Vive Les Charlatans!

     War is the most brutal human activity, and the most difficult in which to hide failure. The failure of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq is just the first of what will be a repeated string of failures among the shortsighted people he represents – the hedge fund billionaires and money-jugglers who insist that the only good regulation is dead regulation, and the only role for government is to lie down and die.
     The history of the class that rules us is revealed in the history of the word they proudly claim as their own – entrepreneur. The word has no pejorative connotation today, unlike the word with which it was once intimately associated – charlatan.
     The two words meant virtually the same thing 400 years ago, when the charlatans, or entrepreneurs, gathered at fairs, markets and bridges – particularly the Pont-Neuf in Paris – to hawk their wares. The charlatans and entrepreneurs sold drugs, pulled teeth, and sold songs on broadsheets, copied by hand more likely than printed, as it was cheaper. One charlatan gained such fame as a tooth-puller that he was invited to court to pull some royal teeth.
     The “Discours sur l’origine des charlatans, of 1619, speaks approvingly of the charlatans, who provided needed products and services, even if the products did not always live up to the claims the entrepreneurs made for them. What can you expect, though, from an entrepreneur?
     One term implied the other. Self-promotion was an essential ingredient of both.
     Today’s entrepreneurs promote themselves as visionaries, little economic geniuses who take a pile of money and buy something that produces a bigger pile of money, with which they buy something else. And so it goes. Entrepreneurs, supposedly, are risk-takers who deserve their bigger and bigger piles of money because of the chances they take.
     But that’s not what the word actually meant – or means. The original entrepreneurs also spent time and money playing it safe. Businessmen who helped the king build a bridge, or pave a road – on salary, or for a fixed price – also were called entrepreneurs.
     The point of entrepreneurship was not just to make a pile of cash – it could be to build something for the public good, at a modest, but safe rate of return.
     Eventually, the meanings of the words diverged. In 1700 a musician named Johann Kuhnau wrote a book called “Der Musicalische Quack-Salber” – The Musical Charlatan – mocking musicians who claimed to know more than they really did. Kuhnau is remembered these days, when he’s remembered at all, not for his book, but for the guy who got his job when he died – Johann Sebastian Bach.
     Today, of course, charlatans are bad, and entrepreneurs are good. But to get to this point, entrepreneurship had to shed some of its meaning along the way.
     When Rupert Murdoch buys a book publishing company that employs 5,000 people and sells off the company in parts – the printing plant, the plate-making shop, the bindery, the delivery trucks, the ink plant – and fires all the editors and rehires one in ten of them as contract workers, and ends up with more money than he started with, he’s called an entrepreneur, and he’s called successful, though he has thrown people out of work and left the world one book publisher poorer.
     When he takes his bigger pile of money and does it again, he’s an even bigger entrepreneur, and even more successful.
It’s not Murdoch’s fault that our relentlessly moronic press and swinish political class judge success these days by how big the pile of money gets. But we do judge success that way.
     Suppose nine years from now, when Hillary Clinton steps down from the White House, she turns the keys over to Jeb Bush. A smart entrepreneur would sell his book company and put all his money into Halliburton stock, gunmakers and wiretap equipment makers, and when the next war comes, he’ll make a lot more money just sitting at home than he would hawking books, that’s for damn sure. He’d be a successful entrepreneur.
     Charlatans, on the other hand, are people like me, who insist that fewer and fewer people collecting bigger and bigger piles of cash does not mean that those people are successful, or that the society in which they live is successful, or that a government is successful for rewarding people who do such things.
     It all brings to mind an observation made by Roger Sessions, a twentieth-century American composer who never got rich or very famous, and so, I suppose, was not a success. Sessions was studying music in Italy in the 1920s when Benito Mussolini came to power, so he got out of there and went to study in Germany. Then Hitler came to power and he got out of there and came home and warned the United States about what was coming.
     Sessions wrote, in the late 1930s, that a fascist society is not defined by its political ideology. It is not defined by its government’s relations with industry, or by anything the government says. The hallmark of a fascist society, Sessions said, is its phoniness.

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