The Countercapitalist

Illustration by André Carrilho

From the moment Steve Jobs announced, in August, that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple, two things were clear: that death would be upon him all too soon, and that the ensuing obituarial outpouring would be both profuse and adulatory in the extreme. And so it was this week, when the news arrived that Jobs had succumbed after a seven-year battle with cancer. Writing in Time, Walter Isaacson, the author of a forthcoming biography of Jobs that is sure to be definitive, declared, “History will place him in the pantheon right next to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.”

There is no decent argument against the view that Jobs is among the greatest business titans of this or any age. Yet among the qualities that made him so damn interesting are those that set him apart from any extant proto-capitalist pantheon; that situated him, in fact, as the product of a particular cultural milieu known more for turning on, tuning in, and dropping out—all of which Jobs did unrepentantly and even unabashedly—than being red in tooth and claw. Here was a nascent Fortune 500 executive whose youthful spare time was spent hacking the phone system to rip off Ma Bell. Whose management inspiration came not from Dale Carnegie but Stewart Brand. Whose enthusiasms included Indian ashrams, fruitarianism, and LSD.

The effect those influences had on Jobs’s record of concrete achievements will be debated forevermore. And no doubt those achievements are remarkable, arguably unrivaled in the modern history of innovation: the creation of five world-altering products (the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad) and the radical transformation of five gargantuan industries (computing, music, telephony, publishing, and animated film). But equally seminal, it seems to me, is Jobs’s role in inventing something more ephemeral but more culturally significant: the image of the businessman as freewheeling rebel, as swashbuckling artist. The image, in other words, at the heart of the idea of high-tech entrepreneurialism, which for decades fueled a sense of optimism about the future of the American economy—but, alas, no longer.

To understand all this, it helps to go back nearly 30 years to Jobs’s first appearance on the cover of Time. The story inside was about the sudden boom in start-ups going public in Silicon Valley in the semiconductor and PC industries. Apple had staged its IPO more than a year earlier; it was old news. But the firm’s co-founder was a handsome 26-year-old college dropout now worth $149 million. Jobs was only mentioned once in the article, and yet there was his image on the glossy front—beneath the headline “Striking It Rich: America’s Risk Takers.”

A star was born. But Jobs would suffer a humiliating blow at the hands of Time later that year. Having cooperated with a reporter on the expectation that he was going to be named Person of the Year for 1982, Jobs was livid when he was passed over (in favor of “the personal computer”) and subjected to an unflattering piece about him instead. “I don’t mind if people don’t like me,” Jobs complained a few months later. “Well, I might a little … but I really mind it when somebody uses their position at Time magazine to tell 10 million people they don’t like me.”

Jobs’s anger here was ­fueled by something deeper than personal pique. More than most corporate chiefs, and certainly any high-tech CEO before then or to this day, he understood the importance not merely of image but narrative: of framing and controlling the stories told about (and by) himself and Apple. Go take a look on YouTube at the video of his famous 1983 keynote introducing the Macintosh. His command of storytelling—the portrait of IBM as Goliathlike oppressor and Apple as freedom-fighting David, the countercultural invocation of George Orwell—is breathtaking.

Jobs’s mojo made him a business icon before he was 30, yet it wasn’t enough to make his company a success. John Sculley, the former Pepsi president whom Jobs recruited in 1983 to help him run the place, once told me, “Everything at Apple [was always] as much about perception as about reality.” And the reality at Apple was grim. Though the Mac changed the face of technology itself, it was initially a commercial failure. After a showdown with Sculley, Jobs was expelled from Apple and spent more than a decade in the wilderness, battling depression and struggling to keep afloat two floundering new businesses.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was nearly in ruins; he told friends it was 90 days away from bankruptcy. But even as he struggled to save the firm while the web boom was detonating all around him, Jobs became the reigning role model and avatar for a new generation of entrepreneurial tyros. Marc Andreessen, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg: All idolized and to some degree modeled their styles on that of the master. And as each of them rose to great heights of his own over the next decade, Jobs and Apple took off on a breakaway open-field run without precedent in business history.

By the time Jobs stepped down as CEO, the transformations of the man and his company were total. In early August, Apple became for a time the most highly valued firm on the planet. And Jobs, once Silicon Valley’s enfant terrible, had become its éminence grise, with a personal net worth of $7 billion.

And yet, for all that, the period in which Jobs ascended to this rarefied plane has not been one in which his and Silicon Valley’s brand of commercial juju has occupied center stage, as it did during the nineties. In fact, there are signs that it is on the wane. As The Economist has pointed out, “Americans’ entrepreneurial self-esteem is now embodied by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These are indeed fabulously innovative companies with world-beating business models. Yet one wonders if they are increasingly the exception, not the rule … According to JPMorgan, in the late 1990s, employment at start-up companies regularly grew 1.2m per quarter. That has fallen to 700,000 since the current recovery began.”

Measuring the vibrancy of high-tech entrepreneurialism is a tricky, imprecise business. But what’s indisputable—dead obvious, in fact—is that, since the start of the new century, the animal-spirits-driven action in Silicon Valley has been vastly overwhelmed and overshadowed by the doings on Wall Street; and that the rampant and unbridled financialization of our economy by the investor-trader-­speculator class has wreaked all manner of havoc.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the other big story of last week: the Occupy Wall Street protests that simultaneously took on significant scale here in the city and spread far afield. To the eyes of some (largely conservative) observers, there was something ironic, or hypocritical, about protesters in Zuccotti Park brandishing laptops and cell phones (many of them made by Apple) while howling about the depredations of capitalism.

As my colleague Jonathan Chait has observed, however, whether there’s actually a contradiction here all depends on what the Occupy Wall Street movement ultimately turns into. It’s one thing to denounce capitalism in all its forms while sucking down a Starbucks latte and tweeting madly from your iPad, but it’s quite another to object to a dangerously unregulated financial system and a radically unequal distribution of wealth while embracing free enterprise both in principle and in practice—and hugging your iPhone close.

In fact, I’d venture to say that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have it any other way.

See Also
Jonathan Chait on Steve Jobs, Occupy Wall Street, and the Capitalist Ideal
One Last Thing: The Final Frontier of Steve Jobs


The Countercapitalist