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Re: Taking the Social in Socialism Seriously


Erik,

 

Excellent article – I find myself agreeing with much of it. I am a bit concerned, though, about your discussion of civil society, which seems to me to be a bit rushed or incompletely defined. And if this concept is problematic, then this could bring a whole host of problems with the larger theoretical framework, since civil society is so key to your concept of the social and of socialism.

 

Basically, it is unclear to me how you conceive of civil society – is it what, let’s say, we would call civil society in contemporary USA? If so, much, perhaps even most, of what we call civil society in the U.S. has little to do with "social power", but is extremely distorted by economic power. For example, political parties, business associations, lobbying groups, major foundations, are all, technically speaking, part of civil society. However, they all tend to wield an enormous amount of "social power" ("by virtue of their ability to mobilize people for voluntary collective actions of various sorts") because of their enormous economic resources. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that what most people call civil society in the U.S. is little more than a civil society reflection of the larger economic forces present in society.

 

You acknowledge the influence that economic power has on the state, when you say that "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 problem of economic power in conemporary society goes much deeper, so that civil society is also far more responsive to the needs and power of capital than to the needs and interests of ordinary citizens.

 

This brings me to my second point, which is that not only do we need to figure out how to replace state and economic power with social (or citizen) power, but how to assure that citizen power is a true expression of the needs and interests of citizens. And as soon as we figure this out we start to lose the neat distinction between state and civil society because the more you regulate civil society (let’s say by limiting the influence of economic power, by making sure it is "internally democratic and representative of interests in civil society"), or by channeling civil society influence into state institutions (some states do this, such as in your example of corporatism), we start to blend and confuse where civil society power ends and state power begins.

 

In short, it seems to me that the dichotomy between civil society and state is a false one. First, it is false for contemporary society because this dichotomy is distorted by economic power. Second, it is false for a better future society because in such a society we would want real democracy, where there the distinction between civil society and state is as minimal as possible.

 

This brings me to your seventh path to social empowerment, participatory socialism (my preferred path), where state and civil society together shape allocation of resources. Actually, as you might guess from what I wrote above, I would say that participatory socialism ought to try and dissolve the distinction between state and civil society.

 

Finally, I just want to say that I really appreciate your multi-pronged strategy, with which I completely agree with. There might be a problem with such an approach, though, if it does not have a clear end-goal or vision in mind. That is, if you are not clear which type of strategy and societal vision is your preference – if they are all equal, as you seem to suggest – it makes it difficult to choose which way to go when you are faced with decisions or mapping out a concrete strategy. I don’t want to say that such a preferred vision means we have to exclude all alternative routes – it just means that when we have a choice, then we ought to know which option to pick and an equal side-by-side of options doesn’t help in that case.

 

Thanks for your contribution!

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