The myth of the heroic entrepreneur
Transformation is something we can undergo, as in a good character arc. Transformation is also the art of creating something new.
Marx held that this instinct, the urge to create – which he called species-being – was the fundamental trait of human nature, what separates us from other animals.
In Ancient Greece they created art; temples, poetry, epics, philosophy, rituals, and mythology.
Under capitalism, we’re meant to create businesses. That’s to say, the vast majority of creation (or, work) is done within a monetized system, for profit. There is a “cult of the entrepreneur”. “Anyone can start a business,” they say, and this is what makes our society “free”.
What a limited sense of freedom!
And a false one at that.
How can we start a business if we’re already in debt from college or our mortgage? Even if we had the savings, why should we risk it when 50% of businesses fail within five years? And how are we supposed to compete with Wal-Mart or Amazon?
Despite its apparent absurdity, the entrepreneurial myth is one that sticks.
Jung says that there are fundamental archetypes that take shape in every society. If so, then entrepreneurs have awarded themselves the role of the hero archetype. They are heroic by virtue of “creating new technologies” (with government funds), employing people, “solving problems”, or simply being wealthy and successful. Politicians are also considered heroic and in a sense deified, even when they’re vilified. Why? They’re supposed to serve the public.
Of course, entrepreneurs are the heroes of their own myths, as projected in the media they own. As long as a large enough percentage of the population believes that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates are heroic figures, successful because of some genius or superior talent that somehow earns them the right to their obscene riches, and capable of solving humanity’s problems, I suppose it’s easy for them to maintain this illusion as well.
Look for it on TV shows. I’ve seen it in just about every show I’ve watched recently: Fleabag, Grace and Frankie, The Santa Clarita Diet, Bojack Horseman. The main characters in these series all start their own businesses – or at least try – often in some sort of heroic, transformational moment. This is how one is supposed to make their mark on the world, achieve independence and empowerment.
Wealthy businessmen may be intelligent, or hard-working, but what usually makes them successful is not that they’re brilliant or good at creating things, but that they were born into money – and that they’re good at and willing to exploit others. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be successful. If you don’t exploit, you won’t be “competitive”, and you won’t make a profit.
This doesn’t necessarily make all small business owners bad. However it’s ironic that part of the romanticism of starting a business is in not having a boss or having to work for someone else. It’s taken for granted that we hate working for a boss, so we instead seek to become the boss.
More institutionalized hierarchies, which already extend throughout our society, won’t solve our problems. This entrepreneurial fantasy obscures exploitation behind the illusion that you can be an oppressor instead of one of the oppressed, and that this will somehow liberate you.
The myth of the heroic entrepreneur also feeds the glorification of productivity. Successful people are hard-working, we’re told. So many of us have internalized the notion that being busy for its own sake is good. That it determines our worth, even if we’re not doing something we enjoy.
But when we look back at our lives and measure our success, will we be upset that we never became the oppressor? Will we regret that we didn’t work hard enough for the boss?
No, what we seek in the heroic entrepreneur myth is power and control. Yet for most of us it’s not one of controlling others or the world, it’s of controlling our own lives. Entrepreneurial fantasy obscures how much we’ve been disempowered by capitalism, how much it controls our desires, our opinions, our self-esteem, and our very ability to survive.
With the American dream clearly fading, capitalist cheerleaders are trying desperately to keep this myth of heroic self-actualization through business ownership on life support. Portraying billionaires as geniuses and saviors, the media fawns over them and indulges their infantile fantasies of colonizing Mars or owning moon mines, while the world burns around them.
What a thoroughly deluded society.
So the dream of capitalism is finally starting to crumble. Most people, especially youths, no longer see a future for themselves. They’ve been traumatized by their own nascent experience in a sick society that doesn’t value them because they have no money.
When most of us are asked what we would do if we were rich, we usually say something like travel, art, or helping others – not cynically scheme for more wealth and power. We want a comfortable existence and the free time to pursue happiness within a community; that’s all most of us really want.
Most of us will never be rich or famous. That’s okay. That’s not what being human is about. It’s not about being better than others, that’s just another way of isolating ourselves. If we’re to go by Marx, being human is about creation. According to some religious beliefs, it’s virtue. Both are fine; much better than domination, or wealth for the sake of it. But for now, let’s go with Marx’s idea.
Marx said that creation was the hallmark of humankind, whether it be cave paintings, tools, language, food, music, art, buildings, trains, systems, or myths. He said that we’re alienated from our labor, and therefore our human nature, because we have no control over what or how we create, because the means of production are owned by the ruling class.
As if being alienated from our physical labor wasn’t enough, capitalism and its mass media has destroyed culture by commodifying that, too. So we no longer produce culture; we only consume it.
Public space has been privatized, and these screens they’ve given us in exchange for human interaction, for getting to know each other and create together, become isolating and barren.
Our economic precarity keeps us working too many hours in unfulfilling jobs, while those who don’t have jobs are made to feel worthless.
The bosses aren’t truly in control of what they’re producing, either. They may control the company, but the company is controlled by “the market”. Dictated by the market, even bosses are alienated from their natural propensity to create. They play God, but they’re really just more cogs in the machine. Of course, this is heresy to them, because in their eyes they’re Olympians, not Ozymandias. But if the billionaires are gods, why are they so insecure? Why do they always need more?
My point is that even the bosses are alienated. Even the rich are only human. On the other hand, if you’re poor, you can still create. You can create art and myths, organizations and institutions.
But create horizontal institutions, not hierarchical institutions. True creation belongs in the public realm. Solutions must be for the benefit of all. Food, water, shelter, and energy must be accessible to all.
If you create with your neighbor, you have even more possibilities for creating something meaningful. Even your language, your speech, is a form of creation. Squatting a building is a creative act. Planting a tree is a creative act.
Create a different world, don’t waste your energy on this one; it’s dying.