The coming end of start-up culture and the limits of what can be commodified

| May 24, 2020

There is a growing focus in liberal policy circles on fostering entrepreneurial spirit in an attempt to drive growth. Having run out of ideas for promoting the economic growth endemic to capitalism through the privatization of state assets, and seeing the lackluster productivity gains over the previous decades, the governments of advanced capitalist countries are looking to leverage the only part of their economies that are growing: the tech sector. This singular focus has resulted in changes to post-secondary education policy where university research are pushed ever further into becoming corporate R&D labs, and government research supports are spun off in an attempt to commercialize anything that looks like it can be commodified and sold.


Disclaimer: This piece was written just before the pandemic hit. I am, however, fairly certain these conversations are continuing in the virtual space even though the overall context is changing.

Policies that drive the "commercialize everything" mindset are not confined to public funding envelopes. Governments the world over have pushed an aggressive agenda of prioritizing business schools and marketing programs, encouraging entrepreneurial activities in schools, and promoting public-private partnerships with access to cheap debt.

While driving this agenda, however, governments have fallen prey to the corporate marketing schemes of monopoly technology advertising. It is undermining true innovation, basic research, and the recruitment of skilled workers into the public sector at a time that we need them most.

Café conversations

In almost every café around North America there always seems to be one person who has a single volume level for speaking to their friends and acquaintances across their tables (or on their phones). For many of them, that level is about 50% louder than necessary for conveying the information to the person they are talking to. This means everyone in the café is forced to hear – if not listen to – the conversation.

Many conversations between people discussing their start-up ideas have intruded on me this way. It is not that I think that most people are talking or thinking about start-up ideas, but I have observed a correlation between café loud-talkers and the self-confidence required to think their ideas are worthy of investment.

I have been exposed to details of other topics: dating, sex lives, life problems, and other assorted stories. But it is the start-up ideas that have been pervasive in people with this affliction.

There is one example that forced me to pay attention because it was recurring at an oddly high frequency: digestion. Specifically, women's digestion and nutrition. And, I would go so far as to say that the frequency of the topic indicates that there may be a real issue in North America's guts.

Fair enough. If it is a real problem, then it seems like something that would be and a good focus for a "start-up". Or, at least something active minds should put some resources into solving.

Unfortunately, the discussions on how to solve these problems have mostly been unscientific or nonsensical. They usually have to do with some collection of organic non-gluten cocktails, chemical formulas, pills, positive life energy, type of meditation, or complex proprietary diet regime.

When I kept hearing the same narrative from completely different people talking about their ideas, it struck me that there is perhaps something else going on here that has little to do with solving the world's problems.

Marketing commodified

"… found a new human organ …"

Such odd assemblies of words, especially when uttered at such an awkward volume, make you lose your concentration on anything else.

This particular conversation continued without a care that a majority of the café had turned their heads. The topic was about how this person was working for a start-up that uses this newly found organ to help in female digestion.

It was this conversation that started me along this journey of listening instead of trying to block out all the usual café conversation inanity. While the list below is a near full collection from many conversations that happen in cafés, and not all these points made their way into every one of the start-up conversations overheard, it was surprising to me how many of these themes were occupying the same narrative.

  • A conversation that is almost entirely marketing speak. The actual product is so subsumed in the process that after 15 or so minutes of excited loud talking it is still unclear what the product is – and not because the people talking were trying to be discrete.

  • A veneer that everything is progressive or helping people (targeting women seems to be the majority of the focus) even though it is openly agreed that making money is the real goal.

  • Upgrading "skills" without a connection to the actual production of anything (e.g., marketing workshops, coding skills, data sills, understanding analytics).

  • Technology fetishised to the point that it drives the conversation instead of the problem or finding a solution to the problem.

  • Consumer needs are always within the context of current central application distribution models, such as talking about the "Apple store" as if the store itself was the buyer, and not the individual with the problem.

  • Words being used with different meanings from common understanding – all becoming part of the sell. "Innovative" no longer means new, it just means marketized/commodified. "STEM" is short for commercialisation. "App" means services company. "Apple" means a marketing model. "Start-up" means small debt-heavy business. "Founder" means small business owner – usually indebted to one or a few individuals instead of a traditional lender like a bank.

There is a likely reason for all this pseudo-academic marketing speak: there is a limited number of ideas when it comes to marketing products.

To the general population, the "modern experience" itself has been commodified by monopoly companies and sold along with the product. So much so, that it is even seeping into the discussion before the introduction of the new product.

The start-up fever is a branding exercise applied to the branding exercise.

For "start-up founders", it seems strategy is no different from tactic, and only one strategy works. Not to worry, though; that strategy can be purchased at a price.

The only thing that will differentiate one start-up from another is the money spent and the marketing used to describe that single strategy. No need to be clear about the product.

Innovation is now just selling

The innovation in modern marketing is that it does not matter if the product works or has real science behind it. Many consumers cannot tell the difference even after using it. They are so convinced it is real, or that it feels real enough, that this feeling is more important than the truth. At this level, we see the full adoption of postmodernism into consumer capitalism.

The real question is: who is profiting from this orientation that "start-up culture" has taken?

  • Firms that invest?

  • Firms that develop communications?

  • Those who enjoy the culture and can talk about the way to sell yourself and market your ideas?

  • Ad firms?

All of these, but it is also much more insidious.

There is a trillion dollar industry selling new methods of selling bullshit. And it lives off selling advertising services on the internet.

The marketization of the distribution of information means that truth is decided by a process unrelated to the content of the idea or the effectiveness of the solution that is being sold. This use of advertising for selling snake oil has been around for a long time. But the money, time, resources, and prevalence of the new form is at a scale undreamt of by the masters of propaganda over the millennia. And, it continues mostly unregulated and without broad critical examination or understanding.

