blood cells and platelets.  All of my platelets and all of my red blood cells come from donors, from ordinary blood donations. Unfortunately, the way this disease works is that gradually my liver especially, to use Dr. Michaelis’ expression, chews up these transfusions, and you get increasingly less benefit from any given unit of blood.  And at some point, no benefit whatsoever.  You get a unit of blood, but your hemoglobin will not rise.  And when that happens, you basically cannot sustain life any longer.  So the scenario is basically when you approach that period–it doesn’t happen abruptly, it happens over the course of days and weeks–you sleep more and more, your body is getting less and less oxygen, 15 hours a day, 18, 20, 24; you’re not in a coma, you can be roused, have sweet words of love, maybe even more extended human communication than that.  But then eventually you just begin to sleep all the time and, I assume, fade away.  That would be the AML equivalent to dying in your sleep.  You just, at one point, sleep 24 hours a day and don’t wake up.  But there are other potential scenarios as well.  I have two infections, both of which could kill me, and those could blossom out of control and kill me one day to the next, blindsided.  The doctors are doing everything they can to manage the infections and I feel my fevers are under control and that basically that’s not likely to be the way that I die. But who knows. Maybe I’ll be surprised.  Marcia will update everybody when the time comes.

So, dear friends, what we’ve known for a while is in fact the case.  I have a very limited time left in this marvelous form of stardust which I’ve been talking about over the past few months. I don’t feel any dread.  I want to assure you that I don’t feel fear about this.  It seems very petty to complain about the eventual dissipation of my stardust back into the stardust of the cosmos after having lived 72 years in this extraordinary form of existence that very few molecules in the entire universe get to experience.  Indeed, to even use the word experience with respect to my stardust is amazing.  Atoms don’t have experiences.  They’re just stuff.  That’s all I really am is stuff.  But stuff so complexly organized across several thresholds of stuff-complexity, that it’s able to reflect upon its stuff-ness and what an extraordinary thing it has been to be alive and aware that it’s alive and aware that it’s aware that it’s alive. And from that complexity comes the love and beauty and meaning that constitutes the life I’ve lived. And to top it off, I’m in this massively privileged corner of this human stuff that’s managed against all odds to not live a life of fear and suffering from the cruelties of our civilization, that has never felt the fear of hunger, the fear of bodily insecurity in my neighborhoods, that has had the resources to raise my wonderful family, my children, in an environment where I think they too have felt physical security and the basic things you need to flourish.  So there you have it.  I am among the most advantaged, privileged, call it what you will, stardust in this immensely enormous universe for 72 years.  And so it will end.  But I knew that, at least from age 6.  This is a few years earlier than I’d hoped, but no complaints.  No complaints.  And I suppose, to carry on this reverie a little bit longer, I suppose to top it all off, 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.  Not happy that I’m dying, but deeply happy with the life I’ve lived, and the life I’ve been able to share with all of you.

One final thought on this meandering theme: in November of 2015, I was hit broadside by a car while biking.  It would have taken very little change in what actually happened to turn this from a significant injury into a death, from one moment to the next I could be here and gone. People sometimes speculate on what’s the best way to die: suddenly or in your sleep, bang you’re dead; or drawn out over an extended period of time.  For me the answer is unequivocal: the death I’m having is the death I would choose.  but there’s one other little nuance of this way of dying that I didn’t really understand beforehand.  Often when people talk in a medical context about dying, when the context is the kind of death I’m dying, drawn out, people talk about the trade off between quality of life and extension of life.  Well, what I’ve come to realize is that when you’re really sick, when the pain of your illness takes over your life, or even when, as was the case last night I had uncontrollable and really hurtful coughing that kept me up most of the night, when you’re no longer in your body in a comfortable way, that’s not just a question of quality of life, that is a question of life. Five weeks of living the way I felt last night when I was coughing uncontrollably is not just some trade off with two weeks of living without it.  Five weeks of living like that is not living.  So I’ve told the doctors that from here on out, my priority really is comfort.  Not being drugged so that I’m loopy and just feeling physically comfortable, I want to be mentally comfortable too.  I want to connect and be able to continue writing this blog til the end.  But my priority is to be present.  And then let the length be what it is.  It will end soon, hopefully it will last as long as possible, but only in the context of being truly alive.

