Taking the 'Social' in Socialism Seriously

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Taking the 'Social' in Socialism Seriously

Post by Celtiberian on Fri Sep 09, 2011 4:47 pm

In the following article, the renowned Marxist sociologist, Erik Olin Wright, explores the institutions and power relations which differentiate socialism from capitalism, and which distinguish the various forms of socialism from each other.

by Erik Olin Wright

Both social democracy and socialism contain the word "social". Generally it is invoked in a loose and ill-defined way. The suggestion is a political program committed to the broad welfare of society rather than the narrow interests of particular elites. Sometimes, especially in more radical versions of socialist discourse, "social ownership" is invoked as a contrast to "private ownership," but in practice this has generally been collapsed into state ownership, and the term "social" itself ends up doing relatively little analytical work in the elaboration of the political program.

What I will argue in this essay is that the idea of the "social" in socialism can usefully be used to identify a cluster of principles and visions of change that help differentiate socialism more precisely both from capitalism and what could be called a purely statist response to capitalism. This, in turn, will suggest a way of thinking about the principles of transformation that can direct challenges to capitalism.

Most discussions of socialism build the concept in terms of a binary contrast with capitalism. The standard strategy is to begin with a discussion of different ways of organizing production, and from this to define capitalism as a distinctive type of "mode of production" or "economic structure": an economic structure within which the means of production are privately owned, workers do not own their means of production and thus must sell their labor power on a labor market in order to obtain their livelihoods, and production is oriented towards profit maximization through exchange on the market. Socialism is then defined in terms of the negation of one or more of these conditions. Since the pivot of the concept of capitalism is the private ownership of means of production, generally this has meant that socialism is understood as public ownership in one form or another, most typically through the institutional device of state ownership.

Here I will elaborate an alternative approach to specifying the concept of socialism in which it is contrasted to two alternative forms of economic structure: capitalism and statism. Capitalism, statism, and socialism can be thought of as alternative ways of organizing the power relations through which economic resources are allocated, controlled and used. To explain what this means I will first need to clarify a number of key concepts: power; ownership; and the state, the economy, and civil society as three broad domains of social interaction and power. Second, I will develop a conceptual typology of capitalism, statism, and socialism as types of economic structures based on different the configurations of ownership and power linked to these three domains. And third, I will explain how this typology of economic structures helps inform a conceptual map of empirical variability of the macro-structures of economic systems. This will provide us with the conceptual vocabulary we need to elaborate our socialist compass of pathways to social empowerment.



Power is one of the most perpetually contested concepts in social theory. Here I want to stress the simple idea of power as the capacity of actors to accomplish things in the world, to generate effects in the world. This definition has both an instrumental and a structural dimension: it is instrumental in that it focuses on the capacities people use to accomplish things in the world; it is structural in that the effectiveness of these capacities depends upon the social structural conditions under which people act. The power of capitalists, for example, depends both upon their wealth and also upon a social structure within which this wealth can be deployed in particular ways. Owning a factory is only a source of power if it is also the case that there is a labor force that is separated from the means of subsistence and must rely on a labor market in order to earn a living, and if there is a set of state institutions that enforce contracts and protect property rights. The simple ownership of this economic resource only becomes a source of real power under appropriate social conditions.

With this definition of power, one of the ways in which forms of power can be differentiated is in terms of the underlying social basis for the capacity to generate effects in the world. In the present context we will distinguish three important forms of power: economic power, based on the control over economic resources; state power, based on control over rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory; and what I will call social power, based on the capacity to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts. As slogans you can say that there are three ways of getting people to do things: you can bribe them; you can force them; you can convince them. These correspond to the exercise of economic power, state power, and social power. Because social power is rooted in voluntary association, and voluntary association is intimately connected persuasion and communication, social power is also closed linked to what might be termed ideological or cultural power. As we shall see, these are closely linked to the distinctions between capitalism, statism, and socialism.


"Ownership" is a multidimensional idea involving a bundle of different kinds of enforceable rights (i.e. effective powers) over things. Ownership varies along three dimensions:

1. The agents of ownership: who is the holder of the ownership rights.
2. The objects of ownership: what sorts of things can be owned and what sorts cannot be owned.
3. The rights of ownership: what sorts of rights are entailed by ownership.

