Saturday, June 26, 2010

Public intellectuals in France and the US

What is the role of the intellectual in France in 2010?  And has that role declined in the past several decades?  Have the media and the internet profoundly eroded or devalued the voice of the intellectual in public space?  The Nouvel Observateur takes up these questions in a recent issue devoted to "Le pouvoir intellectuel" (link).

The line of thought is a complicated one.  Jacques Julliard frames the question by proposing that the public imagination of the intellectual involves a narrative of precipitous decline since the active engagements of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus.  There was a conception of the engaged intellectual who brought his/her ideas and convictions into opposition when state and society were going wrong -- Algeria, Vietnam, capitalism.  And, Julliard suggests, the common view is that the current generation of intellectuals have not succeeded -- perhaps have not even attempted -- at bringing theory, critique, and value into the public sphere.  Jean Daniel captures the idea in his editorial: "Faut-il rire des 'intellos'?"

But -- here is the complexity -- Julliard refutes this idea.  The tradition of the public intellectual is not attenuated or corrupted in France; rather, the current generation of intellectuals are in fact engaged and involved.  It is nostalgia for a golden age -- the age of Liberation, Communism, and Existentialism -- that foreshortens the reputation of the intellectual today.  But the golden age is a myth.
Tout cela est faux, archifaux, et prouve seulement que Saint-Sulpice n'est séparé de Saint-Germain que par quelques enjambées et par la piété du souvenir. Et revenons aux faits. [All this is false, badly false, and only proves that Saint-Sulpice is only separated from Saint-Germain by a few steps and the piety of memory.  Let us return to the facts.]
Julliard points out five salient facts. First, we sometimes confuse the intellectual and the literary artist.  The artist is valued for the aesthetic quality of his/her works, whereas the intellectual is valued for the significance of the impact of his/her ideas.  Second, the impact of Sartre and Camus on France's wars in Algeria or Vietnam was minimal, and later generations of French intellectuals have actually exercised greater influence.  In fact, Julliard argues that Lévy, Glucksmann, and Finkielkraut were more effective in their own interventions about policy in Bosnia than Sartre or Camus on the colonial wars.  Third, Julliard argues that modern media, including the blogosphere, have provided the contemporary intellectual with a much more powerful platform for disseminating ideas and values than was available to Zola, Sartre, or Camus.  He cites debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, immigration, European governance, and even philosophy and literature, as locations of debate where modern media have amplified the voices of intellectuals.  Fourth, there is the question of designation: who decides who the "intellectuals" are?  The media select their talking heads; what confidence can the public have that these are the best voices available?  Julliard even suggests that there has been an inversion of quality; the telegenic pundit acquires reputation as a savant, rather than the savant being sought out as a pundit.  And fifth, there was a tendency of the "engaged" philosophers of the generation of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus, to be engaged in service to a cause -- Communism, most commonly.  So the positions offered by these intellectuals were often enough not "intellectual" at all; they did not follow from the principles, ideas, and methods of the thinker, but rather derived from the position of a party or camp.  Today's intellectuals, Julliard suggests, are interested in ideas rather than ideologies.  And with this commitment they have returned to the real vocation of the intellectual:
En rompant avec l'idéologie abstraite au profit de l'universel concret, les intellectuels, du moins les plus novateurs d'entre eux, sont revenus à leur fonction essentielle : la critique sociale, et d'abord la critique de leur propre pratique. [Dispensing with abstract ideology, today's intellectuals have returned to their essential function: social criticism, and especially criticism of their own practice.]
So Julliard's telling of the story expresses several key points: France needs public intellectuals; there are several overlapping generations of thinkers who are filling this role (and more to come); and in fact, the decline of ideology and the rise of media and the Internet makes the voices of intellectuals more effective rather than less.  In his editorial in this issue Jean Daniel reaches a similar conclusion: "En un mot: depuis que nous n'avons plus confinace dans des idéologies, nous avons un frénétique besoin des idées. C'est-a-dire des intellectuels." [In a word: since we no longer have confidence in ideologies, we have urgent need of ideas; which is to say, intellectuals.]

In continuing the theme, Nouvel Obs returns to the debate of 1980 by talking again with several of the young intellectuals it consulted in that year.  Pascal Bruckner, Luc Ferry, and Gilles Lipovetsky offer their perspectives on the role of ideas and intellectuals in French society from the vantage point of 2010 (link).  And there is a challenging interview-discussion with Alain Badiou and Alain Finkielkraut on communism (link).  So Nouvel Obs is doing its part -- it is helping to bring to the fore debates and thinkers who can help France navigate into the twenty-first century.

There is one form of practical proof of the importance of intellectuals in contemporary France that is not so visible from the United States: the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television.  For a taste of the breadth and depth of the voices of intellectuals in French society today, consult the list of podcasts made available from radio programming at France Culture (link).  Particularly rich are Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance (link) and Repliques (link). These programs exemplify serious voices, serious debates, and nuanced and extensive discussions.

In the United States it seems that the whole issue of the public intellectual plays out differently than in France.  To begin -- the great majority of the "public" have virtually no interest in or respect for academic discussions of issues.  Fox News, talk radio, and blistering political blogs fill that space.

Second, however, there is a subset of the American public that does have an appetite for more detailed and nuanced treatment of the issues that face us. has between 5 and 8 million unique readers a month; the Huffington Post logged about 10 million visitors in December, 2009; and logs about 4.5 million readers a month.  The Facebook page for "Give me some serious discussion and debate about crucial issues!" could be huge.

Looking at the question from another angle -- the academic world in the United States is itself a meaningful segment of the workforce.  There are about 1.5 million post-secondary teachers (professors and lecturers) in the United States, and the majority of these have doctoral degrees.  Of these, a smaller number fall into traditional "intellectual" disciplines: English literature (74,800), Foreign literature (32,100), History (26,000), Philosophy and Religion (25,100), and Sociology (20,300), for a total of 178,300.  In engineering, mathematics, and the sciences there are another 262,600 post-secondary teachers.  (These data come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics snapshot for 2008 (link).)  So a small but meaningful proportion of the US population have advanced degrees and intellectual credentials.  They are a core segment of the audience for public intellectuals. And, of course, you don't have to be an academic to be an intellectual.

