Author: Dom Rottman
8 July 2021
My senior year of high school I took part in a “student entrepreneurship” program by working at its coffee bar. This program was a farce; I learned nothing about schmoozing to wealthy investors for loans or exploiting workers for the extraction of surplus value. Instead, I learned things about workplace management, cooperation, organization, and taking pride in one’s craft—values of a worker. Perhaps that has changed in six years, though it seems to me there’s enough schmoozing based on the emails and mail my family and I get, and the only exploitation of labor going on is the same that’s been happening for decades—except now I guess the students are technically on the receiving end of it as well in exchange for the “knowledge” of “entrepreneurial values."1
While the irony is heavier than the number of bricks used to build that institution, the program’s title isn’t really an accident. Rather, it’s just another instance of the myth of the entrepreneur, a myth which transforms and obfuscates the real nature of the capitalist. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, by ascribing to him a background and generally positive qualities that are, in fact, characteristic of the worker.2 In so doing, the actual unequal and exploitative relationship between capitalist and worker is twisted so that it seems equal and fair because the entrepreneur “is just like any of us”—when that could not be farther from the truth. The reader might have noticed that I have conflated the capitalist and the entrepreneur. This is not intended as a sleight of hand; it requires some justification. The entrepreneur, inasmuch as he is largely a mythological figure, is a type of capitalist that does functionally operate a little differently than other types of capitalists today, such as a typical “business owner” or a publicly held corporation that is owned by anybody but the public but rather a dark room of trustees scheming on how to extract maximum surplus value. It seems that an entrepreneur is one of those things which we know when we see it but never need to take the time to articulate or define it. Defining the entrepreneur’s real, functional difference is a good springboard into examining how the myth is constructed. For our purposes, we will define the entrepreneur as an individual who uses capital with the express purpose of developing a (capitalist) firm.
The reader might find my definition a bit curious as I have neglected to use one rather important word usually associated with entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship: risk. This choice was deliberate; I do not mean to brush the word aside for convenience. On the contrary, I mean to draw attention to it. The reason “risk” has become associated with entrepreneur/ship is perhaps because the word’s etymology comes from the French word entreprendre, meaning “to undertake”—as one undertakes risks. Regardless of how accurate this origin might be however, I do not think I would be incorrect to say that today, entrepreneurs in particular are characterized as “risk-takers” in contradistinction to other capitalists such as landlords, hedge fund managers, or newly changed management and/or ownership in an established company.
Why entrepreneurs seem the most risk-tolerant or even risk seeking among capitalists is because in the establishment of a novel business there is a greater chance that, should it fail, all investment will be lost. Yet while it is true that it might be easier and safer to take money and invest it in the stock market or rent out property, the entrepreneur is no more risking capital than any other capitalist, as the goal for him is the same as any other capitalist: money, commodity, money prime. There’s no reason why the stock market, in its arcane mysteries, is just as capable of screwing over its own type of rentiers; quite recently hedge funds have lost billions of dollars shorting certain stocks; one in London even had to close its doors. The point is that the individual use of capital is in each instance an inherit risk, even if ultimately the process of money, commodity, money prime in capitalist society on the whole is bound to succeed. If the remaining argument then becomes that starting a business is always risker than mere investment (and therefore potentially more lucrative, as otherwise why would one input the same amount of money for less money prime), then we have successfully arrived at the entrepreneur’s “risk-taking” behavior as an entry point for investigation into his mythology.
The entrepreneur-as-risk taker is indeed what sets him apart from his fellow capitalists in character. He is a maverick, an innovator, a little bit off, and slightly an asshole: Elon Musk is perhaps the entrepreneur par excellence, with Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos among his company. But that is all the entrepreneur is: a character, a persona, a myth. It is something to be idolized—and the fact that they’re all white men (we have to be reminded that Zuckerberg is Jewish) isn’t entirely intentional, but it’s just as hard to say it’s all happenstance. The difference between entrepreneur and capitalist is the thin ideology of public relations.
But it is still a curious thing. The entrepreneur is exceptional among not just capitalists, but among men and women, yet at the same time he is one of us. He had humble beginnings, he started tinkering in his garage, he ate nothing but tree bark for five years, slept on a rug for only two hours a night, etc etc. This man lived for the hustle, he, above all, worked hard. And supposedly, if we, too, were to work so hard, we could also live on Malibu beach with a wife and mistresses without a care in the world.
If that really all there was to it then the California real estate market would not be able to keep up with the demands of its honest hard-working laborers. At this point, usually, when the value of hard work in the entrepreneur arises, the critic or critique will whip out the almighty “gotcha” of his rich parents loaned him money! This isn’t insignificant, particularly in the case of Musk. Certainly, great generational wealth is an issue when it comes to the continuing operation of capitalism. But we need not even go that far. I do not doubt that rich parents make the “ordinary person” who starts a business less than ordinary. Yet I also do not doubt, to an extent, the ridiculous and often exaggerated “I started out of my garage” stories. The very moment the would-be entrepreneur ceases to be “ordinary”, the very moment the value of hard work cheapens to myth is the very moment he truly becomes an entrepreneur, the very moment he becomes a capitalist. Upon receiving capital as Money, no matter the source, be it his parents, Peter Theil, some random investor, crowdfunding, even the entrepreneurs own wages, when the individual uses capital for the express purpose of establishing a firm governed by capitalist production—money, commodity, money prime, ad infinitum—the entrepreneur is no longer the ordinary person he claims to be (or have been), and hard work means for him something totally different than it does for the waged or salaried laborer if he even continues to work at all.