The problem of ownership is especially complex since different kinds of ownership rights may be distributed across different kinds of agents in different ways for different objects of ownership. Consider, for example, the common notion that in capitalism the means of production are privately owned. The means of production are a particular object of ownership. To say that they are privately owned means that individuals and organizations outside of the state (such as corporations and nonprofit organizations) have the right to make various kinds of decisions about the means of production without interference by the state and other nonowners. In practice, however, the actual ownership relations over the means of production in all capitalist economies are more complex than this since the effective power over many aspects of the use of the machines, buildings, land, raw materials, and so forth have been removed from the private owners and are held by the state. Owners of firms, for example, are restricted in how they can use their means of production because of health and safety requirements. They cannot freely contract with a worker to ignore these requirements, and thus in this specific respect they are not full owners of the machine; some of the rights of ownership have been taken over by the state. Capitalists do not even have full property rights in the flow of net income (profits) generated by the use of their means of production since the state imposes various forms of profits taxes on that income. In effect the profits that are generated by the use of means of production are divided between a public entity—the state—and the private owners. This, of course, is why libertarians say "taxation is theft".

In the present context we are concerned with the problem of ownership primarily because of the ways in which it bears on understanding how different kinds of economic systems work. For this purpose, of particular importance are ownership rights to transfer property rights (which in the case of private ownership means the right to sell or give away what one owns and buy what other people own) and rights to control the use and allocation of the surplus generated with the use of the means of production (i.e. the net income generated by the use of the means of production). Here I will use the term "ownership" mainly in this narrower sense of the right to transfer property and the rights over the surplus, and use the terms "power" and "control" to describe the effective capacity to direct the use of the means of production. In these terms we will distinguish capitalism, statism, and socialism both in terms of the kind of power that is deployed over economic activities (economic power, state power, and social power) and in terms of the nature of ownership of the means of production (private ownership, state ownership, and social ownership).

The ideas of private ownership and state ownership of the means of production are familiar: private ownership means that individuals and groups of individuals have legally enforceable rights to buy and sell income-generating property; state ownership means that the state directly retains rights over the disposition of means of production and the net income which it generates. But what does "social ownership" mean? This is both less familiar and less clear. Social ownership of the means of production means that income-generating property is owned in common by everyone in a "society", and thus everyone has the collective right to the net income generated by the use of those means of production and the collective right to dispose of the property which generates this income. This need not imply that this net income is simply divided up equally among everyone, although that could be one expression of the principle of common ownership. Common ownership means that people collectively have the right to decide on the purposes to which the means of production are put and on the allocation of the social surplus—the net income generated by the use of means of production—and this is consistent with a wide range of actual allocations.

The term "society" in this definition does not mean a nation-state or country. Rather, it refers to any social unit within which people engage in interdependent economic activity which uses means of production and generates some kind of product. In Israel the traditional kibbutzim would constitute an example of social ownership: all of the means of production in the kibbutz were owned in common by all members of the community and they collectively controlled the use of the surplus generated by the use of those means of production. Worker cooperatives also can constitute an example of social ownership, depending upon the specific ways in which the property rights of the cooperative are organized. It is thus possible for an economic structure to consist of units characterized by social ownership as well as private ownership and state ownership.

The lines of demarcation among these three forms of ownership are not always clear. If the state is controlled in a deeply democratic manner, then state ownership may become very much like a specific form of social ownership. In a democratic society does the state own the national parks or do "the people" own the parks? If individual members of a producer co-op are assigned individual shares in the cooperative which they can sell and which give them individually differentiated claims on the net income of the economic activity, than the social ownership of the cooperative may begin to look much more like a form of private ownership. If in an otherwise capitalist economy the state imposes restrictions on the transfer of property rights (eg. export controls over flows of capital) and regulates the allocations surplus for different kinds of investments, then private ownership can begin to look more like state ownership.

