Socializing Political Power and Socializing Capital

This is a summary of an interesting post by Larry Hamlin over at the Barefoot Bum.

I think many of us forget, or at least take for granted, the profoundly radical nature of democracy. We know we have freedom of speech, religion, association, etc and of course, we can vote. We cannot be deprived of our life or liberty without due process. In a fundamental sense, democracy is the socialization of political power.  Political power is simply the ability to use human and natural resources to some specific end. One aspect of political power is that societies have to concentrate that power to accomplish anything. Simply directing a group of people to dig a well is an example of the concentration of power. Traditionally, at least until the last several hundred years, individuals owned political power. Those who owned the greatest concentration were called warlords, emperors, kings, or priests. People took this for granted, since after all, who else should own the political power than the person who could directly use it and had “earned” it. One characteristic of privately owned political power was that the owner could employ it, in a sense, arbitrarily. A king could kill you, order someone else to kill you, place you in jail, take your land or wife, make you his slave. He might treat you nicely and fairly, but this would be his whim. It is not to say that every act a king might do was always wrong, per se. It might be to the benefit of the society if  the king ordered you dead or if he ordered you to jail. The king might have fantastic ideas about agriculture or science and might do much for the poor and desperate–all of these actions require the concentration of political power.  Because the king owned the political capital, he could exercise his power purely on his whim to his benefit. It was only through blind luck that any leader might happen to use this power to the collective benefit of society.

But with the development of democracy this picture changed. The radical aspect of democracy is that it socialized political capital. This means that we divide all political capital among all citizens. No one person or group arbitrarily controls what others can and cannot do. The state, through legal and constitutional frameworks, controls all acts of coercion–and we control the state.  Although we take this form of government for granted today, it was not obvious in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that democracy was either “good”, efficient, wise, or workable. We praise our founding revolution, but we had many privileges, not the least of which was our relative isolation and connection with the English enlightenment. The French Revolution, so easy to critique (much of it justified) faced serious problems, including a recalcitrant  nobility and continuing wars in Europe and an entrenched feudal culture. The French nobility was typical of much of Europe. These private owners of political power were not going to give up their privileges without a fight.

I think we face the same situation today in regards to economic capital. A society needs to concentrate economic capital in the same way and for the same reasons that it needs to concentrate political capital (in many cases, they both are equivalent). Economic capital tends to concentrate in private hands in the same way that political capital tends to concentrate in private hands. Our economy functions only to the extent that those who own the capital and means of production can make a profit (a promise of a greater concentration of capital.) In other words, much of our economy is tied to the arbitrary whims of the capitalists. There is no reason that we could not socialize capital in the same way we socialize political power. It might not happen this decade or even this century. I suppose it might never happen, but I believe it will and some day people will look upon the private ownership of capital as a quaint relic of the past in the same way we look upon the private ownership of political power today. The arguments against socializing capital are similar to the ones employed 300 years ago against socializing political power. The arguments in favor of socializing capital are similar to those for socializing political power.


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