Beyond Start-up Culture

That governments are so enthusiastically trying to promote start-up cultures, handing out investment grants and building fancy new hubs, would make Milton Friedman turn in his grave: One can anticipate his protest - it is not the business of government to do business! 

But then, democracy in its 'for the middle class, by the middle class' incarnation expects the government to be a job creation machine, and when all else fails, the Ministers say 'let start-ups be'! In fact, they celebrate it: In this affair, failure, the hallmark of government programmes, is some sort of credit. It allows the governments to celebrate the doctrine of creative destruction - ever so cool - while destructively creating a self-blaming proletariat, whose revolutions are limited to ventures and whose idea of nirvana is an Exit. There was never a better mantra invented to justify a permanent bureaucracy.

But, at this point, I must stop and make an important distinction. My post is about start-up culture but not benefits that some start-ups bring. I haven't been sleeping since the 90s and arguing the case for the positive technological and economic contributions of start-ups would be wholly superfluous. My protestations are only against the popular celebratory ideas of start-ups, start-up culture as I would call it. This is, in fact, a policy phenomenon than an economic development, it is shaped and promoted with intentionality, and consultants of various hues and conferences of various kinds have clung to it. It has its own 'ecosystem'! This term has been expropriated from, after a fashion, natural sciences for an altogether inaccurate use, as ecosystems are naturally occurring phenomena where its constituent elements may merely be eaten by each other: What the start-up culture has created instead is a coalition of interests, a system of signs and representations, which together seeks to create an alternative reality and promote ideas of a certain kind.

And, it is the shaping of a certain kind of idea - of enterprise, of success, of cooperation - which does the most harm! Basically, start-up culture is predicated on the cult of the founder, a few individuals who possess innate greatness and who takes on vested interests to create new possibilities. These individuals just spring up, working against social obstacles - in fact, the more social obstacles, the better! And, it is they who must reap the rewards, unquestionably and comprehensively, as it was they who braved the odds, did the work and changed the world. 

The problem with it? First, it's false narrative: It obscures the complex social process that makes start-ups possible. If that's not so, some societies wouldn't be more successful in creating start-ups than others. Of course, start-ups need public money in places where the company laws are opaque, education is broken and healthcare is a mess. But it's immoral to give public money to projects that deny any benefit can arise from public money, and which, when successful, would invariably pedal that ideology back into the conversation. 

But more importantly, a celebration of start-up culture obscures other possibilities which may have greater social benefits. Employee partnerships, for example, have created some great companies (Waitrose, my favourite supermarket, being one of them). Start-up culture closes our minds to any other possibilities, equating enterprise with the great man mythmaking, handing out the initiatives of technological progress to unaccountable 'private equity' speculators. 

In fact, with this consideration, start-up culture is anti-enterprise. Not everywhere is Silicon Valley, which has its own 'venturesome economy'. In most of the rest of the world, private capital is in the hands of heirs of landed classes or a generation of pretenders whose wealth depends on political manipulation and market rigging. Giving up innovation and new venture creation to them is equivalent of giving asylum keys to its inmates, which would create stagnated economies and wasted enterprise. Rather, one should pursue enterprise for the many, accepting the limited portability of the start-up form outside some of the hotspots, and look for alternative forms of association for encouraging enterprise.


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