Friday, 13 February 2009

Social Enterprise Versus Socialism

Socialists - proper socialists that is - cannot get comfortable with markets. Unlike Peter Mandelson, socialists are definitely not relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Capitalism is tremendously wasteful, inefficient, exploitative, chaotic, divisive and unjust. So yes, unlike the establishment, we socialists take a pretty dim view of business. Therefore on Wednesday when I attended a presentation on "social enterprise" - an idea that counts Gordon Brown and David Cameron among its fans - it was with a generous dollop of cynicism. My sceptical countenance wasn't helped by the blurb that went round on the email before hand. Our speaker was social enterprise guru, Geoff Cox, who lists among his achievements consultation work over the contracting out of NHS services. So, hopes were not very high. But pleasingly what followed was more interesting and thought-provoking than I expected, and it got me thinking about what it means for socialist politics.

The presentation proper began with a definition of what 'social enterprise' means. It is
not the same as corprorate responsibility. This for Cox is a bolt-on extra to the basic business operation and is often designed to legitimate or gloss over commercial activities. Social enterprises on the other hand start out with a social justice objective and build a business to meet that goal. Organisations of this type, for Cox, include Jamie Oliver's restaurants, Cafe Direct, and the Eden Project - you could also include outfits like radical bookshops and the printing presses developed by left groups too.

For Cox there are a number of reasons why social enterprises have grown in recent years and are likely to remain a permanent feature of the economic landscape. He started off with the ideological effects of the collapse of bureaucratically planned economies in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which opened the floodgates for market fundamentalism. In the Global South state-led developmental economics quickly fell out of favour and neoliberalism took root (in many cases, this "fashion" was foisted on countries by the IMF and World Bank). In the West it combined with existing cuts in social provision and undermined the legitimacy of the welfare state itself. In a political climate where the state was seen as a cure marginally less deadly than the illness, policy makers and entrepreneurs began to wonder if the market could be harnessed to realise welfarist objectives.

Second, Marx's analysis and critique of commodity fetishism identifies how capitalism renders relations between people as relations between things, and captures the essence of the experience of modern consumerism. For example when we go shopping in a supermarket, we are confronted with an array of colourfully labelled and branded jars and packets - to the buyer they are simply objects to be purchased and consumed. But for Cox this experience is increasingly at odds with the contemporary
zeitgeist. We live in a society whose media is dominated by "human interest" - whether waxing about the lives of no-mark celebrities or thundering against the immorality of the dangerous classes - it is a discursive problematic that permeates the social fabric. Social enterprises have successfully tapped into the part of this culture that seeks to re-humanise the world. Fair trade, Cox argues, breaks down the fetishistic relation between consumer and producer. Buying Cafe Direct, for example, allows the consumer to feel satisfaction knowing the premium paid will provide a living wage for the farmers. If you like, it is consumerism without reification.

Capital has responded to this cultural shift too with the emergence of large ethical investment funds. There is generally a lower return than traditional funds but profit is not the primary concern of investors - it is secondary to whatever social development goals this capital is put to.

Then there is technology. The development of the internet has made the discovery of commodity "biographies" much easier, and this combined with high profile exposures by the likes of
Naomi Klein have driven the adoption of corporate responsibility. But this is not all. The medium has provided a new arena for social enterprise in the form of open source software, and it is slowly but surely expanding its influence. For example, as of January 2009 70 per cent of internet browsing used Microsoft's Internet Explorer as compared 21 per cent share for Firefox. But the year before the figures stood at 77 and 16 per cent respectively. If the trends continue at the present rate within four years Microsoft will lose its market dominance to a rival that is free, commonly owned and collectively produced.

Lastly, the general business culture particular to the sector could attract more capital to fuel further social enterprise growth. In the space of 18 months the global economy has gone from a historical high point for capital to a grim future of market failure and recession. It is reasonable for elites to wonder if the crisis partly derives from the fundamentalist conceit of traditional business models. Commercial and political elites, as well as a new generation of entrepreneurs that once embraced neoliberalism may now be asking themselves if that really was the best way to do business.

