The Poverty of Entrepreneurship: The Silicon Valley Theory of History

How Silicon Valley coopts history for its own autocratic ends.

Why didn’t the Gauls overthrow the Romans? Why was Nat Turner’s revolt defeated so quickly? Why was the Haitian Revolution the only victorious slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere? And how can the answers to these questions help you, an aspiring entrepreneur, build an amazing business?

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the powerful venture capital firm AndreessenHorowitz, has an answer to these questions: “culture.” He made this case at “Culture and Revolution,” a talk delivered at the Startup Grind conference in Redwood City, California on February 21, 2017 In its grand sweep and recognizable informal style, the lecture is a creature of the TED-talk-derived genius cult, in which wealthy audiences receive open-collared men pacing on bare stages as oracular sages telling hard and universal truths. Improbably, Horowitz organizes his theory of company “culture” around a reading of C.L.R. James’s classic Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. His argument is that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slave-turned-statesman and leader of the Haitian Revolution, turned an enslaved population of men and women into a nation-building fighting force capable of defeating Europe’s greatest empires. And he did it, in Horowitz’s telling, by “changing the culture.” To Silicon Valley investors, political struggles can be resold as lessons in strong corporate leadership.

Peruse business advice websites like Forbes.com and Harvard Business Review and the mountain of success manuals that populate airport bookstores and business school syllabi, and you will learn that Columbus was the world’s first entrepreneur, Plato’s Republic the ideal innovation hub, Leonardo da Vinci a model cross-platform disruptor, Ralph Waldo Emerson a model innovator, and L’Ouverture an 18th-century Thought Leader. The Diffusion of Innovation, a business school classic now in its seventh edition, finds its theories confirmed by “stone-age aborigines,” peasants in mid-20th-century Peru, and CEOs in the contemporary United States; its chapter epigraphs quote Machiavelli, Franklin, and Thoreau. For the bestselling author Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, there are seven types of innovation-friendly environments that can be observed across nature and across time, from a coral reef to Menlo Park. For Bill O’Connor of the Innovation Genome Project, there have only been seven kinds of questions that have driven all innovations throughout human history. Master these seven innovative questions, these three steps to synergy, these eight lessons about disruption—the entrepreneurial historian is, like Marx said of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, “the man in search of formulas.”

Horowitz’s lecture stands out, even in this genre, for the arrogance required to interpret The Black Jacobins as a business success manual and to imagine Toussaint L’Ouverture as a Thought Leader on par with the CEO of Netflix (another “culture-shifting visionary,” we learn in the talk). But it should be no surprise that a Silicon Valley venture capitalist misunderstands the Haitian Revolution. Horowitz’s talk would not be interesting for the peculiar things he says about Haiti, save for the fact that the ideologues of Silicon Valley—where the supreme virtue is “innovation”—have uses for such revolutionary history in the first place.

But history, or some strip-mined fantasy of it, has long been a concern of the TED Talks and online education outfits like Khan Academy, which preach the virtues of innovation and entrepreneurship to an audience of comfortable businessmen and desperate online students. Some entrepreneurial historians are interested in history for its supposedly predictive qualities. For example, Clayton Christensen’s 1997 The Innovator’s Dilemma, a classic of the business advice genre, develops the concept of “disruptive innovation” through a series of historical case studies. In each example, he shows how satisfying one’s existing customers can, paradoxically, leave a company vulnerable to “disruption.” This is the “innovator’s dilemma”: do you give your customers what they say they want, or what they do not yet know they need? As Christensen’s critics have argued, in order to read economic history as a series of leadership dilemmas, Christensen insulates his case studies from wars, monetary policy, revolutions—the contingent historical forces outside of a single individual’s control. For Christensen, the success or failure of a business venture rests on its executive’s decisions.

Business writers like Horowitz, though, are less interested in history for the economic lessons it might offer. Instead of case studies in market behavior, what they seek from the past are moral lessons: success in business comes from harnessing “virtues” like “culture,” “leadership,” “collaboration,” “creativity,” and of course, “innovation.” By grounding these lessons in historical examples of distinguished “leaders” or “innovators,” writers like Horowitz offer up a version of what used to be called “universal history,” a historical genre that emerged from the imperial 19th century to tell the cosmopolitan history of the world, rather than a parochial history of nations. As befitting an age of empire, of course, universal histories often centered on what Friedrich Schiller, a German historian, called “the ingenious thinker, the cultured man of the world”: a northern European. Horowitz, product of a more enlightened age, would probably just call him an “entrepreneur.”