Further, there are a host of specialists and experts on specific crises -- environment, finance, globalization, war -- who are called upon to comment on specific issues, and there are specialized "think tanks" that promote and disseminate research on critical public issues.  Moreover, voices like that of Bill Moyers have offered critical and nuanced perspectives on public television (link) (regrettably, now off the air).  And the United States has a number of prominent academics who speak to a broad public -- Henry Louis Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Walzer, and James Gustave Speth, to name a few.  So there is a domain of intellectual discourse that succeeds in escaping the confines of the academic world and the limiting echo-chamber of cable television; this domain helps to create and feed an intellectual public.

Overall, it seems fair to say that public intellectuals have little influence on public opinion and public policy in the US today.  Perhaps Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) still has a lot of validity.  But maybe, just maybe, it is also possible that the Internet is beginning to offer a bigger footprint for serious analysis and criticism for the American public and American policy makers.  Perhaps there is a broadening opportunity for intellectuals to help define the future for the United States and its role in the world.  And perhaps we can be more like France in this important dimension.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Truth and reconciliation commissions

When does a society need a process of "truth and reconciliation" along the lines of such processes in South Africa, El Salvador, and Argentina?  Here are some recent examples of truth and reconciliation processes:  the fate of the "disappeared" in Argentina (link); Indian Residential Schools in Canada (link); Korean War civilian casualties (link); Liberian civil conflict (link); lynchings in the US South (link); and, of course, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (link).

The general theory of TRC is that a society is sometimes grievously divided over events and crimes that have occurred in the past, and that honest recognition of those crimes may lay a foundation for reconciliation within the society. Here is a summary statement of the purpose of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission from the South African Ministry of Justice:
... a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.
But what more can we say about what facts might trigger the need for a TRC process?

First, such a process is only invoked when there is a serious history of injustice within the community, leading to a situation in which one group has been badly treated by other groups or powerful institutions.  The stakes need to be high for current members of society in order to justify establishing a TRC.

Second, a TRC process seems to be most needed when the consequences of the past injustice persist into the present: the bad things that happened in the past continue to burden some groups in the present.

Third, there is an implication of abiding resentment and rancor within the current population. The injustice of the past continues to be a source of emotional division between members of the relevant groups. This is the reconciliation part of the agenda: by honestly confronting the facts about the past injustices, the groups subject to this treatment may be in a better place to resolve their rancor. And more practically, honest recognition of the past may lead to concrete steps in the present to restore the interests and rights of affected groups.

Fourth, there is a common feature of violence and subjugation in the instances where TRC processes have been invoked to date: pogroms, mass killings, lynchings, and other forms of inter-group violence.

So what are some important examples of historical circumstances where TRC is called for? There are many:
  • The expatriation of French Jews by the French government into the hands of the Nazis, leading to the deaths of thousands of people from this community.
  • The Rwandan genocide.
  • The Argentine military's policy of "disappearing" large numbers of its opponents, involving secret imprisonment, torture, and murder.
  • White violence against black people in the American South, enforcing white power through lynchings, shootings, and violent intimidation.
  • Organized ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia.
  • The fact of slavery as practiced in the United States through Emancipation.
  • The crimes of death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, including a degree of US support and involvement.
  • Robert Mugabe's use of ZANU-PF paramilitary thugs in Zimbabwe to maintain his political power.
Here is the immediate question of interest in this posting: how do the facts of northern race relations fit into the parameters of truth and reconciliation?  In the Detroit area the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to honestly examine the history of race and residence in the region (link).  The Roundtable states that --
The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by the process that took place in South Africa, will allow us to develop an appropriate understanding of past injustices and to envision constructive remedies to create a new regional culture of fairness, equal opportunity and prosperity.
(Here is a link to the Facebook page for the organization in which the initiative is launched.)

So let's ask the crucial question: are the patterns of racial segregation and inequality of opportunity that are unmistakably involved in most US large cities an appropriate cause for a process of truth and reconciliation?

In many ways the answer appears to be "yes." Urban segregation was and is a source of massive injustice for black Americans.  It embodied a quasi-permanent pattern of inequality of opportunity and outcome on African-American citizens.  It was the result of specific but often hidden social practices that embodied a pattern of white privilege.  And these practices sometimes involved actual and threatened violence.  So entrenched discrimination and segregation constitute social harms that meet most of the criteria mentioned above, and the truth about the underlying mechanisms is not widely known.

In short, most honest observers would probably agree that the history of racial segregation in Southeast Michigan reflects serious injustice and continues to inflict harms on people in the region today.  These harms include disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, and differential health outcomes.  And many would agree as well that social injustices of this magnitude need to be addressed openly and honestly.

The map of the Detroit metropolitan area below represents a measure of "neighborhood opportunity" across the region.  It is published in an important report, "Opportunity for All," by john a. powell and the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University (link).  What it documents in a very visual way is the current effects of past and present practices of residential segregation: the areas of high African-American population line up very precisely with the areas of low "neighborhood opportunity".  (Here is a keynote address by john a. powell to the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion (link) that lays out the data in great detail.)

So a sustained and honest effort to uncover and disseminate the historical causes of these patterns of racial segregation in the region is a positive step forward.

What is perhaps more difficult to answer is the question of efficacy.  Do these TRC processes actually work?  Do they succeed in changing attitudes in the populations in which they operate?  Do they help communities develop more harmonious and collaborative approaches to the problems they face?  And does "truth" lead to "reconciliation" in a significant number of cases?  The Michigan Roundtable conducted a survey of racial attitudes in Michigan in 2009, and one question in particular stands out.  In 2009 56% of residents said that we will have racial equality "in 100 years" or "never," compared to 48% in 2008.  In other words, well over half of all Michigan citizens despair of achieving racial equality within five generations.  And 68% of African American citizens in Michigan expressed the same lack of hope.  We need to do better than this at achieving real racial equality; the question is, whether the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help us move forward in practical and effective ways.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel's work defines this genre -- both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to "sociological knowledge"? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of "concrete, individual-level experience" for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman's work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman's work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):
I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 
The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction -- one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.
The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel's also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)
 Goffman's text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:
[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)
[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids -- although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)
[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)
[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests' food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters' culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)
So Goffman's sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Short thoughts from Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz was a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and he succeeded remarkably well in bridging the gap between the university and the public in many of his "postings."  (I think of these contributions as a pre-web version of a blog.)  Many of these contributions are collected in a superb recent volume, Life among the Anthros and Other Essays, edited by Fred Inglis.  These range from his first contribution to NYRB in 1967, "Under the Mosquito Net," on Malinowski, to his last in 2005, "Very Bad News," a review of Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Richard Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response.  A common theme across the essays is the often surprising and sometimes comic misunderstandings that have occurred across major geo-cultural cleavages, including especially the west and Islam.

