How to Think About (And Win) Socialism
A revolutionary rupture is not on the horizon, but capitalism can still be overcome.
Dylan Riley’s essay, “An Anticapitalism That Can Win” raises two clusters of criticisms of my book Envisioning Real Utopia and my Jacobin article “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today.” The first concerns my conception of socialism as an alternative to capitalism; the second my approach to the strategies of social transformation needed to transcend capitalism.
I think, in fact, we are not as far apart in our understanding of socialism as he seems to think, but we do differ in fundamental ways in our understanding of how to get there.
Riley is quite critical of my proposal for a reformulation of the concept of socialism. I will first briefly describe my argument, and then respond to Riley’s criticisms.
In Envisioning Real Utopias, I argue that three different kinds of power are deployed in all economic structures: economic power, based on the control over economic resources; state power, rooted in control over rule-making and rule-enforcing over territory; and social power, which I define as power rooted in the capacity to mobilize people for cooperative, voluntary collective actions.
Different kinds of economic structures (or modes of production) can then be distinguished on the basis of which of these three forms of power is most important in determining control of the process of production and the extraction and use of the social surplus generated through production. More specifically, capitalism can be distinguished in these terms from two post-capitalist alternatives:
- Capitalism is an economic structure within which the means of production are privately owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of economic power. Investments and the control of production are the result of the exercise of economic power by owners of capital.
- Statism is an economic structure within which the means of production are owned by the state and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of state power. State officials control the investment process and production through some sort of state-administrative mechanism.
- Socialism is an economic structure within which the means of production are socially owned and the allocation and use of resources for different social purposes is accomplished through the exercise of “social power.”
In effect this is equivalent to defining socialism as pervasive economic democracy. Democracy means “rule by the people,” but this expression does not really mean, “rule by the atomized aggregation of the separate individuals of the society taken as isolated persons”; rather, it means rule by the people collectively organized into associations (parties, communities, unions, etc.). This is rule through the exercise of social power.
These definitions of capitalism, statism, and socialism are ideal types. In the world, actual economies are complex forms of combination of these power relations. They are ecosystems of economic structures that vary according to how these different forms of power interact and intermix.
To call an economy “capitalist” is thus shorthand for a more cumbersome expression such as “an economic ecosystem combining capitalist, statist, and socialist power relations within which capitalist relations are dominant.”
The idea of economies as ecosystems dominated by particular relations of production can be used to describe any unit of analysis — firms, sectors, regional economies, national economies, even the global economy. These power relations also interpenetrate within individual units of production, so particular enterprises can be hybrids operating in the economic ecosystem that surrounds them.
Again, within such complexity we can still call an economy “capitalist” when it is the case that the distinctive form of power within capitalism — economic power — is dominant within the overall economic system. For example, in all capitalist economies, state power directly organizes significant forms of production of goods and services. The economy remains capitalist, however, to the extent that this exercise of state power in the economy is effectively subordinated to the capitalist exercise of economic power.
There are all sorts of mechanisms built into the capitalist state which attempt, more or less successfully, to sustain this kind of subordination. Thus, while capitalist economies do contain forms of statist economic relations, the economic system remains capitalist. If such capitalist mechanisms of subordination of state power are weakened through some process, then the economy can be described as having an increasingly statist character.
With this understanding of economic structures, the possibility of socialism depends on the potential to enlarge and deepen the socialist component within the overall economic ecosystem and weaken the capitalist and statist components.
This would mean that in a socialist economy, the exercise of both economic power and social power would be effectively subordinated to social power; that is, both the state and economy would be democratized. This is why socialism is equivalent to the radical democratization of society.
Riley agrees with the idea that socialism implies a radical democratization of the economy and the state, but he rejects my formulation of this idea in terms of social power within capitalist economies. He writes:
Capitalists and landowners in particular have historically been very effective at using social power. There are numerous examples of firms and agribusinesses cooperating to share technology, to control output and prices, to establish long-term relations with suppliers, to lobby the government to pursue their interests, or to exclude politically undesirable workers.
Therefore, it’s important to emphasize that the relevance of social power for socialism depends on the class that wields that power. Without this sort of specification, there is little reason to think that the extension of social power by itself is likely to lead to socialism or to even move society in the direction of socialism . . .
There is an additional problem with Wright’s concept of social empowerment. Associational power is not necessarily an independent source of power, but can be produced and conditioned by economic power. Capitalists can rather easily convert their resources into associational power.
