Peddling the miracles of entrepreneurship is a deceit

(David Harrison)

(David Harrison)

COMMENT

Visit an inner-city charismatic church on a given evening of the week and you will hear pastors, often self-proclaimed doctors, professors, prophets and such-like quacks, peddling hope to their indigent congregations who are there to be relieved of their suffering and misery, to hear the good news of hope and redemption. The message is always the same.

Through faith in Jesus and the intermediation of the pastor, one might escape their material circumstances, their world of crisis and perpetual suffering. Poor congregations are told that, through a combination of directed prayer and tangible works (donations and so forth), they can rise up from the muck of existence. With deep faith, anything is possible.

With the right combination of symbolic investment (prayer and faith) and material investment (money and time), good fortune will magically accrue to the believer — with the blessing of the wise intermediary. The insolvent mother in the back row can reunite with her daughter and pay for that trip to Limpopo. With faith, the young man without work for years will find employment. The pensioner in the front row will pay his debts. The sick waiting in line will receive treatment.

The small congregation sitting on their plastic chairs in the dimly lit, makeshift room learn that there is little that cannot be done with enough faith, prayer and investment. The crisis will end, the clouds will part and the individual will be redeemed and become whole and good again.

A displeased member might say that their prayers are not being answered. The pastor replies that this is because the strength of their prayers is not great enough. As an intermediary, he can amplify the power of prayer and attest to good works on the condition that his congregation has faith.

The opposite might be true, for the credibility of the peddler depends entirely on his ability to manufacture faith.

This all constitutes a powerful form of consciousness or “magical thinking”. Throughout the ages it has made charismatic charlatans of all hues and stripes a great deal of money and duped millions out of their hard-earned cash. Hope springs eternal and opportunists like nothing better than an endless flow of need to turn a quick buck. There is little that faith cannot overcome.

In many ways this sort of “magical thinking” is very much present in the political and economic discourses aimed at the youth. Today, as the economy reels and tanks, the poor, the underemployed, the unemployed, the precarious in our society and particularly the youth are told a similar story to the one a charismatic pastor tells his congregation. They are addressed in the charismatic terms of entrepreneurial evangelism.

This address centres largely on the idea that, for “the individual”, financial salvation can be attained with a fervent belief in applying one’s own creative abilities to the market.

Who knows what social and economic miracles might be achieved through what economist Joseph Schumpeter termed the “entrepreneurial spirit”. By appealing to its miraculous properties, we might put an end not only to individual misery but also to a range of social ills. It is posited as the magic ingredient needed to stimulate economic growth, spur technical innovation, generate knowledge and create new products and jobs.

How is this any different to charismatic evangelism? I see it as analogous, but here, rather than being peddled by intermediaries to the congregation, it is peddled by the ruling classes to the young. For me, it is a convenient form of faith that distracts the young from the essential truth that the source of joblessness, poverty and inequality is to be found in an economic system that generates and perpetuates social inequality.

In sociology, this faith comes by another name — “ideology”. Where is the evidence that entrepreneurial energy leads to positive social outcomes?

Entrepreneurship appears to be the fundamental ideology of neoliberal capitalism. I believe that the evangelisation of entrepreneurship is a “responsibilisation” strategy of neoliberal capitalism. As the crises of capitalism grow and the gap between the 1% and the 99% widens, the middle class is attenuated and the unemployed class grows.

As this happens, a larger part of the population may become angry. What do we do if they ask: Why is there unemployment? Why is there poverty? Why is there inequality? Who are we to blame?

In the absence of a convenient scapegoat such as, for instance, a corrupt and looting politician, a captured state, or a greedy and unethical business class, a scapegoat must be invented. So the blame is put at the feet of what does not exist — the “individual” — and not on what are structural problems: unemployment, poverty and all that springs from it — crime, conflict and oppression.

By putting the blame on to the everyman, the individual, we are all obligated to do our bit, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but particularly those with the most hope in society — the young. Because they have a premium on potential and hope, we put it to them to make a better world. After all, the children are our future.

The youth are relentlessly bombarded with entrepreneurship messages and exposed to the charisma of enterprise culture. They are exhorted to make a contribution to society by making an income, which amounts to unleashing their creativity. Media, specialists, senior government officials, politicians, the education system, parents, teachers, advertisers and policymakers sing the praises of entrepreneurship, promoting the virtues of conspicuous individualism.

It is now common to see entrepreneurship ideology in the educational sphere. Youth symposia are devoted to the theme of entrepreneurship. Special courses are introduced into higher education instilling enterprising and innovative behaviours. Public schools conduct charity work through entrepreneurship initiatives. In the face of the drying up of the middle-class market, we see young artists and creatives aggressively turning to entrepreneurship and precarious labour to sustain themselves in the creative economy.

Recently, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa recommended that entrepreneurship should be added to the school curriculum as a subject. The message has become universalised.

Promoting creativity in the youth is not a bad thing. The problem is that it is becoming the only message and there is a darker side to the message.

Entrepreneurship is a convenient message because it takes some of the heat off those in the capitalist system who are making the promises about jobs in the first place: politicians, employers, the private sector and the government. We hear from them that there are no jobs. It is a natural fact of life in the 21st century. It is no one’s fault really. It is not good enough anymore to expect a job. Jobs must be made, invented, conjured out of thin air, by the individual.

What we don’t hear is that unemployment is a structural outcome of capitalist development itself and that poverty and unemployment might not only be an outcome of changes in the labour market resulting from automation and other factors but may also, in fact, be beneficial to owners seeking to drive down labour costs.

Is the blame to be found in the failings of the individual to realise their creativity? Is income and wealth inequality and the system that supports its continuance not the source of many of our woes? Surely our youth should also hear this message?

Brenden Gray is the head of the graphic design department at the University of Johannesburg, a doctoral candidate at the university’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation and a lecturer in the faculties of education and art, design and architecture

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