“Please don’t pee on my chips” says this young Transition entrepreneur

Published on April 7, 2014 in Blog with 1 Comment
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Here’s a guest post from Robert Holtom, one of the young people on the 1 Year in Transition course, responding to a recent article by Liam Black “Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur: the world needs your experience, not your iPad”. This is the first of more regular posts from Robert and other young people here on REconomy, in the UK and beyond.

 

Now, I like a good bit of advice just as much as the next young person but one thing I don’t like is being patronised, so I couldn’t help but be a little addled when I read Liam Black’s latest letter to Compass. What follows are my opinions on Liam Black’s opinions, or at least the ones he expressed in his letter, with a view to unravelling how they might, or might not be, of use to young social entrepreneurs and young people in general trying to navigate the uncertainty of 2014.

Summarising the article it appears Black is telling young social entrepreneurs to slow down and not rush into the business of social enterprise making. This is good advice, especially because establishing any enterprise that employs other people and hopes to serve a wider community is a huge responsibility, not least because others’ livelihoods are at stake. This is not something that should be taken lightly. Black implies he meets a lot of young people who think they’ve got the next “world saving app” or big idea when in actual fact their idea needs more rigorous scrutiny, methodical prototyping and redevelopment. I think it’s worth adding that it’s not just young people who think they’ve thought up the next best thing, older people can do this too.

So, fools rush in where angel’s fear to tread, haste make waste etc, fair enough, but asides this familiar piece of advice what does Black expect of these young social entrepreneurs?

Robert Holtom

Robert Holtom

Taking on the Government

Firstly, he points to the gross inequality in the UK, a national pastime that lingers on into the present and results in conditions that favour privately educated, wealthy, white males over others. Black then implies any social entrepreneur’s task should be to unravel this tangled knot of inequality but states that precisely because their business models do not “scale up and have a big impact” and “don’t get beyond a six figure turnover and remain very local” then they should quit before they start.

This can’t be right, why do all social enterprises have to scale up and be big? What about all the brilliant local initiatives that thrive precisely because they are closely tied to the needs and individualities of specific places? It’s worth pointing out, as E.F. Schumacher did, that small is beautiful, and it works. We do need big social businesses that can challenge the status quo of ingrained inequality and unethical business practice but we need grassroots organisations as well, and Black is being overly simplistic when he implies it is only the former that counts.

Furthermore, referencing the power of the British government alongside the aims of social enterprises implies the latter need to be able to rival an institution that has been around for hundreds of years and is supported by a legacy of ‘public’ education, landed wealth, exploitation and inheritance. The British government is very, very powerful. For example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has direct control of HM Treasury and appoints four of the nine members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has access to a nation’s police force and army.

The Cabinet

Yes, I’m being facetious, but surely Black is being naïve if he thinks rivalling the power of our government should be the yardstick of a social enterprise’s success. Furthermore, how are enterprises, social or not, democratically accountable to the people they serve? Sure, Britain’s democracy is often farcical, as we wait five years to cast a single vote, but who elects the boards of businesses? It is worth bearing in mind that companies floated on the stock exchange are legally obligated to maximise shareholder return on investment meaning that they serve capital before they serve community. Black would be the first to admit that a company such as Danone, however ethical their practice may be, still answers to the profit margin before it answers to ‘the people’.

In and amongst this somewhat mixed messaging Black then shares a link to a site on self-employment, which in turn points out how the self-employed don’t get paid as well as those employed within organisations. It seems he is trying to discourage young people going down the self-employed route, ironic, when a recent Guardian article points to the rise in self-employed and part-time positions because so many fulltime jobs the economy is producing are “insecure and poorly paid” (Guardian, 20th March, 2014).

So what message is Black trying to convey here? That if your salary isn’t over six figures and if you can’t count Boris Johnson as a member of your social network then you’re somehow failing? Sounds like power and money are being used as the hallmarks of success here, rather than personal fulfilment and contribution to positive social change, this all sounds dangerously familiar.

The Rat Race and the Rat’s Nest

According to Black:

“Starting up a social enterprise is not an alternative to a gap year or internship. It’s bloody hard work with a likelihood of failure or settling into mediocrity. Sorry to pee on your chips, kids.”

Firstly, we’re not kids, we’re young adults, secondly, please never urinate anywhere near my chips. But in all seriousness there’s quite a lot to pick up here, firstly the conflation of gap years and internships. This assumes that all gap years are worthless ‘gap yah’ parodies that only involve sambuca and chundering everywhere. What about Year Here, an organisation that encourages young people to volunteer in their local communities and become better acquainted with the political landscape of the UK. Yes, it favours people who can afford to take this sort of time out and those with political ambitions but at least it encourages them to buck the trend of being a typical careerist politico type who often knows very little of the people they represent, may I refer you back to the Cabinet that Black rightly lambasts.

And apparently internships aren’t hard work according to Black, just a walk in the park or a rave on Laos perhaps. I think not. So many internships, by their very nature, fit perfectly into our rich tradition of elitism, only available to those who can afford not to get paid for their work. Now, there’s another word for ‘not-getting-paid-to-work’, it’s exploitation. Exploitation through internships is rife, with some organisations ‘letting go’ of a whole level of junior employees only to replace them with paid and/or unpaid interns, for whom they have far less legal responsibility.

Meanwhile, other organisations that pay their ‘top brass’ over six figure salaries also depend on tens of interns a year to do much of their hard work – this practice is rife in so many sectors including fashion, art, charity and social enterprise. Suddenly your bus fare and a light lunch are justification for spending seven hours sat in front of a computer doing a job that someone used to be paid to do. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that months of interning will yield a job. The rise of internships is just another distressing but highly predictable symptom of the stuttering, failing economy we find ourselves in, one based on the relentless pursuit of power and money. Black says

“There are no quick fixes, silver bullets, easy answers to the rat’s nest of interlocking causes and symptoms of poverty and injustice.”