Three domains of power and interaction: the state, economy, and civil society

I will define these three domains of social interaction in relatively conventional ways, bracketing a number of difficult problems of conceptualization:

The State is the cluster of institutions, more or less coherently organized, which imposes binding rules and regulations over a territory. Max Weber defined the state as an organization which effectively monopolizes the legitimate use of force over a territory. I prefer Michael Mann's alternative emphasis on the state as the organization with an administrative capacity to impose binding rules and regulations over territories. The legitimate use of force is one of the key ways this is accomplished, but it is not necessarily the most important way. State power is then defined as the effective capacity to impose rules and regulate social relations over territory, a capacity which depends on such things as information and communications infrastructure, the ideological commitments of citizens to obey rules and commands, the level of discipline of administrative officials, the practical effectiveness of the regulations to solve problems, as well as the monopoly over the legitimate use of coercion.

The Economy is the sphere of social activity in which people interact to produce and distribute goods and services. In capitalism this activity involves privately owned firms in which production and distribution is mediated by market exchange. Economic power is based on the kinds of economically-relevant resources different categories of social actors control and deploy within these interactions of production and distribution.

Civil Society is the sphere of social interaction in which people voluntarily form associations of different sorts for various purposes. Some of these associations have the character of formal organizations with well-defined membership and objectives. Clubs, political parties, labor unions, churches, and neighborhood associations would be examples. Others are looser associations, in the limiting case more like social networks than bounded organizations. The idea of a "community", when it means something more than simply the aggregation of individuals living in a place, can also be viewed as a kind informal association within civil society. Power in civil society depends on capacities for collective action through such voluntary association, and can accordingly be referred to as "associational power" or "social power."

The state, the economy and civil society are all domains for extended social interaction, cooperation, and conflict among people, and each of them involves distinct sources of power. Actors within the economy have power by virtue of their ownership and control of economically relevant resources. Actors in the state have power by virtue of their control of rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory, including coercive capacity. And actors in civil society have power by virtue of their ability to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts.

A typology of economic structures: Capitalism, Statism, and Socialism

We can now turn to the key problem: differentiating capitalism, statism, and socialism. One way of thinking about the variations in the types of economic structures that exist in the world or could exist in the future is to think about variations in the ways power rooted in the economy, the state, and civil society shapes the way economic resources are allocated, controlled and used. Capitalism, statism, and socialism are differentiated, in these terms, on the basis of the form of ownership over means of production and the type of power that determines economic activities:

Capitalism is an economic structure within which the means of production are privately owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of economic power. Investments and the control of production are the result of the exercise of economic power by owners of capital.

Statism is an economic structure within which the means of production are owned by the state and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of state power. State officials control the investment process and production through some sort of state-administrative mechanism.

Socialism is an economic structure within which the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of what can be termed "social power."

The idea of "democracy", in these terms, can be thought of as a specific way of linking social power and state power: in the ideal of democracy, state power is fully subordinated to and accountable to social power. The expression "rule by the people" does not really mean, "rule by the atomized aggregation of the separate individuals of the society taken as isolated persons," but rather, rule by the people collectively organized into associations in various ways: parties, communities, unions, etc. Democracy is thus, inherently, a deeply socialist principle. If "Democracy" is the label for the subordination of state power to social power, "socialism" is the term for the subordination of economic power to social power.

It is important to be clear about the conceptual field being mapped here: these are all types of economic structures, but only in capitalism is it the case that economically-based power plays the predominant role in determining the use of economic resources. In Statism and Socialism a form of power distinct from the economy itself plays the dominant role in allocating economic resources for alternative uses. It is still the case, of course, that in capitalism state power and social power exist, but they do not play the central role in the direct allocation, control and use of economic resources.

This idea of a socialism rooted in social power is not the conventional way of understanding socialism. It differs from standard definitions in two principle ways. First, most definitions closely identify socialism with what I am calling statism. In contrast to these traditional formulations, the concept of socialism being proposed here is grounded in the distinction between state power and social power, state ownership and social ownership. Second, the proposed conceptualization of socialism does not say anything explicitly about markets. Particularly in the Marxist tradition, socialism has usually been treated as a nonmarket form of economic organization: socialism is a rationally planned economy contrasted to the anarchic character of the capitalist market economy. While from time to time there have been advocates of what is sometimes called "market socialism", in general socialism has been identified with planning (usually understood as centralized state planning, but also in some contemporary discussions, with decentralized, participatory planning) rather than markets. The definition of socialism offered here in terms of social ownership and social power does not preclude the possibility that markets could play a role in coordinating the activities of socially owned and controlled enterprises so long as that role was itself the result of democratic regulation.


