Pathways to Social Power

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Eric Olin Wright distinguishes seven strategies to augment the power of Civil Society:

(for figures, see


"To recapitulate the conceptual proposal: Socialism can be contrasted to capitalism and statism in terms of the principal form of power that shapes economic activity - the production and distribution of goods and services. Specifically, the greater the degree and forms of social empowerment over ownership, use and control of economic resources and activities, the more we can describe an economy as socialist.

What does this actually mean in terms of institutional designs? For capitalism and statism, because of the rich examples of historically existing societies, we have a pretty good idea of the institutional arrangements which make these forms of economic structure possible. An economic structure built around private ownership of the means of production combined with relatively comprehensive markets is one in which economic power - the power of capital - plays the primary role in organizing production and allocating the social surplus to different investments. A centralized bureaucratic state that directly plans and organizes most large-scale economic activity and which, through the apparatus of a political party, penetrates the associations of civil society is an effective design for statism. But what about socialism? What sorts of institutional designs would enable power rooted in voluntary association in civil society to effectively control the production and distribution of goods and services? What does it mean to move in the direction of a society within which social empowerment is the central organizing principle of the economy?

In what follows I will sketch what I will refer to as seven pathways to social empowerment. These constitute different configurations of social power, state power, and economic power in which we can envision institutional forms that move in the direction of increasing the social power component. The seven pathways are: statist socialism; social democratic statist regulation; associational democracy; social capitalism; social economy; cooperative market economy; and participatory socialism.

1. Statist Socialism

In traditional socialist theory, the essential route by which popular power - power rooted in associational activity of civil society - was translated into control over the economy was through the state. It is for this reason that those visions can reasonably be described as models of statist-socialism. The basic idea was this: Political parties are associations formed in civil society with the goal of influencing and potentially controlling state power. People join them in pursuit of certain objectives, and their power depends in significant ways upon their capacities to mobilize such participation for collective actions of various sorts. So, if it were the case that a socialist party was deeply connected to the working class through its embeddedness in working class social networks and communities and democratically accountable through an open political process through which it politically represented the working class (or some broader coalition), then if the socialist party controlled the state and the state controlled the economy, one could argue on a principle of transitivity-of-control, that an empowered civil society controlled the economic system of production and distribution. This vision is diagramed in Figure 1 and can be termed the classic model of statist socialism. In this vision, economic power as such is marginalized: it is not by virtue of the direct economic ownership and control over assets that people have power to organize production; it is by virtue of their collective political organization in civil society and their exercise of state power.

Statist socialism of this sort was at the heart of traditional Marxist and Leninist ideas of revolutionary socialism. This is not, of course, how things turned out in actual revolutions. Whether because of inherent tendencies of revolutionary party organizations to concentrate power at the top or because of the terrible constraints of the historical circumstances of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, whatever potential there was for the Communist Party to be subordinated to an autonomous civil society was destroyed in the course of the Russian Civil War and the early years of the revolution. By the time the new Soviet State had consolidated power and launched its concerted efforts at transforming the economy, the Party had become a mechanism of state domination, a vehicle for penetrating civil society and controlling economic organizations. The Soviet Union, therefore, became the archetype of authoritarian statism under the ideological banner of socialism, but not of a socialism rooted in democratic social empowerment. Subsequent successful revolutionary socialist parties, for all of their differences, followed a broadly similar path, creating various forms of statism. The contrast between this reality and the theoretical model of a democratic statist socialism is illustrated in Figure 2

Today, few socialists believe that comprehensive statist central planning is a viable structure for realizing socialist goals. Nevertheless, statist socialism remains an important component of any likely process of social empowerment. The state will remain central to the provision of a wide range of public goods, from health to education to public transportation. The central question for socialists, then, is the extent to which these aspects of state provision can be effectively under the control of a democratically empowered civil society. In capitalist societies, typically, these aspects of public goods provision by the state are only weakly subordinated to social power through the institutions of representative democracy. Because of the enormous influence of capitalist economic power on state policies, often such public goods are more geared to the needs of capital accumulation than to social needs. Deepening the democratic quality of the state is thus the pivotal problem for direct state provision of goods and services to become a genuine pathway to social empowerment.

