The new prophets of capital (book review)

I enjoyed reading Nicole Aschoff’s The new Prophets of Capital on a recent journey between two of Sweden’s largest cities.

Her book, which is actually a very accessible, jargon-free essayistic long-read, Aschoff investigates how ‘in this moment of crisis a new generation of elite storytellers, masquerading as progressive thinkers, has emerged to reinvent the free market as the universal solution to society’s problems’ (front sleeve).

By taking a critical look at Sheryl Sandberg’s business of feminism, John Mackey’s Whole Foods conscious capitalism, Oprah Winfrey’s neoliberal consumerism and Melinda & Bill Gates’ philanthrocapitalism, it becomes quite clear why this book should be of interest to the global development community: These new prophets of capital are all in some way or another in the business of ‘doing good’ and remind us how fluent notions of ‘markets’ or ‘charity’ have become in the age of personality brands, self-empowerment and de-politicized notions of ‘development’ that prioritize technology-driven ‘solutions’ over addressing structural ‘underdevelopment’ in a critical way. Or, in the word of Nicole Aschoff:

Today's new, elite storytellers present practical solutions to society’s problems that can be found within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption. They promote market-based solutions to the problems of corporate power, technology, gender divides, environmental degradation, alienation, and inequality. Their visions carry within them a systemic and coherent meaning that seems possible, safe, and achievable within capitalism. (p.11)
Gender, sustainability, empowerment & philanthropy – key development concepts revisited
Even though Aschoff’s book is very much written from a North American socio-economic perspective her four case studies address key concepts that are relevant for ‘our’ engagement with international development.

Critically engaging with Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of ‘leaning in’ and the debates in the U.S. the chapter highlights some of the risks and unintended consequences when organizational or institutional change focuses on leadership alone and in the process break the ‘empowerment chain’. Aschoff’s main argument is that women in very visible, very senior executive positions leave broader power structures undisturbed or, even worse, change policies that affect women disproportionally:

Many people (women in particular) chose the company [Yahoo!] over other tech companies because it offered [flextime], but because [Marissa] Mayer was the boss she could eliminate the policy. (pp.33-34)
Aschoff’s reflections on Newark Public School executive Jen Holleran are another powerful reminder of the limitations of women ‘leaning in’:
Jen Holleran achieved success at work and fulfillment at home, but her personal gain came at the expense of other women trying to defend their own gains and improve their schools in a complex, difficult environment. Her story highlights how the pursuit of individual success within the existing structures a social and economic power can be great for one woman, but on a broader scale undermine the struggle of other women and bolster the gendered and racialized division of labor in our society. (pp.37-38

Whole Foods, conscious capitalism and sustainability
Aschoff reminds us that ‘ideas of conscious capitalism, sustainable capitalism, or eco-business all mask the essential need for firms to keep producing more’ (p.68) which rings very true for the discussions around ‘corporate social responsibility’ in international development contexts.

It’s worth remembering that, while slightly better pay, benefits, and working conditions enjoyed by Whole Foods workers seem rare in today’s job market, this wasn’t the case just a few decades ago, when unionized supermarket chains offered decent livelihoods to their workers. The Whole Food model is better than Walmart, but it’s hardly a utopian vision. (p.73)
In the end, one of the key threads that is emerging and is deepened in the chapter on Oprah’s self-empowerment empire, is the absence of a thorough political engagement, again, a story that sounds all too familiar for those who have been engaged with development and the disappearance of political debates amidst a technologized and overly organized development set-up:
Buying 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)
But the real highlight is the following chapter on Oprah.

The oracle of O

Even though there has been a steady outpour of critique, including on this very blog it is worth to remind the readers of the power of her narratives and stories:

Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. Instead of examining the interplay of biography and history, they eliminate it, making structure and agency indistinguishable. (p.100)
As with the previous ‘new prophets’, analyzing Oprah engages with the core problem that structural issues of exclusion, poverty or deprivation have become individualized. Powerful individual narratives along the lines of ‘the African girl who went from the village school with a corrugated iron roof to an Ivy league school’ replace discussions about, say over-educated young women in the Middle East who end up as better educated wives, still largely confined to traditional social structures.

Gates and the rise of philanthrocapitalism
It seems quite fitting that the book wraps up with an assessment of the Gates foundation, even though it remains a bit shallow and probably does not add many insights to the growing debates that have been emerging in international development circles.

First, it assumes that the key to solving thorny social problems is to deepen the reach of capitalist markets, despite the inequalities generated and reinforced by these markets. Second, the foundation’s model to solve society’s problems is profoundly undemocratic. (p.125)
Well, that maybe true, but critical engagement with the foundation’s work ‘on the ground’ is probably more interesting for readers of this blog than a more general critique of North American globalized models of philanthropy.
Foundations don’t redistribute wealth, but social movements demanding that public wealth be used for the public good do. (p.143)
Personally, I wonder whether Aschoff overstates the case for traditional ‘democratic’ engagement and the question remains whether many social movements follow a narrative that is not far from the ones the ‘new prophets’ are propagating.

Conclusion ‘At the end of the day, for capitalism to function most of us must believe in the system and voluntarily devote our energies to it’ (p.150)
In the end,
The new Prophets of Capital may not deliver groundbreaking new insights to critical minds in the global development community, but the book is an excellent foundation for further discussions and explorations.
Family, friends or student groups who may not have time to engage with critical journalism or long-read essays regularly will find this book a concise and readable overview that hopefully triggers critical questions or small behavior changes next time someone picks up an Oprah magazine, buys groceries at Whole Foods or is exposed to TED-style salvation speeches by development celebrities.

Aschoff, Nicole: The New Prophets of Capital. ISBN 978-1-78168-810-6, 154 pages, GBP 5.39, Verso Books, London, 2015.

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