What is and What Could Be: The Entrepreneurial Spirit


To make for a better future, we need to think like entrepreneurs.

SMSBF’s theme for this month is, “Entrepreneurial Spirit”, which is certainly a mouthful. Without going further, let’s take time to define what we mean by entrepreneurial spirit, and from there, how it could be lived-out.

Type the term “entrepreneurial” into your Google search bar and you’ll find “spirit” is at the top of possible terms. I’m no tech genius, but this strikes me as an indication of the degree to which the term resonates with many of us. As is often the case, based on the number of writers who have something to say about entrepreneurial spirit, there are probably as many meanings for the term as there are people who think.

Business writer, Jacquelyn Smith, wrote in a 2013 article in Forbes, “Entrepreneurial spirit is a mindset. It’s an attitude and approach to thinking that actively seeks out change, rather than waiting to adapt to change. It’s a mindset that embraces critical questioning, innovation, service, and continuous improvement.” Smith’s definition strikes me as a good one, and there are two notions that stand out and are relevant here: “actively seeks out change” and “embraces critical questioning”.

Change is Coming

Whether we like it or not, we are on the cusp of tremendous change. What we see going on around us is simply the prelude for what’s to come.

It would be a monumental mistake to think what led to the violence in DC will somehow be resolved in a matter of months. What took place in DC is deeply rooted in the behavior of this system and the struggle for justice. This isn’t meant to suggest the insurrection was a righteous struggle, or is it meant to condone violence. It simply points to a reality about human nature: When human beings do the sorts of things that took place in DC, they’re doing so because they feel pushed to the brink. If we are to undertake the long and arduous task of healing our communities, we need to better understand where we are as Americans; we need to go beyond the tip of the iceberg explanations (e.g., conspiracy theories that undergo negative feedback loops in social media) and dig deeper.

Author and Columbia University educator, Thomas B. Edsall, asked a number of scholars to provide their perspectives on what led to the insurrection in DC. In a piece written by Edsall, and published in the New York Times, the author documents the results of his inquiry.

As is the case with just about any human behavior of this sort, the answers as to why the DC insurrection took place are complex; in this case, they’re a mix of factors, including racism, loss of power, loss of status, lack of education, etc. There is one factor, however, I believe is worth elevating because it speaks to something fundamental about our nature as creatures: lack of meaningful work.

Human beings are no different than any other creature on Earth: We are here to do work. In our complex nature, what that work is; the work we do for those who cannot work; how work is organized, and so forth, is up to us to decide. At a fundamental level, though, all of us need to be engaged in work that gives us a sense of meaning and a sense that we are contributing to the common good. Yet, in this system, many of us are either precariously employed, or have been left completely behind by the neoliberal axiom, “maximize shareholder value”.

One of the scholars interviewed in Edsall’s article, Bernard Grofman, of the University of California, Irvine, touches on this notion when he writes:

“We would not have Trump as president if the Democrats had remained the party of the working class. The decline of labor unions proceeded at the same rate when Democrats were president as when Republicans were president; the same is, I believe, true of loss of manufacturing jobs as plants moved overseas.”

The evisceration of good-paying, manufacturing jobs because of globalization, which was made possible by neoliberalism, cannot be underestimated. Neoliberalism has led to the failure of the systems we use to organize ourselves – our political, social and economic systems. These systems no longer serve, in any way, We the People, but rather the corporate state, an entity comprised solely of moneyed interests. That we find ourselves here today should come as no surprise: Since the start of industrial capitalism, all signs have pointed to this place.

Internal Contradictions

The scholar, David Harvey, in his work, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, details a number of inherent problems with capitalist economics. Harvey uses the term “contradictions” – which comes from Marx – to describe these problems. Three of the seventeen contradictions Harvey concludes are fatal: the stress on endless compound growth, the necessity to exploit nature to its limits, and a tendency toward universal alienation. All three of these are coming home to roost in our age, and we’ll touch on the first two later. It is the last – universal alienation – that I consider important to understanding the social problems we face under the present system.

Under capitalism, the owner of the means of production must excise profit from the worker; Marx called this “surplus value”. Marx also considered this excise a form of exploitation. Exploitation is defined as taking “unfair advantage of another”, and it is antithetical to justice, which is “to give the other his or her due”. This sort of exploitation undermines the profound relationship all human beings hold with the created order: the capacity to create things from the materials around us. When labor value is “pinched”, or exploited in this manner, the result is a sense of alienation. Under neoliberal, industrialized capitalism, globalization – the off-shoring of meaningful work for the purpose of maximizing shareholder value – is systematized exploitation. It is exploitation on a grand scale and leads to a largely unarticulated, yet shared sense of alienation.

