Silvio Lorusso: Hello every­one. Thanks for being here. Today, I’m going to talk about a few ideas relat­ed to the entrep­re­cari­at, a con­cept I’ve been try­ing to artic­u­late for some time now.

I’d like to start by say­ing some­thing on how this inter­est came about. Not so long ago, I got a three-year research schol­ar­ship, which among oth­er things pro­vid­ed me with a cer­tain degree of sta­bil­i­ty, char­ac­ter­ized by a rarely long tem­po­ral hori­zon. Despite this being an obvi­ous excep­tion, my rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty felt nor­mal to me. And from this van­tage point I could per­ceive all the short inten­tion spans” of my friends and col­leagues as a struc­tur­al aberration.

All of this changed when the schol­ar­ship was com­ing to an end. This is when I felt the full weight of real­i­ty all at once.

From now on, you will be in the grip of a human emo­tion that the good Lord, or more like­ly his neme­sis, cre­at­ed just for entrepreneurs.
Wilson Harrell, Entrepreneurial Terror, Inc. Magazine, 1987 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

At the time, I did­n’t know exact­ly how to describe what I was going through. Then while I was delv­ing into entre­pre­neur­ship, I stum­bled upon an old Inc. arti­cle by Wilson Harrell. Here, this suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur described a spe­cif­ic feel­ing that only entre­pre­neurs were sup­posed to expe­ri­ence. Wilson Harrell named this emo­tion entre­pre­neur­ial ter­ror.” And, even though I had noth­ing to do with entre­pre­neur­ship in the strict sense, I could deeply relate with the roller coast­er ride described by Harrell.

In order to demon­strate how this pecu­liar form of ter­ror is so com­mon among entre­pre­neurs, Harrell sug­gest­ed to go to one of them and ask, So how are you cop­ing with ter­ror?” According to him, such a ques­tion would trig­ger some sur­prise. Yet it would be imme­di­ate­ly under­stood by the fel­low entre­pre­neur. Now, I believe that the reac­tion of many of my friends, espe­cial­ly the ones involved in acad­e­mia or in the cre­ative indus­tries, would­n’t be that different.

Today, exact­ly thir­ty years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Harrell’s arti­cle, any kind of human activ­i­ty or endeav­or is under­stood through an entre­pre­neur­ial per­spec­tive. This is par­tial­ly due to the pro­pa­gan­da car­ried out by pro­fes­sion­al entre­pre­neurs them­selves. Like Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who intro­duced his book by quot­ing Muhammad Yunus. Here, the Bangladeshi social entre­pre­neur declares, All human beings are entre­pre­neurs. When we were in the caves, we were all self-employed, find­ing our food, feed­ing our­selves. That’s when human his­to­ry began. As civ­i­liza­tion came, we sup­pressed it. We became labor because they stamped us, You are labor.’ We for­got that we are entrepreneurs.” 

So this is how entre­pre­neur­ship turns into entre­pre­neuri­al­ism, an ide­ol­o­gy that nat­u­ral­izes risk-taking and self-determination. And while doing this, it expands entre­pre­neur­ial ter­ror to the whole social spectrum.

Both pre­car­i­ty and entre­pre­neuri­al­ism are impal­pa­ble yet con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments of the cur­rent social real­i­ty. They form the social atmos­phere.
[pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

As you prob­a­bly know, there is anoth­er term that is often asso­ci­at­ed with this now-widespread form of ter­ror. The word is pre­car­i­ty.” While pre­car­i­ty indi­cates the very con­tent and con­text of this fear, entre­pre­neu­ral­ism is meant to offer an escape from that. Both are con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments of the cur­rent social reality. 

Here is a one-liner that high­lights the rela­tion­ship between pre­car­i­ous work and entre­pre­neuri­al­ism. Can’t find a job, becomes an entre­pre­neur.” As I’ll show you after­wards, the choice of the Success Kid” meme is not accidental.

The rec­i­p­ro­cal influ­ence between an entre­pre­neuri­al­ist regime and per­va­sive pre­car­i­ty, their ambiva­lent coex­is­tence, is what the con­cept of the entrep­re­cari­at refers to. To artic­u­late some of the ways in which this mutu­al influ­ence takes place, I’d like to intro­duce what I would call a pos­tu­late of the entrep­re­cari­at. So here it is: The more pre­car­i­ty is present, the less entre­pre­neuri­al­ism is voluntary.

