capitalism is good for communities – discuss!

Last night’s debate at’s event, held at the magnificently 21st century Manchester Central Library (its remodelled insides, I mean – outside, it remains grand old Manchester), argued for and against the motion: “Capitalism is good for communities.”

For the motion: Breffni Walsh, Founder, Brands Are Best; and Penny Haslam, of PHEW

In the UK, enlightened capitalism helps us all. Right now, big business understands and delivers against its obligations to deliver corporate good and there is an unprecedented – and growing – recognition that satisfied and engaged employees and receptive local communities are good for business. Not least because everyone has seen the increased risk – and often spectacular fallout – from businesses that lose the public’s faith. Also, imaginative ways to respond to economic pressures have resulted in new public/private partnerships whereby our biggest businesses can get involved in helping to deliver fresh, new and effective approaches to education, health and other public services.

Against the motion: Paul Kennedy, Sociologist, MMU; and Georgia Rigg, Leadership lead, RECLAIM

On the other hand, it could be argued that big business has inveigled its way into society in ever more insidious ways. That we are all consumers first and citizens second; victims of increasingly sophisticated ways to embed marketing into our everyday lives. And with zero hours contracts and ever ingenious ways to protect profits and bosses’ windfalls at the expense of the workers, you could argue that as both consumers or employees we have never been more victimised by rampant capitalist forces.

The debate was chaired by Michael Taylor, Founder of Discuss – as even-handed and efficient a chair as one could hope for.  The evening flowed well as a result, with plenty of vocal audience participation – both during the presentations as well as after in the Q&A sessions.  Interestingly, Michael encouraged people to state points of view, not only to ask questions.  This hasn’t happened on previous Guardian Live-sponsored events I’ve been to.  I don’t know if it’s because northern folk know how long to expound a pet theme (maybe more societally conscious of others’ rights of expression!), but offering explicitly a pulpit up to the floor caused zero problems of any kind.  No one attempted to hijack the meeting, as had been the case a couple of uncomfortable times in London events.

I was undecided at the beginning, and prepared to listen.

As the debate developed, some of the key points got lost in the passions on both sides.  There were actually three groups of participants: the “for” and “against” presenters being two; the audience, a participative and necessary third set of voices.  It was refreshing to see that people were open to having their minds changed.

Personal anecdote combined with more technical and general overviews provided for a good mix of approaches.  This Storify gives my impression of what happened.

Yes.  As you can see, quite despite myself I think, I voted “against”.  I think this was more to do with the measured forcefulness of the floor than the cogent preparedness of the panel.

But as I say in my tweets during and afterwards, if we want to fix capitalism – and I still think it’s possible – I think imposing a massive and fundamental change on corporate law by making all corporations into equivalents of US “benefit corporations” would serve much better – than, for example, a harsher regulatory framework – to provide the level playing-field which the good people who work in corporate capitalism everywhere need, in order to be able to consistently follow up their manifestly good instincts:

In the United States, a benefit corporation or B-corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. B corps differ from traditional corporations in purpose, accountability, and transparency, but not in taxation.

The purpose of a benefit corporation includes creating general public benefit, which is defined as a material positive impact on society and the environment. A benefit corporation’s directors and officers operate the business with the same authority as in a traditional corporation but are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. In a traditional corporation, shareholders judge the company’s financial performance; with a B-corporation, shareholders judge performance based on how a corporation’s goals benefit society and the environment. Shareholders determine whether the corporation has made a material positive impact. Transparency provisions require benefit corporations to publish annual benefit reports of their social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standard. In some states, the corporation must also submit the reports to the Secretary of State, although the Secretary of State has no governance over the report’s content. Shareholders have a private right of action, called a benefit enforcement proceeding, to enforce the company’s mission when the business has failed to pursue or create general public benefit. Disputes about the material positive impact are decided by the courts.

It’d be a long haul, of course; there’d be many vested interests of the bad sorts out there who’d fight tooth and nail to prevent any such changes.  But for others, others we need to reach out to, eschewing greater regulation in favour of the innovation good capitalism has always been characterised by would surely get more than a few dyed-in-the-wool capitalists onboard.

And it would allow them (us!) all to deal with goals such as social justice within the framework of capitalism: at its very centre and core as well; not just tagged on as lame corporate social responsibilities.



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