Nan Enstad is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches courses on gender history, cultural history, and the history of capitalism. She is the author of Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Popular Culture and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (1999) and the forthcoming book, "The Jim Crow Cigarette in China: A Cultural History of Corporate Empire." Her work examines capitalism through a cultural history approach that locates value in the daily innovations of ordinary people.
This talk uncovers historians’ role in generating the cult of the entrepreneur by exposing the way that economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of destructive innovation (currently enjoying a two-decade-long comeback) became infused in the historical narrative of entrepreneurial innovation developed and promoted by Alfred Chandler, the father of business history, in his masterpiece, The Visible Hand. (Spoiler: Chandler’s application was not based in primary historical research but was ideologically imposed.) This idea of innovation placed enormous power in the prescience of a rogue entrepreneur who refuses to follow the rules of industry, is unafraid to offend, and therefore brilliantly if ruthlessly reorganizes industry according to his own vision. While this talk centers on historians’ role in creating and popularizing this figure, it also traces the cult of the entrepreneur’s migration out of historical and economic thought and into popular and political culture, culminating in our own historical moment.