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Penser global

Michel Wieviorka
Laurent Lévi-Strauss
Gwenaëlle Lieppe

Crises et utopies

Mainstreaming Utopia: A Global Challenge*

Marc Fleurbaey

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  • * This paper has benefited from a seminar at Princeton on “Capitalism, Utopia, and Social Justice”, a (...)

1The beginning of the 21st century looks quite disenchanted compared to the beginning of the previous century. The communist ideal, which was strong and popular at that time, has now become a nightmarish chimera, and anxiety about possible catastrophic climate consequences of human hubris has replaced the faith in unbounded technical and economic progress. In this context, shedding all interest in social transformation is a tempting but not fitting attitude—it is, rather, a shameful lack of responsibility and solidarity. Whatever happens to material progress, there remains hope to reduce human suffering through social progress.

  • 1 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, Socio, No. 1: 3–38, 201 (...)

2In their “Manifest for the Social Sciences”, Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka emphasize the special responsibility of social sciences, arguing that in this domain, “la connaissance […] élève la capacité d’action, […] contribue de manière positive aux transformations de la société”.1 They provide useful guidelines for the role and possible interventions of researchers in the historical movement of their society, defending the integrity of science while arguing that its impact must not be ignored and can be used for the greater good.

3In this paper, I would like to offer a few thoughts about how recent ideological evolutions as well as the globalization trend in society and in science require reviving the interest in social transformation but also shaping the new efforts in a quite different way from the previous intellectual endeavors and social movements that made the 20th century eventful and, sadly, terribly lethal. In summary, the points I will make are the following:

4— Utopian thinking, understood not as delusionary dreaming but as the rational study of social transformation, is needed, especially nowadays.

5— Research in social transformation can no longer be left to the solitary ‘intellectual’ who was the typical utopian thinker of the previous centuries.

6— A simple, concrete way of making progress might be to congregate the available knowledge about principles and possibilities for social change into a report produced by a panel of experts, in interaction with the relevant social actors.

Utopia and dystopias

  • 2 Thomas More, Utopia, Mineola (NY), Dover Publications, 1997 [1516].
  • 3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Critique des Programmes de Gotha et d’Erfurt, 1875, classiques.uqac (...)

7Let me first defend utopian research. It has always been fashionable to display contempt for utopian thinking. Yet Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516,2 was remarkably modern in its description of communism, and far more concrete and astute than Marx’s sparse thoughts in the Critique of the Gotha program.3 While many dangers plague the free wandering of imagination about alternative societies, and many people have suffered the consequences of the attempts at implementing the wild thoughts of visionaries, there is something sound and necessary in the attraction to utopian thinking. The fact that the scientific pretentions of Marxism and its 20th-century avatars hid a great deal of naive or blindfolded utopianism, which may have played a role in paving the way to the most inhumane consequences, may suggest that one can never be careful enough against utopian dreams. But the contrary is true. It is precisely when thinking about social transformation with a combination of serious, pondered normative and pragmatic considerations is rejected as pointless and ‘utopian’ that the need for it is satisfied in the most haphazard and potentially devastating ways. Peoples and decision-makers need to envision the future and to give ‘sense’, i.e., both meaning and direction, to their efforts for improvement. Barring them from such perspectives can only be a source of despair and cynicism.

8Few people, including in the most advantaged classes, are fully satisfied with the structure of their society, and it is most important for their yearning to find good theories and ideas, relevant information, and an arena for rational debate. It is essential for the possibility of social progress to buttress it on the best knowledge available. Of course, human history is full of mistakes and countless unintended consequences of ill-conceived decisions, and the social fabric is so complex that it is very easy to do more damage than good by trying to improve it. But there is no reason to think, and every reason to doubt, that social transformation proceeds in a better fashion when it is blind and spontaneous than when it is enlightened by serious research and thorough examination of its desirability and feasibility.

9The need for reviving the studies of social transformation and more specifically the interest in social ‘progress’ (a word that has fallen into disrepute, as noted by Calhoun and Wieviorka) is as strong as ever nowadays, in a time of deep economic, social, and moral crisis. While the end of history has been hastily proclaimed at the end of the 20th century, who could say today that the pillars of the current economic, social, and political systems are sound? Unleashed markets have proved unreliable for pooling risk and allocating resources, and instead became dangerous vehicles for greed and swindle, making voracious elites cut themselves from the rest of society through unfettered accumulation of riches, giving them the means to capture the key centers of economic and even political power, and letting them and the rest of those who try to catch up roll the earth down toward a climate catastrophe. The globalization trend itself, which promised to erase boundaries and shorten distances, bringing new opportunities for exchanges of goods, services, and ideas, has been exploited by the wealthy and the powerful to increase their supremacy and distance themselves even further from the populace, even if one should not forget that globalization has also halved the proportion of people leaving in dire poverty (less than $1 a day) and let some countries ‘emerge’ from what used to be called the third world.

