Are you a revolutionary, or are you playing at social change?

Today’s pioneering efforts to create a more equal society are rooted in the radical ideas of great thinkers. But have the revolutionaries of our age lost touch with radical thought? Are we being wooed into submission by the dominant system? Alex Nicholls, professor of social entrepreneurship at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship within Oxford University's Saïd Business School, and Stephen Miller, research and evaluation manager at UnLtd, ask the big questions.

“The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution” 

Is what’s radical now, conservative tomorrow? The philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the history of radical ideas and movements is circular – even revolutionaries can be tempted by power and money, and when they are, will become part of the establishment they previously opposed.  

With the UK general election only nine months away, does the social economy still represent a radical movement and alternative to the prevailing order, or has it too acquiesced and become part of the status quo? As an old West London poet once said, have we witnessed a slow process of institutionalization, depoliticization, and capture by the markets of the social economy: ‘turning rebellion into money’?

What if economic history was written from the ground up?

The social economy has an enviable history as a hotbed for radical ideas. As early as 1649, alternative models of economic activity based on community and equality rather than private ownership were emerging – notably when the Diggers movement occupied St George’s Hill as a statement of intent. Three generations later, two key figures in the post-Enlightenment developed such radical ideas further. 

Robert Owen is, perhaps, better known amongst social economy aficionados, and is widely seen as the founder of the cooperative movement. After acquiring the New Lanark Mill in 1799, Owen went on to introduce better working conditions and establish a ‘model community’, which included the world’s first Infant school, free health care and free education for children, among other things. He was a staunch critic of capitalism as it was unfolding during the Industrial Revolution, and a firm believer in a better way of doing business. 

His ideas would eventually influence the Rochdale Pioneers, who helped establish co-operatives as we know them today, and Friedrich Engels, collaborator and benefactor of Karl Marx, and one of the forefathers of Communism. From this work of course sprang a million more ideas on alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism, and whilst many of these would fade in to obscurity over time, a strong thread continues, most recently evident in the Occupy movement and political economist Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons.

Owen’s near contemporary, John Stuart Mill, was writing at the dawn of the industrial revolution, but predicted the unsustainability of an obsession with financial growth hundreds of years before the Wall Street crash. 
And underpinning them both was Adam Smith’s ‘other’ (and his contemporaries thought better) book – The Theory of Moral Sentiments – that advocated a radical alternative to the ‘invisible hand’ based on reciprocity and regard.

Is sharing an economy? 

Yet just how radical is the social economy today? Many will point to the growing ‘sharing’ economy as evidence that change is in the air, with younger generations in particular owning less and sharing more. Whilst this may point to a return to the commons, the space is increasingly being colonised by ‘for-private-profit’ companies such as Airbnb and Zipcar, who make their money out of the age-old practice of sharing - which used to be free! The transition of the Burning Man movement in the USA from bohemian chaos to a global – for-profit – brand seems to follow the same pattern.

A cynic may argue then that in this sense the social economy is increasingly succumbing to the logic of neoliberalism, in that everything can be converted in to a market. This trend does little to challenge the concentration of capital recently flagged by some French bloke as the greatest contributor to growing inequality, which is presumably counterproductive to the purpose of most social economy organisations.

A return to radicalism

Given the pervasiveness of neoliberalism, how can we continue to produce radical ideas, counter-narratives or visions that offer real and viable alternatives? The social economy currently has nothing as sophisticated as this combined political and philosophical project – witness the dissipation of the Occupy movement’s energy and dynamism. Ironically, Schumpeter and his acolytes remind us that radicalism and disruption go hand in hand as the engines of entrepreneurship, economic growth and resilience. So, the social economy has material to work with here – but it need not be neutral. In a time when the ‘invisible heart of markets’ represents a challenge to conventional market paradigms, it seems like the re-politicization of economics is a live topic. 

But politics and power go hand in hand, so real radicalism here will attack the vested interests and structures that cause so many social and environmental problems. So timidity is not the way forward – let’s see the social economy re-engage with the ideas, heroes and heroines of its past and set out an alternative vision of society that is values-driven, bottom-up, proud and stroppy. The mainstream has recognised what is valuable in the social economy model – Shared Value, No Plan B, Bottom of the Pyramid, blah blah blah – so there is no need to sell out cheaply, rather engage robustly where appropriate and confront and disrupt where it’s not. 

To go back to that West London poet:

Some is rich, and some is poor
That's the way the world is
But I don't believe in lying back
Sayin' how bad your luck is

But, of course, actions always speak louder than words.

This article was co-authored by Alex Nicholls and Stephen Miller. 

The need for change is increasingly urgent – Playtime's over. And that's this year's theme for the UK's annual social investment conference, Good Deals. It's time to get serious about social change.