In terms of these definitions, no actual living economy has ever been purely capitalist or statist or socialist, since it is never the case that the allocation, control and use of economic resources is determined by a single form of power. Such pure cases live only in the fantasies (or nightmares) of theorists. Totalitarianism is a form of imaginary hyper-statism in which state power, unaccountable to civil society and unconstrained by economic power, comprehensively determines all aspects of both production and distribution. In a pure libertarian capitalism the state atrophies to a mere "night watchman state" serving only the purpose of enforcing property rights, and commercial activities penetrate into all corners of civil society, commodifying everything. The exercise of economic power would almost fully explain the allocation and use of resources. Citizens are atomized consumers who make individual choices in a market but exercise no collective power over the economy through association in civil society. Communism, as classically understood in Marxism, is a form of society in which the state has withered away and the economy is absorbed into civil society as the free, cooperative activity of associated individuals.

In practice, therefore, the concepts of capitalism, statism and socialism should be thought of not simply as all-or-nothing ideal types of economic structures, but also as variables. The more the decisions made by actors exercising economic power determine the allocation and use of resources, the more capitalist is an economic structure. The more power exercised through the state determines the allocation and use of resources, the more the society is statist. The more power rooted in civil society determines such allocations and uses, the more the society is socialist.

Treating these concepts as varying in degree opens the possibility of complex mixed cases—hybrids in which in certain respects an economy is capitalist and in others statist or socialist. All existing capitalist societies contain significant elements of statism since states everywhere allocate part of the social surplus for various kinds of investments, especially in things like public infrastructure, defense and education. Furthermore, in all capitalist societies the state removes certain powers from holders of private property rights, for example when capitalist states impose rules on capitalist firms that regulate labels, product quality, or pollution. State power, rather than economic power, controls those specific aspects of production, and in these ways the economy is statist. Capitalist societies also always contain at least some socialist elements, at least through the ways collective actors in civil society influence the allocation of economic resources indirectly through their efforts to influence the state and capitalist corporations. The use of the simple, unmodified expression "capitalism" to describe an empirical case is thus shorthand for something like "a hybrid economic structure within which capitalism is the predominant way of organizing economic activity."

Although not framed in the language of the present discussion, traditionally Marxists have assumed that within such hybrid forms, one type of economic structure (or "mode of production") would have to be unequivocally dominant in order for the society to be stable. The basic intuition here is that capitalism and socialism are incompatible since they serve opposing class interests, and thus a stable, balanced hybrid would be impossible. A society, in this view, requires some unifying principle rooted in a particular mode of production for social reproduction to effectively contain social contradictions and struggles. A capitalism-socialism hybrid in which both sources of power played a substantial role thus could not be a stable equilibrium: if such a balanced hybrid were to occur, then capitalist power over significant levels of economic resources would have an inherent tendency to erode the associational power of civil society over the economy to the point that capitalism would again become unequivocally dominant. It is important, however, not to feel too confident that one knows in advance everything that is possible "under heaven and earth," for there are always things that happen that are not, in advance, "dreamt of in our philosophy." In any case, in this discussion I am not making any general assumptions about what sorts of hybrids would be stable or even possible.


To recapitulate the conceptual proposal: Socialism can be contrasted to capitalism and statism in terms of the principal form of power that shapes economic activity—the production and distribution of goods and services. Specifically, the greater the degree and forms of social empowerment over ownership, use and control of economic resources and activities, the more we can describe an economy as socialist.

What does this actually mean in terms of institutional designs? For capitalism and statism, because of the rich examples of historically existing societies, we have a pretty good idea of the institutional arrangements which make these forms of economic structure possible. An economic structure built around private ownership of the means of production combined with relatively comprehensive markets is one in which economic power—the power of capital—plays the primary role in organizing production and allocating the social surplus to different investments. A centralized bureaucratic state that directly plans and organizes most large-scale economic activity and which, through the apparatus of a political party, penetrates the associations of civil society is an effective design for statism. But what about socialism? What sorts of institutional designs would enable power rooted in voluntary association in civil society to effectively control the production and distribution of goods and services? What does it mean to move in the direction of a society within which social empowerment is the central organizing principle of the economy?

