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A Conversation with Erik Olin Wright

By David Casassas and Maciej Szlinder

As part of the „International Sociological Debates at the University of Barcelona” (ISDUB), Professor Erik Olin Wright visited University of Barcelona in Spring 2015 and gave a lecture entitled „Challenging (and maybe transcending) Capitalism through Real Utopias”. The lecture was organized by „Research Group on Sociological Theory and Impact of Social Research” and served as the launch of the Spanish edition of Envisioning Real Utopias. David Casassas (University of Barcelona) and Maciej Szlinder (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan) interviewed Professor Wright both for Spanish-speaking journal SinPermiso (www.sinpermiso.info) and for Polish journal Theoretical Practice (www.praktykateoretyczna.pl).

David Casassas, Maciej Szlinder: Let us start with some conceptual background. How do you define the ideas of “utopia” and of “real utopia”?

Erik Olin Wright: Putting the words “real utopia” together is not an accident. It’s meant to be a provocation. After all, utopia refers to a perfect society that is impossible. And so, to invoke „utopia” might be to invoke in people’s minds just ideal fantasy. Of course, if you put real next to it, it suggests a puzzle. And the purpose of the puzzle is for people to think both in theoretical and practical terms about their deep aspirations for a just and humane world. It is definitely a moral discourse that I’m advocating. What are the values by which you feel we should judge the world as it is? And what are the values you hope to see realized in the world that might be? That’s the “utopian moment”. And the “real” part is meant to make think, in practical and theoretical terms, about how to go about realizing those values. In a sense, this is a “non-utopian utopia”, a practical realization of utopian aspirations. At the time I was looking for a label for this project —this was the early nineties—, the old communist regimes were crumbling or had disappeared. At a personal level I was finishing my long-term research project on class and I wanted to return to what I had been concerned with at the very beginning of my academic training, which was the problem of alternatives. I was trying to figure out what would be a good label for this, one that would create an open agenda rather than a closed one. I thought of “practical utopia” or “feasible utopia” – those might have been okay. There’s of course Ernst Bloch’s “concrete utopia”, although I didn’t know this term at that time. “Real utopia” captured my imagination better. It has both more ambiguity and more possibility in itself. That’s where the expression came from.

You perceive yourself as a socialist. What is the connection between the concept of “real utopias” and socialism?

The term “socialism” has many meanings. In Spain there is something called a Socialist Party, in which the word “socialist” is rather unrecognizable from the point of view of many people. In the Marxist tradition in a certain sense, socialism was the label for anti-capitalism. You needed a word to describe what you thought that would come after. “Communism” was the utopian word, a word to designate a distant future which would fully embody the values that people cared about. But communism never really figured in the theory, i.e. the theory of what was imminent inside of capitalism that would be opened up once you have the power to do so. That wasn’t communism. One could debate these words. But communism was this imaginary vision in some distant future. And socialism came to be the word that was used to describe what you can practically build when you have power and you want to do something. But in Marx’s own work, “socialism” did not have much positive content. There were little gestures in Marx, a few more gestures in pre-revolutionary Lenin, but not much, really. But the one thing that was clear in all of those early formulations was that the concept of the alternative to capitalism was very much centered around the state. It was a very statist vision of what post-capitalism would be like. To be sure, Marxists argued that a state in the classical sense would eventually wither away, but that was part of the more utopian idea. In practical terms, it was the state that would be doing the work of building a new society.

I’m using the word “socialism” also to describe post-capitalism, to capture the emancipatory ideals, but I want to use it in a way that is not so exclusively state-centered. A slogan to describe this is “taking the ‚social’ in socialism seriously.” What is social about socialism? I think that the guts of what’s social in socialism is the profound and pervasive deep democracy in an alternative to capitalism. I refer to this as social empowerment, empowering people in their communities and in their workplaces to have the actual capacity to direct the organization and purposes of economic cooperation. That’s pretty vague still. It doesn’t describe the institutions that make that possible. But that’s the foundational idea: socialism means democratizing the economy, civil society and the state.

While reflecting on the forms of transformations you consider “interstitial transformations” as the most important and needed ones. We find your perspective really suggestive, as it excludes the view of social transformation as something simplistically binary or dichotomous. Can you explain what those “interstitial transformations” exactly are?