Geertz had a splendid eye for making sense of ideas and meanings -- pulling out the figure from the ground.  Here are a few lines on the significance of Foucault:
Foucault's leading ideas are not in themselves all that complex; just unusually difficult to render plausible.  The most prominent of them, and the one for which he has drawn the most attention, is that history is not a continuity, one thing growing organically out of the last and into the next, like the chapters in some nineteenth-century romance.  It is a series of radical discontinuities, ruptures, breaks, each of which involves a wholly novel mutation in the possibilities for human observation, thought, and action....  Under whatever label, they are to be dealt with "archaeologically,"  That is, they are first to be characterized acording to the rules determining what kinds of perception and experience can exist within their limits, what can be seen, said, performed, and thought in the conceptual domain they define.  That done, they are then to be put into a pure series, a genealogical sequence in which what is shown is not how one has given causal rise to another but how one has formed itself in the space left vacant by another, ultimately covering it over with new realities.  The past is not prologue, like the discrete strata of Schliemann's site, it is a mere succession of buried presents. ("Stir Crazy," 1978, 30)
This is a very concise, insightful statement of Foucault's position, and certainly more understandable than any particular stretch of The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language.

Or consider a key and enduring topic for Geertz: the difficulties that intrude on gaining a single, consistent, and fact-based representation of another culture.  "In Search of North Africa" was published in NYRB in 1971, and poses many of the questions of plural interpretation and perspective that are hallmarks of Geertz's own meta-view of ethnography.  
Academic monographs, social realism documentaries, and belletristic essays compete to develop a representational form in which Maghrebi society can be caught and communicated.  The first result of the dawning realization that though society doubtless exists independently of the activity of sociologists, sociology does not, is a proliferation of genres.  The second, still so faint as to be scarcely visible, is the development of the sort of radically experimental attitude toward modes of representation that set in so much earlier elsewhere in modern culture. (62)
Here Geertz raises the questions of objectivity and perspective that are unavoidable in the human sciences.  "The document makers [of films and books] are, if anything, even more bound to the notion that social reality is presented to them directly and that the main thing is to look at it with sufficient care and the appropriate attitude."  But, Geertz suggests, the relationships between social reality, representation, and knowledge are more complicated than this.

Here is one reason why the simplistic realism of the documentarian won't work: 
North Africa doesn't even divide into institutions.  The reason Maghrebi society is so hard to get into focus and keep there is that it is a vast collection of coteries.  It is not blocked out into large, well-orgaized, permanent groupings -- parties, classes, tribes, races -- engaged in a long-term struggle for ascendancy. It is not dominated by tightly knit bureaucracies concentrating and managing social power; not driven by grand ideological movements seeking to transform the rules of the game; not immobilized by a hardened cake of custom locking men into fixed systems of rights and duties. (63)
Or, in other words, the business of choosing a conceptual scheme and then applying it objectively to Maghrebi society is doomed from the start; the social activities, groupings, and transactions themselves are fluid and ever-changing.  "Structure after structure -- family, village, clan, class, sect, army, party, elite, state -- turns out, when more narrowly looked at, to be an ad hoc constellation of miniature systems of power, a cloud of unstable micro-politics, which compete, ally, gather strength, and, very soon, overextended, fragment again" (63). (This perspective converges closely with the ideas offered in the plasticity and heterogeneity threads here.)

And what about catastrophe?  Geertz takes up Jared Diamond and Richard Posner in one of his last contributions to NYRB in 2005.  Geertz acknowledges the bad news all around us, when it comes to the ways in which human society seems to be capable of destroying itself through its own activities.  But he has a bone to pick with both of them: they really don't get down into the sociology, the psychology, and the cultural frames of the people who make up our modern societies.  And yet these contextual, local details matter enormously in how a group responds to catastrophe. Here is Geertz's critique of both Diamond and Posner:
What is most striking about both Diamond's and Posner's views of human behavior is how sociologically think and how lacking in psychological depth they are.  Neither the one, who seems to regard societies as collective persons, minded super-beings intending, deciding, acting, choosing, nor the other, for whom there are only goal-seeking individuals, perceiving and calculating rational actors not always rational, has very much to say about the social and cultural contexts in which their disasters unfold.  Either heedless and profligate populations "blunder" or "stumble" their way into self-destruction or strategizing utility maximizers fail to appreciate the true dimensions of the problems they face.  What happens to them happens in locales and settings, not in culturally and politically configurated life-worlds--singular situations, immediate occasions, particular circumstances. But it is within such life-worlds, situations, occasions, circumstances, that calamity, when it occurs, takes intelligible shape, and it is that shape that determines both the response to it and the effects that it has. (165)
In a word, Geertz puts it forward that even our largest concerns about our social futures require the kind of detailed, meaning-inflected and locally specific understandings that a certain kind of ethnographic imagination brings forward.  We need "local knowledge" to navigate a global future.

This volume is a great example of the role that a certain kind of publishing can play in our intellectual lives: capturing and refreshing the insights of thinkers and observers over a period of decades.  Geertz's ideas in this volume were the product of his evolving mind from the sixties to the end of his life; and it is enormously stimulating to keep that long evolution in front of our minds as we grapple with our own issues and innovations.  We tend to think only of the most recent ideas and contributions as "cutting edge"; but there is a hugely important dimension of historical depth that we can discover by returning to the insights of earlier generations.

