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The Innovator’s Agenda

How the busiest of buzzwords was enlisted in the capitalist cause

In 1959, a group of high school juniors in a Brooklyn classroom took a very bad quiz. The questions, written by a right-wing, pro-business lobbying group, were a mix of multiple-choice and true-false propositions on economic matters, like When a company makes big profits in any one year, it ought to raise wages. (Correct answer: false.) Or: Which of the following do you think should be government owned and operated? a) railroads b) automobile companies c) banks d) steel companies e) oil companies f) power companies or g) none of the above. (Correct answer: g.) Most students failed the quiz; the average score was 45 percent, but they didn’t appear to mind much. One student told the authors of the quiz that they represented “a stinking, reactionary organization.”

And so they did. The quiz was written by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), an organization founded in 1895 to fight organized labor and retooled in the 1930s as a leading opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. After World War II, NAM’s eager propagandists began developing free-market economics curricula for U.S. high schools, which they were convinced were hotbeds of pro-labor and communist sentiment. Written student feedback recorded in NAM’s files seemed to confirm those fears. A Brooklyn student wrote on the quiz:

WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! Down with the capitalist exploiters. These ‘people’ do no work and expect to receive recompense for laziness. To paraphrase Lincoln, who in his second inaugural commented in much this way on slavery—‘the taskmaster wringing his bread from the sweat of another’s brow and the unrequited toil of millions of laborers.’ This system is contradictory to our ideals. The system must be abolished and the worker emancipated.

The results showed the NAM researchers the urgency of their mission. The honor students who flunked their economics quiz were some of the city’s most elite students, and yet, the NAM report concluded, they showed an exceptionally “high degree of economic illiteracy.” Teaching the youth of America to love the “free enterprise system” again would be a generational task.

Revolt of the Pikers

Looking back from the vantage point of neoliberal America circa 2019, it is striking (and a little cheering) to see the anguish of the defenders of private property at mid-century. In her 2009 book Invisible Hands, Kim Phillips-Fein showed how deeply the fall of the “employer’s paradise” of the 1920s shook the ruling class from the 1930s onward, as workers struck and organized and the public mood turned against industry. By the 1950s, right-wing writers complained that socialists still set the terms of debate and commanded the language of the economy: “55% hold to the Marxist theory ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’” according to the NAM’s report on American teenagers during the Eisenhower era. Their schoolbooks uniformly “make the employer look like a piker,” lamented the head of the group’s education department. “We have not learned to speak our own economic language as well as the other fellow has learned his specious patter,” wrote Wilbur Brons in the Chicago Journal of Commerce in 1944. Things were so bad in 1950 that Pierre S. du Pont, scion of the Delaware chemical dynasty and one of America’s richest men, felt himself to be living a kind of tragedy. “Perhaps,” he wrote wistfully to a colleague, “we were born too soon.”

To redeem the free enterprise system, the apostles of private property needed a vocabulary for emancipation through the market.

Exiting the social-democratic nightmare meant, in part, learning, and teaching, a new language. The socialistic shibboleths of “security,” “planning,” “economic democracy,” and “full employment” would have to be confronted and countered with new ideals of competition and entrepreneurship. People like the Brooklyn high school juniors had learned, through years of Depression and war, to associate freedom with security from the thing called “the market,” in its various manifestations: a cruel boss, a closed factory gate, a sped-up assembly line. To redeem the free enterprise system, the apostles of private property needed a vocabulary for emancipation through the market. To do this, they needed to make the market the sort of misty abstraction you could never confuse with the “sweat of another’s brow.” If only Pierre du Pont could have known how popular “innovation” would one day become.

Change Agents

One of innovation’s earliest and most cogent modern definitions, in the economic usage that we’ve wearily come to know so well, comes from Joseph Schumpeter. The Harvard economist saw innovation in 1942 as “the entrepreneurial function.” To innovate meant:

to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention or, more generally, an untried technological possibility for producing a new commodity or producing an old one in a new way, by opening up a new source of supply of materials or a new outlet for products, by reorganizing an industry and so on.

He wrote elsewhere that “innovations are always associated with the rise to leadership of New Men,” which pinpoints one of the major paradoxes of the term: its simultaneously functional and utopian usages. That is, the process of innovation—Schumpeter famously called it “creative destruction”—is both a workaday managerial process and also a kind of heroic eruption of market-shaping genius. The ubiquity of the term today may make us think of high-tech abundance, or perhaps the “better living through chemistry” that twentieth-century American firms like DuPont long promised consumers of plastics and nylons. But now, of course, the idea of innovation—less moored to material things than chemistry was—reigns supreme in Silicon Valley, the world’s “most innovative neighborhood,” as a typical description in the business press goes. “Chemistry” implied, at some point in the process, the production of a material object; tech innovation celebrates the decisions of the manager in his office.

