Building Real Utopias Introduction: A Framework for Developing Alternative Institutions in Malaysia

This article serves to introduce the emancipatory social science of Erik Olin Wright, which will serve as the methodology for unpacking Malaysia’s institutions and its potential for socialism.

Source: Occupy Dataran Facebook Page

In my previous article, Does Malaysia already have Socialism?, I look into our public institutions to suggest that they do have socialist potential but are devoid of democratic controls and lack an orientation towards people, in contradistinction to the powerful. I list a number of institutions that are suitable and necessary to transform: the national system of healthcare and education, social security (EPF and SOCSO), development banks and cooperatives. Some of these institutions may only require minor tweaks and some may require complete overhauls. As such, a systematic analysis of the institutions is needed if a theory of change and a meaningful plan of action is to be crafted.

Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, the culmination of his many decades of work on societal transformation offers a framework to understand the future we desire and how we might arrive at it. The book begins with a list of ‘charges’ against capitalism for the ills it inflicts upon people and the world we live in, making the assertion that despite the technological and productivity advances it has brought about, capitalism needs to be overcome and transcended. Any socialist alternative envisioned is located within the nexus of power (between economic, state and social power; see diagram below) and would then need to be assessed for its desirability, viability and achievability. Capitalist institutions are socially reproduced distinctly in each society and identifying the gaps within the reproduction offers the space for a potential transformation towards the alternatives in mind. He concludes with the methods of transformation on offer, ruptural (revolutionary confrontation), interstitial (building the alternative on outside the view of the state and capitalists) and symbiotic (a compromise win-win with the capitalist class), suggesting that a hybrid mode of interstitial and symbiotic transformation is the current way forward given the circumstances the Left face. 

To summarize in Wright’s own words,

“any emancipatory social science faces three basic tasks: elaborating a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; envisioning viable alternatives; and understanding the obstacles, possibilities, and dilemmas of transformation.”

For this series of articles, I will follow Wright’s outline to analyse the institutions mentioned previously, and perhaps a couple more. I will start by giving a history or background of the institutions, offering a critique of its present form (or lack thereof). Then, I would locate it within the interplay of economic, state and social power, and proceed to assess its overall desirability, long-term viability and immediate achievability. After situating the social conditions that reproduce said institutions, I will offer some suggestions and speculation on what path of transformation is possible, drawing from local and international examples to make the case. 

What I hope this series achieves is to give texture and substance to the ideas that I expounded on in my concluding piece in the In Search of Praxis series, for the Malaysian Left to consider the project of transforming the state seriously. Each article is meant to give the reader a glimpse of a better future that is hopefully within reach. 

For a summary of Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright: