28 June 2015

The New Prophets of Capital

Steve Jobs painted portrait _DDC7953

People who work for a living face a stark outlook. Due to the acceleration of employment practices such as subcontracting and temporary employment, as well as persistently high unemployment, it has become incredibly difficult for workers to organize and improve their conditions. Simply finding decent work can be incredibly difficult as restructuring of the global economy has created dynamics limiting growth in manufacturing in favor of service jobs. When job growth does occur, it often produces the worst kinds of jobs.

Despite it all, entrepreneurial figures tout disruption—often simply meaning techniques for further eroding the stability and remuneration of employment—and find a rapt audience. Self-help promoters encourage the distraught to take full responsibility for their problems. Advocates of “ethical” consumption tout the environmental and social benefits of buying the right products. How is it that so many buy into narratives that gloss over or even celebrate the worsening of conditions for the great majority? To put it bluntly, why aren’t there riots?

The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff offers one way to approach this question by examining the popularity and influence of four “prophets” of the neoliberal capitalist system. Drawing on Weber, Aschoff describes all these prophets as offering a way to live a better life. Their persuasiveness is based in their own ability to accumulate fortunes, but they don’t merely provide a set of rules to live by, they tell a story, a way of making sense of a confusing and hazardous world. Setting apart their stories from those told in days of yore is their ability to find solutions to the problems of the day, such as economic precariousness, intense competition, and brutal inequality, within the capitalist, free market system itself. Could capitalism be the source of and the solution to all of life’s problems?

The motif of storytelling offers the reader a way to make sense of the ideological battle to shape the future. Will the future be based on derivative perspectives that “do not challenge capitalism or its destructive effects[,]” but actually “bolster capitalism”? (p. 12-13) Or can progressive forces challenge the oppressive regime of capitalism? While critically examining this clash of ideologies is vital to confronting “economic and political fatalism[,]” the challenge that Aschoff faces is to do so in a materialist way. (p. 13) In other words, one must present ideas as the creations of real, living humans, as ways in which people make sense of and attempt to change their world to bring it in line with their sense of how things ought to be. Ideas cannot exist independent of human actions or real socially-situated perspectives.

Each of the four individuals examined in this book allows Aschoff to illuminate a different corner of contemporary discourse around social problems and the agency seemingly—in Aschoff’s take, illusorily—offered through capitalism to combat them. In moving from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook but more importantly figurehead of a corporate feminist movement based on her book, Lean In, to Whole Foods CEO and “conscious capitalism” proponent John Mackey, to omnipresent media mogul Oprah, and concluding with Bill Gates, software billionaire and director of a massive charitable foundation, the book is able to take in a broader sweep than might have been expected.


All prophets are not made equal. Oprah’s popularity is dependent on an audience that is receptive to her particular message, and the chapter devoted to her takes a productive detour through the tension-ridden professional lives of freelance workers. Sandberg and Mackey offer opportunities to consider feminism and environmentally “sustainable” business, respectively, and the fortunes—and distortions—of these movements in the corporate world. Gates, on the other hand, is something more than a prophet, controlling a vast fortune and staggering donations from some of the world’s richest people. Not only does Gates lead through offering technocratic solutions to social ills, but also through the raw power afforded by the astronomical sums of money at his command.

This book’s audience will hardly be surprised by the conclusions Aschoff draws. The market-oriented solutions that these celebrity capitalists offer cannot overcome the dysfunctions, such as inequality and environmental degradation, that stem fundamentally from a system basically indifferent to all outcomes but the securing of ever greater profits. As she writes of Whole Foods’ ethical consumption ethos, “[b]uying better things is not a substitute for the hard political choices that societies need to make about limiting consumption and resource use, and finding a replacement for the psychological crutch of consumerism.” (p. 75) Aschoff’s assumption that sustainability can never go along with profit is, however, unsupported. One imagines that there could be a lot of money to be made under the right circumstances from green energy and infrastructure, though this would surely require intense intervention by the state.

