Repository logo

Tales of the ‘good’ capitalist: Evaluating ways to legitimise neoliberal capitalism via a justification analysis of the ‘social’ in entrepreneurship



Change log


Erdelmann, Julia 


Abstract – Tales of the ‘good’ capitalist – Julia Erdelmann The idea of social entrepreneurship has gained considerable traction over the past decades, offering itself as an ‘alternative’ approach to doing business and as the object of policy and programme decisions. Ideationally located at the intersection of competitive markets and civil society, and oriented towards the ‘social’, its proponents view social entrepreneurship as an alternative to neoliberal modes of governance, which they claim emphasises resource exploitation and profit-making. Social entrepreneurship’s engagement with solving putative ‘wicked problems’, such as social inequality, climate change, and responsible production and consumption, appears to place it in a different relationship to advanced capitalism. The aim of this thesis is to locate the ‘social’ as promoted by its proponents within the spectrum of neoliberal and ‘alternative’ discourses and, in doing so, to ask about the implications for capitalist reproduction through an empirically prompted theoretical investigation. It draws on instantiations of ‘the work’ of social entrepreneurs and their social innovation enterprises to understand the rise of, justification for, and consequences of, contemporary discourses of the ‘social’ in the UK by advancing the argument in three parts. The first part of the thesis aims to capture the zeitgeist surrounding the turn towards the ‘social’ via seven recently established social entrepreneurs who were interviewed for this research. In part two, I introduce two sets of conceptual resource that will underpin what will be a theoretical exploration of instantiations of social innovation and social entrepreneurship and what this means for capitalist social reproduction. The first is Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and whether social entrepreneurship represents a break in neoliberal hegemony. The second is Boltanski and Thévenot’s justification theory, which will be used to help conceptualise whether neoliberalism and the ‘social’ are related yet distinct compositions of ‘orders of worth’. I complement this investigation by interrogating the underlying philosophical foundations via a theoretical engagement with Adam Smith’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fundamental works. The third part is composed of three chapters investigating relevant theory prompted by the applying a two-dimensional justification framework based on Boltanski and Thévenot’s orders of worth to the recorded social entrepreneurial discourse. I begin by analysing the various meanings underlying the ‘social’ and which of those are invoked through social entrepreneurship; second, by examining the entrepreneur as a key agent of capitalist reproduction and social entrepreneurship as desired subjectivity in neoliberalism; and finally, as a sociological investigation into the relationship between neoliberalism as a political project and its conceptualisation as process aimed at creating market-like forms of social organisation. The thesis findings reveal the strategic employment of a specific ‘social’ discourse whilst keep- ing within strictly neoliberal modes of evaluation. Social entrepreneurial discourse reduces the (neo-) liberal philosophies and assumptions within what is understood as ‘good’ capitalism to a simple ‘tool’, strategically obfuscating the structural consequences of rendering the ‘social’ marketable, whilst at the same time legitimising the market as a political authority of social issues. The ‘social’ is thus a ‘tale’ creating morally acceptable ways of engaging in neoliberal capitalism, perpetuating rather than shifting away from it. This thesis is an original contribution to understanding the relationship between social entrepreneurship and neoliberal capitalist reproduction by the means of ideological persuasion and applies a novel methodology via a two-dimensional justification analysis.





Robertson, Susan


capitalist reproduction, justification analysis, neoliberalism, orders of worth, social entrepreneurship


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge