Andrew Hill’s Financial Times Business blog last week asked some social entrepreneurs running benefit corporations – a reasonably new social enterprise-style corporate structure in the US – whether or not they regarded themselves as capitalists. The question prompted an interesting range of responses.
Four out of five respondents quoted seemed to see their socially enterprising activity as at least a version of capitalism, the closest to a ‘no’ came from the appropriately named Sean Marx of Give Something Back Office Supplies who answer was: “I studied economics. I’m not a capitalist in a free-market way.“
At Social Enterprise Exchange in March, there was an intriguing discussion on this question during a plenary on ‘Good Business and how to do it’. This discussion saw Chris Dabbs of Unlimited Potential express the view that “I didn’t come into social enterprise to be a capitalist” and that he supported a different economic system based on social benefit. In response, Paul Monaghan of The Co-Operative Group complained that capitalism had come to mean “the people putting up the capital get all the surplus.”
The obvious, technical answer to question of whether social entrepreneurs are capitalists is ‘yes’. If you run an organisation that generates income and spends it within a market system then you’re participating in capitalism. People running charities sustained entirely by donations within market economies are capitalists. Activists selling the Socialist Worker are capitalists.
More broadly, though, I’d argue that anyone who accepts accepts wages or benefit payments from a capitalist government is a capitalist of some sort.
One of the most striking things about the ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘anti-globalisation’ movements that emerged in the late-1990s was the fact that the majority of their supporters weren’t opposed to capitalism at all. The most popular book to emerge from the movement, Naomi Klein’s No Logo, far from being an attack on the existence of market-based economic systems, was primarily a rejection of what the author perceived as growing dominance of a small number of large number of multi-national corporations over the global economy. The negative consequences of this dominance included unfair exploitation of workers, corporate encroachment on public space but also a reduction in genuine consumer choice.
Klein’s website describes No Logo as ‘a cultural manifesto for the critics of unfettered capitalism worldwide’ that ‘tells a story of rebellion and self-determination in the face of our new branded world.’ The implication of this is not that capitalism needed to be abolished but that, while some form of capitalism was seemingly the only viable political system on offer, the dominant political approaches – enforced through the political and military might of the USA – were supporting a form of capitalism based on the wrong priorities.
There’s been some pretty significant changes to the global economic situation since No Logo was published in 1999. Whether or not the USA was ever really the all powerful geo-political force that most anti-capitalists then believed it to be, it certainly doesn’t hold that position now – and since 2008, the ‘unfettered’ capitalism championed by corporate and political leaders, has been questioned even by many of its previous supporters.
I am a capitalist in the sense that I believe that democratic capitalist systems – where people get to vote their leaders in and out, and to choose whether or not to start their own businesses or work for other people – provide the best basis for creating societies where everyone has the best possible opportunity to live the life they want to live.
In the democratic world, we’re in the midst of ongoing debate about what kind of capitalism we want – combined with a debate about what kind of capitalism will work. As social entrepreneurs, most of us will not be in a position to make a significant direct impact on the the policies and practices of national and international politics leaders, and the multi-national corporations that interact with them. But what we can do is attempt to make our social enterprises examples of an approach to capitalism that has different priorities to those of most political and business leaders over the past thirty years – and that hopefully also works.