There is quite alot of talk today about re-envisioning, re-engineering, or re-inventing our civil society – its politics, its social structures, and perhaps more significantly, its economic infrastructure; we hear much about transition towns, sustainability, green companies, socioeconomic localization, and the less well-known buzzword emerging from players like the Harvard Business School, social enterprise. To what does such terminology refer? A common thread among these diverse projects seems to be implementation of innovative solutions to looming environmental and social collapse, while maintaining some semblance of the civil or political order found in current institutional structures and arrangements.
Over the past year, we have touched upon how, in a neo-liberal democratic polity, capital may co-opt any idea and turn it into a marketable commodity; even the concept of sustainability has fallen victim to such enterprises. Witness, for example, how a multiplicity of self-proclaimed “green” companies now abounds, even amongst those we know are real evil doers. However, while the business case for sustainable, eco-friendly economics may have been an option three, four, or perhaps ten decades ago, it now seems more akin to an eleventh-hour howling at the moon or a Hail Mary Pass; and at this late juncture motivations tend to be highly suspect, in any event. The question we must continually ask ourselves is: Why? It is the same question my three-year old son, Lucas, poses constantly.
What are these diverse enterprises? Why engage in them? To what end?
First questions, first. What is an enterprise? Old French enterprise (n) from entreprendre: entre- between (Latin, inter-) + prendre to take (Latin prehendere) – to grasp. Enterprise – “to undertake,” “take in hand,” “show a spirit of daring.” It is also the root of another common business term, entrepreneur.
An enterprise is something upon which the entrepreneur embarks. It is typically a risk-laden venture – a real undertaking (not unlike the quest of the mythic hero in search of the Holy Grail). Enterprise suggests individual initiative, vision, acumen, skill, and a singular drive to “make something happen;” it is a pursuit, a quest to achieve a specific outcome or objective. It seeks to create something new and profitable, either monetarily or in terms of building social capital (whatever that is). Someone who demonstrates such enterprising behavior we call an entrepreneur.
Typically, entrepreneurs pursue new business opportunities. If they are to be successful, they must be great salespeople above all else. An accomplished entrepreneur must be capable of unvarnished, even shameless self-promotion. The idea for a new business or venture may come from any quarter, but the ability to “sell” that idea and turn it into a valuable enterprise takes a certain overabundance of chutzpah and self-confidence: an enterprising individual with real initiative and unrelenting self-confidence. Of course, the risks that a smart business entrepreneur takes are usually calculated ones, often launched with the use of other people’s money – that is why we have banks, stock markets, and other investment resources; and many times the venture piggybacks upon other people’s ideas or vision.
Social movements among the body politic can be, and often are, transformed into, or hijacked by, enterprising individuals. As I indicated earlier, this happens to many social and political movements here in the West, in America particularly. Capitalism and neo-liberal democracy provide fertile grounds for the tilling of such new fields – for absorbing the disparate energies of a social movement, creating new market opportunities there, and then building a valuable enterprise around it, with new commodities (services are also commodities) for sale. It has happened with everything from gang-wear to the environmental movement. Such transformations of emergent social (or even counter-cultural) energy might indicate where the concept of social enterprise derives its own impetus – the usurpation and application of business management principles to social issues and initiatives, either for profit or fun.
Consider the blog, Occupy MBA, launched recently by my comrade, Professor Ralph Meima, as “a business educator’s response to the criticism leveled by the Occupy Wall Street movement at corporate power and greed…” Professor Meima quite candidly uses the blog to further some innovative B-school ideas, including the concepts of sustainable leadership and social enterprise, attempting to tap into the OWS momentum in promoting his own educational enterprise. He asks, for example, if “the institution of MBA…might offer solutions to the immoral, ruthless, and unsustainable business culture that rules the global order.” [N.B. February 2006 research by SpencerStuart suggests that 50% of S&P 500 Company CEOs have MBA degrees. Uh-Oh! Maybe an MBA is not the solution after all!]
Yet, clearly Professor Meima’s blog is a marketing strategy, itself intended to promote a very specific social enterprise by appropriating the revolutionary language and slogans of the OWS movement in a bid to bolster enrollment at the graduate school where he offers his (for-profit) innovative MBA program, Managing for Sustainability. It is a classic example of entrepreneurship, and the ability of our cultural institutions to absorb any vision, even counter-cultural energies, in an attempt to salvage some semblance of the current socio-economic hegemony, while apparently redressing more overt grievances with the system.
What, then, is a “social enterprise” or a “social entrepreneur”? These terms first emerged in the 1960’s but gained global visibility in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. They are a conflation of business-management methodologies and the dynamics of social change: we could call it a management engineering approach to creating “social capital” (whatever that means). And now, with the help of players like the Harvard Business School and my friend, Professor Meima, we have MBA programs in social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, and of course sustainability management. In other words, we have a novel set of concepts to repackage some older, stalwart management ideas and resell them into a new market of education consumers. This phenomenon itself represents a significant example of social enterprise at work; and this is the ineluctable pull or momentum of market-based economics and its management principles. The same concepts that got us into this mess are now expected to deliver us from the pending chaos. It is in this context that we must understand the limitations of both enterprise and managerial leadership in reshaping our social, political, and economic relations.
