By Nicole Aschoff
As severe environmental degradation, breathtaking inequality, and increasing alienation push capitalism against its own contradictions, mythmaking has become as central to sustaining our economy as profitmaking. Enter the new prophets of capital:
- Sheryl Sandberg touting the capitalist work ethic as the antidote to gender inequality;
- John Mackey promising that free markets will heal the planet;
- Oprah Winfrey urging us to find solutions to poverty and alienation within ourselves; and
- Bill and Melinda Gates offering the generosity of the 1 percent as the answer to a persistent, systemic inequality.
The new prophets of capital buttress an exploitative system, even as the cracks grow more visible.
An enthusiastic summary of the book's main points by a self-professed socialist vlogger:
About Nicole Aschoff
Nicole Aschoff is an editor at the socialist Jacobin magazine. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets including The Guardian, The Nation, Al Jazeera, and Dissent magazine. She can be followed at nicoleaschoff.com and @NicoleAschoff.
Finn Smith on Red Pepper wrote:
"This is an excellent and highly readable introduction to the feet of clay of four major prophets of neoliberal capitalism: Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who is struggling to make ends meet yet has yet to decide that capitalism is the problem. 'Capital doesn’t solve its crisis tendencies,' she quotes David Harvey, 'it merely moves them around.' [...] Aschoff has three basic solutions, Thomas Piketty‘s wealth tax, de-commodification of necessities into rights (housing, health, education), and democracy."
Anonymous on InVisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture wrote:
"The New Prophets of Capital is a good starting point for anyone with a gut instinct that something might be amiss when they hear about the latest capitalist seemingly giving away their fortune, advocating a new lifestyle, or setting up projects to eradicate poverty and improve education. Nicole Aschoff questions the messages of high-profile businesspeople, the ‘prophets’ of the book’s title [...] Even if well-intentioned and successful on a narrow level, perhaps these narratives also do harm. They serve to support and reinvigorate an economic system that tends to generate, exacerbate or reproduce problems, such as inequality, by putting profit above the needs of most people and the environment. Each chapter of this short book spends time explaining the ideas of each ‘prophet’ in a patient, respectful manner. This tone helps to demonstrate why their ideas can be popular, while enabling Aschoff’s criticisms to go beyond attacking the personalities and whims of individuals. Even if these people have crafty or selfish intentions, we can to some extent give them the benefit of the doubt to concentrate instead on the wider implications of their ideas, values and practices. We should question the contradictory economic system and institutions from which they emerge, help to promote, reproduce and transform. Aschoff’s book could introduce people to left politics and economics in an interesting and accessible way. By using familiar contemporary figures as reference points it may make it easier for readers to share their discoveries with friends, family and colleagues. At the same time it is rich enough to subsequently lead to deeper questioning of issues concerning production, feminism, democracy, ideology, and even the differences between Weberian and Marxist approaches."
Elizabeth Bruenig on The New Republic wrote:
"In between Aschoff’s elegant portraits and autopsies, one awaits unavailingly for her to define her terms. While it is clear liberal capitalism counts as the problem, it is unclear what this means, and what qualifies as the feasible alternative. During her discussion of John Mackey and the limits to growth, for example, the reader is left wondering where green Keynesianism, dematerialized growth, or a steady state economy fit into Aschoff’s somewhat stark dichotomy between liberal capitalism and democratic socialism. Nevertheless, the book’s larger point is made with grace and force. The common thread running through the stories of all five characters is their faith in private enterprise over collective action. There is no room in their visions for labor unions, democratic workplaces and ownership, public banks, social movements, mass activism, community stabilization measures, third party politics, or much politics at all for that matter. A just society, they believe, must be forged by the good will of the ruling class and the hard work of everyone else."
"By 'prophets' of capital, Aschoff means the old-fashioned sociological sense of the term, as used by Max Weber and as distinct from 'priests.' While priests, Weber argued, maintain old practices and enforce stable norms, prophets renew old stories or produce novel ones, building bases out of sheer charisma. Priests deal in the mundane problems of daily life, applying static premises to failing marriages, financial upsets, illness, anxiety, death; prophets, meanwhile, insist upon abstraction, detest minutiae, and push dizzyingly powerful narratives. Aschoff’s prophets of capital, which she considers in a series of wry and adroit case studies of people like Gates, Sandberg, and Mackey, have become famous for being rich and successful. Each of them, Aschoff argues, tells a different story with the same outcome: to patch up leaks in capitalism and advance its shuddering bulk for one more day. If in midcentury America it was Christianity that was deployed to offer this endorsement, now it is Oprah. But in each of Aschoff’s careful considerations of capitalism’s storytellers, glimmers of the past pro-capitalist Christian crusades shine through. She traces Mackey’s capitalist ethos of responsible entrepreneurship to the Physiocrats, for example, a set of eighteenth-century French philosophers including Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and François Quesnay, both Catholics and fathers of libertarian economics. Mackey, like his Catholic forebears, senses a natural order to the world; you can resolve all matters between men simply by leaving them alone."
Interview with the author of The New Prophets of Capital
- Whole Foods represents the failures of 'conscious capitalism' - op-ed by Nicole Aschoff in The Guardian, 29 May 2017
- Oprah Is Not Your Friend: A Q&A with Nicole Aschoff - op-ed by Nicole Aschoff at Dissent, 18 August 2015
- Exposing the false prophets of social transformation - op-ed by Nicole Aschoff at openDemocracy, 3 August 2015
- Oprah Winfrey: one of the world's best neoliberal capitalist thinkers - op-ed by Nicole Aschoff in The Guardian, 9 May 2015
- Conscious Capitalism; Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (2014), co-authored by one of the 'prophets' that Aschoff discusses, John Mackey
- Other books in the same books series by publisher Verso Books in collaboration with socialist magazine Jacobin