The system of capitalism is arguably the most complete economic system ever invented by humans. Once it is established in a society, it begins to assume control over that society; from its marketplace to its schools; from its food supply to its entertainment. Nothing is safe from its ever-expanding reach. That which cannot serve the buyers and sellers in the system is left by the wayside. Wars are fought to protect and open markets and resources. Products of questionable value and even safety are advertised and sold to unsuspecting consumers and protections against such products are removed because of overwhelming pressure from the industries involved.
Humans, once believing that their value resided in their work and what they helped produce, are convinced their real value lies in what they can buy. Consumption has become the defining characteristic of human life. Our politicians are products and so are their politics. Ideas are part of the marketplace and schools—where ideas are traditionally traded and considered—are now just one more point of sale. For too many of those in the social system defined by a capitalist economy, change comes not from political action but from what products one purchases. Well-meaning individuals shop at this store or the other because they are led to believe they are making the world a better place. Meanwhile, the very nature of capitalism ensures our continued demise.
This exasperating and depressing situation has been the topic of millions of words worth of writing and discussion. From Karl Marx’s first words on the subject back in the mid nineteenth century to Max Weber and any number of twentieth century social scientists; and from Rosa Luxembourg’s tracts to the latest by authors like David Harvey and Sherry Wolf (who writes on gender and sexuality.) Most of these works have approached the questions implicit in this economic and social arrangement with a broad brush, pointing out the ways in which capitalism has influenced, mutated and even destroyed human relationships. If one looks at these works historically, from Marx to Harvey and Wolf, the destructive aspect is the ever more dominant element of this history. In other words, as capitalism has changed from that of early industrial capitalism during Marx’s time to the neoliberal global phenomenon it is now (Harvey and Wolf’s period) the destructive side of capitalism has far outweighed its positive and creative elements.
Keeping in line with this trend in criticism, a recently published book by Nicole Aschoff chooses four modern super-capitalist individuals and institutions and dissects their role in maintaining the capitalist hold on our society. Unlike capitalist bogeymen like the Koch brothers and Donald Trump, these four examples talk the talk of feminist empowerment, saving the planet, and healing and educating the children of the world. Their names are Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and “lean-In” fame, Whole Foods, Oprah, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Although all are currently equated with good deeds and humanitarianism, the reality behind the façade of good deeds is somewhat different.
This is precisely what Aschoff explores in her book ,The New Prophets of Capital. During the course of her exploration, the reader discovers that the intentions of those involved in capitalist endeavors for social change are ultimately irrelevant. When all is said and done, it is the pursuit of profit that defines what these endeavors will accomplish. Consequently, if they do not accomplish this ultimate goal, they will not persevere. Either their designers will cease their operations or the marketplace will do it for them. That is the harsh reality of the capitalist system. As history makes plain, attempts to modify this mechanism in a humane direction can only succeed for a limited amount of time. This is true on both the macro and micro scale.
In a quote that summarizes the nature of the endeavors described in The New Prophets of Capital, Aschoff writes about the Gates Foundation’s work in health care and education: “instead of alleviating the ills of capitalist markets,” she writes, “the Gates Foundation’s policies deepen the reach of capitalist markets to provision of basic human needs.” In doing so, these policies and practices also expand and reinforce the growing levels of inequality present in the world. In a similar manner, each of the other examples cited in this text incorporate an element of the movement for social justice into the neoliberal capitalist order. In doing so, they not only limit the possibilities of that movement, but they set it up for the likelihood of creating its opposite, further entrenching the current upward movement of wealth and the subsequent impoverishment of the majority of the world’s population, with all of its consequences. The New Prophets of Capital makes this perfectly clear and does so in a straightforward, concise and impressive manner.
Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.