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The Politics of Social Enterprise

22 April 2015 at 11:00 am
Staff Reporter
Social enterprise is inherently political but is curiously being deemed politically-neutral in the lead up to the UK Election next month, writes Dr Andrew Curtis, co-founder and director of the Dragonfly Collective.

Staff Reporter | 22 April 2015 at 11:00 am


The Politics of Social Enterprise
22 April 2015 at 11:00 am

Social enterprise is inherently political but is curiously being deemed politically-neutral in the lead up to the UK Election next month, writes Dr Andrew Curtis, co-founder and director of the Dragonfly Collective.

Those who remember the inaugural conference in 2000 for the Social Enterprise Network (or SEN as it became known) are aware that in the Australian context, Government – Federal or State – was not a key player in the rise of social enterprises.

Government money was not around to assist or inhibit the free development of what in the early days was construed to be a new and innovative way for the social sector in Australia to deal with the entrenched systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, social isolation and care for the planet. This may be one of the best possible things for social enterprise in Australia if it is to avoid what has become a confused and diffuse sector here in the UK.

In the UK, the current Conservative Government has a Parliamentary Secretary – Rob Willis MP – in the Cabinet Office, focused on social enterprise. Numerous other politicians endorse the social economy across the major parties. So what effect has this had on the social economy and the social enterprise community, especially right in the middle of an election here in the UK?

It appears that when it comes to politics, the social enterprise/social economy sector has no political affiliations at all.

Let’s start with some working assumptions. You can support the social sector, and social enterprise, while thinking critically about its assumptions, claims, actions and outcomes, in the same way you can support your country while thinking critically about its actions and its citizenry.

Secondly, social innovation and social enterprise as tools for social change, addressing disadvantage and systemic unfairness, are really useful tools and can make a significant difference to the lives of people. Social enterprise in the hands of the right people can make a radical difference.

So with these two working assumptions in mind we turn our attention to the politics of social enterprise (and its close cousin social innovation).

A recent blog on the Social Enterprise UK website in defence of a balanced National Health Service (NHS) market, advocates for the contribution social enterprise can make to alternative NHS provision. Whether or not you agree with the argument, what is astonishing about the article is the statement made at the beginning of the second paragraph “my purpose . . . certainly isn’t to take political sides”. So in the context of one of the most highly politicised debates in the UK – who provides the NHS – the author appears to prefer to operate in a political vacuum.

At a recent debate on social investment at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, it was equally astonishing to hear an advocate of social investment confront those questioning social investment as an effective tool for social change as representatives of the old ideologies of the political left.

There was not an articulation of an alternative ideology to “the left” but the proposition that debate about something like social investment had moved into a new space – one where ideologies of either the left or the right did not exist. In this ideologically free space, politics is removed from the discussion. The neoliberal elephant in the room did not apparently count as either political or ideological.

In the midst of this ‘ideology-free no politics zone’ is the Social Economy Alliance’s Social Economy Manifesto with the banner “the best ideas from the left and the right”. This is accompanied by several disconcerting images, not the least of which are Margaret Thatcher in Che Guevara’s clothes and Ronald Regan in Fidel Castro’s beard smoking a big Havana cigar.

The Social Economy Manifesto is certainly a great advocate for all things social enterprise and social economy – no question about that. The associated policy statements appear to propose a kind of non-aligned centrist political space (which is in itself an aligned political stance) that suggests that the best idea from the left and the best idea from the right is social enterprise.

It appears that the Social Economy Alliance believes the answer to the inadequacies of Government funded public and private enterprise (the former from the “left” and the latter from the “right”?) is social enterprise because it sits in the “middle”.

This “middle” occupies a kind of value neutral political position – certainly not taking “sides” – from which to observe other “sides”. While the social enterprise model can and does have great value for the economy – that is a given – what is peculiar is the assumption that it does so in some space devoid of the reality of party politics or ideologically embedded political economics.

As any student of history, social sciences or politics will know – to claim to be taking no political side is in fact to take one. A middle-centrist position is just as ideologically loaded as that of the left or the right. History is full of examples where movements and institutions proclaim to be ‘non-political’ – and as such allow the status quo to remain in place. Political neutrality does not question the status quo or identify alternatives. And not taking political sides allows what is in place to on unchallenged.

Perhaps this is the “blind spot” identified by Remko Berkhout who notes after attending the 2104 London Unusual Suspects Festival that there appears to be in the social sector a “serial avoidance of politics”. He notes that “little deep digging is happening in the social innovation world to get at the underlying factors that perpetuate inequality and plunder the planet”.

All of which takes us back to the politics of social enterprise. With all its good intention, its trading for a social purpose, its social value, and its availability as a public service provider, is it naïve or deliberate for social enterprises to claim they take no political side and to centralise themselves in the middle of everyone else? What if social enterprise is more politically embedded in a particular view than it is aware off?

There is no value neutral space in politics or in life generally. Even apathy is a value. So what are the politics of social enterprise? What is the social good that they exist for? To what extent are they part of the dominant systems in power? To what extent are they embedded in the current ideological political economy in places like the UK and Australia that generates wider and wider gaps between rich and poor? Or to what extent are they active proponents of new ways of addressing the systemic and ideological foundations of inequality and injustice by developing innovative businesses trading for a purpose that clearly calls into question the current politics of the day?

It appears this approach contrasts to the view in Africa recorded by the Stanford Social Innovation Review that social enterprises have a political role to play and can help build stability in countries facing political crises by addressing root causes of civilian discontent.

In Australia historically the social sector looking at new ways to address poverty, disadvantage and injustice had a clear political alliances and do so still today. And it goes without saying that there are many politically active social enterprises in the UK addressing key political issues including racism, immigration, poverty and social exclusion.

Apparently however, at a policy level and in the face of an impending election in the UK the big hitters in the social enterprise sector seek to do business in a politically value neutral space? But then again perhaps that location is not so politically value neutral at all? And that is something Australia can learn from and not emulate.

About the author: Dr Andrew Curtis is a co-founder and director of the Dragonfly Collective – a social venture that connects and supports individuals and organisations working to tackle inequality in Australia.


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