The pos­tu­late is well exem­pli­fied by a scene of I, Daniel Blake, a 2016 movie by Ken Loach on the night­mare of work­fare in the UK. Here, a group of unem­ployed peo­ple is required to take a course to improve their chances to find a job. According to the course coach, in a con­text char­ac­ter­ized by the scarci­ty of avail­able posi­tions, it is imper­a­tive to stand out from the crowd. This atti­tude implies the under­stand­ing of indi­vid­u­als as com­peti­tors, as micro-companies con­stant­ly seek­ing atten­tion through per­son­al publicity.

The par­a­digm of a per­son as micro-company is so per­va­sive to be almost invis­i­ble. We find it for instance in the field of cre­ative indus­tries, where a mon­grel lit­er­ary genre mix­ing self-help and cre­ative inspi­ra­tion is emerg­ing. A case in point is this book, which adapts a series of gener­ic job-seeking plat­i­tudes to the tar­get group of cre­ative grad­u­ates. In its intro­duc­tion, we encounter anoth­er pecu­liar aspect of the entrep­re­cari­at, a cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in which sub­jects face the hard­ships of find­ing a job while at the same time being expect­ed to address the biggest prob­lems we face today, like pover­ty and war.

The blend­ing of a forced entre­pre­neur­ial atti­tude with spe­cif­ic instances of pre­car­i­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent in the con­text of per­son­al crowd­fund­ing. Browsing GoFundMe, we encounter hun­dreds of young grad­u­ates that can­not afford unpaid intern­ships, which often rep­re­sent a nec­es­sary step to land a job. So they smile at the cam­era and pas­sion­ate­ly describe their inter­ests and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ments while detail­ing their spe­cif­ic finan­cial needs. They cheer­ful­ly adver­tise their per­son­al burden.

Clement Nocos is one of them. A polit­i­cal sci­ence grad­u­ate from Canada who got accept­ed for a pres­ti­gious unpaid intern­ship at the United Nations, a one-time-only oppor­tu­ni­ty” as he calls it. Not only did Nocos pro­duce a some­how iron­ic four-minute-long video to adver­tise his cam­paign, he also con­ceived a series of perks” to be offered to par­tic­u­lar­ly gen­er­ous donors.

Why crowdfunding? Simply: what else do I got?

In a long post on medi​um​.com, Nocos explained in detail the rea­sons and the results of his cam­paign. The above head­er is a good sum­ma­ry. Eventually, Nocos was able to raise less than $2,000 out of the $6,000 he asked for.

The Internet is full of port­man­teau words that work in com­bi­na­tion with the word entre­pre­neur.” Recently I start­ed to col­lect them, and I cre­at­ed a list includ­ing inter­est­ing neol­o­gisms like sofapre­neur,” dadtrepre­neur,” or even wantre­pre­neur.”

Given my pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with com­pul­so­ry entre­pre­neur­ial endeav­ors result­ing from dif­fer­ent types of pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions, I decid­ed to come up with yet anoth­er blend­word. A sadtrepre­neur is a per­son that unwill­ing­ly behaves as an entre­pre­neur and there­fore is not so hap­py about it.

Crowdfunding plat­forms like GoFundMe, YouCaring, and Generosity, are full of sadtrepre­neurs. Here, the amount of peo­ple ask­ing mon­ey for unex­pect­ed med­ical expens­es is strik­ing. It isn’t too much of a sur­prise, then, the fact that more mon­ey was raised on GoFundMe than on Kickstarter and that almost 70% of the US crowd­fund­ing dona­tions were offered to a per­son in need.

While some users fill their pro­file only with a short blurb, some oth­ers include professionally-shot videos or inti­mate pic­tures of their lives, some­times depict­ing med­ical treatment. 

For her cam­paign, Kati McFarland chose YouCaring. Kati is a young Arkansan suf­fer­ing from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome who pub­lished pic­tures of her­self while hos­pi­tal­ized togeth­er with finan­cial sum­maries of her med­ical expenses.