Riley’s criticisms here reflect a misunderstanding of my argument. Riley is absolutely correct that the sheer existence of social power does not indicate the emergence of socialist relations. When voluntary association and collective action reflects the exercise of capitalist class power, this is a capitalist configuration, as in the examples Riley cites of firms cooperating for various purposes.
But my argument in Envisioning Real Utopias is not that social power as such is the criterion for socialism; rather, the criterion is that socialism is based on the dominance of social power in determining the use of economic resources and the allocation of the surplus.
To say that democratic social power is dominant over economic power and state power means that the capacity for collective action of workers and other popular social forces is the dominant form of power in the economy. This is a claim about class relations for it describes the power relations within the relations of production.
If this occurs at the macro-system level we can call the economy socialist; when it occurs within specific economic organizations or spaces, then we say that those organizations and spaces have a socialist character even if they exist within an economic system that remains dominated by capitalist relations.
This way of understanding the complexity of economic structures has a historical basis. Most Marxists recognize that proto-capitalist forms of economic activity emerged within societies that remained feudal.
The long, slow development within feudalism of such proto-capitalist practices into capitalist relations is a central part of the analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism as dominant forms of economic organization.
The fact that the emergence of proto-capitalist relations within feudalism helped feudal elites solve various problems does not imply that these new relations weren’t significant precursors to capitalism; it simply helps explain some of the conditions which helped stabilize these new relations and enabled them to take root and develop.
What is less familiar is the idea that socialist relations of production can emerge as a salient feature of the economic structure of capitalist economies. What does this mean concretely? What are instances of socialist relations of production within capitalism? Here are a few examples:
- Worker-owned cooperatives in which the means of production are owned by the workers and production is governed through democratic mechanisms.
- The social and solidarity economy in which production is oriented to meeting needs and governance is organized in a variety of democratic and quasi-democratic ways.
- Community land trusts in which land is taken out of the market, its use specified through the conditions of the trust, and the trust itself is governed by some kind of community-based board.
- Peer-to-peer collaborative production of use-values such as Wikipedia or the Linux operating system.
- State production of public goods to the extent the state is democratically subordinated to social power. This includes a wide range of goods and services: caregiving services — health care, child care, elder care, disability care; public amenities for community events and processes — things like community centers, parks and recreation facilities, theaters, art galleries, and museums; education at all levels, including continuing education, lifelong learning centers, and skill retraining centers; conventional physical infrastructure; and a range of public utilities.
All of these examples, in different ways, embody some aspects of socialist relations of production insofar as democratic forms of social power plays a significant role in the organization of economic activities. But of course, these examples also often take a hybrid form in which features of capitalist relations are also present.
Worker-owned cooperatives often have some non-member employees, for example. Capitalist corporations may pay some of their employees to participate in peer-to-peer collaborative production — Google pays some of its software engineers to contribute to the development of Linux, even though Linux itself is an open-source, free software system that is part of the creative commons.
Enterprises in the social and solidarity economy sometimes get grants from private foundations and philanthropists whose resources come from capitalist investments. State provision of public goods is often heavily shaped by capitalist power.
The articulation of the capitalist, statist, and socialist elements in this complex array of social forms is messy, ambiguous, and contradictory.
Nevertheless, the above examples all constitute ways of organizing economic activities in which democratic social power plays some role. And to the extent that this is the case, we can describe these as socialist or proto-socialist forms within a system that remains dominated by capitalism.
Riley rejects the strategy of “transforming societies from articulated wholes into hybrid structures combining elements of socialism, capitalism, and statism.” He adds dismissively that “From this point of view, even the US counts as ‘partly socialist.’”
He is right: I do think the United States is “partly socialist” in precisely the sense that it already contains a significant set of diverse economic forms that would themselves fit comfortably in a socialist economy.
The question, then, is whether or not it is possible to build a strategy for socialism around the task of expanding and deepening these socialist elements within capitalism.
Strategic Logics of Transformation
The general view of economic systems outlined above has implications for the way we think about social transformation. In particular, it allows for the possibility that alternatives can develop inside the world as it is, and potentially do so in ways that over time erode the dominance of capitalism itself.
In my previous Jacobin article, I differentiated four strategic logics: smashing, taming, escaping, and eroding capitalism. There is no need here to go over the details of these. The smashing strategy corresponds to the classical idea of revolution; taming and eroding roughly correspond to the idea of transformation through some more gradual process of reform and metamorphosis.
