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Social ownership is a type of property where an asset is recognized to be in the possession of society as a whole rather than individual members or groups within it. Social ownership of the means of production is the defining characteristic of a socialist economy, and can take the form of community ownership, state ownership, common ownership, employee ownership, cooperative ownership, and citizen ownership of equity. Within the context of socialist economics it refers particularly to the appropriation of the surplus product, produced by the means of production, or the wealth that comes from it, to society at large or the workers themselves. Traditionally, social ownership implied that capital and factor markets would cease to exist under the assumption that market exchanges within the production process would be made redundant if capital goods were owned and integrated by a single entity or network of entities representing society. However, the articulation of models of market socialism where factor markets are utilized for allocating capital goods between socially owned enterprises broadened the definition to include autonomous entities within a market economy.
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The two major forms of social ownership are society-wide public ownership and cooperative ownership. The distinction between these two forms lies in the distribution of the surplus product. With society-wide public ownership, the surplus is distributed to all members of the public through a social dividend whereas with co-operative ownership the economic surplus of an enterprise is controlled by all the worker-members of that specific enterprise.
The goal of social ownership is to eliminate the distinction between the class of private owners who are the recipients of passive property income and workers who are the recipients of labor income (wages, salaries and commissions), so that the surplus product (or economic profits in the case of market socialism) belong either to society as a whole or to the members of a given enterprise. Social ownership would enable productivity gains from labor automation to progressively reduce the average length of the working day instead of creating job insecurity and unemployment. Reduction of necessary work time is central to the Marxist concept of human freedom and overcoming alienation, a concept widely shared by Marxist and non-Marxist socialists alike.
Socialization as a process is the restructuring the economic framework, organizational structure and institutions of an economy on a socialist basis. The comprehensive notion of socialization and the public ownership form of social ownership implies an end to the operation of the laws of capitalism, capital accumulation and the use of money and financial valuation in the production process, along with a restructuring of workplace-level organization.
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