Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Defining ‘Social Enterprise’

by Jeff Ochs, Minnesota Business:

Jeff Ochs
For many years, the only thing clear about the definition of “social enterprise” was that it was unclear. Not anymore.

Twin Cities practitioners of social enterprise, led by the local chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance, have started unifying around a simple definition of the term for use in the local ecosystem.

The ivory tower debate aside, here, in our region, those on the ground now agree that a social enterprise is “an organization that sells products or services in order to achieve its social purpose.”

Let’s unpack that a bit. In short, to count as a social enterprise, an organization must pass two tests.

First, a social enterprise must officially have a social purpose. The most obvious type of organization that meets this first test is a nonprofit corporation that has received tax-exempt status from the IRS.

But other corporate forms can voluntarily declare a legally binding social purpose as well; LLCs, co-ops, and business corporations can write a social purpose into their Articles of Incorporation, compel directors to consider that purpose in all of their decisions, and require regular reporting on results.

Admittedly, it is currently challenging to form, differentiate, and evaluate social enterprises in the business world, but the arrival of the Public Benefit Corporation form in Minnesota this month changes that.

The second test that all social enterprises must pass is selling products or services. The most obvious type of organization that meets this test is a business. But some nonprofit corporations also have substantial earned revenue streams that support their social missions.

Stepping back, it is interesting to note that while all tax-exempt nonprofits meet the “social purpose” test, many do not meet the “sell products or services” test. Conversely, while all businesses meet the “sell products or services” test, many do not meet the “social purpose” test.

Since a social enterprise must meet both of these tests, it is helpful to think of social enterprise as inhabiting the intersection of “organizations with a social purpose” and “organizations that sell things.”

One of the reasons that the concept of “social enterprise” has been so elusive for so long is that it includes some (but not all) organizations in both the nonprofit and business sectors.

Social Enterprise Alliance-Twin Cities is introducing new language into the local ecosystem to help better separate these subgroups.

“Commercial nonprofits,” the phrase now used to describe a nonprofit social enterprise, earn a substantial portion of their annual revenue from the sale of products or services, while “contribution nonprofits” receive most of their revenue through donations, grants, or endowments.

“Social businesses,” the phrase now used to describe a “for-profit” social enterprise, have a legally binding social purpose that they report against regularly, while “traditional businesses” do not. These four categories and their relationship with the “social enterprise” label can be visualized in the following diagram:

Advocates of social enterprise are not implying that traditional businesses do not deliver social value. On the contrary, we celebrate that pursuing profit can and often does yield significant positive social value as a fortunate byproduct, and we point to this as evidence that the intentional pursuit of social impact and financial returns can go hand-in-hand, as they do in social businesses.

As Brad Brown and I discuss at length in our December 2013 white paper Present at the Creation, social enterprises only make sense if we challenge the traditional belief that an organization must choose either to make money or a social impact.

Instead we must recognize that every entity, regardless of corporate form, actually has both a financial value proposition and a social value proposition. Then we need to evaluate financial and social returns separately rather than assuming that profit and impact are always inversely proportional.

One of the greatest assets of the social enterprise movement is the tremendous variety of social enterprise models that proudly claim the label. But this diversity can also lead to confusion. Over time, local practitioners have agreed that nearly every social enterprise employs one or more of the following models: Social by sharing, by selling, and by sourcing. 

Social by sharing

Some enterprises are social because they exist to share a significant amount of profit or product with other charitable organizations or causes. Examples of this type of social enterprise include:
  • Finnegans, which donates 100% of its profits from selling beer to combat local hunger.
  • Latitude, which donates 50% of its profits from marketing work to empower those in extreme poverty.
  • Toms Shoes, which donates one pair of shoes to someone in need for each pair purchased.
Social by selling

Some enterprises are social because of what they sell or to whom they sell. In the first case, the product or service itself, when used by customers, results in a unique and compelling social (not just private) value. In the second case, a company may sell a conventional good but to a population that currently is not served by the market. Examples include:
  • Revolution Foods, which sells extraordinarily fresh, healthy meals to school cafeterias in order to combat obesity and improve child health.
  • thedatabank, which sells software and IT services to nonprofit organizations, which traditionally are underserved by the technology industry because they have lower purchasing power.
Social by sourcing

Some enterprises are social because of how they make their products or services. Common ways for ventures to source socially include using new environmentally friendly processes, employing vulnerable populations, locating in a certain warehouse or neighborhood, using minority-owned suppliers, and using sustainable materials. Some examples include:
  • Ten Thousand Villages, which sells products that are sourced from individual artisans from the developing world, using all natural and environmentally sustainable materials. 
  • Cookie Cart, which sells cookies to employ and provide job training to at-risk teenagers.
  • Calera, which sells bricks and concrete made exclusively from carbon recaptured from power plant smoke stacks
In order for social enterprises to thrive, advocates need to dispel the myth that there is no consensus about what social enterprises are nor any tools to help make sense of the sector’s diversity.

By repeating the same, simple definition (“an organization that sells products or services in order to achieve its social purpose”), using consistent language (“commercial nonprofits” and “social businesses”), and employing new frameworks (social by sharing, selling, and sourcing), local practitioners are not only positioning Minnesota as a leader in the international social enterprise movement, they are defining it. 


Jeff Ochs runs social enterprise Cornerstone Stories and serves on the board of the Social Enterprise Alliance-Twin Cities. He played a leadership role in drafting and advocating for the Minnesota Public Benefit Corporation Act, which went into effect this month.



Monday, 29 December 2014

The "Simple Life" Manifesto and How it Could Save Us

Urban food production (littleny/
by Frederick Trainer, The Conversation:

The aftermath of Christmas is a good time to think about where consumer-capitalism is getting us. The sad fact is that, with these values, our society can never be ecologically sustainable or just.

Accelerating global problems cannot be solved in a society obsessed with production and consumption, affluent living standards, market forces, the profit motive and economic growth. The only way out is via a huge and radical transition to The Simpler Way.

An exaggeration? Only if you fail to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot. Consider, for instance, the well-known “footprint” numbers. It takes eight hectares of productive land to provide water, energy, living space and food for one person in Australia.

If the 9 billion people of the future were to live as Australians do now, we would need about 72 billion hectares of productive land - about nine times the total on Earth. Even now, footprint analyses indicate that the world is consuming resources 1.5 times faster than we can sustain.

It gets worse. Our affluence, comfort and security could not be possible if we few who live in rich countries were not hogging most of resources. The per capita consumption of the top 10 countries for iron ore use is more than 80 times that of all the rest. If the global economy were not so grossly unjust we would have to get by with a tiny fraction of what we use now.

Yet despite the present unsustainable levels of production and consumption, we remain determined to increase them as much as possible, without any end in sight. Our supreme goal is economic growth, but few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible implications.

If the expected 9 billion people were to enjoy the ”living standards” forecast for Australians by 2050 (assuming 3% yearly economic growth), the world’s total consumption would be about 30 times as much as it is now.