I reject the plausibility of rupture and endorse the possibility of transforming capitalism through taming and eroding capitalism. Riley is highly critical of this conclusion, arguing that a revolutionary rupture is the necessary condition for these more incremental strategies to have any real prospect of working. He writes:
Wright’s political instincts are obviously quite radical, but his strategic recommendations are woefully inadequate. The basic problem is that Wright tells us nothing about what is still the central task of any viable strategy for winning socialism: destroying the entrenched political and economic power of the capitalist class. Without some plausible strategy for at least decisively weakening the power of private owners of the means of production, it is unclear how a generous basic income or any of his other real utopias could be established . . .
[T]he strategy of eroding capitalism requires a prior political break — a decisive confrontation with the capitalist state. To realize Wright’s real utopia, then, an approach informed more by military strategy and less by biology seems requisite.
Riley is especially dismissive of any variety of social democracy, and is thus quite critical of the attention I pay to exploring the possibility of taming capitalism (described as a “symbiotic transformation” in my book):
Wright’s account of strategy is marred by an enervating social-democratic orientation that leads away from a real engagement with the revolutionary socialist tradition.
This is most evident in the contrasting discussions of ruptural and symbiotic transformations in his book on real utopias. Most of the short chapter on ruptural transformations is a critique based on the premise that they are unlikely to be in the material interests of the majority of the population. By contrast, Wright’s long and sympathetic chapter on symbiotic transformations devotes exactly one paragraph to critiques of social democracy.
This distribution of attention is surprising, because ruptural transformations are the only examples of successful transitions to non-capitalist societies, however authoritarian they may have been. In contrast, social democracy and anarchism are, from the perspective of achieving socialism, clear examples of failure.
Riley is certainly correct in the claim that the revolutions of the twentieth century “are the only examples of successful transitions to non-capitalist societies,” but this is hardly an endorsement of ruptural strategies, at least if one accepts that the result of such attempts was authoritarian statism rather than an emancipatory alternative to capitalism.
My argument was never that ruptures as such are not possible, but rather that the evidence suggests that system-level ruptures do not create favorable conditions for building socialism, understood as a democratic, egalitarian, solidaristic alternative to capitalism.
I make two main arguments for the implausibility of ruptural strategies, especially in complex, advanced capitalist societies.
First, I argue that if a revolutionary socialist party gained power and launched a system-level rupture as the starting point for socialist construction, this would generate a long transition in which the living standards of most people would significantly decline. Even if we assume that the rupture occurs against a background of long term economic decline, this would still impose great hardships on workers.
Under democratic conditions (freedom of speech and association with open competitive elections, etc.) it is not plausible that the political coalition for the transition would remain intact over several election cycles in a context of deep economic disruption and widespread privation.
The result would be, if elections were held, that the revolutionary party pursuing rupture would be defeated and the transition would be reversed.
Second, if, in the face of these conditions, the socialists refused to give up power and opted for an antidemocratic solution in which opposition was repressed, then a transition out of capitalism might be sustainable, but the destination would not be socialism as understood here.
Given the level of social disorder and conflict that would be unleashed under these conditions, the coercion by such a state would not simply consist of short-term emergency measures, but would be institutionalized as broad authoritarian statism.
This has certainly been the outcome of attempts at revolutionary anticapitalist ruptures in the last century. Riley’s suggestion that “military strategy” is the appropriate way of thinking about the struggle for transcending capitalism is a recipe for the self-destruction of socialist aspirations.
But what about Riley’s judgment that “social democracy and anarchism are, from the perspective of achieving socialism, clear examples of failure”? To be sure, twentieth-century social democracy never achieved “socialism” in the sense of creating an economic system in which socialist relations were dominant.
But in terms of taming capitalism in ways that allowed for greater space for socialist relations within capitalist economies, social democracy achieved significant successes for at least some time: the dramatic reduction of risks faced by workers in the labor market through the partial decommodification of labor; the provision of an expansive array of publicly provided goods and services that constituted significant components of living standards and enhanced the quality of life; modest measures of worker social empowerment within capitalist firms through unions and works councils and other mechanisms; and the realization of a low level of income inequality in the economy as a whole.
Capitalism remained dominant to be sure; all of these developments occurred within limits imposed by the continued capitalist control over investment.
But this does not mean that they were failures from the socialist point of view: at its peak, northern European social democracy presided over a less capitalist capitalism, a capitalism with a stronger current of (though still subordinate) socialism.
The fact that ultimately this development was arrested and at least somewhat reversed does not negate its achievement.