(See an earlier post on Robert Darnton that illustrates another important intellectual corpus laid out in the pages of decades of the NYRB.  The image above is, of course, a photo of a Balinese cockfight, one of Geertz's ethnographic icons.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

More on jobs and people in Michigan

Olivier Blanchard and Lawrence Katz did an important empirical study of regional adjustment to employment shock in 1992 (link). Here is their central conclusion:

"We have shown that most of the adjustment of states to shocks is through movements of labor, rather than through job creation or job migration." (54)

In other words, they find that the US labor market is fairly well integrated, and an extended period of unemployment and low wages leads workers to seek new opportunities in other regions. (Here is a recent book by Katz and a collaborator; The Race between Education and Technology.)

What implications does this have for Michigan? Let's say that Michigan's unemployment rate will adjust to approximately the national rate by 2020, and that the national rate will recover to 6% by then. This implies 6% unemployment for Michigan, compared to 14% today. Let's assume that less than half of the recovery comes from new and imported jobs. What does this imply for out-migration and population loss for the state?

The arithmetic is straightforward. There are currently about 4.2 million jobs in Michigan and 681,000 unemployed workers, for a labor force of about 4.9 million. (Here is a page of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Michigan; link.) What would it take to bring Michigan's unemployment rate down to 6% by 2020? Here is one solution: 150,000 new jobs and 250,000 out-migrants from the labor force. And assuming that each worker has one dependent on average, this means a loss of about 500,000 people from Michigan's current population of about 9.9 million--for a total population of 9.4 million in ten years.

This is a significant but not overwhelming loss of population -- about 5%. And the number of jobs required on this scenario is moderate and achievable -- 150,000 new jobs in ten years. This amounts to about 4% jobs growth per year.  We can make some educated guesses about the demographics of the population that leaves the state -- they are likely to be young, they are likely to have children, and they are likely to be better educated than the general population. So the economic and social impact of this exodus is likely to be greater than their 5% share of the general population. But all of that conceded, it would appear that there is a reasonably achievable pathway for Michigan to dig itself out of its current crisis.

So let's get serious about preparing the ground for a healthy recovery; let's enhance K-12 education, extend the reach of university attainment, improve the quality of life in our cities, and get serious about redesigning our state's fiscal system.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Spatial patterns in the US

Here are four interesting graphics representing different kinds of activity in the United States.  The top panel represents population concentrations across the United State.  The second image is air traffic across the country, and the third image is internet traffic across the country.  The final image is a photograph of the United States from space at night, showing the concentration of lights across the country.  Basically the images correspond to where people live; where they travel; and where they exchange data.  Unsurprisingly, the maps line up very well.

The most interesting question to consider is not the structure of the networks represented by air travel and internet activity.  The nodes of both air travel and internet traffic line up exactly with the cities and metropolitan areas represented in the population map, and they align well with the concentration of lighted areas in the bottom frame as well.  The patterns of both air travel and internet traffic take the form of a swath extending from the dense eastern corridor of the US (Boston to Washington) to California (San Francisco to San Diego), with Chicago standing out as a significant node in the middle of the country.  This is entirely obvious and predictable; travel and communication follow population density.

Rather, the more interesting question is this: to what extent is there evidence of internet and air traffic at a node that is disproportionately greater than would be expected given the population of that node?  This is the kind of question that drives Saskia Sassen's classification of cities as local, regional, national,  and global (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo and Global Networks, Linked Cities).  (Here is an earlier post on Sassen's work.)

Fundamentally, a city that originates 10 times the volume of internet traffic compared to other cities of similar size is worth looking at in detail.  Its activity level suggest an exceptional concentration of organizations and people that are unusually integrated into global networks of communication and data exchange.  It is a location for knowledge-intensive activity: high-end services, banking, universities; and it is a place with intensive relations to other nodes.  Likewise, a city that originates 5 times as many air-travel passengers as comparably sized cities elsewhere is likely to be a specialized location for business and high-end service activity (or else a population of very dedicated tourists).  In other words, the most interesting feature that these data sets might show us about the economic roles of US cities is not visible in the graphics presented here.

So it would be very interesting to be able to "divide" the activity levels represented by the middle two graphs by the populations represented by the top graph, so we could see which cities in the US are "super data exchangers" and "super travel generators".  And this would give us an indication of the degree of high-end, knowledge-intensive activity that is concentrated in the place -- thereby providing a measure of its importance in the national and global economy.  It is possible, for example, that Ann Arbor or Madison would show up as spikes of internet activity relative to their relatively small populations; and Raleigh-Durham might show up as a spike of air travel relative to population, reflecting an unusual concentration of high-end service businesses in this region.  The above-average data and air-traffic nodes are perhaps the dynamic centers of 21st-century economic activity.

Likewise, it would be interesting to identify the cities that have lower-than-expected levels of travel or internet activity; this would suggest local economies that are somewhat more self-contained and less integrated into the national economy than other locations.  And it would be interesting to see if there are significant pairings among locations for either kind of transaction; for example, is the volume of data exchange between Los Angeles and New York significantly greater than that between New York and Chicago or Boston?  And would this serve as an indicator of the degree of economic and business integration between these specific locations?

These views of the United States are interesting because they allow us to see the country as an inter-connected system of places and activities. They serve as something like a dynamic CT scan of the brain: certain connections between places "light up", providing an indication of systemic activities that warrant further investigation.

(The middle panel was published in the Harvard Alumni Magazine (link).  The population map comes from Urbanomnibus (link).)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Michigan's population loss

Earlier posts have raised the possibility that Michigan's jobs crisis will lead to significant population loss (link, link, link).  The basic idea is this: Michigan has lost more than 800,000 jobs since 2002.  Its population in 2002 was about 10 million.  The current unemployment rate in the state is about 15%, or just under.  In order to bring the unemployment rate back to the 2002 levels (~6%), roughly 800,000 jobs need to be created; or else the working population needs to decline by about that much.  Assuming one dependent for each worker, that amounts to a loss of about 1.6 million people.  Other combinations are possible; create 400,000 jobs and only 800,000 Michigan residents would leave; etc.