Still, where, exactly, did this brand of innovation, in all its world-conquering glory, come from? It is impossible to date the origins of a word, especially one as vague as this one, with any certainty, but “innovation” as we use it now—a spirit of market-serving managerial creativity—begins roughly in 1934. This was the year that saw hundreds of thousands of workers across the country in a variety of industries—from longshoremen in San Francisco and Seattle to teamsters in Minneapolis to textile workers in Alabama—walk off their jobs in a wave of major strikes. And in the following year, the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act were passed, landmark pieces of the New Deal. Reacting with alarm to these events, the nation’s evangelists for private property cast about desperately for a response.

The New Deal’s domestic opponents, scrambling for an edge against Roosevelt, fixed on “bureaucracy.” In the platform of the American Liberty League (a short-lived congress of industrialists the president eagerly denounced as “economic royalists”) the first point was “to combat the growth of bureaucracy.” By “bureaucracy,” they meant the Works Progress Administration, unemployment insurance, labor unions, Social Security, and the kind of public ownership of major industries the Brooklyn students were still prepared to endorse in 1959. The problem, of course, was the widespread popularity of all the above. The defenders of free enterprise were still using someone else’s terms: “freedom from bureaucracy,” also a NAM slogan, simply riffed on Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.” What the American right needed, in other words, was its own positive language of “freedom” in the market.

Risk and Repetition

Innovation became the word for the job. Its very vagueness served as an irresistible selling point. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, innovation was something that its ardent modern prophets professed to know mostly when they saw it. And increasingly they came to see it everywhere—particularly in the internet age’s long tail. By now, virtually any new product is described as an innovation, but innovation in its most dominant form today is a kind of spirit, a way of being, an attitude. This helps explain its wide distribution across profit-making and nonprofit fields. The Harvard Business Review, the organ of corporate conventional wisdom, defines innovation in one article as “experimentation, risk-taking, and variety,” which are “the enemy of the efficiency machine that is the modern corporation.” Putting a man on the moon, putting the world on wheels, putting an encyclopedia in your pocket: these breakthroughs are all fruits of this spirit of risk-taking. But even the most banal, disposable products of our lives are awash in it; if, for any reason, you find your way to, you will find there an article called “A History of Band-Aid Brand Innovation.” (Sample achievement, 2001: “ is launched.”)

By now, virtually any new product is described as an innovation, but innovation in its most dominant form today is a kind of spirit, a way of being, an attitude.

Most institutions ritually invoke it for self-justification: Aramark Correctional Services, the private prison food contractor implicated in Michigan for serving literal garbage to inmates, sponsors a “Jail Innovations of the Year Award” to recognize jailers for “innovative contributions made to their jail or correctional facility.” Politicians of all parties invoke it reverently. There are, by my rough count, at least a half-dozen Innovation Churches currently operating across America, and elsewhere, a “theology of innovation” seeks to update that decidedly old-economy metaphor of the preacher as shepherd in favor of a new, knowledge-economy pastorate. The evangelical megachurch minister Rick Warren, for example, has written that “a theology of innovation always reminds us that God intends us to be creative.” Warren is speaking here of a church’s organizational culture, and he borrows from the hipster capitalist CEOs who advocate replacing boardrooms and cubicles with ping-pong tables and reclining lounge chairs. Submission to God, in Warren’s church, no longer requires Job’s prostration in the face of the Lord’s unfathomable desires. Instead, Warren writes, “it’s when I get in a totally prone position”—he means sitting in a recliner—“that I can be the most creative and can discover what God would have us do.”

Our children are also taught to be innovators, from inner-city Atlanta to affluent San Diego, and from pre-kindergarten through college. A school in Las Vegas promises to nurture the “entrepreneurs and creators inherent in us all,” starting with twelve-month-olds in day care; entrepreneurship summer camps teach middle-schoolers to write a business plan and pitch investors; colleges and universities increasingly market themselves as laboratories of innovation and entrepreneurship.

After factories, prisons, schools, and churches, there isn’t much left over in twenty-first century American life. Across these various institutions, innovation is so widespread and its goodness so seemingly self-evident that questioning it might seem bizarre and truculent, like criticizing beauty, science, or penicillin—things we think of either as universal human virtues or socially useful things we can scarcely imagine doing without. Where did this ubiquitous concept come from—so imprecise, so vapid, in neither its verb or noun form describing any coherent action or object with clarity or consistency? And what does its popularity say about us?

© Lindsay Ballant

The Brand of Noncomformity

Here the postwar usage of the term is especially telling. Along with “entrepreneurship,” a related term, innovation became a response to the malaise of bureaucracy typically shorthanded by the title of William Whyte’s 1956 best-seller, The Organization Man. Whyte argued that Americans in the fifties—by which he meant middle-class, professional white men—were “imprisoned in brotherhood.” A stifling spirit of consensus was sapping the country’s vital and independent energies. Middle-class, flannel-suited office workers lost in bureaucracies and marooned in suburbs threatened the vitality of an economy compromised by its own stability. The old economic virtues had lost their power. What good was a Horatio Alger story about the importance of thrift in an economy built on endless consumption? What did “pluck” matter to a middle manager?

