“A model of how to be and how to behave”: Szeman (2015), Entrepreneurship as the New Common Sense

Szeman, I. (2015). Entrepreneurship as the new common sense. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(3), 471-490. [link]

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Via a Wired article on the start-up Boomtrain, Szeman introduces the increasingly ubiquitous entrepreneurial story, “narratives that make it seem as if financial and social success is, in the main, inevitable in the new world of the devices and gadgets that increasingly mediate our lives” (p472); despite the less than rosy story of Boomtrain in the article, this “cautionary tale does little to deflate the dream of entrepreneurial success currently circulating in the world [… it’s] an exception to a now general and widely-accepted rule: the entrepreneur has become a model of how to be and how to behave, and not only in the world of business. Entrepreneurship has come to permeate our social imaginaries in a way that has quickly transformed its claims and demands on us from fantasy into reality.” (ibid)

Szeman next discusses the original definition of the entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk” (see Cantillon, 2010) in an otherwise orderly and boring economic system dominated by states and large collectivist corporations; he cites Willard Whyte’s Organisation Man (a regular touchstone of Keller Easterling’s, IIRC) as a template for the contemporary form of corporate power, if not its content (hints of D&G’s nomadology here) in order to observe that, on one level, not much seems to have changed. What has changed is the status of the entrepreneur: once a minor character in the capitalist pantheon, this archetype is now exemplary:

“Entrepreneurship is a sticky idea around which contradictory and multiple constellations of other ideas coalesce; like many instances of common sense [to be clear, Szeman is implicitly deploying the Gramscian formulation of ‘common sense’ throughout this paper], this one sutures together certain (irresolvable) contradictions and challenges, making the existing situation seem natural, to-be-expected, and thus not only bearable but (in this case) anticipated and exciting […] the entrepreneur is the neoliberal subject par excellence — the perfect figure for a world in which the market has replaced society, and one whose idealization and legitimation in turn affirms the necessity and veracity of this epochal transition.” – p474

As a result, “political, economic, aesthetic and educational structures have been and are still being reshaped” around the entrepreneurial archetype (ibid); governments are very much complicit in this shift, with a particular focus on youth through the HE system — and from my own current standpoint within a Russell Group university in the UK, this is painfully hard to refute. Entrepreneurial course-products are “explicitly designed to create new forms and modes of subjectivity […] The language of risk and uncertainty that has always accompanied entrepreneurial activity has become generalised […] risk is a universal condition of existence.” (p475, my bold emphasis)

This risk has two dimensions:

  1. “the disappearance of sites and spaces for accumulation” (ibid): state and capital are both desperate to innovate their processes; “increasingly limited possibilities of growth” make entrepreneurs the ideal subjects, as they put the most effort into finding new possibilities for the lowest capital outlay;
  2. precarity (cf. Butler): assurances and insurances slowly and socially built up against corporeal vulnerability have been eroded and/or dismantled since the 1980s (if not before).

“… precarity has in fact become a universalised condition of contemporary existence due to the practices of the neoliberal state and global finance. Entrepreneurial subjects arise in response to this universal precarity: they are actors needed by states and capital alike to invent new forms and spaces of accumulation, but they also constitute a new form of subjectivity appropriate to the uncertainties that attend contemporary capitalism.” (p476)

“In a perverse way, the new programs of entrepreneurship appear to meet a demand that preexisted them, and not vice versa” (p477); the situation has “produced opportunities [for the entrepreneurial subject] hitherto unavailable.” (ibid) Success or failure is purely a matter of individual ability and/or desire; everyone is assumed to start from the same equal footing; structural inequalities effectively elided (or reframed as the whining of losers / the politics of envy?). There is a confusion of formal freedoms with actual freedoms, a contradictory assumption that the freedoms within capitalism might somehow transcend capitalism’s inherent limits. Examples include libertarian seasteading, Thiel’s drop-out-of-college fellowship fund, and ‘sharing economy’ evangelism (note that this piece was likely written in 2014, before the sharing economy backlash was briefly mainstreamed), all of which “imagine a better, more fulfilling world peopled by autopoetic microentrepreneurs [… These technoutopian desires] constitute attempts to rethink process without ever questioning the system in which those processes operate; and rather than imagining different futures, they remain trapped in a perpetual present, a cycle of unending creative destruction in which nothing fundamental can ever change.” (p478, author’s italics, my bold emphasis)

