Business activism for changing times

Paul Mason, guest  director of Meaning 2016 SUS-161125-165139001
Paul Mason, guest director of Meaning 2016 SUS-161125-165139001

The fifth annual Meaning Conference sold out Brighton’s Corn Exchange last Thursday with its bravest and most compelling event yet. The choice of journalist Paul Mason as guest director was set from the start to be something special, and contributed a macro-economic worldview that could not have been better timed for this particular audience of change-makers.

Meaning has never been afraid to fall outside the conventional boundaries of a ‘business’ conference; but 2016 presented particular challenges, given the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. Mason’s introduction to the day, through the lens of his bestselling economic critique ‘Post Capitalism’, brought together many of the strands that have united the Meaning community from the beginning; concluding with an urgent call to business activism.

‘Post Capitalism’ represents an ‘ideological intervention’ into neoliberal economics, and seeks to embrace the technological revolution by sourcing its potential from the ‘non-market’ sector of the economy. In Paul Mason’s thesis, this requires far more innovation than what has so far passed as ‘the sharing economy’ (à la Uber and Airbnb), where outdated forms of “rent-seeking capitalism” effectively “squat” on the potential of our greatest technological revolution yet - the internet.

The presence of Felix Weth at the conference offered a “corruption resistant” alternative to such venture capitalist models with Fairmondo, a co-operative version of eBay. After great success in Germany, Fairmondo is now on the path to becoming a ‘multi-national co-operative’ – with its recently launched UK franchise providing a completely autonomous, yet allied model.

A further glimpse of such collaborative potential was to be found in the stories of Juliet Davenport of Good Energy, and James Johnston of Open Utility: allied companies seeking to ‘democratise’ the energy market. They have made great strides in creating a networked economy for renewable energy; opening the economic independence implicit in a product that can be created at zero cost, and in one’s own home.

The examples above are exactly the kind of mid-sized and long-term innovators that Paul Mason calls upon to take ownership of the internet revolution. They represent only a snapshot of a day that examined multiple routes towards the future of work and community; including universal basic income, democratic leadership and the revolutionary importance of open-source software.

Panel discussion at Meaning 2016 SUS-161125-165127001

Panel discussion at Meaning 2016 SUS-161125-165127001

Taken as a line-up of ‘post-capitalist’ innovators, the event would have been inspiring enough. However, Meaning Conference always goes one step beyond the predictable, and it did so this year with a series of unforgettable discussions on empathy.

The presence of Jo Berry at the event was a moment of pure elegance and depth, speaking straight to the heart and leaving no one in no doubt of the ethics behind Meaning’s pioneering community. Jo Berry first met with her father’s killer (the IRA bomber Patrick Magee) in 2000, and has since travelled the world with him; spreading a message of forgiveness and peace. There are few experiences that can compare to the honesty and humility she radiates with her story of “putting a human face to the enemy”.

It is clear that the practice of empathy was a defining motivation for long-term Meaning curator Louise Ash, who commented after the conference that it was “the action [she] most wanted people to commit to, and take away with them”. This, combined with the rigour of Paul Mason’s call to economic activism, meant a powerful and validating experience for an audience already more aware than most of the Zeitgeist we are facing.

Emily Yates is an independent journalist specialising in arts, psychology and digital. Find her on Twitter @MsEYates