As Americans, we have lived under neoliberalism and its destructive forces for more than fifty years. What we are beginning to see is a coalescing of unrest because of neoliberalism’s destructive, alienating forces.

Twin Problems

The other two contradictions Harvey notes as fatal – the stress on endless compound growth and the necessity to exploit nature to its limits – will be taken-up here.

The writer, Richard Heinberg, in a piece titled, “Two Arguments for Localism” uses systems thinking to draw analogies between the behavior of natural systems and those of human design. While not explicit, Heinberg implies a comparison between natural systems and that of global capitalism.

What Heinberg makes clear is that our interconnected system of global capitalism “…is at a peak of scale and integration.” In other words, it has reached its zenith and will begin the next phase, which in natural systems is called “release”. Within the release phase, natural systems undergo “…a fairly sudden loss of biomass, energy capture, and connectivity.” The analogy here is clear: the interconnectedness of global trade, because of the massive energy demands it places on the Earth system, will begin to disintegrate. In other words, the stress of endless compound growth, the way this stress has metastasized as globalization, and the necessity to exploit nature to its limits, are coming to an end.

Capitalism is nothing more than the way in which we organize human work. Our work under global capitalism, and the massive amounts of fossil fuels we burn (not to mention the massive amounts of waste we produce) to do this work, is destroying the Earth system. Capitalism’s exploitive characteristics – now that they’ve metastasized over the entire planet– are bringing us to a tipping point. Global capitalism is unsustainable. It’s not only the biosphere that cannot sustain capitalism’s exploitation: We are becoming fed-up with it as well. The alienation caused by neoliberalism and global capitalism – its internal contradictions – is leading us to what the writer, Emile Durkheim called, “anomie”. Durkheim, who wrote in the late 19th century, observed the alienating power of the division of labor; he rightly concluded that eventually, this form of alienation would lead to social disintegration, loss of social norms, and finally higher rates of suicide and crime.

It Could be a Bumpy Ride

Considering the sort of antagonism that continues to foment among significant numbers of our fellow Americans, we could be in for a bumpy ride. If human history can teach us anything, there’s a very good chance we may see some serious brutality in the immediate future. Yet, as Mark Twain is attributed to have said, “History does not repeat itself: it rhymes.” Yes, there are cycles to all things in nature and human history, but they are not repetitions of the same thing. In other words, the sort of change we’re undergoing, while cataclysmic, does not have to be as violent as in times past. The future could be far less violent if we start working today, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, to “actively seek out change”.

Making it Smoother

When we consider what it means to actively seek out change, it will serve us best to use systems thinking. As I’ve written elsewhere, systems thinking teaches us to see things as emergent. All things are emergent, and what makes them emergent is the continually evolving nature of the cosmos itself. The universe started expanding at time zero and is continuing to expand. Nothing stands still. And as Einstein teaches, everything – you, me, and all the rest – is simply a momentary manifestation of the energy moving through the whole of the universe. Welcome to the reality of our being!

So, if we are on the cusp of the collapse of the global capitalist system, what will emerge from it, and what can we do to make things smoother as we transition to the new way of organizing work?

The antithetical to a completely integrated, global, and exploitive system is one that is networked, local, and capable of harmonizing with the Earth system itself. In other words, it is a system that does not exploit, but rather provides for the things we need to live – food, clothing, shelter, arts – through shared values and meaningful, human labor, using local resources and clean sources of energy. It is a system that sees social, environmental, and economic justice as primary values. It leverages the power of human ingenuity to bring good to all, rather than exploiting the vulnerable, and leading them into dark places and irrational thinking.

This is the canvas on which the entrepreneurial spirit will paint our future. The spirit that “embraces critical questioning” and “actively seeks change”, and does so within the context of what is emergent – that which is antithetical to exploitation – will be the one who smooths the road ahead. It is this spirit that understands, in the immortal words of Rev. Martin Luther King, “The arch of the moral universe bends toward justice.” In other words, we may undergo strife and trouble, but we can rest assured, what emerges on the other side will be better than what is today.

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