All Hail the Entrepreneur!

by Thomas Chambers

In an article in last week’s Guardian, Stuart Heritage argues that “without The Apprentice, Donald Trump would still be a failed boardgame salesman”. Heritage accuses the show of creating politically toxic monsters and of elevating “hair gelled bell-ends” to the level, albeit temporarily, of sainted heroes. He is right. They are bell-ends! However, there is more to this phenomenon than a mere coincidental constellation of arseholes and pin-stripes. The figure we are presented with, on this and a host of other TV shows, media images and dominant discourses, is that of the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is presented to us as a ‘self-made’ individual: A shark, a risk taker, a go-getter, an individualist. The entrepreneur is self-sufficient, highly flexible and adaptable and always ready to leap on the latest opportunity.

The entrepreneur has long been a main stay of both industrial and post-industrial capitalism. The Victorian entrepreneur was idealised as the driver of industrialisation, ‘new ideas’ brought to you by ‘new money’. The entrepreneur himself was the symbol of social mobility, the individual capable of traversing class. However, the new money, as with Donald Trump’s supposed self-made success, was often not ‘new’ at all and for those who made the precarious traverse an abandonment of old class ties was often a requirement of anointment. The rise of free market capitalism saw the continuity of this figure, but also the addition of a reconfigured form, an entrepreneur no longer tied to the means of production but imbued with an almost cosmological power to make money out of money itself. Irrelevant of class background, all were called upon to entrust our carefully horded dung balls to these mystical wizards. The calamity that followed saw the plunge from grace and the shattering of the imagined invincibility of entrepreneurialism. A plunge which, in some cases, took on literal form. In the post-war period the entrepreneur went transnational, enabled by infrastructure capable of reducing both physical movement and movement of capital. Riding on the back of the post-colonial landscape the entrepreneur was now part businessman, part adventurer willing to travel to the ends of the earth in search of new business opportunities and forms of accumulation. Image savvy and charismatic, this new ideal presented us with an aspirational figure, yet also with a lifestyle out of reach for most. From the early 1980s onwards we were repeatedly told that this is what we should become. However, class segregation and the distancing of everyday reality meant that the 1980s ‘city boy’ was not imagined as an aspirational figure but derided as a champagne swilling, coke snorting, Porsche driving ‘yuppie’.

Entrepreneurialism, as with any other categorisation, sits within a blurred mesh of social relations, power dynamics and other forms of identity such as class, ethnicity and gender. In 1980s Britain, and elsewhere during the decade, there was, for example, a concerted shift toward constructing the figure of the entrepreneurial woman. This has, however, not involved the feminisation or de-gendering of the entrepreneur. Rather in Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s, and elsewhere in the world (particularly the US), this figure was presented to us as the masculated woman. Perhaps one of the most powerful critiques of this conflicted character was that portrayed by Caryl Churchill in her 1982 play Top Girls. The play tells the story of Marlene, a soulless exploiter of other women, an individualist interested only in her own progression and career. The play is a stark critique of American feminism, which Churchill sees as creating ‘new-patriarchs’ emulating the risk taking, flexible, adaptable and macho world of the free market as a pose to seeking to attend to the needs of the downtrodden. Just as entrepreneurialism is intersected by a variety of other identities so it does not take on a fixed category across geographical space. The anthropologist Carla Freeman’s 2014 book, Entrepreneurial Selvesillustrates the ways in which the rise of an entrepreneurial ethic in Barbados interplays with colonial legacies and cultural traditions which give it a Barbadian specificity, albeit within the context of a more global drive towards ‘entrepreneurialism’.

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982)

However, Freeman’s book begins to hint at a fundamental shift in the metanarrative surrounding entrepreneurialism. Whereas we have been presented with the entrepreneur as an idealised figure of contemporary capitalism, this has always remained as something presented as aspirational and desirable but not necessarily obtainable. Whilst a few may gain the title, for the masses the reality of the division of labour at both domestic and international scales had left such attainment out of reach. Yet, in recent years, there has been a broadening of the term. In 1989 Hernando De Soto wrote a book called The Other Path which lauded the entrepreneurial spirit of the poor in the slums of South America. These ‘entrepreneurs’, De Soto argued, were constrained by a lack of legal recognition of their informal activity as being legitimate. It was this, not old ideals of class and ownership of the means of production, which perpetuated poverty. What was needed was the creation of conditions in which this entrepreneurial drive could be released. Under such circumstances entrepreneurialism at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ would act create wealth for all. De Soto was lauded as a visionary by the IMF, World Bank and US government. The propagation and reproduction of this ideal led not only to the idealisation of entrepreneurialism as central to neoliberal development, propagated through actors in the ‘development industry’, but also reconstituted the entrepreneur as an egalitarian figure easily accessible to anyone irrespective of class position and monetary wealth. Suddenly the realm of the entrepreneur was not restricted to the Richard Bransons, Donald Trumps or Steve Jobs of this world but could include the taco seller in downtown bustling Mexico City, the vegetable vendor on the corner of a street in Old Delhi’s narrow gullies, the woman who weaves baskets for export in the backstreets of Accra, or the cultural industry worker earning piece rate from an Apple laptop in Shoreditch. Now we can all be entrepreneurs! We have discovered a newfound egalitarian world free of class divisions delivered to us within an affective milieu of media, imagery, and other sources that allow us all to be risk taking, adaptable, self-determining go-getters! All hail the glory of the glory of the moment!! All hail the entrepreneur!!!