The Problem of the Capitalist State
Even if one accepts my argument that capitalist economic systems should be treated as heterogeneous ecosystems dominated by capitalism rather than as totalities, and that socialist economic organizations and processes can exist within a capitalism-dominated system, there is still the problem raised by Riley that the existence of the capitalist state ensures that such elements could never actually act like “invasive species” capable of eroding the dominance of capitalism.
“The inauguration of socialism will not resemble the introduction of an invasive species,” Riley writes, “for the simple reason that capitalist economies, unlike ecosystems, are backed by political institutions that are specifically designed to eliminate such species as soon as they begin to threaten the system.”
The central point of a rupture, then, is to transform the capitalist state in such a way as to make it a suitable instrument for facilitating the construction of alternative economic relations.
I disagree with this account. While the capitalist state’s structures are not well-suited for facilitating the expansion of socialist organizations, they are beset with enough internal contradictions that they do not necessarily block such development.
In particular, there is a chronic tension in capitalist states between the imperatives for state action in the short run to stabilize capitalism and the long-term dynamic consequences of those actions.
These temporal inconsistencies can become contradictions in which the capitalist state would tolerate, and perhaps even encourage, economic practices rooted in social power because of the ways these help solve immediate problems even though they might have long-term effects that undermine the dominance of capitalism.
Historical evidence for this possibility can be found first in the history of feudalism, and also in the experience of twentieth-century social democracy. The feudal state facilitated merchant capitalism even though in the long run the dynamics of merchant capitalism was corrosive of feudal relations. Mercantile capitalism helped solve immediate problems for the feudal ruling class, and this is what mattered.
Similarly, in the middle of the twentieth century, the capitalist state facilitated the growth of a vibrant public sector and public regulation of capitalism associated with social democracy. Social democracy helped solve a series of problems within capitalism — it helped reproduce capitalism — while at the same time expanding the space for various socialist elements in the economic ecosystem.
The fact that this array of state actions contributed to the stability of mid-twentieth-century capitalism is sometimes taken as an indication that there was nothing non-capitalist about these policies, and that they could not in any way be considered corrosive of capitalism.
This is a mistake. It is entirely possible for a form of state intervention to have the immediate effects of solving problems for capitalism, and even strengthening capitalism, and nevertheless set in motion dynamics that have the potential to erode the dominance of capitalism.
Indeed, it is precisely this property of social-democratic initiatives that eventually lead to the attacks on the capitalism-encroaching practices of social democracy under the banner of neoliberalism. Capitalists came to see the expansive affirmative state as creating progressively sub-optimal conditions for capital accumulation.
One interpretation of the episode of social-democratic success and then reversal is that this just shows that reforms within capitalism that threaten capitalism are unsustainable. In the end, the capitalist state lives up to its mission of protecting capitalism by eliminating such threats.
The alternative interpretation is that this arena of struggle and possibility is much less determinate. After all, even after four decades of neoliberalism, many of the achievements of the welfare state remain in place.
Prospects for the Twenty-First Century
The question in the twenty-first century, then, is whether or not this kind of temporal disjuncture is still possible within the capitalist state. Are there state interventions which could solve pressing problems faced by capitalism but which, nevertheless, also have the potential long-run consequence of expanding the space in which democratic, egalitarian economic relations can develop?
There are two trends that suggest some grounds for optimism about possibilities for the kinds of state initiatives that could potentially foster long-term erosion of capitalist dominance.
First, global warming is likely to spell the end of neoliberalism. Even aside from the issue of mitigating climate change through a conversion to non-carbon emitting energy production, the necessary adaptations to global warming will require a massive expansion of state-provided public goods.
The market is simply not going to build sea walls to protect Manhattan. The scale of resources needed for such state interventions could easily reach the levels of the major wars of the twentieth century.
Even though capitalist firms will profit enormously from such infrastructural public goods production — just as they profit from military production in times of war — the financing of such projects will require substantial tax increases and an effort ideologically at rehabilitating the role of the affirmative state in the provision of public goods.
If these processes occur within the framework of capitalist democracy, then this will open up more space for broader, socially directed state interventions.
The second trend with which the capitalist state will have to contend is the long-term employment effects of technological changes of the information revolution. Of course, with every wave of technological change there is speculation about the destruction of jobs leading to a widespread marginalization and permanent structural unemployment, but in previous waves, economic growth eventually created sufficient jobs in new sectors to overcome deficits in employment.
The forms of automation in the digital age, which are now penetrating deep into the service sector, including sectors of professional services, makes it much less likely that future economic growth will provide adequate employment opportunities through the capitalist market.
