The desert of the real good

Recently I was asked for my response to assertions that the recession will spark the rise of a new approach to capitalism, blending social good with profit. Given the trendiness of fair trade, cause marketing and green business--let alone the public demand for more responsible business--isn't there substantial evidence that we're on the way there already?

Actually, no. The resonance with social enterprise is essentially a fortuitous externality, a happenstance epiphenomenon that, if history is any guide, will not provide a stable foundation for systemic change.

There are a number of factors at play here, but for our purposes a couple are particularly salient. One is the use of do-gooder rhetoric to establish trust, a strategy born out of an environment that has come to associate commercial enterprise with short-sighted exploitation. It's a strategy likely to have a limited lifespan--its very spread reduces the ratio of signal to noise, to the point that do-gooder rhetoric will soon become incoherent as a means of establishing a connection. In addition, as the economy stabilizes, the need to appeal to such external factors will decrease--we'll once again trust business in its own right, without an overt reference to value-added virtue.

The second factor is more subtle but no less important. In short, we've been here before--most significantly in the years immediately following the Great Depression. Advertising, op-eds, books, Norman Rockwell magazine covers--the era yields a host of words and images depicting business in terms of social good. However, what was really at work here was not the emergence of a new form of capitalism, but a cultural shift away from the primacy of the financial industry towards more productive goods and services. In this context, good is the rhetorical halo that will become a frisbee was the transition is complete.

Of course, social entrepreneurs can use these developments to build a better social system, but that won't happen if we treat what's happening now as signs that we have won. Rather than celebrate ourselves, we need to step outside the cycle to see what's really going on.