Thought piece from Ruskin CollegeĀ“s Fenella Porter

Fenella Porter (Ruskin College) says it’s is vital to re-imagine business, before we lose everything. The model of capitalism that we are currently pursuing is creating more inequality, undermining the education and the health of people, and failing more than 90% of us - including young people. We must imagine a new model of business; one that embeds a critique of capitalism and creates a thirst and a belief in social change.

As a contribution towards the project of reimagining business and how it shapes and is shaped by the model of capitalism we live with today, Ruskin College is asking some of the questions that affect us as an educational institution, and our students, so that we can create an educational space in which to nurture that thirst and belief in social change. These questions lie at the heart of our programme on Business and Social Enterprise. As a social enterprise college, Ruskin is also guided by its mission:  'To provide the best level of education and inclusion opportunities to adults - particularly those who may be excluded or disadvantaged - and to transform the individuals concerned along with the communities, groups and societies from which they came' (https://www.ruskin.ac.uk/about/our-vision)

Inequality - questioning ownership

Who owns what? Ownership - of houses, of capital, of consumer goods, of technology, of media - is central to wealth. Understanding ownership as a central aspect of wealth, also allows us to see how wealth can be so concentrated. Oxfam reports 'runaway inequality', where 62 people in the world own the same as the poorest half of the world's population (http://www.oxfam.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2016/01/62-people-own-same-as-half-world-says-oxfam-inequality-report-davos-world-economic-forum). And in Guardian project during March 2016, it is clear that the inequality that has been suffered between classes, between countries, between genders and between races, is now being starkly illustrated between generations too (http://www.theguardian.com/world/series/millennials-the-trials-of-generation-y). The concentration of wealth through ownership has been vital to the model of capitalism that we live with, and so questioning ownership and particularly individual, private ownership must be part of the conversation on how we can reimagine business. 

Education - what is it really for?

The writer and educationalist, Paulo Freire, talked about radical education as opposed to 'banking' education. By this he meant that information is not just given or invested in students, but that education itself should be a process of critical reflection and discovery. Without this kind of space, we cannot see what surrounds us. Increasingly educationalists such as Michael Rosen (http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/) are criticising the education system in the UK, for over testing and squeezing out the space for children's creativity. For Ruskin College and other educational institutions rooted in socialist and working class traditions, ensuring this creativity also means ensuring a 'critical space'; a space in which we can see the constraints of capitalism and build up critical responses, rather than just train people in how to 'succeed' in the current climate of business.

Health - dying to work

When people are workers, they are still people. The recent focus on mental health also highlights the stress and strain on people as they are constantly squeezed. The Surviving Work project (http://www.survivingwork.org) has documented how alienation and sheer overwork and exhaustion are commonly experienced by workers in all areas of work, and at all levels. This kind of pressure is creating health crises at a time when the health system can barely cope. In traditional Marxist terms this reflects the exploitation that lies at the heart of capitalism, where workers have to continue to be exploited in order that profit can be sustained (John Hilary, The Poverty of Capitalism, 2013). An alternative imagining of business, with social change at the heart of the idea of enterprise, must put at its centre the health and well-being of workers, as well as the need to sustain a publically funded health service that sustains workers rather than profit.

Communities and the relationships at the heart of a new model of business as social enterprise

Is it possible to create enterprises that have relationships with communities of people, that contribute to and nurture those relationships without the inequality of ownership and the exploitation of big business?

Indeed this is a model that must go further than reimagining business. Many local community and third sector organisations need to be part of this conversation, about how to build a new model of enterprise that takes place at the local, community level. Current trends in funding are towards ever larger, more competitive contracts. The process of bidding for these contracts is, for many local and community organisations, impossible. Furthermore, even if a contract is won, the metrics used to measure and 'prove' success are increasingly narrow and based on quantifiable indicators. This means that the values of many community organisations, based on understanding and responding to hugely complex and entrenched needs, are lost as they cannot be articulated in this model of funding. Perhaps even more tragic, the organisations providing these services are struggling to survive, and some are already losing that struggle. Other political and social movement organisations are also finding themselves in a situation in which they struggle to survive. As a local social enterprise, and as an educational institution committed to working class communities, at Ruskin we believe that rethinking business must include third sector organisations, and trade unions, and other allied social and political movements working towards social change.  

This is why we are working to bring together local social enterprises, trade union representatives, and representatives from broader social movements in seminars, workshops, and in our courses. We believe that we have to open up the conversation; we need to understand the fundamental tensions that lie at the heart of the capitalist model of business and ask whether or how we can do things differently. This is not just a question of creating businesses with social purpose - and whether or not this is even possible within the current capitalist model - but also creating a business model that can value and build on the underlying principles of fairness and equality