That doesn’t mean that The New Prophets… is merely preaching to the choir, however. The chapters on Oprah and Gates are particularly interesting, as each takes a close look at the ideologies of self improvement and philanthropy, respectively, in their particular contemporary articulations. The chapter on Oprah explores how those subject to precarious and highly competitive forms of work may come to embrace self improvement as a solution to the problems they experience in their jobs.
The way we are told to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves. We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects. (p. 106)

Here we get the best sense of how the stories peddled by the book’s subjects are received by their audience. Humans aren’t just passive receptors. They use self-help messages as a way to cope with difficult circumstances in their own lives, although this may amount to little more than treating the symptom. “It’s all about adapting ourselves and acquiring the necessary skills and connections to make it in the world. This is the new American Dream. Sure, there are problems in society, but we don’t need to change the world. We just need to change ourselves and the problems disappear.” (p. 99)

Bill Gates administers polio drops to a child in Chad

On occasion, the reader also gets the sense that these prophets are something more than shills for a system that protects their own base interests. Interestingly, the chapter on Gates reveals that he is keenly aware of the problems caused by market irrationalities, and is able to speak to these problems with more insight and sincerity than most US politicians can muster. As Gates sees it, “[i]n a system of capitalism, as people’s wealth rises, the financial incentive to serve them rises. As their wealth falls, the financial incentive to serve them falls, until it becomes zero. Why do people benefit in inverse proportion to their need? Well, market incentives make that happen.” (Bill Gates, Davos speech, 2008, quoted on p. 116 of The New Prophets…)

Needless to say, Gates is no socialist. He believes that market-based solutions are in the final analysis adequate to these problems, provided that someone with the right knowledge and resources is able to overcome irrationalities with the right fixes. But Aschoff points out how market-based solutions inevitably commoditize goods in ways that can undermine their intended benefits—such as centering education around test taking rather than cultivation of human potentialities—and subject them to the technocratic control of specialists.

But there is also an unexamined weakness in Aschoff’s overarching metaphor that prevents us from understanding clearly why so many continue to embrace stories that offer stale—if not obviously unworkable—solutions to very real and widespread problems. To frame these figures as storytellers seems to suggest that there is something seductive about their stories in and of themselves, that a well told story is able to mesmerize the listener and make them forget their true interests. This suggests that the bloody business of capitalist exploitation chugs implacably away beneath a layer of misleading ideology. "Indeed, capital's ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis." (p. 3)

Despite gestures toward a more sophisticated understanding of ideology, Aschoff’s analysis doesn’t escape from a base/superstructure model of society in which the realm of ideas floats mask-like above the real business of capitalism proper. This framework pays scant attention to the connection between the functioning of the capitalist system in its political economic dimensions on the one hand and the ideas through which people of all kinds make sense of their experiences in society on the other.

Ultimately, since society cannot exist except through the actions of human beings, no hard distinction between the two is viable. Ideas and ideologies do not just appear out of the blue and they do not autonomously control people’s actions. They are put together in response to the real, material conditions that humans encounter in the course of living their lives. Aschoff’s mechanistic model preempts a richer understanding of the relation between ideological claims about the nature of capitalist society, the way that seemingly objective economic conditions confront workers and bosses, and the way that social change actually comes about.

In highlighting the importance of storytelling to understanding political economic realities, The New Prophets… follows in the footsteps of influential works focused on the conservative backlash against the cultural and political upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s in the US. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? examines the culture war in the once progressive state of Kansas as a smokescreen, erected by unscrupulous politicians, for capitalists’ intensified exploitation of an increasingly disarmed working class. While Frank provides a rich account of the devastation wrought on Kansas by the emergence of neoliberalism as a new way of organizing economic relations, he ultimately ends up with a rather curious conception of politics in which non-economic issues are merely a ruse by which politicians serving corporate interests fool hapless Joe Sixpacks into abetting the destruction of their own families’ economic security.

