The Utopian Counterfactual

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Gianpaolo Baiocchi (New York)

A New York City Postcard – June 30th 2020

The past weeks have been extremely exciting, the streets full of potential and possibility. This period of pandemic has been so revealing: the inequalities and racial fault-lines that structure our lives have been on full display, from the composition of who left and who stayed, who called the cops on their neighbors, who could pay rent, who delivered food, to who got sick and died. At the same time, the pandemic showed people’s capacity to organize, first for survival, then to make claims. Tenant and labor organizing were showing a militancy people had not seen in a generation. Then, murder of George Floyd ignited a spark that will simply not abate, re-energizing anti-racist and abolition activism. Today’s date is significant. Before tomorrow, city council must approve its budget for next year. A few blocks from my apartment, there is an occupation in front of city hall, #abolitionplaza, that is demanding to #defundthepolice. Tomorrow, too, all tenants in this city of renters must pay rent. And dozens of buildings around the city are on rent strike, with many more readying to do so, until #cancelrent is universally adopted.

Living through the extended pandemic and its still unfolding aftermaths has been sobering for those of us who understand ourselves as critical scholars in the social sciences. Events have unleashed fast-evolving social demands, from #cancelrent to #defundthepolice that dialogue with the very same radical theory that we write and teach, and yet we have struggled to respond to this radicalism meaningfully, particularly as it pertains to radical possibility. On one hand, it is clear there is room to reframe what it means to be engaged. In sociology, in particular, we still too often operate within the confines of a Public Sociology that privileges more “respectable” engagement with broader publics, say through Op-eds, over direct engagement with movements (Burawoy 2004). But there is a bigger question. The moment also challenges us to intellectually and meaningfully engage with the utopian visions that are emerging.

Critical social science, of course, has always had a fraught relationship with desired futures. We are traditionally at our best when we look at the world for what it isn’t and provide analysis of how and why that is. The very critical habits that make our analyses better, more systemic, structural, fundamental, that take us down to the roots of issues, make us uneasy and uncertain on the way back out to somewhere else. We can name racial capitalism and private property as some of our fundamental problems, but we stumble for alternatives. Simply stating the opposite root of our problem (non-capitalism, non-racism, non-police) is a slogan, but not an alternative.

What do we do when the world, as it has in recent times, calls on us for something else, something radical, but something more concrete, more useful? If we can radically deconstruct, can we also play a role in radical re-construction? Can we leverage our analytic tools for that exercise? It is in that spirit that I want to draw attention to utopian tradition in sociology, particularly the Methodological Utopianism recently associated with Erik Olin Wright (2012), but which has longer roots in the work of DuBois (1949) and others. This recent version of Methodological Utopianism was not directly concerned with prison abolition or decommodified housing, which might make it an odd connection for the moment, but I think it is one worth exploring, at the very least for its strong institutionalist inflection. Angela Davis, when discussing the widely influential idea of “abolition democracy,” has stressed that abolition “is not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions” (2011: 73). To meaningfully discuss abolition means also discussing and envisioning a fundamental social re-foundation and reconstruction. And it is in this terrain – the terrain of the possible, indeed, of the utopian counterfactual, that we could be engaging.

From the Pandemic to Radical Demands

The (still-moving) trajectory of events is, of course, well-known: a virus from elsewhere arrived and very quickly exposed the fault-lines of race and class that structure life in this city. An anticipatory wave of exodus by those with access to second homes in presumably safer elsewheres quickly followed, even before the official quarantine begun. Those who could not flee braced.

By the time the official period of quarantine began in the city there were already signs of an economic slowdown, but it was around April 1st that the proverbial penny dropped: the economic bottom had fallen out. Businesses shed employees, gig work ground to a halt, and it turned out that life had been so expensive before that just about no one had savings to protect them. As a result, many thousands of New Yorkers were unable to pay rent on that day. Just as the city and state governments were belatedly settling on a message to “stay home,” home –always a difficult proposition in this city – was now more precarious than ever.