So what is the situation of out-migration today?  Here are some recent reports over the past twelve months:
  • Detroit News 4/2009: Eight-year population exodus staggers state (link)
  • 89,844 residents lost 2005-2008 link
  • CrainsDetroit 12/23/09: population falls below 10 million; low birthrate and high out-migration responsible link
  • Michigan State University report on population loss 12/09 link
  • Toledo Blade: Michigan is tops in 1-year population loss 12/09 link
  • Detroit Free Press: Rochelle Riley, City's rebirth at risk over lack of births link
  • Data Driven Detroit: data sources on population in Detroit link
And where are Detroit metro families going?  Here is a map Forbes published (link) showing the destinations in 2008:

Notice that almost all the lines are red, indicating out-migration.  Compare that with the pattern of migration for Seattle:

And Chicago:

In other words, a significant amount of out-migration has already occurred in Michigan, and there is no indication that this process will slow down.

In fact, some observers have argued that Michigan's population losses have been less than expected in the past 18 months because of the generally bad economic conditions in other parts of the country (and because of the difficulty of selling a house).  But if this is a factor, then we should expect an increase in out-migration when job creation takes hold in other parts of the country.

There is another worrisome part of this story: the fact that the best-educated and most talented people are likely to be the first to go.  They are nationally competitive with skills that can bring value to employers in other parts of the country; so population loss is likely enough to be talent-drain as well.

It is hard to find any political or business leader in the state of Michigan who believes that it is possible to create 100,000 new jobs a year in the state over a prolonged period.  This seems to imply chronic high unemployment in the state for a very long time, with all the features of poverty, poor health, and low quality of life that comes along with this scenario.

So is there a different possible future for Michigan that assumes a different paradigm: a smaller population; smaller cities; but a more robust and diverse economy and a higher overall standard of living?  Is it time, perhaps, to be planning for a smaller but more prosperous and healthy state?

There are many serious challenges that this transformation would create.  A declining population implies a declining tax base; so state and municipal revenues would decline as well.  School systems were built for a certain level of capacity; take 15-25% of the children out of a school system and you have a funding crisis in the schools as well.  Detroit's Mayor Dave Bing is grappling with the need to consolidate the land area of the population served by the city of Detroit, in order to achieve a balance between resources and needs.  And, of course, the state would continue to lose representation in the House of Representatives.  So designing a strategy for "smaller, healthier, wealthier" is not simple.  But it may be time to begin thinking along these lines.

UPDATE December 28, 2010

The results of the 2010 census are now available, and Michigan is the only state in the country to have lost population since 2000.  The country as a whole gained 9.6%, whereas Michigan lost .6% of its population -- roughly 60,000 people.  Here is a news article from AP (link).

Marx's relevance as a social scientist

What was Karl Marx's enduring contribution to the social sciences?  Does he deserve the status of being one of the founders of sociology, along with Durkheim and Weber?  Did he put forward substantive hypotheses about the workings of the modern world that continue to illuminate our social world?  Is there anything important for sociologists, political scientists, or economists of the current generation to absorb from Marx as they construct their own hypotheses about social processes and organizations?

Below are the concluding paragraphs of my 1986 book, The Scientific Marx.  Here I tried to assess whether the theories and frameworks that Marx advanced in Capital and his other scientific writings were of continuing relevance today.  The question for me in 1986 was this: does Marx still have important scientific and theoretical insights into the structures, institutions, and behavior of modern capitalism?  And I came to a tentative conclusion: that Marx's most important insights were about the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism (not a formal economic theory), and that these insights continue to have some validity and importance today.  Here is the conclusion:
Throughout this work I have examined the logical features of Marx's social science, not its correctness as an analysis of capitalism. In discussing Marx's use of empirical evidence, for example, I have not been concerned to discover whether the available evidence confirms or falsifies Marx's account, but rather the logical question, namely, whether Marx uses evidence in such a way as to permit him to empirically evaluate his account. Thus my primary endeavor has been to examine Marx's practice as a scientist and to determine whether his efforts at explanation, inquiry, and justification are reasonable ones within social science. It may be appropriate in closing, however, to offer a view of the status of Capital as a body of theory about a social and economic system that continues to dominate our lives in the West. Is Capital still capable of offering scientific insights into the nature of twentieth-century capitalism?
There is a sense in which Marx's own views would make him suspicious of the claim that an investigation of the social relations of production of nineteenth-century capitalism should remain valid for the social system that emerges from that mode of production over a century later. For Marx is insistent on the historical specificity of the relations that define any mode of production. He raises this point in connection with cross-modal judgments of timelessness (for example, the idea that precapitalist modes of production must "really" have been based on bourgeois exchange relations). But the point is equally valid in application to the development of a single mode of production over time. To the extent that the social relations of production that define twentieth-century capitalism are significantly different from those that defined nineteenth-century capitalism, Marx's analysis must be modified before it can offer relevant commentary on the present.
There are unmistakable differences between capitalist property relations in 1850 and in the mid-1980s. On the side of capital, at least these changes have occurred: the accelerated separation of ownership and management, the increasing role of finance and credit within capitalist enterprises, the creation of the modem multinational corporation as the basic unit of capital, and the increased involvement of the state in the affairs of capitalist enterprises. Changes have emerged on the side of labor power as well: increasing government regulation of work conditions, the shift from industrial to service employment, the creation of effective units of organized labor in all capitalist countries, the rise of mass-based socialist parties with proletarian support in Western Europe, and the emergence of much more extensive social welfare systems in all capitalist systems.  All these factors potentially may influence the dynamics of modem capitalism, and they all were of only minor importance in the economic structure Marx investigated.
At the same time there are substantial continuities between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century capitalism. (It is these continuities that justify our identification of the modern American or Western European economies as "capitalist.") The fundamental requirements of capitalist property still exist, namely, the effective separation between a minority class that owns and controls the vast majority of all productive wealth and a majority class that possesses no productive wealth and is obliged to sell its labor power. Capitalism remains a system of class power and privilege -- witness the uninterrupted power and influence of the minority class that owns and directs the productive wealth in each capitalist nation. Capitalism remains a system in which class power and privilege derive from ownership of wealth -- witness the sharp inequalities of wealth and income that persist to the present day. Moreover capitalism continues to depend on the accumulation of capital, and it continues to reflect a deep conflict of interest between owners and workers in the productive process. Finally -- in Marx's technical meaning of the term -- capitalism remains an exploitative system: The social surplus is still expropriated from the class of immediate producers by the class of owner of productive wealth.
Given these important similarities and differences between the property relations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism, it becomes a problem of continuing research -- of the sort Marx provided so extensively in Capital -- to determine whether the fundamental dynamic of contemporary capitalism should be predicted to resemble that of nineteenth-century capitalism. Only detailed empirical and theoretical analysis will permit us to determine whether the continuities are sufficiently fundamental to offset the alterations introduced by changes in the social relations of property and class. For we have seen that Marx's arguments for the "laws of motion" of capitalism depend essentially on assumptions about the details of capitalist relations of production, and those relations have not remained fixed.
This finding suggests that the application of the findings of Capital to contemporary capitalism must be somewhat tentative; it is surely not possible to derive particular laws of motion of contemporary capitalism from Marx's analysis alone. Rather, Marxist social scientists and political economists must provide the sort of detailed account of modem property relations and economic institutions that Marx provides for nineteenth-century relations and institutions. This is not to say that Marxist social science must begin de novo. The continuities between modern capitalism and nineteenth-century capitalism are crucial to understanding modem capitalist phenomena, and Marx's analysis of those basic features of capitalism remains profoundly illuminating. But it is necessary to supplement, modify, and extend his account to draw particular conclusions about the course of modem capitalism.
Significantly, contemporary Marxist social science conforms to this view of the relevance of Capital today. Thus Marxist political economists have put forward detailed studies of modem capitalist relations of production--e.g. Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism and James O'Connor's The Fiscal Crisis of the State. Other Marxist social scientists have offered analyses of particular post-capitalist modes of production -- Rudolph Bahro's The Alternative in Eastern Europe or Donald Hodges's The Bureaucratization of Socialism, to name two. And Marxist political sociologists have refined and extended his treatment of class, property, and politics, for instance, Erik Olin Wright's Class Crisis & the State and Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society. What these works have in common is not pious deference to Marx's texts -- in Capital or elsewhere. Rather, they are unified in being vigorous attempts, using extensive contemporary data, to offer theoretical accounts of modem social institutions within a framework of analysis that is greatly indebted to Marx's treatment of capitalism. Contemporary Marxist social science is rooted in Marx's insights, but it is not confined to his conclusions or to the particular features he singled out for fine-grained analysis. Thus Marx's Capital established a research program for twentieth-century social science, and it is a program that has borne fine fruit indeed. 
So how does Marx hold up in the first decade of the twenty-first century?  And how does this assessment of my own, written almost twenty-five years ago, hold up as well?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Social progress