The three dimen­sions of the pre­car­i­ous described by polit­i­cal the­o­rist Isabell Lorey coex­ist in these med­ical cam­paigns. First, the ineluctable pre­car­i­ous­ness of life, char­ac­ter­ized by the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of acci­dents and illness.

Second, pre­car­i­ty,” which is both a dis­cur­sive frame to social­ly address pre­car­i­ous­ness and a means of cre­at­ing hier­ar­chies of need that in the case of crowd­fund­ing are medi­at­ed by dif­fer­ent scales of visibility.

Finally, gov­ern­men­tal pre­cariza­tion, the gov­ern­ing and self-governing through inse­cu­ri­ty, which includes the ero­sion of wel­fare state forms of pro­tec­tion like uni­ver­sal health care and thus implies the desta­bi­liza­tion of the ones that require them.

The suc­cess of these per­son­al crowd­fund­ing cam­paigns is strict­ly relat­ed to the user’s abil­i­ty to oper­ate as a media com­pa­ny, act­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as a copy­writer, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a social media man­ag­er, and an accountant.

Excerpt from GoFundMe’s 6 Steps to a Successful Campaign” FAQ

Often, the plat­forms them­selves offer tuto­ri­als and tips to improve the qual­i­ty of a cam­paign, some­times includ­ing extreme­ly gener­ic sug­ges­tions such as avoid­ing blur­ry pic­tures. A title needs to be catchy in order to stand out from the pletho­ra of run­ning cam­paigns. In this sce­nario, the access to an infor­mal means of pro­tec­tion against emer­gen­cies turns into a race where online media lit­er­a­cy is a valu­able com­pet­i­tive advantage.

Think of your can­cer as the ori­gin sto­ry a tech start­up tells about itself on the About sec­tion of its website.
Luke O’Neil, Go Viral or Die Trying, Esquire, 2017

In a recent inves­ti­ga­tion for Esquire, jour­nal­ist Luke O’Neil draws a direct par­al­lel between med­ical crowd­fund­ing and the ecosys­tem of tech entre­pre­neur­ship. Here, O’Neil sar­cas­ti­cal­ly asso­ciates the pre­sen­ta­tion of GoFundMe users’ med­ical his­to­ry to the stereo­typ­i­cal nar­ra­tive of tech star­tups, implic­it­ly reveal­ing a sim­i­lar­i­ty between an appeal to char­i­ta­ble spir­its and a pitch to a ven­ture cap­i­tal firm.

While read­ing O’Neil’s piece, I was remind­ed of a cam­paign which effec­tive­ly com­bined per­son­al neces­si­ty, the amass­ing of rela­tion­al cap­i­tal giv­en by viral­i­ty, and the strate­gic use of media lit­er­a­cy. In 2015, the boy who imper­son­at­ed the Success Kid meme, now 8 years old, took advan­tage of his online pop­u­lar­i­ty to fund the trans­plant of his father’s kid­ney. Significantly, on The Verge the news was pub­lished under the cat­e­go­ry of entertainment.

I’d like to bor­row for a moment the start­up lin­go to dis­cuss some of the attempts to dis­rupt” pre­cariza­tion and the dilem­mas relat­ed to this effort.

Precarity sig­ni­fies both the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of pre­car­i­ous, unsta­ble, inse­cure forms of liv­ing and, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, new forms of polit­i­cal strug­gle and sol­i­dar­i­ty that reach beyond the tra­di­tion­al mod­els of the polit­i­cal par­ty or trade union.
Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, In the social fac­to­ry? Immaterial labour, pre­car­i­ous­ness and cul­tur­al work, 2008

While pre­car­i­ty is gen­er­al­ly under­stood as a mix­ture of diverse forms of insta­bil­i­ty and inse­cu­ri­ty, Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt sug­gest that the term can also refer to orig­i­nal modes of polit­i­cal struggle.

This is the case of San Precario, an icon that made its first appear­ance in 2004 and became an ante lit­ter­am meme against the exac­er­ba­tion of labor pre­car­i­ty. San Precario exploit­ed and sub­vert­ed the deep Catholic roots of Italy, pro­duc­ing a mass of devo­tees and its own heretic liturgy. 