Of course there are a few questions that need examining in all this. If this new entrepreneurialism is in effect a project of classification then what has actually changed? If we are all entrepreneurs then how do we distinguish between the entrepreneur who just happens to have a private jet and a multinational business empire and the street vendor barely able to feed her family? Is it possible that the affective pool in which we are given both the image itself and the swirling terrain within which we construct and present ourselves is tainted by the odour of bullshit? Do we all end up as go-getters creating a better future or as a bunch of bell-ends seeking to cream that little bit more from our neighbour, friend or relative? Must we all become Marlene in order to fulfil the aspirational path laid out for us and to survive in the global marketplace?

tom fieldwork1
Street vendor, from author’s fieldwork

These are important questions of an ideological nature. However, it is also essential that we understand the means through which an entrepreneurial etic perpetuates and the ways it plays out in a variety of contexts. My ethnographic work is located in a Muslim dominated woodworking industry in the North Indian city of Saharanpur. Whilst it covers a range of topics I have, over the past year or so, become particularly interested in notions of entrepreneurialism in the city. In seeking to understand this I have been drawn, as hinted at above, to theoretical approaches based within affect theory. This approach basically asked that we consider the ways in which a variety of images, media, discourses, rhetoric, state influences and other factors form a pool within which certain forms of subjectivity are produced. However, this is not a pool that is inhabited by a singular discourse but is an arena of various imaginaries which may at times converge and at other conflict with each other. The ‘affective pool’ is, then, an additional realm in which battles over possible futures are played out.

Just like so many places in the world India has also seen the rise to the fore of the enterprising entrepreneur. The success story of the ‘self-made man’ is an ever present. From business leaders such as Mukesh Ambani to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ‘self-made man’ narrative forms an important part of the way images are construct around and by certain individuals. As in the UK, the media is increasingly focused on the aspirational terrain of entrepreneurialism and NGOs are heavily focused on entrepreneurial development through programs of microcredit and microenterprise. This domestic scene takes place within the context of broader global circulations. The complex interconnections around these influences crystallised for me in a single moment. I was in the house of an old friend on one of several trips to Saharanpur. Javid worked in the wood gullies but had also been studying English and it was while discussing the books he had been reading that he picked up a volume of Steve Jobs biography. Thrusting it toward me he declared “my hero”! Upon enquiring as to why this might be he told me how he had managed to make his own business and that he hoped to one day be like him.

Embed from Getty Images

There were many who could be referred to as possessing an entrepreneurial spirit in Saharanpur, who like Marlene embodied aspects of individualistic success at the expense of others. In a small gully is the house of Bano. Bano was the first to move to the area and has slowly established herself as a box finishing ‘entrepreneur’. Bano operated a complex supply chain which fed into various households and incorporated numerous women who were engaged in the lowest paid stage of wood manufacture. Bano was strict and ensured orders were completed for the various manufactures with whom she has informal contracts. The other women regularly complained about the way she operated and about the size of the cut she took. Yet they were also sympathetic to her position. They knew that she too sat for long hours polishing boxes and that her payment was often withheld by the workshop owners. They knew that her womb was prolapsed from the rigours of childbirth combined with long hours sitting on the cement floor. Bano, in other words, was not Marlene.


A photo from the author’s fieldwork

Ascending the rickety ladder of ‘entrepreneurial’ success in the city is by no means a guarantee of stability. The scramble up to become a small scale business owner was all too often a journey that involved taking on a burden of credit and the challenges of retaining the commitment of workers. Just as the rise could be rapid so could the plunge. A fall in orders would leave wood taken on credit unpaid. Workers would leave as rapidly as they came. Within weeks years of work could be undone resulting in the ‘entrepreneur’ rapidly descending back into the mire of everyday labour. This was the tale of Mehboob who was back in Saharanpur only briefly having returned from labouring in Hyderabad. He puffed beedie smoke through gaunt cheeks as he explained that the collapse of his small business three years before had resulted in him having to sell most of the family’s possessions and take to the road in search of work. What a contrast from those for whom ownership of capital means repeated failure, as Stuart Heritage points out was the case for numerous Trump projects, is easily weathered. So when we talk about the entrepreneur as if this embodies a figure that cuts across divides of class and unequal relations, we are not talking about an egalitarian levelling of reality but merely an articulation that actively seeks to conceal inequality and screens injustice. All hail the entrepreneur? Perhaps not! Instead this re-articulation of the entrepreneur, as an egalitarian ideal, is a faux that must be challenged and faced down. It is, perhaps, the very same affective terrain, alongside more direct forms of counter-action, which offers possibilities for countering the hegemony of neoliberalism and its central figure of the entrepreneur. The question, then, becomes one of how best to affect affect? Anyway in the meantime here is a picture of a bell-end…

Make America Great Again‘ (2016) © Illma Gore

Title imageDragons’ Den (BBC)

Thomas Chambers obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sussex in 2015 and is currently convening a variety of anthropology modules as a Teaching Fellow as well as working on ongoing funded research in India.  Thomas’s main interests are focused on labour, migration and craft working industries in the north of India.  He has publications in progress or under review with journals dealing with questions of imagination, migration, affect, labour and subjective experience.  In addition to his teaching work he is currently working on a BA/Leverhulme funded project with Dr Geert De Neve & Dr Grace Carswell as well a joint special issue on domestic labour in India with Dr Shalini Grover & Professor Patricia Jeffery for the Journal of South Asian Development


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