It became obvious that death and disease were concentrating among those who could not shutter or who shuttered in crowded conditions. Mutual Aid flourished, less out of ideological commitment than survival. Amidst the pandemic, the movement of a lifetime around the right to housing surged around the banner of #cancelrent. Organizations like Housing Justice for All were suddenly flooded with requests on how to organize rent strikes. Independent tenants’ unions began to swell with members, and new ones appeared. Labor militancy, too, exploded in several sectors, most notably in Amazon warehouses.

And just as a public conversation was emerging about the value [our society places on] non-white lives, a police officer in Minneapolis graphically demonstrated it. The disturbing images of the protracted torture and murder of George Floyd were a spark igniting what has become a national, militant street movement. Racist police brutality has been mobilizing people for decades, and abolition activism is not new, but this moment has been different. Though anchored by the networked structure of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and quietly underwritten by the recent organizing and shared experience of precarity, it has evolved over the weeks. It has become something new: a young, entirely plural, and multi-racial movement in defence of Black Lives that has spread, nearly instantly, around the world, as has a diffuse set of specific claims to #defundthepolice as a first step to abolition. And abolitionist politics moved from radical spaces to the pages of the New York Times.

Progressive elected local officials have struggled to give meaningful answers to these claims: Ithaca, in upstate New York, “canceled rent” but without much legal basis. The city council in Minneapolis decided to dismantle the police department, but doubts remain about what that will actually mean in practice. And back in New York, the city and state were not able to offer much beyond stop-gap measures, such as a temporary moratorium on eviction, or a symbolic reduction in the police budget.

Hashtag social policy and Emancipation

Ruthie Gilmore has written that “policy is the new theory,” and that “(p)olicy is to politics what method is to research. It’s a script for enlivening some future possibility – an experiment” (2011:260). It is worth thinking about these emergent demands as a kind of policy, and asking what future possibilities they animate.

On the face of it, #cancelrent and #defundthepolice are brilliant demands in that they are specific, actionable, and entirely unreasonable. That is, they are not premised, as public policy usually is, on starting with what seems possible and then engaging in an exercise of choosing which possible reforms are more desirable, efficient, and so on. They do not start with reasonable propositions. They instead begin with end goals – housing justice, in one case, and prison abolition on the other. Then they ask the first question: what is the institutional demand that will take us in that direction? In both cases they are specific, directly actionable, and in principle, winnable.

There is, in other words, a clear “policy hook” in both cases. In the case of canceling rent, there is a specific jurisdiction being called to act with statutory authority, and there are legal precedents for it. Since the founding of the United States, local courts have cancelled debts, and in the Great Depression, for example, cities and states declared moratoria on rent and mortgage payments. In the case of defunding the police, local police departments are funded through municipal budgets, which are allocated every year. In principle, municipalities may exercise this autonomy in any way they decide. Under the aegis of what has been described as “austerity urbanism,” municipalities have defunded libraries, after-school programs, water and sanitation infrastructures, social services, fire departments and so much more. So, why not policing?

The reason that less radical elected officials prevaricate is that they realize a win of this type would de-stabilize the status-quo and open up a number of other questions. To evoke Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy of questioning, you know you have a good question when the answer implies more questions rather than an end to the discussion (Freire and Faundez 2002). If rent is cancelled, who will pay landlords, and should they be paid at all? If so, which ones? Who would fund that? Will taxes need to be raised, and if so, on whom? Does it mean that mortgages, debts, or utilities need to be cancelled too? Similarly, if police are defunded, where would those funds be spent? What are the police’s essential functions, if any? Do we want the state involved in punishment and surveillance at all? What other institutions of racial subjugation need to be abolished? What reparations can there be for past harms inflicted by the racist state? What are alternative ways to deal with the harms that people cause one another? How would public safety be organized without police?