  • 4 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, New York, The Free Press, 1992.
  • 5 Marc Fleurbaey, Capitalisme ou démocratie ? L’alternative du xxie siècle, Paris, Grasset, 2006.
  • 6 Edgar Morin, “Un sursaut est nécessaire”, Le Monde, 30 April 2013.

10While Francis Fukuyama was probably right that democratic values are unsurpassable, most institutions of current economic and social systems are questioned and the need for social transformation has never been felt so strongly in many quarters of our world since the end of colonialism.4 As a matter of fact, democracy itself might even be the principle that could, instead of leading smoothly to the end of history, drive many important restructurings of economic, social, and political institutions, as I have argued elsewhere.5 When Edgar Morin calls for a new start, a surge (‘sursaut’), his thoughts about French policies in the domains of the environment, the third sector, and education, seem like an echo of a much larger call that is heard throughout the world for a reshuffling of many institutions and policy principles.6

11The new utopian research that is needed has, of course, little to do with the communist dreams of former social visionaries. It has to do with a rational study of the perspectives for social change, with a special focus for the most disadvantaged populations. Such a study has to combine a normative and a positive component. There is little need to argue for the positive component, which has to do with analyzing the mechanisms by which institutions work and change, and therefore delineates what can be considered feasible and realistic and what appears impossible or out of reach. What can be emphasized about this branch of social analysis, though, is that considerable progress has been made since WWII about understanding the potential and the limitations of various institutions and social and economic organizations. The development of game theory, of institutional analysis, and more recently of behavioral studies has revolutionized our ability to understand and forecast how various organizations and institutions can work or fail. While many phenomena remain insufficiently deciphered, especially at the intersection of economics and social psychology, we are on much firmer ground now than reformers such as J.M. Keynes or J.S. Mill were in their times to gauge prospects for social transformation.

  • 7 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 1971.

12It may appear more intriguing to include a normative component into a rational analysis of social change. Isn’t this bound to pave the way for subjectivity, ideology, religion, and endless and sterile quarrels? In fact, the need for normative thinking is, like the broader need for utopian thinking, due to the fact that in absence of a forum for rational deliberation, normative principles will have a surreptitious and potentially dangerous influence. John Rawls has done us a great service, not so much by proposing a particular theory of justice, which is, inevitably, questionable on many counts, but primarily by rehabilitating the idea of organizing a rational debate about what is desirable for social organization.7 Social change without social ethics is like a ship without a compass. Insofar as social transformation can be led by conscious and organized efforts of social actors, these actors need to know, discuss and coordinate on the direction they wish to pursue.

The need for a global intellectual

13Utopian thinking has, for a long time, retained some unpalatable features of religious doctrines. Individual gurus have proposed their personal vision and they could impress their fellow citizens because a clever mind could, in their time, grasp the basic tenets of the available knowledge of the time and a fertile imagination could assemble an alluring outline of a different society. Although such intellectual innovators were often conscious of the limitations of their thought, followers were just too willing to transform a few ideas into a doctrine. Once a doctrine is crystallized, it is relatively easy for the adepts to enshrine it in rigid institutions in which repression and domination are justified for the preservation of the purity of the ‘liberation’ project.

  • 8 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, op. cit.

14Today social scientists look back with some melancholy at the glorious time of intellectuals and the aura that surrounded their domain in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps we should instead welcome the fact that the charisma of the intellectual has vanished, if this protects us and our descendants from new waves of simplistic and totalitarian doctrines. One may be worried, though, that the disappearance of the intellectual and the ‘fragmentation des savoirs’8 imply abandoning the project of conceiving comprehensive changes in the social system. Knowing that our societies are most intricate machines, we may be afraid that grasping the whole machinery is out of reach. Such worries are, however, unfounded. The fact that a thought system the size of a single brain can no longer encompass the whole social compact does not mean that a comprehensive understanding of society and its possible evolution is forever out of reach. Natural sciences are accustomed to such a paradoxical situation. No single brain knows the details of the Large Hadron Collider, but it has been possible to conceive it and use it to discover the Higgs boson.

  • 9 Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, London, Verso, 2010.

15Courageous authors, like Erik Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias,9 propose to revive the interest in social transformation with a serious and competent analysis of both the normative considerations that give us a compass and the feasibility considerations which are essential to make utopia ‘real’. Wright’s book is a good example of how to organize the modern analysis of social transformation. There is a lot to be said in favor of the broad methodology that he proposes. It involves selecting basic principles of social justice that do not define a precise blueprint but rather indicate a potentially consensual direction of improvement for society: seek human flourishing, with a focus on the most disadvantaged. Then a basic model of social structure is set out, in which three types of power (social, economic, and state power) are distinguished and different types of societies are characterized by the balance between the three powers. The general idea is to seek how to increase the role of social power, which gives more autonomy to people in their capacity of citizens, and to contain economic and state power. One may question the details of the model, but the general approach that consists in identifying the basic pillars of society and seeking how to rearrange institutions in order to promote the social justice ideal defined earlier seems most reasonable. Finally, he draws on multiple examples of experiences that show how changes can be imagined at various scales and levels. This provides a very useful bottom-up supplement to the top-down component of the analysis.

