Social Empowerment and Community-Based Socialism

In "Taking the ‘Social’ in Socialism Seriously," Erik Olin Wright reiterates material from some of his recent publications, notably the article "Compass Points," which appeared in New Left Review (No. 41, Sept-Oct 2006; pdf here). He also previews material from his forthcoming book, Envisioning Real Utopias (available online, pdf here). The core of his argument is that socialism, rather than being best understood in terms of a binary contrast with capitalism, is better understood in terms of a three-sided contrast between socialism and both capitalism on the one hand and statism on the other. Socialism, in this picture, is not to be understood in terms of state ownership or state planning, which are typical instead of what Wright calls statism. Rather, socialism means the dominance (in various forms) of "the social," that is, civil society, over economic and political processes and decision-making.

Civil society, or the associational region of social life, consists of various modes of community-based self-organization. Here’s Wright’s list of examples: "clubs, political parties, labor unions, churches, and neighborhood associations," as well as "looser associations like social networks." He later makes it clear that he also counts both social movement organizations and co-operatives (or other expressions of the non-profit, need-motivated "social economy") as part of civil society.


In effect, he wants to define "socialism" in terms of "social empowerment" – the kind of power that civil society associations (unions, co-ops, social movements, neighborhood associations, and so on) can wield over decisions about the production of goods and allocation of resources when they effectively mobilize the capacities of collective self-organization.


I think that this is an important contribution to our grasp of the "meaning" of socialism. I wish, however, to make two points in response to Wright’s contribution.


My first point will be historical, and possibly uncontroversial. My second point concerns our thinking about the future and the relation between ‘vision’ as a kind of ‘target’ toward which we aim and the more pragmatic issue of how to find pathways that lead us in the direction of reaching our target, under present-day circumstances.


Community-Based Socialism and the Socialist Tradition


Wright wants to make the case that we should take the idea of "the social" in "socialism" more seriously, in the sense that we should draw an explicit connection between socialism and civil society, as distinct from the state, whereas it is precisely the state that has for many years tended to figure all too prominently in the self-understanding of many socialists. Both those socialists who equated Soviet-style command planning economies with socialism, and the different set of socialists who equated statist nationalization and welfare-state expansionism with socialism, shared a common understanding of the socialist project as an essentially statist undertaking. Wright argues, on the contrary, that socialism is all about the empowerment of civil society vis-à-vis the economy and the state.


I agree wholeheartedly with this approach (see my article, "Environmentalism as if Winning Mattered: A Civil Society Strategy," in which I argue for an ecologically motivated anti-capitalist transition to a community-based economic democracy). But I would tend to think – and it is quite possible that Wright would agree with this point – that Wright’s intervention into the present-day political context is less an innovation (a new conception of socialism) than a reminder of what socialism was widely thought to mean in the 100 years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution.


In 1817, Robert Owen (already well known as a philanthropic manufacturer and educational reformer) came out in favor of a recognizably socialist vision of a post-capitalist, collectivist and egalitarian form of economic democracy. (Prior to that year, Owen was known to favor a kind of paternalistic capitalism, in which benevolent industrialists would endeavor to "uplift" the "demoralized" workers by means of improved working conditions and vigorous attempts at educational reform.) In Owen’s conception of socialism, the state did not figure at all, at least not once the self-sustaining and self-managed co-operative villages he proposed were up and running. In the mid-19th century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proposed his doctrine of "mutualism," which was basically something like what Wright calls a "cooperative market economy" (with elements of what John Rawls would call a "property-owning democracy"), which again painted a picture of socialism that assigned very little role – or rather, no role whatsoever – to the state. Marx, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, moreover, also thought of socialism as a mode of "associated production," in which co-operating "direct producers" would "rationally regulate" production "in accordance with a common plan" (to use Marx’s language). Of these three, Bakunin and Kropotkin interpreted this to mean that there would not even be a state. Marx thought that there would be a transitional period in which a state would exist to coordinate the expropriation of capital. But note that by "state" Marx meant something like the Paris Commune, not something like the more familiar capitalist state, which he argued could not be taken over and used by the workers’ movement at all, but instead had to be "smashed." The Paris Commune, as described by Marx, was – precisely – a form of associative democracy, that is to say, a deliberative and administrative assembly of civil society. (Here Wright does draw the connection between "social empowerment" and the classical socialist tradition, when he writes: "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"). Early in the 20th century, this apparent consensus that socialism meant "social empowerment" (the egalitarian and democratic governance of the polity and economy by a self-organized civil society) continued with the rise of syndicalism in France and Guild Socialism in the UK. In Russia, the 1905 revolt and 1917 revolution produced "workers’ councils" ("soviets" in Russian), which again were forms of governance rooted in civil society, not the representative, administrative or coercive apparatuses of the capitalist state (unlike the later meaning of so-called "soviet power" after the defeat of civil society and the ascendancy of statist rule that came to a head in the Stalin era).