In what follows I will sketch what I will refer to as seven pathways to social empowerment. These constitute different configurations of social power, state power, and economic power in which we can envision institutional forms that move in the direction of increasing the social power component. The seven pathways are: statist socialism; social democratic statist regulation; associational democracy; social capitalism; social economy; cooperative market economy; and participatory socialism.

1. Statist Socialism

In traditional socialist theory, the essential route by which popular power—power rooted in associational activity of civil society—was translated into control over the economy was through the state. It is for this reason that those visions can reasonably be described as models of statist-socialism. The basic idea was this: Political parties are associations formed in civil society with the goal of influencing and potentially controlling state power. People join them in pursuit of certain objectives, and their power depends in significant ways upon their capacities to mobilize such participation for collective actions of various sorts. So, if it were the case that a socialist party was deeply connected to the working class through its embeddedness in working class social networks and communities and democratically accountable through an open political process through which it politically represented the working class (or some broader coalition), then if the socialist party controlled the state and the state controlled the economy, one could argue on a principle of transitivity-of-control, that an empowered civil society controlled the economic system of production and distribution. In this vision, economic power as such is marginalized: it is not by virtue of the direct economic ownership and control over assets that people have power to organize production; it is by virtue of their collective political organization in civil society and their exercise of state power.

Statist socialism of this sort was at the heart of traditional Marxist and Leninist ideas of revolutionary socialism. This is not, of course, how things turned out in actual revolutions. Whether because of inherent tendencies of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever potential there was for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the Russian Civil War and the early years of the revolution. By the time the new Soviet State had consolidated power and launched its concerted efforts at transforming the economy, the Party had become a mechanism of state domination, a vehicle for penetrating civil society and controlling economic organizations. The Soviet Union, therefore, became the archetype of authoritarian statism under the ideological banner of socialism, but not of a socialism rooted in democratic social empowerment. Subsequent successful revolutionary socialist parties, for all of their differences, followed a broadly similar path, creating various forms of statism.

Today, few socialists believe that comprehensive statist central planning is a viable structure for realizing socialist goals. Nevertheless, statist socialism remains an important component of any likely process of social empowerment. The state will remain central to the provision of a wide range of public goods, from health to education to public transportation. The central question for socialists, then, is the extent to which these aspects of state provision can be effectively under the control of a democratically empowered civil society. In capitalist societies, typically, these aspects of public goods provision by the state are only weakly subordinated to social power through the institutions of representative democracy. Because of the enormous influence of capitalist economic power on state policies, often such public goods are more geared to the needs of capital accumulation than to social needs. Deepening the democratic quality of the state is thus the pivotal problem for direct state provision of goods and services to become a genuine pathway to social empowerment.

2. Social Democratic Statist Economic Regulation

The second pathway for potential social empowerment centers on the ways in which the state constrains and regulates economic power. Even in the period of economic deregulation and the triumph of ideologies of the free market at the end of the 20th century, the state remained deeply implicated in the regulation of production and distribution in ways that impinge on capitalist economic power. This includes a wide range of interventions: pollution control, workplace health and safety rules, product safety standards, skill credentialing in labor markets, minimum wages and other labor market regulations. Any serious proposal to contend with global warming would have to intensify such statist regulation of the use of economic power. All of these involve state power restricting certain powers of owners of capital, and thereby affecting economic activities. To the extent that these forms of affirmative state intervention are themselves effectively subordinated to social power through democratic political processes, then this becomes a pathway to social empowerment.

Statist regulation of capitalist economic power, however, need not imply significant social empowerment. Again, the issue here is the extent and depth to which the regulatory activities of the state are genuine expressions of democratic empowerment of civil society. In actual capitalist societies, much economic regulation is in fact more responsive to the needs and power of capital than to the needs and power generated within civil society. The result is a power configuration where state power regulates capital but in ways that are systematically responsive to the power of capital itself. The question, then, is the extent to which it is possible within capitalist society to democratize state regulatory processes in ways which undercut the power of capital and enhance social power. One way of doing this is through what is sometimes called "associational democracy."