The college-educated youth of the late 1950s were interested in job security, not trailblazing, Whyte argued. He quotes an economics professor who says his students “do not question the system. . . . They will be technicians of the society, not innovators.” In an example of the evergreen nature of blaming social problems on Kids Today, a youth marketer lamented in 1960 that young men were not the “pioneer stock” of their grandparents. “I think that a lot of large corporation heads know it and are alarmed about it,” he said. “They get the organization man rather than the entrepreneur.” One of the first articles centered on the topic of innovation in the Harvard Business Review, from 1962, echoed this suspicion of the “technician” as a compliant facilitator, rather than a dynamic creator. “In our striving to create and maintain order and stability in large enterprises,” wrote John J. Corson in “Innovation Challenges Conformity,” “it has become increasingly clear that we discourage and limit the initiative and creativeness required for innovation.”

Free enterprise, then the most popular euphemism for capitalism, described a system and a structure; innovation was becoming a way to describe a free individual’s way of thriving inside that structure. Advocates of the new discipline of management began to emphasize what the MIT business professor Douglas McGregor called in 1960 “the human side of enterprise”—moral and personal traits like empathy and innovation, instead of classic administrative traits like discipline and authority. In his 1954 book The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker, an Austrian exile often called the “father of management theory,” described the calling of managers as nothing less than to integrate operations “so as to utilize the special properties of the human being.”

New and Disproved

Drucker, beginning with his 1939 book The End of Economic Man, was preoccupied by the organization as a cultural and political problem—he argued that a fetish for organization as such defined the appeal of Nazism. But in his 1985 book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker sounded an optimistic note. “Where are all the young people who, we were told fifteen years ago, were turning their backs on material values, on money, goods, and worldly success, and were going to restore to America a ‘laid-back,’ if not a pastoral ‘greenness’?” For the management theorists who came to prominence in the 1960s, the business world was not the place of one-dimensional men, from which laid-back eccentrics fled. Quite the contrary: “innovation” was the recovery of the more fully human, the irrational, the creative, the idiosyncratic in business and in all aspects of culture influenced by it (which was, Drucker argued, every sphere of human culture). And so innovation could offer a sense of purpose to workers swallowed by bureaucratic consensus. As Nils Gilman has argued about Drucker, practical business advice—the workaday techniques of innovation and entrepreneurship—became the solutions to the crises of capitalism that erupted violently at the beginning of Drucker’s career. The innovator, as Schumpeter had said, was both bureaucrat and hero.

This sort of idealism still resounds in the vocabulary of the business world today: it is individualized, moral qualities of innovation and “passion” that ostensibly drive success, and whimsical fetishes like “leadership” and “design thinking” package a species of individual deliverance in a cubicle. The freedom from bureaucracy and order-following that innovation came to promise belongs to what Drucker called in 1968, with now-quaint optimism, “the knowledge economy.” This was an economy driven by “ideas, concepts and information rather than manual skill or brawn.” No longer a rule-following drone in the industrial society, the worker in the knowledge economy was driven by her independent choices. We have moved on from an economy of “predetermined occupations into one of choices for the individual,” Drucker claimed. The knowledge-economy worker can make a living doing “almost anything one wants to do and plying almost any knowledge.” “This,” Drucker insisted, defying the biblical warning, “is something new under the sun.”

Novelty Shops

For the historian of such an idea—the supposedly ageless idea of newness itself, of creativity, of human initiative—the warning in Ecclesiastes against hubris makes a great deal of sense. What is very old in the literature of business, self-help, and corporate public relations is constantly made new again. Theirs is a history of expired prophecies and long-defunct game-changers: from “quality circles” and mind cures to synergy and emotional intelligence, the fantasy of the transformational new idea—the better intellectual mousetrap—has long seduced writers chasing riches and prestige by telling others how to chase riches and prestige. For example, the number of articles, books, and lectures asserting that no, “innovation” is not the same as “invention,” might suggest that the issue has been definitively settled. But business literature is also a history of endless repetition, of already thin gruel reheated and sold—and sold, and sold, in a vast publishing market—as fresh nourishment. Innovation, in fact, is one such example. It’s one of the oldest new ideas in the corporate lexicon, a novelty that never ages. Forty years after Schumpeter praised the “creative destruction” of the innovative entrepreneur, the management consultant and best-selling author Tom Peters paid tribute to these hero-functionaries in his book In Search of Excellence—the most widely held monograph among libraries in the United States from 1989 to at least 1997, according to the library database WorldCat. “Small, competitive bands of pragmatic bureaucracy-beaters,” he called the apostles of excellence, “the source of much innovation.”

