The Illusion of Justice: Social Entrepreneurship ≠ Social Justice

by Paul C. Gorski

No, Social Entrepreneurship is not Social Justice. 
Social entrepreneurship is to social justice as "cultural competence" is to racial justice. It is an illusion of movement toward justice. In fact, it is the worst kind of illusion of movement toward justice because in most of its forms it more or less exactly replicates injustice. 
For all intents and purposes, this is Social Justice 101. The trouble with social entrepreneurship masquerading as social justice can be broken down easily. Let's take the example of micro-finance (although really any example will do). 
There’s a basic premise in economic and social justice, which is that I cannot use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house. (I believe this comes initially from Audre Lorde in this essay.) I can’t use capitalism to undo the problems that corporate capitalism has created. Nobody with a social justice framework would argue that white supremacy is a useful tool for the abolition of racism. But this is social entrepreneurship: using the hegemonic tools of corporatocracy capitalism as a strategy for abolishing the global inequality that has resulted in large part from corporatocracy capitalism. 
There’s another basic premise in economic and social justice that calls me to distinguish between mitigating action and transforming action. Suggesting that microfinance is a tool to end poverty is like saying a soup kitchen is a way to end homelessness. It temporarily might help individual people be less poor (focus on mitigating), but it’s no threat at all to the bigger social conditions and inequalities that create and sustain the existence of poverty and, as a result, the existence of homelessness (lack of focus on transforming). Nobody with a social justice view would support the idea that we end racism by giving a few people of color the tools to overcome the racism they face or that we end sexual assault by teaching women self-defense. (Except maybe Ruby Payne.)
This is the trick of capitalism, particularly in an era of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been, in part, a ruthless attempt to take every untouched, sacred sphere and open it to profiteers. (See good discussion of this here.) Public schools are becoming privatized all over the world. Prisons are being privatized. Public parks are being privatized. Marx wasn’t right about everything, but he was right about this: the danger of corporate capitalism is that it creates an endless search for more profit, more profit, and more profit. There isn't enough profit to be made in your own community? Then stretch that community through colonization and imperialism. Still not enough? Try to wash away the notion of "the public good" so that you can profit in spheres that once were considered part of that public good, such as public schools. 
Social entrepreneurship is, to me, what happens when we shift the profit motive into the most sacred of all public spheres: human rights and social justice. It's what happens when we replace a commitment to basic human rights and social justice with a commitment to profiting from every single thing. To me, human rights is a sacred sphere and microfinance and social entrepreneurship more generally are about opening that sphere to profit. "I will be engaged in solving the global issue of poverty (or climate change or racism or human trafficking or...) so long as I can profit in the process." 
The problem, of course, is that when we turn social justice and human rights into commodities (something that is happening in a lot of other ways, as well, but I'll save those for another post), the people and corporations creating the profit-driven illusion of wanting change actually have a financial stake in the persistence of inequality. What better way to sustain the inequality than (a) to make the most economically disadvantaged people in the world in debt to your organization, and/or (b) to mitigate, mitigate, mitigate, mitigate, mitigate injustice, and never get around to transforming injustice into justice?
I struggle to think of anything grosser. 
Let me preempt an argument that I'm sure is coming: an argument could be made that there are people who only will be interested in poverty because they see a profit interest and, even if that’s the motivation, it’s better than having no interest at all. 
I disagree. See "a" above.
Let me preempt another response that I'm sure is coming. What are my solutions? First, people who reap the rewards of global inequality must recognize that those rewards are linked directly to the oppression of people--disproportionately people of color, disproportionately indigenous communities--in their own communities and all over the world. I must hold myself and my government accountable. I must stop voting for "liberals" who are contributing to the illusion. Second, in my individual social justice work, I must challenge myself to consider how I'm distributing my time and effort. Yes, the mitigating stuff is important. Providing food to people who are in poverty so that they don't starve as we work on more transformative action is, of course, critical. The problem comes when I put all my energy into these mitigations and am unwilling to put my own privilege at risk by engaging in more transformative social justice work. 
This is my challenge to myself: Does my social justice work mitigate the impact of injustice or is it a threat to the existence of injustice? 
In the end, if I care about ending poverty or other forms of injustice, the only way to engage in ways that have the potential to eliminate the systems and structures that make the existence of injustice profitable for some people and corporations. I do this because it’s the right thing to do, without strings attached, not because I can profit even more off of the suffering of the oppressed majority. The latter, to me, is the social entrepreneurship model. 
In conclusion, I want to remind myself that nothing is absolute. I know there are wonderful social justice minded people who are tinkering with social entrepreneurship, who see it not as profit-making but as the development of successful non-profits and NGOs. And as somebody who tends to work under a structural social justice framework, I know that I often am tripping over myself, stepping toward the mitigative because of its more immediate rewards from time to time. I do my share of damage in the name of social justice. 
Still, what I see, and particularly at institutions of higher education where a lot of people seem to make a living finding any possible way to reframe the teeth out of any kind of social justice work, are attempts to squeeze "social justice" into what, in the end, are the things social justice movements were fomented to unhinge. We ask students, not to do "social justice" work, but to do "service" work (which at times is framed in terms of justice, but not usually) without helping them see the importance of addressing the issues underlying the need for the service (or, just as awfully, without taking our cues from the communities we think we're "servicing"). We encourage people to be social entrepreneurs rather than social justice activists. 
And so, to me, the creep of social entrepreneurship, and how it's being cast in some places, including my university, as the future of social justice work should be a cause for alarm for all of us who care about justice.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.