When a new technology is adopted for the dissemination of information and escapes regulation, there is a corresponding rise in the abuse of that new technology to sell "snake oil" to people – products or ideology.

Marketing fiction, selling hate

Businesses selling products based in pseudoscience on the internet have spread in the same way as right-wing ideas and hateful memes. They have been sold a platform already developed to best exploit and develop a consumer base.

The tech industry in Silicon Valley has actively promoted the start-up ideology to foster the social support for its existence, and to aid training and recruitment into many of its anti-social commercial endeavours. The rise of hate using these same strategies is simply a side-effect.

The development of brand loyalty or "ideology" has been perfected and mimicked by peddlers of pseudo-science and right-wing groups. Others get pulled into the false logic, and spin-up new small forms (mimics) of these ideologies.

This has always been possible, but the speed of this evolution has increased, and because there is no active correction or selection against the bad forms, they flourish along with the good ones.

Social media marketing giants are the latest companies to commodify truth, and those companies have found – like the media companies before them – that truth does not sell as well as fiction.

This history of pseudo-science in western culture includes

  • Anti-vaccination

  • Intelligent design

  • Crystals, aura medicine

  • Meditation and other forms of Orientalism

  • Climate change denial

  • Gluten Free, Paleo diets

  • Positive thinking, self-help

  • Alternative medicine and the use of lasers to cure things.

  • "9/11 truth" and other conspiracy theories of the "deep state" used by the populist right. (The abuse of this anti-establishment message is similar to the basis of the Nazis' anti-Semitism.)

Right wing exploitation of start-up ideology

Right-wing populism thrives on nourishing the more anti-social forms of human behaviour to build division and exploit the resulting resentment towards political power. The othering of groups of people based on characteristics that they cannot change is one of the easiest ways to spot individuals with right-wing tendencies.

But first, the narrative that emerges aims to convince its audience there is some kind of exceptional knowledge held by the group espousing it. The ideology has an internal (false) logic that is maintained by the belief they know something special that others do not. The promise is that the "not elite" gain what the elite seem to have: special knowledge for success.

In the new form, that special knowledge is reinforced by social forces via social media where the others is the focus of (near) violent ridicule.

In a way, start-up culture is capitalist pseudoscience. There is no evidence it is particularly effective at producing useful things. That belief is based on a made-up history invented by the tech monopolies – the idea that they invented the things they sell. So, it is not surprising that the process used to sell it to the population can be effectively mimicked as a tool used by other pseudo-scientific programs and right-wing populists.

Political populism in the present day is the organized exploitation of the ideologies that have resulted from social marketing and social engineering. Right and left-wing alike.

The "populism" adored by the far-right is the cynical exploitation of the anti-social forms of these ideologies. While there are many holdovers from the historical right-wing party ideologies, it is this basic form of cynical politics that maintains the brand, not the policies. The unifying feature is the opportunism of usurping existing communities of anti-social ideas.

The push by the right-wing is reaction through creating an other: anti-progress, anti-women, anti-other, conspiracy of the institutions of power against their perceived right to certain privilege or power by those seeking profit and fame exploiters.

Can the left use any of this?

When we speak of leftwing populism, it is likely that this kind of exploitation of anti-social ideologies will not work. Indeed, the call by some progressivists to promote mimicking the right-wing in building communities and exploiting online tools is playing into the very ideologies and processes we need to fight.

Alternative direction

Now more than ever, socialists should be rejecting cynical anti-social organizing. The left should be using our position of credibility to expose and ridicule the idea that cynicism is the way forward to build left ideological groupings.

This does not start with attacking the ideas, but the foundations of these marketing-based ideologies.

Science, deep explanations, discussions of specifics, the exposing of the marketing aspects of the cynical position. The conspiracy is of the marketeer and profiteer of these groups.

Also, we should abandon the defense of the indefeasible parts of the social state. Bureaucracy is not the goal, but much of it is necessary because of the expansion of services. The positives of structures of the state need to be explored and put under democratic review. Worker unions in the public sector must be leaders in this.

The necessary structures of the state need to be explored and their role explained, not just described.

Part of the power the elite have is their understanding of the structures of power – and to keep that information from the masses. Right-wing narratives are based on the mystification of the bureaucratic and managerial processes in government and business. It is no mistake that this secrecy has also helped the current rise in conspiracy thinking and cynical views of the state.

How do we do this without becoming blind apologists of the capitalist (or even socialist) state?

We must start talking of the state when we outline alternative and socialist programs. This can include explanations of employment, oversight, and control. While aspects of efficiency should be adopted by the left in the current debates we must outline that this is a structural efficiency we are seeking, not an exploitative work-orientated one based on minimum number of steps or time.

Structures of efficiency are about making work easier – and usually comes from the workers finding the efficiencies themselves. The tools to show better ways of doing the same work are available and could deployed this way.

For example, in a unionized workplace, review processes around workplace health and safety could be applied to efficiencies. Unions have the structures available to do this if there is a guarantee of no loss of employment.

A collective agreement could outline such a process. This would also show in what ways this could be explained to the broader public. The benefit would be the explanation of work and its structures within the public sector without the focus on "cost containment."

The public sector is even moving along the lines of the worst parts of the startup mythology and the antisocial ideologies they bring in. Instead, the focus should be on how public sector workers are designing and delivering the best services for people.

A program to do this should be carefully structured and an appropriate employer found to pilot with.

It is through this active organizing and building of knowledge that workers can start to see through the commodification myth. If workers can see the underlying problems and know that they can fix them, they will be less taken-in by peddlers of cynical ideology and fake solutions sold as easy fixes.

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