An Antidote to the Sunday Papers March 15, 2015

Posted by Tomboktu in Class, Class/Class politics, Economics.

As an antidote to the Sunday papers, I thought I would offer two items that I have read recently that might be of interest to CLR followers.

In some ways, the concept of inequality is unhelpful here. There has rarely been a political or business leader who has stood up and publicly said, “society needs more inequality”. And yet, most of the policies and regulations which have driven inequality since the 1970s have been publicly known. Although it is tempting to look back and feel duped by the pre-2008 era, it was relatively clear what was going on, and how it was being justified. But rather than speak in terms of generating more inequality, policy-makers have always favoured another term, which effectively comes to the same thing: competitiveness.

My new book, The Limits of Neoliberalism: Sovereignty, Authority & The Logic of Competition, is an attempt to understand the ways in which political authority has been reconfigured in terms of the promotion of competitiveness. Competitiveness is an interesting concept, and an interesting principle on which to base social and economic institutions. When we view situations as ‘competitions’, we are assuming that participants have some vaguely equal opportunity at the outset. But we are also assuming that they are striving for maximum inequality at the conclusion. To demand ‘competitiveness’ is to demand that people prove themselves relative to one other.

From How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture by William Davies (a 1,522-word blog post) http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-cult-of-competitiveness/


Right-wing commentators are largely in agreement with the dominant neoclassical conception of a subject whose ‘bad choices’ and ‘anti-social values and norms’ ensure continued poverty and marginality. The liberal-left, often drawing upon symbolic interactionism and post-structuralism, counter this by claiming that the powerful demonise and stigmatise the economically excluded and label them with a broad range of negative characteristics. At its most extreme this becomes a process of ‘othering’, where the forbidding image of an uncivilised, feckless, dangerous and criminal other is projected upon the excluded subject, making its inclusion appear impossible. Whilst avoiding the right’s dogmatic voluntarism and moralism, however, we are also keen to move beyond the liberal-left’s equally doctrinaire notion that this symbolic ‘othering’ is the primary cause of social exclusion or indeed the issue that demands political attention.


At the risk of antagonising some of our peers, we should perhaps also consider the possibility that many in the social democratic mainstream who issue their call for ‘real jobs’ and the return of a comprehensive welfare system are secretly aware that their demands can no longer be met. Perhaps the most striking gap in social democratic thinking about social exclusion is that, in seeking to reintroduce the ‘excluded’ back into the civic mainstream, they are arguing for the reintroduction of resource-poor workers back into the very system of relentless socio-symbolic competition that expelled them in the first place. Social democratic discourses of inclusion are always shot through with the idea that expanding opportunities is the way back to an inclusive society. Are they not essentially arguing that the poor be given another shot at ‘making it’ within the system as it currently exists, rather than arguing for a fundamental reappraisal of the conditions under which social and economic justice can actually take place? Our goal here is to side-step this debate about the reintroduction of ‘real jobs’ and the intellectual injunction that we up-skill the poor and equip them with the drive to compete. Instead, we want to ask searching questions about the drivers that lead to the expulsion or marginalisation of the poor, and, more fundamentally, whether inclusion is possible at all in a capitalist economy currently experiencing a permanent reduction in its growth-rate and a seismic shift in the balance of global economic power.