16Nevertheless, this book also proves that an experienced social scientist who has been thinking about social structure and social change for decades cannot provide, in a single book, an analysis that fully captures the subtleties of recent developments in such disparate disciplines as political philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, psychology, anthropology, law, and so on. However laudable such individual efforts are, and partly thanks to them, time may be ripe for changing the scale and scope of this sort of enterprise. ‘Envisioning real utopias’ should become a collective, coordinated effort.

  • 10 Peder Olesen Larsen and Markus von Ins, “The Rate of Growth in Scientific Publication and the Decli (...)

17Indeed, the scope of such analysis and the variety of disciplines and competences that it requires seem overwhelming for a single author. Although publications in social sciences have not grown as impressively as in natural sciences,10 they have considerably ramified and specialization has now become necessary for researchers if they want to work at the frontier of knowledge. Even in a single discipline like mine, economics, the brand of scholars who knew the whole field and made major contributions in all domains, such as John Hicks or Paul Samuelson, is disappearing. The development of academic production in emerging countries will further increase the mass of publications, and reinforce the trend toward specialization.

18This evolution, as argued above, should be welcome. It requires a new kind of scholar who works in a more cooperative way and adopts a more modest attitude. The ‘global intellectual’ that is now needed is a group, a network, a cooperative endeavor. Social sciences, paradoxically, have remained the most individualistic of the academic disciplines, but we do observe the increase in collective projects involving teams, as well as the growing importance of articles as opposed to books, reflecting the larger proportion of contributions which are highly specialized. This fragmentation can be viewed in a positive light, because it provides the building blocks for new, better forms of syntheses.

For a panel on social change

19What form can a new synthetic study of social transformation take? While one can imagine that it could be revived right away as a research subfield, it is also possible to develop it in the context of disseminating state-of-the-art knowledge in social sciences. The work that is currently being done about the prospective analysis of climate change may provide interesting ideas along this vein. The climate challenge has induced the creation of an international group of experts which writes reports summarizing the state of knowledge about the trends and risks in climate change, as well as the possible precautions and remedies that can be implemented in response. What is impressive about this international group is that it assembles a mass of competences and knowledge that is far beyond what a single university, let alone a single research team or a single researcher, would be able to achieve. What is less attractive about it, in the perspective of analyzing social change, is that its proceedings are under the control of the governments of the countries involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

20For social transformation, which covers a very wide array of competences in social sciences and beyond (environmental sustainability becoming a key issue for social innovation, therefore requiring the expertise of natural sciences), a serious analysis of the possibilities and the obstacles would similarly require assembling a large network of experts. An ‘International Panel on Social Change’, with a lighter structure than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and certainly more independence from governmental influence, would seem necessary to carry out the assessment of potential improvements to social institutions in a competent way.

21Such assessment could be made on a regular basis (every decade?). Just as different working groups in the IPCC focus on different topics, one could imagine that the working groups of the ‘IPSC’ would focus on various issues similar to those addressed in the various chapters of Erik Wright’s book, such as: the pending problems and sources of human suffering; the relevant theories of justice and the possible evaluation criteria; the basic economic institutions (markets, organizations, finance, government policy); the political institutions; and so on. The panel would conceive of its task not as the design of a particular political platform, but as contributing to summarizing the prevailing normative views and the state of the art in the disciplines that are relevant to assessing the possibilities for transformation.

22The IPSC’s agenda would not be socialist, or libertarian, or tied to any particular doctrine, but it could feed the prospective thought of various strands of utopianism. There will always be divergent ideas about the best direction that society should take, but there is also room for consensus about certain injustices and about the feasibility or viability of various institutional combinations. The IPSC could identify the areas in which a consensus prevails and the points which raise disagreement.

23Its mission would be primarily to recapitulate the state of knowledge in the field of social change. But its existence would likely encourage research in domains which are neglected nowadays, especially the examination of alternative institutions and the analysis of the long run trends of the basic structure of society. While current research is abundant on inequalities and social problems, and is also reasonably abundant on understanding how the economy and the society work, it is, understandably, quite shy about the viability of various alternative institutions in the economic and political spheres. The IPSC would give greater respectability to such research.