OK – so the social entrepreneur is not driven necessarily by money, but rather by his desire to pursue improvements in the social, environmental, economic or educational conditions of the world and his own community through application of his expertise. He wants “to develop innovative solutions to global problems.” In doing so, he applies the same business methodologies and management skills to his social enterprise as a regular entrepreneur applies to his market enterprise. It is his vision, his passion, his expertise, his view of the world that he wants to implement and have others work towards achieving. And, of course, like any good manager, he would want to organize, structure, and lead the process, controlling the deliverables. Social engineering by any other name still smells as fishy to me. In fact, Ralph Meima notes precisely this sort of behavior displayed by an MBA during an OWS meeting in New York. Ralph describes it as an “example of the mismatch between MBA-style managerialism and the OWS movement’s leadership needs.” He then sheepishly asks:
Is America so individualistic that almost all of its crop of potential sustainable leaders is destined to wither on the vine whenever they confront the logic of collaboration and mutual solidarity?
And Ralph goes on to fret the prospective outcome:
The temptation to abandon one’s faith in “sustainable leadership” is always niggling, and can become overwhelming.
You don’t say? What faith, Ralph? And what leadership are you referring to? There is no historical record of sustainable leadership in the civilized world. The only example I have of such leadership might be the type of non-binding guidance routinely offered by tribal elders among the consanguine and affine relations within a small and relatively egalitarian pre-civilized band. Such “leadership” lasted for at least 200,000 years of Pleistocene prehistory. Finally, I would disagree with Ralph’s contention that “it takes a deeply moral community to build a courageously ethical leader.” Morality and law are already indicators of the prior loss of guidance and respect for the world-as-lived. I would counter that it takes a deeply egalitarian community of fully-embodied persons to heed the non-binding guidance of ordinary tribal elders, and the quiet pleadings of the earth and its other, non-human inhabitants. But, I digress.
There are other names I can think of for these “social entrepreneurs;” and I do believe there are already far too many of them in the world. Here is a partial listing in no particular order: king, monarch, president, prime minister, governor, legislator, judge, lobbyist, lawyer, rabbi, priest, pastor, cardinal, pope and prophet. Have I left anyone out? I hope not. But, if I have; well, you get the picture. Oh yes, of course, preparation for such entrepreneurship is sometimes called a political campaign. And I have a more encompassing name for all of these well-intentioned leaders, these social entrepreneurs – egocentric psychopaths. Finally, the term “enterprise” also presumes novelty, innovation, and progress; but, these are tricky serpents ineluctably leading us forward, down the same primrose path we already traversed in arriving at the current destination.
Don’t misread me, friends. I have nothing against smaller, locally-driven responses to symbiotic maintenance of regional collectives, ecosystems, and ethnicities. My problem is with the language and logic, indeed, the underlying rationality of Western business management – of planning, progress, growth, novelty, and domination – of enterprise and entrepreneurship. All of these terms are fraught with deep social, political, economic, and existential histories. They grow out of the Curriculum of the West, and reinforce some of the worst habits of modern thought and behavior – behaviors that have landed us here in the first instance: individual visionaries risking other people’s capital, commodifying every aspect of life, dominating markets, reinforcing the “captain of industry” mentality, accumulating wealth, building new institutional hierarchies, directing and enslaving populations. And I believe my comrade, Dr. Meima would agree.
Just look at the top entrepreneur of the last quarter century, the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur.
Steve Jobs was said to have democratic and egalitarian sympathies… [but with his] dictatorial production model… he single handedly and autocratically controlled his consumer’s purchasing behavior.
In conclusion, I would say the global insights and practices constituting business school training – giving flesh to the very bones of enterprise and entrepreneurship – represent one of the legs currently propping up an increasingly alienating, emptying, and abusive culture. (N.B. Jeff Skilling of Eron fame earned his MBA from Harvard in 1979.) Such education reinforces a categorically unsustainable world concept; models and expectations that may be antithetical to what is currently required by the planet, and demanded of the human community. Sustainable business? Sustainable leadership? Why, back in the day, I taught with a colleague at the Colorado School of Mines who promoted “sustainable engineering” of all things. But, here is the question we never ask. How can we reasonably speak about sustainability when the world — whose plenum the logic and epistemology of our sciences has already turned into so many objects and resources for endless consumption — is finite?
So I ask you, what exactly are we looking to sustain? We no longer need, nor can we afford, to sustain this culture of objectification, commodification, and innovation. We have willfully turned this wonder-filled planet (and most inhabitants) into a measurable cache of raw materials and resources for extraction, management and selfish exploitation, nearly to depletion or exhaustion; and now we want to provide sustenance to the monster that dragged us here? I realize it may be easier for those of us in the West to cling to the illusion that we can maintain this charmed life we created, forever innovating, engineering, and managing our way beyond the next inconvenience. But we cannot. Nor should we try. Again, that is how we got here in the first place. (E.g., No sooner do you outlaw PCBs for their toxic effect then some entrepreneurial scientist invents PBDE which turns out to be more toxic than its chemical cousin.) The entire spectacle of Western civilization and its excesses rests upon a set of hypotheses that cannot possibly deliver on their promise to save the appearances upon which we so hypnotically gaze. (see Owen Barfield, Saving The Appearances)
The underlying logic of our modern culture was laid even before the ancient Greek city-states. It, in turn, gave rise to specific theories of socio-economic relations that have become modern idols, and we worship daily at the altar of management, measurement, and control – of process, product, and progress – including the entrepreneurial pursuit of innovation. We now live in the shadow they have cast, a shadow that has become increasingly dark and frightful. So, what are we afraid of? Capitulation to the grand periodicities of nature? Capitulation to a remote past long ago buried beneath the fabricated armor of management and measurement, a past that might show us a different, perhaps a more human(e) way to live. Capitulation (at least partial) to nature appears our only legitimate and justifiable recourse at this juncture, our only way out of the box we have crafted for ourselves. Have we not already demonstrated enough hubris? Nature is screaming at us. And nature will get to bat last. You can bet on it! Just saying…