Erik Olin Wright never gave up on the dream of a just and equitable society in which human beings might treat one another as kindly as the University of Wisconsin sociology professor and internationally renowned public intellectual treated his students, his colleagues and the communities that he nurtured in Madison and around the world.
Even as he was fighting a battle with the leukemia that would claim his life last Wednesday at age 71, Wright wrote enthusiastically, even joyfully, about “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.”
Educated at Harvard, Oxford and the University of California, Berkeley, he taught generations of scholars and activists as a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, served as president of the American Sociological Association, collected great academic honors and produced stacks of books.
Yet he was never inclined toward the caution or complacency that often overtakes those who rise to the top of their field. Instead of settling into academia during his four decades on the UW campus, Wright burst out of it and proposed radical new responses to challenges that others imagined as overwhelming: poverty, inequality, discrimination along lines of class and race and gender, distributions of wealth, and the future of work.
Wright’s Real Utopias project, outlined in his essential book, "Envisioning Real Utopias" (Verso), was all about ideas — big ideas, such as the universal basic income (UBI) proposals for addressing not just poverty and unemployment but dislocation after technological change, which he began exploring decades ago.
Today, whole movements advocate for UBI, political and business leaders embrace it, and pilot projects are being developed in multiple countries. The idea of providing “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement” was not always so popular. Indeed, as the Basic Income Earth Network noted last week, Wright was writing about this idea and “providing platforms (for) other people to write about it when few people thought it had any chance.”
Wright’s Real Utopias project was always about more than the specific proposals it explored, even the ones that took off and captured imaginations far beyond academia. It was about renewing the enthusiasm of the left at a time when neoliberalism and neoconservativism were ascendant.
Writing in 2010, Wright explained, “We live in an era of diminished expectations and, perhaps, diminished imagination. To most intellectuals the idea that the social world could be fundamentally changed in ways that would dramatically reduce the enormous inequalities in the world today and create the conditions in which all people could live flourishing lives seems naive, perhaps even ridiculous. Capitalism reigns triumphant and at least in the developed capitalist world talk of socialism as an alternative has almost disappeared. I believe this radical pessimism and cynicism is itself a constraint on possibilities for creating a more just and humane world. Gramsci once described the struggle for social justice as requiring ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ I believe in the world today we need an optimism of the intellect as well: an optimism grounded in our understanding of the real potentials for emancipatory alternatives which can inform our practical strategies for social transformation.”
His efforts were strikingly successful. Scholars and activists around the world were drawn into the discussions Wright opened, and they took them to remarkable places. When I tweeted about Erik’s passing last week, British parliamentarian Ed Miliband responded immediately. “Very sad to hear of the death of Erik Olin Wright,” read the note from the former leader of the opposition Labour Party. “He was a brilliant, kind and generous man. His 'Real Utopias' series including on universal basic income is essential reading for those who want a better society. He will be sorely missed.”
That was typical of the outpouring of love and solidarity for a bike-riding, fiddle-playing intellectual who took as much delight in listening as he did in lecturing, as much delight in reading as he did in writing.
In a reflection on his work, written just days before his death, Wright was typically thankful for the exchange of ideas, the inquiries, the debates that shaped his decades of engaged scholarship — and the thousands of students, colleagues and many, many friends in Madison and around the world who made it all possible.
“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,” he concluded. “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.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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