3. Associational Democracy: coordinated joint effects of social power, state power, and economic power on the economy

Associational democracy encompasses a wide range of institutional devices through which collective associations in civil society directly participate in various kinds of governance activities, characteristically along with state agencies and business associations. The most familiar is probably the tripartite neo-corporatist arrangements in some social democratic societies in which organized labor, associations of employers, and the state meet together to bargain over various kinds of economic regulations, especially those involved in the labor market and employment relations. Associational democracy could be extended to many other domains, for example watershed councils which bring together civic associations, environmental groups, developers and state agencies to regulate ecosystems, or health councils involving medical associations, community organizations and public health officials to plan various aspects of health care. To the extent that the associations involved are internally democratic and representative of interests in civil society, and the decision-making process in which they are engaged is open and deliberative, rather than heavily manipulated by elites and the state, then associative democracy constitutes a pathway to social empowerment.

4. Social Capitalism: Social empowerment over the way the economic power of capital is exercised over the economy

Economic power is power rooted in the direct control over the allocation, organization, and use of capital of various sorts. Secondary associations of civil society can, through a variety of mechanisms, directly affect the way such economic power is used. For example, unions often control large pension funds. These are generally governed by rules of fiduciary responsibility which severely limit the potential use of those funds for purposes other than providing secure pensions for the beneficiaries. But those rules could be changed, and unions could potentially exert power over corporations through the management of such funds. In Canada today, the union movement has created venture capital funds, controlled by labor, to provide equity to start-up firms that satisfy certain social criteria.

Historically one of the most important forms of social capitalism concerns the ways in which associations of workers in various ways mobilize power to constrain the exercise of economic power. This can occur in the form of ordinary labor unions engaged in bargaining over pay and working conditions: such bargaining constitutes a form of social power which, if only in limited ways, affects the operation of economic power. The co-determination rules in Germany, which mandate worker representation on boards of directors of firms over a certain size modestly extends social power into the direct governance of firms. Proposals to replace shareholder councils with stakeholder councils for the control of corporate boards of directors would be a more radical version.

Social movements engaged in consumer oriented pressure on corporations would also be a form of civil society empowerment directed at economic power. This would include such things as the anti-sweatshop and labor standards movements centered on university campuses and organized boycotts of corporations for selling products that do not conform to some socially-salient standard. Fair trade and equal exchange movements that attempt to connect consumers in the North with producers in the South that adopt fair labor and good environmental practices are a form of social capitalism that attempts to build alternative global economic networks free from the economic power of multinational corporations.

5. The Social Economy: direct social empowerment over production and distribution

The social economy is the pathway of social empowerment in which voluntary associations in civil society directly organize various aspects of economic activity, rather than simply shape the deployment of economic power. The "social economy" constitutes an alternative way of directly organizing economic activity that is distinct from capitalist market production, state organized production, and household production. Its hallmark is production organized by collectivities directly to satisfy human needs not subject to the discipline of profit-maximization or state-technocratic rationality.

A striking example of almost pure social economy production is Wikipedia. Wikipedia produces knowledge and disseminates information outside of markets and without state support. The funding of the infrastructure comes largely from donations from participants and supporters to the Wiki foundation. The underlying form a voluntary association is technology-mediated social networks, but stronger forms of association have also emerged in the course of development of Wikipedia.

The potential scope for the social economy could be enhanced if the state, through its capacity to tax, provided funding for a wide range of socially-organized non-market production. One way of doing this is through the institution of an unconditional basic income. By partially delinking income from employment earnings, if an unconditional basic income existed voluntary associations of all sorts would be able to create new forms of meaningful and productive work in the social economy. But more targeted forms of government funding could also underwrite the social economy. This is already common the arts in many places in the world. In Quebec there is an extensive system of eldercare home services organized through producer coops and childcare coops organized through parent-provider coops and partially subsidized through taxes in this way.

