Keywords for the Age of Austerity: Innovation in Action Part 1: Entrepreneurs, New Men, and Student Loans

An occasional summer feature here on the blog, where we will take a “deep dive” (as they say) into some example of “innovation,” as it does its sometimes nefarious, sometimes simply confusing, work in the world.

As so many of the keywords have shown, the vocabulary of austerity is deeply moralistic: austerity is framed as a just punishment for past profligacy, a form of necessary self-discipline. “We must tighten our belts,” say the service-cutting politicians, framing the nation as a regretful drunkard stumbling to the gym on January 2, ready to punish itself for its misdeeds.

Another example of this moralism, hot off the presses this morning from Hillary Clinton’s Silicon Valley CEO fundraising drive  announcement of her “technology and innovation agenda,” is her breathtakingly terrible proposal to forgive student loan debt to “entrepreneurs.” At the risk of pointing out the obvious–how is it a good or “progressive” idea to make student loan debt conditional on your profession or class? Why not forgive the debt of social workers or paramedics or teachers, who are also plagued by loan debt? This is besides the point, though, since the plan is so obviously cynical–clearly Clinton has no plan of implementing a policy that is so obviously unimplementable.

The reason, as we explored in Keywords for the Age of Austerity 4, is that “entrepreneur” doesn’t really mean anything. Joseph Schumpeter, the mid-century Austrian theorist of innovation who thought it did mean something, used it to describe those who brought about some sort of technical or organizational transformations within a firm or industry. Any precision here begins to to evaporate pretty quickly, however. In Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process, Schumpy makes an observation that would probably trouble the lawyers drafting the imaginary Student Debt Forgiveness for Entrepreneurs Bill:

It is not always easy to tell who the entrepreneur is in a given case. This is not, however, due to any lack of precision in our definition of the entrepreneurial function, but simply to the difficulty of finding out what person actually fills it. Nobody ever is an entrepreneur all the time, and nobody can ever be only an entrepreneur.

Schumps often describes the entrepreneur as a kind of mythical, allegorical character. It’s not a job description, but an ethos. Elsewhere, the entrepreneurial class are the “New Men” (in caps) who bring about “innovation.” “We will assume,” he writes, “that innovations are always associated with the rise to leadership of New Men. Again, there is no lack of realism about this assumption,” he insists–this is a a thing he sometimes does, following some admission of the mythical character of the entrepreneur with some insistence that no, it really is quite sensible and hard-headed.

not his kind of New Men

All this is to say: I doubt Hillary Clinton has any intention of forgiving entrepreneurial student loan debt, since “entrepreneur” is not a clearly defined, or indeed clearly definable category (though I am prepared to be proven wrong). For Schumpeter, what the idea of the entrepreneur seems to do is to give a narrative shape and a heroic protagonist to the upheaval turbulence of capitalism. For Clinton, the only real definition is ideological–to valorize the pursuit of private wealth as a public good.


What we do and what we say

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton acquiesced to Donald Trump’s demand that she name the  massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub as a product of “radical Islamism.” Her supposed failure to do so had become something of a cause celebre on the radical right, and Donald Trump claimed a victory in making her say it.

Trump’s preferred term is “Radical Islamic Terror” (elsewhere, simply “Radical Islam,” also in title caps), but Clinton presented her response in typical fashion–as a little red meat to the xenophobes she’s now courting, seasoned with a little bit of good-government militarism for the liberal supporters she already has. She began by belittling Trump for focusing so much on semantics.

[I]t matters what we do, not what we say. It mattered that we got bin Laden, not the name we called him.”

Military actions, not words, are what matters. But then, she continues, if it means that much to you, fine, whatever, I’ll say it.

“But if he is somehow suggesting I don’t call this for what it is, he hasn’t been listening. I have clearly said that we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering innocent people. And, to me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point.”

The right-wing blog Red State huffed illiterately in response:

Sure it matters what we do, but it also matters what we say. Curing disease is nice but you sorta have to understand what the disease is and it is useful if the disease has a name so cancer and smallpox and boils on the ass aren’t all called “maladies.”

Nowhere in Red State’s statement on this semantic controversy is Omar Mateen’s target–a gay nightclub–ever mentioned. Trump buried it in the third paragraph of his statement, obliquely saying that “Radical Islam advocates hate for women, gays, Jews, Christians and all Americans.” Instead, the shooter’s plainly opportunistic and delusional claim of ISIS inspiration has predictably inflamed a media and political establishment so enamored with ISIS that if the terrorist bogeymen didn’t exist, they would have had to invent them (oh wait–they did!)

But since this is a language blog, why the obsession with naming the attack “radical Islamism”? Red State is right, insofar as words and more broadly, the ideologies they shape, cannot be separated from actions as Clinton claims they can. But the political meaning of the word “Islamism” is, of course, not what they think it is.

Islamism, in fact, peaked between 1820 and 1840, where it was used synonymously with “Mohamedanism,” as you can see here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 1.48.26 PM.png

(Islamism with a capital “I” gains in popularity through the later half of the 19th century.)

There, as now, “Islamism” was used with hostility, to denote a superstition or an apostasy. Like “popery,” it named the religion as a set of deviant practices. The Anglican Orientalist Charles Foster, archbishop of Limerick in Ireland and a prolific author on Islam, made this equation between “Islamism” and “Popery” explicit. “Islamism is the Popery of Ishmaelism,” he wrote in an 1830 book defending his earlier tract Mahometanism Unveiled. “Popery,” “Mohametanism” and “Islamism” were intended to define Islam or Catholicism as superstitious and subversive practices, rather than coherent belief systems of their own. Hence the all-important important suffixes, which identify the religions not as faiths but as actions–Catholics are conspiratorial agents of the Roman pontiff, and “Mohametans” the proselytizers of the “Ishmaelite heresy.”

The point now is less theological than it is political, nationalist, and racial, but I’d say the basic meaning remains–you can’t honestly declare war on “radical Islamism” and also disown the racist discourse of a “clash of civilizations,” as Clinton would have us believe, which is why Red State and Trump are so invested in the phrase.