In terms of actual policy, there is very little difference between mainstream politicians; in essence, the cynic’s cliché that ‘they’re all the bloody same’ has become a reality. The general electorate must choose a candidate on the basis of some vague sense of who will benefit them personally. Political opposition to neoliberal excess and the brutal reallocation of money and assets from working populations to the super-rich – upwards of £13 trillion currently hidden away in global tax havens (Stewart, 2012b; see also Shaxson, 2012) – is expressed in the most attenuated and apologetic manner only by the political opponents that liberal capitalism itself appoints. Because there is no longer an organised political opposition, because the left has abandoned any conception of class struggle or an egalitarian future – or even a social democracy in which the huge gap in wealth and power can be seriously truncated – to focus exclusively on defending the human rights and arranging the piecemeal ‘social inclusion’ of marginalised identity groups, capitalism itself exists for ordinary voters as pure doxa, the common belief of what is and always will be. Indeed, such is the certainty of its permanent reign, even the word ‘capitalism’ had largely fallen out of use in political and academic circles. For the liberal-postmodern subject, existing in the absence of a politics that seeks to offer an account of subjective hardships, injustices, anxieties and rage, the social field of ceaseless struggle for symbolic and cultural capital becomes naturalised and the subject accepts – and then embraces and clings to – the myth of meritocracy. Their own inner torment, their enduring sense of lack and their fear of economic and cultural irrelevance compels them to throw themselves anew into capitalism’s competitive struggle for social distinction. Until real politics returns, the very idea of transforming the other into a true neighbour, cleansing the realm of politics of its corruption or creating a new reality built upon social justice seems impossible, even ridiculous. The compensation, the safety barrier that prevents the plunge over the edge into total nihilism and despair, is the hope that the self might one day make the journey from exploited to exploiter. Such hope is presented daily by the mass media as liberal capitalism’s great attraction, and today’s subjects plot their journeys to ‘inclusion’ and eventual safety up the league table of contemporary consumer culture.

From ‘Introduction: Post-crash Social Exclusion’, chapter in of Rethinking Social Exclusion — The End of the Social? by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall (20-page PDF) http://www.uk.sagepub.com/upm-data/57537_Winlow__Rethinking_Social_exclusion.pdf

Event: A politically feasible maximum wage? July 16, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Class/Class politics, Economics, Equality, Ethics, Excess.
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A politically plausible ‘maximum wage’?

16 September 2014

How we can make the ultimate antidote to inequality more than an egalitarian fantasy
Tuesday, September 16, 6-8pm, The Ark, Eustace Street, Temple Bar
Speakers: Speakers: Sam Pizzigati (Currently editor of Too Much, the global weekly on excess and inequality published by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.) and Dr. Mary Murphy (Central group Claiming our Future and Lecturer at NUIM.


The idea of a “maximum wage” — a cap on the annual income any one person can claim — has been around ever since the time of Plato. In today’s staggeringly unequal world, that idea is making a comeback, in everywhere from Egypt to New Zealand.

But could a “maximum wage” ever actually become politically viable? A variety of North American activists think so. In Canada and the United States, their emerging strategy revolves around leveraging the power of the public purse — our tax dollars — against the global corporations now manufacturing inequality at an incredibly furious pace.

These activists are mounting a frontal assault on corporate compensation systems that have individual power suits routinely making more in a morning than most of us can make in an entire year. How far has their new movement come? How far could this movement take us? Join Sam Pizzigati of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, America’s boldest progressive think tank, for an up-close look at a promising new direction in egalitarian public policy.

About Sam Pizzigati
Veteran labor journalist Sam Pizzigati currently edits Too Much, the global weekly on excess and inequality published by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. The New York Times has called him America’s “chief proponent” for the notion of a “maximum wage.”

Pizzigati has explored that notion in a series of books and articles that have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. His most recent book, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The forgotten triumph over plutocracy that created the American middle class, 1900-1970, traces the influence of income-cap advocacy over the first half of the 20th century.

In an earlier book, the 2004 Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives, Pizzigati helps explain why we need a ceiling on annual income — and offers both a glimpse at what “maximum wage” life might be like and a strategic gameplan for moving ahead in an income-capping direction.

Pizzigati has edited the national publications of four different American trade unions. He spent 20 years directing the publishing program of America’s largest union, the 2.4 million-member National Education Association.

