Where does social enterprise fit in postcapitalism?


Thoughts on reading Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, Allen Lane, 2015.

One of the biggest divisions in the social enterprise world – although it's rarely spoken of – is that between those who see social enterprise as mitigating the worst 'market failures' of capitalism, and those who see it as a bridgehead to a better world.  It is this division that drives, for example, the 'definitions' debate – and it's the reason why that debate tends to surface at every conference, despite the participants' avowed boredom with it: official definitions, marks, etc, only make sense if you see social enterprise as a narrow and distinct 'sector' – in which case they make a lot of sense - but if you see social enterprise as part of a broad movement towards the way ALL business should be done, any narrow definition is worse than useless.

Too often, national social enterprise representative bodies have been on the 'narrow sector' side of this argument.  They've lost social enterprise the profile it should have in thinking about alternatives to capitalism, because they have failed to see how social enterprise fits with this broader agenda; and I fear this is why in over 300 pages of discussion about 'postcapitalism', replete with references to open source software, online 'collaborative communities', co-operatives, the sharing economy, transition towns and green business, Paul Mason does not mention 'social enterprise' even once.  Yet all these are actually linked or analogous pioneering ways of doing business: for community benefit, with social and environmental responsibility, and with business models fundamentally irreconcilable to corporate capitalism.

Mason's book offers an analysis of economic development since the middle ages that provides a rationale for the idea that capitalism cannot survive the impact of new technology, in particular the internet's pushing of the marginal cost of collaboration and intellectual and other products and services towards zero.

The analysis is grounded in sound economics – obviously outside mainstream neo-liberalism, for example drawing on the labour theory of value rather than the marginal utility theory of price preferred by academic economists (not surprisingly, since the latter is not a general economic theory at all, but limited to describing market transactions).  Mason is a journalist (and musician) before he is an economist (though he is also visiting professor of economics at Wolverhampton University) – and the book is all the better for that, littered with anecdotes that have more truth in them than any number of disputed statistics.  But then I'm one of those who question whether 'economics', as presently conceived, should be considered an academic subject at all...

Mason goes further than my own thoughts on how environmental crisis and new technology, and especially the free exchange of knowledge and ideas in online 'collaborative communities', will favour micro-enterprise over big business, and are particularly synergistic with social enterprise.  He does draw on many of the same sources – for example Yokai Benkler and other prophets of 'open source' and 'peer production' – but adds into the mix a broader economic analysis, especially around the effects of zero-pricing, and environmental and demographic crises, that leads beyond the idea that social enterprise and the sharing economy will gradually out-compete big business within what will remain primarily a market economy of some kind, to the bigger idea that capitalism as a system is now in terminal crisis.  While not presenting 'postcapitalism' as inevitable, Mason does see it as the only alternative to economic and social breakdown.

I'm not entirely convinced about this, but Mason does provide a lot of evidence and analysis to support the idea that environmental crisis and new technology must change utterly the ways capitalism has previously worked, and that we are living this transition right now.

The environmental case is well-established and Mason is convincing on this: capitalism in the neo-liberal form it has taken over the last 30 years or so simply lacks the signals and drivers to do anything about catastrophes decades or centuries long in gestation.  The market will of course correct itself eventually, but probably only after millions of lives have been lost through flood, drought, famine, migration, war.  Neoliberals are like some 'deep greens' in this respect: the living planet will correct itself too, through similar chaotic processes – but humanity may not be in the new ecosystem.

The new technology case is less convincing.  There is a dawning awareness among many, I think, that universal networking, instant global communications, and especially the reduction of the marginal costs of collaboration, creativity, knowledge and ideas to near-zero, must utterly change capitalism.  Already many industries only survive in fast-evolving form - newspapers being the obvious example - or in capitalist form only through temporary near-monopoly, and/or draconian intellectual property laws that clearly work against the public interest, for example by making life-saving medicines unaffordable to most people.  I believe Mason when he says this must change – and that this 'must' has the double force of both inevitability and the right moral choice.  But like many a critic of capitalism from Marx on, Mason is much better at analysing the way capitalism has worked – and increasingly doesn't work – than he is at describing how exactly it will end, and what will develop out of it.

