Socialism and Worker’s Councils

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’.

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8 Responses to Socialism and Worker’s Councils

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

  2. justino says:

    I am still left confused by exactly what social power is. To me, it would seem more appopriate to distinguish between economic and political power alone.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I think that ‘social power’, setting aside my reservations about the concept, is distinct from economic and state power because organisations are often able to mobilise people for very effective actions, whether the provision of services or things like strikes, protests, civil disobedience or even riots, without either having any share of state authority nor any or much money.

      • justino says:

        I posit that Marx was essentially correct in The Grundrisse when he said, “Rob the thing [money] of this social power and you must give it to persons to exercise over persons.”

      • lukeroelofs says:

        I’m afraid I’ve not read the Grundrisse, so I’m not entirely sure what point you’re making.

  3. Phil says:

    Since reading the first chapter of Capital I’ve been bugged by the idea of money as the embodiment of historically specific social relations – which makes it a bit of a chore to read thinkers who purport to go back to first principles but assume that some people will always be “richer” than others – so I’m broadly in sympathy with this. But are you saying that the workers’ council is the historically-specific form which parallels the equally historically-specific form which are the state and the market, or that the workers’ council doesn’t have that level of historical specificity?

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “are you saying that the workers’ council is the historically-specific form which parallels the equally historically-specific form which are the state and the market, or that the workers’ council doesn’t have that level of historical specificity?”

      I think workers’ councils are likely also quite historically specific, or rather the more detail they’re imagined as having, the more historically limited they’ll be. For instance, the idea of recallable delegates makes sense given certain assumptions about people’s capacity to communicate or to think and handle information: if these capacities are radically increased, then maybe there’ll be no need to send delegates at all, or to have layers of councils. I suspect there are important respects in which any superior alternative would resemble them more than it would resemble, say, a monarchy, but in other respects who knows what the future will bring.

  4. Pingback: Preliminary Comments on “Community, Anarchy, and Liberty” | Majestic Equality

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