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American Saints

In a discussion of the 2012 Republic National Convention, on the August 31, 2012 episode of his HBO show Real Time, Bill Maher, with typical bluntness, made the point that if you were not a businessperson or an entrepreneur, you might as well not exist for the Republican Party. Maher was right in highlighting the emphasis on entrepreneurial zeal in the Republican story of restoring America after four years of socialist anarchy under Barack Obama, but the fetishization of the entrepreneur is not just a Republican phenomenon. It pervades practically every sphere of American public life today, from the media to academia, from the rough-and tumble of everyday politics on campaign trails to rarified discussions of technocratic policy conducted at invitation-only conferences.

Subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 8: Other Animals now.The obsession with the figure of the entrepreneur reflects what may be called the “evangelical imagination,” in American society. I use the term broadly to refer to a style of thinking in which the act of adopting a set of beliefs and attitudes is seen as profoundly transforming both the individual and the state of the world. The term also invokes the missionary fervor with which the advocates of particular ideas, beliefs, or products seek to persuade others about the value of these notions or objects. The world of entrepreneurship, ever happy to describe itself with pithy catchwords, appears to have eagerly adopted the term.

I am not suggesting that entrepreneurship is not a legitimate object of study. Among entrepreneurs and those who study them, there exist healthy disagreements about received truths. The entrepreneur-turned-academicFull disclosure: I have met Vivek several times seeking his views on some initiatives related to media, technology, and education. Vivek Wadhwa’s writings are in case in point. And I get the genius of the diaper genie, the magic of a post-it note or iPhone, and the beauty of a Tesla sedan. (Though it is beyond my understanding why the Pop Tart, which I consider an assault on human taste, counts as a significant entrepreneurial invention). As a media junkie, student of social theory, and teacher of media and communication, I am interested in the contradictory and incoherent meanings that swirl around the idea the entrepreneur. The loud rhetoric of the entrepreneur as the source of personal transformation, national renewal, and global salvation drowns out other valuable perspectives about labor, initiative, and enterprise. It also tells us something crucial about how we in America today value different forms of social life.

The surfeit of attention paid to the figure of the entrepreneur in the present moment reveals it to be an object of impossible longing, a fiction riven by ideological contradictions. He—it is usually a he as portrayed in media—is an abstraction but also manifest as a Mark Zuckerberg or a Peter Thiel.  He is both an idea and a real person. The distance between the two—mirrored in the gulf between what he is meant to stand for and what we are supposed to do in emulating flesh-and-blood entrepreneurs—reveals some of the deep contradictions in how we live our lives and how we think.

The entrepreneur is a curious species. For one thing, he is hardy but also must be nurtured with great care. And while his flowering indicates that all is well with the complex ecosystem of capitalism, the entrepreneur himself is also positioned as the foundation of capitalism. Entrepreneurs, one line of thinking holds, benefit society by helping in the efficient allocation of scarce resources or different kinds of capital (human, economic, educational, technological, and so on), an activity that governments can only bungle. But given the centrality of entrepreneurs to economic and social life, it is legitimate for governments to divert these same precious resources toward nurturing them (before, at some point of time, gracefully stepping out of the way). The entrepreneur’s motivations—we must assume—are always pure. Even when he fails, he always acts in good faith and we must, likewise, in the same good faith, give him the benefit of doubt. The entrepreneur, then, is a privileged category, but one whose privilege cannot be recognized as such since we are always more indebted to him than he is to us. We are the ones who should be grateful, after all, to be able to work for “job creators” without whom we might be jobless. The privilege ascribed to the entrepreneur, needless to say, is deeply intertwined with structures of racial, class, and gender privilege. And yet, this fairly obvious truth cannot be publicly acknowledged or categorically stated.

The entrepreneur also fits into a very particular version of America’s history, bridging that past with the future of the world. America, this story goes, was built, ruled, and dominated by WASP elites, who combined the protestant ethic of frugality and hard work with a sense of their grave responsibility to lead the nation and give to the less fortunate, racism, anti-semitism, and sexism in such old boy networks notwithstanding. The entrepreneur today inherits this legacy, suitably updated for a world of information flows enabled by Google and Facebook in which racial inequality, gender discrimination, and national disparities do not matter nearly as much as they did earlier. He is willing to work long hours at low pay, motivated not so much by the IPO or the thought of his start-up being acquired by Microsoft as by the desire of doing good for America and the entire world (and for its own sake). But he respects the profit motive and is profoundly aware that shareholders, investors, and stakeholders need to see returns on their investments. And he is sustained by similar networks, entry to which, it is believed, rests on merit alone.

But this American exceptionalism sits somewhat uneasily with the claim that the entrepreneurial spirit is a global phenomenon, echoing earlier debates about whether capitalism itself is culturally specific or universal and whether some species of capitalism are more authentic than others. One approach toward addressing this knotty question is to claim that each society might have its own mode of entrepreneurial being and initiative, the notion of “jugaad” or Third World resourcefulness being a case in point. However, the de facto consensus on this issue, as reflected in Animal Farm (the venture capitalist edition), might be expressed thus: all entrepreneurs are smarter than non-entrepreneurs but American entrepreneurs are the smartest of all entrepreneurs.

While the entrepreneur is a longed-for prophet, able to see things that the rest of us cannot, and someone who will usher in the next post-industrial and post-information age revolution, he is also a down-to-earth, regular, everyday guy, gifted with the ability to sense and profitably address people’s needs and wants in the present. The entrepreneur is a singular, unique, intellect, who is often charmingly idiosyncratic and eccentric. But everyone can be an entrepreneur, as we learn from Thomas Friedman, channeling LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s book The Start-up of You. To put it another way, everyone cannot be Reid Hoffman but everyone can bring out their inner Reid Hoffman, presumably by figuring out a way to link in to him.

Finally, it is often not quite clear who can exactly claim the mantle of being a successful entrepreneur other than, well, a successful entrepreneur, who is essentially someone who has made money for himself or herself even if not for investors. And yet, in Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing, a failed start-up or two is almost a necessary qualification for entrepreneurial success. But what that myth does not clarify—indeed, can only mystify—is that after having failed one has necessarily to succeed to count as an entrepreneur. How does one distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate entrepreneurs? Does someone count as innovative till the point of time their “innovations” cause some kind of technological implosion or their creative trading strategies result in an arrest from the authorities for tax evasion?

Yet while it’s never clear what makes a successful entrepreneur—other than being an entrepreneur—the entrepreneurial comes to stand as the very definition of success. No one can be as innovative, enterprising, or creative as entrepreneurs, and no one else is as valuable to a society as an entrepreneur. The result is that entrepreneurial imperative becomes the hallmark of success in any profession, or even more generally, in any role in life. If homo economicus is the highest form of human being, homo entrepreneuricus, in turn, represents the highest form of homo economicus. And so the truly successful artiste is one who can market himself or herself as a brand; the really successful academic is the one who starts his or her own company; the really successful musician is one who starts his or her own recording label or distribution company; the successful parent is one who chronicles his or her adventures and experiences in parenting on a blog and manages to syndicate it for a newspaper or turn it into a book franchise.

In the public valorization of the entrepreneurial drive, there appears to be almost no acknowledgment that a college teacher of English or history is also being innovative and creative each time they teach a new course, conceptualize a new assignment, or develop new teaching strategies (which do not necessarily need to involve Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube). There is little recognition of the fact that the migrant worker who works two minimum-wage jobs and raises a family might be a better “multitasker” than the all-purpose founder, CEO, and CTO of an Internet start-up. Or that a paid break for a nanny working a ten-hour day might be as rejuvenating as paid-for yoga classes and gym memberships are for employees of trendy, new-age, cutting-edge companies. And that all these people and what they do bears as much intrinsic value, social value, and economic value as anyone granted the status of entrepreneur by the Bloomberg West team.

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Subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 8: Other Animals now.I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, a little slice of the world teeming with entrepreneurs, and one formed by many intersecting global histories of labor: Latin American, Sikh, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, among others. I am struck by how these global histories of human sweat, toil, and effort—which are also, of course, histories of discrimination and oppression—are largely invisible in much mainstream media and public discussion here, though they are well documented in university and state archives and taught and studied in the area’s numerous educational institutions. A history of American entrepreneurship should surely include figures from each of these communities, like the Sikh Jawala Singh, just as a history of American labor would be incomplete without a recognition of the role of their labor in building California and America. I doubt very much though that the Wall Street Journal would ever locate one source of America’s culture of innovation in the agricultural ingenuity of the Sikh communities of early twentieth-century California. For their success challenges the idea of America as a meritocratic society offering equal opportunity to all regardless of skin color, national origin, or religious belief. Given the discriminatory laws that Sikhs and other immigrant communities have had to overcome to establish flourishing business ventures, it is difficult to claim that they have succeeded primarily because of a uniquely American entrepreneurial culture. One could even propose the heretical idea that these communities, excluded from access to capital, markets, and networks, succeeded despite that culture.