The word “interstitial” comes from geology: it’s the space between the layers. The basic idea of an interstitial strategy is to imagine ways in which we can build alternatives in a world as it is in those spaces where that’s possible. We can fill the spaces. And indeed in the geological metaphor you fill the spaces with water, the water freezes and this expands the spaces. I don’t know what is the analogue to freezing water in this strategic vision, but the idea still is: you fill the spaces, you build alternatives which have emancipatory properties. They embody the values you care about, that is, democracy, equality and community, which are the three corevalues of emancipatory alternatives to capitalism. Building alternatives that embody those values is the first step. The second step is that you do this in a way that actually expands the spaces. So you especially try to build those alternatives which also can be replicated, scaled-out, and maybe scaled-up. Probably scaling-out and replicability is more important than scaling-up. But sometimes scaling up may also be needed in order to expand the space of alternatives. Some alternatives one can create may look good, but have the unintended effect of closing down the space for future alternatives —they become barriers to further progress. Sometimes you can’t know this in advance. In any case, the ideal thing is to think about alternatives which have the potential dynamic of not merely solving some current problem, but enlarging the future limits of possibility.

Could you give some examples of alternatives that in your vision have this dynamic, that open the space for the alternative?

Think about worker cooperatives, especially those which have as part of their goals the formation of other cooperatives. That’s why I like so much my neighborhood example in Madison of Just Coffee. This is a worker-cooperative coffee roaster that has as part of its own business plan the building of cooperatives besides itself. It doesn’t want to become a successful cooperative and then convert and become a capitalist firm. It wants to incubate more cooperatives, so it’s a breeder of cooperatives as well as being a cooperative. It does so by creating linkages to farmer cooperatives, by coordinating with other roasters to create an importer cooperative of beans. And then —and this is in some ways one of its more interesting features—, when it gets too big —which it has: it has been very successful—, in order to comfortably sustain its own cooperative structures, it has helped foster other roaster cooperatives rather than try to produce more and more coffee itself and distribute it under its own label. It wants to create a network structure of co-ops. That’s an example, a worker cooperative that breeds cooperatives. This can be thought of as a kind of pathway to a cooperative market economy.

This leads us to a methodological and political question. Is there a threshold or a proxy that helps us determine whether certain experiences and practices constitute a form of “interstitial transformation” or not? For instance, the fact that the three of us decide to share cigarettes according to a certain socialist or communist distributive criterion would not turn our relationship into a transformative experience with real societal effects, would it?

I used to worry a lot about that question. And there is even a broader version of the same question: if all economic systems are hybrids of many different principles so that every capitalist system contains socialist elements, how do you know what’s dominant? How do we know when we could wake up one day and say “Aha! We’re now in a socialist economy”? I couldn’t come up with a completely satisfactory solution to that question and ultimately I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter so much. Let’s make a distinction between interstitial activities and interstitial strategies. The first can become the second when they gain enough traction and visibility, but they may begin just as activities that don’t have broader social impacts or broader ambitions. I don’t think that there is a necessary reason to know in advance, to have a criterion to clearly demarcate these things. What you can have as a criterion is: do the activities embody the values that you care about —democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic principles? Are they sustained or they tend to disintegrate over time? So sustainability would be a criterion for its robustness, its usefulness. And then, whether or not it suddenly becomes impactful may depend entirely on context, not on anything about these activities themselves. Imagine you have some well-meaning, mutually satisfying cooperative forms that are working in a community, that people are enjoying and they are being productive in. Community gardens could be an example. Then an economic crisis occurs and makes people desperate for new ways of doing things. In that context, you already have these small nodes that were previously not engaged in for purposes of social transformation. But they’re there. And suddenly there’s the space for them to play this bigger role. They become an interstitial strategy.

You say that one of the good features of the interstitial activity is that it is too small to be seen by capitalists as something dangerous. How can something be so socially important to make a change and at the same time escape capitalists’ control? Isn’t it a kind of contradiction?

