Socialism and Social Power

More thoughts on Erik Olin Wright‘s book “Envisioning Real Utopias“, in particular on his definition of ‘socialism’.

I happen to think that defining ‘socialism’ is quite easy: it means collective ownership of the means of production. The thing is that it’s then quite hard to define that.

Wright fleshes out this idea with a taxonomy of forms of power: state power, economic power, and social power. This generates three possible economic structures: statism, capitalism, and socialism. Socialism is where “the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished [primarily] through the exercise of…social power.”

So what are these three types of power:

“Social power is power rooted in the capacity to mobilize people for cooperative, voluntary, collective actions of various sorts…social power is contrasted with economic power, based on the ownership and control of economic resources, and state power, based on the control of rule making and rule enforcing capacity over territory.”

The rest of the book is then devoted to fleshing out various concrete manifestations of ‘social power’: for instance, wikipedia is largely maintained by social power, in that people’s motivations for contributing and co-operating are based neither on legal compulsion nor on payment. But a major theme is that a wide range of different institutions – co-operatives, churches, parties, NGOs, unions, watches, etc. – can be expressions of social power.

There are things I like about this definition and things I dislike about it.  Two things I like are features that Wright draws attention to as diverging from widespread assumptions about the meaning of ‘socialism’. He says:

“First, most definitions closely identify socialism with what I am calling statism…the concept of socialism being proposed here is grounded in the distinction between state power and social power, state ownership and social ownership.”

“[Secondly] socialism has usually been treated as a non-market form of economic organistion…the definition of socialism offered here…does not preclude the possibility that markets could play a substantial role in coordinating the activities of socially owned and controlled enterprises.”

What with believing in anarchism, I’m naturally quite keen on the first point, that socialism is equidistant from state authority and from private wealth.

On the second point, I’m inclined towards suspicion of markets, and a hope that large-scale economic coordination is possible through other methods, but I don’t think that needs to be built into definitions. Moreover, this chimes with the first point, because when markets are made the focus of ire, it becomes easier to align the state with society and potentially blur that all-important distinction.

Since the equation of socialism with state power over the economy is so widespread, these points are worth emphasising, and a reason to like Wright’s analytical framework. But I have some complaints as well, which I’ll cover in the next post.

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2 Responses to Socialism and Social Power

  1. Pingback: Socialist Equality and Majestic Equality | Majestic Equality

  2. Pingback: Socialism and Worker’s Councils | Majestic Equality

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