Plan B? Cultural hegemony and social entrepreneurship

Marxism is not very trendy. You just need to look at their Che Guevara t-shirts and their flat caps to know that. It is unsurprising then that the uber-cool social enterprise sector – with its ping pong tables and iPads, hasn’t really warmed to it.

But with the formation of The B Team and the Social Economy Alliance in recent weeks, now seems a great time to look again at political theories such as Marxism (others in mainstream business certainly have been). In order to affect real political and social change through social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, it seems time to move away from arguments which solely put economic activity first, towards a social movement orientation. But the social enterprise movement in the UK faces significant challenges if it’s going to achieve this shift. The work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers a useful way of thinking about this issue.

Cultural hegemony and social entrepreneurship

Gramsci was an Italian Socialist who spent a decade in prison under the Fascists during the 1920’s. It was during this period he developed his best known idea – that of ‘cultural hegemony’. Hegemony stems from a Greek word, meaning leadership or rule. For Gramsci, it meant dominance by consent. That means we, as the masses, consent to the general direction of life imposed on us by a ‘social elite’. We accept their ideas, norms and values, but only because they appear to take account of our interests.

This seems like a good compromise. Except Gramsci argued that the benefits accrue asymmetrically. Although the elite or ruling class appear to be make sacrifices for us (such as to their waistlines), they disproportionately get the benefits of this arrangement. Take the cut to top rate tax as an example – only a few people benefit from this (including many government ministers) but the long-term disadvantages may affect many more (less money in the communal pot etc).

So why does this imbalance persist? For Gramsci, hegemony is built upon the foundations of civil society, such as voluntary and community associations, social enterprises and cooperatives. This, he argued, is why there have not been any successful Socialist revolutions in the West. The Social Elite have so ideologically dominated European civil society, through its assertions of good and right, that this keeps some form of social order in place. Sounds interesting – if only there was an example to support this?

A Plan B?

In 2013, we see growing challenges to the prevailing social, economic and ecological order. Climate change continues, youth unemployment is at record levels and riots roar from Istanbul to Sao Paulo. Something’s got to give – surely it’s time for the ruling elite to change or be swept aside? The concept of hegemony offers a useful way of thinking about why this hasn’t happened yet, and isn’t likely to.

The obvious solution to these challenges, according to Gramsci, is to start building a new hegemony – a Plan B. One that is based upon compromise, intergenerational justice and the needs of the environment perhaps? We can see a great example of this with The B Team. They argue that business should no longer be about short-term profit maximisation. ‘Hoorah!’ They also argue the economy should address the pressing social and ecological issues of our time. ‘Hip hip hooray! The battle’s been won!’

Within this context, it is clear to see how social entrepreneurship fits in, and why so many see it as the panacea to our problems. Yet Gramsci would argue that for the social elite, this simply means developing a new system that retains many of the old system’s features, particularly in terms of ownership and methods of production.The more cynical among us may recognise some of this argument in current debates – for example, does the B Team’s proposal retain many of the tenets of traditional capitalism? Erm, private ownership over the means of production? Tick! Free market exchange? Tick! And who’s leading the conversation?

Well with The B Team it’s clearly Richard Branson (wonder what the B means?). Amongst the more ‘traditional’ social enterprise sector, the conversation has been lead globally by the likes of Ashoka (founded by Bill Drayton, a former McKinsey consultant), the Skoll Foundation (founded by Jeff Skoll, first president of eBay) and the Schwab Foundation (set up by Klaus Schwab, who also founded the World Economic Forum). Elsewhere, in the U.S. we have the likes of Echoing Green (founded by private equity firm General Atlantic), and in the U.K. Big Society Capital (set up with agreement from the Merlin banks and led by Nick O’Donohoe, formerly of J.P. Morgan).

If this is right, what can we do about it?

Of course, this is just a theory. And it would be naive to assume that there is some sort of intentional conspiracy or that these individuals form some homogeneous group. In fact, variety is the spice of life for social enterprise, and is the reason social entrepreneurship is such a contested concept, with numerous definition and applications. Furthermore, these people seem genuine in their aims and intentions, and they are not alone in trying to come up with solutions to social issues. Part of this attempt also relies upon civil society and the State.

That’s why we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. Sure capitalism is having an existential crisis and the environment is pretty screwed, but these facts shouldn’t be taken as a surefire sign that sweeping changes are going to happen. Or indeed that if the old order does collapse, whatever replaces it will be better. Just take what happened after the Wall Street Crash – it wasn’t socialism that took hold across much of Europe, but fascism.

What Grasmci recommends is that rather than waiting for others to make the change or tell us what to do, it is up to us to actively change the way we all think. This is the challenge for the Social economy Alliance – to spread the new ideas popping up throughout the social enterprise sector (not just at the top) and establish a new world view.

But how do we do this? Perhaps for starters we should take a more critical perspective of some of the practice currently taking place in the sector. For example, some of the prevailing cultural norms imported from the financial services – white middle-class men wearing suits, habitually repeating jargon – are not inevitable. Challenging norms and values like these is the first step towards the social enterprise sector developing a culture of its own, and in doing so showing the world how it is different from ‘change as usual’.

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