Housing justice and abolitionist thinkers and activists articulate these demands as part of larger transformative processes whose outcomes are yet to be fully determined but will be created by activated communities in charge of their own destinies. Policy hooks are also co-optable in their ambiguity, which activists are keenly aware of. Radical housing justice platforms begin with canceling rent but articulate a broader, transformative platform. #BeyondRecovery, a platform associated with #HomesforAll, outlines a “people’s plan for a healthy, stable, and thriving future.” In addition to demanding the cancellation of rent, mortgage, utilities, and debt, the platform also calls for “freeing of people from cages,” turning “all vacant housing into safe houses for people experiencing homelessness,” permanently ending evictions and utility shut-offs, and a “future where all work is valued and protected.”

 #8ToAbolition offers a parallel abolitionist example that more self-consciously faces the challenges to transformation. An important abolitionist text that was written in response to #8cantwait, a much more moderate proposal. #8toabolition resists “dangerous reforms” for “better, friendlier, or more community-minded police.” But it opens with the recognition that “all police and prisons will not disappear tomorrow,” and instead focuses on the strategic importance of non-reformist reforms, ones that eat away at the “scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions.” Abolition is not only seen as “a matter of tearing down” but also “a matter of building up life-sustaining systems that reduce, prevent, and better address harm.” In addition to defunding the police, other demands include demilitarizing communities, removing cops from schools, freeing people in prisons, repealing laws that criminalize survival, investing in community self-governance, providing housing for all, and funding forms of collective care, like mental health, and not cops.

Ultimately, #8toabolition invites us to imagine and begin to struggle for social arrangements that entirely break with what exists. “In order to imagine a world without prisons,” Angela Davis has argued, “a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned.” And to develop that vocabulary and imagine that society, we should then turn to the radical scholars who made it a habit to do so.

Methodological Utopianism

Despair is a Lack of Imagination

street art on boarded up windows in SoHo in June 2020

W.E.B. DuBois’ short 1949 lecture on the “Nature of Intellectual Freedom” argued for the role of the imagination in contributing to an emancipated future. DuBois has been long recognized for having a utopian streak, but this address explicitly called for a kind of intellectual work to mobilize “the upsurging emotions” in order to go beyond what is present (DuBois 1973: 259). He asks us to recognize a “grey zone” where “human effort and natural law” combine, where some things, like “gravitation,” may be immutable, but others, like freedom, are bound by our inability to think beyond them. DuBois invites to us to play with the “the infinite possibilities of ever-revealing truth” and to go beyond the intellectual habit of refusing to think ourselves or to listen to those who do think. (1973: 260)

DuBois is an exemplar of a steadily present but often subdued undercurrent in the critical social sciences: that of explicit engagement with what could be. I have elsewhere traced some of this tradition in sociology, describing it as Methodological Utopianism, the stance of assessing the social world for its potential for emancipation and building theory for that purpose. (Baiocchi n/d). While humanists and philosophers have a generally more comfortable relationship with utopian thinking (Bloch 1918 [2009]; Jameson 2005; Muñoz 2019; Ventura 2019), the critical social sciences are often less confident, or their utopianism remains implicit. It is impossible to know if this is because of a Marxist orthodoxy that is hostile to utopian thinking (Ollman 2005), an investment in our scientific respectability, or simply a capitulation to an academic mood that is “dominated by a dismissal of political idealism.” (Muñoz 2019: 10) Nonetheless, it is a kind of thinking represented not only by DuBois, but also by Black radical scholars like Cedric Robinson and Oliver Cox; by “Third World Marxists” like The New World Group and Carlos Mariátegui; and by feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shulamith Firestone. Contemporary abolitionist thinkers like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore are consistently in dialogue with the vision of an emancipated world.