6. Cooperative market economy

A stand-alone fully worker-owned cooperative firm in a capitalist economy is a form of social capitalism: the egalitarian principle of one-person one-vote of all members of the business means that the power relations within the firm are based on voluntary cooperation and persuasion, not the relative economic power of different people. Jointly they control through democratic means the economic power represented by the capital in the firm.

Most worker-owned cooperatives in the world today operate within markets organized along capitalist principles. This means that they face significant credit constraints in financial markets because of the reluctance of banks to lend to them, and they are vulnerable to market shocks and disruptions, just like ordinary capitalist firms. They are pretty much on their own.

The situation would be potentially quite different if worker-owned cooperatives were embedded within markets dominated by worker-owned cooperatives, or what might be called a cooperative market economy. A cooperative market economy is one in which individual cooperative firms join together in larger associations of cooperatives—what might be termed a cooperative of cooperatives—which collectively provide finance, training, problem-solving services and other kinds of support for each other. The overarching-cooperative in such a market stretches the social character of ownership within individual cooperative enterprises and moves it more towards a stakeholder model. In effect, the role of social power in directly organizing economic activity through this extended cooperative environment gains weight alongside the social capitalist pathway within the individual cooperative enterprises.

7. Participatory socialism: statist socialism with empowered participation

The final pathway to social empowerment combines the social economy and statist socialism: the state and civil society jointly organize and control various kinds of production of goods and services. In participatory socialism the role of the state is more pervasive than in the pure social economy. The state does not simply provide funding and set the parameters; it is also, in various ways, directly involved in the organization and production of the economic activity. On the other hand, participatory socialism is also different from statist socialism, for here social power plays a role not simply through the ordinary channels of democratic control of state policies, but directly inside of the productive activities themselves.

One site where this already occurs in some places is in education. In Barcelona, Spain, some public elementary schools have been turned into what are called "Learning Communities" in which the governance of the school is substantially shifted to parents, teachers and members of the community, and the function of the school shifts from narrowly teaching children to providing a broader range of learning activities for the community as a whole. In the United States there is a long tradition of involvement of civic associations and parent-teacher associations in schools, although usually this falls far short of playing a decisive role in governing schools.


All of these seven pathways have, at their core, the idea of extensive and robust economic democracy through creating conditions in which social power, organized through the active participation and empowerment of ordinary people in civil society, exerts direct and indirect democratic control over the economy. Taken individually, movement along one or another of these pathways might not pose much of a challenge to capitalism, but substantial movement along all of them taken together would constitute a fundamental transformation of capitalism's class relations and the structures of power and privilege rooted in them. Capitalism might still remain a component in the hybrid configuration of power relations governing economic activity, but it would be a subordinated capitalism heavily constrained within limits set by the deepened democratization of both state and economy. This would not automatically insure that the radical democratic egalitarian ideals of social and political justice would be accomplished, but if we were somehow to successfully move along these pathways to such a hybrid form of social organization, we would be in a much better position to struggle for a radical democratic egalitarian vision of social and political justice.

Whether or not this potential can be actualized depends on three kinds of conditions. First, it depends upon the extent to which civil society itself is a vibrant domain of collective association and action with sufficient coherence to effectively shape state power and economic power. The idea that social power emanates out from civil society presupposes that there is a power potential in civil society to be translated into other domains of action. Second, effective social empowerment depends upon the presence of institutional mechanisms which facilitate the mobilization and deployment of social power along these routes. Social mobilization without institutional consolidation is unlikely to have durable effects on the overall configurations of power. And third, it depends upon the capacity to counter the deployment of power opposed to social empowerment. Above all, in the context of capitalist society, this means countering the power of capital as well as those aspects of state power opposed to initiatives and action from civil society.

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"The dogma of human equality is no part of Communism . . . the formula of Communism: 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs', would be nonsense, if abilities were equal."
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Re: Taking the 'Social' in Socialism Seriously

Post by RedSun on Sun Nov 06, 2011 12:28 pm

Whoa. I think people wanting to know what socialism is should read this before most other things. This clears up a lot of the (sometimes wilful) misconceptions that a lot of people have about socialism.

'Make the question of the people a question of the nation; then the question of the nation will become the question of the people!'
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