Are we all entrepreneurs now?

Author:Barker, Tom

The rise of the entrepreneur

It was not very many years ago that entrepreneurs barely registered in the public imagination. Today they are hard to avoid. Their exploits are a favourite subject of newspaper and magazine articles, while countless books and websites promise to help those eager to join their ranks. The richest and most successful--the Richard Bransons and Mark Zuckerbergs--have risen to superstar status. TV shows like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den regularly draw in large audiences. Entrepreneurs are everywhere admired for their dynamism and creativity, and above all for their apparent power to drive economic growth. Their high status and significance has been fully endorsed by governments of various stripes who, in both their policies and propaganda, have sought to encourage entrepreneurship and disseminate the message of its importance for our collective prosperity. The UK Coalition government launched numerous schemes to help budding entrepreneurs, including the Start Up Loans Company and the New Enterprise Allowance. The latter aims to encourage people on benefits to start their own businesses. Government ministers, not least the prime minister himself, rarely miss an opportunity to trumpet the importance of entrepreneurs to 'UK plc'.

Celebration of the entrepreneur in Western culture is not, however, an entirely new phenomenon. Particular praise has often been reserved for those who work their way up from humble beginnings to great success in business. Today, a man like Alan Sugar exemplifies this journey--grown up to great wealth and success, yet still fiercely proud of his working-class roots. But the 'self-made man' is an old and familiar type. In Hard Times, Charles Dickens satirised him in the figure of the straight-talking factory-owner Josiah Bounderby--'A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man'. (1) It is only at the end of the novel that Bounderby is revealed as a fraud, who pays his doting mother to stay out of his life in order to preserve his public credentials as an orphan who succeeded on his own.

And yet, while the entrepreneur may also have been lauded in much earlier periods of our history, to understand the origins of the present obsession we must look back to the 1980s, when private enterprise was trumpeted as the saving grace of ailing Western economies, particularly in Britain and the United States under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In The Spirit of Enterprise, first published in 1984, writer and investor George Gilder (a man much admired by Reagan) expressed his deep faith in the power of entrepreneurs to generate innovation and growth in the economy, a power he felt economists often failed to appreciate. Gilder portrayed entrepreneurs as ingenious risk-takers with a fiercely strong work ethic: 'They are the heroes of economic life'. (2) His work illustrates very clearly the way in which the entrepreneur has been seen, as much as anything, as an ideal personality type: strong and fearless, carrying the rest of us along on the wave of wealth they create. But if the entrepreneur has sometimes been depicted as a charismatic hero on whom the rest of us ultimately depend for our livelihoods, neoliberal politicians and commentators have striven to instil the qualities and values of the entrepreneur amongst the wider population. The idea is not that the rest of us mere mortals should simply kneel and idolise entrepreneurs--the point is that we should seek to imitate them.

The Coalition's New Enterprise Allowance was based on the famous Enterprise Allowance Scheme (EAS) introduced in 1983 by the Thatcher government, which provided 40 [pounds sterling] a week to unemployed individuals trying to start their own business. A noted effect of the EAS was the support it gave to young people starting out in the creative industries, helping a number of now famous names to get their careers off the ground, including Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, journalist Deborah Orr and even left-wing comedians Alan Davies and Jeremy Hardy. This marriage of enterprise, creativity and even political radicalism may seem strange and it would be foolish to try and claim that all these figures and others like them should, or would want to, be thought of as 'entrepreneurs'. However, their experiences illustrate how the economy has changed over the last thirty years or so, as individuals are increasingly encouraged to market their talents and passions, whatever they may be: whether selling cars, paintings, or laughs. It is notable how many of the countercultural values of the 1960s--self-expression, non-conformity, individuality --have been successfully co-opted by neoliberal capitalism, being infused into the ethos of many successful brands and in turn feeding into the ideal entrepreneurial character-type. Notable businessmen who started out as hippies include the famous anti-Vietnam War activist Jerry Rubin, and Richard Branson, who worked in youth journalism in the late 1960s before founding Virgin Records in 1972.

It has become something of a cliche that outsiders and misfits make for successful entrepreneurs. We have already mentioned the 'self-made man', but today this insurgent quality is best exemplified by 'the rise of the Geeks': people like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who turned fiddling around with computers into multi-billion dollar businesses. Steve Jobs was someone who embodied the 1960s qualities of informality, passion and self-realisation--after his death the BBC produced a documentary about him titled 'Steve Jobs: Billion Dollar Hippy'. But it is impossible to ignore the irony, even the hypocrisy, of those who preach romantic virtues of personal fulfilment and creativity whilst amassing personal fortunes flogging their wares in the process. If the 1960s taught us to 'do our own thing', they also warned us about 'selling out'. Miya Tokumitsu has written of Steve Jobs's insistence, in his address to Stanford's class of 2005, on the importance of 'doing what you love' in the world of work. For Tokumitsu, however, earnest exhortations to pursue one's own dreams ignore the harsh realities of the modern world of work, in which the majority of people have little choice but to take low paid, low quality jobs which offer few opportunities for development, including the many thousands of factory workers who produce Apple's goods.


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