What is involved in "making society better"? What do we have in mind when we aspire to improving society? I suppose there are several things we might mean by this idea. Superficially we might say that a society is better off when its members are better off; but is there more to the story? There seem to be several different lines of thought to pursue.

First, we might have a small number of dimensions of goodness in mind -- something like a social welfare function -- and we might understand social progress as aggregate improvement with respect to these dimensions of welfare. Social progress is defined as "aggregate improvement in quality of life for the population" (income, health status, freedom), and it is achieved through a series of steps in which one or more of these measures is improved. This definition is potentially more complex than a utilitarian moral theory, but it shares the basic structure with utilitarianism. It defines the good of society as the sum of the goods of individuals in society. (We might also have a theory about the processes through which these improvements need to take place; for example, we might say that all improvements need to be Pareto-improving: making some better off without reducing the welfare of anyone.)

Second, we might have a list of specific current social defects in mind -- the widespread fact of urban homelessness, the incidence of childhood obesity, or the incidence of violence in society -- and we might define progress as the reduction or elimination of these defects. Social progress is the result of sequential reduction of social harms.

Third, we might have a set of moral-structural theories in mind: fairness, equality, democracy, self-determination. And we might define progress as a reform of institutions that increases one or more of these features of society. We might be thinking here along the lines that Rawls suggests in talking about imperfect justice; improving society means reforming unjust institutions and practices. Or it means reforming institutions that unnecessarily interfere with citizens' freedoms. Or it means reducing the ways in which institutions treat citizens unequally. This differs from the standard-of-living definition, in that it looks at the characteristics that need to be addressed as relational and systemic characteristics, not simply aggregates of the wellbeing of the individual members of society.  A society is better when it is more just or more free.  Here we might find ourselves in a position of saying that "Society A is in a better position than society B, even though citizens of B have a higher level of material wellbeing than those in society A." Apartheid was a particularly egregious example of a systemic defect in a society, and it required fundamental structural change to improve the apartheid society. Current discussions of democratic institutions fall in this category; the idea is that institutional reforms can create new procedures that better embody the ideals of democracy.

Fourth, we might have in mind the important point that social institutions and practices work in very specific ways and have differential effects on different groups of people in society. So we might have in mind the idea of improving the workings of the basic institutions of society -- improve their effectiveness and efficiency, or improve their equity in terms of their effects on different groups. This is analogous to the goal of "making the air transport system better": we look at the goals the system serves and the practices and procedures through which it does this, and we try to design better procedures to accomplish the goals of the system. We might notice that the environmental regulations governing the siting of hazards tend to disfavor poor people, and we might try to make them more democratic. Or we might notice that land-use permitting processes are very cumbersome in many cities, thus discouraging new and productive uses of land, and we might try to change them in the direction of greater efficiency. Each effort could be described as "making society better."

Fifth, we might try to locate "social progress" entirely in terms of the wishes and preferences of the members of society.  This is a liberal and democratic definition of social wellbeing: the wellbeing of society, and what counts as an improvement in social wellbeing, is entirely specified once we know what the citizens prefer.  So on this approach we might say that "social progress" is entirely procedural: a set of changes represent progress just in case they were arrived at through a fair and equal process of collective decision making.