Cox then re-visited Cafe Direct as an example of a particularly successful social enterprise. The basic business model is premised on two principles: it pays growers a guaranteed price; and provides a secure market for their crops. Because of its success not only has Cafe Direct outperformed other developmental charities but crucially for the market fundamentalists, it has proven more efficient than the for-profit operations of bloated multinationals. For Cox it demonstrates that "doing the right thing is good for business".

This is all the more remarkable when you consider social enterprises begin trading with higher start-up costs. Another of Cox's favourite firms is Cardiff's
Pack-IT Group. Originally starting out as a project spun out of the city's social services department to provide jobs for disabled service users, over 20 years it has expanded into a successful packing and warehousing operation. It has given employment to a group of people for whom finding work would otherwise be difficult. But that's not all - its workers each receive a living wage and the firm is able to post healthy profits, ticking the social and the enterprise boxes. For Cox the secret of its success lies in the labour process, which is diametrically opposite to the received wisdom of one-size-fits-all. Instead Pack-IT works intensively with each employee to mould its operation around them. This enabling culture breaks with the police state-like conditions typical of many workplaces and makes it more productive than its commercial rivals.

Is social enterprise the answer then? Should socialists wind up our organisations, stop faffing about in the labour movement and sink the old fighting fund into businesses instead?

No. Socialism is more democratic, participatory and planned than capitalism can hope to be. It is also a society that can only come through the activity of a global working class conscious of its independent interests and objectives. Anything short of this - be they Keynesian welfarism of the West or the bureaucratic planning of the East, or business with social as opposed to commercial bottom lines - cannot be socialism.

Social enterprises are problematic from this standpoint. Yes, accepting Cox's examples at face value, it is laudable and welcome that good work has been done and lives have been transformed for the better. But in this regard it is akin to guerilla Fabianism. The crucial difference between social objectives performed through commercial activity and reforms won by workers through old-fashioned struggle is that our class grows in confidence and experience, and enters the next round of confrontations a more powerful collective. Social enterprise does not differ from Fabian programmes of reform - both bypass the workers and do not directly strengthen its power. (This of course does not rule out the possibility such outcomes could provide a more favourable context for class struggle).

Like all firms, social enterprises have to operate in a market and as such are dependent on its vagaries. Cafe Direct, for example, is now facing stiffer competition from the multinationals as they introduce their own fair trade-type brands. Couple this with the economic crisis and its knock-on effect - declining purchasing power of workers and middling layers, the social objective is in trouble. The relationship this kind of ethical consumption has established is a commodified and stilted imitation of the associated production we can expect in a socialist society. Instead we have a dependency-charity relation, one in which third world farmers are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Then there is welfarism. I suspect Brown and Cameron are keen on social enterprises because they can theoretically achieve welfare outcomes. For the
Tories especially, the success of social enterprise in this sector reconfirms their commitment to private welfare provision. It presents an opportunity to ideologically undermine the idea society has a collective responsibility to its citizens in times of need - and of course it bolsters the 'small state' arguments, which are sure to make a comeback when the crisis and the Keynesian moment has passed. But for all the establishment arguments around welfare dependency, having social enterprises, not the state, delivering services does not fundamentally alter the passive relationship the client has with service provider.

And lastly, how about the issue of power? Cox made clear the unifying principle of social enterprise is putting the social before the commercial, but a myriad of organisational forms and models can realise these objectives. There's nothing essential about the sector that would exclude charities, "political" business, co-ops, private concerns, etc. But part of the problem is, essentially, deciding for the lower orders what is best for them.

But socialists need not be churlish about social enterprise. There are ways it can assist our political project beyond licking the left's collection of presses, publishers and bookshops with a trendy gloss. Simply put it could help create a more favourable ideological climate for socialist ideas, and this is how. Because social enterprise legitimates the subordination of the economic to social needs, the more they grow, the more government policy favours them, the more they provide us with fuel for the socialist fire. If a social enterprise can be commercially viable
and meet its goals, why can't the same be expected of other businesses? If a social enterprise can pay its staff a living wage, why can't other businesses? If an enterprise achieves its outcomes on the basis of common ownership and cooperative, collective production, why not others? And so on.

I may have a less rosy view of social enterprise than Cox, but despite the crisis, I am in fundamental agreement with him that the sector is likely to weather the tempest and emerge out the other side. Social enterprises are something socialists are going to have to get used to and deal with seriously. We can be wary of the dangers they represent but we must not allow our criticisms blind us to the opportunities that may arise.