It is difficult to see how anyone aware of these basic numbers could avoid accepting that people in countries like Australia should be trying move to far simpler and less resource-intensive lifestyles and economies. The decreases might have to be around 90% - something that can only be achieved through dramatic reductions in production, consumption, and economic activity.

This is what the “limits to growth” literature has been telling us for decades, but most economists, politicians and ordinary people still fail to grasp the point. It is also now clear that increasing the GDP in a rich country does not improve the quality of life!

So let’s shift to the Simpler Way

This is the term some of us are using for the kind of society in which we could easily make these huge reductions, while actually liberating ourselves to enjoy a far higher quality of life than we have now - if we wanted to. But we could not do it without unprecedented, radical structural and cultural changes.

Here are the basic elements of The Simpler Way:

We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can, both at the national level, meaning much less international trade, but more importantly at local and household levels. We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving economies which produce much of what they need from local resources.

Home gardens and mini-farms throughout suburbs would allow nutrients to be recycled back to the soil. Most of us could get to work by bicycle or on foot, and there would be almost no need for food packaging, food transport or marketing, and little need for fridges.

Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing the urban land area available for community gardens, workshops, and nature.

Most of your neighbourhood could become an “edible landscape”, crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants. We could convert one house on each block to become the neighbourhood workshop and gathering place.

There would also be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on tanks and ponds. Many raw materials can come from the commons, the small woodlots, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows, clay pits, from which all can take free food and materials.

It would be a leisure-rich environment, full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, drama clubs, animals, gardens, farms, forests, and things to see and do. People would be less inclined to travel for leisure or holidays, reducing the national energy consumption.

People would work on voluntary rosters, committees and community work groups to maintain infrastructure and provide services (the Spanish anarchists ran whole towns without any politicians or bureaucracy, via citizens’ committees and assemblies).

If you think this all sounds a bit unlikely, you’re right. There is no chance of making these kinds of changes in our present economic system.

It would require a radically new economy: one with no growth and not driven by market forces. Investment and distribution decisions would have to be made by deliberate collective processes.

This does not mean we must have centralised, bureaucratic, authoritarian, distant, big-state socialism. Most of the small firms and farms might remain as privately owned ventures or cooperatives, as long as they kept within guidelines set by the community.

Towns and suburbs will collectively take basic control of their local productive systems, which would enable them to eliminate unemployment, poverty and homelessness. They will simply set up small firms and cooperative gardens and workshops whereby those without jobs can contribute to producing goods and services the town needs, being paid in our local currency.

Most people would need to work for money only one or two days a week (in consumer-capitalist society we work far harder than necessary).

Surrounding the town or suburban economy would be a regional economy in which more elaborate items would be produced, such as shoes, hardware and tools. A few items, such as steel, would need be moved long distances from big centralised factories, but very little would need to be transported from overseas.

Most of the decisions that matter would be taken at the level of the town assembly, not the nation state. Democracy would be participatory, as opposed to representative. Big centralised governments could not possibly run our small local communities. That could only be done by the people who live there, and who understand the local needs and opportunities.

Obviously, we as individuals will only live well if our town thrives. Our real wealth and welfare would be due to public factors, such as a beautiful landscape and a caring community. Our personal incomes and property will not be important. The situation would require and reward good citizenship.

The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in our outlook and values. The present commitment to individualistic competition for affluent “living standards” and ever-increasing wealth would have to be replaced by a strong desire to live simply and frugally, cooperatively, and self-sufficiently.

Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means being content with what is sufficient, and seeking enjoyment from non-material pursuits. Living in ways that are frugal and that minimise resource use should not be seen as a burden or sacrifice that must be made to save the planet. These ways can be sources of great life satisfaction.

Neither does it mean turning our backs on the modern world. The Simpler Way would let us keep all the high-tech ways that are socially desirable. We would have far more resources for science, research, education and the arts than we have now because we would have stopped wasting vast amounts of resources on non-necessities.

Obviously at present the chances of such a transition being achieved are very poor. But the global situation is rapidly deteriorating and increasing numbers are realising that consumer-capitalism is not going to solve our problems.

Many in the Voluntary Simplicity, Permaculture, Downshifting, De-growth, Eco-village and Transition Towns movements are now enjoying living in the ways described and are working for transition to some kind of Simpler Way.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Underinvesting in the Public Good


There are quite a few investments in social programs that would have spectacular return on investment, but that in fact remain unfunded or underfunded.

I am thinking here of things like broadened preschool programs, enhanced dropout prevention programs, regional economic development efforts, and prison re-entry programs.

Why are these spectacular opportunities so dramatically under-exploited in the United States and other nations?

One line of answer derives from a public choice perspective: the gains that follow from the investment represent public goods, and public goods are typically under-provided.

But that doesn't really answer the question, because it is governments that are underinvesting, not uncoordinated groups of independent agents. And governments are supposed to make investments to promote the public good.

Another plausible answer is that the citizens who are primarily served by most of the examples provided above are poor and disenfranchised; so the fact that they would benefit from the program doesn’t motivate the politically powerful to adopt the policy.

There is also a powerful influence of political ideology at work here. Conservative ideas about what a good society looks like, how social change occurs, and the role of government all militate against substantial public investment in programs and activities like those mentioned above.

These conservative political beliefs are undergirded by a white-hot activism against taxes that makes it all but impossible to gain support in legislative bodies for programs like these - no matter what the return on investment is.

Failure to achieve these kinds of social gains through public investment might seem like a very basic element of injustice within our society. But it also looks like strong evidence of system failure: the political and economic system fail to bring about as much public good as is possible in the circumstances.

The polity is stuck somewhere on the low shoulders of the climb towards maximum public benefit for minimum overall investment.

It is analogous to the situation in private economic space where there are substantial obstacles to the flow of investment, leaving substantial possible sources of gain untapped. It is s situation of massive collective inefficiency, quite the contrary of Adam Smith's view of the happy outcomes of the hidden hand and the market mechanism.

This last point brings us back to the public goods aspect of the problem. A legislature that designs a policy or program aimed at capturing the gains mentioned here may succeed in its goal and yet find that the gains accrue to someone else - the public at large or another political party.

The gains are separated from the investment, leaving the investment entity with no rational incentive to make the investment after all.

Some policy leaders have recognized this systemic problem and have turned to an innovative possible solution, social impact bonds (link). Here is how the Center for American Progress explains this idea.
A social impact bond, or SIB, is an innovative financial tool that enables government agencies to pay for programs that deliver results. In a SIB agreement, the government sets a specific, measurable outcome that it wants achieved in a population and promises to pay an external organization - sometimes called an intermediary - if and only if the organization accomplishes the outcome. SIBs are one example of what the Obama administration calls “Pay for Success” financing. (link)
Essentially the idea is to try to find a way of privatizing the public gains in question, so that private investors have an incentive to bring them about.