Universal history today reads the progress of the world as the unfolding of “innovation,” a 21st-first century concept it regards as consistent across time and space. (Although the word itself dates to the 16th century in English, when it was a pejorative synonym for “heresy,” its current positive business meaning—as the driving spirit of entrepreneurship—is of recent vintage.) The most popular current form of entrepreneurial universal history is known as “Big History,” the Gates Foundation-endorsed version of world history associated with the Australian historian David Christian.

Christian is not Big History’s only advocate, but Gates’s sponsorship has made him the most famous. He calls Big History a “modern creation myth,” and his TED Talk promises “the history of the world in 18 minutes.” From the Big Bang to the present, it offers students what the scholar Ian Hesketh calls a “cosmic history of everything.” On his YouTube videos where distance-learning students study world history through this lens, Christian offers a breezy history of human progress, of relentless “innovation,” of the gradual transformation of humanity into the complex, networked society we enjoy today. Big History is organized around universal concepts like Horowitz’s “culture.” History unfolds in a consistent pattern: big changes only happen when “Goldilocks conditions” converge, Christian argues, and progress proceeds from parochial simplicity to “collective learning,” the storehouse of human knowledge that increases with trade, technology, and global networks. For Big History’s unit on imperialism, for example, Christian explains in his lecture that the Spanish conquest of the Americas made human beings a “global species” for the first time. “Because collective learning worked on a larger scale than ever before,” he concludes, “innovation speeded up.”

Imperial Spain, notes James in the prologue to The Black Jacobins, was the most “advanced” European nation of its day. Of the Spanish arrival in Hispaniola, he writes:

They introduced Christianity, forced labour in mines, murder, rape, bloodhounds, strange diseases, and artificial famine…These and other requirements of the higher civilization reduced the native population from an estimated half-a-million, perhaps a million, to 60,000 in 15 years.

Obviously it sounds nicer when you call it “innovation” and “collective learning.”

Horowitz concludes from James’s The Black Jacobins that Toussaint L’Ouverture “changed the culture” of Saint Domingue’s enslaved people, but what he means by “culture” isn’t consistent. It also bears little resemblance to James’s history, even though he does quote the text (though mostly from the early chapters, always a sure sign of a student who hasn’t finished the reading). When Horowitz finally comes around to a definition of “culture,” he calls it the “collective behavior of an organization.” At some points, he uses “culture” much like a 19th-century anthropologist regarding colonial “peoples without history”—as something collective and unchanging. For Horowitz, enslaved people in Hispaniola all had more or less the same culture, and it reflected their brutal social circumstances. The French plantation regime, he claims, bred a “culture” of “ignorance and superstition,” “no long-term planning,” and “low loyalty”—factors that impeded successful slave insurgencies.

Yet at the same time, he notes that such a culture can be transformed, almost in an instant, by a charismatic and creative leader. Makandal, the leader of a defeated Saint Domingue slave conspiracy 50 years before the Haitian Revolution, showed promise but was defeated, claims Horowitz, because instead of confronting his rivals and getting (as they say) buy-in, Makandal simply poisoned them. “Some people know corporate cultures like that,” quips Horowitz, earning a few knowing chuckles from his audience.

What these entrepreneurial theories of universal history have in common is this emphasis on leadership. It’s telling that in his talk, Horowitz most admires the leaders of hierarchical enterprises: prison gangs, the U.S. Navy, and the revolutionary armies of Saint Domingue. Christensen’s case-study model and Horowitz’s great-man theory of the Haitian Revolution are about men at the top and their boardroom decisions.

Theirs are also visions of history that are basically uncurious about the past—that is, they are indifferent to the idea that people in other times and places may have thought and felt differently about the world than we do. As Jill Lepore has argued about Christensen’s “disruptive innovation,” entrepreneurial history is contrived to flatter the present with a past purged of waste, violence, and plunder. Many readers outside of executive suites or Palo Alto auditoriums might be surprised to learn that this—this?—is the best of all possible worlds, but so it appears to the historians of relentless innovation.

