Without their permission

February 22, 2019 (1427 words) :: Startup founders love to flout the rules, assuming it's best to ask for forgiveness, not permission. But they're not breaking the rules for the right cause.
Tags: class-struggle, startups

This post is day 53 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

When I was in my last semester of college, Alexis Ohanian came to my school for a fireside chat organised by HackMcGill (the hackathon-centred community on campus). This was back in 2014, way before he broke into the mainstream celebrity world as a result of dating (and later marrying) Serena Williams - at the time, he was a micro-celebrity at best, best known as one of the founders of Reddit, which had been sold to Condé Nast several years prior. He wasn’t really a big deal outside the tech startup world, but many of us in the HackMcGill community revered him, both for his role in creating Reddit and because he had just published a book titled Without Their Permission. (So cool! we thought. What a disruptor, what a rebel!)

We took him out for drinks later and one of us (not me, I swear) tweeted out a humblebrag about doing shots with Alexis Ohanian. (The tweet has since been deleted out of shame.)

Y Combinator, the renowned startup accelerator program that gave rise to Reddit (along with Dropbox, Airbnb, and others), has the following question in their application form:

Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage?

Paul Graham, one of the founders of YC (and its public face, for many years) has written that this question is one of the most important aspects of the application:

Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They’re not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That’s why I’d use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter.

The thing about YC (and other kingmaking institutions that serve the capitalist class) that not everyone realises is that they don’t really care about ideas, per se. The idea usually plays second fiddle to what’s going on with the founders: their relationship with each other, and their individual characteristics. When a startup accelerator like YC invests in a startup, they’re really investing in the founders, because ideas can (and often do) change. They’re asking: are these founders going to stick it out when it gets tough? Are they capable of coming up with something truly innovative? And, most importantly: are they willing to flout the rules as necessary to achieve their vision?

Breaking the rules - hacking the system - is framed as a generator of progress, which is implicitly taken to be morally good. This is basically the philosophy that underpins all of Silicon Valley: disrupt taxicabs, hotels, finance, whatever. Find a system with rules that you don’t think are legitimate, because the rules were made to protect people who are not yourself, and break them. That’s progress, right? (Paul Graham has said, and I’m not making this up: “Any industry that still has unions has potential energy that could be released by startups.” As Holly Wood has written, the man is just asking to be eaten.)

The thing is - sometimes the rules are indeed sclerotic and in need of disruption. But sometimes that “disruption” comes at a cost, because it leads to the creation of a monster even worse than the original. Startups tend to break the rules in one particular direction only: so they can carve out a space for themselves to become billion-dollar companies (or at least, get acquired by one). If this disruption involves challenging power in a way that’s beneficial, that’s really only a cover for their true goal, because their goal is not to challenge power full stop, but to challenge the fact that power doesn’t currently belong to them. It’s not burning down the throne room, it’s trying to claim the throne for yourself.

When founders are selected based on their propensity for rule-breaking, we should be asking: to what end? Are these founders breaking the rules for the good of humanity, or are they breaking the rules so they can one day buy a yacht and hang out with Travis Kalanick?

The annals of Silicon Valley are filled with stories of unicorns that “broke the rules”, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify their rule-breaking as actually good for anyone beyond those who own stock in the company. Companies with billion-dollar valuations turned out to be built on fraud and lies, like Hampton Creek, Zenefits, and most famously, Theranos (and those are just the ones we know of). Or they break the rules to the detriment of workers’ rights, by taking advantage of gray zones in labour laws, or even outright tip theft (e.g., the entire gig economy). To say nothing of the myriad smaller startups whose very existence lies in flouting existing rules, but who manage to stay under the radar enough that we never hear about them (one notable counterexample being the startup behind Fyre Festival).

So let’s be clear: the kind of rule-breaking that startup kingmakers like YC fetishise is not something the rest of us should celebrate. It’s rule-breaking without a moral compass. It’s breaking rules to make rich people richer, agnostic to the actual content of the rules themselves.

Remember, this is all about making more money. Breaking rules isn’t done in the name of justice, it’s done in the name of investment. How many VCs do you see putting their money into abolishing borders, or dismantling prisons? Are they going to be funding the rule-breakers who occupy unused mansions, or those who shoplift food because they can’t afford to pay for it?

Of course not - those are the wrong kind of rule-breakers. The whole point of the tech industry (and the reason so much money is being funnelled into it) is to break rules in the service of capital, in order to invent new ways of making returns. It’s the same deal with the financial industry. All the smartphone apps and CDOs are ultimately means to an end, from capital’s point of view.

This is not to blame individuals founders or even investors for this. I mean, they’re not entirely blameless, but also, castigating them isn’t really going to help. The problem is structural, and it can only be addressed with structural solutions. Propensity for “hacking the system” and “asking for forgiveness, not permission” are, actually, good predictors of whether someone will be a successful founder. It doesn’t mean they’ll be a good founder, in the moral sense, but that’s not really what the system is optimising for, is it?

At the moment, the “without their permission” credo is most commonly associated with Silicon Valley/startups, where it’s used for the wrong ends - for concentrating power, rather than dispersing it. Which is a shame, because it could be applied to more progressive ends, too. Buried within the sentiment is a grain of truth that any political activist should remember: just because the system has certain rules, it doesn’t mean that the rules are good, and neither does it mean that rules will last. Any rule made by people can be challenged, and perhaps overcome.

In a Jacobin article about last year’s teachers’ strike, Joe Burns writes:

Teacher strikes are unlawful in West Virginia. State law does not provide for collective bargaining, and public employees have no legally recognized right to engage in work stoppages. Yet legality has a way of drifting into the background when workers organize en masse.

During the high point of the 1960s and ’70s public sector strike wave — when millions of government workers were involved in work stoppages — unionists had a slogan: “There is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.” Lawmakers could impose draconian penalties, courts could issue injunctions, and the corporate media could fulminate endlessly. But if the strike was strong, if the cause was just, and if community support was robust, harsh penalties were rarely imposed.

“Without their permission” shouldn’t just be a slogan for overprivileged tech startup bros who are given all the forgiveness in the world; it could also be useful for organising. Of course, the latter is much more dangerous than the former - people in power are, as you would expect, much less forgiving to those who try to challenge their power. That cause, though, is infinitely more just.

Thanks to Gifford Hartman for inspiring today’s blog post by bringing up that there is no illegal strike, only a failed one.

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