This is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really solve the fundamental problem: society's inability to make rational investment in its own wellbeing. It seems more like a way of shifting risks of program success or failure from the state agency to the private entity. Here is a McKinsey discussion of the concept (link), and here is a more skeptical piece in the Economist (link).

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Social Enterprise, Community and Responsible Revolution

by Lynn Serafinn, The 7 Graces of Marketing:

NOTE: The event spoken about in this article took place in June 2012, but you can still watch the video replays from the event (18 hours of viewing) by clicking HERE.

The 3-day 7 Graces Global Conference ended on a high last week. But what’s the next step? After all the talks and inspiration, how DO we heal humanity and the planet by changing the paradigm of business?

If you attended the 7 Graces Global Conference in London or via live stream on June 22nd-24th, 2012, you know how powerful it was for many people, as they began to see how the Graces could make a real difference to themselves and the world.

For some, they saw how they could bring the social values of 7 Graces into their own businesses. For others, it meant they could identify other businesses of like mind, with whom they could form meaningful partnerships and collaborations.

But for many of the group, they  also saw how it could become an energy for social change, as they discussed how they could create projects that reached the public and help foster a new era of responsible and conscious entrepreneurship in our younger generations.

Many of those who attended the conference have become part of a new Facebook group started by Kate Griffiths called “The 7 Graces Global Garden” at .

The intention of the group was to continue the dialogue, and also to discuss some of the collaborative ideas many members of the group had for how 7GGC could serve the public. After 5 days, it became obvious that people were confused as to the direction this was all going, so I stepped in to create a video message that, I hope, will help bring some clarity to the vision I have for the 7 Graces project.

This video is 31 minutes long, so grab your cuppa so you can relax while viewing! Also, the level of my voice is lower than the volume of the music at the beginning/end, so you’ll have to adjust the volume.

In this video message, I share my own personal vision for the future and direction of 7GGC as it moves towards becoming a social enterprise , and invites members to explore what they want from the organisation, and how their personal  desires, talents and passions fit within the bigger vision.

I explain some of the practical aspects of setting up a social enterprise, the “stake” of 7GGC, the concept of “responsible revolution” and some insight into how it can foster social values and socially conscious enterprise, with an initial focus on post-compulsory education aged youth in Great Britain.

At the end of the video, you can also read the 7 Graces Mission Statement, which shows how each of the 7 Graces can help define the values of new paradigm businesses.

The 7 Graces is a holistic approach to business and advertising, devoted to creating harmonious relationships with people, our economy and the delicate ecological balance of our natural world. They are the values I hold dear, and the principles to which I continually aspire to attain in my work and personal life. They are based upon a paradigm first introduced in my book The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell.

Please leave your comments, thoughts, ideas and innovations in the comments box below, so I can hear your feedback about this message.
If you did not attend the 7 Graces Global Conference in June 2012, you can still watch the video replays from then event (18 hours of viewing) by clicking HERE.
Our Facebook group is open to all who wish to become part of the active project.
LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing - How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically.

She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.

Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India.

Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project CIC, a not-for-profit social enterprise created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Goodbye Old Economy: Enter the New Era of Social Enterprise

New Economyby Lynn Serafinn, The 7 Graces of Marketing:

Lynn Serafinn, Founder of The 7 Graces Project , discusses how we have outgrown our economic models, and how social enterprise could hold the key to our future.

While it is becoming an increasingly popular idea here in the UK and Europe, the business model known as a ‘social enterprise’ is still a new concept for many.

Simply put, a social enterprise is new paradigm business model that amalgamates enterprise with a social focus.

The company’s constitution must clearly state how its activities will serve specific needs of a particular community. The ‘community’ it serves does not have to be geographically defined; it could be a worldwide or virtual community defined upon specific needs.

For example, the 7 Graces Project CIC serves a global community of independent business owners seeking to develop their ethical business and marketing practice.

While technically a non-profit organisation, a social enterprise can make a profit. But rather than benefitting shareholders, the bulk of this profit must be reinvested back into the company, thus enabling it to better serve the community.

As I see it, the idea of social enterprise as an alternative business model has arisen as a response to the relentless and never-changing economic and political swings the world has endured over the past two centuries.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (and even before), two broad ideological models have been continuously batting against each other for supremacy: capitalism and socialism. This dichotomy formed the foundations of the Cold War between East and West throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

Consciously or not, our personal socio-economic orientation tends to fall into one or the other of these two camps. But since the global collapse of BOTH of these economic models over the past generation, we now find ourselves questioning the validity of either.

Capitalism vs. Socialism Stripped Naked

Over the years, I’ve trudged through many books on economics and economy theory. My conclusion after all this study is that I am no economist. My brain rejects the complexity of it all.

I like to see things at the most basic level, because I believe simplicity underlies everything in our Universe, no matter how complicated we humans tend to make things.

So, for my own sake, and for those who think like I do, here’s how I would explain Capitalism and Socialism when stripped down to their most basic level:
  • Capitalism is the belief that everyone has a fundamental right to engage in free enterprise and reap the fruits (profits) of their labour.
  • Socialism is the belief that governments have the fundamental responsibility to serve the needs of society and ensure the well-being of all.
Defined like this, both ideologies seem to be equally desirable. Who would not want to be free to engage in enterprise and reap the profits of their work? Who would not want to have their government ensure their well-being?

Yet, in spite of the soundness of both of these visions, Capitalism and Socialism have been on opposite sides of the economic and political pendulum for decades. Things swing Right (Capitalist, Conservative, Republican, Tory) and then they swing Left (Socialist, Liberal, Democrat, Labour) and then back again.

When something goes awry under the Left, advocates of the Right wag a big, self-righteous finger blaming the Left for everything that is wrong in the world. A few years later, the scenario repeats itself, but this time, it’s the Left who are wagging their fingers at the Right.

Over time, this continual swing of the economic pendulum has only made our problems worse, as we find that neither of these paradigms is 100% ‘right’ for either humanity or the planet:
  • Capitalism without responsibility leads to exploitation of people and resources, an increasing divide between rich and poor, overproduction, overspending, over-consumption, debt and severe environmental imbalances .
  • Socialism without free enterprise leads to over-taxation, economic and political dependency, apathy, and an endemic loss of craftsmanship, innovation, initiative and self-worth.
Most of us in the West tend to think that we live in a capitalistic society, but really our modern world is always a combination of these two economic models.

Even third-sector, ‘non-for-profit’ organisations are dependent upon the co-existence of Capitalism and Socialism. For example, many charities would suffer if they did not receive both corporate donations and government grants.