Jim Jay said...

Hi, I work for an NGO/non-profit which is kinda a social enterprise. I've got a couple of thoughts about this.

First quick one. I don't think fair trade coffee can be described as consumerism without the reification because reification is essentially about misunderstanding social relationships as concrete objects. The term which Marx used (commodity fetishism) is often taken to mean fetishisation *of* commodities when in fact it is fetishation of social relationshipships *as* commodities as a repurcussion of the capitalist mode.

I don't describe myself as a Marxist but I think this is quite a useful concept. Getting back to the point fair trade is in fact supposed to be without the *exploitation* (either because it's a workers co-op or, in fact, still a business but that pays above the going rate for the area). I don't think it's meaningful to say the relationships are not reified - no matter how happy they are - because it all takes place within the relationships of modern capitalism.

Secondly, and I'll try to state it quickly, I think there is an overstating of the case for social enterprises here as there are few people who would claim that they are *the answer*. The advocates for them that I come across at work and in general simply think it would be cool if there was an organisation that fulfilled such and such a function that did good things for people - and this business model means these "good things" are part of the priorities - whilst Walls make bangers to make money they don't actually care if anyone gets a sausage or not.

It maybe that it was Cox who put it this way - I would like to argue it's not necessary to do so. It's like living in a housing coop (as I do). Are housing co-ops the solution to all our housing needs? No. Is it good to have no landlord making money out of you and to have a democratic structure in your community making collective decisions? Yes it is. That makes it worth doing.

My concern is that counterposing social enterprise with the need to overthrow capitalism is not comparing like with like. One seeks to make a concrete difference in the here and now, often on a small scale, giving individuals positive and practical tasks to devote themselves to as an alternative to working in ASDA and the other is a political philosophy and project about the long term direction of humanity.

Essentially I'm saying no one is asking "socialists [to] wind up our organisations, stop faffing about in the labour movement and sink the old fighting fund into businesses instead" as many of those working in social enterprises are on the left of the political spectrum and don't see these projects as alternatives but as contributions to a vision of a better world.

Phew... sorry for the length.

Phil BC said...

No need to apologise, Jim, it's always good to receive a long response from someone who knows what they're talking about.

Re: the reach of social enterprise, I don't think anyone in that sector is claiming they have the answers. But what does concern me is the enthusiasm Brown and Cameron have for them. Yes, social enterprise is very worthwhile but I think the potential policy circles see in them has nothing to do with this and everything to do with divesting the state of its social responsibilities.

CharlieMcMenamin said...

I'm coming from a place not too dissimilar from Jim on this one: I've spent a lifetime working in the third sector, including a number of social enterprises of one sort or another.

No-one I've ever met believes social enterprises are a replacement for political activity. But they can offer scope for prefigurative politics to be expressed at the level of the enterprise. (& a politics which can't be translated from 'the demo and the slogan' into a vision of how to actually run things is a very emaciated vision of the future indeed in my view).

Social enterprises can also be incorporated into a different agenda - 'culturally hollowed out' if you like. The prime example here are housing associations which, in many cases, grew out of a sixties radicalism arising from the 'Cathy Come Home' moment yet, all too often, now seem only very marginally different from the private sector.(But, even here, life is more complicated than slogans and there are some notable exceptions to this general trend in the housing association world).

Yet I think it a mistake to see New Labour's enthusiasm for social enterprise purely and simply as cover for a wish to privatise existing public services. Sure, that's part of the mix but its not all there is. They think - and on this at least I agree with them - that centralised planning has failed in many fields of social provision. So they want to devolve decision making down to smaller enterprise units. In many ways I think the political battle lines on this front are at least as much about who runs these smaller units, how they are linked into wider strategic plans and whether social enterprises genuinely get a chance to show their worth, as they are about complaints about 'privatisation' per se.

Phil BC said...

Thanks for that, Michael.

Re: the failure of welfare state planning, yes, you're right and I did overplay the argument somewhat. The evidence is easily available in Anthony Giddens' stuff on the 3rd Way and even in Blair's batting for New Labour's communitarianism. Because welfare provision has suffered attack after attack it has fallen to the left in and out of parliament to defend it, but in so doing it has been unable to build upon the earlier left critique of welfare capitalism.

