Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Can capitalism be made kinder? This paper takes as its ethnographic object a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “u.lab” premised on the idea that capitalism can indeed be positively transformed. The intended audience is “change makers” the world over across sectors. The methodology of transformation is dubbed “Theory U.” The promise of Theory U is sweeping: traverse the “u” of change to actualize “a leap from our current self to our emerging future Self” (Presencing Institute, n.d.). Situated within broader trends that include the valorization of social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and corporate social responsibility, Theory U seems to inject ethical participation and a therapeutic ethos into late capitalism—a strategy periodically turned to for assuaging systemic abuses (Dolan and Rajak 2016; Foster 2016; Illouz 2008). The transformation of capitalism prompted in the course begins with the self. It appears at once individual and collective, as Theory U relies on experts not to elicit participation but to channel, scribe, and visually represent the participation of others in a journey of “co-sensing” and “co-creating” the future. In this paper, I draw on an encounter with a localized “u.lab” course in a social entrepreneurial hub in Belgrade, Serbia to interrogate some of the dilemmas of participation that arise between the mass public reach of this MOOC and its local and individual uptake. I also unpack the unsettling resonances of Theory U with participatory anthropological methods and political activism in order to raise critical questions about the scale and scalability of social change.