Global Grammars Of Enterprise in the COVID-19 Crisis (Part 1)

Authors: Peter Kelly & Diego Carbajo.

The COVID-19 Crisis as an “event horizon”

The concept of an ‘event horizon’ comes from astrophysics, but has travelled, ‘metaphorically’, into more popular usage. In astrophysics an event horizon describes that time, that point, at which matter enters a black-hole:

The event horizon of a black hole is linked to the object’s escape velocity — the speed that one would need to exceed to escape the black hole’s gravitational pull. The closer someone came to a black hole, the greater the speed they would need to escape that massive gravity. The event horizon is the threshold around the black hole where the escape velocity surpasses the speed of light.

According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, nothing can travel faster through space than the speed of light. This means a black hole’s event horizon is essentially the point from which nothing can return. The name refers to the impossibility of witnessing any event taking place inside that border, the horizon beyond which one cannot see.

Importantly, in this work at the limits of ‘knowability’, an event horizon, by definition, produces profound uncertainty in the crossing that threshold:

Wormholes, alternate universes, time warps — we’ve all heard crazy theories about what happens inside a black hole. So what’s the real story?

The short answer is, physicists don’t know.

A somewhat longer answer is, it depends on whom you ask.

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This idea of an ‘event horizon’ as signifying the moment of profound unknowability seems, to us, to provide a powerful means to capture the sense of existential crisis that many feel in the midst, still, of the public health consequences of COVID-19. So many of us are currently wondering, thinking about, what comes next??

So, we want to start this series of blogs by suggesting that COVID-19 creates an event horizon, a threshold, beyond which lies profound, ‘unknowable’, uncertainty. In this series of posts we want to cross this event horizon to imagine what this uncertainty might mean for what interests us here. In an earlier post (which was intended to be the first in a series) we introduced some of what interests us here. But we will recap some of the main points below.

Global Grammars Of Enterprise

This work is based on Diego’s postdoctoral research at the University of the Basque Country (Spain). Currently, he is developing a research project titled The Grammars of Self-entrepreneurship in the Basque Country from an International Perspective. Between  2017 and 2019 he completed a research stay at the School of Education at RMIT University mentored by Peter . Based in some of Peter’s work —i.e.  The Self as Enterprise (2013)— Diego’s project develops the hypothesis of the stabilization of a “Grammar of Self-Entrepreneurship” on a global scale. A global grammar that is not posed as a culture or an ideology, but something closer to a discourse, an apparatus or an assemblage that helps us to understand not only how young people are incited to behave and act in entrepreneurial ways nowadays, but how we all are induced to perform as self-entrepreneurs in most of the dimensions of our lives. This conception has a crucial effect both in how we are co-produced as individuals and how capitalism has evolved in the last decades.

Through a number of upcoming posts we will outline the common elements of the analytical tool of Global Grammars of Enterprise, and then we will try to frame and test it in the current COVID-19 crisis. So, while the first contributions will be more focused on a theoretical level, the following posts will be more analytical. Finally, the last one will be more centred in the COVID-19 crisis and it will sketch some working hypothesis for analysing young people’s life experiences in the near future (insert link to worst case).

On the whole, we want to explore the next research question: To what extent is this framework useful to identify, understand and analyse some of the subjectification logics that are being deployed in the current state of affairs in regard to the COVID-19 crisis?

The analytical framework of Global Grammars Of Enterprise 

Long before the COVID-19 crisis emerged, at a time in which labour markets were becoming increasingly globalised, and precarisation processes were altering young people’s working and living conditions, a whole network of public and private agencies were developing different entrepreneurship programmes as the main mechanism to deal with young people’s exclusion and unemployment. Basically, entrepreneurship was posed as  an —individual— strategy to create jobs and improve young people’s employability. But more importantly, it was fostered as a code of conduct to be applied in most aspects of their lives.