Social Enterprise as a Balancing Force

The institution of the social enterprise provides us with a viable opportunity to break from this dizzying swing of extremes, and balance the best of all ideologies:
  • Like Capitalism, social enterprise is about enterprise. It has to function like a business. It cannot depend upon donations, taxation or grants to support it. It must generate enough money to sustain itself so it can do what it is meant to do.
  • Unlike Capitalism, the majority of the profit generated must go back into the enterprise itself. There are also legal limits as to how much profit can be distributed to shareholders.
  • Like Socialism, a social enterprise must be justified, defined and driven by a recognisable social purpose. Making a profit serves the company because as the company’s assets increase, it becomes more able to serve society.
  • As a non-profit organisation, a social enterprise is eligible for some funding as a charity would be, but it cannot depend upon funding for its sustenance. Thus, it can benefit from the philanthropy and generosity of others, but it cannot become lax, needy or complacent.
  • When a social enterprise dissolves, its assets must be given to another social enterprise with a similar social aim. Thus, unlike any of the afore-mentioned economic models, the social enterprise incorporates economic and social sustainability.
Why Our Economic Model Needs to Change

While many political and economic analysts in the media have shared their complex views of how and why we have found ourselves in the current recession, I believe it can be explained more simply:

Economic crisis was inevitable because our technologies rapidly advanced while our old economic models stayed the same.

Capitalism was ‘invented’ before our modern technologies were even imagined. It worked fine when our rate of production matched our rate of consumption. But the more advanced our technologies became, the more efficient we became at extraction, manufacturing and transportation.

This meant more products got to more people more quickly and we found ourselves with way more ‘stuff’ than we used to have.

Driven by our Capitalist model of linear economic growth, we had to figure out ways to drive down costs, and to encourage people to throw out their old stuff to buy new stuff. So, we invented modern marketing to encourage people to consume all this extra ‘stuff’.

The mismatch between our own efficiency and our Capitalistic model ensnared us in a relentless cycle of over-production, over-spending, debt, pollution and environmental waste at an unprecedented scale. And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg; we’re not even looking at how it has impacted our societies, health and overall well-being.

Over and over throughout the 20th Century, we saw many warning signs that technology would one day catch up with us, but we chose to ignore them.

The first sign was the Great Depression of the 1930s. But in America, rather than opening the Pandora’s Box to discuss what was really going on, US President F.D. Roosevelt responded to this crisis by introducing income tax and social benefits - a clear example of how we tend to respond to Capitalistic problems with Socialistic solutions.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the words ‘recession’ and ‘inflation’ rotated in the headlines almost on a daily basis. Later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, we tried to plug up the leaky dam of Capitalism with the ‘chewing gum’ of a ‘credit card economy’, in a vain attempt to create the illusion that there was plenty of money to go around.

Eventually, we learned what a lie this was. Even entire governments fell into this economic trap by over-spending, especially on military technologies. Capitalism finally seemed to be crumbling under its own weight.

And still, in spite of nearly a century of warnings, most of us hold on to our out-dated economic thinking. We imagine we need to ‘fix’ our economic systems, rather than replace them. I find it ironic that we seem to have no qualms about upgrading our mobile phone every two years, but we’ve been stubbornly clinging to basically the same two economic models for over two centuries.

Let’s face it. It’s time we hold our hands up and admit it:

ALL our former economic models are obsolete.

It’s time we stop talking about fixing our economy, and start talking about redesigning it. But if the time for ‘business as usual’ is over, what could be the alternative?

Why Does the World Need Social Enterprise NOW?

I believe the new business paradigm of social enterprise can help provide the framework for that alternative. I also strongly believe social enterprise will play a vital role in the recovery of the global economy over the next generation. Just as Capitalism and Socialism each had their place in history, now is the ‘Era of the Social Enterprise’.

That is why I felt it was very important that the 7 Graces Project CIC would be a social enterprise. If the purpose of the 7GP is to help foster other new paradigm businesses , surely it had to be a living, breathing example of one. Over the past year, many ideas about what that would look like have come into our 7GP ‘boardroom’.

Finally, our business model is taking a tangible form. I spent 5 days working this past week on a 3-year plan for the 7 Graces Project with my colleague and co-director, Nancy Goodyear. We came up with some very exciting ideas, especially around how to make the enterprise itself sustainable, not just financially, but in terms of human resources.

And THAT is what makes the social enterprise such a vibrant concept. It’s not just about creating ways for the company to make money; it’s about designing a system where the company can keep serving society even after we’re long out of the picture. It’s taking business to a new, holistic level, profits serve the businesses, and businesses serve society.

Yes, it’s an experiment. Yes, it will be wobbly at first. But I have no doubt that this socially-oriented approach to business will become the norm rather than the exception by the time my young grandson has children of his own.

I cannot bear to imagine what the future would hold in store for us if we stubbornly persist in holding on to our old, antiquated economic systems.

But if we dare to step into that great unknown and challenge our old ways of thinking by creating new, innovative, socially focused business models - such as the social enterprise - we might just find ourselves stepping into the next phase of human evolution.

I, for one, feel privileged to be alive at this truly remarkable time in history, and to be amongst the early adopters of this innovative new paradigm. I hope you’ll share the journey that lies ahead with us. Please stay connected with the 7 Graces Project by subscribing to this blog and joining our Facebook community.

And, of course, please share your own experiences with social enterprise in the comments below. That way, we can all help each other as we work together to create a brighter future.

Lynn Serafinn
25 August 2013

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Conscious Capitalism: How to Make the Most of the Kindness in Business

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Paul Levy, University of Brighton

When companies start to struggle, some people hope that the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) can help CEOs understand themselves and learn to adapt, but too often that is engulfed by traditional ways of running a company.

Better to look at how we can create an organisation which runs along entirely different lines. There exists a model which can help.

John Mackey, the founder of organic food retailer Whole Foods Market has promoted the idea of “Conscious Capitalism”.

On one level it represents an ideal of benevolence and goodness, and has been the starting point for those wanting to build the idea of a conscious business, where values (and CSR guidelines) define business interactions and act as an antidote to greed, corruption and social irresponsibility.

The Conscious Business Institute defines Conscious Business here:
[It] is about people who are aware of the impact their habits and actions have on their organisation and their environment … Conscious Businesses require authentic leaders that do not exercise dominance and control to reach a goal, but who are of service to the business, its people, its customers and the community.

Beyond CSR

However, Mackey’s original book went deeper and further than just CSR. Conscious Capitalism was about being awake to the consequences of business action. It was about heightening awareness of how a company operates itself, as well as how it senses and responds to the external environment.

Problems like those we have seen in the banking sector, and perhaps at the troubled retail giant Tesco, might be addressed with an approach that took this into account.

This deeper definition of conscious business takes a more literal approach. A business can be more or less “conscious”. Consciousness can be viewed along a number of different dimensions.

Take Fred Kofman’s, quotes from the Ayn-Rand-acolyte Nathaniel Branden, who died earlier this month and whose broad view of consciousness went beyond this simplistic “good and kind” definition used by so many:
Living consciously is a state of being mentally active rather than passive. It is the ability to look at the world through fresh eyes. It is intelligence taking joy in its own function. Living consciously is seeking to be aware of everything that bears on our interests, actions, values, purposes and goals. It is the willingness to confront facts, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the desire to discover our mistakes and correct them … It is the quest to keep expanding our awareness and understanding, both of the world external to self and of the world within.