An important issue that arises in thinking about social progress is the question of myopia and design. Think of the analogy with the evolution of species: natural selection is a myopic process in which each change is fitness-improving, but there is no longterm plan for what the species will eventually look like. Coming up with a better bicycle, on the other hand, is usually the result of a far-sighted design process, in which the architecture of the bicycle is reconceived so as to achieve certain design goals. The thing about a myopic process of improvement is that it is possible to get trapped in a local maximum, unable to take one step back in order to achieve a higher nearby equilibrium. (Richard Dawkins describes this possibility in Climbing Mount Improbable.)

So what about social progress: should we think of social improvement as the net result of many small, myopic reforms; or should we think about it ideally as the result of a comprehensive policy design process? To what extent are we in a situation of improvement resulting from a large number of small adjustments, versus the possibility of large designed reforms leading to discontinuous jumps in quality and equity? The constraints of democracy strongly suggest the former rather than the latter. Building legislative and democratic majorities for change seems to imply piecemeal reform and a degree of myopia. It is difficult to see how a comprehensive, multi-decade plan for social reform could be implemented and sustained. (Adam Przeworski considers some of these issues in Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.) So piecemeal and gradual reform on several fronts may be the best we can do.

Generically the concept of reform fits into these ideas very tightly. Reforms are intended to improve the social situation in one way or another; and the cumulative effect of an extended series of reforms may be a significant enhancement in equity, democracy, equality, and quality of life.  But two things are usually true: first, reforms are generally selective and partial; and second, the cumulative effects of an extended series of reforms may lead to outcomes that were never anticipated.  A reform process is not a utopian process: it is generally not guided by a comprehensive vision of what the ideal society ought to look like, and the results of reform are generally pragmatic and limited rather than sweeping and socially transformative.

(The image above is drawn from a manual on forestry management in Karnataka, India (link).  It depicts a sequence of social systems of land use governing farm land, cattle husbandry, and forests.  The middle panel represents degradation of the system and the worsening of the standard of living of the population; the final panel represents the improvement of the system of land use and a major step forward in the standard of living as a result of a major legal reform, confined cattle and protected regenerated forests.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

What now for Michigan?

The Detroit Regional Chamber Leadership Conference at Mackinac has come and gone. Leaders from all sectors in Southeast Michigan participated in discussions about how the state might move forward and regain the vitality and quality of life that the state has lost in the past decade. All agree that the state faces very tough challenges. And solutions and strategies were put forward. Central themes included a range of strategies -- Create more jobs.... Improve K-12 schooling.... Create and retain more college graduates.... Improve the climate for business and entrepreneurs.... So there are ideas about what is needed, and there are organizations investing effort in achieving some of these goals.

So why might one board the ferry from the island with a sense of disappointment? For a few reasons. First, there are a number of critical social issues that got no public discussion at all: the persistence and depth of urban poverty in each of Michigan's cities, the continuing reductions the state is imposing on the social services budgets, the enduring inequalities the state accepts along racial lines, and the state's stubborn refusal to face up to its fiscal crisis, to list several. One might imagine that these problems would disappear if and when the state's economic crisis abates; but I'm not persuaded of that.

A more fundamental source of disappointment is the lack of serious, realistic analysis of the problems we face in the state and what interventions might actually succeed in addressing them. The lack of realism in these discussions is often truly staggering. There are exceptions, of course; for example, Lou Glazer's efforts at Michigan Future are data-driven (link), and the Citizens' Research Council has done great work on the fiscal crisis of the state (link). But all too often various political and business leaders have picked out one small issue and have tried to present it as a comprehensive strategy. For example, leaders in state government tout the opportunity represented by alternative energy and the manufacture of windmills. But there is no honest calculation of the likely scope of labor force demand created by this sector; and to date, the numbers are tiny. The state has lost over 800,000 jobs in the past eight years, and windmill manufacture has the potential to employ a few thousands. So how can this be a realistic avenue for "putting Michigan to work again"?

Similar comments might be made about the idea that Michigan should focus on biotechnology. The state has assets in this field, to be sure, including world-class researchers in many of its universities. But how many states and regions have already declared themselves for the future of biotechnology (including Pittsburgh, several of whose leaders spoke at the conference); and how many are likely to succeed? So picking out alternative energy and biotech as the primary areas of growth in the state sounds sexy but unrealistic.

More credible is a broad strategy of improving the human capital and quality of life of the state. Logically, it makes sense that dramatic improvement in K-12 education, educational attainment, and college graduation will add a broad-based and fungible resource to the state's arsenal for productive activity in the future. And equally, it seems very logical that creating appealing, safe, and fun cityscapes will be conducive to productivity, quality of life, and business growth. (These are Richard Florida's central insights in the CreativeClass.) So investments in education and the urban environment seem to be very practical ways of increasing the prosperity of the state in the medium run. (The unemployment rate of baccalaureate adults is about 1/3 that of high school graduates in the state right now.)

But significantly, each of these areas of public investment has declined in the past 8 years. State support for K-12 and post-secondary education has declined significantly over the past eight years. All cities and municipalities in Michigan are facing a current and severe fiscal crisis because of declining property values and revenue sharing, and this crisis will get dramatically worse in the next 5-10 years. So improving urban quality of life is not being supported either.  (Proposal A makes matters worse, since it means that it will take many years for cities to regain the tax base they lost during the real estate meltdown in the past several years; link.)  So the result is that Michigan is disinvesting in exactly the factors that hold out the greatest promise for improvement in the next 15 years.

It is possible that there is no intelligent solution to Michigan's crisis -- no smart strategy that could be pursued by public and private organizations that would do this set of things in order to bring about that set of good results.  It is possible that regions come out of economic tailspins only through a lot of trial and error, and sometimes they come out in a much reduced state.  Nothing guarantees that the end of this story will be a happy one, resulting in a prosperous society of 10-12 million people moving forward confidently.  In other words, it may be that repairing deep economic and social damage is essentially beyond our ability.  But one would want to think otherwise.  We would want to think that there are investments and reforms that can be adopted now that will make recovery most likely and full.  And we would want to think that it is possible to identify some of the broad structural obstacles to productive growth, and work to remove these.  Each of these efforts is likely to bear fruit -- much as a baseball team increases the odds of success by recruiting and cultivating strong players, working on the essentials of teamwork, and removing the process issues that may be in the way of success.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Real Utopias

It is worth thinking a bit about the intellectual project of envisioning a utopia. By definition, a utopia is a vision of a social order that is profoundly different from the real historical circumstances and institutions in which we live.  It would correct important flaws in the social world we currently inhabit. It is a social order that does not yet exist.  And there is an implication that this better social order is not simply a marginal improvement over the current world, but rather a sweeping revamping of the institutions and practices that create the social order.  To be a utopian thinker is usually to have an intellectual disposition of impatience for small, gradual change.  Mill was patient and gradualist -- and not utopian; Marx was impatient and revolutionary -- and utopian.