Granted, the development could stop here, and one would fall short of being a true entrepreneur. Not everyone wants lucrative profit, not every coffee shop has ambitions of having more than two or three locations much less a massive chain. But at such a point not only would such a person’s character as an entrepreneur be question, but as a true bourgeois capitalist. Have you ever heard of an entrepreneur that wasn’t in it for the money? I’m not necessarily letting small business owners off the hook for being petty bourgeois—unless it truly is a bona fide worker co-op, which do successfully exist, which means socialism has spread, so be warned!—but I don’t think it’s fair to put the small business owner in the same class as the entrepreneur, much less the ultra-wealthy one in the mold of Musk et al. No, it is these two halves examined above that make the myth whole; the entrepreneur is not just one who engages in capitalism but is himself a capitalist through and through.
Which makes the idea that the entrepreneur had the same humble origins as all of us and therefore could be anyone—in each one of us there is an entrepreneur—all the more sinister. For one, it values as good rather questionable human qualities. Being an asshole is not a good quality, but in small doses makes for great television and is thus otherwise indistinguishable from irony and sarcasm, allowing an outright negative value to be transformed into a charming one. With respect to critiquing the character of the entrepreneur I am hardly alone, as it is a persona which is lampooned nearly as much as it is lauded. For every small-time entrepreneur influencer there is a better actor who performs the role with the true honesty of comedy, where no bones are made about the fact that the entrepreneur is happy to step on the throats of his friends, family, and neighbors in the pursuit of profit.
On a further and no less important note the entrepreneur’s alleged ordinary origins recapitulate another myth, one of the cornerstone myths of capitalism, that we are all on an equal plane in the free market as individuals who “truck and barter.” This of course is not so, as the capitalist and the laborer are two distinct oppositional classes. The former owns the means of production and capital towards the production of commodities in the cycle of endless captial production, while the laborer has no choice but to offer his laboring hands for a pittance of wages to ward off starvation, with no goods or capital for his own. Therefore, it is hard work that is the only value that, once mythologized, can maintain the paradox that the entrepreneur is both ordinary and exceptional. If it is not the most apparent or remarkable value, it is still the most necessary. The truth is that we are all born to labor, labor broadly speaking as the life-activity. The lie is that through sheer quantity and a certain—arbitrarily, vaguely, and always conveniently determined—quality of labor one becomes exceptional. Even without capitalism this would not be true. Under capitalism, what makes one exceptional is the ability to not labor by being a capitalist. The entrepreneur is a perversion of values.
And it is because it is a perversion, truth twisted and mythologized, that the entrepreneur and his “values” have great effective power. Day after day we are told that if we simply work hard, we too will be rich and successful. Do not ask for handouts, work hard! Do not be a “lazy socialist” (tell me, how can a socialist be lazy if she must be by definition a worker), just work harder! You may suffer now in toil, but through thorns and thistles and by the sweat of your brow you will finally rest when you retire 3 years before the end of your lifetime! And of course, millions of people do. Upon hearing these words laborers, of their own accord, double down towards phantom ends. Perhaps it is as they say, that entire generations have been hoodwinked by the powers that be. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Myths are powerful not because of lies, but because of truth. And there is indeed truth in the value of labor.
The God of Capitalism and the God of Communism and their oft-forgotten middle brother—Smith, Marx, and Ricardo respectively—all believed strongly that value arises from one’s labor. Of course, the labor theory of value is not beyond critique and cannot be a total theory of value. But even if it can’t cover everything, it’s certainly true that we find value in “the fruits of our labor and the work of our hands.” Taking pride in one’s work, and even working hard are perhaps even natural values if it is true that labor is the life activity of human beings. Yet these values cannot belong to anybody but the worker. In capitalism there is no room for things “good in and of themselves”—even money is instrumentalized towards more money—and a business, even with the greatest conceivable intentions, which claims to value anything for its own sake without it also being instrumentalized toward profit is lying. This is the case with the value of work and labor, which is so valorized above all precisely because of its necessary instrumental value in capitalist production. Thus, what is granted with one hand is taken—quite literally—with the other, where the most valued thing is not permitted to be realized in the hands of its creator but is immediately seized and exchanged for wages. With true values, lies of condition, and phantom ends the worker is at once Sisyphus and Tantalus instead of the Hercules she ought to be.
When we speak of “entrepreneurial values” we are invoking a chaotic fantasy that veils itself over reality. It does not distinguish between the values of honest labor, of cooperation, pride in one’s work, and camaraderie and the corrupt oddball persona that must accompany it. It obfuscates the material difference between laborer and capitalist, between the one who truly works hard only to have its value taken from her and the one who uses it towards the endless cycle of commodification and profit. At the same time that material difference is ignored, the capitalist as entrepreneur is valorized as an ideal, warts and all, and the worker is left to languish in obscurity with both value and values stolen. As long as the myth of the entrepreneur is told, the truth of our material conditions becomes harder and harder to discover and communicate. He simply cannot be allowed to exist.
I am beyond aware of the (mostly legal) reasons why students are not paid wages, much less the full value of their work. My point remains. ↩︎
The reader will forgive me for using “he” series pronouns for referring to the entrepreneur rather than the standard “she” series. This was a deliberate choice as, like most “ideal” mythological figures, the entrepreneur reflects the status quo and has and continues to be either explicitly or implicitly characterized as male, recent “girl boss” trends notwithstanding. ↩︎