2. Social Democratic Statist Economic Regulation

The second pathway for potential social empowerment centers on the ways in which the state constrains and regulates economic power (Figure 3). Even in the period of economic deregulation and the triumph of ideologies of the free market at the end of the 20th century, the state remained deeply implicated in the regulation of production and distribution in ways that impinge on capitalist economic power. This includes a wide range of interventions: pollution control, workplace health and safety rules, product safety standards, skill credentialing in labor markets, minimum wages and other labor market regulations. Any serious proposal to contend with global warming would have to intensify such statist regulation of the use of economic power. All of these involve state power restricting certain powers of owners of capital, and thereby affecting economic activities. To the extent that these forms of affirmative state intervention are themselves effectively subordinated to social power through democratic political processes, then this becomes a pathway to social empowerment.

Statist regulation of capitalist economic power, however, need not imply significant social empowerment. Again, 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 result is a power configuration like Figure 4: state power regulates capital but in ways that are systematically responsive to the power of capital itself. The question, then, is the extent to which it is possible within capitalist society to democratize state regulatory processes in ways which undercut the power of capital and enhance social power. One way of doing this is through what is sometimes called "associational democracy."

3. Associational Democracy:

i.e. coordinated joint effects of social power, state power, and economic power on the economy

Associational democracy encompasses a wide range of institutional devices through which collective associations in civil society directly participate in various kinds of governance activities, characteristically along with state agencies and business associations. The most familiar is probably the tripartite neo-corporatist arrangements in some social democratic societies in which organized labor, associations of employers, and the state meet together to bargain over various kinds of economic regulations, especially those involved in the labor market and employment relations. Associational democracy could be extended to many other domains, for example watershed councils which bring together civic associations, environmental groups, developers and state agencies to regulate ecosystems, or health councils involving medical associations, community organizations and public health officials to plan various aspects of health care. To the extent that the associations involved are internally democratic and representative of interests in civil society, and the decision-making process in which they are engaged is open and deliberative, rather than heavily manipulated by elites and the state, then associative democracy constitutes a pathway to social empowerment.

4. Social Capitalism:

Social empowerment over the way the economic power of capital is exercised over the economy.

Economic power is power rooted in the direct control over the allocation, organization, and use of capital of various sorts. Secondary associations of civil society can, through a variety of mechanisms, directly affect the way such economic power is used (Figure 6). For example, unions often control large pension funds. These are generally governed by rules of fiduciary responsibility which severely limit the potential use of those funds for purposes other than providing secure pensions for the beneficiaries. But those rules could be changed, and unions could potentially exert power over corporations through the management of such funds. In Canada today, the union movement has created venture capital funds, controlled by labor, to provide equity to start-up firms that satisfy certain social criteria.

Historically one of the most important forms of social capitalism concerns the ways in which associations of workers in various ways mobilize power to constrain the exercise of economic power. This can occur in the form of ordinary labor unions engaged in bargaining over pay and working conditions: such bargaining constitutes a form of social power which, if only in limited ways, affects the operation of economic power. The co-determination rules in Germany, which mandate worker representation on boards of directors of firms over a certain size modestly extends social power into the direct governance of firms. Proposals to replace shareholder councils with stakeholder councils for the control of corporate boards of directors would be a more radical version.

Social movements engaged in consumer oriented pressure on corporations would also be a form of civil society empowerment directed at economic power. This would include such things as the anti-sweatshop and labor standards movements centered on university campuses and organized boycotts of corporations for selling products that do not conform to some socially-salient standard. Fair trade and equal exchange movements that attempt to connect consumers in the North with producers in the South that adopt fair labor and good environmental practices are a form of social capitalism that attempts to build alternative global economic networks free from the economic power of multinational corporations.

5. The Social Economy:

i.e. direct social empowerment over production and distribution.

The social economy is the pathway of social empowerment in which voluntary associations in civil society directly organize various aspects of economic activity, rather than simply shape the deployment of economic power (Figure 7). The "social economy" constitutes an alternative way of directly organizing economic activity that is distinct from capitalist market production, state organized production, and household production. Its hallmark is production organized by collectivities directly to satisfy human needs not subject to the discipline of profit-maximization or state-technocratic rationality.

A striking example of almost pure social economy production is Wikipedia. Wikipedia produces knowledge and disseminates information outside of markets and without state support. The funding of the infrastructure comes largely from donations from participants and supporters to the Wiki foundation. The underlying form a voluntary association is technology-mediated social networks, but stronger forms of association have also emerged in the course of development of Wikipedia.