So to think about a utopia, we need to have a set of values that specify the features that we would like to see in the social institutions that govern us. Such a system of values provides the basis for social criticism.  These might include moral equality of all human beings, or the freedom of all human beings, or the intrinsic importance of community, or a preference for a world in which each individual is in a position to realize his/her full human potential.  As social critics, we hold up the values, and we measure the current functioning of social relations and institutions to see how well or badly they conform to the value prescriptions.  How free or equal are individuals within these institutions?  How good is the sense of community that actually exists?  And we criticize the actual on the grounds of its divergence from our moral ideals.

So envisioning a utopia requires that we have a basis for social criticism, grounded in a social philosophy specifying some system of important values.  But it requires something else as well: a credible argument for the feasibility of a concrete and specific set of institutions that do a better job with respect to the values -- without simultaneously creating new harms that are even more terrible.  This is a call for a science of the hypothetical alternative: "Here is how this complex set of institutions should be expected to work if they were established and were populated by ordinary human beings."  This is one part of the story where the social sciences can help; social scientists have a lot to say about how institutions work, and how alternatives might function as well.

Here is an example. A Chinese social critic in the 1930s might have observed tenant peasant farming in North China; he/she might have argued that the system was exploitative, unfair, and inefficient (three different social values); and he/she might have argued that the collective farm was a superior alternative, being more democratic, fair, and efficient.  The collective farm might have been offered as a utopian alternative to tenant farming.

This is where careful institutional analysis is required, and the analysis needs to be rigorous and empirically and theoretically informed.  What incentives would be established by the collective farm?  How would authority be exercised?  Who would make important decisions?  And how would ordinary human behavior be conducted when it came to labor, consumption, and power relations?  We might hope that this careful effort at analysis would have arrived at some important results:
"There will be a lot of 'easy riding' because of public goods problems; there will be a lot of petty tyranny because of the vacuum created by the institutions when it comes to collective decision-making; and there will be chronic over-consumption because food is a common resource."  
So the collective farm is likely not to be a utopian solution to China's rural problems in 1930.  And in fact, subsequent history confirms this conclusion; the Great Leap Forward famine was the consequence of many of these institutional failures.

But let's say that our institutional analysis indicates that a given system of institutions would work as advertised.  The next thing we need is a theory of a feasible pathway through which these institutions could be established; a pathway of how we might get from here to there.  It may be that there is a stable equilibrium of stacked dominoes embodying a certain topological structure; stable simply means that, once established, the configuration will survive small shocks.  But this isn't very useful information if there isn't any way to get the dominoes into that configuration through a series of incremental steps.  So to engage in "real utopian" thinking, we need to have some theories of pathways of change that are realistic when applied to real people.

So utopian thinking requires critique; envisioning of alternatives; and discovery of pathways from here to there.

How can social theory and social research help inform our thinking about "utopian alternatives"?   And what is a "real utopia"?  The Real Utopias project has been going for almost twenty years now (link).  And some of the most interesting thinkers writing today in social philosophy and criticism have been involved -- Erik Olin Wright, Josh Cohen, Joel Rogers, John Roemer, and Archon Fung, for example.  One of the most recent titles to come out of the project is Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (Real Utopias Project) (v. 4), by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright.

Erik Olin Wright talks about the underlying rationale for the project in this fascinating interview by Valerio Bacak (link).  Here is how Wright sets up the problem:
The Real Utopias Project is, in a sense, a response to a deep problem within the Marxist tradition. Here’s the issue: Marxism is, above all, an emancipatory critique of capitalism. It identifies an array of oppressions and harms generated by capitalist relations and dynamics and then makes the extraordinary claim that these harms could be eliminated if capitalism was radically transformed. This kind of system-level, radical critique of the basic structures of society requires a huge leap of imagination: how is it possible that the basic institutions of society, which seem so natural to most people, could be radically changed without generating chaos and massive perverse consequences?
And here is his preferred approach:
Develop a coherent, positive social scientific theory of feasible alternative institutions without attempting a prediction of their likely emergence. The idea is to explore alternative designs of institutions in terms of three criteria: first, to what extent would the institutional design, if implemented, contribute to the realization of emancipatory values of one sort or another; second, in what ways might the institutional design generate perverse side-effects and are their plausible strategies for countering these; and third, if implemented, is the institutional design sustainable, does it generate a social dynamic that reinforces rather than systematically undermines its own conditions of possibility. I refer to this strategy as envisioning real utopias: “utopias” insofar as the agenda is anchored in vision of emancipatory social change; “real” insofar as the analysis revolves around institutional feasibility. This is a wide-open theoretical and empirical agenda. It involves explorations of theoretical proposals which have no immediate real-world exemplars as well as empirical cases in which efforts at constructing, not just envisioning, real utopias have occurred. The premise of this third strategy is that while there are real limits on the possibilities of emancipatory futures that cannot be breached simply by an act of will, those limits are not fixed independently of our beliefs about what is possible. While it is false that “where there is a will there is a way” it is nevertheless the case that without a “will” many “ways” become impossible, and envisioning real utopias is part of the process of creating a will for change.
What the Real Utopias project is aimed at validating, most fundamentally, is the idea of emancipatory agency: that it is possible for us humans to restructure our social institutions in a direction that fits our fundamental values better than the present institutions do.  And it is worth underlining how important, but also how risky, this effort is: important, because it gives a basis for thinking that we can create a better world; and risky, because many of the worst historical experiences of modern memory came from "utopian" efforts to redefine society.  (This is a point that James Scott makes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (link).)