Throughout most of the twentieth century, socialism constituted the central ideological matrix for thinking about alternatives to capitalism and giving direction to anti-capitalist struggles, even where the establishment of a socialist order was not an immediate political goal. If the particular institutional arrangements historically associated with socialism are now seen as incapable of delivering on their promises, many of the traditional socialist criticisms of capitalism seem more appropriate than ever: inequality, economic polarization and job insecurity are worsening; giant corporations dominate the media and cultural production; politics is increasingly run by big money and unresponsive to those without it. The need for a vibrant alternative to capitalism is as great as ever.

My aim here is to propose a way of thinking about a socialist alternative to capitalism that begins from the observation that both social democracy and socialism contain the word ‘social’.footnote1 This term is generally invoked to suggest a commitment to the broad welfare of society, rather than the narrow interests of particular elites. In more radical versions, ‘social ownership’ is contrasted with ‘private ownership’; but in practice this has usually been collapsed into state ownership, and the term ‘social’ ends up doing relatively little analytical work. I will argue that the ‘social’ can identify a cluster of principles and visions which differentiate socialism both from the capitalist project and from what can be called a purely statist response to capitalism. These principles revolve around what I will call ‘social empowerment’. In Part One, the problem of rethinking socialism will be located within a broader agenda of emancipatory social theory. Part Two presents a synoptic critique of capitalism, which identifies the problems for which socialism purports to be a solution. Part Three explores the general problem of elaborating credible institutional alternatives to existing structures of power and privilege. Here I will elaborate the idea of social empowerment, and explain what a socialism based upon it would mean. Part Four will then propose a map of pathways to social empowerment which embody the principles of a ‘social’ socialism. Part Five concludes with a discussion of the problem of transformation.

Emancipatory social science, in its broadest terms, seeks to generate knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging human oppression and creating the conditions in which people can live flourishing lives. To call it a social science, rather than social criticism or philosophy, is to recognize the importance for this task of systematic scientific knowledge about how the world works.footnote2 To call it emancipatory is to identify its central moral purpose—the elimination of oppression, and the creation of conditions for human flourishing. And to call it social implies a belief that emancipation depends upon the transformation of the social world, not just the inner self. To fulfil its mission, any emancipatory social science faces three basic tasks: first, to elaborate a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; second, to envision viable alternatives; and third, to understand the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation. In different historical moments one or another of these may be more pressing than others, but all are necessary for a comprehensive emancipatory theory.

The starting point for an emancipatory social science is not simply to show that there is suffering and inequality in the world, but to demonstrate that the explanation for these ills lies in the specific properties of existing institutions and social structures, and to identify the ways in which they systematically cause harm to people. The first task, therefore, is the diagnosis and critique of the causal processes that generate these harms.

This is often the most systematic and developed aspect of emancipatory social science. In the case of feminism, for example, a great deal of writing centres on diagnosis of the ways in which existing social relations and institutions generate various forms of women’s oppression. The focal point of such research is to show that gender inequalities are not the result of ‘nature’, but are the product of social processes. Studies of labour markets have emphasized such things as sex-segregation of work, evaluation systems which denigrate culturally defined feminine traits, discrimination in promotion, institutional arrangements that put working mothers at a disadvantage. Feminist studies of culture have demonstrated the ways in which a wide range of practices in the media, education, literature and so on have traditionally reinforced gender identities and stereotypes. Feminist analyses of the state have examined the ways in which state structures and policies have systematically entrenched the subordination of women and various forms of gender inequality. A similar set of observations could be made about empirical research inspired by labour-movement traditions, by theories of racial oppression and by radical environmentalism.

Diagnosis and critique are closely connected to questions of social justice and normative theory. To describe a social arrangement as generating ‘harms’ is to infuse the analysis with a moral judgement. Behind every emancipatory theory, there is thus an implicit theory of justice: a conception of what conditions would have to be met before the institutions of a society could be deemed just. A full exploration of the normative theory that underlies the critique of capitalism is beyond the scope of this paper; but put briefly, the analysis which follows is animated by what may be called a radical democratic egalitarian understanding of justice. This rests on two broad normative claims, one concerning the conditions for social justice, the other those for political justice:

Taken together, these two claims call for a society that deepens the quality of democracy and enlarges its scope of action, under conditions of radical social and material equality. The problem, of course, is to show how these principles could be put into practice.