What I am trying to figure out is what a growing social enterprise sector means for forming a counter-hegemonic bloc of the working class and its allies, and what it entails for far left political practice.

missivesfrommarx said...

Great post; very thoughtful. Thanks for sharing!

One comment: my wife and I have some of our retirement plan wrapped up in one of those "ethical investment" packages, but it seems pretty fishy to me. When we inquired about what criteria they used to identify a firm as more ethical, no one could tell us. For all we know, by "ethical" they mean something like "doesn't include Philip Morris." I hope that's not the case but haven't been able to find out.

Paul said...


Excellent post setting out key tensions between the fact that social enterprises are good in short term but are (increasingly) being appropriated by state as part of their welfare 'solution'.

I think the other thing to draw out is that size matters. The Eden project is a huge business and managed as such. Shopfloor workers are just like managed workers anywhere, and the fact that EP is in legal terms a not-for-profit business is of absolutely no consequence on a day-to-day basis. and while technically there is no distriubtion of profits you only need look at both the salary level of Tim Thingummy and the side-benefits he enjoys to see that it's a disguised private sector firm enjoying the profile advantages of NFP status.

For this kind of No10 doorstepping social entrpreneur, the whole social enteprse discourse is merely a factor in the competitive advantage both personally and as companies.

In general, the smaller you get, the more likely there is for genuine worker input/control.

Of course, the employment in social businesses (in the jargon, they are distinct from social enterprises as they are deemed not have a full bottom line coverage) of people who would not otherwise get employed is a good thing in itself, and I am supportive of both the idea and social businesses where I live, but it is only in the end a mask for a system where there is no norm expectation that such people, now needing specific charitable support, should be entitled to economic and social justice in th first place.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

hi, just wanted to say this was a really interesting post. well done

Jim Jay said...

RE: ethical pensions - I was in charge of sorting this out at work so I know a bit... essentially it boils down to white listing or blacklist companies to invest in.

If you go for the fluffy sort, that will basically give you the same return as a non-ethical pension, they blacklist the owrst sort of trade. Arms, cutting down the rainforests, oil, etc. perhaps 10% of companies.

You can rest assured you wont have directly bombed someone but not that you haven't worked a child to death.

If you go for the tougher sort you're likely to get far less return and they white list only the coolest people. Workers coops, people who make white sticks for the blind etc.

At the end of the day pensions are investments that get played in the casino either way. Personally I go for the black list option - I have no illusions that you can have a nice pension but I do want one for when the time comes, if I can do that without making bombs that's a good thing.

Charlie Marks said...

What are socialists to say with regards social enterprise?

We must insist upon union recognition first of all, then that workers and their representatives are involved in decision-making from the workplace to the boardroom. I think we shouldn't be too down on existing institutions - though the flaws are clear enough they serve as good examples of the *potential* for changed priorities in the economy.

If there arises a situation in which workers at an individual enterprise faced with closure decide to fight to save their jobs and keep the enterprise going, I think we'd be wise to recommend a demand for govt help in establishing a workers' cooperative - because I think that in the current situation this would be more likely to result in victory allowing as it does for the warm words in support of social enterprise by party leaders to be used against them. (Though it has to be said a call for nationalisation under workers' control would be appropriate in the case of a "famous name" in retail or manufacturing where the govt's position would be to allow mass job losses - "if we can nationalise the banks and bailout the bankers, why not nationalise ..... and bailout the workers?")

missivesfrommarx said...

Jim, thanks for the update on the ethical pensions. I'm pretty sure we only had the option to pick one of the fluffy ones, unfortunately.

Geof Cox said...

I'd just like to add 2 comments:
First, I'm bowled over by the intelligence of Phil's response to my presentation, and
Second, as Charlie's comment has already articulated, social enterprise is not monolithic but bundles together many different strands. Perhaps the most important current conflict among social entrepreneurs and their hangers on is between those who see social enterprise as a palliative for market failure - plaster over capitalism's cracks if you like - and those who see it as a bridgehead to a better world.

Rory Ridley-Duff said...