More recently, Methodological Utopianism has been at the heart of the Real Utopias project led by the late Erik Olin Wright. Starting in the 1990s, Real Utopias was a series of collective projects on particular topics – from empowered local governance to democratizing finance – that sought to identify design principles for real utopian institutions. The phrase itself, as Wright put it, embraced the tension between “visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations” and the “problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world.” The project had as its goal “practical institutional innovations that we can build in the world as it is that both prefigure emancipatory alternatives of a world that could be and move us in that direction. It thus identifies both a goal and a strategy.” While critics have rightly noted a number of limits to the project – it tended to downplay conflict as a strategy of transformation, and its overriding anti-capitalism tended to minimize race, sexuality, and gender – it nonetheless provides one useful template for utopian engagement by critical social scientists. It provokes us to engage in the task of helping identify practical moves, goals, and strategies and the relationship between them.

In this case, of #cancelrent and #defundthepolice, these visions are less about rent laws or municipal budgets, but about people fundamentally gaining more control over their living conditions, their communities, and their work. Movements are also calling for a re-imagining of democracy, one less focused on particular institutions and procedures but centred on a much more expansive view of people’s power to control the conditions of their lives and communities. These are normative accounts about what ought to be, but they are rooted in a radical critique and a systematic account of what is. And the space between the two, between what ought to be and what is, like the “gray zone” between freedom and necessity that DuBois notes when he calls for imagination, is the space for projects like Real Utopias, or Methodological Utopianism more generally.

One line of operation might be working with the “policy hooks” and thinking about their viability. Abolitionist writers have repeatedly made the case for why defunding the police is viable and reasonable. It is in this vein that Jake Carlson and I have written about #cancelrent. In that piece, we discuss in pragmatic, non-utopian terms the case for canceling rent – principally, the sheer social cost of the mass displacement likely to happen in the face of inaction. We also focus on the viability of the proposition (including the statutory authority of the federal government in this case), the cost, and some policy options including how much large landlords should pay. We also address the importance of avoiding “means testing” of tenants when offering rent relief, making it universal and unconditional for tenants while making it conditional for landlords. If one of the goals of Methodological Utopianism is to make alternative futures possible by rendering them thinkable, a clear line of operation is to show how these policy hooks can feasibly work.

Another line of work might involve thinking more explicitly about strategy with policy hooks like #cancelrent acting as way stations. The policy memo by Brady et. al, for example, offers such strategic considerations. It argues that winning legislation will not be enough, since “[h]istorically, headway in housing justice resulted from steadfast tenant organizing, including rent strikes and eviction blockades, at times of mass movements.” The document pushes for connections with a broader struggle for a just recovery. “The road not yet taken,” the document argues, “is the one we need: to reckon with and transform the interrelated racial, economic, health, and environmental injustices of housing laid bare before and in the midst of this global pandemic.” Similarly, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, in developing a proposal for broader community control over safety makes a parallel point. “Defunding police, by itself, will make the problem smaller … But it leaves the basic political structure intact.” Táiwo goes on to argue that, “[t]he core problem with policing and incarceration is the same problem that plagues our whole political system: elite capture.” The proposal goes on to discuss a series of adjunct proposals – like a radical version of sortition, that would address the bigger problems of elite capture. This line of operation is less about showing that #cancelrent, or #defundthepolice is feasible but about a recognition that a policy hook isn’t enough and that changes toward justice will need to take questions of power and conflict over resources seriously. Critical social science –in asking about why an arrangement isn’t just often begins with a recognition of the entrenched inequalities and investments in that arrangement. It is often able to identify the coalitions of actors and interests that support current inequities. When it talks about the implementation of alternatives, it can therefore help predict the friction and conflict that it will occasion, as well as the asymmetric terrain of unequal power relations where battles will take place and consider moves that can shift the balance.

