- Geof Cox's Blog
- The dark side of the social enterprise boom...
- What would a social enterprise economy look like?
- Social Enterprise Law in South Eastern Europe
- Where does social enterprise fit in postcapitalism?
- Can social enterprise save public services?
- Greece, France - making enterprise more social...
- Small is the new big!
- Social impact is no longer an option for big brands
- What on earth is Social Enterprise UK doing?
- Asset Based Strategy Matrix
- Copyright infringement is NOT theft
- Impact2 Social Enterprise Conference
- Not So Grim Up North
- CASE's 30th Birthday
- Guardian Blog
- The Senscot Bulletin
- The Performance of Socially Responsible Investment
- Social Investment – or the Emperor's New Clothes
- Such a definitions mess that NOBODY can now clear it up?
- Social Enterprise Mark... or Social Enterprise Brand?
- Why social enterprise needs its own approach to intellectual property rights
- Does the social enterprise movement lack leadership?
- Business models based on greed and exploitation
- Not many jokes...
- NHS Social Enterprise Spin-outs - the real story
- Will tendering ever work for social enterprise?
- Learning from the Open Source Movement
- The Guardian & Social Enterprise
- The focus on a few kinds of social enterprise is blinding us to a bigger picture
- What do social enterprise and chocolate have in common?
- From Albania Again
- Guardian Social Enterprise Summit
- A conflict common to many co-operatives...
- Social Enterprise in Albania
- 2010 social enterprise visit to Russia - 1
- Day 2 in Rybinsk: -18°c
- Post 3 from Russia - Back to Moscow
- A typical question...
- Sounding like David Cameron...
- Do structures stymie social enterprise?
- 'Right to Request' tender collapses
- The number of 'social enterprises' just doesn't add up
- Social Firms Conference
- What is it, exactly, we’re doing with Social Firms?
- Social Firms UK Annual Conference
- Social Firms and the CIC Consultation
- What is social enterprise?
- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 1 - Moscow, Schekino and Kaluga
- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Rybinsk
- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Vyshniy Volochek & Ostashkov
- Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 3 - Moscow & Aleksin
- Ostashkov Conference, October 2008
- Selected old blog entries
- Public Service Transformation
- Organisational structures - and restructuring
- Doing social enterprise
- Knowledge should be free
- Associates and trusted partners
- Джеф Кокс, информация на русском языке
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...