In recent months I have been working on producing amateur translations of some German-language texts on the politico-economic philosophy of corporatism. These texts date from the first half of the twentieth century, during the first great flourishing of European corporatism in Austria, Portugal, and (in its specifically fascist form) Italy. I also hope to dig into nineteenth-century sources when time permits. Why am I doing this? In myearlierposts describing the project I may not have properly articulated my reason for translating these texts. I am a novice translator, and my German skills are still developing, but this is not an academic project. My goal is not to place historical literary curiosities on display for research purposes but to aid in an effort to bring corporatism into contemporary political discourse.
Not everyone will be familiar with the term “corporatism,” and some who are familiar with it misconstrue it as meaning the rule of “big business” or the fusion of government and private industry. Those wanting a general primer on corporatism can have a look at the Wikipedia entry, but in this post I hope to offer a more precise formulation by looking at one particular, and now classic, definition of corporatism from Philippe C. Schmitter. Further, using that definition as a foundation, I hope to convince the reader that corporatism is at least worth thinking about. Of course, I know very well that if someone tries to sell you a revolutionary political idea that will solve all of the world’s problems, it is usually best to walk away. Luckily for me, corporatism does not require a revolution to be implemented, but demands only a restructuring or “righting” of our existing institutions. It is practical rather than utopian, and is based on human nature rather than on a speculative vision of the perfect social being.
For those who wish to learn about corporatism, there are two main sources: the writings of the pre-World War II corporatist thinkers, and post-World War II scholarship by those academics in political science and related disciplines who use corporatism as an analytical model through which to gain an understanding of corporatist or “corporatist-like” interest-group behaviour in modern capitalist societies. The former advocated corporatism as an ideal politico-economic system for the twentieth century, while the latter have been generally agnostic or dismissive regarding the value of corporatism. The former excelled at capturing the “spirit” of corporatism, while the latter have excelled at detailing the practical obstacles that corporatism faces in highly complex economies. Both sides of the equation must be taken into account when determining the potential value of corporatism.
Post-war academic interest in corporatism was spurred in large part by Philippe C. Schmitter’s much-cited 1974 article, “Still the Century of Corporatism?” Schmitter’s careful definition of corporatism, which has served as a starting-point for much research on the subject, is as follows:
“Corporatism can be defined as a system of interest representation in which the constituent units are organized into a limited number of singular, compulsory, noncompetitive, hierarchically ordered and functionally differentiated categories, recognized or licensed (if not created) by the state and granted a deliberate representational monopoly within their respective categories in exchange for observing certain controls on their selection of leaders and articulation of demands and supports.” (93-94)
This is a highly condensed definition that could use some unpacking. Schmitter’s focus is on interest-group behaviour and not political ideology—the latter is the domain of the pre-World War II advocates of corporatism. He does not restrict the number or type of interests at play, and in doing this he neglects to note in his definition that corporatism is a political idea that has focused primarily on the interests of workers and employers in the vast assortment of professions that make up modern economic life. (I should note that when corporatist thinkers use the term “profession,” they are referring not only to middle-class professions but to any type of work that requires the development of particular skills.) According to Schmitter’s broader perspective, the corporatist label can apply to a much wider variety of interest groups than just the modern guilds that corporatist regimes hoped to create, as long as these groups are “functionally differentiated” in the sense that they represent those who perform a specific function in society.
One example of a pre-World War II corporatist regime is that of the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg period in 1930s Austria. The Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss proclaimed in 1934 that “Over and above the family, the constitutive principle of society is the professional occupation” (So sprach der Kanzler, 23). By “over and above” he meant “built on top of,” since Dollfuss considered the family to be the most fundamental element of human society. Dollfuss established a regime that would reinforce the profession or vocation as a social unit second only to the natural family. In a 1933 speech, he remarked:
“The professional community is one of the basic elements of human society. The society of the Christian Middle Ages was constructed upon it. In our current era, we lost our path back to the reasonable, corporate conception of profession. We want to lead society back again to corporate organization.” (24)
Austria, at the time, was being torn apart by social turmoil resulting in part from the agitation of socialists who encouraged workers to see their employers as mortal enemies. The establishment of corporations, or institutions in which employers and employees work together to protect their interests as members of the same profession, was meant to unify the nation in the spirit of Catholic social teaching. Again, scholars like Schmitter are generally not—at least in their academic work—proponents of Catholic social teaching or any other social philosophy, but they are similarly focused on the organization of professional interest groups.
The other elements of Schmitter’s definition help to flesh out the characteristics of interest groups under corporatism, and we can interpret these in relation to the traditional concept of the professional corporation. Such interest groups are “singular” and “noncompetitive,” meaning that each profession can only be represented by one corporation; they are “compulsory,” meaning that one may only engage in a profession through membership in the corporation that represents it; and they are “hierarchically ordered,” meaning that members must, in some fashion, earn status and responsibility within the profession. The last part of Schmitter’s definition describes the trade-off that cements the status of the corporation: the government grants a “representational monopoly” to each interest group (through licensing), and in exchange, the interest group must follow certain government-prescribed rules of operation.
