THE BLOG
11/04/2011 11:45 am ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

Steve Jobs: The Capitalist-as-Romantic

The New York Times reports today on the growing backlash against Apple founder Steve Jobs and his post-mortem apotheosis.

It was bound to happen. We like to create and then eviscerate our idols.

I was never a passionate devotee of Jobs or Apple, nor am I feeling especially negative or backlash-y toward his legacy. But I do see in Jobs' self-fashioning and his cultural reception an example of a fascinating shift -- a shift from the Poet to the Entrepreneur as the heir to the western Romantic tradition.

Essentially, Jobs strikes me as a Capitalist-Romantic, or the (hugely influential) prototype of the Entrepreneur-as-Romantic.

To give the briefest summary, but one that gets to the core qualities of the Romantic soul: The Romantic cultural and literary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries privileged intuition and feeling over received rules and wisdom; it exalted in imagination over routine; it was preoccupied with the idea of individual genius, the turning inward to the self, rather than outward to society, for validation. Romantics of the 1900s shunned social convention in favor of loyalty to the inner muse. They privileged individuality over conformity; they believed passionately in the transcendent, the sublime and the visionary in ways that subverted the Enlightenment's preoccupation with reason and rules.

As the late-18th century moved inexorably toward an industrial economy, Romantics rebelled against the grinding, dehumanizing routines of industry and the increasingly cumbersome social mannerisms and hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. They favored a more "natural" world.

For Romantics, the Artist was the most supremely creative and singular of thinkers, and the obvious antithesis to the Industrialist. The poets who most influentially defined the Romantic worldview--Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and many others--embodied the spirit of creative production untethered to rules, dogma, and systems.

Substitute "Steve Jobs" for "Romantic Poet" in this summary and you'd have a pretty accurate account of how he's been eulogized and of how Jobs presented himself to the world.

Visionary? Check. Favoring individual genius over social convention? Absolutely. In love with the creative and, most of all, with the imagination, as well as the aesthetics of beauty, and the sublime? Very much so. Loyal to his own inner voice, and muse? Fiercely.

One of the most popular eulogies to make the rounds on Facebook after Jobs' death was his poignant commencement speech to Stanford University. "Your time is limited," he said, "so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma -- which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

It's a beautiful speech. Jobs articulated brilliantly a Romantic manifesto, but from the vantage point of the entrepreneur. This deep conviction in the inner self, the inner genius and inner resources--all of which Jobs exemplified to dazzling effect and with an enormous cultural footprint--is nothing if not a vision of the Entrepreneur-Romantic.

Of course, Jobs was also grafting a Romantic soul on to the brain of computer design and science, an enterprise that's rules-based, meticulously detailed, binary, and governed by the spirit of the engineer and not the poet. It's a mind that succeeds by hard work and discipline, precision, and hours of tedium and perseverance (over that Romantic darling of "spontaneity"), all of which characterize Jobs' work.

Jobs' self-fashioning and message resonate, it seems to me, precisely because he's getting at a cultural shift that isn't just about himself.

The Capitalist-as-Romantic suits the times, and the conceits of the now not so "new" economy of the 21st century.

In some ways, entrepreneurial individuality and heterodoxy is the new orthodoxy. We hear a lot today about the economic virtues of innovation, genius, trailblazing, creativity, and nimble, imaginative flexibility. As the industrial-corporate structures against which the Romantic artist rebelled crumble around us -- we have slim odds of finding any lifetime job security or safety today, even if we want one, and we've got few chances of landing that soul-killing, steady "conformist" corporate job -- we're all left, by grim necessity if not choice, as freelancing individualists who must be visionary and imaginative and piece it together. What Jobs followed out of inspiration, others will need to follow out of desperation.

Indeed, there's a danger that the creative capitalist-genius is getting "romanticized," literally, while the underlying, profound inequalities between rich and poor and the economic instabilities, hidden global exploitation, and vulnerabilities of this new economy get overshadowed by our reverent curiosity for those who succeed wildly by their eccentric imaginations.

Occupy Wall Street is putting a spotlight on those inequalities, and it's a good thing, because if Jobs is any indication, we can no longer turn to the Romantic culture as an anodyne to the entrepreneurial one.

For example, others in business have explicitly appropriated the Romantic tradition. A few years ago, business scholar Marcus Buckingham had a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review. He argues that the managerial styles of the 21st century are becoming more Romantic and less corporate: An effective manager, he argues, treats each employee like the unique, beautiful, individual Grecian urn that they are, and eschews rigid rules, routines and formulaic expectations in favor or more spontaneous, customized managerial styles.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting the flip side, that the world of literary production is arguably becoming a world of the Artist as the anti-Romantic, who succeeds precisely to the extent that they can achieve a stylistically homogeneous, idiomatic voice.

With the growth in MFA programs, university-supported writers, and the publishing "industry," it's less likely that you'll find a feverishly brilliant, imaginative, fiercely independent, eccentric-genius voice among the ranks of the Poets: At least, this is one of the provocations in Anis Shivani's new, dazzling collection of critical essays on fiction, Against the Workshop. He details the ominous effects on genius and literary-political ambition that this honeycomb of programs and workshops has wrought.

Books are often sold by winning formulas, and their abilities to conform to those formulas. While works of genius do sneak through, the trend is toward imitation of successful books.

So I guess if you want to find the legacy of the Romantic tradition today, look to high-tech entrepreneurs and to an enlightened, mid-level Wal-Mart manager. Just don't go to the poets.