Saying social enterprise, or social investment, or social innovation are flawed is like saying kittens are evil. It’s heresy!
By prefixing ‘social’ to enterprise, investment and innovation we seemingly obviate any need for a critical analysis of whether or not these enterprises, investments and innovations are social, and therefore, presumably, good.
Indeed, by broadly sidestepping any such enquiry not only do we miss the chance to explore whether they are doing any good, but also whether they are doing any bad.
One of the ‘bads’ that these holier-than-thou fields, purportedly focused on social change, manifest is that of brain drain. Activists and campaigners, previously intrinsically motivated to make change, get sucked into the world of social enterprise, of balancing budgets and responding to the needs and motivations of customers and funders. Strategists, future thinkers, the engineers, designers and artists who seem to be missing from the corporate world and who might feasibly lead the changes society is so calling out for, similarly get lured in to the honey trap that this current manifestation of the social sector presents: that we can use the tools available to us within the dominant neoliberal narrative to effect change.
BY PREFIXING ‘SOCIAL’ TO ENTERPRISE, INVESTMENT AND INNOVATION WE SEEMINGLY OBVIATE ANY NEED FOR A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF WHETHER OR NOT THESE ENTERPRISES, INVESTMENTS AND INNOVATIONS ARE SOCIAL, AND THEREFORE, PRESUMABLY, GOOD.
If you think this is the case then think again. Put the spreadsheet down and step away from that nifty little social sector play you’ve been working on. Get real! Stop being a tool (that reinforces the status quo)!
The social sector, specifically the ‘cool’ social enterprise, social innovation and social investment elements, are culpable of gobbling up many of the great future thinkers needed at the cutting edge to effect the change we need to respond to the intractable problems of our time. Essentially, great swathes of the social sector have been co-opted by the ‘neoliberal man’ and sucked into the ‘art of the deal’ by being offered capitalist and neoliberal tools as those that might make change.
The narrative, in short, goes something like this. In 1989 the wall came down and democracy ‘won’. In fact capitalism ‘won’ and as a result the alternative (what those esoteric philosophers and psychologists call the ‘Other’) went the way of the dodo.
Without an alternative none of us have the necessary distance from, and differences to, the omnipresent neoliberal discourse. As a result is it any wonder that so many of us, across so much of the social sector, pick up the very tools that have created the inequity and environmental devastation that surround us and that have now become humanity’s fundamental existential challenge?
The intrinsically motivated, activist spirits that are the wellspring of change have been beaten into submission by extrinsic motivations of the market and the profit and loss position of the thing they are running.
By picking these tools up we lose ourselves, and we lose our future. By thinking we can effect change from within the social sector, through using market mechanisms and within the status quo, not only do we castrate any possibility of doing good but we also actively do bad, reinforcing neoliberalism and draining brains from the very places we need great thinking, namely the creation of real alternatives to the existing system: the Other from which we might oppose, push against and challenge the existing order.
As Mark Fisher, Slavoj Zizek and others have observed, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”. Is it any wonder that we pick up the tools that have shaped capitalism and, in an effort to undo it, we get even more entangled?
Finding your path