The Canadian Cult of the Entrepreneur

Hosts of CBC’s The Dragon’s Den. Photo: CBC

Everywhere you turn these days, you confront the cult of the entrepreneur. Politicians like Stephen Harper present entrepreneurship as the foundation of our economic future. “Our government recognizes that the majority of private sector jobs are created by small businesses and entrepreneurs,” announced Harper in February.

Meanwhile, even the federal NDP has made tax cuts for small businesses a central plank in its election-year platform. Among other things, this emphasis on entrepreneurship helps hide the real role of massive corporations like banks and oil companies in our lives.

But it is more than that. Harper, in particular, presents entrepreneurship as the hope for our economic future, proclaiming that “we are committed to helping young entrepreneurs grow their ideas and build their skills into profitable enterprises that create jobs and prosperity across the country.”

And it goes beyond job creation. Politicians, employer organizations, and the media offer us a vision of entrepreneurship as the solution to the great social issues of our times.

“Aboriginal entrepreneurs”

Increasingly, an entrepreneurial ethos is being presented as a crucial means to improve the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada, often paired with elimination of sovereignty and treaty rights. An article by Claudia Cattaneo in the Financial Post in January contrasted entrepreneurship with the politicized approach of Idle No More: “The Idle No More movement presents one face of Canada’s First Nations: combative, frustrated with government, impoverished, opposed to resource projects while claiming entitlement to revenue sharing.”

In contrast, the entrepreneurial approach claims to offer self-sufficiency: “Aboriginal entrepreneurs such as Wilf Lalonde present the other face. He’s a Cree from northern Alberta who sees big opportunities to work in and profit from oil and gas and other resource projects, and strives to make First Nations self-sufficient.”

Entrepreneurship also underlies the new emphasis on selfie charitable work, where anyone who sees a social problem tries to form their own little social venture to “solve” it. This DIY ethos hides the politics of the issues, which are rooted in fundamental social inequalities at a scale beyond the reach of charity.

Dragon’s Den

And after a hard day at work creating jobs and solving social problems, entrepreneurship comes home to entertain us at night. The legend of the pitch and the high tech startup are everywhere. On television, Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank make the business pitch into a talent show.

Politicians, policy-makers, and employers have gathered around the one-two punch of austerity plus entrepreneurship. Austerity clear-cuts the old growth of bloated bureaucracies and entitlements, while entrepreneurship unleashes creative problem-solving. Democracy is elbowed aside in this business plan.

The all business university

Universities are packaging the cult of entrepreneurship as the great hope for a generation of younger people without prospects for good jobs or meaningful political engagement. Ryerson University is at the leading edge of this trend. On the university’s website there is blurb for Global Enterpreneurship Week: “At Ryerson University, entrepreneurship is in our DNA… It’s in our innovative programs, which are grounded in the real world.”

Entrepreneurship is packaged as the real world alternative to the ethereal ivory tower of arts and sciences, supposedly meeting the needs of students who understandably feel anxious about the fit between the world of work and their arts and sciences degrees. Universities do owe students more in the way of resources for reflection about the usefulness of their education for life outside the classroom, but the cult of entrepreneurship does not actually meet this need.

The integration of social change language into the cult of entrepreneurship is unmistakable: “Join us, Canada’s comprehensive innovation university at Global Entrepreneurship Week and be part of the movement!” boasts Ryerson. “Connect and collaborate with rising entrepreneurs and tomorrow’s social changemakers.”

Entrepreneurial suicide

Here’s the thing about the cult of the entrepreneur. It ends badly. Arthur Miller warned us about this in his 1949 play Death of a Salesman. Almost everyone studies this play in high school in Canada, but sadly no one seems to apply its lessons to understanding the cult of the entrepreneur.

Willy Loman, the central character in the play, is all about the pitch: “Walk in with a big laugh. Don’t look worried… It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – because personality always wins the day.” But sadly, Willy’s career is waning. His own personality is no longer winning the day.

The salesman is only as good as his last deal: “A man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake.” Willy’s world is shaken by such an earthquake and the smiles stop.

Even worse, his two sons Biff and Happy have not succeeded in their own entrepreneurial projects. They are “working on a very big deal” but apparently unable to seal it. Biff in particular is torn apart by his failure. He wants to be released from the expectation he will make it big. “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?”

Biff blames his father: “And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!” Entrepreneurship is about the pitch, not the truth. In Biff’s view, “We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!”

Even Willy’s suicide is entrepreneurial. He kills himself hoping the pay-out from his life insurance policy will launch Biff and Happy to success. Biff repudiates his father’s vision after this suicide. “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong.” But Happy wants to live up to the dream: “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.”

Freedom to sell yourself

The cult of entrepreneurship is about trying to get a generation to invest in the dream of coming out “number-one man.” But keeping this dream alive often means ignoring the brutal reality of small businesses. According to Industry Canada, only about half of all small businesses formed survive for five years or more. Those founded with revenues of less than $30,000 have a much lower survival rate. Even if you make it, most entrepreneurs are basically one serious illness away from hard times as they have little or no cover if they are unable to work.

Further, small businesses tend to offer less secure employment and lower rates of pay with fewer benefits. It is hard for unions to organize in small businesses, and so employees often lack the collective leverage to fight back when confronted with arbitrary shift assignments, sexual harassment, or disciplinary action.

In any case, the entrepreneurship that most young people are actually being prepared for today is much more likely to be freelance work than tech startups. Lots of companies and government organizations have outsourced staffing, hiring freelancers to replace employees as they downsize. Entrepreneurship often means the same old work, but without any security. Freelancers must sell themselves over and over again.

Perhaps university administrators and policy-makers should take a sobering dip into the arts and humanities for an encounter with Arthur Miller before they invest too much in the cult of the entrepreneur.

Alan Sears is a writer and activist who teaches sociology at Ryerson. He is an editorial associate of New Socialist webzine and the co-author (with James Cairms) of The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century (University of Toronto Press). His new book is The Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood Publishing).