Erik Olin Wright’s Socialist Compass

February 19, 2020

This is a hopefully quick, very informal post on Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, in which I’ll outline some key elements of the book, and then offer some brief criticisms.

Wright’s Utopia’s book has a number of components, but I think the core of it is two elements:

First: a set of proposals for emancipatory political-economic institutions.

Second: a discussion of the criteria for evaluating institutional proposals.

It’s this second one that I’m interested in here. And I think to understand this element of the book it helps to put Wright in political context.

So – one popular way of understanding a key political fight of the 20th century is as a conflict between capitalism, represented by market economies, and communism, represented by planned economies. This can be seen as a dichotomy, and it can also be seen as a spectrum. Moreover, other political values and institutions that might not on their face seem to have much connection to the ‘market’ versus ‘state’ dichotomy or spectrum were and are frequently mapped onto this dichotomy by both ‘sides’. Thus, if you are, let’s say, a Hayekian defender of free markets, you might tend to argue that any moves towards greater central planning are likely also to be moves towards authoritarianism, with accompanying loss of both liberal and democratic rights. Likewise, if you are, let’s say, a Leninist defender of communist political structures, you might well argue that moves towards democratic pluralism or liberal rights are counter-revolutionary efforts to undermine communism’s egalitarian project. In this way, broader issues of political values and goals get folded into the ‘state/market’ dichotomy or spectrum.

Wright rejects this political framing, and I think he rejects it for reasons that connect to the broader project of the (obviously no longer very new) New Left. Speaking very crudely, the New Left saw itself as opposed to characteristically capitalist forms of oppression and domination; it also opposed the oppressions and dominations of so-called ‘actually existing’ communist regimes; moreover, it rejected the idea that technocratic Keynesian social-democratic state structures were a satisfactory alternative to these two supposed poles of the political spectrum. This New Left tradition sought instead to find an alternative route – anti-authoritarian but also anti-capitalist – through the problems of institutional political economy thrown up by industrial and post-industrial society.

Wright’s basic idea, in this normative dimension of his work, is that instead of seeing political-economic institution design as a tug-of-war between state and market, we should introduce the third category of civil society. For Wright there are three basic categories of power at work in society: market power, state power, and social power. From this perspective, capitalism is a society dominated by market power, authoritarian communism is a society dominated by state power, and social democracy is a society that aims to balance state and market power – but these are not our only options. Instead, we can choose to develop institutions that increase ‘social power’ within our society, at the expense of market and state power. This can be achieved by increasing the relative importance of civil society institutions relative to state and market institutions, or it can be achieved by transforming state or market institutions such that they better channel and are subordinated to social power.

The political motivation of this project, as I see it, is Wright’s effort to make sense of what went wrong with the 20th century communist projects. For many 19th and 20th century leftists, as Wright sees it, capitalism was seen as oppressive, politics was understood in terms of the state-market dichotomy, and it logically followed that if you were anti-capitalist you would be pro-statist: the market was the location of oppression, therefore the state was the location of emancipation. For sure, socialists and communists were aware that the state could be and is oppressive in its own right; but it was often assumed that expansion and control of statist political institutions was a precondition of emancipation, and worries about state oppression tended to be downplayed in the service of the socialist and communist state-building projects. For much 20th century socialism, statism was the true north of the socialist compass – and in the 20th century communist projects, this compass led socialism into novel forms of disastrous statist oppression and domination.

For Wright, this indicates a problem not just with the institutions of statist socialism and communism, but with this ‘socialist compass’ itself. Wright’s solution is to argue that social power, rather than state power, is or should be the true north of the socialist compass. The ideal of communism as emancipation was, seen through this lens, not state power as such, but the idea that state power could be used to facilitate the expansion of social power by means of state structures – leading, eventually, perhaps, to the withering away of the state altogether. The problem with this project was that state power in practice came to dominate social power – and the too-frequent failure to differentiate between state and social power led to inadequate critical resources for the left to distance itself from or reject these forms of state domination.

So, Wright argues – forget the heavy emphasis on state power and focus instead on social power. This normative criterion if carefully applied will allow us to differentiate between institutional structures that prioritise state power itself, and institutional structures that prioritise social power, even if they do so via state mechanisms. Moreover, this new compass opens a space of institution design that could in principle escape state and market structures altogether.