In two essays in Acts of Resistance, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes how an ugly language of neoliberal productivity and efficiency has encroached on the discussion and perception about economic globalization in social space. He argues that in the vision of the world represented by such language—a pseudo-objective rendition of a supposedly transparent reality—economic activity is treated as synonymous with social life, and the autonomous domain of the social is discarded as irrelevant. Bourdieu’s point is that such a vision of the world is also a division of the world, a principle according to which value is ascribed to different practices, ways of life, and social groups.

We are perhaps seeing a softer variant of neoliberalism in our times, when there is some limited acknowledgment of the value of the social, manifest as an interest in social entrepreneurship and social networks. The current vocabulary of neoliberalism is more catholic, drawing from registers of cultural life, environmentalism, and human rights as much as from economics and business: data points and tipping points, pivoting, creative classes, empowerment, smart sanctions, thought leaders, change agents, cultural autonomy, ecopreneurialism, early adoption, social networks, corporate social responsibility, and—irony—cultural capital, a term from Pierre Bourdieu that has been coopted in a manner seemingly designed to make him turn in his grave. But even in expanded form, this vocabulary remains imaginatively impoverished, unable to picture society minus the figure of the entrepreneur and the mystifications that he represents.

What does the fetishization of the entrepreneur tell us about this moment in American life? I remain unconvinced by the simplistic liberal claim that it is a natural and wide recognition of the fact that “true” capitalism unleashes human ingenuity. A Marxist reading would tell us it has something to do with the fear of the loss of class privilege (to which we might add racial and gender privilege) and a mechanism for preserving class interests. The idea of the entrepreneur as necessary for society as an obvious, commonsensical truth would be a classic example of ideology at work. I think there might be something more, too—reflected in the single-mindedness of the evangelical imagination to which I pointed earlier—which I present as a speculative question. Could it be the fear that other than frameworks of economic worth and a religious, dominantly Christian, morality, American society lacks resources for assessing human value?

Secular and religious frameworks—sets of traditions, values, and principles—that inform social life can be viewed, conceptually, as two different types of frameworks for judging the worth of human lives. In reality, the two influence, shape, and draw from each other. However, as both John Rawls and Abdullahi An-Na’im have argued, any such evaluative claims presented in the public sphere must be articulated as public reasons. They must be presented as secular reasons that are accessible to all and refutable by all, even if they are informed by religious motivations. This allows people of diverse religious conviction and persuasion to engage in a conversation without fear of being labeled heretics or blasphemers. We can, accordingly, make a distinction between secular reasons (which may be informed by religious conviction) and religious reasons that unqualifiedly present themselves as such.These frameworks—secular and religious—give us the criteria by which to judge the ethical and moral value of actions and practices. They provide us with the resources for debates about what constitutes a good society. They shape our sense of what counts as a good life, individually and collectively, and our understanding of human purpose itself. The controversies over abortion or gay marriage show the salient role that religious convictions, largely rooted in varieties of Christianity, play in such contestations in American political society. On the secular side, as philosopher Michael Sandel has argued in his recent book What Money Can’t Buy, market-based values have become the sole arbiter of all realms of human activity and social existence in America.

It is in this shift that we see the most damaging consequence of the obsession with entrepreneurship: the fact that human purpose itself has been redefined as an entrepreneurial imperative. Or to resort to the language of Silicon Valley, human purpose has been repurposed as entrepreneurial drive. Itself a consequence of the prevalence of market-based logic, as Sandel might tell us, the reclassification of human worth in these terms continues to extract social and ethical costs.

According to Wittgenstein, a language is a form of life. Flip the proposition and it holds equally true. A form of life is a language. A refusal to acknowledge, let alone listen to, a language, is a refusal to acknowledge a way of being. The compulsive invocation of entrepreneurial being in the worlds of business, politics, policy, media, academia, and activism drowns out the claims of other ways of life—much in the manner that propaganda cannot, by definition, recognize any truth other than its own. The obsession with entrepreneurship also shares the anxiety at the heart of all propaganda: a lack of certitude about the veracity of its own claims. It is here that we find the ideological rationale for the constant evangelizing about entrepreneurship. Through its single-minded relentlessness, evangelizing seeks to banish even the faintest hint of internal and external doubt, among believers and potential converts alike. The banal, poorly worded, insistence on the redemptive potential of entrepreneurship in our times strikes one, then, not as a rapturous celebration of salvation but as a fear that we may not find deliverance.

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