Building a ‘Wellbeing Economy’: is there a role for social enterprise?

Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)
By Michael Roy Professor of Economic Sociology and Social Policy (Glasgow Caley)
30th March 2020

An Early Day Motion was recently laid in the UK Parliament calling for:

“a review of the growth dependency of the UK economy and to develop a comprehensive strategy to transition to a wellbeing economy that protects and restores ecosystems and biodiversity, reduces inequality, fosters sustainable entrepreneurship and delivers a just transition to a climate neutral way of life for all UK citizens.”

Ongoing climate and refugee crises, ever-growing inequality and the subsequent rise of populism and far right extremism have all contributed to a debate on the role of what we have come to call ‘the economy’ in shaping such phenomena. It is in such a context that the idea of a ‘wellbeing economy’ has recently come to the fore. Scotland’s First Minister and the Prime Ministers of both New Zealand and Iceland (all three of whom are female, perhaps not co-incidentally) have taken a lead in trying to reshape the conversation around the need for economic policies that emphasise the wellbeing of society and our environment over a narrow focus on growth and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) through the establishment of a Wellbeing Economy Governments group.

The idea of a ‘wellbeing economy’ is not new, of course. Arguably the idea is as old as discussions on economics itself. We organise and fulfil our material needs and wants in order to live what Aristotle called eudaimonia or the ‘good life’. That is what oikonomia (the Greek for ‘householding’, where the word ‘economics’ comes from) is for. It is actually the unlimited pursuit of wealth that is unnatural, and an obstacle to living the ‘good life’.

But ‘wellbeing’ (at least in many conceptualisations) is highly subjective and exceptionally difficult to pin down successfully. A ‘wellbeing economy’ is thus different things to different people. Although this flexibility has its advantages, particularly in trying to sell the concept to politicians across the political spectrum (and thus policymakers) this potentially puts the idea at severe risk of dilution or co-option. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is a vast array of challenges to face in shifting to a wellbeing economy.

However, I have spent some time recently thinking about what role ‘social enterprises’ play in contributing to the conversation, building on our longstanding interest here on examining the health and well-being impacts of social enterprise activity at Glasgow Caledonian University’s Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health. Rather than attempting to maximise profits for owners or shareholders, social enterprises exist, I would argue, in order to improve wellbeing, particularly of marginalised groups.

Just like the concept of wellbeing, though, it is almost impossible to agree on what we mean by a ‘social enterprise’: “ a fluid and contested concept constructed by different actors promoting different discourses connected to different organisational forms and drawing upon different academic theories.”

So whether individual social enterprises work to address the local symptoms of inequality, or whether they can have more fundamental impacts to address the causes of inequality higher ‘upstream’ is a longstanding debate. What we do know, however, is that social enterprises work to address local social vulnerabilities faced by individuals and communities; the factors in the social environment that we know favour or harm health and wellbeing. Otherwise known as the ‘social determinants of health’, these range from poverty, poor education, lack of confidence, to social isolation, loneliness or exclusion. Social enterprises can also address the stigmatisation of marginalised groups and work to build social capital.

Social enterprise forms such as worker-owned cooperatives – businesses that are owned and operated by their workers — have a role to play in enhancing community control and building ‘community wealth’ and, crucially, promoting economic democracy; that is, people having control over how their work – their livelihoods – are owned and organised.

When a focus on economic growth has prevented us from achieving wellbeing enhancements and, it turns out, is actually harming people and the planet, then we need to imagine, and meaningfully consider, alternative trajectories. This includes the idea of degrowth and a postgrowth economy as a potential pathway to social and environmental wellbeing.

I have recently been inspired by the raft of initiatives that are springing up, from the work of the Well-being Economies Alliance to the New Economy Coalition’s blueprint for a People’s Economy. The very idea of ‘postgrowth’, though, is often considered taboo, utopian or hopelessly naïve in certain circles, often to those with an unshakeable belief in both perpetual economic growth and the sanctity of markets.

In response, in the words of the late Mark Fisher, it is often easier to ‘imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ : that no alternative to the present system does – or even can – exist. But social enterprises do exist: they could provide an example of what the sociologist Erik Olin Wright referred to as a form of ‘real utopia’ : presently existing institutions that are grounded in their potential for redesigning social systems and institutions, the existence of which allow us to sustain and deepen discussions of the potential of radical alternatives to current realities.

Utopian thinking allows us to break out of our conceptual straitjacket to imagine what might be possible. And that includes, I would argue, the whole idea of a ‘wellbeing economy’.