From college campuses to congressman’s offices, the language of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs reigns supreme. The rhetoric of Silicon Valley start-up culture has colonized everyday speech. “In the last decade or so,” Evgeny Morozov wrote in article for The Baffler last summer, “Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation, a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the world—a silicon mentality of sorts—has emerged in its wake.” Buzzwords like “innovation” and “inspiration” invade our everyday speech. Every new widget is “social” or “problem-solving.” Every new concept has a vowel, an “i” or an “e” awkwardly attached to the front of its name. Even colloquially we seem to speak the way we imagine Mark Zuckerberg does when he presents a new idea, or when Apple executives unveil a new gadget. We talk in terms of “productivity” and “time management” and “results” and “vision.”
If the entrepreneurial turn in rhetoric were merely about style it would still be lamentable, but far less disquieting. But it isn’t: the changes in the way we talk and present ideas have serious political implications. The people who introduced us to everything “social” and all things “innovative” have political positions and ideological stances that impact policy in real and tangible ways. As the language of entrepreneurship creeps into our vernacular, the politics of the entrepreneurial class creep into the halls of government.
New Jersey senatorial candidate Cory Booker, who graced Princeton’s campus with his presence on October 2, albeit only for a brief run, embodies the political incarnation of the entrepreneurial mindset. Booker is a master of social media — the products his financial backers have woven inextricably into the fabric of our everyday lives. He boasts close to one and a half million followers on Twitter, where he regularly tweets trite motivational aphorisms like ““Success will never be a big step taken in the future: Success will always be a small step taken right now.” He is a skilled real-life “problem-solver” and engineer of media spectacles; he rushes into burning buildings, shovels citizens’ driveways, and saves animals in danger, all under the watchful eye of the social networks his financial backers maintain. Like other self-described “problem-solvers” on both sides of the political aisle, Booker supports charter schools and privatization, opposes teachers’ unions, and cozies up with high-tech capital and Silicon Valley investors. In July, the Bergen Record reported, “Booker is taking four times the limit for one election from deep-pocketed donors…Booker raised $4.6 million between April and June” from “dozens of donors, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg… and business-woman/heiress Ivanka Trump.” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google also donated to Booker’s campaign.
Currently the mayor of the troubled city of Newark, Booker claims to be serious about education reform and has received serious funding to back this claim up. Mark Zuckerberg’s pledge of one hundred million dollars in support of Booker’s reform efforts—which include public school closings—has, according to Mother Jones been used “to hire consults and establish several new charter schools.” Zuckerberg’s donation has been plagued by controversy and accusations of a lack of transparency after the city of Newark refused to disclose emails detailing the deal. Booker, reported the Wall Street Journal, “tried to keep private [the emails] after a public records law request. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sued in August 2011 after the city denied the request and a judge ruled against the city” in December 2012. Zuckerberg’s idea of privacy, or rather its non-existence, seems only to extend to the personal details of others and not to his personal political and financial dealings. His money, it was revealed after the lawsuit, has not actually gone to the city of Newark. Instead, noted the Wall Street Journal, the donation has been managed by the Foundation for Newark’s Future. The foundation’s millions “are expected to help fund an expansion of the city’s charter schools” and have “been spent to pay for a new contract with Newark’s teachers that introduces merit pay” — a controversial policy of rewarding teachers based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. For his talk about education reform, Booker has not directed the money from his high-powered friends into the coffers of the city of Newark. Instead, with pockets filled of cash from today’s “innovators” and “idea-makers” he has set in motion a program to disenfranchise the teachers’ unions, increase private industry’s role in public education, and use standardized testing to evaluate teachers. Booker’s political vision lines up with pro-corporate types on the Right whose policies he champions under the guise of a pragmatism sweetened with the seductive rhetoric of Silicon Valley.
In the TV series The Wire, Detective Lester Freeman cautions “if you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.” This maxim holds true in examining the political power of Silicon Valley. Booker’s policies do not resemble those of Republicans coincidentally. Though he may be running with a D in front of his name, his financial backers and biggest supporters have a lot in common with those who prefer the prefix R. For his 2002 mayoral run Booker received over $565,000 from Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm, and the financial industry. Christy R. Walton, the world’s richest woman — with a net worth of $37.8 billion — is also listed as a contributor to the Booker campaign. According to Forbes, “Alice and Christy Walton…gave $200,000 to Restore Our Future and $50,000 to Our Destiny [both Republican PACs] respectively.” Silicon Valley donors, who have found common cause with the old-money backers of last year’s candidate for the Grand Old Party, cement the connection between Booker and the agenda of austerity and privatization he pushes.
In 2011 the social media company that gave us the ability to poke each other digitally launched Facebook PAC, which The Hill reported, tilts towards the GOP but “spent its first-ever quarter of activity hewing to a more or less bipartisan donation strategy.” Leader of the troublesome House Republicans John Boehner and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell were FB PAC recipients, as was Democrat Chuck Schumer. Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg contributed to the fund. But Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who provided Facebook with its first outside investment, is perhaps the most noteworthy contributor given the scale of his political involvements. In September of last year, Business Insider reported, Thiel gave one million dollars to the conservative Club for Growth and more than seven thousand dollars to the now notorious Ted Cruz, whose role in the government shutdown does not resemble the “innovative” activity his well-heeled patron likes to talk about. Thiel has also contributed significantly to Facebook PAC, as well as to Republicans such as Senator Orrin Hatch. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, a backer of Booker’s campaign, has also donated to Republicans such as Eric Cantor, who recently engineered the evisceration of the federal food stamp program in the House of Representatives.
Talk about “problem solving” and “innovation” often coincides with talk about bipartisanship and pragmatism. And while the government shutdown grinds through its second week, the two parties are united by a common patronage and economic vision. Members of both parties, while unable to agree that poor people should be able to afford healthcare, have agreed to a near uniform agenda of market-oriented school reform. From outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who during his reign as the empire city’s executive in chief has closed over one hundred and forty public schools, to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who fired over two thousand public school teachers under the guise of budgetary problems only to later award a twenty million dollar contract to a private education consulting group, Democrats and Republicans have united to bring public education reform in line with the positions of the entrepreneurial class. When it comes to school closings, privatization, and union busting, Washington rarely exhibits the gridlock we usually expect.
A dictatorship of the entrepreneuriat now decides the futures of the nation’s students. We have let Silicon Valley monopolize our vocabularies they have monopolized our politics. Nearly every major political player, whether Democrat or Republican, curries favor with denizens of America’s app factory. Tea Party favorites and liberal poster boys alike are now wined, dined, and financed by the people who introduced us to “innovation.” As Orwell said, changes in language ultimately have political and economic consequences. The more we use the lexicon of start-ups and social media, the stronger its creators’ hold grows on public policy. We ignore this at our own risk, because the techno-entrepreneurs aren’t being quiet about it anymore. The entrepreneuriat has its own party organ, owned by Jeff Bezos, its own political action committee graced with the Facebook name, and its own cohort of lobbyists, fundraisers, and operatives who have placed in our mouths words of “inspiration” while privatizing public education.