Of course, What’s the Matter with Kansas? is more literary journalism than social theory. While Frank makes many interesting observations about the ways that conservatives have confronted social anomie in purely cultural terms, he does little to illuminate the connections between these social issues and the political economy of corporate dominance. To take one example, Frank seeks to explain the relatively recent conservative animus towards abortion as a manifestation of hatred for liberal experts. When experts like doctors widely opposed abortion, populist Kansans embraced it. Later, the elite consensus swung the other way, and conservative backlashers changed their position as well. “[W]hatever else the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision might have been, it was also a monument to the power of the professions.” (p. 198)

Clearly, this is a mechanistic way of approaching a complex issue like abortion, and drains the issue of any of its specific content as a means of women asserting control over their bodies and their role in reproducing the family. By assuming that cultural issues function primarily as an expression of class resentment that is ultimately a distraction from economic issues, Frank cannot provide a richer understanding of the political significance of cultural issues. While What’s the Matter with Kansas? raises an interesting question, namely why the working class would support political candidates whose policies speed their own impoverishment, his treatment remains only suggestive due to the rather simplistic framework he brings to the investigation.

Nixon and Brezhnev

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland applied a similar approach to United States history, recounting the run up to the first election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and the crumbling of the liberal consensus that had previously dominated American politics. Perlstein’s narrative is lively and documented with a wide variety of archival sources, but his explanatory approach ultimately mirrors Frank’s in many respects. In his view, Nixon was able to tap into the resentment of the “silent majority” because of his own modest origins and the resentment he had nursed from youth for the socially-well placed. It was Nixon’s genius in manipulating widespread displeasure with spendthrift entitlement policies that allowed him to bring into being a new political configuration that, as Perlstein writes in the book’s last line, “has not ended yet.” (p. 748)

Nixonland is a meticulously researched and closely narrated history that simultaneously manages to be an engrossing read. Yet, like What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it works best on a descriptive, rather than an explanatory level. Clearly, a decisive section of voters—"[m]artyrs who were not really martyrs”—abandoned the liberal consensus and opted for more divisive and conservative politics. (p. 23) But Nixon’s personality or political acumen, on their own, hardly stand as a real explanation for epochal changes in US politics. If Nixon convinced voters to turn away from liberalism, his skill as a salesman, while hardly immaterial, doesn’t explain what it was that those voters understood their shift in allegiance to mean and Perlstein ultimately cannot critically interrogate the historical significance of this shift. The effect of Nixonland’s analysis is to turn the disintegration of the post-war order into a matter of electoral politics, ignoring the role of economic contradictions, such as the appearance of limits on industrial growth and the subsequent ruination of labor's political influence, in making the status quo untenable.

Aschoff takes a much more self-consciously radical stance than Frank and Perlstein. Her vision is forward-looking, while Frank and Perlstein’s political visions seem more focused on the need to win back ground long lost to conservatives. But in many ways the argument of The New Prophets… shares the difficulty of these books in providing a robust historical and theoretical analysis of their subject matter. This proves to be a particular problem here, however, because Aschoff’s work is animated by a conviction of the need for radical social change.

Although Aschoff takes a socialistic position that sees capitalism as a form of social organization to be overcome altogether, and not merely ameliorated in its excesses, she doesn’t provide much in the way of political economy. As mentioned above, her chapter on Oprah is an interesting detour focusing less on storytelling and more on the way that the lived experiences of freelancers make them particularly receptive to her message. Here we glimpse what could be an important part of a more incisive analysis, namely, that there are particular reasons that certain stories are able to persuade their audience. Unfortunately, the insights offered in this chapter are not connected to a larger explanatory framework.

Taking it for granted that Oprah is very good at what she does, she nonetheless did not manufacture the appeal of self-improvement out of thin air. She has embraced this theme because it produces results, in other words, because her audience is willing to buy it—literally in the sense of purchasing Oprah’s publications and the books and other products that she recommends. The same is true of Sandberg, Mackey, and—in a different way—Gates as well. None of these figures has the power to mesmerize or force the public to forget or contradict their own interests.

Aschoff does not analyze the appeal of Sandberg’s brand of corporate feminism beyond noting that the discrimination women face at work creates receptivity towards her message. This is surely correct but doesn’t explain the embrace of a form of feminism so at ease with capitalist exploitation. But like Oprah’s message, Sandberg’s is dependent on an audience that finds it sufficiently compelling. Aschoff provides a very satisfying demolition of the false inclusiveness of Lean In, but this doesn’t help us understand its appeal. One imagines that conditions of intense competition for jobs in the corporate world has led many to embrace the idea that talented women in challenging professions deserve their due. One need not assume that those interested in the message of Lean In aren’t interested in practicing solidarity with people poorer than them. Given the current state of organized labor and extremely adverse economic conditions, however, such a progressive message may not be easy to practice or to turn into a bestseller.