Linguistic and social shifts reframe poor people as potential entrepreneurs whose energies lie dormant in the absence of the appropriate programs to enable their flourishing (see Federici, “ideologies of microentrepreneurship”); these shifts in turn enable and/or legitimise:

  1. the rollback or elimination of social safety-nets;
  2. a change in self-perception among the poor, in which they internalise the ‘entrepreneur or nothing narrative’ wholesale; “poverty can now only be a personal failing” (p479, see Karim, “a political economy of shame”).

This subjectivity is perhaps even more ubiquitous in the Global South, as manifest in the “hawkers, importers, market merchants, restaurateurs, scavengers, mechanics [and others] whose work takes place off the books all over the world.” (p480)

“One last point needs to be made: not only are we all expected to be entrepreneurs today, we are all expected to like it; from the perspective of entrepreneurial common sense, there are no unhappy entrepreneurs.” — p480, author’s italics

This is fine.

“… as the utopian situation for the entrepreneur remains always the present, cruel optimism turns virtue into vice […] even as entrepreneurs insist on the significance of their contributions to shaping the future, they occupy an ahistorical landscape in which time stands still.” — p 481, author’s italics, my bold emphasis

Referring to Dardot & Laval, the imperative of maximum performance in all spheres of life, as exemplified by professional sports, has become mandatory for all (p482); the entrepreneurial subject requires little or no monitoring or management system (other than the underlying precarity of the context in which they are operating — cf this super-bleak bit from Charlie Stross); engenders a sort of pathological hyperproductivity and a dissolution of the  already-porous borders between ‘work’ and ‘life’; the self as a perpetual metaproject. The unironic appropriation of Beckett’s “fail better” riff from Worstward Ho as the de facto motto of entrepreneurial culture (I have done this myself); Freud’s repetition compulsion. “The repetition of failure becomes a badge of pride, a marker of living well, of engaging in properly ethical behaviour, and of having achieved the good life.” (p483)

“The status of entrepreneurship as a new common sense of subjectivity and economic practice […] would suggest that it constitutes an ideal subjectivity for neoliberal forms of governmentality, one that it has been searching for all along. […] It is a mechanism of selfhood and subject formation that begins from the premise that there is no one to count on, no one who can do anything for you other than you yourself.” HOWEVER: “Entrepreneurship may be simultaneously the height of neoliberal subject formation and its limit — a peak on the other side of which lie subjects with no fidelity to governments or states.” — p484, author’s italics

I’m not sure I buy Szeman’s final ray of hope, here (he goes on to suggest that this notion of Peak Neoliberal Subject Formation represents a “kernel of political possibility”), but that’s because I really want to buy it, and it seems far too easy a way out of something that seems otherwise almost entirely inescapable. As noted above, this was likely written at least four years ago; that sure as shit wasn’t a peak year for the dynamics of entrepreneurial subject formation, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. Overall, this is one of those valuable papers which serves to provide a solid suite of references and arguments for an intuition that I’ve harboured since the early Nineties: that the huckster story has become a hero’s story.

(Cf. Only Fools & Horses, which — not to deny its values as comedy and popular entertainment, lest I be lynched and/or have my passport rescinded — would seem to stand as an early document in the subject formation that Szeman is talking about here: Del-boy is a huckster and a serial failure, and that’s exactly why we’re encouraged to, and ultimately do, identify with him.)

Pretty sure there’s some sort of overlap with the wizards of innovation trope, too — though that story tends to have a different generic feel, perhaps because told from a different POV and for a more select (and, indeed, generic) audience.

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