Because it is an ideal of managerial decision-making, innovation is critical to a vernacular of neoliberalism that renders invisible most forms of labor performed by most people on Earth—hot, fast, exhausting, repetitive, alienating, caretaking, unwaged. Its emergence in the 1950s and 1960s was conditioned by mass culture and the legacy of the New Deal. Influential theories of entrepreneurship and innovation in these decades were also invested in questions about the fate of the non-white world, which was poised as never before to disrupt the world system.

Ouroboros ‘R’ Us

Drucker said that what distinguished an “‘underdeveloped country’—and keeps it underdeveloped—is not so much a shortage of capital as it is shortage of innovation.” Walt Rostow, the best-selling political theorist whose 1952 book, The Process of Economic Growth, was an argument for the steps an underdeveloped society needs to “take off” into development, listed a willingness “to accept innovations” as a major criteria. This helps explain how “innovativeness” can become a measure, not just of an industry’s profitability, but of social worth and national character. When The Economist last October defended the Honduran migrants who were confronting Trump at the southern U.S. border, they did not invoke civil rights, the dignity of the individual, or pan-Americanism. They spoke, instead, of the danger to “American dynamism and innovation.” Central American migrants include valuable fruit-pickers and home health aides but they can also be “entrepreneurs and coders,” useful resources for American industry. If innovation is, as Jill Lepore has argued, the nineteenth-century ideal of progress “scrubbed clean” of its horrors and “relieved of its critics,” this is once again proof that Ecclesiastes was probably right: there is nothing new under the sun.

But in the years since Rostow, Drucker, and even Tom Peters theorized the mystic inner workings of innovation, the term has taken on a more abstract, even metaphysical cast. The Harvard Business School luminary Rosabeth Moss Kanter asserts that “to create a culture in which innovation flourishes takes courage,” and advises the courageous to put “innovation at the heart of strategy, and tout it in every message.” It can also take the form of incantatory rituals (to become more innovative, management consultant Abhijit Bhaduri suggests “weekly conversations with millennials to understand how they dream”) and Orientalist fantasies (one former Microsoft executive listed his job title as “Innovation Sherpa” on his LinkedIn profile, and the title of “innovation guru” abounds in the world of business consulting). Often it takes the puzzling form of tautology. To be more innovative, says Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, the most revered prophet of the gospel of “disruptive innovation,” you have to “‘think differently,’ to borrow a slogan from Apple.” But Christensen here refers to a slogan that advertises Apple’s capacity for innovation, which lies precisely in the company’s alleged ability to, uh, think differently. In other words, Christensen is arguing that to innovate, you have to be innovative. Tautological certainties like this abound in tech-industry and innovation discourse, whose proselytizers wander in closed conceptual circles in which capitalism, or a world and a history outside of it, is never imagined, much less questioned. Where these modern prophets of the innovation gospel originally hailed it as the means by which capitalism reinvented itself, and disrupted ossified markets and backward social practices, the innovator’s prerogative has gradually morphed into the self-evident aim of capitalist development.

The college-educated youth of the late 1950s were interested in job security, not trailblazing, William Whyte argued.

And this means, much like other varieties of secularized worship, the innovation cult accrues greater complements of unquestioned social power. The brand of innovation is everywhere and nowhere. Primary schools, liberal arts colleges, and business schools all claim to nurture it; entire airports could be filled with the business-advice tomes that have claimed to teach it; municipal, state, and federal governments compete to subsidize it; and there are few products that are not advertised to the consumer as delivering the taste, sound, or experience of it.

Back here in the actually existing social world, though, the widespread circulation of the innovation ideal allows us to employ it as a sort of marker to track the major distinguishing features of contemporary capitalist ideology: its celebration of knowledge, rather than labor, as the driving force of the world economy; its ostensible disdain for hierarchy and bureaucracy; its unskeptical celebration of technology; and its reframing of the loss of job “security” as the laudable increase of “flexibility.” The innovator who emerges from this complex history is a contradictory figure defined by an oscillation between what seem like contradictory poles: imagination and production, rebellion and convention, progress and reaction, the common good and private wealth. These paradoxes, too, are part of the idea’s power, since the underlying vagueness of innovation-for-innovation’s sake permits it to mean all things to all people. It cultivates the open-ended creativity typically identified with the artist, and turns it to profit-making ends, and cultivates it in large firms; it is the twenty-first century’s theory of progress, but it is a heroism of office work. It is a theory of novelty that is perpetually repeating itself. And in its political origins, it is a theory of the new for those outraged by the New Deal.

Its current power shows, however, that the leaders of NAM were on to something. To change the way people think about capitalism, you have to start with how they talk about it.