In the book I describe such initiatives as being “below the radar”. But I don’t know how much weight I want to put on that as an important feature. Sure, when something is visibly seen as a real threat to the system, then of course it is vulnerable to attack. But lots of things are seen as annoying and as a vague threat in a loose sense. The anti-capitalists pose an alternative and yet, they’re not attacked, because the system has enough conditions of its own reproduction, it can tolerate a lot of deviance, a lot of contradiction. The vision of transformation that I have is not that somehow the interstitial transformations sneak up and get bigger and bigger, but aren’t yet noticed and suddenly they’re big enough to challenge the system. The idea is not that you eventually have a confrontation of the systems in a head-to-head battle, in the old “smash the system”, ruptural sense. I don’t rule that out, but it does not sound plausible to me that somewhere down the road there’s going to be a confrontation of warring systems in which the victory will go to the masses. The more plausible view is that capitalism itself as a system is eroded and transformed by these interstitial and symbiotic (another kind of strategy we have not talked about here) changes, so that it becomes less capitalistic in its own character. And as less capitalistic, it’s in fact less antagonistic to these new alternatives that are emerging. The capitalist and socialist forms have an uncomfortable relationship to each other —they are in real tension— but not of the sort that constitutes head-to-head, “life and death” struggle to the end. If it gets to that point, I don’t see a way forward particularly.

Could it be that openly declaring the conflict and showing how we experience the clash of interests might mobilize people and political resources in a stronger way? To put it in Gramscian terms: do you think that nourishing a socially widespread counter-hegemonic account on the discontent created by capitalism and the need of building socialist alternatives is also a necessary strategy?

You do have to build an alternative discourse and an alternative culture which is factually anti-capitalist, but it can be defined by its positive values rather than by its negative opposition. You can define the alternative by reciprocity, solidarity, equality and democracy, by the realization of these values and build the institutions around them and then have tolerable interactions with capitalist institutions which all would be deeply ambiguous. One of the examples I give, because it’s a puzzling one, is the relationship between Google and Linux. Linux is utterly non-capitalist. I would argue it’s even anti-capitalist in its logic of production. Peer-to-peer collaboration to produce something as part of the global commons of knowledge: that’s not the capitalist way of producing high-ends sophisticated software. No property rights in these means of production: universal free-access. And voluntary participation. A crazy system to produce a high-quality product. On the other hand, Google uses it to drive its servers, and because it uses it, it wants it to improve. So it allocates software engineers to work on Linux. Now, how should we think about that connection? It’s by virtue in part of the fact that Linux serves purposes for Google that it can stabilize and not be attacked. Why would Google attack something that’s good for Google? So that is part of the symbiotic idea: even though Linux has been produced interstitially, it becomes a symbiotic practice. Because it’s so valuable, Google is allocating part of its capitalist resources to the further development of the commons. “Aha!”, we can say, “Linux has captured Google!” But on the other hand, a couple of thousands of highly-skilled software engineers are providing services for Google at no cost to Google – an infinite rate of exploitation! “Aha! Google has captured Linux!” Which is it? It’s both, both things are happening. There’s a very interesting activist and intellectual named Michel Bauwens, head to the P2P Foundation. He is very much concerned with this problem. Given this contradictory connection between Linux and Google, just to take one example, is there a way that we can basically tax Google to generate livelihoods for people who are building the commons, rather than let Google simply exploit the commons with an infinite rate of exploitation? I think that’s an extremely interesting and productive way to think about the problem. The next stage of this real utopian transformative agenda around the collaborative commons is to figure out ways that we can force capitalist entities that use the commons to pay for it. And non-capitalist entities don’t have to pay for it. And then the resources of that payment would go to provide livelihoods for the commons producers. That’s Bauwens proposal. My personal view is that unconditional basic income is a better solution to that problem. It’s a simpler solution: you just don’t have to worry so much about who is exploiting who.

You have presented basic income as a socialist project. Can you tell us why you think we can associate this measure to the socialist tradition?