Pizzigati currently lives just outside Washington in Maryland, where he served as a founding board member of Progressive Maryland, a statewide coalition of labor, community, and civil rights groups.

The Bottom Dog (1975-1976) March 31, 2014

Posted by Oireachtas Retort in Class/Class politics, Irish Politics.
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…now digitised & available online here.

How times have changed.


Catch the recent incarnation facebook here

Class attitudes… March 20, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class/Class politics, Economy.
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…one of the strangest things – to me – is how easily attitudes shape consumption patterns. Take, by way of example, the following news from the Guardian that Lidl and Aldi are significantly increasing market share in the UK. Now, those of us who follow such matters know there are issues as regards those companies in relation to certain labour matters, but putting that aside for a moment, consider this:

Ronny Gottschlich, Lidl’s UK boss, said the recession had helped it win the hearts of a group of middle class shoppers it calls the “Maidstone mums”, who would have considered shopping in Lidl social suicide during the years of plenty. “The recession shone a spotlight on us as a supermarket that offers high quality products at low prices,” he said. “This low-pricing strategy that continues to draw new middle class -–the Maidstone mums – customers into our stores for the first time.”

This ‘Maidstone Mums’ stuff is deeply irritating – glib essentially sexist short-hand for much more complex processes, but the point about class perceptions is interesting because it seems of a piece with attitudes held that seem(ed) widely at odds with actual (financial) self-interest. It speaks of (previous) conspicuous consumption – purchasing not because of intrinsic qualities, for Aldi and Lidl products are in the main there or thereabouts in relation to other such shops (and in some instances better), but to be seen to spend more. And it speaks to the strength of such perceptions in shaping behaviours. Class operates in so many ways and yet is so often unconsidered.

LGBT and Africa and class and the right and religion… February 19, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class/Class politics, LGBT, Religion, The Left, Uncategorized.

…a telling interview in the Observer this last weekend with celebrated Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina whose acerbic ‘How to Write about Africa’ brought him to an international audience. Wainaina who came out as gay this year has a lot to say about gay rights in Africa and what’s educative about it is the way in which the struggles lgbt people have there are one’s that run into a broad range of issues, class, politics, religion and the push from the right (in its cultural and religious forms but obviously also locked into certain economic lines).

So what has he to say about class:

“If you are middle-class here, or international enough here, you can pretty much live as you want,” he says, of his own circumstance. That was not so easy, though, still, for his young friend, and increasingly impossible for gay men and women in Nigeria and Uganda (and to differing degrees in the 36 other African countries in which homosexuality remains illegal). “It is an irony,” he says, “that my friend had worked in the past for an NGO counselling people about the importance of being open about health issues, but he couldn’t even tell us he was going through this thing. I thought, ‘It is time: I have to write about it.'”

Politics? And feminism.

why, I wonder of Wainaina, did the subject seem so very raw in African societies now?

He pauses, before giving me a brief lesson in political history. “Partly homophobia is seasonal,” he suggests, “particularly with regards to election seasons. And it comes in different packages. Sometimes it is packaged with abortion, for example, what they call a wedge issue, a for or against.”

Religion, and in particular the religious right (and note how that inflects the societal discourse making somewhat more tolerant religions – or perhaps more accurately somewhat less intolerant religions – become less so).

Given the caveat that the cultural history is different in Islamic parts of Africa, Wainaina believes those currents of bigotry are best understood by examining the recent patterns of church-going. “In any forum where people discuss the issues – in the media, or in conversation – you will quickly hear almost the exact wording that has been distributed and disseminated in the churches,” he says. “Most importantly, the Pentecostal churches, which have in turn influenced Catholic and Anglican because they are shouting loudest and growing fastest.”
That language was no accident. It entered Africa in the late 1980s on the back of the heavily funded right-wing Pentecostal movement, mostly imported from the rapture-obsessed white southern churches of America. “They came in the last days of those dictatorships in the 1980s, and they came with presidential sanction,” he says. “From Malawi to Zambia to here to wherever. Those churches talked a lot about obeying your leaders, and about the mortal dangers of decadent influences bringing in abortion and homosexuality.” They used the fear and reality of HIV, often pictured as vengeance, to back up their preaching.