The magnitude of this problem is further intensified by the globalization of capitalist production. As the century progresses, these problems will only get worse and will not be solved by spontaneous operation of market forces.
The result is increasing precariousness and marginalization of a significant portion of the population. Even aside from social justice considerations, this development is likely to generate social instability and costly conflict.
These two trends taken together pose major new challenges to the capitalist state: the need for a massive increase in the provision of public goods to deal with climate change, and the need for new policies to deal with broad economic marginalization caused by technological change.
This is the context in which popular mobilizations and struggles have some prospect of producing new forms of state intervention which could underwrite the expansion of more democratic-egalitarian forms of economic activity coexisting with capitalism within the economic ecosystem.
More specifically, consider the following scenario: the necessity to deal with adaptations to climate change marks the end of neoliberalism and its ideological strictures. The affirmative state embarks on the needed large-scale public works projects and also takes a more intrusive role economic planning around energy production and transportation systems to accelerate the shift from carbon-based energy.
In this context, the broader range of roles for the state is back on the political agenda, including an expansive understanding of the need for public goods and the state’s responsibility for jobs in the face of increasing marginalization and economic inequality. But full employment through capitalist labor markets seems increasingly implausible.
One approach to responding to these challenges is unconditional basic income (UBI), a policy proposal that is already being given increased public discussion today.
The design is simple: every resident receives a monthly income, without any conditions, sufficient to live at a culturally respectable, no-frills standard of living. It is paid for out of general taxation and paid out to everyone regardless of their economic standing.
Of course, for people with well-paying jobs taxes would increase by more than the UBI they receive, so their net income (wages + UBI – taxes) would decline. But for many net contributors, it would still be the case that the existence of a UBI component to their income would be experienced as a stabilizing element that reduces the risks they face in the labor market.
A basic income is a possible form of state intervention that responds to the difficult challenges confronting the state in the face of the decline of acceptable employment opportunities within capitalist markets.
From the point of view of the reproduction of capitalism, UBI would accomplish three things. First, it would mitigate the worst effects of inequality and poverty generated by marginalization, and thus contribute to social stability.
Second, it would underwrite a different model of income-generating work: the self-creation of jobs to generate discretionary income for people. UBI would make a wide range of self-employment attractive to people even if the self-created jobs did not generate enough income to live on.
One can imagine, for example, that more people would be interested in being small farmers and commercial gardeners if they had a UBI to cover their basic costs of living.
And third, UBI would stabilize the consumer market for capitalist production. As a system of production, automated production by capitalist firms inherently faces the problem of not employing enough people in the aggregate to buy the things produced. UBI provides a widely dispersed demand for basic consumption goods.
If an unconditional basic income is an attractive solution to problems facing capitalism, how can it also contribute to the erosion of capitalism? A central feature of capitalism is what Marx referred to as the double separation of workers — separation from the means of production and from the means of subsistence. Unconditional basic income reunites workers with the means of subsistence, even though they remain separated from the means of production.
A tax-financed unconditional basic income provided by the state would thus enable workers to refuse capitalist employment and choose, instead, to engage in all sorts of non-capitalist economic activities, including those constructed through social power.
Worker cooperatives, for example, would become much more economically viable if the members of the cooperative had a basic income guaranteed independently of the commercial success of the cooperative.
UBI would also help solve credit market problems currently faced by worker cooperatives by making capital loans to cooperatives more attractive to banks: such loans would suddenly become less risky since the income stream generated by a cooperative would not need to cover the basic standard of living of its members.
UBI would underwrite a flowering of the solidarity economy, noncommercial performing arts, community activism, and much more. Unconditional basic income thus expands the space for sustainable socialist — socially empowered — economic relations.
Furthermore, the same technological developments that create the problem of marginalization also, ironically, may contribute to a more robust space for the expansion and deepening of economic activities organized in a more democratic, egalitarian, and solidaristic manner.
One of the material conditions of production that helps anchor capitalism is the increasing returns to scale in industrial production: when the unit costs of producing hundreds of thousands of something is much lower than producing only a few, it is difficult for small-scale producers to be competitive in a market.
The hallmark of the industrial era of capitalist development is massive returns to scale. The new technologies of the twenty-first century are, in many sectors, dramatically reducing the returns to scale, making small-scale, localized production more viable. Basically, the amount of capital needed to buy sufficient means of production to be competitive in the market declines in a digital world.