When I’m saying that I emphasize the “social” in the “socialist”, I mean a social concept of building a more democratic and egalitarian economy. Basic income is an immediate solution to one problem with capitalism, that is, its unjust distribution of income and its exclusion of people from a secure access to a livelihood. Basic income just solves that with one move. This consequence of basic income is what I would call a “static” virtue of basic income. Most discussions of basic income are concerned with social justice and egalitarian political theory and focus on this static distributional problem. I think that there’s also a dynamic justification of basic income, which is about the kind of world it could create —not the kind of world it constitutes, but the kind of world it sets in motion. This is not just „sin permiso” the idea that you don’t need permission in order to live; it’s that you don’t need permission to build emancipatory social alternatives. Building cooperatives is the simplest idea. What basic income does is that it transfers part of the social surplus out of the capitalist economy and gives it to people, some of whom (but not all) will want to build an alternative way of life, with alternative economic principles. Worker cooperatives are still producing commodities for a market, but they are doing so in non-capitalist ways. The social and solidarity economy as well as the cooperative economy are alternatives to capitalist production and are facilitated to the extent that the participants don’t have to provide their basic needs through their economic activity; this is why I think there’s a dynamic possibility that’s opened up by basic income. But this is only possible when it’s a generous basic income. I’m from the camp in basic income discussions that says “the bigger basic income, the better”. We can define the maximally sustainable basic income as the highest possible level which, if instituted, doesn’t produce the perverse effects to make it unsustainable. I don’t know what that level is. I think there is pretty good evidence that it’s probably above the conventionally defined poverty line, as opposed to a sub-poverty basic income. The crucial point here is that the higher this in practice turns out to be, the greater the dynamic possibilities that would be unleashed.

You very convincingly say that “class counts”. Any new development in your analysis of social classes? As for the class structure within current capitalist societies, it seems one must get rid of strictly dual analysis. At the same time, many phenomena related to the present crisis show that, in the end, what you have is simply people who need to work in order to live, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, people who can live without working. What are your views on all these things?

I just finished the book Understanding class for Verso. It will be out sometime this year. To my surprise, I developed some new ideas in writing it. I thought when I began that the book was just going to summarize my previous work and then I would put this theme to rest. But I came up with a somewhat new formulation which is actually an answer to the question that you’ve just posed. Here is the basic framework to think about it.

Step one: there is a poster in the research center that I direct that has the following slogan on it: “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you are on; class analysis is knowing who is there with you.” I think that’s the way to think about the problem of class structure. Who are your enemies, who are your friends and who are your potential allies. An ally is not a natural friend but also not a natural enemy —they have contradictory combinations of interests.

Step two: what is the fence? This is where I came up with a new strategy of analysis which comes out of my focus on the real utopias work, in which I have rethought the problem of class primarily in terms of the problem of power over economic organization. We can call this a power-centered notion of class. The fence is defined by the kind of power it embodies.

Step three: how do we think about power? Here I use a sports metaphor. There are three levels of power that are relevant to class analysis. There is power over the question: what game should we play? When that’s resolved, there is another question: what should be the rules of this game? Once that is resolved, there is still power over the moves of the game. Imagine that we live in a world where you can really only play one game. Should it be European football or basketball? Clearly, there are some players who would be clearly disadvantaged if basketball wins, and vice versa. So there’s actual interest at stake over what game to play. If basketball wins, there’s still the question on what should be the rules of basketball. Some rules would advantage certain kinds of players and disadvantage others. In basketball until the fifties you couldn’t touch the rim, so you couldn’t dunk. Once the rules allowed dunking, because it made the game more exciting for spectators, this gave an even greater advantage to taller athletes. Once the rules are fixed, there is still the question of the moves in the game. Certain players will then train in particular ways to take advantage of their capabilities for various kinds of moves, given the rules. We know that in certain sports the result is that the rules become unstable, because once you stabilize them, athletes change their training and strategies in ways that subvert the rules. European football has had that problem periodically with too little scoring or too much scoring. And as a result, the ruling body of the sport has periodically changed the rules a little concerning off-sides or tackling, for example, to give the offense or defense a little bit of an advantage. But whatever they do, eventually things again become unstable, because people adapt their moves to the new rules. So, using the sports metaphor, there are three levels of power: power over what game to play, over the rules of the game, and over moves within the rules.

