Forces of agency – from young marketers to social movements
by Lisa Jordan
Before getting into the heart of the Rethinking Poverty dialogue I want to first say ‘thank you’ to Barry Knight and the Webb Memorial Trust for helping me understand Kim Kardashian. For those of you who missed this brilliant insight in Rethinking Poverty, the illumination can be found on page 56 in the philosophical conversation around defining our misguided consumerist-oriented meanings of the good life. The discussion centres on celebrity culture where people become famous for being famous. This is described as a natural extension of Guy Debord’s discourse on authentic social life being replaced with its representation: ‘the decline of being into having and having into merely appearing.’ ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘finally! A rational explanation for the appearance of the Kardashians.’
The search for authentic engagement
In spite of the absence of an authentic social life, the mere fact of this conversation now blossoming through the Webb Memorial Trust and many like it means that we are at least discussing the good society, or the society which leads to authentic engagement. Authentic engagement, planetary boundaries, the failure of our current social constructs to provide for our needs – this is a global conversation.
The discourse launched by the Trust mirrors another dialogue I have been privileged to participate in these past few months at the Vatican. In relation to the limits of growth, the dual plight of the poor and the planet, and the absence of solidarity, Reverend Bruno-Marie Duffe sums up the needs of the rich and poor as follows:
‘We know the fundamental needs of poor people in the world: access to water, access to good land in order to produce food, access to education and care, home and security. And we know the needs of rich people: to find time to meet and speak to one another, to eat less, to fight against loneliness, and to look for a spiritual respiration.’
Recognising that we are all impoverished – in different ways, yes, but all impoverished – gives all of us skin in the game and invites us all to be the agents of change. The Trust and the Vatican are asking us to use our moral imagination to find authentic engagement, purpose and connection with each other, to fulfil the needs both of the poor and of the wealthy, and to create a new cloth of society. One that is not torn by Brexit, Trump, extremism, violence, destitution, despair, need and fear.
The question of agency
How do we experience agency today? How can we be agents of change? Agency arises in almost every response to Rethinking Poverty, most especially that of young people.
As Keiran Goddard notes in his thoughtful review, for the moment, in our societies, agency is defined predominantly through our economic contribution – a definition that is challenged by Rethinking Poverty, which makes a powerful argument that market-based mechanisms are no longer enough to create the good society. The market as a vehicle to resolve problems that are often created by the market seems bass-ackwards in the face of these arguments.
Yet we have to acknowledge that many young people who are seeking change are looking to markets for solutions to complex social problems. For young people growing up with globalization (i.e. anyone who came of age by 1990) global power lies in the market place. Governments are not able to leash market forces or tie capital to productivity. Civil society, if understood at all, is something to be donated to. Better to go directly to the power source and change the markets.
The young marketers
These activists are building clean, green, fair products; generating solutions with a supply chain mindset; changing the rules for investors; challenging the financial rules; building social bond markets; building markets at the bottom of the pyramid as a replacement for charity to address the needs of the poor; and changing the definitions of corporations. The energy now residing in impact hubs, social enterprises, impact investing, mobile cash, B Corps and the social capital dialogue in general is energy that pursues through action the goal of tying capital to social productivity. If you doubt its potency, read Ian Smilie’s book Freedom from Want on the bottom-of-the-pyramid social corporations built by BRAC in Bangladesh.
Further, much of this energy and effort recognises and reacts to the limits of growth by insisting on fair and green measurement, the circular economy, zero-waste supply chains and local currency. It differentiates short-term and long-term investors, with the former being penalised for short-term thinking. The living wage and divest/invest campaigns organise at two ends of this spectrum. One organises people through a worker’s identity to demand a fair share, while the other works through an investor’s identity to measure more than profit. Both the wealthy and the poor are engaged.
Not all activity in this vein is transformational. There are many who are keen to do well and do good and not grapple with the systemic issues. But that is true in any sphere, political, civic or market. What is taken for granted by social entrepreneurs, wage campaigners, movement activists and impact investors is that the market is a social construct meant to serve the greater needs of society. This stands in contrast to the paralysis of many governments hypnotised by market fundamentalism. It also challenges the idea that market-based mechanisms are not effective in creating the good society. Keynes would be thrilled. Adam Smith less so.
Social movements as agents
The other sphere in which agency is pronounced is in social movements. Time Magazine just recognised a movement as ‘person of the year’. Movements are central to creating agency, and what we now see is a rise in identity-based movements worldwide to challenge the behaviour of governments and sometimes governors (such as the women’s movement in Poland). Unlike the young marketers, these movements are key to reinvigorating democracy by keeping representative governments vigilant and responsive to the needs of the citizenry. I would agree with Christopher Harris who notes: ‘More promising, in my view, is the collection of groups initially forged in identity politics – groups focused on issues such as racial violence, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant justice and refugee support – that have “crossed lines” to create new coalitions and work together on common concerns and broader justice.’ The key here is linking up across lines to build consciousness around ‘justice for us’ as ‘justice for all’. As an example, if Americans could end state-sanctioned violence against young black men, the entire society would benefit.
Much movement agency is embedded in local community, recognisable in cities where it manifests itself in city-wide political parties, city-based referendums, and coalitions across state, market and civil society to reshape local communities (think Sanctuary Cities). By adding new concerns to the political agenda and building new representation based on far greater diversity, movements are perhaps our only hope of enhancing the legitimacy of representative government in this era of globalization.
Power ‘with’ vs power ‘over’ certainly does spark our moral imagination. Perhaps we could also include power ‘through’. Movements are developing new political communities and narratives to create ties that bind us, and in the best scenario reinvigorating government. Young marketers are reshaping the purpose of markets to rebind capital to productivity and both to social need. All are change agents realising authentic engagement and aiming for systemic change. Viewed collectively, both forces of agency can be seen to be reshaping the good society, creating communities of engagement, and most importantly striving to ensure that our two most important societal constructions are vehicles through which our power, visions and needs can be realised.
Lisa Jordan is a founding partner of Aim for Social Change and campaign director for ‘SHINE’
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Four thoughts about the ‘poverty narrative’ – Keiran Goddard on Rethinking Poverty
- Rethinking ideology, a view from the US – Christopher Harris on Rethinking Poverty
- Blending past insights with new ways of thinking – Jennifer Wallace on the role of wellbeing in social progress