We lost a shining star of democracy last week. Erik Olin Wright, PBP Advisory Board member and leading scholar of democracy and social change, passed away on January 23rd, 2019 from leukemia.

Erik was a fierce supporter of participatory budgeting (PB) and the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), serving on our initial Board of Directors and donating a research assistant position to PBP for the past five years. His writing on “Empowered Participatory Governance” became a key foundation of participatory democracy, and his insights on capitalism, real utopias, and his own life and death inspired generations of scholars and activists.

A Vision for Real Utopias

Erik was Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His academic work focused on social stratification, class relations, and the pursuit of egalitarian social, economic, and political systems. In 1992 he launched The Real Utopias Project, which explores a wide range of proposals and models for radical social change. He defined real utopias as democratic “real-world alternatives that can be constructed in the world as it is that also prefigure the world as it could be, and which help move us in that direction.”

His books include Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (with Archon Fung, 2003); Envisioning Real Utopias (2010);  and American Society: How It Really Works (with Joel Rogers, 2010). Hi finished his final book, How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century (forthcoming with Verso) during leukemia treatment.

New Models for Deeper Democracy

Erik argued that “in a politically just society, all people would have broadly equal access to the necessary means to participate meaningfully in decisions about things which affect their lives.” This was a profound statement about what values we should hold in a society, and it animated the breadth of his scholarship. His research examined the ways that democracy is inhibited in our current world, but it also did the much harder (and rarer) work of considering new yet viable ways to bring democracy back in.

For Erik, “democracy” was not limited to what we think of as the political world. The lack of economic democracy appears when owners decide to move a factory out of a community, or when workers do not have a voice on their job.

But designs for democratic institutions are in short supply, beyond the ones we are familiar with when we go into polling places on election day. Erik’s research examined new institutions that could better carry the voices of the people to make decisions that mattered. Some of these exist already: participatory budgeting, citizen juries, and democratically-run workplaces like worker cooperatives. Others have yet to be realized, such as ones in forthcoming volumes in the Real Utopias book series: “Legislature by Lot”, on randomly assigned legislatures, and “Democratizing Finance” on ways to make financial institutions more democratic.

He called these democratic real utopias Empowered Participatory Governance – institutions and reforms that empower people to participate in and make decisions about policies which directly affect their lives.

“…democracy needs to be empowered in ways which enable people to collectively control their common fate… The idea of political equality of all citizens requires strong institutional mechanisms for blocking the translation of economic power into political power. The scope of democratic decision making is enlarged to all domains with important public consequences. And the arenas for empowered citizen participation extend beyond casting ballots in periodic elections.”

– Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, p. 19

Champion of Participatory Budgeting

After writing about PB in Deepening Democracy, Erik followed up with action, investing his time and resources to help PB grow. When PBP was just an experiment, he volunteered to serve on our initial board of directors, to help build a strong foundation for the organization. He later transitioned to our Advisory Board, and he regularly participated in and spoke at PB conferences.

Erik speaking at our first PB Conference, in 2012.

Believing in the importance of PB, as well as the need to research its impacts and ways to improve it, he donated his graduate students as half-time staff research fellows at PBP. With the research fellows, he helped found the North American PB Research Board, which has developed new standards, tools, and publicity for PB research. The research fellows themselves have also produced fantastic work, from articles on how PB can advance equity to data on the impact of PB on electoral turnout (it increases turnout by 7%). Thank you to the University of Wisconsin Madison for supporting Erik’s passion for PB!

Personally, I am also deeply grateful to Erik for his contributions to my book Making Democracy Fun. He instantly understood the radical importance of games and play, of transforming democracy from a civic chore to a meaningful and even enjoyable activity. He served as adviser, reviewer, and endorser for the book, and hosted one of my most rewarding book talks, in Madison.

Erik playing with Rosario Habitat’s participatory planning process, profiled in Making Democracy Fun.

Insightful to the End

Fittingly, Erik turned his months-long battle with leukemia into an opportunity for brilliant reflection on life and death. He blogged regularly on a Caring Bridge journal, engaging with a community of hundreds of other sociologists, revolutionaries, and dreamers. We learned as much from these posts as from his books.

Erik was particularly open and reflective about his own impending death:

“Human life is a wild, extraordinary phenomenon: elements are brewed in the center of stars and exploding super-nova, spewed across the universe; they eventually clumped into a minor planet around a modest star; then after some billions of years this “star dust” became complex molecules with self-replicating capacities that we call life. More billions of years pass and these self-replicating molecules join together into more complex forms, evolve into organisms which gain awareness and then consciousness, and finally, eventually, consciousness of their consciousness. Stardust turned into conscious living matter aware of its own existence. And with that comes consciousness of mortality.

The extraordinary and wonderful thing in all this is to be alive and aware of being alive. Most matter in the universe is neither living nor conscious. That I as a conscious being will cease to exist pales in significance to the fact that I exist at all. I don’t find that this robs my existence of meaning; it’s what makes infusing life with meaning possible.”

– Erik Olin Wright, Caring Bridge journal

Thank you Erik, for infusing meaning into our lives, for investing deeply in real utopias like participatory budgeting, and for inspiring us to never stop learning, exploring, and dreaming.

By Josh Lerner, with Erik’s past and current PB research fellows – Madeleine Pape, Pete Ramand, Jake Carlson, and Loren Peabody.

P.S. Read more about Erik’s life and work here:

If you’re able to help carry on Erik’s work and support PB research, see our PB research page and let us know how you can help.

About Josh Lerner

Josh is co-founder and Co-Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project. He has over 15 years of experience developing, researching, and working with leading community engagement programs across North America, Latin America, and Europe. He is the author of Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics, Everyone Counts: Could Participatory Budgeting Change Democracy?, and over 20 articles.