Monday, 1 July 2013

Anti-Social Enterprise

It should be no surprise that businesses, like the individuals who run them, are found all along the moral spectrum.

There are those who integrate the pursuit of financial success with the aim of safeguarding the wellbeing of those affected by their operations (i.e., their workers, customers, suppliers, local communities, and the environment). They do this with a variety of means: worker representation on the board; employee ownership; worker/consumer cooperative structures; asset locks tied to community benefits; independent audit of social (as well as environmental and economic) bottom-line measures; and the investment of their surplus to meet defined social ends instead of channelling any of it towards personal profit.

But there are also many corporate executives who not only fail to give due consideration to wider social concerns, but who have no compunction about hurting others in the process of expanding their own wealth and power. Gambling away other people’s life savings; putting employees in highly dangerous working conditions; turning consumers into addictive wrecks; pricing the poor out of essentials such as homes and energy; polluting our air and water; the list goes on.

Indeed near the irresponsible end of the spectrum, the difference between a successful entrepreneur and a shameless racketeer may simply come down to whether one has enough money and connections to get the law suitably changed.

Of late, quite a few of the corporations, which have been screaming for the state to get off their backs (so they could make more money off the backs of those unprotected by the law), have taken to donning the label ‘social’ as though it were an amulet that can protect them from all criticisms. Thus we hear of their top-level commitment to corporate social responsibility, and their dedication to generating social value. But the only fitting characterisation of them where the word ‘social’ has a place is Anti-Social Enterprise.

Unfortunately, some conniving politicians support anti-social enterprise because they can benefit from the latter in terms of campaign funding, financial dividends, or future board positions. They plot to remove regulatory ‘red tape’ so these businesses can do as they please. They pretend there is no significant difference between socially dependable and routinely irresponsible organisations.

But anti-social behaviour should be no more tolerated in a firm than in an individual.

Any decent political party concerned with building a responsible economy will understand that for socially minded businesses to thrive, a level-playing field must be cleared of the negative practices deployed to undercut them. Unless anti-social behaviour such as exploitative wage-setting, pollution, marketing of unsafe products, tax dodging, corporate funding of political collaborators, are systematically tackled, the conscientious entrepreneurs would be crowded out by the corrupt and the callous.

Furthermore, no anti-social enterprise should be allowed to get away with deceiving the public by proclaiming their ‘social’ credentials when all they possess is a shameful if well-disguised track record of deceit and exploitation.

Enterprise can indeed be a force for good, provided its anti-social elements are weeded out.