Keith Anthony O’Neill
In Ireland, social entrepreneurship has skyrocketed in the past decade as more and more innovators and investors find that being labelled a social entrepreneur is a rather rewarding and fashionable badge of honour to wear. Many will defend social entrepreneurship, which indeed they have a right to do, but the sad reality is that social entrepreneurship will never uproot society’s ills. On the contrary in fact it only serves to consolidate them. We’ve all seen the smug photograph: man in a blazer and shirt (no tie), top button open, grinning and holding a sign reading something on the lines of ‘I want to make a difference’. Frankly, I find it nauseating.
The seemingly obvious problem is that most people who identify as social entrepreneurs believe in the power of enterprise to order social affairs. However, the very ills of society that social entrepreneurs claim to be railing against are created in the first place by the very system that they propagate – it’s a zero sum game.
What is axiomatic and non-contentious is that liberal capitalism creates inequality. It is painfully clear to many that its very foundations rest upon the cruel ‘reality’ of scarcity. In order to create demand, one must have supply and we know that the two are fundamental to each other, and that its function stimulates competition thus affecting price. Let’s face up to the economic reality that surrounds us then: within the market system, where social entrepreneurs do their good deeds, inequality will constantly, tirelessly, relentlessly, rear its head no matter how many silly innovation funds are thrown out at lavish receptions in listed buildings.
The problem here is inherently political. We live in a world where philanthropy and charity is promoted and celebrated, while other more structural and potentially beneficial changes in our society are lauded as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘idealistic’ or ‘nice in theory’. Meanwhile, the political elite in our society will commend the innovation and dedication and sheer brilliance of the social entrepreneur for his or her passion and drive for social change, not really changing very much. Is it just me who finds this deeply unsettling?
“The seemingly obvious problem is that most people who identify as social entrepreneurs believe in the power of enterprise to order social affairs.”
The tragedy of the whole situation is that social entrepreneurship, with all its potential pulling power and influence, serves to merely consolidate the discrepancies of the market that governs it. Look no further than Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) who are committed to supporting “innovative thinking and new solutions”, and do so by “providing these innovators with funding and support that they need to grow and flourish”, and as a result of this support “it has seen Ireland change in fundamental ways.” Where is this change, I wonder, that has been so fundamental? I still see massive fundamental stagnations all around me, every day. I still see young people of all persuasions with no prospects of employment and self-fulfilment either forced into social welfare left with no option but to emigrate and to try and build a better future ‘over there’. I still see the wealth gap increasing with those in the top 1%, economically owning 28% (and growing) of the combined wealth in this country.
I still see government intent on implementing policies of austerity against its citizens, not contemplating increased tax rates for the highest earners in our society, crippling many households and forcing them to choose between buying new clothes for their children and paying an overdue heating bill. These are not choices that some of us in this university have to face, but they are choices that are very real, and very fundamental to our society as a whole. Meanwhile, the inequalities caused by the market are manufactured in new and more diverse ways, and the old ones are maintained and propagated in highly sophisticated structural mechanisms, through which they become institutionalised and normalised. To be fair to social enterprise, it is not the fault of social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship is just a facet of the system that created it. Arguably, as a relatively young agency it has achieved considerable amounts, all things considered. There are some projects that have had genuine impacts on communities and lives that must be applauded. However, one of the primary failures of Social Entrepreneurship, just as with mental health agencies, has been its lack of ability to span class boundaries by remaining, for the large part, a predominantly middle-class concept.
We don’t have to look further to the SEI awards that were held last week in Christchurch Cathedral to witness this exclusivity. It was a formal affair, with a keynote speech by President Michael D. Higgins. It is fair to assume that there were not too many attendees at the awards who were long-term residents of the Liberties, a working-class stronghold for the previous four hundred years located just meters up the road.
The point here is this: social entrepreneurship in itself is an elitist endeavour, but that’s precisely what keeps its wheels in motion. The brilliant minds that operate within its arena are those who are already in and of the system that leads them, and they are often therefore unwilling to contemplate altering that system. The tragedy lies between their potential and their ability. Make no mistake about it; the men and women who are passionate for change are some of the smartest and most capable minds that we have. But their ability to implement change that one may label as fundamental is outside the realms of possibility once the forces which are driving this change are being watched over by a system which places corporate interests at the top of its priority list. All one has to do is look at the list of corporate sponsors who support SEI and it becomes apparent – J.P Morgan Chase, Ulster Bank, KPMG, Diageo, A&L Goodbody, Vodafone; all loyal sponsors of this supposed force for fundamental change. One must ask: where do their interests lie?
Until there is genuine, non-corporate, structural change at the heart of social entrepreneurship, and until there is change that we can say with conviction is truly fundamental, I will remain highly cynical.