So, in short, I think we should see Wright as helping to revive the classical understanding of socialism, which people like Ferdinand Lassalle in the 19th century, and probably the majority of self-identified socialists in the 20th century, had managed to lose sight of. This, of course, doesn’t diminish, but on the contrary underlines the importance of Wright’s contribution.


Community-Based Socialism and the Future


My second point concerns not the past but the future. I think that it is possible, indeed desirable, to push the idea of social empowerment rather farther than he does in this article. Wright’s idea of social empowerment socialism suggests, as he notes in the article, the possibility of imagining a complete socialization of society, that is, the complete transfer of political and economic governance functions to civil society, displacing both the market and the state (which could "wither away" as they lose all their functions). It has been widely argued (for example, on the right by Friedrich Hayek and on the broad left by Jurgen Habermas, and by many others) that the information-processing demands of a modern economy and other effects of social complexity under modern conditions make direct democratic governance of both economic and political affairs impossible, or at least so inefficient as to be undesirable. Wright’s reluctance to take full socialism seriously is a concession to this idea, this Hayek/Habermas claim, as Wright makes clear in Chapter 7 of his forthcoming book (click here to read chapter 7 online).


It is true, of course, that a public assembly cannot handle all of the complex problems associated with running a modern economy or even a political system. So a Rousseauian popular assembly of citizens deliberating together about the public interest cannot handle the complexity of allocating cotton or rubber or paperclips, etc., throughout a large-scale society. But, as Wright would agree, this is not the only option for a community-based socialism.


The real question is, can we imagine (and indeed construct models of) functional equivalents — within civil society — for the market mechanism of economic allocation and the decision-making and administrative systems of the bureaucratic state? By "functional equivalents" I mean structures that perform the same action-coordinating tasks, but do so (unlike markets) within the framework of an egalitarian and radically democratic civil society, i.e., a self-governing association of producers and consumers.


And this is where "participatory economics" (as described by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel) and (in a less fully developed way) "participatory polity" (as described by Stephen Shalom) come into play. These proposed institutional arrangements are presented as functional equivalents of the economic and political systems, respectively, that predominate under capitalism (the ‘market economy’ and the capitalist state).


I won’t go into detail here about the institutional forms that comprise these proposals, or the case that is made on their behalf. (For such details, click on the links in the preceding paragraph.) However, it seems clear that, were these to work, as civil society functional equivalents of the market economy and representative/bureaucratic state, a fully realized community-based socialism (displacement of the market and the state by an egalitarian and democratic civil society) could be achieved.


Now, Wright is skeptical about this possibility. He worries (as Hayek and Habermas do) that problems of social complexity and unintended consequences might "overwhelm" these participatory processes and produce dysfunctional outcomes, although he does concede in his book that we can’t be sure one way or the other, in advance. (For Albert’s response to Wright’s concerns, click here.)


But here one faces a fork in the road. Those who take the first path start out with the assumption that we cannot be certain about the feasibility of a fully realized community-based (or social-empowerment) socialism, in which the market economy and capitalist state have been fully displaced by participatory-democratic functional equivalents operating within civil society. From this starting point they draw the conclusion that we should scale down our aspirations to a more pragmatic project that we know is realizable, such as extending forms of social empowerment that already work in the context of contemporary society, in order not so much to displace or defeat capitalism as to limit and shrink it in scope as we deepen and extend social empowerment. This is Wright’s path (as I understand it). Those who take a second path accept that indeed we cannot be certain about the feasibility of a fully realized community-based socialism, with no markets or representative/bureaucratic state of the familiar type. But they insist that we can have confidence that a serious case can be and has been made for the feasibility of this project. More importantly, though, they do not conclude from the uncertainty of complete success that we ought to scale down our aims to a contemporary picture of what we know to be possible. If we can be sure that a fully realized community-based socialism would be better, if we could attain it, then those who pursue this second path insist that we should at the very least aim to achieve it.


The problem with Wright’s path, it seems to me, is that he doesn’t aim to achieve the most desirable, democratic and just outcome we can plausibly aim to pursue. Instead, he aims to achieve the most desirable, democratic and just outcome we can be sure is workable, in the short term (because it is already working, on a small and marginal scale, rather than on a large and predominating scale as he favors).


So, while I find Wright’s typology of modes of social empowerment helpful and insightful, I wonder why we can’t think of that as a typology of transitional projects that we work on as we aim rather higher, for a fully realized community-based (or civil-society-empowered) socialism. If that would be more just, more democratic, more responsive to human needs and ecological imperatives, as compared to a society in which markets and even elements of capitalism persist (which Wright seems to expect), then why wouldn’t we at least resolve to aim for it?

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