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30 January 2019

What we can learn from Erik Olin Wright, the godfather of universal basic income

The American sociologist, who died last week, brought renewed optimism to the left.

By Hettie O'Brien

Erik Olin Wright, the American sociologist best known for popularising universal basic income, never stopped thinking about the future. “We humans are good at inventing ways for our existence as conscious beings to continue after the stardust dissipates… I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I’ll find out by some time in February,” he wrote in January this year on the blog that chronicled his battle with acute myeloid leukaemia. Almost two weeks later, the disease claimed his life, at the age of 72.

Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Wright, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, began work on a series of lectures.  As the Eastern Bloc fractured, Wright inaugurated his “Real Utopias Project”, bringing scholars together to discuss alternatives to capitalism that were grounded in reality. The fall of communism signalled the flourishing of Wright’s thought. His intellectual pursuits resulted in 13 books and scores of articles spanning sociology, public policy, and political insurgency.

Today, as the planet burns and rich technologists dream of escaping to New Zealand and Mars, Wright’s ideas for an inclusive utopia have gained a new urgency. Like Oscar Wilde, who thought that a map of the world that does not include utopia is “not worth even glancing at”, Wright firmly believed that the limits of possibility are shaped by what people perceive is achievable.

The left languished during the 1990s, having weathered Thatcher and Reagan in the West and the fall of Communism in the East. Markets had become hegemonic, politics technocratic, and radicals struggled to define a purpose beyond the bipartisanship of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – a continuation of, rather than challenge to, the economic status quo. Rather than embrace nostalgia for the past – a criticism that is today often levelled at Stalinist factions of the Labour Party membership – Wright sought fresh solutions that looked to the future.

As Four Futures author Peter Frase puts it, Wright was schooled in “no bullshit” Marxism. He saw the faults of classical Marxism, a theory often content to predict the inevitable destruction of capitalism, and foresaw that people needed optimism, on the grounds that alternatives would be impossible unless they could be imagined. Today, social policies like the four-day week, workplace cooperatives, and universal basic income – an initiative that Wright championed – bear the imprint of his thought.

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Basic income has since been popularised by both left-wing thinkers and technology entrepreneurs intent on a different kind of utopia. (Sam Altman, president of start-up incubator Y-Combinator, famously instigated a UBI trial in Oakland, California.) But as Wright imagined it, the policy would give people “the freedom to build a different world in the present”. It was the type of reform that he termed “interstitial” – allowing change to flower at the margins of the present. Shortly after he died, former Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted that Wright’s work on UBI was “essential reading for those who want a better society”.

Wright’s enduring legacy was to present a vision of the future that can be seen today in the renewal of the left. His 2010 book Envisioning Real Utopias laid the groundwork for Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, which presented a series of demands including a reduction in the working week and universal basic income, and was heralded by shadow chancellor John McDonnell as “socialism with an iPad”.

While the right co-opted the future in the 1980s, the left remained grounded in nostalgia for past revolutions. Wright’s work provided a way beyond this impasse. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once described the struggle for social justice as requiring “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.  As Wright put it: “Today we need an optimism of the intellect as well.”

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