Running the show

So much for theory and the grand themes. Let’s imagine that Dave Lewis, the new boss of Tesco, wants to do more than tick the CSR box in his annual report and actually apply the practice of conscious business.

Well, there are companies organised along more democratic lines and who operate using open and enquiry-based methods rather than top-down, solution-based ways of working. Firms like Nixon-McInnes and Propellernet in the UK are demonstrating new ways of being successful.

Nixon McInnes, voted one of the world’s most democratic companies, underlines the importance of creating responsive, enquiry-based relationships with clients, rather than the take-what-you-get traditional delivery-based model. It isn’t what we want to sell them, it is what they need.

One process (called, rather strangely “SPIN” by Nixon McInnes founder, Tom Nixon), aims to arrive at a genuinely open conversation between customer and supplier, ferreting out the problems that the customer is really trying to solve. So, a conscious business attempts to raise its awareness of its customers by banishing traditional selling in favour of “sensing” and “responding”.

Propellernet, meanwhile, tries to raise the awareness and “authority” of their clients. The motto goes:
We help our clients to become genuine authorities in their chosen markets.
It becomes more about dialogue than delivery. Propellernet have experienced rapid growth through their much more real-time, responsive approach to clients, seeing the customer relationship more as an ongoing dialogue than the discrete delivery of products or services.

This dialogue continues internally, on an ongoing basis. Voted as one of the best places to work in 2014, a culture of openness and transparency is key. Quality of working life, and a democratic approach encourage staff to challenge mediocrity and constructively disrupt the status quo.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the foreign exchange departments of some of the world’s major banks could have done with a bit of this.

Feeling part of the decision-making process as well as feeling safe to challenge are keys to a business remaining conscious. Of course, in both cases there are still dynamics that can create tension and difficulty around ownership, politics and commercial pressures.

Both Propellernet and Nixon McInnes would see conscious businesses an an aspiration rather than an arrival point. In a way conscious business is not an end state but an everyday enquiry into how business is conducted.


It might seem fairly simple, but it is actually represents a u-turn in how many companies operate. The idea is that a conscious business moves away from “advocacy” alone. Advocacy is what we put out, what we deliver, what we decide and what we say. On the other hand, “enquiry” is a state of ongoing responsiveness, curiosity, questioning and openness.

Conscious businesses are more conscious because their core business process is a real time readiness to sense, enquire and respond. This is more successful when both the internal and external environment are changing rapidly. We become more agile because we are enquiring all the time.

Action becomes simultaneous to that enquiry, it doesn’t happen “after the fact” (so, we decide and enquire at the same time). Simply put, a conscious business is highly responsive and able to improvise - a worthy goal for any CEO, in retail, in banking or any other sector.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 15 December 2014

A Community-Based Resilience Framework

by Dave Pollard, How to Save the World:

Preparing for the Fall 2

When I am asked by people “What can we do now?” to prepare for economic, energy, or ecological collapse, I have of late been suggesting doing the things shown in boxes 2, 3, 4, and 7 in the graphic above - healing (and self-healing), learning new skills to liberate yourself (and others) from dependence on large centralized systems (these systems will be the first to collapse), modelling resilience (exemplifying sustainable, joyful, present living so that others can see what that looks like), and building community.

I’ve started to realize that this is an incomplete list, and that it is too early to make any real progress on some of the things on this list. So I’ve created the 7-facet resilience framework shown above, and am beginning to identify three phases in implementing it:

I. First Steps (things we can each do right now, mostly to “take stock” of our current situation and how we are likely to be affected by collapse);
II. Immediate Practices (things we can quite easily start making part of our daily or monthly routine, that will increase our resilience);
III. Intentional Practices (things we can start thinking about moving towards, but which are likely not practical to start doing yet).

Here are the things I think we can do in each of these three Phases, in each of the 7 Facets of Resilience.

Although we can begin the community-oriented actions now, it is almost inevitable that our definition of community is likely to change dramatically as collapse forces a drastic relocalization of social, political, and economic activity, as cities and suburbs and places far from healthy sustainable food are hollowed out, and as billions become economic or ecological refugees and undertake long and repeated migrations to find sustainable places to live.

