As The Big Issue reaches significant milestones this year, we can either reflect on what the past has brought or what the future might hold. Are we conservatives, nostalgic for the past and looking to maintain the status quo? Or progressives, looking to change the world and build a new future?
This is how some people see charity versus social enterprise. Oscar Wilde argued that “charity degrades and demoralises… It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property”. He argued against the benevolence of “keeping the poor alive” and urged us instead to “reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”.
This is the promise of social enterprise – that we can create a more inclusive economy, leaving fewer people by the wayside and reducing the need for traditional charity to alleviate societies’ ills. The problem here, of course, is that while we build this wonderful new society, what happens to the poor in the meantime?
We still need conventional charities to mop up problems left by the economic models of the past
So while innovative social enterprises across the country are developing new models of fair trade, paying the living wage and our fair share of taxes, generating clean energy, creating jobs and shaping the economy of the future, we still need conventional charities to mop up problems left by the economic models of the past. We still need foodbanks homeless shelters and drug treatment centres.
Social enterprise is thriving but there’s a long way to go. Jesus – generally a pretty positive kind of guy – was less optimistic than Wilde and said the poor will always be with us. It seems we’re going to need charity for some time yet.
Since The Big Issue was born and social enterprise has flourished, policy wonks and ministers have been increasingly seduced by the idea of “social innovation”, inspired by the cult of Silicon Valley. Even under the Conservatives, Whitehall resources have increasingly been focused on innovation and disruption. We now have a pandemic of social innovation hubs, incubators, accelerators, catapults and labs.