Dear all,
My thanks to Geof Cox for alerting me to this debate. A few issues. Firstly, "proper socialists" are often antagonistic to the idea of the state whatever form it takes. We should not overlook that in 1872 there was a parting of the ways between the Marxian and Anarchist view of socialism. For a great many - surviving today in the co-operative movement - the collapse of the Eastern Block model re-opened the possibility of "libertarian socialism", freed from the grip of the state-led model that has been so destructive. So, from my perspective, we can (at last) pursue a different form of socialism that has genuine transformative power and long-term potential to usurp capitalism.
The confusion over the market must be addressed. Ellerman's writing is crucial here. Is exploitation a by-product of market trading, or is it a product of the employment contract? The most progressive end of the social enterprise movement focuses on eradicating exploitation through the employment contract, not the market. The market is not perfect, but any system that produces surpluses (which socialism intends to produce) will have some kind of arrangement for exchange between different producers. The key question, therefore, is to find something better than the employment contract as the basis of working life and an exchange mechanism that responds to democratic pressure. The market will still exist in any economy where workers and/or consumers control enterprises - this is a de facto condition of worker (or community) control at enterprise or regional level (rather than the state).
This is - for me - what "proper socialism" is about, accepting that in some cases regions (or workforces) may delegate power to an overarching collective body. However, this power is delegated from below, not imposed from above, and must be removable from below to remain democratic. A significant part of the social enterprise movement is engaged with this question (more overseas than in the UK, unfortunately), and I would urge that the "employment contract" should remain the focal point of debate for social enterprises and social entrepreneurs, with responsiveness of the market the prime concern of other political activists working at sectoral or national levels.
Let us not forget that state power - for Marx - was only ever a means, and not an end. He expected (rather naively) that it would wither away once controlled by a working class party. Those of us in academia familiar with culture development (both inside and outside work) will readily accept the argument that a culture borne through violence will embed within its power structures a substantial capacity for violence (this is what experience in Russia and China has confirmed). Anarchism, on the other hand, holds that a society born of peace will be capable of sustaining peace (because it will embed the mechanism to maintain peace in its own form of struggle). This means that finding alternative peaceful ways to produce and exchange is central, not peripheral, in the struggle for socialism.
So, the challenge for social enterprise is not to fudge the problems of “employment relations" by getting trapped by market and entrepreneurial rhetoric (although an occasional outing to bash it into shape is worthwhile). A case in point is Argentina: research by the Co-operative College illustrates how the labour movement and social enterprise movement work together to change the social relations of production. The "reclaimed company" movement in South America focuses on factory occupations which establish co-operatives, usually supported, or organised, by political activists and trade unions. Importantly, there are laws that support this transition that local courts are willing to uphold.
It is not a panacea - surviving and thriving is not easy in any economic system - but the possibilities, knowledge, social and trading models, together with progressive know-how, are all much better developed today than in 1917. For this reason, I welcome the sentiment in the blog. If we build bridges in both directions and share knowledge, a broad movement capable of gaining power - and that knows what to do with it once it has it - can progressively reshape the world.
All the best

CharlieMcMenamin said...

This is interesting.

I'm not sure I'm 100% with Rory's fascinating contribution on this. I certainly do agree, with Charlie M, that TU rights, good employment conditions etc are fairly key to how socialists should judge any given social enterprise. Indeed, I'd like to see social enterprises go well beyond that and provide comprehensive training and personal development programmes, a degree of job rotation, election of managers and so on. (In fact some decidedly non social enterprises already some very interesting things:I believe one of the mega-IT firms - I think Google, but please correct me if I'm wrong on the detail - explicitly only give their full time employees 4 days work. The 5th day they have the freedom to follow 'blue skies' projects of their own devising, which are negotiated and agreed with their line manager. Why can't all work places be like this?).

But I think at least as much attention should be given to the enterprise's relationships with the outside world, which can only be mediated by market relations (or "marketised" , if its a govt contract), grant conditions or some sort of as-yet-to-be-perfected participatory democratic planning on parecon lines.

Currently, in the UK at least, these 'relations with the outside world' are very largely being set by the monospony power of a government with a neo-liberal mindset, or by the chill winds of open competitive markets. This tends to mitigate against such improvements to the basic employment contract relationship inside the enterprise.So I think both sides of the equation are important.