For that reason, many of the Phase III Intentional Practices listed below are longer-term activities that won’t make sense for us to do until we know where and with whom we’ll be living as civilization’s collapse reaches its latter stages, and have a better sense of how that collapse is unfolding and how it is affecting our communities.
  1. Self-Knowledge and Self-Awareness:
    1. First Steps: Take stock of what we know about ourselves. What are our gifts, the things we are uniquely good at doing? What are our passions, the things we love doing and want to do? What is our purpose, the thing that gives our life meaning and drives us? What is in the Sweet Spot at the intersection of our gifts, passions and purpose, the things we are ‘meant to do’ in this life? What are our capacities, the qualities that make us most useful to and helpful to our loved ones and community? What are our vulnerabilities, our ‘incapacities’, the areas where we of necessity need and want to lean on others? What are our fears, the things that prevent us, trigger us, make us at times dysfunctional? What grief, sorrow and anger do we hold that defines us, shapes our worldview, haunts and inhibits us? The reason for knowing these things is not to change or ‘improve’ ourselves but just to know and recognize ourselves for who we really are, and hence where we ‘fit’ in a sustainable community.
    2. Immediate Practices: How can we expand our self-knowledge to unearth our undiscovered gifts and passions? How can we practice being and becoming more self-aware in the moment, catching ourselves being triggered, angered, distressed by events or situations we cannot control, things that are really happening only inside our heads and which do not help us cope with fast-changing reality? Self-awareness is a key element of presence, a quality that we will need in spades to deal with collapse.
  2. Self-Healing and Healing Each Other:
    1. First Steps: Take stock of our personal physical, emotional and psychological health. What do we do now, habitually, that may make our health worse (stressful work, substance use, poor diet etc.)? Identify these things without self-judgement - things are the way they are for a reason, and we all understandably have our coping mechanisms, unavoidable stresses and ‘guilty pleasures’. What do we do now, habitually, that may make our health better (diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing, relationships with community and support, herbs and alternative medications and therapies)? Also, take stock of the skills and capacities we have that can enable us to help heal others.
    2. Immediate Practices: What processes can we put in place to prevent accidents, illnesses, and the stresses and other triggers that lead to them? What processes can we put in place to monitor our health, and to self-diagnose and self-treat illnesses before they become acute or chronic? How can we gently and sustainably shift the habitual practices we identified in (I.) above to improve our health? How might we develop practices to make us more forgiving, more empathetic, more connected to those with whom we live and work, and more connected with all-life-on-Earth? And how might we strengthen and practice our capacities to help heal others?
    3. Intentional Practices: What can we begin to learn to do that will better equip us to stay healthy, and help others stay healthy, when centralized health care systems (the hospital system, the pharmaceutical system, emergency services, specialized medicine) collapse? What can we begin to learn to do that will make us more ready to deal with health crises caused by natural disasters and pandemics? How can we, working together in community, begin to create a no-charge mutual health-care network that will get us all healthy and keep us all healthy?
  3. Self-Liberation and Liberating Each Other:
    1. First Steps: Take stock of our personal dependence on large centralized systems (political, legal, financial, economic, technological, educational, police/fire). How much do we depend on the growth economy for our job, our pensions, credit, cheap imported clothing, the value of our home, insurance and investments, and income to repay our debts? How much do we depend on centralized transportation systems (roads, airplanes etc.)? How much do we depend on cheap fuel and the power grid? How much do we depend on the industrial agriculture system for cheap, plentiful food? How much do we depend on the construction industry for cheap housing and repairs to our shoddily-made homes? How much do we depend on the Internet and the entertainment ‘industry’ for our information, connection and recreation? Also, take stock of the skills and capacities we have that might enable us to help liberate others from their dependence on these centralized systems.
    2. Immediate Practices: Looking at the current dependencies identified in (I.) above, what are 2-3 things we could easily and joyfully do to reduce our dependence? How might we learn to identify and gracefully ask for what we need from those within our communities? How might we learn to need less (e.g. finding work closer to home)? How might we learn to live a wilder (healthier) and less ‘settled’ life, so that when circumstances or opportunities require us to move, that move is less ‘unsettling’? And how might we strengthen and practice our capacities to help others in our community reduce their dependencies?
    3. Intentional Practices: Once we have a good sense of what community we intend to live in for the longer term (i.e. where we plan to move before the industrial growth economy completely collapses), and who else lives (or will live) in that community, we can start to identify the people and collaboratives in that community that can provide all the essential goods and services that we now depend on large centralized systems to provide, and start to relocalize to reduce our personal and collective dependence, through a community-based egalitarian gift economy.
  4. Modelling Resilience:
    1. First Steps: Assess our value to others as a model. To what extent do we exemplify elements of resilience such as self-knowledge and self-awareness, authenticity, generosity, agility, non-attachment, transparency, honesty, humility, candour, vulnerability, empathy, articulateness, creativity, critical thinking, openness, compassion, facilitation, mentoring, contemplative gratitude, and presence? To what extent are we of use to those we love and those in our community, in a way that enables them to follow our example rather than making them dependent on us?
    2. Immediate Practices: What are 2-3 things we could do, easily and joyfully, that might make us more useful and more exemplary to others?
  5. Finding and Helping Life Partners:
    1. First Steps: Take stock of our relationships. Are they healthy, joyful, sufficient, complementary?
    2. Immediate Practices: How can we find ways to love better, and let ourselves be loved better? How can we learn to love more people, and all life on Earth (including ourselves), more courageously and unreservedly? How can we learn an attitude of abundance and compassion in love, rather than one of scarcity, fear and jealousy?
  6. Finding and Helping Work Partners and Serving Community:
    1. First Steps: Assess whether the work we are doing is in our Sweet Spot. Take stock of our relationships with work partners. Are they healthy, joyful, sufficient and complementary?
    2. Immediate Practices: If our present work is not in our Sweet Spot, how can we begin to find or create work that is? To do that, how might we find work partners who share our passions and purpose, and whose gifts and capacities complement our own? And then, working in collaboratives with those partners, how might we begin to research and identify unmet local needs through iterative conversations with people in our community, and fill those needs? (One process for this is outlined in my book Finding the Sweet Spot).
    3. Intentional Practices: The collaboratives we identify in phase (II.) above will gradually become more and more viable and the work they do will become more essential as the economy crumbles and relocalizes and as large corporate enterprises disappear in the post-industrial world. How can we get the timing right to shift from reliance on our current industrial-economy jobs, to making a sustainable, responsible and joyful living in local, co-operative, natural collaboratives? How do we sustain our connection to our community to serve it and continue to meet its evolving needs? How do we help bring about the larger shift from a non-egalitarian industrial scarcity economy to a true gift economy?
  7. Building Community:
    1. First Steps: Take stock of your own community’s (or, if you’re planning to move, your intended community’s) self-sufficiency, dynamics, connection and resilience. Assess your knowledge of the essential elements of a healthy community.
    2. Immediate Practices: How might we learn more about the vulnerabilities of our community and current culture, and the strengths and talents we have collectively in our community that can help us cope effectively and autonomously with crises and collapse? (One way is through doing table-top simulations with others in our community, such as Collapse: The Resilient Communities Game*). What are 2-3 things we could do in our community to easily and joyful create a stronger sense of community and know each other better (e.g. inviting all of our neighbours - even those we don’t particularly like - to a potluck supper, or holding a Gift Circle).
    3. Intentional Practices: As centralized systems collapse and more and more aspects of our lives are relocalized, how can we help our chosen communities achieve the three essential qualities of sustainability that Dmitri Orlov outlines in his book Communities That Abide: Self-sufficiency, the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of crisis, and mobility (not being tied to any one place)? How can we learn to live with, and even love, people we don’t really like? How can we transform the isolated, disconnected communities of the industrial economy into cohesive, self-sufficient “tribes” - people whose members know and love each other intimately and look after each other the way healthy families do?
This is just a first pass at trying to articulate this framework. I welcome comments on its organization, content and value.

I can see it evolving into some sort of workbook over time, something that can be used, by individuals and later by collaborative partnerships and communities, to self-assess resilience and start to build practices that will ready us for whatever is to come.

I’d love to know what you think.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

VIDEO: Science Fiction Writer Ursula K. Le Guin Movingly Warns Against the Dangers of Capitalism

by Natasha Hakimi Zapata:

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo: Wikipedia)
“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope,” said Ursula K. Le Guin as she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th annual National Book Awards ceremony.

The fantasy and science fiction author “stole the show” Wednesday as she warned the literary crowd against the dangers of capitalism, which has turned writers into producers of market commodities rather than creators of art.

“We will need writers,” Le Guin continued, “who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries - the realists of a larger reality.”

When her short speech was loudly applauded, the bespectacled writer thanked her audience, calling them “brave,” ostensibly for cheering her on in her scathing criticism of the publishing world despite the fact that the literary business constitutes the livelihood of many of those present at the ceremony.

And while the entire speech is well worth watching, the most poignant lines Le Guin spoke are the following: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art - the art of words.”

During the hard times we are facing and throughout those that the author herself foresees, let us never forget Le Guin for her passion, her art, her words and, perhaps most importantly, her truths. 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The New Economy Comes of Age: Seven Steps Toward Shared Prosperity

Woman selling vegetables by Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
by , Yes! magazine:

In June, I attended an event in Boston that signaled to me that the concept of the New Economy - and the grassroots movement behind it - had come of age.

