Harbison: The Long TED Talk of the Soul

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.

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8 responses to “Harbison: The Long TED Talk of the Soul

  1. I don’t think he’s purporting to speak for or to anyone who isn’t in an office work environment. He conflates ADHD (doesn’t that not exist now anyway?) with entrepreneurialism and the non sequitur with the baby metaphor is particularly cringeworthy, but you’re really just giving out about the technology startup obsession of the day. I think the article would have been better as a focused dissection of the cult of the entrepreneur with references to guys like this. He’s just an easy target – one minute doing poorly at school, the next a chef on a boat with two helicopters! Loving the stock images though, US dollars as money, as always

    • Eoin O'Mahony

      Yea, just ‘giving out’.

    • What prompted me to write the piece was the way Harbison himself picks out ‘easy targets’ in awful displays of symbolic violence. I wanted to understand why he might do such a thing. I was trying to show him as part of a broader culture, not humiliate him. I don’t know, maybe I failed.

  2. I started out wanting to dislike Harbison , but after reading the article attacking him I actually quite like him.I disagree with the writer of the article on many fronts.
    The writer is mistaking “Business” with Entrepreneurship
    1.There are people who like to do deals , create businesses and are not motivated by money…what name would you have for those people.

    In my own case once a business starts making money I lose interest and Look for something new. I am not driven by money, I dont have much , but i have a lot of fun doing things like ..importing , quad bikes , harley copies etc from china with my own trade name on ..cost me thousands , but have no regrets, Tried to bring fish from the far east for the asian community in UK….tried to start a brand selling fish for a pound.

    2.Anyone who likes doing deals often uses a barter system with or without cash

    3. you criticise him for saying money is a false metric and then criticise him on the basis that he doesnt mean entrepreneurs he means get rich.

    4.Quoting oscar wilde on the poor is abit like quoting maggie thatcher on womens rights

    All the problems with our society today are caused by

    1. people who are rewarded regardless of their results…politicians , bankers,solicitors,accountants etc etc

    2.Rewards based on falsely created demand and supply footballers, bankers ,politicians etc etc

    3.Lack of appreciation for people who are not motivated by money …
    nurses are the most people that spring to mind

    4.People who base success on money

    5.The producers of the wealth not getting a share of the profits

    • I didn’t write the piece in order for people to dislike Niall Harbison. If people simply come away with the impression that Harbison is an objectionable person, then I failed in what I set out to do.

      1.There are people who like to do deals , create businesses and are not motivated by money…what name would you have for those people.

      Businesspeople? It is Harbison who calls himself an entrepreneur. If he were not motivated by money, why does he hawk photos of objects that are only obtainable through the possession of money?

      2. Anyone who likes doing deals often uses a barter system with or without cash

      I don’t understand the relevance.

      3. you criticise him for saying money is a false metric and then criticise him on the basis that he doesnt mean entrepreneurs he means get rich.

      That’s right, I suggest that what he says and what he means are two different things.

      4.Quoting oscar wilde on the poor is abit like quoting maggie thatcher on womens rights

      It is the truth contained in the quote that matters, not whether the person who said it is an appropriate person to quote. At any rate, Wilde died in poverty.

      All the problems with our society today are caused by

      1. people who are rewarded regardless of their results…politicians , bankers,solicitors,accountants etc etc

      That is certainly a problem.

      2.Rewards based on falsely created demand and supply footballers, bankers ,politicians etc etc

      That too.

      3.Lack of appreciation for people who are not motivated by money …
      nurses are the most people that spring to mind

      Yep.

      4.People who base success on money

      Indeed.

      5.The producers of the wealth not getting a share of the profits

      Absolutely.

      But all the things you identify are part of a coherent and systemic whole, not a set of isolated problems. Whilst Niall Harbison says he is opposed to the idea that people should be motivated by money, he supports the system with the features you describe but just pretends that money is of no real importance to this system. What then funds his enterprises? What is used to purchase his products? Money, obviously. Fun is not a means of exchange. It is not a store of value. Harbison either happens to have enough money to afford the luxury of peddling a dreamland, or that dreamland is a product he peddles for money.

      • michael flanagan

        I have no reason to believe he is not genuinein what he says.business can be fun if not motivated by money sometimes you can make money while enjoying business i c not see a problem with that. I do not see him as an evil or the biggest evil in the system that we live inin fact I find his attitude quite refreshingtoo many people are driven by fear stay in employment that they are not happy with a never take a chance on an idea that they have this is what holds us back in society that and the over payments of non-producing people in our society’s

  3. Patrick Reid.

    I’m fascinated by these self-styled entrepreneurs (along with innovation one of the most abused words in the English language) and their capacity for self-deception. I’m also interested in the way that few people challenge much of the nonsense which comprises their message. A chef with a marketing business who considers himself a ‘tech entrepreneur’! This says something quite important about the nature of our society in 2014, the continued aversion to question or critique at the most basic level what people tell us. The inane watered down Libertarian paternalism – no doubt swiped from the Biographies of Jobs and Thiel, myth and fact happily inconsequential to silicon valley royalty – is childish in it’s misleading sincerity.

    Harbison clearly doesn’t have a clue about the systemic nature of technological trajectories, the creation of silicon valley by the Federal Government and the long-term, large-scale financing of ‘tech’ with public money. Innovation is complicated, cumulative and very expensive – the i-phone technologies exist thanks to public R&D, Google’s early Algorhythm was thanks to a publicly funded Science grant, etc. – something that historically across nearly every economic sector has been the preserve of Government. The Neo-liberal narrative has distorted this in recent years, mythologizing the talents of specific Individuals while attacking the very Government research that created the eco-systems which allowed the creation of these specific technologies. The continuing tax avoidance by the likes of apple and Google, considering the obvious debt they owe US taxpayers, will ultimately undermine the competitive advantage which preserves US economic hegemony. Harbison parrots a narrative based upon ‘innovation’ ‘disruption’ and other tedious buzzwords while appearing ignorant to the reality of this supposedly ‘outsider’ – read neo-liberal Corporate agenda – PR ruse. Then again, he has a marketing business, his living is based on boosting and distorting!

  4. Tim

    “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.”

    A bit of an overstatement — many of these entrepreneurs want to build big, cohesive companies filled with well-educated people for getting things done, which is the opposite of dismantling social institutions. I rather think that these entrepreneurs want more experimentation in the field of social institutions, as the ones we have don’t work perfectly well, and don’t suit all people equally well. Unfortunately, in order to get any traction for new plans, you have to market them as though they will solve everything, and get a certain number of people on your side — hypotheses and experiments partially distributed across the population, and less partially distributed within minds full of nuanced thinking (alas). Niall Harbison may be doing the former.

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