Rory Ridley-Duff said...

Dear all,

...TU rights, good employment conditions etc are fairly key to how socialists should judge any given social enterprise....

...but only where the enterprise is framed within a body of neo-liberal employment law. Trade unions are a response to capitalism and private enterprise. They may be a response to social enterprise too (I would favour this), but it is not a measure of social enterprise. If social enterprise replaces the employment relationship with owner-membership, then the needs of workers will change and their collective organisations will also change.

Co-operative do, in most cases, support trade union membership and action, but disputes still arise between the elected representatives and workers (as they do between trade union activists and elected trade union leaders).

You have to get outside the mindset of the employment contract to appreciate my contribution. TU rights are a measure of private enterprise acceptance of another interests group, but a social enterprise may well be owned and controlled by what was previously a branch of a trade union. What comes after trade unionism...that's the question.

Best wishes

CharlieMcMenamin said...

I completely accept your (rightly nuanced) point in respect of worker co-ops. There are, however, other possible models for social enterprises and it was these that were in my mind when I wrote the words you quoted.

Charlie Marks said...

'the collapse of the Eastern Block model re-opened the possibility of "libertarian socialism"'

Can't say I agree with this entirely Rory. It is to be recalled that, for all the flaws, the actually-existing socialist countries had/have substantial co-operative sectors as a matter of public policy. However the "voucherisation" of public enterprises (a way of selling privatisation to workers in post-Communist Russia) did not lead to a revival of libertarian socialist institutions, but usually ended up with private ownership rather than social enterprise.

In Scotland, where the Tories and the CBI are lobbying for Scottish Water to be mutualised, trade unionists understand that this is merely a tip-toe towards privatisation.

Arthur Bough said...

I think that Roy is essentially wrong to talk about the parting of the ways between the marxist and Anarchist views. Marx criticised the Anarchis concepts in so far as they were based on incorrect largelt Ricardian Economics, but Marx, himself in Capital, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and in his Address to the First International ADVOCATED the establishment of Co-operatives, said that they were the transiitonal form between Capitalism and Socialism. In later writings Engels also made the same points.

It has been the Lassallean take-over of the Movement, which has buried that true marxist tradiiton under a welter of statism adopted first by the german Social Democrats and then taekn on board by subsequent Marxists.

I've tried to uncover some of that again in my blog Marx and Socialist Construction

I'd like to congratulate Phil on raising this discussion, which now with the LRC committing itself to looking at and supporting the idea of workers self-management is rightly gaining ground as an alternative to that tradiitonal Lassallean staism that has dominated hte movement.

But, its important I think to distinguish between the kinds of Social Enterprises discussed here, and real workers Co-operatives. For one thing as Marx made clear in order to deal with some of those problems faced by Co-operativs such as opposition by the bouregoisie, operating within a Capitalist unplanned market and so on, it is necessary for Co-operatives not to operate as individual enterprises but as part of a national - probably today internation - Co-operative organisation that mitigates against competition, that encourages further collaboraion and Co-operation, and that links into the class struggle. Co-operatives are not good in themselves, but only as a part of that class struggle, only insofar as socialists can intervene in them to bring that integration about. Otherwise they are just Capitalist enterprises run by workers.

I cam across a really nice piece by Eernest Jones a Chartist and collaborator of Marx and Engels that I think sets out the necessary politics, and I think is as close to what marx and Engels posiiton is that you can get.

Its the third letter Ernest Jones A Letter to the Advocates of the Co-operative Principle, AND TO THE MEMBERS OF CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETIES

I'm in hte process of writing a multi-part blog on Co-operatives that I hope to publish in the next couple of weeks that I think will key into many of he issues raised here.

Rory Ridley-Duff said...

Dear all,

Thanks for the constructive dialogue. The 'parting of the ways' between Marxian and Anachist thinking is based on a critique by Rothschild & Allen-Whitt ("The Co-operative Workplace") on the events at the Internationale in 1872. It underpins their interpretation of the history of the co-operative movement (up to the late 1980s).