Folks who had been at conferences such as this for years were also there - farmers, Main Street business owners, sustainability entrepreneurs, and big thinkers. But suddenly the movement felt bigger.

A diverse set of communities is coming together in a shared recognition that our economic structures are the root cause of many different crises.

The New Economy Working Group, based at the Institute for Policy Studies, formed just six years ago. The group was one of the first to adopt the term “New Economy” to describe an economy that supports ecological balance, shared prosperity, and deep democracy. Now, many individuals and organizations are using that term.

I have been struck that even as the New Economy movement diversifies, its advocates are converging regarding the actions to take, including:
  • Place ownership in the hands of real people, not globalized corporations;
  • Localize control of food, energy, land, housing, retail;
  • Advance cooperative enterprises where workers share in profits and decision-making;
  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables and from destructive to regenerative agriculture;
  • Expand credit unions, community banks, and public banks so that finance benefits communities rather than Wall Street;
  • Reform trade rules to reduce the power of global corporations and enable local economies to flourish;
  • Adopt a worldview that we humans are part of the ecosystem and our economy must work with nature rather than against it.
The ideas are not new. Some are ancient. Many have been advocated for years in places deeply affected by poverty, pollution, and racism. What's changed is that so many communities are coming together under a common umbrella, forming new alliances and lifting up new messengers.

For example, at a recent Praxis Peace Institute conference Michael Peck, who advocates union-cooperative alliances, told of a group of East African taxi drivers in Denver. The Communications Workers of America helped them form a taxi cooperative so they didn't have to work for an out-of-state company. The result? They increased their incomes, benefits, and well-being.

Many leaders are pointing out ways the New Economy movement can collaborate with the racial-justice movement, as Anand Jahi did in “My Cousin Was Shot Dead by a Police Officer: Here’s What it Means for the New Economy.”

As those identifying with the New Economy expand, the movement gains power. And a wider embrace brings the danger of co-optation. Corporations will be happy to put on a New Economy gloss. One already doing so is HBSC, which tags itself “The World’s Local Bank.”

To continue to grow its power and avoid co-optation, the New Economy movement must keep broadening its communities while maintaining its principles.

Of special importance will be the principle that ownership of enterprises must be in the hands of real people who directly bear the consequences of their decisions, not in distant computerized markets. If the movement holds fast to its key ideas, its growing embrace can create what is truly a New Economy.

Fran Korten wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Podemos: The Political Upstart Taking Spain by Force

Post image for Podemos: the political upstart taking Spain by force
by Carlos Delclós, ROAR magazine:

Some frequent questions about the political singularity that now leads the polls in Spain. Just who are Podemos? And could they be a force for change?

In April of 2013, the far-right Spanish television channel Intereconomía invited an unlikely guest to their primetime debate show: a young, Jesus-haired college professor with an unequivocally leftist background named Pablo Iglesias, just like the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. 

Their goal was to corner him and hold him up as an example of an antiquated and defeated leftist past. 

Yet Iglesias responded to their rhetoric in a simultaneously polite but firmly antagonistic tone that appealed to both the younger generations who became politicized through the indignados movement and the older generations who did so during Spain’s transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy.

Over the following months, Iglesias and the team of academics and activists behind him were able to use this window of opportunity to catapult the message of the social movements and, most importantly, the people left behind by years of austerity and neoliberalism, into the mainstream media. 

Shortly after gaining access to the media, they formed the political party Podemos (“We Can”), initiating what polls are showing to be an authentic dispute for control of the Spanish government. How they were able to accomplish this in such a short amount of time will be studied in the political and social sciences for years to come.

Because it is a process that I have followed very closely for a number of years, I have often been asked by independent media-makers, academics and activists about how all of this came to be and what the implications are for movement politics. In this piece, I try to address some of the main questions I get from people who are actively engaged in the struggle for a real democracy.

Who are Podemos? Who are its leaders? Is this just another typical leftist party?

Podemos is a new political party that emerged at the beginning of 2014, initially as an alliance between the trotskyist Izquierda Anticapitalista and a group of academic “outsiders” with an activist background who had built a vibrant community through a public access television debate show called La Tuerka (“The Screw”). 

When I refer to this second group as outsiders, it is not to suggest that their academic output is eccentric or of a low quality. 

Rather, they are the types of academics who do not fit the mold favored by the so-called Bologna reforms of higher education in Europe, with its emphasis on highly specialized technical “experts” and empirical research, and its hostility towards a broader, theoretical and more discursive approach. 

These academics are currently the party’s most recognizable faces due to their formidable skills as communicators and their access to the mainstream media.

Recently, Podemos held elections for their Citizens’ Council, which is effectively the party’s leadership. Over 100,000 people participated in those elections through online voting. The team selected by Pablo Iglesias won by an overwhelming majority. It includes an interesting mix of academics, activists and some former politicians. 

For instance, Juan Carlos Monedero worked as an adviser to Hugo Chávez between 2005 and 2010, and he also advised Gaspar Llamazares of the Spanish United Left party.

Íñigo Errejón is a very young and highly promising political scientist who carried out research in Bolivia and Venezuela, though prior to that he was one of the founders of Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), who had a major role in spearheading the indignados movement. 

Other activists from Juventud Sin Futuro include Rita Maestre and Sarah Bienzobas. Rafa Mayoral and Jaume Asens worked as lawyers for the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), the highly successful civil disobedience movement for decent housing. And Raimundo Viejo and Jorge Moruno are prominent intellectuals associated with the autonomist left.

Whether or not Podemos can be considered a typical leftist party will depend on its evolution. What is clear is that they do not adopt the rhetorical and aesthetic baggage of the marginal leftist and green parties that currently decorate European parliaments. 

Also, in contrast to SYRIZA, Podemos did not exist prior to the 2011 wave of protests; they emerged based on a diagnosis of the movements’ discourse and demands. Much of what has made Podemos so effective in the post-2011 political arena has been their ability to listen to the social movements, while the pre-existing Spanish political parties were busy lecturing them. 

Yet, as time progresses and support for the party grows, Podemos is finding itself increasingly tempted to assume the structures that are best adapted to Spain’s formal institutions. Unsurprisingly, these structures are those that currently exist. 

Whether or not this institutional inertia can be overcome depends on the degree to which the party’s constituents are capable of maintaining tension with its leadership structure and guaranteeing their accountability.

Why did Podemos explode onto the scene in the way they did?

Podemos burst onto the political scene because they understood the climate in the aftermath of the 2011 protests better than any other political actor. 

For example, the role of the social networks in connecting those movements was extremely important, but a lot of people and political organizations misinterpreted that fact as support for a techno-political, decentralized peer-to-peer ideology. 

