Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic

One of the bracing slogans to have emerged out of the May 1968 uprising in France was “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.”  Thirty-six years later, I propose that we revive the slogan, but now in its mirror-image, i.e.: “Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic.”  What’s my point?

The fundamental principles animating the political left have always been the principles that were fought for in the French Revolution of 1789, i.e. freedom, equality, and solidarity (“liberté, egalité, fraternité”).  It is from these principles that the left has constructed its various visions of a truly democratic, egalitarian social order — i.e. the only type of society that deserves to be called “socialist.”

At the time of the May 1968 uprisings, roughly one-third of the earth’s population lived under some version of Soviet-style socialism.  Much of the rest of the world, including virtually all of Western Europe, were politically dominated by variations on Keynesian social democracy.  Both of these politico-economic models did incorporate some features of the foundational ideas of socialism — of liberty, equality, and solidarity.  But severe failings were also embedded in both models — most importantly, the absence of democracy under the Soviet system, and the dominance of capitalist economic imperatives under Keynesian social democracy.  The May 1968 uprising in Paris and the nearly simultaneous uprising in Prague, Czechoslovakia were struggles to envision a renewed left utopianism that transcended these two dominant models. 

May 1968 was therefore a moment of high optimism for the left.  For despite the visceral outrage over the failings of both the Soviet and social democratic models that brought people into the Paris and Prague streets at that time, the protesters also shared a broad sensibility that history was moving in their direction — that we were in the midst of a long historical transition from capitalism to socialism.  That is to say, at the time of May 1968, almost nobody on the left had envisioned the historical trajectory that has actually transpired — that Soviet-style socialism would collapse and that Keynesian social democracy would also be supplanted as an ascendant economic philosophy in most of the rest of the world.  And to rub our collective noses in reality still further, that neo-liberalism would emerge as the newly dominant political philosophy throughout the world. 

Neoliberalism is a somewhat dressed-up version of unbridled capitalism, in which public policy interventions in the operations of markets are maintained at a minimum. Neoliberalism holds that a society dominated by individual greed and competition among the greedy — two forces that virtually all ethical or religious traditions recognize as hostile to the functioning of any decent human community — will nevertheless yield a social order that is more fair and efficient than any feasible alternative.  Under neoliberalism, in other words, greed and competition themselves become the instruments through which we’ll get as close as we can to a just society. 

We are now roughly 30 years into the neoliberal revolution — a very long way from the utopian visions inspiring May 1968. A burning question of our time therefore seems straightforward: how can the left recapture the power of the utopian visions that were so forceful in May 1968? There are no doubt numerous ways to fruitfully grapple with this question. But one of them seems to me to be blindingly obvious, crucial and unavoidable; while, in my view, it is also regularly neglected, if not dismissed, among many leftists

This is the simple point of thinking through strategies of what we can term “getting from here to there.”  In other words, how can we on the left most effectively project new and vibrant egalitarian visions of society, given exactly where the world is today — i.e. in the grip of the neoliberal ascendancy — not where any of us might prefer that it should be.  It seems too easy to lay out one’s utopian vision without having to describe both the pathway and pitfalls in getting from here to there.  And thus the need, in my view, to be utopian by demanding the realistic.   

Let me give an example of what I mean.  Along with thousands of other activists and researchers, I have been involved for nearly a decade now with both the domestic U.S. living wage movement as well as the global anti-sweatshop movement.  These movements are clearly limited in scope.  They certainly aren’t fighting for socialism.  But much more modestly, the new wage standards being fought for are rarely high enough to meet the basic needs of working people and their families.  In what sense, therefore, is it acceptable to refer to these as “living wage” movements, when the victories achieved by these movements — the favorable outcomes achieved after years of struggle — are, in the end, not really decent minimum wage standards anyway? 

The only justification is that — given where the world really is today, not where we might want it to be — the wage levels that are achieved through these struggles are the highest possible amounts that those fighting for living wages can realistically win.  These higher minimum wage standards do bring real, concrete, if usually modest, gains to working people and their families.  But should living wage supporters fight for this highest realistic minimum wage figure, and declare victory if that figure does become law; or  should supporters demand that the living wage be set at a level that would truly provide a basic needs income level for workers and their families, even if that figure is not politically realistic? 

My own answer is, we should fight hard, and unapologetically, for the victories that are winnable today.  At the same time, it is equally important to build from the perhaps modest political victories of the moment to advance in two additional directions.  The first is to deepen our understanding of how we are proceeding on the “from here to there” front — from the neolibeberal ascendancy of the current epoch to the just social order that we envision.  The second is to clarify what we mean by the “there” we claim to be striving toward as our utopian end-point. 

How can we really know how to organize a just society other than through taking forward steps one at a time?  My answer is that we can’t.  And thus again, the imperative to be utopian: demand the realistic.

Robert Pollin is Professor of Economics and founding Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Among his recent books are Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of the Global Austerity (Verso, 2003) and (with Stephanie Luce) The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy (The New Press, 1998).