I was only dimly aware of Niall Harbison until a day or so ago. I knew he occasionally wrote reviews of restaurants that made hideous remarks about working class Dubliners, with terms such as “knacker” and “Knackeragua”, and that was pretty much it. I don’t know much more about him now, either.
Out of curiosity I looked him up this morning. I found this YouTube video. It is interesting. In it, he tells the audience about his views on things.
Mindful of his remarks about “knackers”, I was struck by this phrase:
“I come from a background where I actually got kicked out of two different schools. So I couldn’t concentrate, by the age of 16 there was no more schools that would have me, I guess now you’d probably call it ADHD or something like that, but I didn’t actually know at the time what it was. It actually turned out that I was entrepreneurial and that I was somebody who could go and start businesses”
It turned out he was entrepreneurial. This was something he realised at some point, and it was a moment of liberation. It sounds a bit like when people find out that they have an undiagnosed condition, and knowledge of the condition allows them to see things clearly and live differently, whereas previously they thought there was something wrong with them.
The problem is, being entrepreneurial isn’t a pre-existing condition, or a suppressed truth. There’s no such thing as a born entrepreneur. There are, however, lots of people who believe they were born to be entrepreneurs. This is one thing Niall Harbison has in common with Sean Quinn, who claims he was a wealth creator since the moment he was born. We can trace this line of thought back at least to Adam Smith. Surveying the birth of capitalism, Smith reasoned that human beings were born with a natural propensity to truck and barter (if this is true, there must be something wrong with me).
In his talk, Harbison sees fear as what prevents us from enjoying work and, by extension, given that we spend decades working, from enjoying life. He identifies the education system as something that forces us to conform to a particular path. It puts us on a conveyor belt towards university and beyond, into a workplace where we seem incapable of doing anything but conform. In his own experience, he was called stupid and dumb at school by teachers and others. This appears to have had a lasting effect on him.
I found myself agreeing with this description. What is more, getting called stupid and dumb by teachers is traumatic, and where you have education systems that inflict such things, children are damaged, and societies are damaged as a consequence. So, I felt sorry for him at that point.
The problem is, Harbison’s understanding of the conformity and stigmas imposed by the education system did not turn into a critical understanding of why the education system does this. He doesn’t see the education system as serving a particular purpose in the organisation of a particular kind of society. Moreover, his apparent anti-authoritarianism is girded by an accomplished ignorance of how society actually works. He seems to think ‘entrepreneurialism’ is a natural quality, when in fact there are certain things needed for it to exist: money, banks, legal and political institutions, for starters. To say you are born an entrepreneur, then, is like saying you were born to watch Eastenders tonight.
Of course, this isn’t really Harbison’s fault: the contemporary cult of the entrepreneur is by and large a product of neoliberalism’s systematic dismantling of social institutions and structures that foster collective solidarity. If there are so many entrepreneurs around these days, it is largely because we are supposed to think we are on our own. For all the neophilia of self-professed entrepreneurs and their trials at the hands of deadening bureaucracies, there is more than a dreary echo, in their personal myth-making, of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, where Hayek says ‘our young men’ prefer ‘the safe, salaried position to the risk of enterprise after they have heard from their earliest youth the former described as the superior, more unselfish and disinterested occupation’. (Hayek’s own anti-authoritarianism is somewhat undermined by the way he both inspired and supported Pinochet’s Chile)
Harbison sees the world of work as a potential world of fun, but a world that is frustrated by the dead hand of archaic institutions, like the school and the corporation. In his view, it doesn’t matter what work you do; the question is how you approach that work. For him, “money is a very, very false metric” in this regard, and “people are ruined by money”. Well that’s easy for him to say as he shows us photos of luxury yachts and island resorts that cost shitloads of money. The poorer you are, the more you worry about money. Like Oscar Wilde said, ‘there is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.’
What is more, Harbison’s view of work is devoid of any consideration that work sucks bigtime for a great many people not because they have the wrong attitude, but because the particular kind of work is boring, humiliating, and deadening. I have worked cleaning toilets. There is no tune you can whistle that turns it into lasting fun. And as long as there are people and toilets, someone will have to clean those toilets. But whilst Harbison mentions work on building sites, he is concerned mainly with people who work in offices. This is probably a good thing too. Because if his injunction to have fun at work were extended to everyone, and everyone were to take this injunction seriously, society as it is would probably collapse completely into a Hobbesian war of all against all in a matter of days. Bosses would have extra fun preying on their employees’ fear of losing their job, teachers would humiliate children in their classes with a sense of relish, judges would laugh as they handed out maximum sentences for minor offences, 999 operators would hang up on callers for the laugh, prison guards would stamp on prisoner heads with delight, and so on. Sure it’s only a bit of fun!
Harbison starts off with an image of the baby learning to walk, who takes risks, and who might “smash his face in”, but in the end, conquers his fear and learns to walk. Anyone who has been around babies will know that this is a very partial telling of the story. Babies have to be clothed and fed and cared for, and when they fall down they often need someone to pick them up and tell them that they’ll be ok, and that they shouldn’t be afraid. No baby ever learns to walk all by itself, and you have to wonder why the image is so convincing to Harbison. No baby could ever learn to walk unless it received at least some kind of care and nurture.
If a baby takes risks, as it will have to it does knowing it will still be looked after, and maybe picked up, if need be. The vision of the entrepreneurial capitalist society, on the other hand, entails in practice the stripping away of every form of social solidarity that allows people the freedom to develop fully as socially conscious and creative human beings, and subjecting vast swathes of the population to the risks of unemployment, illness and despair. When you are enthralled by such a vision, as Harbison is, you look upon rich people as born to be rich -sorry, successful entrepreneurs- whereas when anyone else comes into the line of sight and interrupts that vision and disrupts its appetites, they appear as little more than a stain to be wiped out.