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Marxist entrepreneurialism (or: why we hate hourly wages)

28 June, 2012

I often think to myself, “I hate working on an hourly wage for somebody else.” I am under the impression that most founders, self-employed people, and many creative workers (programmers included) have a similar aversion to hourly wages and being told what to do. (Perhaps everyone does, but that’s outside my realm of experience.) I never asked myself why this is, it just seemed so obvious. But I recently realized that this aversion, and the corollary tendency toward startups, form a solution to many of Marx’s main complaints about capitalism.

Daniel Pink might have learned a lot from Marx and most people wouldn’t know it. In his bestseller Drive, he explains how monetary compensation is an outmoded source of motivation. He posits that creatives and “knowledge workers” need autonomy, mastery, and purpose to be at their most motivated and productive, with a salary high enough that they don’t have to worry about the money.

Let’s oversimplify some terms and discuss.

Autonomy is a spectrum with slavery at the bottom and self-employment at the top. Assembly line workers are somewhere nearer the bottom. The startup- and hacker-culture zeitgeist says any good programmer should be near the top of that scale even if they are working at a large company—just look at Facebook’s “hacker culture” for an example.

Purpose is very important, and also very personal. Whatever difference you want to make in the world determines whether you think your work has a worthwhile purpose or not. I couldn’t work at Facebook because the difference I want to make in the world doesn’t have anything to do with helping people share cat pictures (though that is valuable). On the other hand, we have recent discussion encouraging not following your passion. I am going to be very hand-wavy and say that this is just a different take on purpose.

Mastery much could be the difference between hating your work and loving it. People have been known to suffer awful work environments and purpose-less jobs to exercise and develop a skill or expertise they prize. (Hello, grad students.)

Well, once you mention it, it’s fairly obvious that entrepreneurialism satisfies all three motivation factors. A founder runs precisely the business he wants to run, how he wants to run it, and why he wants to run it.

So why have I brought all of this up? Well, because it seems that entrepreneurs are Marxist, and I find that fascinating.

Marx’s arguments are frequently understood simply as communism. This leaves out all of his underlying thinking, which contain legitimate concerns about capitalism that many people—such as Daniel Pink—would certainly agree with, whether they realize it or not. I—and even a lot of Marxists—don’t think Marx’s specific ideas about how to enact communism are very useful. To continue oversimplifying matters, it is much more productive to understand communism simply as “whatever comes after capitalism”, and Marx thought it would necessarily include the complete absence of private property and the state.

Well it turns out some of the reasons Marx sought the abolition of private property were pretty much the same reasons that we don’t like hourly wages and that we work better with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

(Similarly, he sought the abolition of the state for precisely the same reasons that we seek fair and just governments. That’s outside the scope of this essay though.)

It’s a complex issue, but Marx saw in the capitalist labour system not only the exploitation of the proletariat, but underlying that he saw the proletariat’s alienation from their labour and from the product of their labour.

Alien what now? The basic idea is that in capitalism, Marx saw that a worker has no connection to her work, and does not give have purpose. Marx talks about the ideal state of mankind being one where each individual actively creates and defines the world she lives in. This is incompatible with the normal operation of capitalism, where the workers create the material conditions of life based on the dictates of the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie dictate them based on the dictates of the market. For Marx, the end goal of communism isn’t the downfall of the bourgeois and the end of exploitation. These are incidental. The end goal of communism is that people are able to decide what they want the world to look like, and make it so. (It just so happens that they make it so communally, not individually, in Marx’s conception, which also brings in the absence of a state.)

Now we see that the problems Marx saw in capitalism clearly embody two things (among others): a lack of autonomy, and a lack of purpose, closely intertwined.

By working for ourselves, starting companies, demanding autonomy from our bosses, or only working at places we feel make a difference, many people in modern society try to avoid those two problems. A Drive-esque approach to work and motivation, and entrepreneurialism in particular, present tempers to the alienated mode of work we might otherwise face.

In other words, those of us with an entrepreneurial drive and aversion from hourly wages are aware of the same problems with capitalism Marx saw, and many are actively trying to combat those problems.

Surely many people must accept these of Marx’s concerns about capitalism as legitimate. Who doesn’t find tragic or unjust the plight of low-wage workers whose occupations, and even lives, clearly lack autonomy and purpose?

It would be difficult to argue that widespread entrepreneurialism and new approaches to compensation and motivation in the workplace are total or universal solutions to the problems in capitalism discussed by Marx. Nonetheless, it is extremely valuable that some people in our modern economy have the opportunity to avoid these problems. If those new approaches can combat some of the negative aspects of life in capitalist society, they should be studied. Hopefully we can learn something from this interplay.

Bonus topic: purpose and bourgeois slavery. An important point made by Marx is that even the bourgeoisie is not free under capitalism. Like I mentioned earlier, they follow the dictates of the market, or capitalism itself: if it doesn’t make money, they can’t do it! There are exceptions of course, but even if we look at super-duper success stories like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, they don’t exactly get to do whatever they want. SpaceX still has to make money, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation still has to allocate where its money goes. Of course, they are closer than the rest of us to doing whatever they want, and are smart enough to work with the system at hand to get incredible results.

When someone like Mark Cuban says not to follow your passion, they are directly calling out that point made by Marx that even those with capital are unfree. We can interpret this like so: by starting a business or working for yourself, you are indeed gaining autonomy, but you still don’t have your own purpose. Viewed this way, you are indeed leaving behind many of the problems faced by Marx’s proletariat, but you are still left with the problems of the bourgeoisie (whether it technically makes you part of the bourgeoisie I can’t say).

In any case, I hope others are as fascinated as I am by the interplay between Marxist ideas and startup/hacker culture. I think it’s valuable to reflect on ourselves and our businesses by with various lenses such as this.