At few times in its recent history has Europe overflowed with so much talk of entrepreneurship. Yet the sad truth about this surfeit of well-meaning chatter, and the concomitant explosion in popular literature, designed to give hope that small business can drag us from the moribundity of recession, is that little is going on behind the lip service. Europe’s entrepreneurial spirit continues to decline, in no small part thanks to the crushing bureaucracy of Brussels and a cultural climate wholly hostile to enterprise.
The dirigiste attitude of the European Union is profoundly antithetical to the spirit of the shopkeeper, the market trader, the merchant and, in our own decade, the internet entrepreneur. Everywhere in Europe today, Governments are muscling in on innovation and enterprise. Everywhere they do so, irreparable harm is being done to the long-term health of the ecosystems these governments purport to represent and support. Terrible crashes will come when the public money runs out.
In the UK, a Government department called Tech City is an overbearing presence among the internet entrepreneurs of east London. As a result of its interference, a new generation of founders is arriving into the industry with deeply unrealistic expectations of what it takes to create a successful company. They are being betrayed. What will happen when the whimsy of the current Government runs out, and entrepreneurs are plunged back into the dark waters of wholly independent endeavour?
Gone are the days when the romantic idea of the entrepreneur, hunched over the tools of his trade in whatever begged, borrowed or stolen accommodation he could secure, represented a broadly accurate picture of the wannabe chief executive’s life. In Europe today, entrepreneurs expect subsidised office space, mentorship, lavish attention from the press and cash from increasingly publicly-funded venture capital funds. It is a recipe for disaster.
This new sense of entitlement sweeping across Europe, fuelled by public bodies set up to cater for a fledgling company’s every need, feels good in the short term, and the press are only too eager to write long and uncritical pieces about an internet-fuelled renaissance. But we have seen this story before, and we know where it ends. Regional development agencies that subsidise a project’s every running cost make it impossible for that business to ever learn to support itself.
What has been done to the working classes throughout Europe by the engorgement of the welfare state and the proliferation of Government services and restrictions – that great societal betrayal committed by a succession of socialist European administrations – is now filtering back up into the business world. The entrepreneur is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
Thus a new generation of stroppy, demanding young men who expect business plans and success to be handed to them on a plate, invariably by the state, is springing up everywhere on the continent. This isn’t just economic folly – few, if any, of these new businesses can ever be profitable enterprises – it’s also a cultural disaster.
For many years, renegade politicians like UKIP’s Nigel Farage have argued that Europe is an economic backwater and that businesses in the UK with global ambitions should look to emerging markets instead of wasting their time on Europe. He was understandably mocked on the continent for a time. But now Mr Farage’s prophesies are coming true.
It can be unpalatable to refined continental palates, but in order to create a world-beating business, a dose of Randian philosophy – the heroicism of man; the necessity of great achievement – is a necessary evil. That’s something Europeans sometimes forget: beneath the glossy, welcoming veneer of corporate America lies a ruthless Darwinian heart.
Even though I run a publishing company, with few of the cut-throat demands of a Silicon Valley start-up thrust upon my staff, the first thing I do for every new employee is purchase them a copy of Atlas Shrugged. Little else being published today reflects the demands and realities of operating in business.
Indeed, literature has entirely failed to spot the revolution in entrepreneurship and provide the means through which it can be understood. Preposterous books like the new series from TED (so ably debunked by Evgeny Morozov), full of meaningless aphorisms, represent a new way of lobotomising ourselves via self-help.
They flatter entrepreneurs in America while fooling Europeans into thinking that “connectedness” and “transparency” are panaceas of social entrepreneurship that will unlock vast riches – as opposed to the cynical marketing strategies they are.
This counter-revolution into asinine populism on the part of the liberal commentariat is betraying our youth: it flatters the address book surfers and ad salesmen of San Francisco but does nothing to address how those entrepreneurs with the courage and audacity to refashion the world around them might approach the sort of geopolitical challenges that the TED and Davos crowds like to pretend they are fixing.
Authors such as Morozov and Eli Pariser have made great strides towards honest appraisals of how our intellectual culture is being reforged by American internet companies, but no one has yet penned a definitive defence of rugged capitalism fit for the twenty-first century. And so we are left with Rand.
Something awful is happening to the social fabric of the enterprising classes in Europe, as the conditions under which Margaret Thatcher’s strivers were born is replaced by the hand-out culture and nannying restrictions of Brussels. The people who would once have become the tycoons of tomorrow are being sucked into “social entrepreneurship” – or, worse, public sector jobs.
And so Europe is at a crossroads. Either we rediscover our respect for the mercantile classes and embrace the occasional failure, or we sentence ourselves to inexorable and inevitable economic decline. Shaking off the shackles of overbearing European socialism is a good first step. As is purchasing a copy of Atlas Shrugged – whatever the smug pronouncements of the liberal media.
A bit more Rand and a bit less Government. We’d all be the richer.
Originally published in Italian in the La Lettura supplement of Corriere della Sera. Reprinted here in English by kind permission.