I appreciate (as a contributor to academic journals on the subject) that there are many models of social enterprise being advocated, not all of which hold out the hope of "proper socialism". At the same time, as a former member of a co-operative that co-founded Social Enterprise London with a host of London CDAs, I'm aware that the co-operative and employee ownership movements have (and continue to) play a role in developing the social enterprise debate - more than some people realise or are prepared to admit. Since the charity/voluntary sector have adopted the discourse, "socialist models" of social enterprise have struggled in an increasingly complex and contested debate. Geof Cox, however, is one activist who keeps socialist alternatives alive and kicking.

Best wishes

lindsay40k said...

It's all a very passive thing this fair trade malarky, isn't it? Whilst it certainly has some appeal to me to be aware that no farmworkers were beaten to keep the overheads of my chick peas low, it does sort of relegate the whole 'activism' thing to just making Rawlsian appeals to people's intellectual honesty as enlightened individual consumers, and if anything can amount to a form of paternal egalitarianism which undermines the idea of organising for collective action. Why form a workers' international when we can just pay a little more for our food to be assured by a little fairtrade logo that the supply chain pays its staff well? And since that all comes in at a premium, it's something which the working class can't play a part in. Who cares if Green & Blacks is organic and pays a farming co-op a great price if you're reliant on Tesco's white label stuff to put food in your kids' mouths? Especially during times of hardship... time will tell how the ethical firms do in the coming years (actually, I haven't seen any scare stories about the Co-op bank during all this financial havoc... maybe there is something in all this after all?).

That said, whilst acting as an individual to put pressure on firms to be more ethical does to a large extent accept the logic of capitalism as Adam Smith saw it, thereby being a form of leftism not even reformist but in fact liberal in character, it has to be said that the most wishy-washy of fairtrade events is still likely to be full of potential young activists who can be drawn in with stuff about the overwhelming majority of workers in less developed countries who don't have the good fortune to find work with a semi-charitable institution and are struggling against oppression and exploitation from the grassroots. I know the Make Poverty History gig I went to say a great response to CWI material. So if nothing else, it's all got potential to play a part in left networking. And perhaps more importantly, with capitalism still seen as the only show in town some 18 years after the collapse of the eastern planned economies, anything which visibly proves that the wild scramble for maximum profits is not the only way to do things can form the narrow end of the wedge in driving home anti-capitalist arguments.

Arthur Bough said...

I think the Fair Trade stuff is a diversion. It DOES place the emphasis on INDIVIDUALS as consumers to right the wrongs of Capitalism, rather than seeing the need for class struggle as the only means of achieving that realistically.

Moreover, many of the Fair Trade examples have proven to be rather duff. Its one thing for a retailer here to do a deal to pay a farmer somewhere a "reasonable" price for their product, but it has been shown that some of these farmers themselves then pocket the profit with the same exploitation of their workers continuing.

I am all in favour of the development of Co-operatives, but only as part of a strategy of class struggle. C-operatives taken in isolation have no innate progressive quality - just ask some of the workers who work for the Co-op! That is particularly true of consumer Co-ops which can be just as oppressive of their workers as a Capitalist firm, and which ebcause most consumers simply see their role as enjoying a bit of divi now and again, do not usually play ana ctive role in managing the business. Only worker owned and controlled Co-ops can do that, but as the Lenin and other revolutionaries realised at the beginning of the last century producer Co-ops can only hope to be succesful if they are intimately tied to retail co-ops, thereby providing for themselves a market not reliant on Capitalist retailers.

A starting point in Britain would be for socialists and TRade Unionists to take ana ctive role in the Co-op - and possibly other Mutuals, in an organised way, mobilising the Trade UNions, to bring about a change of Constitution to give the workers in these enterprises a much bigger control over the management fucntion, thereby udnermining the role of the existing bureaucracy. In that way, what is if you take the Co-op, and CIS etc. together, a very large business could be reintegrated into the Labour Movement as a powerful tool for supporting workers in struggle, and for challenging Capitalist property relations.

Charlie Marks said...

I agree with Arthur that we need to work towards uniting the labour and cooperative movements to build participatory forms of democracy into the economy.

It's worth recalling that Robert Owen, a founding father of the cooperative movement was also involved in the founding of the first national congress of trade unions.

Our aim should be to struggle to get the cooperative movement to realise the value of worker participation, for the trade union movement to recognise the value of cooperative ownership, and for both movements to promote their ideals.