We can also think of other lines of operation quite beyond the viability of policy hooks and their strategic importance. This could involve critical work with emergent utopian visions themselves in the way suggested in the quote by Brady et al.. That is, we might engage in a critical dialogue with emerging normative vision by exploring the tensions between the broadest future-oriented visions and the policy hooks, strategies, and the radical critiques that underwrite them. There are some striking differences between #8toabolition vision and the #BeyondRecovery vision beyond the fact they emerge from different movement sectors. #8toabolition is clear that abolition will not be possible without decommodified housing, while Beyond Recovery’s People’s Plan falls short of abolition. It calls for “immediate release of all people who are being held in immigrant and pretrial detention,” and an increase in “use of Elder, Medical, and Early Release,” and accelerating “the release of individuals with more than 90 days remaining.” A possible direction might be exploring and expanding the vision of housing justice in the direction of abolition.

After Public Sociology?

We are living through a moment of profound rethinking. In terms of race, national and local movements are calling for a reckoning with the racial fault-lines that organize so much of life in this country, with police departments, universities, city governments, museums, and the private sector coming under scrutiny for their role in perpetuating the systematic disregard of Black and brown lives. The questions facing colleges and universities are particularly profound, cutting to the core of the way institutions operate, with conversations like #blackintheivory achieving importance. There is more room for, at the very least, the moment is ushering in long-overdue conversations about inclusion, hiring practices, and curricula at universities and departments. Perhaps it will occasion bigger transformations in the way universities work.

Critical social scientists have a responsibility for additional reflection, too. Ruth Wilson Gilmore in a presidential address to the American Studies Association nearly ten years ago issued a challenge that applies to us as well today. “In the face of all this direness, what kinds of practices – of teaching, research, and analysis – might we develop across disciplines toward the goal of identifying and promoting multiple routes out of the crisis?” (Gilmore 2011: 257) Methodological Utopianism is about that: a kind of radical scholarship that does something beyond the familiar act of denouncing, scholarship that seeks a radical re-construction while also refusing the conventional terms of public policy. It provides a useful way to rethink what public facing sociology can look like, while delineating a sharp alternative to projects like “problem-solving sociology” (Prasad 2019), which despite their merits, are less concerned with the emancipatory politics at the heart of Utopianism. We have many cautionary tales to learn from previous approaches, like Touraine’s “intervention sociology” that tended to bridge a gap between the university and the outside in top-down fashion (Dubet and Wieviorka 1996). And it means going beyond a definition of public sociology that separated it from critical sociology, relegated to theoretical debates internal to the discipline (Burawoy 2005).

There is new engaged scholarship that is squarely focused on radical political possibility and avoids the artificial separations between practice and scholarship. As Nantina Vgontzas (2020) shows, whereas Amazon has long policed Black and brown workers in its warehouses, it is now actively disciplining them as they organize to stay safe during the pandemic; abolition on the shop floor has become a matter of life and death, and it compels a radical framework of contesting management’s control over work. And as Daniel Aldana Cohen (2017), one of the intellectual forces behind the Green New Deal proposals, argues, the true low-carbon protagonists in a city like São Paulo are its people’s housing movements, even if their environmental discourse is not as sophisticated as that of elite NGOs.

Lots of questions remain, though. The Real Utopias project had a straightforward relationship to its own scientificity because its overriding Marxism and Anti-Capitalist orientation was comfortable with it. But other utopias – queer, abolitionist, decolonial, ecological – call the scientific project and its forms of authority into question. The lines of operations described above will not work without a deeply engaged practice, where we are seen not as outsiders, but at least as fellow travelers with the movements developing these visions. This in turn implies a deep reflexivity on our part from everything from notions of expertise, authority, to the value of people’s time. And most of all, it will mean widening our frame to learn from movements and organizations like Critical Resistance and Right To The City, not as cases to be understood, but as generators of a kind of knowledge that points us in the direction of emancipation.


Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a Brazilian-born, New York City based scholar and activist who directs New York University’s Urban Democracy Lab. His last book was We, The Sovereign (Polity Publishers 2018). Email:


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