Following yesterday’s comments about Wright’s definition of socialism as “an economy dominated by social power”, here are two critical points.
The first isn’t much of an objection on its own, but more an observation that leads into the second point. The observation is that the tripartite schema of social power, state power, and economic power is quite historically specific – it may work well for 20th century politics, and even for 19th or 21st century politics, but it can’t really be applied much beyond that.
For instance, consider slavery. Does this reflect state power or economic power? Like state power, it centers around direct coercion, not bargaining, and often involves direct threats of force – but it’s not expressed across a set territory, but rather over a constituency determined by economic processes of buying and selling.
Or what about a feudal aristocracy, which may own the majority of land and also exercise substantial ‘governmental’ functions in various ways? But neither of these can really be called simply a ‘mixture’ of state and economic without lumping it intolerably together with social democratic regulation.
As I said, it’s not necessarily a big problem to be historically specific, since people and their actions are also historically specific, so a schema that works for the 20th/21st-century may be exactly what we need.
But what it brings out is the relationship between institutions and forms of power. Wright talks about institutions as expressing forms of power – for example, there may be numerous institutional forms that express social power, or state power, and we need not privilege one such institution over the others.
What historical comparisons illustrate, though, is that these divisions among forms of power are substantially defined by particular institutions.
‘State power’ is defined bythe state – an institution which is enormously flexible and general (consider the variety of forms of state that the world has seen) but nevertheless specific in certain ways. States perform a certain collection of functions (rule-enforcement, dispute resolution, military defense, etc), and in a certain way (territorial, forceful, via rules etc), and it’s not an immutable law of society that these functions must go together or must be performed in that way. If they were distributed differently, it might be meaningless to talk of ‘state power’.
Similarly, talk of ‘economic power’ presupposes the institution of (capitalist?) property ownership, a certain cluster of rights functioning and interacting in certain ways – though again with enormous flexibility. If that constellation of social arrangements doesn’t exist, the category of ‘economic power’ dissolves.
The problem is that I don’t think the same can be said for ‘social power’ in Wright’s framework: it really does remain as an abstract category, not defined by any basic institution. This leaves ‘socialism’ more vague than it needs to be. To give a good example, one of the institutions that mobilises social power through civil society is churches: does this mean that a hyper-devout society run by a religious hierarchy would count as ‘socialist’? I would hope not.
So socialism remains in need of a ‘basic institution’, something as specific, but also as general, as ‘property-ownership’ or ‘the state’. Fortunately, I think there is an easily available answer to this question: the basic institution of socialism is what has been called the “worker’s council“, the “community council“, the “commune”, or, before the shameful misuse of that term, the “soviet”.
As the second link above nicely illustrates, there are different views about the specific forms of such institutions – which is what we should expect. But certain definite features emerge: the council is a deliberative, directly democratic source of sovereign authority, which manages its own affairs and elects mandated and instantly recallable delegates to represent it at larger-scale councils within the federations it voluntarily enters.
This isn’t going to be as concretely meaningful a concept as money and government, which we have experience of every day – and probably not even as meaningful as the negation of those concepts. But I think something along these lines – control of the economy by ‘council power’ – is a better definition of ‘socialism’ than control of the economy by either ‘state power’ or ‘social power’.