Arthur Bough said...


I've just finished a 4 Part analysis on Co-operatives - "Can Co-operatives Work", looking at the way Marx advocated the building of Producer Co-operatives, how other Marxists including Lenin argued in favour of Marxists actively engaging in their construction, and why it is that the Left in recent decades has ignored those positions and held a hostile position in respect of Worker Co-operatives - essentially the infection of the left with Lassalleanism.

You and your readers might find it interesting as a follow on from your blog here. See: Can Co-ops Work Part 1

Rory Ridley-Duff said...

Excellent point on the integration of consumer and worker co-operatives. It is this that gives the Mondragon network its strength. Unlike the UK Co-operative Group, the Spanish retail chain Eroski has governing bodies that have 50% elected workers and 50% elected members of a consumer group. Secondly, their banking system (roughtly equivalent to our Co-operative Bank) has 1/3 elected workers in the governing bodies, and 2/3 customers. When I did a field visit there, they argued that workers frequently have a more robust long-term perspective on the business than customers, fuelling the intellectual argument for their representation in governing bodies.

Best wishes

Arthur Bough said...


Thanks for your comments. I think as I have said on most of my posts on Co-operatives, that it is imperative that Trade Unionists and socialists begin to play an active role in the Consumer Co-ops.

There is a clear role for USDAW to play in getting Co-op workers elected to existing structures, just as UNITE should be pressing for workers to be elected to positions within the new Co-op Bank/Britannia set-up. That could be done now without any changes in structure, but would be the most obvious way to bring about changes in those structures that WOULD require a proprtion of the Managemment Board to be elected from the workforce.

Of course, its necesary to ensure that this does not simply result in a repetition of the current situation where the Area Committees are often made up predominantly of representaives of local management.

I was just watching on BBC Parliament some discussion on the new Co-operatives Bill introduced by Malcolm Wicks, and I think its easy to forget just how ectensive the Co-op Movement already is in Britain, including the many Credit Unions etc that organise millions of some of the poorest in our society. I think the left is missing a huge opportunity in its continued sectarian attitude towards the Co-operative Movement. A decisive push both by the left acting in an organised way to intereven at a local level, and by mobilising the Trade Union movement to bring about greater involvement and democratisation within local Co-ops could have some really big pay-offs.

davidbaer said...

What I like about small business owners is that they are not afraid to take huge risks and lay it all on the line. But, I agree they do need a lot of help with their marketing. I think having them go the social media and email route is not only the least expensive but its also the most effective. Thanks for the stats!
With Facebook and Twitter being among the leaders of the Social networks, marketing as a small business is being transformed..
Respondents according to the Vertical Response survey appear to need some differentiation with the use of SE marketing and Social media Marketing

Vik Gill said...

"What I am trying to figure out is what a growing social enterprise sector means for forming a counter-hegemonic bloc of the working class and its allies, and what it entails for far left political practice."

Yes me too, because I'd like to get a PhD out of it for one thing!

I agree with your and other commentators' points about the social value that social enterprises can bring to society - particularly to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. However, my chief concern with social enterprises from a Socialist perspective is that Social Enterprises prop up Capitalism instead of allowing it to fail. Social Enterprises plug the gaps of market failure. That is their raison d'etre. By doing this, do they not then make it less rather than more likely that class struggle will fail for lack of support for its aims?

Surely if we refuse to step into the breach when Capitalism fails (as Marx predicted it would eventually) we enable revolution rather than compromise. Do Social Enterprises not merely enable Capitalism by mopping up after failed government welfare policy and failed markets? No wonder David Cameron and Gordon Brown like the concept so much!

Further, it's hard to imagine the modern-day proletariat keeping enough fire in our bellies to advance the struggle against Capitalism if Social Enterprises obviate the need for that struggle by filling our bellies with food that both government and private markets have failed to provide. I guess what I am saying is that Social Enterprise - by anaesthetising some of the worst pain meted out by Capitalism - may be having the unintended effect of diminishing our collective commitment to the overthrow of Capitalism. And we're buying it (pardon the pun)!

I'd like to explore Social Enterprise from a critical management studies perspective. I'd love to hear from anyone who can provide further grist for the mill.

Hugely thought-provoking piece, thank you very much!