The Agenda

Rob Horning on Social Media and Entrepreneurial Subjectivity

I find Horning interesting because he is a lucid and intelligent writer I disagree with as completely and comprehensively as one can disagree with another human. Consider the following:

[Andrei] Cherny hopes that government will change policy to support personal entrepreneurhood: “Health-care and retirement benefits should be made more personalized, portable, affordable, and universal.” But as [Justin] Fox points out, the emergence of the entrepreneurial self undermines the sort of solidarity necessary to lobby the government for this change to be implemented and for fairer tax treatment and the like. “To get us laws that reflect the new workplace reality, Free Agent Nation, by its very nature dispersed and allergic to large organizations, needs to develop a unified voice. Can it?” Fox asks. I’m pretty skeptical that it can; the destruction of such solidarity is almost explicitly the purpose of neoliberal reform, as the attack on public-sector unions’ bargaining rights suggests. The goal is to get every person thinking and acting for themselves, which makes them most desperate and vulnerable—oh, wait, I’m sorry, I meant free and flexible.

Horning contrasts the “security that once came from long-term employment with large firms and the safety net supplied jointly by employers and the state” with the post-Fordist, neoliberal order created by “deregulation, outsourcing, globalization and total worker flexibility,” and I think it’s safe to say he believes that much has been lost. I don’t want to caricature Horning’s view, as I’m sure he understands that Fordist solidarity was built on exclusion, that entrenched gender inequality was a foundation of “family wage” social democracy, etc. And I recognize that my highly idiosyncratic subjective experience has inclined me towards preferring the new capitalism to the old. When I think of the Fordist economy, I can’t help but think of the film North Country, which portrayed the blue-collar ideal in a harsher light, perhaps unintentionally. When I think of the neoliberal order, I think of the dramatic advances made by women in educational attainment and market production. 

There is no denying that the neoliberal order has been particularly beneficial for novelty-seeking elites, for whom the rise in geographical mobility, economic dynamism, and cultural diversity and the concomitant decline in social trust has been a boon on balance. Given that loss aversion is deeply ingrained and that most people prefer stability to novelty, the neoliberal turn may well have imposed a regressive psychic tax. The good news, from my perspective, is that our cultural make-up is being remade. America is becoming a more expressive and creative society, yet the country is also building a model of multigenerational kinship that bears more resemblance to pre-Fordist than Fordist social forms. Indeed, the specialization of women into household production was very much a post-1920s development, and our era of delayed marriage and declining birthrates, immigration-fueled diversity and densification, relative economic freedom and wage and wealth dispersion, etc., looks a fair bit like the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, only richer and more inclusive. 


As [Daniel] Pink stresses, in the neoliberal world, “work is personal” and there are no boundaries separating work and nonwork. This fits with the tendency for our consumption to increasingly serve a productive function in the economy as “immaterial” or “affective” labor, contributing to marketing innovations and enhancing brands’ equity and devising new uses for goods, new consumer wants, new ways to get pleasure from spending. As more of our self-presentation can be captured digitally and tracked and amalgamated, particularly through social media and mobile communications, our identities themselves become productive factories of economic value.

Again, this could reflect my relatively privileged status as a college-educated cultural worker, but this idea of “no boundaries separating work and nonwork” brought to mind assortative mating and the notion of taking pleasure in work, which is very much a pre-Fordist notion. The identity of the independent tradesman was closely tied to the dignity of his work, whereas “wage slavery” had to be legitimated through a variety of mediating institutions. To treat Fordist solidarity as the norm or indeed as the ideal strikes me as ahistorical.  

Pink assert this sort of thing makes work inseparable from fun. And maybe in a noncapitalist society the disappearance of work-life separation would mean freedom from alienation, pure harmonious praxis, meaningful and recognized work for one’s livelihood. 

Pink might deserve to have his ideas trivialized, but my impression is that this is not entirely fair. 

But under capitalism, this lack of boundaries yields limitless insecurity, and it leads us to entrepreneurialize ourselves, see ourselves as little firms and work hard to augment our personal brand (which seems to me synonymous with neoliberal subjectivity).

I’m eager to think through the alternatives to this identity regime, which strikes me as very far from dystopian. My parents are from urban South Asia, a couple of generations removed from an unchanging world defined by rural poverty and isolation. They spent part of their lives in compound households, in a familistic regime that, to put it gently, had its downsides. 

Rather than work becoming fun, fun becomes work, and hipsterism in it current guise is born. Our identity work becomes anxious, calculating, inescapably reflexive, the opposite of spontaneous. We become conscious that every little gesture must ideally be turned to account somehow to help us get ahead and protect our standard of living.

And Hume and Smith wrote of the constructive tyranny of the impartial spectator, a discipline that could be characterized in nightmarishly harsh terms but that was, as Albert Hirschman noted in The Passions and the Interests and elsewhere, the strongest argument in favor of market society: that it restrains honor-seeking, war-like behavior by making us a bit more other-regarding, which is to say a bit more civilized. These networks of economic and social obligation restrain our worst impulses. Yes, they impose a discipline, just as Fordist solidarity imposed discipline. But there are far more options in this world thanks to the proliferation of small-units, e.g., small firms and cultural niches. 

I think the rise of social media—beyond merely mobilizing immaterial labor—has had a lot to do with structuring, promulgating, and naturalizing the entrepreneurial subjectivity necessary for neoliberalism to function smoothly. They support the concept ideologically and institutionally where government doesn’t, giving us a sense that we are capitalizing on ourselves and compensating for the collectivity and security we’ve lost. So the personal brand supplants the personality or the lifestyle—terms that horrified earlier generations of social critics worried about commercialized identity. Now we network and self-promote and see this as the extent and purpose of social life. Of course! How else could it be? Why wouldn’t we capitalize on our friend quotient, our “social graph”—why shouldn’t we measure ourselves in terms of what we can sell about ourselves? That’s now how we discover what is “authentic” about us. It seems that we are approaching a point that only what we can sell or hype about ourselves seems real to ourselves—only what is retweeted or liked on Facebook speaks to who we really are.

I would argue that the collectivity and security we’ve lost is being replaced by new forms of collectivity and security that are preferable in many important respects. 

Regardless, I’m grateful to Horning for making his case so clearly. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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