A cou­ple of years lat­er, the MyCreativity Network, a group formed around a series of events that took place in the Netherlands, pro­posed a real­i­ty check of Richard Florida’s ide­al­is­tic image of the cre­ative class. Instead of focus­ing on notions like empow­er­ment and auton­o­my, the group dis­cussed self-exploitation, inse­cu­ri­ty, and the emer­gence of a cre­ative underclass.

Nowadays, more than a decade after these efforts, the preva­lent image of the pre­car­i­ous sub­ject in the Italian media land­scape is an unflat­ter­ing one. The above com­ic strip alle­gor­i­cal­ly illus­trates it. Being pre­car­i­ous means walk­ing on a tightrope placed above the quick­sands of unem­ploy­ment, hav­ing to find a bal­ance between sub­ju­ga­tion and deference.

Given the per­va­sive entre­pre­neur­ial pres­sure to think strate­gi­cal­ly of one’s own per­son­al brand, build­ing social cohe­sion around the acknowl­edg­ment of shared forms of pre­car­i­ty is not an easy task. In oth­er words, not many peo­ple would com­fort­ably iden­ti­fy as pre­car­i­ous on LinkedIn or even Facebook.

Lisa Simpson, holding her right hand in font of her forehead, fingers forming an L

Bringing pre­car­i­ty to the table is often under­stood as whin­ing, and as we are taught, whin­ing is for losers. These losers are gen­er­al­ly the so-called mil­len­ni­als, also cat­e­go­rized as lazy and enti­tled. Millennials should real­ly take a leaf from the book of actu­al entre­pre­neurs, who nev­er com­plain and get things done. To sum­ma­rize, the state of things caus­es peo­ple not to come out as pre­car­i­ous, but to be out­ed as one.

Is there a pos­si­bil­i­ty to com­bine com­pul­so­ry cre­ative entre­pre­neuri­al­ism with gen­uine expres­sion of pre­car­i­ty? In oth­er words, is it pos­si­ble to do PR through pre­car­i­ty and against precarization?

To answer this ques­tion, I’d like to go back to the the crowd­fund­ing sto­ries I men­tioned. Last February, Kati McFarland attend­ed a pub­lic meet­ing with a sen­a­tor who advo­cat­ed the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. She took the floor and explained that with­out such mea­sures, her life would be at risk. Of course, the media atten­tion that McFarland got thanks to her inter­ven­tion had a pos­i­tive effect on the dona­tions to her cam­paign. But at the same time, her sto­ry became some­how sym­bol­ic of all the patients endan­gered by ill-advised pol­i­cy making.

Needing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate him­self from the oth­er grad­u­ates cam­paign­ing on crowd­fund­ing plat­forms, Clement Nocos again, decid­ed to cre­ate a pod­cast. Initially focused on the grinds of his per­son­al jour­ney as an intern in New York City, the pod­cast soon turned into an instru­ment of advo­ca­cy against unpaid internships.

In one of the lat­est episodes, Nocos inter­viewed Nathalie Berger and David Leo Hyde, a duo that orga­nized an extreme­ly effec­tive action (prob­a­bly many of you know this) to call atten­tion to the issue of unpaid intern­ships. Given the steep cost of liv­ing in a city like Geneva, Leo would car­ry out his work as an unpaid intern at the United Nations while liv­ing in a tent.

Here we see Hyde, who is cur­rent­ly shoot­ing a doc­u­men­tary on unpaid intern­ships togeth­er with Berger, speak­ing about the action in the con­text of a TEDx, a con­fer­ence for­mat born in Silicon Valley and char­ac­ter­ized by highly-recognizable aes­thet­ics and a very prof­itable busi­ness model.

The cas­es I dis­cussed denote a high degree of ambi­gu­i­ty emerg­ing when entre­pre­neuri­al­ism meets pre­car­i­ty. Far from being unique­ly the result of one’s own pas­sion, entrepreneurially-performed cre­ative” under­tak­ings are increas­ing­ly becom­ing an oblig­a­tion. More and more peo­ple reluc­tanct­ly join the ranks of the entrep­re­cari­at, a nov­el kind of cre­ative under­class, whose very medi­um is con­sti­tut­ed by its mem­bers’ per­son­al neces­si­ties. Thank you.