And politics again, this time the failure of politics to engage with economic failure, polarised societies and suchlike:

Nigeria under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, who spends a lot of time courting the born-again, has become a case in point. “Listen,” Wainaina says, “your nation is being polarised between Islamic militants and Pentecostal reactionaries: what is the single issue they can agree on and unite around? Your economic miracle is stalling, your popularity is tanking, and so in your desperation you create not just an anti-gay law but you blink your eyes to a wave of thuggery, beatings, whippings and everything else. Then you have that shit run on CNN and people suggest that it is part of a programme ‘to eradicate western influences’, and the beatings are to save young men from themselves.”

There’s the legacy of colonial interventions:

The last ruling monarch of the Buganda people, Kabaka Mwama II, was apparently gay. His “bestial enslavement” of 23 young courtiers was used to justify his overthrow and the seizing of his territories by colonial forces. Many of those 23 men became Christian converts and martyrs for plotting against the king. They were the first African saints and the unity of Ugandan state and its church were, Wainaina argues, forged from the propaganda of their homosexual suffering.
“That sexual secret has been simmering at the heart of Ugandan identity ever since,” he suggests. “It goes very deep.” (That long internalised schism perhaps also helps to explain why, in Google’s 2013 Zeitgeist survey, Ugandans searched for “homosexuality” more than any other nation on earth; Kenyans were third.)

How he himself will fare is far from clear. Perhaps he’s right that given his linkages, and profile, he’s safe enough, but think of this in class terms, that millions of ordinary working class African men and women haven’t got that license, must live in societies that are deeply antagonistic, murderously antagonistic, to a crucial part of their identity. And note the way in which there is a noxious confluence of various different elements that combined focus and accentuate that antagonism and how it is so often used as a diversion from economic issues and as a means of consolidating or event strengthening support – in a not dissimilar dynamic to how ‘social’ issues are used by the right in the United States and to a degree both in the UK, various parts of Europe and indeed here in Ireland.

Indeed it’s striking how this deep antagonism of the conservative and reactionary right to the concept of lgbt equality (as well, as issues like abortion, certain aspects of bioethics – IONA for example is no fan of IVF – etc) is sometimes forgotten in struggles closer to home. In part that is perhaps a function of how far there has been a societal shift on these matters (albeit in this state and on this island abortion remains an issue that appears unlikely to be addressed even in part anytime soon), how far the distance travelled has actually been, and perhaps because victory is within grasp. But as to that last I wonder. In some polities conservatives are savvy enough to support (rhetorically or nominally) marriage equality – for example the British Tories are in favour of it albeit it has caused some splintering within that party and the new legislation means that the first marriages will take place next month. In others conservatives are dead set against and even today the US Republican Party remains dead set against.

Of course, contextualised with the situation in most African states (with South Africa being a shining exception) the fact that marriage equality is contested at such a level perhaps appears beyond imagination and it underscores the distance to go that just this last weekend in Uganda the following occurred:

Rights campaigners and health professionals have condemned Uganda’s president after he said he would approve controversial anti-homosexuality laws based on the advice of “medical experts”.

Yoweri Museveni told members of his governing party he would sign the bill – prescribing life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” – that was passed by parliament late last year, dashing activists’ hopes he might veto it.

Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesman, tweeted on Friday that “this comes after 14 medical experts presented a report that homosexuality is not genetic but a social behaviour”.

Perhaps this is the most appropriate last word on that:

The findings by Museveni’s medical experts were disputed in an open letter by more than 50 of the world’s top public health scientists and researchers. “Homosexuality is not a pathology, an abnormality, a mental disorder or an illness: It is a variant of sexual behaviour found in people around the world,” they wrote. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are normal.”

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