This, in turn, is likely to make solidarity economy enterprises and worker cooperatives more viable as well, since they operate more effectively at a relatively small scale oriented to local markets. The changing forces of production expand the possibilities for new relations of production.
Other state policies, many of which can be organized at the local level, could further stabilize a dynamic non-capitalist sector. One of the obstacles to many varieties of social production is access to physical space: land for community gardens and farms, workshops for manufacturing, offices and studios for design, performance spaces for the performing arts, and so on.
These could be provided as public amenities by local states interested in creating favorable infrastructure for these more democratic-egalitarian forms of economic activity.
Community land trusts can underwrite urban agriculture. Publicly provided or subsidized makerspaces and fablabs with 3D printers and other digital manufacturing technologies can underwrite physical production. Educational institutions could also provide training specifically around issues of cooperative management and social production.
The combination of a UBI facilitating the exit of people from the capitalist sector of the economy, new technologies facilitating the development of non-capitalist forms of production, and a congenial local state to provide better infrastructure for these initiatives, means that over time the sector of the economy organized through social power could develop deeper roots and expand in as yet unforeseen ways.
All of this would occur, it is important to stress, within capitalism, and thus inevitably these non-capitalist forms of production would have to find ways of surviving within a still dominant capitalist economy. One key aspect of this is to provide, in one way or another, some positive benefits for the capitalist sector.
Many inputs to the non-capitalist sector would be themselves produced by capitalist firms; producers in the non-capitalist sector would purchase some of their consumption, perhaps most, from capitalist firms; and the state’s production of public goods would also often involve contracts with capitalist firms.
Even after this new configuration stabilized, the state would still be superintending an economy within which capitalism remained prominent, and almost certainly dominant. But the dominance of capitalism would be reduced insofar as it imposed much weaker constraints on the ways people gain their livelihoods and open new possibilities for ongoing struggles to enlarge the scope of social power within the economy.
There is, of course, nothing inevitable about this trajectory. There is certainly no guarantee that a basic income would ever be instituted, or if it were instituted, that UBI would be accompanied by state initiatives to create supportive infrastructure for the expansion of democratic, socially empowered forms of economic activity.
There is also certainly no guarantee that an unconditional basic income would be used by its recipients to construct socially empowered economic structures. UBI can also be used purely for individual consumption. As Philippe van Parijs argues in his book Real Freedom For All, UBI redistributes “real freedom” to people and thus enables beachcombers and couch potatoes as well worker cooperatives and the social economy.
The specter of those who don’t work “exploiting” those who do is one of the potent moral arguments against UBI, and such claims could certainly block political efforts for UBI, or at least result in adding undesirable conditions of eligibility to the program.
What’s more, an unconditional basic income sufficiently generous to set in motion a dynamic expansion of non-capitalist economic activities would be costly, although by no means beyond the fiscal capacity of capitalist states, and so it is likely that if a UBI were to be passed it would be set at a level below what is necessary for a decent life. This would also undermine the potential for UBI to have long-term anticapitalist effects.
For these reasons, the prospects for eroding capitalism, aided by unconditional basic income and other interventions of the capitalist state, depends in significant ways on political mobilization and struggles over the state; it cannot rely on the enlightenment of elites.
If, as Riley argues, the limits of possibility inscribed in the capitalist character of the state are so narrow as to prevent state actions that have the effect of facilitating the growth of these kinds of non-capitalist economic processes, then such mobilization can never succeed and the prospects of eroding capitalism are remote.
But if disjunctures between present problem-solving and future consequences are possible, and if popular social forces mobilize around an agenda of consolidating alternative economic spaces, then it is possible that a significant expansion of economic activity built around democratic, egalitarian, and solidaristic values could be possible.
And this, in turn, could provide the foundation for a socialist trajectory beyond capitalism through the interplay of reforms from above that open up new spaces for democratic social power and initiatives from below to fill those spaces with new economic activity.
Of course, I could be wrong. I am a committed socialist and I want a theory of society that makes socialism possible. It could turn out that economic systems are not really like an ecosystem in which the dominance of capitalism can be eroded over time; the capitalist state might not be internally contradictory in ways that leave openings for meaningful emancipatory reforms. A coherent strategy for socialism may thus not be possible.
Nevertheless, given the limitations of our current knowledge about how social systems work and given the great ambiguities and uncertainties about what the future holds, it is a reasonable working hypothesis that it is possible to combine the long-term goal of transcending capitalism with the practical struggles to create new possibilities within the constraints of the world as it is. The only way to test whether this is right or wrong is to try to change the world.