Step four: class can be defined in terms of each of these levels of power —in terms of the game we should play, in terms of the rules of the game, and in terms of the moves in the game. Marxian class analysis is designed to understand class at the level of what game should we play. Who is on your side of the fence, who is on the other side and who are your allies when the struggle is over capitalism versus socialism. This is the form of power relations in terms of which the interests of classes are definable in the Marxist framework What we might call revolutionary versus counter-revolutionary politics —struggles over what game to play— is the political struggle with respect to which a Marxian class analysis can be deployed. Weberian class analysis is a class analysis defined at the level of the rules of the game. Weber’s classes are defined in terms of market capacities, and that’s what varies under the varieties of capitalism. What is this variety all about? It’s about the nature of the regulations and possibilities of coordination or not within markets. Different kinds of asset holders have different kinds of advantages and disadvantages depending on the rules of the game. So Weberian class analysis answers the question of who’s on my side of the fence, who’s on the other and what are my allies with respect to alternative rules of the capitalist game. These conflicts are at the core of reformist versus reactionary politics. Finally, what can be called neo-Durkheimian class analysis is about interest groups: the politics of micro-solidarities within the division of labor. David Grusky, an American sociologist, has a proposal for what he calls micro-class analysis. He refers to this as a neo-Durkheimian class analysis because of its focus on occupations within the division of labor. When you try to analyze the nature of class structure with respect to the moves of the game —interest group politics—, you get a different class structure from the class structure defined by conflicts over the rules of the game or conflicts over the game itself. You get different answers because the nature of the fence is different and thus you get different answers to the questions about who’s on your side, who’s on the other side, and who is your ally.

And all of the answers are equally relevant?

Yes, all of these answers are relevant. Marxian, Weberian and Durkheimian class analysis are located at different levels of power involving different kinds of struggles. They are appropriate for analyzing different kinds of moves, different kinds of conflict of interests. In the 1970s, when I began my sociological life, everybody thought there was an alternative game to capitalism —even defenders of capitalism did. Nobody doubted that there was an alternative. Some thought it was terrible, some thought it was desirable. But the idea that there were multiple possible games was explicit. And therefore Marxian class analysis had a standing within the general world of sociological debate, because it was the class analysis of alternative games. Starting in the 1980s with Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” and then, of course, culminating with the demise of State socialism, increasingly people thought: no, there is no alternative; capitalism is the only possible complex economic system. Still, there could be varieties of capitalism. The expression “varieties of capitalism” emerges in the 1980s and becomes popular in the 1990s. In this context, Weberian class analysis becomes the most immediately relevant. The only people who retained a Marxian sensibility are those who remain committed to the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism. In the last twenty years, increasingly, with the triumph of neoliberalism as a way of thinking about capitalism, TINA has migrated from „there is no alternative to capitalism” to „there is no alternative to the neoliberal market”. There is only one model of capitalism and a general sense of convergence, even if the convergence is not yet complete —Sweden is more like the United States now than it was forty years ago. There is a loose kind of direction of convergence towards a single set of rules, where public responsibilities and strong interventionist states in the service of more egalitarian conditions of existence have weakened. This is a world in which neo-Durkheimian class analysis begins to seem more relevant.

One might ask in this context, why stick with a Marxist class analysis? I would answer by saying that unless one continues to care about the possibility of an emancipatory alternative to capitalism, there is little point in a distinctively Marxist class analysis. Weberian and Durkheimian class analysis can be thought of a nest within a broadly Marxist framework, but that framework is itself built around the contrast between capitalism and socialism as alternative games.

The set of rules are created by the state. But what is the place of the state in your class analysis? In your article “Compass Points”, you present a triangle consisting of civil society (social power), capitalism (economic power) and the state (political power). In what sense the state is an entity in itself and not a tool used by the particular classes, or a field of the game between them?

