Neoliberalism is premised upon the freedom and self-realization of the individual. The entrepreneur is an individual who assumes great risk of their affordances and investments for what will not be compensated or supported by the state. This risk is calculated to make profit for themselves and gain revenue on the investment in the free competitive market of ideas and opportunities. Entrepreneurship is hypothetically possible if either the criteria of innovation is met, and the opportunity responds to a sort of man-made scarcity which contributes to an existing system of speculative finance. This means that for an economic activity to be entrepreneurial, it has to be a novel model or a hybrid of a previously existing business model that did not exist before, hence marking the innovative criteria, as it aims to “fill in a gap” in the market.
The entrepreneur, if successful, transforms abstractions and ideas into value and credit. It is through innovation or the creation of something new, that a novel market opening could be cashed out, until the novelty is over-exploited. Entrepreneurship renders and reduces things into economic entities and everyone into potential entrepreneurs and petty investors, and every work (material or immaterial) into a possible investment seed whose value will only materialize in the future. Yet, as manifest in most entrepreneurial schemes, in place of innovation and progression, the entrepreneurial business is geared towards securing private funds and accumulating interest on investments in the speculative market-driven future not the precarious, financialized present.
The problem with entrepreneurship and its unreliability becomes more visible when the great percentage of entrepreneurs are considered who are unable to make a leap or are more affected by economic instabilities. To broaden the spectrum, this similarly includes failed small-scale businesses, start-ups, self-employed freelancers and whoever falls out of the traditional wage labor working conditions (that despite deterioration are still safeguarded by trade unions). The failed parties are most likely to make a setback to the margins of the formal economy or to resort to informal economies entirely without the chance to unionize or collectivize. Technologies which promised to make traditional work easier have largely disarmed those sectors, increasing the number of vulnerable workers. David Graeber commented on this trend saying, “They (information technologies) have enabled a financialization of capital that has driven workers desperately into debt, and, at the same time, provided the means by which employers have created “flexible” work regimes that have both destroyed traditional job security and increased working hours for almost everyone.”[See Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, by David Graeber]
Despite the neoliberal framing of entrepreneurship as an opportunity to thrive, it is not about having equal access to market competition as if markets were natural, unbiased and truly free from state regulations and interventions. Rather, entrepreneurship results from state deficits and the incapability to either create opportunities and distribute infrastructures or provide basic income in non-capitalist market terms. As an example, the ministry of labor in Iran has advised that start-ups should engage in solving social problems and are the most effective in addressing them.
The state’s retreat from core social responsibilities, outsourcing them to private corporate bodies, has resulted in workers pursuing entrepreneurial ventures when left with no other options.
Yet could this failure be turned into innovative interventions using the limited tools at hand towards collective entrepreneurship? When our economic subjectivities are rendered generic and interchangeable through neoliberal arrangements, could we use this possibility to create something else? Thinking about an economic lexicon for the commons, entrepreneurship could be turned on its head by advocating for a future commons by connecting those on the margins. However dispersed these bodies are (contrary to formal workers), they are bound through the shared experiences and common identities, affected by market policies. As author and sociologist Asef Bayat points out, these actors collectivize when triggered by authorities or markets threatening to take the minimum leverage they have.
If entrepreneurship is inherently bound to innovation: What is the ultimate innovation?
Innovation does not imply the new, but is a practice of repurposing tools towards common progress based on collective desire. Entrepreneurship for the commons means that instead of accumulated profit to the cost of ecological destruction; all assets, shares and stakes are co-owned and shared. It is premised upon de-centering the individual for the collective, which determine the capacities of realizing possible futures. This results in the distribution of risk, affordances of risk-taking and the shared responsibility towards collectively owned assets. Building on the histories and roles of local governance and councils in policymaking and putting the demands on the state—rather than eliminating the state altogether—entrepreneurship for the commons will aim to improve living conditions experienced by local entities.
Arguing for local governance is not just a lapse in pre-modern governance/anti-state governance, but is directly a consequence of modernizing economic structures and the substantial effects it has had on marginalization of workers, especially in the Third World where contradictory policies have affected the livelihood of people and ecosystems. Workers have been cornered in the margins, clusters and very enclosed localities, fighting to score space outside what they have been excluded from. Thus, the local scale is the scale to which informality has access. Informal workers embody agency and power to inflict change (as the existence of informality indicates), however their direct access to larger risk and reward is somewhat abstract, unless mobilized and collectivized. The neoliberal market leaves entrepreneurship as a channel for entering the market, all the while the state looks to resolve social issues with economic proposals that do not aim to equalize society. Especially in light of escalating market instabilities, we can think of entrepreneurs as agents who can reverse and impact policies by substituting the individual with the commons. Such a task recalls reintroduction of politics and culture into economics, as well as collective ownership and deliberation as the primary modes of local engagement.
Informal workers are thus entrepreneurs in that they forge a way to make ends meet. Yet as workers are overwhelmed with securing and improving working conditions, it is the privatization and the rise of the asset economy that limits their access to infrastructure and services. Marginalized groups who are not usually entitled to having assets in their name are left outside of the solidified and formalized system of private property. Land grabs and privatization of common lands have also contributed to this trend. Entrepreneurship for the commons reconnects with ecosystems, materializes labor, reassigns value and supports public and common ownership. Collectivization of informality is geared towards cooperative ownership and the abolition of private ownership as the main nexus of economic exploitation.