24One may be worried about various obstacles that the creation of an IPSC is likely to face. But there are reasons for optimism. Whether an IPSC can attract expertise without much funding, for instance, should not be a problem. There are many online networks which collect and disseminate expertise, relying mostly on the goodwill of the contributors and, perhaps, the recognition that is attached to being invited to contribute.

25Whether an IPSC is superfluous given the already existing political movements and networks of activism is easy to rebut. The point of the IPSC would not be to provide another sounding board for convinced utopians and visionaries, but to provide academic expertise on the state of knowledge in moral and political philosophy, sociology, economics, political theory, psychology, and so on, about the issues of desirable and possible social transformations. It should be of interest to social movements from all quarters of society, but it should not be led by or tied to such social movements. This raises the question of whether an IPSC may be rejected by social activists for its intellectual elitism. Knowledge about social change is not like physics or climatology, and there is a lot of grass-root knowledge. While restricting authorship to recognized experts seems important to preserve the scientific authority of the output, there should be an open forum for the collection of comments. The internet makes it easy and almost costless—but someone must read the comments and extract the relevant material. Transparency in the selection of authors would also be important.


  • 11 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, op. cit.
  • 12 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit.

26As Calhoun and Wieviorka rhetorically ask, “si les sciences sociales existent, n’est-ce pas, précisément, parce que l’analyse de l’action, des institutions, des rapports sociaux, des structures peuvent aider à construire un monde meilleur ?”11 This positive role is of course fulfilled when the harmful consequences of certain institutions and social phenomena are deciphered and exposed by critical analysis. But a more constructive role is also needed, as argued here, to provide useful guidance in the search for long-term improvements in the ‘basic structure of society’.12

27The wreckage of the failed utopias of the past century has opened a vacuum, and research on social transformation has not been fashionable at all in academia in the recent decades. However, there is an important social demand for long term prospective and for hope. Social sciences are better equipped than ever to address this demand. The form such an answer can take now is quite different from the utopias-dystopias and self-proclaimed scientific ideologies that visionaries offered two centuries ago. What can be offered now is the production of serious, truly rigorous and scientific analysis of the desirability and feasibility of changes in social organization and social structure. Utopian thinking has to be ‘mainstreamed’ in the academic, technical analysis of institutions and social phenomena. It may lose its romantic aura in the process, but stands to gain a much greater beneficial power.


1 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, Socio, No. 1: 3–38, 2013. [online open access version:, viewed 2014-12-21].

2 Thomas More, Utopia, Mineola (NY), Dover Publications, 1997 [1516].

3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Critique des Programmes de Gotha et d’Erfurt, 1875, [viewed 2014-11-18].

4 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, New York, The Free Press, 1992.

5 Marc Fleurbaey, Capitalisme ou démocratie ? L’alternative du xxie siècle, Paris, Grasset, 2006.

6 Edgar Morin, “Un sursaut est nécessaire”, Le Monde, 30 April 2013.

7 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press, 1971.

8 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, op. cit.

9 Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, London, Verso, 2010.

10 Peder Olesen Larsen and Markus von Ins, “The Rate of Growth in Scientific Publication and the Decline in Coverage Provided by Science Citation Index”, Scientometrics, 84(3), 2010: 575–603.

11 Craig Calhoun and Michel Wieviorka, “Manifeste pour les sciences sociales”, op. cit.

12 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit.

Notes de fin

* This paper has benefited from a seminar at Princeton on “Capitalism, Utopia, and Social Justice”, and takes inspiration from an essay on Erik Olin Wright’s book—Envisioning Real Utopias (see note 10)—written with Inka Busack, Joaquin Garcia, Jacob Girard, Kathryn Long, Anthony Sibley, and Jiemin Wei and posted in April 2013 on Crooked Timber. Conversations with E.O. Wright are also gratefully acknowledged.


Marc Fleurbaey est professeur d’économie et de sciences humaines, titulaire de la chaire « Robert E. Kuenne » à l’université de Princeton. Il y est également professeur de politiques publiques, ainsi qu’à l’University Center for Human Values. Il a été économiste à l’INSEE, professeur d’économie et directeur de recherche au CNRS. Il est titulaire de la chaire « Économie du bien-être » au Collège d’études mondiales (FMSH). Ses recherches en économie et en philosophie s’intéressent à l'économie normative, à la justice distributive et à l’évaluation des politiques publiques. Il est depuis 2012 le rédacteur en chef de Social Choice and Welfare et ancien rédacteur en chef de Economics and Philosophy. Il est l’auteur de : Fairness, Responsibility, and Welfare (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008) ; Justice, Political Liberalism, and Utilitarianism: Themes from Harsanyi and Rawls(avec Maurice Salles et John A. Weymark [dir.], Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008) ; Capitalisme ou démocratie ? L’alternative du xxie siècle (Paris, Grasset, 2006).

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2014

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