Your book (1) opens with Steve Jobs, the media founder of Apple who died in 2011, and ends with Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla who has just bought Twitter. How do they both embody the “myth of the entrepreneur”?
Anthony Galluzzo : There are constants in the way American entrepreneurial celebrities stage themselves, since the great industrialists of the end of the 19th century (John Davison Rockefeller for oil or Andrew Carnegie for steel). We thus find the idea of a brilliant, creative and visionary individual; a superior and self-instituted being, who would owe everything to his talent and nothing to his socio-economic capital. Unlike the businessman, the entrepreneur would be rebellious, provocative, eternally young. Above all, he would not be a capitalist attracted by profit but a humanist eager to move the world forward on the road to progress.
Technological progress, as far as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are concerned…
A. G. : We find in them the same technological Prometheanism: they present themselves as visionaries capable of offering humanity the tools necessary for the advent of a new stage in the history of progress. But while the first was “content” with imagining the small electronic objects of tomorrow, the second thinks of the car of tomorrow, the brain implants of tomorrow, the space conquest of tomorrow… Musk slips into an old model but pushes the myth of the entrepreneur at its peak. With him, everything is oversized.
So do these stories ignore the economic dimension of entrepreneurship?
A. G. : These entrepreneurs, too often taken at their word by journalists and biographers, tell the story of the economy in the mode of individual adventure. By a phenomenon of cultural impregnation, they take up all the narrative codes of Hollywood cinema (the call of adventure, success, fall, rebirth, etc.). What they show is heroic capitalism. The workers – like the state, for that matter – are completely invisible.
All of these stories support the idea that we owe innovation to a few superior individuals, often of modest origins: in other words, that there is a “natural aristocracy” revealed by the market. If you succeeded, you deserved it. But sociology reveals that this is entirely false. These entrepreneurs are products of an ecosystem that they exploit. And in the United States as elsewhere, the elites are most often heirs.
Why is this anti-sociological vision so widespread?
A. G. : The grand narrative that the ruling classes weave is the one that allows them to justify their position. They must base their privileges, the immense capture of values that they operate, on a narrative that legitimizes, in this case, the ideology of the self-made-man. If you are told that innovation does not come from a single man but from collective intelligence, and that being born in the right place at the right time has a much greater impact on success than effort or talent, then you will not be able to consider it legitimate for a minority to capture such a massive share of the wealth produced.
Conversely, if the entrepreneurial imagination is based on the idea of a superior and visionary individual, then you may consider that taxes “punish” the success of the richest, or even that unions, incapable to understand the genius of the entrepreneur, are only there to put a spoke in his wheels… According to the proposed narrative, radically opposed political options are generated.
As early as the 1880s, essayists sought to deconstruct these myths of entrepreneurial genesis. Why this need to reformulate criticism today?
A. G. : The critique of myth is as old as myth itself. But to be audible, the balance of power must be favorable to it. This was the case between the end of the 19th century and World War II, when the labor movement was strongest in the United States. Things changed with McCarthyism and then again with the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. There, the United States remobilized the imagination of the entrepreneur to reassure itself. This contrasted with the old representations of the economy, which were more collective and Keynesian.
Today, ecological thought and the climatic danger lead to the questioning of a certain number of fundamentals of capitalism. But even if the criticism grows, it does not have a great impact on the perpetuation of this economic system.