Every era of capitalism has an iconic social subject, one that personifies it and provides it with the legitimacy required to keep functioning. In the 20th Century, against a backdrop of Keynesian economics, increased social rights, and class divisions, it was the paternal business owner Henry Ford. He established a 40-hour work week, introduced paid holidays, and offered high wages with the revolutionary notion that the workers themselves could then buy the cars that they were making. This model of a ‘benevolent businessman’ eclipsed the exploitative owners of the early Industrial Revolution, depicted by Josiah Bounderby, the cruel character of Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times‘.
Ford’s era was only really replaced several decades later, in the 1980s, when the factory-based industrial capitalism evolved into an open and increasingly global system dominated by services, consumption, and above all finance. The latter was personified in literature by Sherman McCoy, the bond trader and self-regarded “Master of The Universe” in ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities‘, and even found a psychotic derivative in the sadistic killer Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho‘.
The capitalist ‘hero’ of the 21st century is the entrepreneur. Born in the post-welfare state world and blessed with the agility required to adapt to a relentlessly changing global economy, the entrepreneur is not just another business person but rather an innovator who finds novel solutions to old problems. In its most idealised form, the entrepreneur does not have much start-up capital or need a large organisation with thousands of workers. All that’s required is a garage, a loan from skeptical parents, and a list of attributes which are, according to specialist Diego Pereyra, more related to “emotional intelligence” than a hard knowledge of finance or economics. The marks of an entrepreneur are creativity, flexibility, and leadership, malleable attributes that contrast with the rigid traits of the old economy.
Typically young, the entrepreneur introduces a break in the time line, one that emerges from an intense faith in his/her ideas: the extra-ordinary capacity to achieve the impossible, or what nobody else thought was possible. The most emblematic incarnations of this entrepreneur are Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple creator Steve Jobs, who both already have their own biopics. Incubated in the very North American culture of ‘being a winner’, the entrepreneur is validated by success. Friends could be betrayed (as in the case of Zuckerberg and Jobs), or companies could end up splitting with their founder. But what cannot happen, under any circumstance, is failure: it is success, rather than the market value or social utility of the product, that defines the entrepreneur.
As one of the novelties of his movement, President Mauricio Macri incorporated into politics groups that had previously remained on the sidelines. Not so much the classic businessmen who have always played a central role in Argentine history, but a new batch of CEOs who are decisive in a world where owning the means of production is increasingly separated from the management of them. If, as sociologist Gabriel Vommaro claims, Macri has placed former CEOs of multinationals in the ‘hard’ areas of government like finance, energy and, public enterprises, he reserved the ‘soft’ areas like environment and social development for activists from NGOs who had already built bridges between capitalism and society through programmes of corporate social responsibility. In both cases, Macri’s cabinet bets on the techniques and know-how of managers as a means of efficiently resolving problems.
The figure of the entrepreneur has a central role in the government’s vision, as evidenced by the decision to rename the Secretariat of SMEs in the Production Ministry as the ‘Secretariat of SMEs and Entrepreneurs’. This expanded office is now led by Mariano Mayer, who performed a similar role in the Buenos Aires city government and who has passed though “the principal institutions to encourage entrepreneurial activity in Argentina”, according to the website. It is also demonstrated in new programmes for a ‘Creative Economy’, in naming ex-CEO of despegar.com Guillermo Fretes as head of the Educ.ar plan, and appointing Andy Freire, founder of Officenet and named by Aperture magazine as “synonymous with entrepreneurship” as city Modernisation Minister. In his campaign platform, Macri himself stated that “we must become a country of 40 million entrepreneurs”.
At first glance, it is an interesting proposal. As is evident already, Macri’s economic programme is fundamentally based on sectors like agribusiness, mining, energy, and some services, all of which are dynamic and generate badly-needed dollar incomes, but are not known for creating new or quality jobs. As such, it is a good idea to nuance this model with support for innovation and creativity, especially given that Argentina’s high education standards and broad middle class create the ideal conditions in which entrepreneurial virtues can prosper. These are fed even more by the roller-coaster highs and low of the country’s economic history: periods of hyperinflation, debt crises, and devaluations make it hard to plan long-term policies but also pushes people to sharpen their ingenuity in order to survive. It wouldn’t be nationalist to highlight that the three most important dot com businesses in Latin America – Patagon, Mercadolibre, and Despegar – were founded by Argentines.
However, taking a deeper look can lead to a different interpretation. In spite of stories that emphasise private/individual enterprise, entrepreneurial prosperity requires an active role by the State. Expert Sabrina Díaz Rato, of the Puntoguv foundation, explains that the Silicon Valley boom, synonymous with the success of US entrepreneurs, would not have been possible without active public intervention ranging from strict intellectual property laws to flexible migration regulations that permit special visas (for engineers, for example), as well as direct finance for the technological industry. “The famous Google algorithm,” says Díaz Rato, “was created thanks to a project financed by the state-organism US National Science Foundation.”
Macri’s PRO has chosen a discourse that identifies “equal opportunity” as the umbrella concept under which his government will operate. It is a typically liberal concept that banks on progress through individual effort, or at most that of families, more than via a collective construction of public goods. And this syncronises with other aspects of Macrismo, such as its leanings towards a fashionable version of Buddhism that is less of a dogmatic religion and more a collection of teachings and techniques to achieve happiness – another personal pursuit. Entrepreneurism, emerging as a current of practical economics and management from the West Coast of the USA (the same birthplace of this ‘New Age Buddhism’), is the most virtuous face – individual stories of success – of the liberal approach to equal opportunities.
This makes the issue almost a philosophical one. One of the fundamental traits of the figure of the entrepreneur, one that recovers legitimacy lost in the outdated archetype of capital businessman, is the capacity to reconcile an aspirational image made of dreams and ideas with the hard search for capital gains. The entrepreneur, in essence, is guided by more than just the pursuit of profit, though none have given up their millions so far. Today’s entrepreneurs almost always operate in the service sector, information and knowledge, where owning the methods of production is less important and where traditional forms of exploitation are replaced by more flexible and diverse jobs. As the entrepreneur is not exactly a business person, and carries the romantic notion of an innovator, the division between capital and work – the base of any capitalist relationship – is disguised, on the surface. This provides a buffer against the traditional market conflicts, e.g. with labour unions, that emerge as a company grows to a point where it needs to be managed with a more classic style. In other words, when the entrepreneur becomes the businessman.
At the extreme, the notorious Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han highlights on the capacity of neo-liberal capitalism to generate subjects that are self-exploited. In the end, he writes, it is neo-liberalism and not communism that eliminates the class struggle, not as a consequence of a proletariat victory but rather via the individualisation of responsibilities. “Those who fail in a neo-liberal society are ashamed and hold themselves responsible, rather than question the system. In this lies the special intelligence of the neo-liberal regime. It does not allow resistance against the system to emerge. When others are exploited, they can unite and rise up against the exploiter. But when people exploit themselves, they point their aggression inwards, creating a depressive instead of a revolutionary.”
My theory is that the gamble on entreprenuerism has its limit. For all the individual drive one might have, an entrepreneur does not operate in a vacuum but rather in certain coordinates of time and space. In the post-Kirchnerist Argentina, these conditions restrict the entrepreneurial possibilities to a limited sector of the population. It would be, at best, overly idealistic to imagine that a youngster out on the fringes of Greater Buenos Aires will raise a cow at the bottom on the garden, produce dulce de leche, bottled it with a designer label and export to Eastern Europe. Or that a subsistence farmer in Chaco will leave behind agriculture to set up a dot com enterprise. All those genius innovators require, from the very beginning, self-confidence, talent and… capital, as shown in the examples of Zuckerberg and Jobs, who both relied on thousands of dollars lent by relatives or friends to start their businesses. This is something unreachable for the majority of the 40 million Argentines that Macri wants to convert into entrepreneurs.
The danger is concrete. With a government that has difficulties looking beyond its own social class, the pro-entrepreneur discourse runs the risk of leading to state inaction when faced with Argentina’s poorer, precarious, developing-world version – an informal ‘do-it-yourself’ approach that today includes one in five workers. Like visiting a psychoanalyst or travelling to Machu Picchu, entrepreneurism is something that, in the best of cases, is limited to the middle class.