Audience 1: Could you say a bit more specif­i­cal­ly why is this entrep­re­cari­at emerg­ing right now. Like, why did­n’t it emerge twen­ty years ago? Do you think the main dri­ver was the Internet, or are there oth­er factors?

Silvio Lorusso: Thank you for this ques­tion. I mean, it’s not easy to some­how define a clear sort of lin­ear his­to­ry of this entre­pre­neur­ial pres­sure. But already in the 70s, Michel Foucault was speak­ing about the entre­pre­neur of the self. 

And I think that because of the cri­sis, and as well the kind of big val­ue that now has in terms of media pres­ence like entre­pre­neur­ship on big plat­forms like The New York Times— So we’re always some­how pre­sent­ed with the work of genius entre­pre­neurs. So this became a very clear role mod­el. And I think a lot of dif­fer­ence made the fact that these entre­pre­neurs are not any­more the gray sort of entre­pre­neur just man­ag­ing cap­i­tal, but they are also the ones bring­ing cre­ative dis­rup­tion. And again we find a link between cre­ativ­i­ty and entre­pre­neur­ship that some­how emerges then in a grass­roots lev­el as a sort of enforcement.

Audience 2: I missed the first five min­utes, so maybe you men­tioned this already so I’ll try to give the ques­tion any­way. What do you think of the pop­u­lar­i­ty of solu­tions like Uber and all of the shar­ing econ­o­my com­pa­nies that empow­er peo­ple to become entre­pre­neurs on their own terms with some­thing they already own—which might be a car, an aparment for Airbnb—and so to say sub­si­dize some­thing that is not pro­duc­ing any val­ue if it stays there—like a car or an apart­ment. And that’s the easy way this com­pa­ny will allow you to become an entre­pre­neur. But you’re not, because you’re doing some­thing that would be an employ­ee posi­tion in oth­er times. So, where do you see this going in the future? These shar­ing econ­o­my com­pa­nies, what is their role in this, if there is one?

Lorusso: Well, I’m not very expe­ri­enced with the case of Uber. But I have sev­er­al friends who work in—I live in Rockford—and work for Deliveroo. And what I see there is the fact that this con­cept of the entrep­re­cari­at, like the strict com­bi­na­tion, hap­pens also at the legal lev­el. Because they are actu­al­ly self-employed. 

So it’s not just a mat­ter of pro­pa­gan­da, but there is some­thing hap­pen­ing also in the legal way as one per­son rep­re­sents itself. And I think that is the most dan­ger­ous aspect going on right now. Like, nor­mal­iz­ing self-employment, even if there is clear­ly a sub­or­di­nate rela­tion­ship with a plat­form. So I would say I’m wary of both the nar­ra­tive and the kind of legal sub­stra­tum that is defin­ing those new practices.

Audience 3: Is there still hope? I mean, so many peo­ple dream to become ful­filled. Is there still a free mar­ket? Or is it us apply­ing for the mon­ey of old men to ful­fill their dreams in the Internet?

Lorusso: Okay. I will maybe keep it to the first part of the ques­tion. Because of course I was aware of pre­sent­ing a sort of grim land­scape. But I would like to bring atten­tion to the cas­es I showed, like with crowd­fund­ing. I think those lit­tle indi­vid­ual attempts to bring a more struc­tur­al con­di­tion, with­in let’s say the dra­ma of hav­ing to ask mon­ey for your med­ical sit­u­a­tion, is some­thing very [hero­ic?]. And I think those cas­es show that… I mean, there’s not so much of a pos­si­bil­i­ty of with­draw­al, but we need to sort of embrace the kind of ambi­gu­i­ty of being with­in this kind of set­ting but still bring­ing up not only our own demands but a more struc­tur­al one. So that is where I see the hope. It’s not like fight­ing the sys­tem from with­in, but I think those sto­ries are some­how inspir­ing, to use anoth­er term bor­rowed from Silicon Valley, like mis­use of it. Thank you for the question.

Further Reference

Collected writ­ings on The Entreprecariat at Institute of Network Cultures

Session descrip­tion