In contrast, I think Podemos saw the social networks as a discursive laboratory through which to build and strengthen a common narrative that they would then take to the public arena in order to maximize its impact. To put it bluntly, they were not content with memes and likes and long comment threads. They wanted to take that discussion to the bars, the cafés and the unemployment lines.

In a sense, the key to Podemos’s emancipatory potential can be summed up in a phrase popularized by Raimundo Viejo and later put into a song by Los Chikos del Maiz, a Marxist rap group that has been very close to the party’s emergence: “El miedo va a cambiar de bando,” which translates to, “Fear is going to change sides.” Currently, they are accompanying that phrase with another, saying that the smiles are also starting to change sides. 

Using this approach, what they have managed to do is take the insecurity and fears produced by precariousness, unemployment or poverty and, in contrast to projecting it on immigrants (which is what Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, Beppe Grillo have done), they project it onto what they call “la casta” (the caste), which is basically the ruling class. And they have done this while, at the same time, “occupying” feelings like hope and joy.

Who supports Podemos? What segment of the population would consider voting for them?

In most of the reports I have seen or read in English, Podemos is described as a sort of outgrowth of the indignados movement, in something of a linear progression. I think this is wrong. 

While their message resonated far beyond their class composition, the indignados movement was largely composed of a relatively young, college-educated precariat. 

Their emphasis on direct action and slow, horizontal deliberation introduced something of a selection mechanism into actual participation in the movement, whereby people who were less versed in the culture of radical politics, had less time to spend in general assemblies, were not entirely comfortable with public speaking, were not particularly interested in learning new internet tools and were not willing to take the risks associated with civil disobedience were filtered out over time.

In contrast, Podemos’s access to television guaranteed contact with an older audience, which is extremely important in a country such as Spain, with its older population structure and decades of low fertility. 

And the types of participation that Podemos enabled (namely, ballot boxes and smart phone apps) have a low learning curve, require less time and involve fewer risks than the more autonomous politics of the indignados

Because of this, Podemos attracts a crowd that includes a much larger component of underprivileged, working class and older people, in addition to a very strong, college-educated youth demographic.

The ideological composition of the people who support Podemos is also interesting. While the bulk of the support they draw comes from people who used to vote for the center-left “socialist” party, nearly a third of the people who currently support them had previously abstained from voting, turned in spoiled ballots or even voted for the right-wing Popular Party. 

Furthermore, while Podemos openly rejects the standard “left-right” division that has characterised Western politics for years, surveys are showing that their voters mostly view themselves as leftists, that is, neither center-left nor far left. 

Taken together, this might suggest that Podemos are drawing on something of an untapped leftist imaginary, or that they may very well be redefining what it means for people to consider themselves “leftists” in Spain.

What is Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements?

Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements is a tricky question to tackle. In addition to the establishment parties and the mainstream media, some people who are active in the grassroots and social movements have been quite critical of Podemos. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, and I think it is an issue that requires much more reflection than what I can offer here, which is entirely my opinion at the moment. But at its heart, Podemos is part of a growing exasperation with an institutional “glass ceiling” that the social movements keep bumping up against and have not been able to shatter. 

This exasperation is visible not only in the rise of Podemos but also in the emergence of municipal platforms intended to join outsider parties, community organizations and activists in radically democratic candidacies. 

In this context, people from the social movements are generally split between those who favor that type of participation and those who prefer a radicalization of non-institutional action.

The main criticism I see coming from the second group is that Podemos started “from the top and not from the bottom.” I think this is wrong. 

A comically low-budget local TV show and a Facebook page are not what I would consider “high” in a neoliberal chain of command. What Podemos have done is rise very quickly from there, and as they have done so, they have had to deal with questions related to institutional inertia and the autonomy of their own organization. And that is where I think critical voices coming from the social movements are right to be nervous.

While Podemos initially drew its legitimacy, structure (the Círculos they started in various cities were basically conceived as local, self-managed assemblies) and demands (a citizen-led restructuring of the debt, universal basic income, affordable public housing, an end to austerity policies, etc.) from the social movements, their intention was always to draw people from beyond the social movements. 

They have succeed wildly in doing so, and it turns out that the world outside of the social movements is huge. And despite the fact that they agree with the demands of the social movements, that world appears to be less interested in the social movements’ methodology than the social movements would like. 

This is enormously frustrating, because it confronts us with our own marginality. It is also unsurprising, because if people who are not activists loved our methodology as much as our message, there would probably be a lot more activists.

The main example of this tension is the internal elections. So far, Iglesias’s lists have consistently won with close to 90% support, and many people who have been influential in shaping the discourse of the social movements (and even that of Podemos itself) are increasingly being left out of decision-making because they are not on those lists. 

Once out, they discover how little influence the social networks and the Círculos actually have not only relative to that of the members who appear on TV, but also on the people who are not actively involved in the Círculos, yet still identify with Podemos enough to vote in their elections. 

So far, this has led to some internal accusations of authoritarianism, which I find misguided and think are kind of missing the point. I think the real problem is that we are finding that, in the present climate, people are generally happier to delegate responsibility than we suspected, at least until they can vote on specific issues that affect their daily lives.

At the same time, this propensity to delegate depends a lot on the legitimacy and trust people have in Podemos, which to a large extent was built through their relationship with the streets. 

So I think the influence the social movements have on Podemos is going to depend on their ability to engage in street politics in such a way that they are able to meet dispossessed people’s needs, on the one hand, and shape the public conversation in a way that forces Podemos to position itself. 

An example would be the PAH. Podemos cannot stray too much from their demands for decent housing because everybody knows and agrees with them. If Podemos were to stray too far from their demands, the PAH could mobilize against them or simply put out a harsh press statement, undermining their legitimacy considerably.

Where do you see this going? Could Podemos actually win the elections?

I think this is going to change Spain and Europe as we know them, no matter what. Polls are showing that Podemos have a real shot at being the most voted party in the country. Some show that they are already the most supported, and Pablo Iglesias is by far the most popular politician in Spain. 

If Podemos were to win, in all likelihood the Popular Party and the “socialists” would try to form a national government centered on guaranteeing order, making a few cosmetic changes to the constitution and sabotaging any chance for Podemos to ever beat them. They would also probably try to destroy any chance at something like Podemos rising again. 

As it stands, the establishment is doing everything in its power to discredit them: associating them with terrorist organizations, accusing their spokespeople of misconduct based on nothing, fabricating news stories. Fear really has changed sides, and it is clearly the establishment that is frightened.

In this sense, I think it’s very important for movements, and for Podemos themselves, to think of what is happening as a kind of political singularity. 

This is not Obama putting the Democrats in the White House. It is a group of people who have been actively engaged in the struggle against neoliberalism that have managed to turn a populist moment during a period of economic crisis into a hope for a better democracy and an end to neoliberal austerity. 

At least in Spain, to blow this chance could be a major step backwards for emancipatory politics, towards another long journey through the desert.

Carlos Delclos is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. Currently he collaborates with the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Institute of Metropolitan and Regional Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.