OK. I think putting things this way makes clear the stakes of the debate as Wright understands them. And I think this basic project – articulating emancipatory institutional alternatives without getting drawn into the apologistic orbit of forms of authoritarian communism – has a great deal to recommend it.

That said, I think Wright goes astray in how he articulates and develops this project. So, in the rest of the post I want to very briefly spell out why.

I think there are two basic problems with Wright’s framework – one analytic, one normative. I’m more interested here in the normative than the analytic, but I’ll take them in turn.

Analytic first, and very briefly. In my view this market/state/social power triptych just isn’t a very good way to think about political economy. More specifically, Wright’s understanding of capitalism is as a society in which market power dominates; but in reality (or, more neutrally, when seen from my own theoretical perspective) capitalism is a complex system that contains state and market (and many other) components, and it’s not helpful to see societies as more capitalist the more marketised they are. Wright’s is a common understanding of capitalism, but it’s a bad one.

There’s a lot more that can be said on this, but my interest here is in the normative side of things, so I’m going to move on.

On the normative side, then, the problem is as follows: there’s no intrinsic reason to think that ‘social power’ is more liberatory or emancipatory than ‘market power’ or ‘state power’. Civil society can also be oppressive, just like the state and the market: communitarian structures than involve neither state nor market structures can still be violent, oppressive, exclusionary, and so on.

Wright is aware of this problem, and raises and discusses it himself. As he puts it, the Ku Klux Klan is an example of ‘social power’, and yet of course we don’t want to institute a ‘socialist’ society that operates like the Ku Klux Klan. In Wright’s words:

the voluntary associations that comprise civil society include many nasty associations, associations based on exclusion, narrow interests, and the preservation of privilege. Voluntary associations include the KKK as well as the NAACP, associations to protect racial and class exclusiveness of neighborhoods as well as associations to promote community development and openness. Why should we believe that empowering such associations would contribute anything positive to ameliorating the harms of capitalism, let alone a broader vision of human emancipation? (93)

Wright’s response to this objection is, roughly, that although ‘social power’ can be oppressive, a society that privileges social power over state and market power is better suited to achieving liberatory political goals than other forms of social organisation. There can be no guarantees that social power will be used wisely, Wright argues, but there are no guarantees associated with any form of political organisation. In Wright’s words:

A socialist democracy rooted in social empowerment though associations in civil society would face… challenges: how to devise institutional rules of the game of democratic deepening and associational empowerment which would foster the radical democratic egalitarian conception of emancipation. My assumption here is not that a socialism of social empowerment inevitably will successfully meet this challenge, but that moving along the pathways of social empowerment will provide a more favorable terrain on which to struggle for these ideals than does either capitalism or statism. (94)

I think Wright is correct to emphasise that no category of institutional structure comes with emancipatory guarantees – the task of ensuring our institutions are emancipatory rather than oppressive is ongoing and never-ending.

For this reason, however, it seems misguided to me to assume that degree of ‘social power’ can be used as a useful general yardstick against which to measure proposed institutions. Just as many 19th and 20th century socialists saw statism as the precondition of a just society, and neglected to think seriously enough about the oppressive forms that supposedly socialist state structures could and ultimately did take, so Wright’s emphasis on ‘social power’ seems to me likely to replicate the same problem, but with reference to social rather than state power. Social power may achieve emancipatory outcomes; but it may also institute novel forms of oppression. Similarly, state and market structures may be oppressive, but they can also be part of emancipatory institutions. Degree of emancipation or oppression in my view clearly cannot be readily mapped onto the degree of relative prominence of any of Wright’s three categories of power. To be glib about it: things are more complicated that that.

For this reason, rather than treating ‘social power’ as our normative ‘true north’, we would in my view do better to use more direct evaluative criteria to assess our political institutions. Wright’s market/state/social power triptych may provide a high-level map of our political terrain, but it can’t and shouldn’t be used as a ‘compass’. If we want criteria to evaluate our institutional proposals – and this seems like a good idea to me – then we need more fine-grained and contextually sensitive ones.

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