The potential scope for the social economy could be enhanced if the state, through its capacity to tax, provided funding for a wide range of socially-organized non-market production. One way of doing this is through the institution of an unconditional basic income. By partially delinking income from employment earnings, if an unconditional basic income existed voluntary associations of all sorts would be able to create new forms of meaningful and productive work in the social economy. But more targeted forms of government funding could also underwrite the social economy. This is already common the arts in many places in the world. In Quebec there is an extensive system of eldercare home services organized through producer coops and childcare coops organized through parent-provider coops and partially subsidized through taxes in this way.

6. Cooperative market economy

A stand-alone fully worker-owned cooperative firm in a capitalist economy is a form of social capitalism: the egalitarian principle of one-person one-vote of all members of the business means that the power relations within the firm are based on voluntary cooperation and persuasion, not the relative economic power of different people. Jointly they control through democratic means the economic power represented by the capital in the firm.

Most worker-owned cooperatives in the world today operate within markets organized along capitalist principles. This means that they face significant credit constraints in financial markets because of the reluctance of banks to lend to them, and they are vulnerable to market shocks and disruptions, just like ordinary capitalist firms. They are pretty much on their own.

The situation would be potentially quite different if worker-owned cooperatives were embedded within markets dominated by worker-owned cooperatives, or what might be called a cooperative market economy (Figure 8). A cooperative market economy is one in which individual cooperative firms join together in larger associations of cooperatives - what might be termed a cooperative of cooperatives - which collectively provide finance, training, problem-solving services and other kinds of support for each other. The overarching-cooperative in such a market stretches the social character of ownership within individual cooperative enterprises and moves it more towards a stakeholder model. In effect, the role of social power in directly organizing economic activity through this extended cooperative environment gains weight alongside the social capitalist pathway within the individual cooperative enterprises.

7. Participatory socialism:

i.e. statist socialism with empowered participation

The final pathway to social empowerment combines the social economy and statist socialism: the state and civil society jointly organize and control various kinds of production of goods and services. In participatory socialism the role of the state is more pervasive than in the pure social economy. The state does not simply provide funding and set the parameters; it is also, in various ways, directly involved in the organization and production of the economic activity. On the other hand, participatory socialism is also different from statist socialism, for here social power plays a role not simply through the ordinary channels of democratic control of state policies, but directly inside of the productive activities themselves.

One site where this already occurs in some places is in education. In Barcelona, Spain, some public elementary schools have been turned into what are called "Learning Communities" in which the governance of the school is substantially shifted to parents, teachers and members of the community, and the function of the school shifts from narrowly teaching children to providing a broader range of learning activities for the community as a whole. In the United States there is a long tradition of involvement of civic associations and parent-teacher associations in schools, although usually this falls far short of playing a decisive role in governing schools.


All of these seven pathways have, at their core, the idea of extensive and robust economic democracy through creating conditions in which social power, organized through the active participation and empowerment of ordinary people in civil society, exerts direct and indirect democratic control over the economy. Taken individually, movement along one or another of these pathways might not pose much of a challenge to capitalism, but substantial movement along all of them taken together would constitute a fundamental transformation of capitalism's class relations and the structures of power and privilege rooted in them. Capitalism might still remain a component in the hybrid configuration of power relations governing economic activity, but it would be a subordinated capitalism heavily constrained within limits set by the deepened democratization of both state and economy. This would not automatically insure that the radical democratic egalitarian ideals of social and political justice would be accomplished, but if we were somehow to successfully move along these pathways to such a hybrid form of social organization, we would be in a much better position to struggle for a radical democratic egalitarian vision of social and political justice.

Whether or not this potential can be actualized depends on three kinds of conditions. First, it depends upon the extent to which civil society itself is a vibrant domain of collective association and action with sufficient coherence to effectively shape state power and economic power. The idea that social power emanates out from civil society presupposes that there is a power potential in civil society to be translated into other domains of action. Second, effective social empowerment depends upon the presence of institutional mechanisms which facilitate the mobilization and deployment of social power along these routes. Social mobilization without institutional consolidation is unlikely to have durable effects on the overall configurations of power. And third, it depends upon the capacity to counter the deployment of power opposed to social empowerment. Above all, in the context of capitalist society, this means countering the power of capital as well as those aspects of state power opposed to initiatives and action from civil society. " (