The neoliberal principle behind this measures states that anything works better (more quickly, more efficiently, etc.) if it is run as a business. This logic has been operating in all OECD countries’ policies since the end of the XXth century. Translated to human beings, this kind of imperative claims that to achieve a certain type of “success” individuals need to imagine themselves as enterprises-businesses and to act with market driven rationales. This is a trend that was identified by Foucault in the late 1970s (2008), and which has been developed in more depth by other many authors, including Lazzarato, (2012), Kelly, (2013), Lorey (2015: 43) and Bröckling (2016). To push this discussion further we have proposed the metaphor of grammar of enterprise (Carbajo and Kelly 2019) to better understand the usage rules, the norms and regulations of this principle of entrepreneurship. In short, this grammar is composed by some core elements and it is expanded and reproduced by its circulation in certain global and local networks.

As we will argue in this post, the measures implemented by agencies and institutions of government in different parts of the world that aim to foster any kind of entrepreneurial project are crucial parts of this grammar. They operate as an apparatus that puts into circulation, or re-signifies, concepts in a way that, far from being neutral, are, in part, inherently moral. These different agencies give shape to a political, juridical and administrative field of plausibility (let’s say reality), where some possibilities are promoted, and others not so much. More specifically, significant policies and funding projects about entrepreneurship have enabled and fostered the emergence of a complex network of public and private institutions and agencies that aim to produce, support, accompany or guide different kinds of entrepreneurial projects.

But before analysing this dimension, it is important to bear in mind that over the last three decades, what we call grammars of enterprise have been given a productive form by various players, including business schools, management consultants/experts/gurus and «globalising» organisations. These agents have played significant roles in what Nigel Thrift (2005) has termed the «cultural circuits of capitalism». These «cultural circuits» have been able to process, package and place management knowledge in all kinds of fields by providing mobile formulas and models that can be applied in and transferred to many diverse situations. These packages of knowledge, technologies and methods can be easily detected “enacting realities” not only in private corporations, but also in state and public institutions, TSOs, Not-for-Profits, NGOs and social enterprises.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

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One example of an agent that contributes to giving reality, continuity (Latour and Woolgar, 1986; Law, 2009, p.249) and circulation to entrepreneurship as an international phenomenon through a massive production of statistical data (Foucault, 2009, p.274) is the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). This international agency operates as a global census of entrepreneurship and produces and circulates a range of indicators of entrepreneurship. In addition, it provides regional analyses, international comparatives and different state rankings that contribute to making entrepreneurship a standardised and measurable global phenomenon (Osborne & Rose, 1999). Its work is not limited to conventional understandings of entrepreneurship and its area of action has been expanding quite significantly.

For our purposes, this agency is taken as a trustworthy data source by academics, journalists and diverse agencies, but more importantly, it is taken as a reference by policy makers, states and organizations such as the OECD and the European Union that need to measure quantitatively, and to some extent, performatively produce and standardize, entrepreneurship (Law, 2009, p.248). So GEM has to be taken into account as an international agent in the production and circulation of representations of entrepreneurship.

In this same line, most of the OECD countries define entrepreneurship itself as a priority area for research in their R&D National Plan, and presents multiple, on-going calls. One way or another, these scientific policies have made ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘youth’ a significant ‘research niche’, where youth enterprise becomes an artefact of expertise (Kelly, 2000) in which all kind of academic and intellectual resources have been invested (and in which we are included). As it happens with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) on a global scale, the local research and scientific fields, through a massive production of data about entrepreneurship, helps to performatively give shape and reality to the phenomenon (Latour, 2005, p.173 and ff.).

Given that, the crucial dimension of this grammar has to do with policing and  governmental practices. The call for persons to be, or to become entrepreneurial is a cross-cutting issue in all the different political programs regarding young people education, employment and social inclusion. This notion is especially evident if we take into account the wide range of measures, materials, activities, experts and good practice guides, that can be found implemented in several OECD countries.  It would take too long to index and explain here all the complex network of policies that have been developed but we will do some of this work in the next post in looking at the European Union and the Foundation for Young Australians, and the ways in which these organisations, differently, articulate much of what they do through this grammar.

One of the questions we want to address in this series of blogs, then, is how far this idea can help us navigate the uncertainties beyond the threshold that is COVID-19.  Especially, when there is already ample evidence that the outstanding expenditure and debts accumulated by the states for facing the crisis are going to be processed by the same mechanisms of austerity that had already mortgaged the futures of contemporary populations of young people.

(*) All the references and bibliography will be gathered in the last blog entry of this series

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