Nevertheless, social entrepreneurs should read this book – it does help us understand what we do as something more than addressing 'market failures' – plastering over the widening cracks in capitalism – and instead as something more akin to 'building the new society within the shell of the old' (to borrow the old Wobblies' slogan).

In practical terms, we need to stop looking inwards – stop worrying about how precisely 'social enterprise' is distinct from, say, a passionate farmer determined to preserve old English apple varieties full in the face of commercial pressures - and instead embrace the broader movement of new business models and legal/financial infrastructure being actively developed in open source software, online 'collaborative communities', the sharing economy, crowd sourcing, transition towns, fairtrade, community farming and green business.

Then perhaps we'll get a mention in Mason's next book...

There is nothing 'evolutionary' about 'social enterprise'

It is inevitable there will be both reactionary pro-capitalist critiques of Paul Mason's theory of PostCapitalism, along with anti-capitalist views frothing in his support. There are too many beneficiaries of the system in the first case, and too few articulate anti-capitalists around, after all, in the second. 
 
To me from the left, his theories are devoid of specifics for mid-wiving an otherwise laudable post-capitalist vision, and therefore, more resembles dreaming, not to say fantasy, than prescription. I have real concern over his giddy optimism, and facing the daily capitalist grind of body and soul, I am tempted to say distracting optimism, bordering on 'laissez-faire' delusion—the revolution is already in progress, ye workers of the world, he seems to be saying, techno-determinism has replaced.dialectical materialism, just sit back and enjoy the ride. I'm afraid throwing in a few 'we must do this' and 'the state must do that' hardly mitigates this giddy obfuscation of class war and the more sanguine approaches to overthrowing capitalism. Hoping nicely, what dear Mason seems to be doing, emphatically, doesn't bring about change any more successfully than anything else that has previously failed. All of the above, and all that follows applies equally well to the evangelists of so-called 'social enterprise,' which is 'social' and, apparently to some, 'evolutionary' only in their narcissistic dreams.
 
Ask the capitalist machine if they are ready to give up property, monopoly, and extractive profit for a network of peers and a 'project zero' transformation. Ask the governments they own, their wholly or partially owned subsidiaries pretending to act for 'the people,' whether they will not shoot you dead in the street rather than allow the dissolution of capitalism, bloodless or otherwise. As for his 'new man' notion, this seems to me the self-serving 'be the change you want to see in the world,' (something Gandhi never said, by the way), which egotistically and vainly supposes that personal lifestyle choices somehow mysteriously aggregate into social determinism, a fantasy to be sure.
 
 Structure is deterministic, and without structural change nothing else broadly changes, or stays changed. That is why capitalism must be felled, it will not fall without tearing down, and certainly will not roll over for Mr. Mason's Project Zero proponents. It will co-opt his Project, as it is already co-opting free software (via teaser free versions and full-featured paid versions, for example, or promotional Wikipedia entries you can't amend.) (For the latter, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bYAQ-ZZtEU). Software for the greatest part remains firmly, if not viciously capitalistic, gumming up machines with sneak trial installations little better than malware.
 
Mason's 'new man' transcends his socio-economic conditioning, but such new men and women have been around since long before any of us, and technology as we know it. Such 'new men' are the exception not the rule, however, and always have been. The 'new man' may be or become a revolutionary leader (granted, like Mr. Mason), and collectively such men and women may be or become an enlightened minority and a driving force for social change. Or, on the other hand, they may choose escapism in a techno-cult of 'capitalism done right' as far too many in the tech space presently do (ask anyone who works for Google or the like), but they can never of themselves achieve a transformative critical mass.
 
Nor is info-tech itself a surrogate for tearing down omnicidal social and economic structures and contexts, nor is it a substitute for building up sustainable ones. It is at best a means that may be consciously exploited, not the death knell of capitalism in and of itself, as Mr. Mason unfortunately seems to assert. That is an abstract and academic notion, and a potentially distracting, counter-revolutionary one. We do not need yet another palliative 'hope' for eventual, far-away relief from the insufferable daily oppression of capitalism, a relief that Capitalism itself will grant to us because we point out the wisdom of it, or the moral rectitude, or the intellectual superiority of it. We need to take it down, aggressively, however we can.
 