The state is both an entity in itself and a tool to be used by powerful actors. A critical issue here concerns the degree to which the rules that govern state actions are coherent or contradictory. I would insist that there is no necessity that the state’s rules be coherent. There are many state-generated rules that are contradictory, including rules linked to the power of capital. The capitalist state may have systematic class biases in favor of capital —thus it is a capitalist state not just a state in capitalist society—, but it is also a complex system rife with internal incoherence and contradiction. An example is that there are rules around property rights which are broadly designed intentionally to protect capitalist property —private property of means of production—, but those rules also allow for the creation of the “creative commons license”, new licenses which allow for property right protections of commons property as well as other special copyrights for open source software. These forms can be awkward because the rules of private property rights weren’t designed for the purpose of protecting the commons. We don’t have state-enforced commons property, but we have state-enforced property rules which allow for the production of commons licenses. This is pretty interesting because it means that using the devices designed to protect capital you can actually create spaces for alternative property rights and relations. That wouldn’t be possible if the state was merely a tool, if everything it does was designed to reproduce capitalism and it could do so successfully. The state is also a structure, a place, a field of rules and relations which however these get created —the „toolish” creation of them—, they then can be used in different ways that enable different kinds of practices. Community land trusts in the US are used in very anti-capitalist ways: they take out of the market and exclude land from capitalist development.

We guess you think it is possible to conceive of a non-hyper-bureaucratic State that is owned and controlled by „the people” through a proper principal-agent relationship. In other words, are there possible forms of “socialism-with-State” that do not become “State socialism”?

Absolutely yes. In my book Envisioning Real Utopias, I do a much more differentiated account of these issues. I explore a variety of different configurations of power, which I associate with the broadest idea of socialism, one of which involves state ownership. I refer to this as a “statist socialism”, as opposed to “statism”. This is a component of what can be thought of as a more complex socialist configuration. The central issue here is precisely how effectively subordinated to a genuine democratic will is the power of the state.

To put an end to the discussion about class: what do you think about the notion of “precariat” proposed by Guy Standing?

In my new book on class I have a chapter on the precariat. What Standing wants to argue is that the precariat is itself a class in the same sense that the working class is a class. It’s not a segment of the working class; it is a class. So let’s see if it satisfies the test of the poster in my research center: class consciousness is knowing what side of the fence you want; class analysis is knowing who’s on there with you. And the question then is who’s on there with you with respect to which fence: the fence of capitalism versus socialism, the fence of varieties of capitalism or the fence of moves within capitalism. And I think the claim that the precariat is a class fails the test on all three of those. If we ask the question about „capitalism” versus democratic, egalitarian „socialism”, is it the case that workers and the precariat are on different sides of the fence? No. Are they even just allies? I don’t think so. All of the things that are desirable about socialism for workers are also desirable for the precariat. They don’t have different interests. Standing presents in his book, A Precariat Charter, 29 articles that serve the interests of the precariat, and there isn’t one of those articles that goes against the interests of workers. I’m not talking about this from a subjective point of view (that is, what any given worker would say about these articles), but objectively. If you ask the question, “would life for workers be better or worse if these articles were realized?”, there isn’t a single one on the list that would make life worse for what Standing calls the working class.

If you define „workers” narrowly, as Standing does, as those that have all the security that is connected with the post-war welfare-state model —we’re talking about those workers that are represented by traditional labor unions—, you can say that they are against basic income, for example.

The issue here is not what workers currently believe is good for them. The issue is whether in fact workers’ lives would go better or worse if the precariat charter were enacted. I’m also not talking about the views of bureaucratically entrenched labor leaders. Many labor leaders are against basic income, but basic income is in the interest of the working class, is in the interest of the employed stable working class. Workers may be worried about it because they don’t know what’s going to happen. It may be against the interest of the existing union bosses, because they have special interests in maintaining the vulnerability of workers. Maybe. But certainly it’s not the case that, in general, stable employed workers’ lives would go worse under a regime of basic income. What might be true is that if you ask clear-headed workers to look at Guy Standing’s list of 29 proposals in the precariat charter, they will see that most of them are clearly in their interest, and in a couple of cases they will say “I don’t care one way or the other.” One of the articles in the charter is about disability rights. The precariat in general are not disabled. And there’s no particular reason to imagine that an over-educated twenty-something unemployed who is part of the vanguard of the precariat would be big on disability rights. Such a person will probably say: “that’s a good thing, but it won’t affect me.” My basic claim is that bother workers and people in the different segments of the precariat will benefit from the same things on this list, but the rank order in terms of their importance —“which of these charter elements matter most to the precariat and most to workers— might be different for the precariat than for stable workers. My view is that different rankings of the same positive proposals define different segments of a class, not different classes.