Elsewhere in his essay on corporatism, Schmitter provides definitions of three other systems of interest-group representation: pluralism, monism, and syndicalism. Pluralism is the most dominant system of interest-group representation in the West. In a pluralist system, interest groups are “multiple, voluntary, competitive, [and] nonhierarchically ordered” (96), and are not regulated by the state. Monist systems are of the type once found in the Soviet Union (97). Syndicalism, as I would describe it, is a sort of headless corporatism of the type found in the speculative visions of political anarchism or certain brands of unorthodox socialism.
Schmitter’s definition of corporatism, although it may lack the political punch of post-World War II understandings of corporatism, and although it was formulated as a tool for analysis and not for any political programme, is admirably precise and allows those who advocate corporatism to move beyond unlikely dreams of reorganizing society from above. This is important, since in proposing that we look to corporatism for solutions to some of our political problems, I am not advocating the sudden imposition of an anachronistic system of government on the medieval or fascist models. What is valuable in the writings of Othmar Spann or the speeches of Engelbert Dollfuss is the attention they give to the spiritual dimensions of corporatism, while what is valuable in the writings of political scientists like Schmitter is the attention they devote to how corporatist structures function within the complex realities of modern economic life. The soul of corporatism lies in Catholic social teaching, but its implementation need not be rigid or authoritarian to the extent that it would require the kind of aggressive coercion that would stifle the vibrancy of a market economy. Its introduction into political life could be gradual, and, as corporatist scholars argue, corporatist-like structures are already present in some modern economies. With this more careful approach in mind, it may also be best to follow Schmitter’s lead and modify his original definition of corporatism as a type of “interest representation” to a definition of corporatism as a type of “interest intermediation” (see Schmitter’s follow-up essay, “Modes of Interest Intermediation and Models of Societal Change in Western Europe”). Certainly, the latter term better captures the ethic of corporatism, which should be more mediatory than prescriptive.
There is much more I could say, but for now I will offer one example of a way that corporatism could provide a potential solution to a current social and economic problem. In Canada we are facing a ‘jobs’ crisis. Every year, our colleges and universities produce far more graduates than can be employed in a shrinking number of middle-class occupations, while at the same time, many employers complain that they can’t find skilled workers. Broadly speaking, the worlds of training and employment have separated, as would be expected in a predominantly pluralist system. The various employment sectors, as well as the many universities and other educational institutions that supply them with educated workers, have to a large extent become enclaves of interest, communicating with each other only when necessary. Although each enclave is able to protect its own interests, the interests of the nation are not served and our employment landscape has become one of profound waste and mismatch.
Let’s suppose that within Canada we could create corporations, or state-licensed ‘intermediary’ institutions representing the major professions. These institutions would coordinate the interests of labour, management, and government within each profession. The corporations, in turn, would sponsor or officially approve those educational programs in our colleges or universities that meet the standards required by that particular profession. They would have some say in the control of admission numbers, which would help avoid the overproduction of graduates, and also provide a link through which co-op opportunities and apprenticeship programs could be arranged. University or college staff and faculty could communicate with management through the corporation in order to stay on top of new economic or technological developments. The universities could also arrange, through the corporations, to provide online or in-person extended education programs to encourage skill development among those already employed in the profession. Non-approved educational programs in colleges and universities would still exist, of course, but they would become less attractive for those pursuing education as a path to a career. Bachelor of Arts programs would shrink to a size more in keeping with the genuine demand that exists for liberal arts education.
Is this not a reasonable solution? Would it require the imposition of an economic dictatorship, or could it be implemented gradually as a practical solution to existing problems? Those are questions that the existing scholarship on corporatism, much of which is in English, can help answer. But what would the effect be on our society, and particularly on the wellbeing of young people looking to find careers and raise families, if we could implement such a solution? Those are questions that can only be answered by thinkers like Othmar Spann and visionary leaders like Engelbert Dollfuss, and that is why their ideas must be recovered and reclaimed.
Schmitter, Philippe C. “Still the Century of Corporatism?” The Review of Politics. 36:1 (January 1974): 85-131.
Schmitter, Philippe C. “Modes of Interest Intermediation and Models of Societal Change in Western Europe.” Trends Toward Corporatist Intermediation. Eds. Philippe C. Schmitter and Gerhard Lehmbruch. Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, 1979. 63-94.
So sprach der Kanzler. Ed. Anton Tautscher. Vienna: Ferdinand Baumgartner, 1935. See the Translation Project page for the translation-in-progress.