This panglossian view of the present is common to the perspective of the entrepreneurial historian. History is barely even a story at all, let alone a painful or discomfiting one. Rather, history is a collection of analogies to the present, offering a comforting reassurance that all human endeavor—even all natural life—has led us to this moment. “Failure”—a popular Silicon Valley buzzword—is only a temporary pause in narratives of eventual triumph in which exploitation rarely figures. L’Ouverture’s lonely death in one of Napoleon’s prisons, for example, doesn’t make it into the story Horowitz tells about leadership.
“I do not attempt to present a formula in this book,” writes Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, his semi-autobiographical guide to navigating business failure, published in 2014. That is, of course, what they all say—but Horowitz has fashioned a niche as one of Silicon Valley’s more contrarian in-house intellectuals. His bizarre citation of The Black Jacobins is a case in point. He opens The Hard Thing About Hard Things with an epigraph from DMX’s “Who We Be”, identifies strongly with The Game (he quotes their use of the n-word to begin another chapter) and takes the idea of “the struggle” as its theme. One chapter epigraph, “Life is struggle,” is misattributed to Karl Marx (Horowitz also tweeted the quote at Nas once). Horowitz is a true historical product of Silicon Valley, but, as his interest in C.L.R. James shows, he has always had one foot planted in the history of the Left. He is the son, after all, of David Horowitz.

A fascination with Black masculinity is perhaps what the younger Horowitz has most in common with his famous father, whose close alliance and later disillusion with the Black Panthers in Oakland has provided the tale of his political journey from New Left to hard Right. David Horowitz, the red diaper baby of New York Communist Party organizers, moved to Berkeley in the mid-1960s to study English literature and became one of the intellectual leaders of the New Left as the prolific editor of Ramparts. The elder Horowitz became fascinated with the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton, but when a young white woman he had recommended to Newton as a bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, turned up dead, Horowitz was convinced that she had been murdered for investigating graft in the Party. Thus began, in the story he tells in his 1997 autobiography Radical Son, his conversion to the right. Ever since, the older Horowitz has made a career atoning for his leftist youth by hounding the fifth columnists and the “liberal racists” who, in his view, stalk academia and the liberal establishment. The David Horowitz Freedom Center churns out pamphlets with titles like 10 Reasons to Abolish the U.N. and publishes websites like Jihad Watch and Discover The Networks, the latter of which purports to expose how college and K-12 students “are indoctrinated in the tenets of ‘social justice,’ anti-Americanism, and leftism.”

Stylistically and temperamentally, the younger Horowitz doesn’t seem to share much with his father. Where the elder Horowitz has crafted a reputation for vindictive polemicizing and uncompromising certitude—ever a Stalinist, in spirit if not in fact—Ben’s manner in his “Culture and Revolution” talk is pleasantly ironic, self-deprecating, and conversational. He seems to genuinely admire L’Ouverture, and he claims to loathe the platitudes that are the bread-and-butter of the corporate lecture circuit. Although Ben begins his book with a chapter, “From Communist to Venture Capitalist,” he was never a militant himself. The younger Horowitz has neither the venom of his apostate father, nor the zeal of the convert. His book focuses on moments of failure and miscalculation, regularly putting its author in the position of the humbled executive, passing on hard-knock lessons to aspiring entrepreneurs. Or, as Kanye West puts it in another one of Ben Horowitz’s epigraphs, “This the real world, homie, school finished.”

Ben Horowitz and the entrepreneurial historians may seem—in their departure from the elder Horowitz’s scorching polemic or Peter Thiel’s Randian nationalism—to be relatively harmless examples of Silicon Valley self-regard. Horowitz’s easy manner and his interest in popular culture are more appealing than Thiel’s Trump advocacy. But like Zuckerberg’s hoodie, this affable informality is part of the ready-to-wear egalitarian costume of our modern technology plutocrats.

But their universal fascination with charismatic leadership shows that behind the tech economy’s democratic façade beats a deeply authoritarian heart. For Horowitz, while the “culture” of a company or a nation is embodied by its employees and citizens, it can always be channeled by a wise leader to specific ends. The enslaved people of Haiti could never shape their own culture—only L’Ouverture, CEO of the Haitian Revolution, could.

Entrepreneurial historians rest comfortably upon the tradition of all dead generations as though it’s a cozy beanbag chair in an open-plan office space. The past is just another corporate playground, full of guys just like them.

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