Spot on. Quick fixes invariably don’t fix and silver bullets kill people as well as werewolves. So let’s focus a little more on this rat’s nest. Well at least Black makes some apology for the actions of his baby boomer generation that has “fucked up so much.” But I’m not here to blame, and nor am I here to justify my own involvement in an economic system that is inherently exploitative, and simply by the grace of God meant I went here rather than somewhere else. But I would like some help, rather than someone offering to soak my carbohydrate snacks in their excreta.

rat's nest

It is precisely because it is a rat’s nest of interlocking causes and symptoms of poverty and injustice (and not some imperceptible, ethereal, all-powerful entity) that means we can begin to examine it, in order to understand where the problems lie and how to solve them. But Black is too busy patronising ‘kids’ who eat wee drenched chips to offer any solutions. Some better places to look include E.F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, Vandana Shiva’s Soil Not Oil, Polly Higgins’ Eradicating Ecocide and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital – all offer much insight into the problems of capitalism* and ways we could turn things around.

The Real World

So, what advice does Black have to offer?

“…get some real business skills first, really learn about and understand deeply the issue you want to change in the world, build your networks and personal resourcefulness.”

Point two is spot on – blustering in, colonial-style, into a ‘problem zone’ and trying to enforce your solution, however innovative, is not the way forward. Whereas, models of social change that bring ‘providers’ and ‘clients’ closer together, through co-production perhaps, offer inspirational means of solving real-world problems, alongside grass roots initiatives that empower communities to create their own social worlds, e.g. through local energy/food production. A raft of great examples can be found in the Transition Network and here at REconomy.

Point three is also apt – networks and resourcefulness are a must and these do take time. It’s hard in a world of X-Factor, instant consumer gratification and inventively cultivated celebrity culture to remember that success takes time and rarely comes because Simon Cowell deems you worthy. But putting the time in is part of the journey and you learn lots through the process, like university just without the fees and endless reading lists.

But where should we find the real business skills Black knows we need? In “politics, trade unions and mainstream business”, he states. Of course, because we can just waltz our way into one of these jobs can we, at a time when youth unemployment is high (19.8%), higher education is increasingly expensive and paid jobs are being replaced by unpaid internships. It seems the so-called real world is becoming increasingly inaccessible. Furthermore, a paragraph or so ago Black was telling us that politics was at the heart of the rat’s nest but now we’re being encouraged to jump straight in? And isn’t mainstream business, addicted to the profit margin as it is, a big part of the problem?

I’m just trying to unravel some of the knots in this piece and maybe I’m bitter because I don’t have a real job, I’m a storyteller after all. We do need brilliant people, of all ages, working in politics, trade unions, and mainstream business, to do the job they are supposed to – serve society. For example, in politics this mean actually striving to create a big, supportive society rather than undermining its vital public services, using its wealth to prop up exploitative and failing banks, and turning its police force against peaceful protesters. There are so many people across these sectors who strive to do great work, often spoken down by people with ulterior motives, and we need to congratulate them for it and help them. The late Tony Benn, the late Ray Anderson, Stella Creasy, Baroness Helena Kennedy, are some of the names that spring to mind.

Beyond the real world

But I think there’s so much more to be said, so much more scope for creativity, especially from a generation – the much maligned Generation Y – that was bought up on illusions of grandeur and simulacra of success. Black has a big drum to beat – big business should become big social business – and it’s great to hear him bash away at it (when he’s not peeing near our snacks), because he’s right, all business should be inherently ethical.

But there are so many other causes that need to be championed too but Black seems keen to ignore these and wants instead to only focus on his line of work. His article does not have to reference these other areas but he shouldn’t dismiss them either by glibly undermining the self-employed, the intern, the young, and the small-scale. I reckon those baby boomers could learn a thing or two from their babies.

The Real World

And who am I to write this? Well, I’m a privately educated, white, male who took a gap year, and has done a whole load of internships. But during the recession of 2008 I learnt about capitalism and climate change and after that things changed. I realised my privilege was founded on a legacy of exploitation, snobbery and injustice. I turned my analytical gaze (acquired whilst studying philosophy) onto my own life, and I found it disappointing and wanting.

So now I want to do my bit to help create a world in which we are all privileged, but in a way that doesn’t discriminate or exploit people or Earth. It’s not easy and I often find myself falling back into old habits. I do need help, lots of it, and I do not find Black’s article particularly helpful, it criticises without really offering hope at a time when the forecast is often bleak.

Now is not the time for ego or competition, it’s a time to acknowledge our differences, offer compassion, and do all that we can to make this work. If a rat’s nest of inequality and a string of unpaid internships is all the real world can offer (not to mention those soggy chips), then count me out. I’ll help create an unreal world instead where our compassion has no bounds and all generations work together to build a flourishing society.

I hear Liam Black is a brilliant speaker and he speaks at numerous universities, inspiring young people to have a positive social impact in the world. I hear he’s a great mentor as well. It’s just a shame that I did not see much of that Liam Black in his article.

 

*Capitalism takes many forms but in the UK its hallmarks include private property ownership, hierarchical command and control systems, consumerism, a commitment to economic growth at all costs, a neoliberal approach (rather than neoclassical), faith in markets, creative destruction, supply and demand driven competition, an increasing level of corporate power, historic legacies of wealth accumulation. However, I am not aiming to evoke and shun the bogeyman of ‘capitalism’ but I am asking that we scrutinise the myriad working (or not working) parts that are often broadly gathered together under the vague descriptor ‘capitalism’.

Photo credits: The Cabinet, Rat’s nest, The real world.

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