Review: The New Prophets of Capital

Last night I finished reading Nicole Aschoff’s new book, The New Prophets of Capital, which was published as part of the Jacobin series of books. Here’s a description from their website of their book series:

The Jacobin series features short interrogations of politics, economics, and culture from a socialist perspective, as an avenue to radical political practice. The books offer critical analysis and engagement with the history and ideas of the Left in an accessible format.

And by the way, if you don’t know what Jacobin magazine is, you should take a look. I recently signed up to receive the paper versions of all of their magazines and books, which was my version of a donation to a good and very thoughtful cause.

Aschoff’s book explores the storytelling nature of modern capitalism and neoliberalism, and focuses on the underlying assumptions, as seen through four larger-than-life figures: Sheryl Sandberg, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, Oprah, and Bill (and Melinda) Gates.

She does a good job of explaining, in plain, non-academic English, what’s wrong with these people’s messages. If you’re wondering what exactly bothers you about the Lean In movement, for example, take a look at the chapter on Sandberg, the book is worth it just for that.

The book is short, only 6 chapters. The first chapter gives reasoning for the book, describing how storytelling matters when we think about how culture works, and then the heart of the book follows with a chapter on each person listed above – the “prophets” – with their particular flavor. There’s also a concluding chapter, which is the least convincing, as it was extremely condensed and left too much reasoning unexplained.

The unifying theme throughout the four chapters devoted to the prophets is how these four people manage to be both public critics and private protectors of the current economic system, with an emphasis on protection.

So when Sandberg tells us to lean in, she’s telling us to conform to the way things are, not to threaten it in any way. When Oprah tells us that we have it in ourselves to live fantabulous lives, she’s giving us personal responsibility to be happy and fulfilled, and structural inequality is not acknowledged or recognized. When John Mackey or Bill Gates sees a problem, they set up a “free market solution” to that problem, even though, by definition, poor people don’t have money to pay for what they need.

While none of the book’s material was entirely new to me, it was interesting to see the connections deliberately made between the prevalent high-level business mindset and the individual choices we make for ourselves based on how we imagine the world works. If I really believed the Sandberg line, I’d still be working at a hedge fund, doing my best to please my colleagues and ignore my kids. If I had bought into Oprah’s context-free attitude, I’d blame people for their poverty and think it amounts to bad decision making.

The book isn’t entirely consistent. It maintains both that Bill Gates believes entirely in a free market and that he undemocratically influences education reform in this country with his money. Maybe those are consistent claims but it’s not obvious to me (although I agree with the undemocratic nature of his mega-philanthropy).

It’s a good book. I’d like a bunch of people to read it so we can have a discussion group. I also get the impression that Aschoff could write one of these a year, and I plan to follow her work.