July 12, 2019

Comment: Is social enterprise a vehicle for neoliberalism?

by Professor Jo Barraket

This is an adaptation of Professor Jo Barraket’s recent plenary address at the 2019 EMES International Social Enterprise Research Conference in Sheffield, UK.

At the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne, while no-one was looking, we built the largest social economy research centre in the world. We currently have 63 researchers who aim to create real-world impact through their work on social enterprise, place-based development, and social innovation

There are many ways to think about social enterprises. They lend themselves to both supporting and challenging neoliberal orthodoxies. Despite two decades’ effort around classification by social enterprise academics and others, and the seemingly endless debate about definitions that leads the more jaded among us to roll our eyes, ‘social enterprise’ largely remains an empty or floating signifier, meaning different things to different people and used to galvanise action in both progressive and regressive directions. These differences are produced through different socio-political trajectories, policy regimes and social and ethno-religious norms in different parts of the world. Efforts to nail down the signifier in favour of a more progressive agenda are seen in linguistic adaptations such as ‘social solidarity economy’, ‘community enterprise’ and so on. As a research community, some of us have quietly introduced our qualifiers and signifiers for the inflections of social enterprise discourse which we want to describe. In scientific terms, this is probably an admirable attempt at more precisely describing the phenomena we are analysing. At a human level, I suspect, though, that this is just as much about identifying our normative positions and finding our tribes.

Is social enterprise a vehicle for neoliberalism?

Of course it is.

Australia, like many countries, is a place where neoliberal orthodoxies are so naturalised that most of us largely don’t even notice them. In jurisdictions where social enterprises are used as policy instruments to respond to the dismantling of welfare states, or to valorise paid work and enterprise as the source of all human value, where the discourse of social enterprise is used to impose managerial norms on not for profit organisations, where (mostly male) social entrepreneurs are held up as heroic standards of greatness, where we establish endless pitch competitions and encourage students to devise business solutions to problems of which they have no experiential knowledge (and which may not have market solutions), and where legal definitions of the concept determine what is and is not social enterprise according to mainstream regulatory agendas, we can’t but acknowledge the close interplay between legitimised forms of social enterprise, university discourses of social entrepreneurship and neoliberal agendas.

Is there room for contestation of neoliberalism through social enterprise and the wider social economy?

Also, absolutely yes.

Whether we look to the long traditions of cooperative and community ownership and the abiding genius of ‘one member, one vote’, or our imaginations are set alight by a platform cooperative model that crowdsources the expertise of people with physical disabilities to co-design and access better prostheses via virtual reality labs, or we examine the way social enterprise leaders engage in what Pascal Dey and Simon Teasdale have described as ‘tactical mimicry’ to get the resources they need by acting as ‘wolves for good in neoliberal sheep’s clothing’, we see the spaces for contestation, the moments of light in the neoliberal darkness, and the possibilities for progress. If we didn’t, wouldn’t those of us who dedicate our lives to this work for civic as well as scholarly purpose rather than dispassionate academic curiosity not give up? Seriously, there has to be some reason why I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years!

As scholars, though, I think we need to remain attentive to nuances and inflections or, to be very base, the good, the bad and the ugly. We need less description, a little less politeness and more debate. I also think we need to remain reflexive about the revisionism with which we sometimes engage, particularly with the construction of co-operativism as an emancipatory possibility. At the risk of being shouted at, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the co-op movement began as a reform movement rather than a revolutionary one. We also need to be alert to the practices of colonisation and repression that have arisen – consciously and otherwise – from the forms of organising for which many of us feel both a great nostalgia and hope for the future. There is repressive potential in social economy discourses that ignore diverse economic work – for example women’s unpaid labour, and forms of non-financial trade and reciprocity - and we need to remain alert to these issues in our analyses of social and solidarity economy broadly, and social enterprise in particular. In times past, co-operativism has been imposed by totalitarian regimes and weaponised against workers in the so-called global south. Whilst these experiences precede the rise of neoliberalism, they mark the repressive consequences of social enterprise logics when they are co-opted by dominant agendas, applied without attention to cultural differences and predicated on assumptions of class, culture, ableist and gender supremacy. 

So where does that leave us? The diverse economies literature and its precedents in Marxist feminism remind us that before the productive economy is possible, the distributive economy of care and reciprocity is necessary, quite literally, to give us life – a fairly foundational requirement of thought and action. I can’t speak for you and if you ask me tomorrow, I might feel differently but today I’m choosing care, reciprocity, the power of people-centred economics, and the hopeful but reflexive path.


 Professor Jo Barraket, Director, CSI Swinburne



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Comments (1)

  • 15.07.19 | 4:23PM

    Hi Jo, great article.

    The closing paragraph get to the nub of what we all should have underpinning our fallible striving and weaving through the dominant maze of power norms and paradoxes.

    Predating cooperativism was collectivism; no voting and no leaders, no police, no lawyers, no military, no one left behind! We have that wisdom right here help by the oldest culture on earth. it was based on reciprocity, relationships, obligation, balance. If we can stick to these ideals we will not even come close to the neoliberal agenda.

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