Info-Tech workers of the world unite, to be sure, but unite for a general strike, in close coordination with labor generally, to bring capitalism down. No such thing will magically happen via a freeware consciousness network patting themselves on their 'Project Zero' back, which would seem to be Mr. Mason's postcapitalist evangelical mission. All of the old 'industrial' school Marxist approaches to organization, resistance, opposition and revolution still do of strict necessity apply. We are yet an industrial society, and a capitalist society, even in a world of digital printers and robot servants. Egalitarian tools do not control capitalist culture, the culture controls the tools, and will not likely give them up even to the inexorable reasoning of a supercomputer.
 
As appealing as the idea of an ongoing 'gradual revolution' by sub-cultural osmosis may be, it is doubtful that's going to happen of its own accord in the next 200 years. The onset of climate disaster is far more likely to catalyze a postcapitalist world than the zero-cost effects of technology itself in that time-span, arguably the only time-span that matters.
 
And let us not overlook digitally facilitated surveillance and repression—with an efficiency exponentially greater than any security apparatus that has previously existed in human history (http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/17995). I believe an equally compelling case can be made for technology leading us toward a 'post-democratic,' techno-fascist state, where defensive monopolist repression is the rule and 'Project Zero' freebies are criminalized along with anything else that is threatening.
 
I believe top down and bottom up actionism coordinated together offer the best chance for effective post-capitalism, both 'occupy' actions from within and 'overthrow' actions from without, with clear strategy and objectives working broadly above-ground and narrowly underground. To hypothesize one exclusively over the other as a panacea is simply to supply a dogma that is not up to the entrenched, monolithic power we are facing. There is no discernible actionism attached to this zero-value theory of postcapitalism, however, which seems to say, look what we can build with tech, why can't we build a decent economy? Well, that begs the whole question of property and capitalism. There's a man with a gun over there, sir, who says we can't, and he is deaf to all moral or intellectual pleas.
 
Supercomputers, on the other hand, I agree should prove useful to our struggle, along with revolutionary software (and hacking), and these not-so futuristic ideas may be the best ones in Mr. Mason's scheme of things. (I am biased, however, since they are among the best ideas in my own scheme of things—on the fiction side, in <i>An Epiphany On Wall Street</i>.)
 
The question remains, however, how do we get power over these tools? How does a present day 'postcapitalist-wannabe' arrive at access to the tools in primis, and beyond that all the research and planning needed for their effective use, much less the political implementation of post-capitalism? Indeed, will post-capitalist 'evolutionaries' ever be properly organized or capitalized for the stupendous task before them? Won't they need the 'old school' pitchfork and barricade to get at the tools?
 
 
In short, there is little that is truly prescriptive or pragmatic about Mason's Post-Capitalism theory. Read it if you are sufficiently strong minded not to fall for its giddy and naive optimism {http://www.amazon.com/Postcapitalism-Guide-Future-Paul-Mason/dp/0374235546/). It is an academic treatment of a potentially transformative force that exists within the dominant capitalist culture. Well done at that, but nothing actionable there. Don't lose your head.

Capitalism, or Capitalisms

Many thanks for commenting.

I share some of your scepticism about Mason's faith in the positive impact of technological change.  The way I see it is that although the internet will certainly change capitalism, and although many likely changes are synergistic with equality and democracy (not only the zero-price issue, but also things like enabling networked individuals and micro-enterprises to out-perform big business, breaking down traditional producer-consumer relations, or simply increased transparency) - despite these exciting possibilities, there is still a need for positive action to shape the change, or make it less chaotic at least.

I also share your view that environmental crisis is likely ultimately to be the bigger shaping influence.

What I think is missing from your perspective, however, is the fact that 'capitalism' is not monolithic

  • it has always been very different in different natural, historical and cultural environments - it has always been in the process of changing, and will continue to change
  • it is divided against itself - there is not really any coherence between small business owners and corporate capitalism - the historic Tory alliance between the City and the small-c conservative English shires has really collapsed, the 'capitalsm' of France, say - or even Scotland - is very different indeed from the 'anglo-saxon' variety, etc.

In places, your comment almost reads like a 'them-and-us' conspiracy theory, but this simply does not reflect my experience of the disparate reality of both them, and us!