Jan 25 2012

Collaborative Capitalism – The Detail Behind the Soundbites?

“It’s the economy, stupid”

The centre-ground that is occupied successfully by any political party is the one that focusses on economic stability.  If a party cannot be trusted to be a safe pair of hands when managing the economy, then it has no credibility.

But since the last time we had this conversation twenty-odd years ago, things have changed.  Pay inequality has grown, as salary rises at the top vastly outstrip the increases in the middle and bottom.  Familiar companies that were considered national institutions have disappeared, gobbled up by private equity and larger corporations, without account being taken for their importance as national symbols of success and collaborative capitalism.  Building a business or a service, and creating value is not considered as interesting as the quick win of trading and the X Factor of takeovers.  Suddenly ‘moral’ capitalism is back battling against ‘crony capitalism’. However I don’t believe these  soundbites are anything but a reaction to what is happening.  There is very little detail on what a better future might look like.

Which is where collaborative capitalism comes in.  It has a long history in the co-operative movement and the Quaker-founded businesses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: in the paternalistic industries from the turn of last century and the social enterprises of the last 50 years.  The time has surely come for a “less degenerate capitalism”.

Collaborative capitalism is based on the principle of working together.  It means a long-term approach to business and the economy.  It means productive investment: in skills for workers, in creating products that last, and buildings that are efficient.  It means working to the triple bottom line, where sustainability (in the Brundtland sense of the word) means considering the social, the environmental as well as the financial consequences of what you do.  It means support for SMEs and businesses that are embedded, and invest, in their communities.  Collaborative capitalism is innovative, because it pays attention to the viewpoints of many, not just the people with the largest share.  It is open-source, crowd-sourced and crowd-financed.  It is networked.

And it is happening. It’s happening with RiverSimple’s open-source car designs, with crowd-financed films like the Age of Stupid, with 38 degrees’ campaigns and in workspaces like The Hub.
The examples above of collaborative capitalism have happened in spite of, not because of, government.  However, there is a case for the state and it is one we should be arguing.

Government should provide the safety net for when things go wrong.  When entrepreneurs remortgage their homes, or invest their savings for projects they believe in, then there is an argument that this level of risk deserves a  different level of reward.  Taxes can be used to incentivise the long term holding of investments over the short-term trading for quick profit.  If we care about the environment, we need to have the conversation about whether ultimately resources should be taxed, rather than labour.  Government procurement should drive innovative change, not orders abroad.

Government is a partnership.  We must weed out the disingenuous arguments from the right that we’re all in it together when the economy is actually going backwards.  We need to show where growth can come from – collaborative capitalism is part of the solution.

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