What parts of the original project of Analytical Marxism are, in your opinion, still valid and which paths —if any— turned out to be dead?

I consider myself firmly Analytical Marxist even though I’ve rejected many elements of what Marx wrote. I’ve always felt that Marxism suffers from the fact that it has been named after a person. It’s understandable historically why that had happened. But Marx himself famously said “je ne suis pas un marxiste.” I think that it is of no real importance how much of what Marx said is retained. I don’t care about whether what I say contradicts Marx or not. To me there are three axes of this theoretical tradition that remain vibrant and essential: (1) anti-capitalism that is grounded in a diagnosis and critique of capitalism that is rooted in class analysis; (2) a belief in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism traditionally called socialism; (3) normative foundations of both the critique of capitalism and the conception of an alternative that involve equality, democracy and solidarity. [A parenthetical note here: these values are connected to “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. I replace liberté with democracy because I think that liberty is a component of democracy and democracy is the power dimension of liberty. I expand equality from equality of legal rights, which is more or less what the French revolutionaries meant, to the deeper egalitarian project of equal access of all people to the necessary social and material means to live a flourishing life. And fraternité and solidarity are basically identical ideals]. I think if your moral foundations include these values, if you base the core of your analysis of capitalism in terms of class, if you have a diagnosis and a critique of capitalism in terms of its failures and damage with respect to those values and if you imagine the possibility of a transformation and transcendence beyond capitalism which is democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic, then you’re a Marxist.

But what makes you an Analytical Marxist?

Analytical Marxism is a style of thinking rather than a set of substantive propositions within Marxism. In my book Interrogating Inequality, I identified Analytical Marxism with four intellectual commitments:

(1) A commitment to conventional scientific norms rather than esoteric methodological doctrines.

(2) An emphasis on the importance of systematic conceptualization with precise and clear definitions and distinctions.

(3) A concern with the fine-grained specification of the steps in theoretical arguments linking concepts. This commitment is sometimes expressed in the formulation of explicit models, including mathematical models, but the real point is clarity and transparency in theoretical reasoning. This includes making it as clear as possible where there are gaps in an argument and even where there are inconsistencies.

(4) The importance accorded to the intentional action of individuals within both explanatory and normative theories. One way this idea has been manifested is through the use of rational actor models in some Analytical Marxist work, but there is no general commitment to such models. The key point here is the emphasis on the importance of human agency, but this does not imply the reduction of agency to rational choice, nor does it disembed agency from structural constraints and determinants.

I still subscribe to all of these commitments.

So you still buy the program of the late seventies this group setup?

Yes. But of course my own substantive ideas have developed considerably since the 1970s —or at least I hope they have. The analytical Marxist program is a strategy for developing Marxism as a social science, and I still think it is a good strategy.

Don’t you think that the sort of methodological individualism used by Analytical Marxism has sometimes led to approaches that are openly a-historical and sociologically-blind, that, in some way, are similar to neoclassical economics’ approaches?

Analytical Marxism is not characterized in general by Methodological Individualism. Some Analytical Marxists argue in favor of this position, but by no means everyone. I argue, in my book with Elliott Sober and Andrew Levine, Reconstructing Marxism, against methodological individualism, but I defend the importance of specifying micro-foundations of macro-level phenomena. Furthermore, I think it is of fundamental importance to distinguish the value of developing particular sorts of models which may be a-historical and a-sociological —the game theory model of the prisoner’s dilemma collective action failure, for example— and the use of such models within sociological and historical explanations. There are collective action failures throughout history, and some of them are clarified by understanding the free-rider problem. The heuristic value of the game theory model of free-riding is enormous, even though in the world there are always and everywhere other forces operating in shaping collective actions. I have used game theory models to aid in building theories of class compromise. I use rational choice sometimes, but I use it just as a tool to help clarify certain problems, not as a method that rules out using other ways of approaching things. If you want, I am a sociological Analytical Marxist, not a neoclassical Analytical Marxist.

The Polish translation of this interview can be found here.

Former interviews about basic income:

Daniel Raventós, Basic Income in the Spotlight in Spain

Guy Standing, The Strategy for Basic Income

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