Nicole Aschoff, the managing editor at Jacobin magazine, is author of The New Prophets of Capital, a book that examines the modern mythmaking central to twenty-first century capitalism. It’s a short and agitating book that aims to critically examine some of the rhetoric espoused by “new prophets” like Oprah Winfrey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.
Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that capitalism has always needed, and will always need stories for people to grasp on to, to “get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going.” Why is this? Does socialism have its own prophets?
Nicole Aschoff: Stories, as a vehicle for norms, ideas, and morals, are important to all societies, and capitalist societies are no exception. In capitalist societies there is a disjuncture between the things we value highly—family, community, fulfillment, education, culture—and the architecture of our economy, which prioritizes profit. Stories about “creative capitalism” and positive thinking told by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey matter because they smooth over this disjuncture. They help to convince people that capitalism is the best, or only possible, way to organize society.
Just as there have always been people whose stories bolster capitalism—from Ben Franklin to John Mackey—there have also always been voices that challenge capitalism and the existing hierarchy of power. In the United States we can think about the stories told by people like Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. However, if we look at the history of the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements, the importance of collective actions and voices, rather than a few powerful prophets or hierarchical leadership structures, is striking. Successful social movements are made up of empowered, critical, ordinary people, and I think this is something to strive for.
Cohen: You explore the popularity of Whole Foods and discuss the rise of “lifestyle politics” whereby people conflate consumer choices with politics and citizenship. You acknowledge that for so many individuals, given that social change often feels incredibly elusive, there’s an aspect of empowerment that comes with modifying one’s consumer choices—like buying organic produce or going vegan. What, in your view, is wrong with this idea and what might be a better way to think about consumer action and social change?
Aschoff: It depends on what you want to get out of lifestyle politics. If your goal is to eat healthier, or simplify your life by reducing your possessions, then buying better things—if you have the money—can be quite empowering. But if your goal is to impact bigger processes, like environmental degradation or global poverty, lifestyle politics is not the answer. Companies that produce nice things like organic food or sustainable furniture are like all other companies, and must constantly expand and produce more to generate profits.
This does not mean that making better choices is useless or that we shouldn’t challenge the way things are being produced. It is simply a call for different kinds of projects. The environmental crisis is ultimately a social and political crisis that can only be solved by collective action.
Cohen: One chapter looks at the rise of “philanthrocapitalists” like the Gateses, Waltons, Broads, and Buffetts. In an era of scarce resources and shrinking government budgets, why should we be concerned about the growing influence of philanthropists?
Aschoff: Periods of increasing activity by philanthropic foundations, or these days “philanthrocapitalists,” are historically a symptom of social crisis associated with rising inequality. On the surface this might seem positive. But we can’t expect big foundations to solve inequality, or poverty, or any number of other social ills.
Foundations distract from how wealth creation works, by making it appear that philanthropists are doing people a favor out of the goodness of their hearts. This hides the fact that the wealth they have amassed was not simply the result of their own cunning or ability—it was made possible by all the people who worked for them, not to mention the public infrastructure made possible by taxpayers. By presenting themselves as do-gooders or charitable institutions, foundations erase the last four decades of aggressive lobbying for financial deregulation and tax-cuts and the concerted attacks on working people and unions by businesses and elites.
Unlike taxes, when foundations make philanthropic donations, they are choosing which projects they want to fund. These projects often have some progressive effects—poor children get vaccines when they wouldn’t otherwise. But they also often contain conservative goals—for example, the Gateses favor commoditizing health care rather than supporting universal health care, and many foundations support privatizing public education and reducing the voice of parents and teachers in how schools are run.
Whether we like foundation projects or not makes little difference because people like Bill and Melinda Gates are incredibly powerful and essentially unaccountable. We have no say over how foundation money is used, even when it impacts people’s lives profoundly.
Cohen: You note that challenging these stories about capitalism “require a fundamental rethinking of our current way of life, a prospect that evokes fears of violence and disorder, and a deeper apprehension that in the process of transforming our society, we might lose ourselves and the essence of who we are.” How do we overcome these fears?
Aschoff: Capitalism is a stressful system. People use up most of their energy just keeping their head above water, so telling them to imagine a different kind of society might seem silly or off-putting. But when we look back at U.S. history—at slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, Jim Crow, homophobia—these things didn’t get better by themselves. People fought and died to make them better, and they continue that struggle today. Capitalism is a historical development; there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. As renowned author Ursula Le Guin said recently: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Reminding ourselves how change has happened in the past is important if we want to think seriously about creating a different kind of society.
Cohen: One chapter of your book explores Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism. Your argument, which I’ve also seen made by writers like Sarah Jaffe, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sarah Leonard, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, suggests that Sandberg’s approach of encouraging women to “lean in” may help a small slice of elite women access power, but ultimately won’t help women at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why does it have to be an either/or discussion?
Aschoff: Nearly everyone is dependent upon wages to pay for all the things they need to survive, but those wages come directly out of the profits of the businesses they work for. The job of a head of a company—whether male or female—is to maximize profits, and one way they can do this is by paying as little as possible in wages and taxes. This means the goals of women leaders are often at odds with the needs of working-class women. Having women at the top may help in the fight against sexism and smooth the way for other women to step into leadership positions, but the idea that women leaders will implement better conditions for women more broadly has little historical precedent.
Sandberg’s manifesto aligns perfectly with the needs of capital by encouraging women to map their dreams onto the growth trajectories of corporate America. Sure, seeing women in leadership positions can be aspirational, but turning this into the mechanism for achieving feminism hides the structural barriers preventing most women from achieving security and success, while simultaneously burnishing the meritocratic façade of big business. Real feminism—the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, should get decent pay and a voice in their workplace, dignity, respect, quality healthcare and childcare, the right to higher education and housing, and a robust support network for old age, illness, or disability—is incompatible with scaling the corporate jungle gym.
Cohen: When we hear about an anti-union company announcing they will raise their minimum wage, or give more flexible commuting options, or expand their paid maternity leave, how should we be thinking about these employers and business models? In an era where everything can seem bad and getting worse, how should we be thinking about these bouts of “conscious capitalism” in the marketplace?
Aschoff: Capitalism’s overwhelming power often inspires a feeling of helplessness or despair, so it is understandable to feel hopeful when businesses make small decisions that improve people’s lives, like raising wages or improving working conditions. At the end of the day, the goal of any political movement should always be about making people’s lives better. But there is a difference between gains granted by “conscious” companies and gains that are won through struggle.
Take for example the Fight for 15. Winning $15 an hour won’t change the fact these companies exist to make a profit—they can absorb higher wage costs and continue going about their business essentially unchanged—but that certainly doesn’t mean that $15 isn’t worth fighting for. It would represent a huge change for people living in poverty. Victories like the recent one in New York are exciting, and show that not only can workers win when they fight together, but also the potential of their struggles to build solidarity and confidence that can be channeled into a much broader, democratic movement for change.
Rachel Cohen is a journalist at The American Prospect with a focus on social policy, education, and labor. She last wrote for Dissent about hospital workers in Baltimore.
Nicole Aschoff is an editor at Jacobin magazine, a lecturer in Sociology at Boston University, and the author of The New Prophets of Capital (Verso, 2015).