Blue Marx

All of Aschoff’s subjects are business people and no doubt keenly attuned to the immense, impersonal forces of the marketplace. It seems safe to say that their own success in amassing fortunes has instilled in them certain beliefs about the nature of “the market” and what it take to succeed in it. As Marx puts it, “[u]nder free competition, the immanent laws of capitalist production confront the individual capitalist as a coercive force external to him.”1 While their views may be self-serving, they are something different, if no better, than fully instrumental propaganda.

The point is not to say it’s natural for workers to take on viewpoints that mimic those of their bosses. But it would strain credibility to deny that these viewpoints do capture unavoidable elements of social reality. To form a socialist political agenda, one requires an unflinching understanding of what people believe and why, or else there is little chance of understanding the challenges of building a popular movement around robust, shared political goals.

Without taking seriously the reasons that people, rich and not-so-rich alike, might buy into these ideas, one has little basis for understanding the plausibility of an alternative political agenda to sufficiently large groups of people. Rather, one is left to oppose the righteousness of one’s cause to the manifest injustice of the status quo—assuming, in other words, that people have a critical understanding of the social system that the popularity of these prophets tends to suggest is actually lacking.

The alternative is to explain the conditions—such as unstable employment and atomization of the work force—that can lead workers to either embrace politics affirming the status quo or alternately, to challenge them. This would entail a non-deterministic presentation of political economic conditions that indicates the potentialities of political movements to intervene in and transform the status quo. Such a presentation in turn makes possible the formation of a strategic agenda for positive social change.

But Aschoff shrinks from this task just as she comes around to it, and her inability to provide a robust political agenda is linked to the failings in her analysis. In the book’s final section, she asks, “[w]hat would a radical, anticapitalist model look like? To begin with, the model won’t be a single, unified narrative of change. It will be comprised of thousands of stories, all with their own unique visions for a better world.” (p. 145) Without registering it, Aschoff has just reproduced the imaginative horizon of neoliberal society, namely that every scheme for social organization is equally imaginable, that all values are equally valid and that justice means the recognition of all of them. This is already the environment in which capitalists’ prophetic stories have been thriving. The ascendant power of storytelling in Aschoff's framework shows how deeply embedded it is within the neoliberal imaginary, where the connection between stories or cultural issues and political economy are always ambiguous and underspecified.

Accordingly, the final chapter containing three unifying points for such an agenda comes off as cursory and loosely related to the foregoing analysis. While the ideas presented—democratization of social institutions, decommodification of social goods, and redistribution—have merit, due to the form of presentation they remain items on a wish list rather than possibilities immanent within the world we inhabit. A greater understanding of progressive possibilities immanent to contemporary society is exactly what could have been provided given more focus on the political economic conditions forming the context for capitalist ideologies.

Democracy, decommodification, and redistribution can all exist to some extent alongside capitalism. Under the right conditions they may even aid its functioning. The question that should be posed is how they will help the left overcome the capitalist system and replace it with something better. Denying the need to provide a large-scale strategy for this overcoming prevents one from seriously approaching the question. A movement that declines to tell a story of how it will be successful in winning substantial improvements for the day-to-day lives of ordinary people is one that can have no reasonable expectation of victory.


1. Karl Marx. Capital Vol. I, 1976, p. 381

Photo Credits:

“Steve Jobs painted portrait” Photo by thierry ehrman. Some rights reserved.

“OPRAH, ANUS. ANUS, OPRAH.” Photo by nayrb7. Some rights reserved.

“Bill Gates administers polio drops to a child in Chad” Photo by Gates Foundation. Some rights reserved.

“Nixon and Brezhnev” Photo by That Hartford Guy. Some rights reserved.

“Blue Marx” Photo by Chris JL. Some rights reserved.

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