Sunday, March 29, 2015

"The New Prophets of Capital" by Nicole Aschoff: Red Rosa for the New Age

This is a book in the Jacobin / Verso partnership, which puts together one of my favorite magazines with my favorite radical publisher. The books in the series have all been short looks at capitalism in the modern society, from teaching to writing to prostitution.

This book comes after several people who have tried to make changes in the relations of capitalism without changing the intrinsic nature of those relations. So it covers Oprah, Bill Gates, John Mackey, and Sheryl Sandberg. Each of these people has ideals that some might see as admirable, but are instead just capitulations to capitalism and not a direct challenge to it. She digs medium depth on all four of these people, and show that the greater goal is not met. I am more familiar with Gates and Oprah, as most people will be. Gates changed from uber-nerd to someone who wanted to save the world through elimination of disease and improved education. Oprah likes to hold herself up as an exemplar of pull yourself up by your bootstrap ideology. Both approaches are limited in their reality by the nature of economic and social relations that we call capitalism. Their very uniqueness shows the limits to capital, in that the mythos they perpetuate is limited by a confluence of happenstance that was beyond their control. Even if, like Gates, you ultimately want to put back the extraction of the resources you were able to affect through being a good programmer at the right time, there are still frictions in the system, and you will never be able to full give back. Your limits are also in part based on your focus -- Gates uses the market system to try to “Reform” schools; bypasses the state to eliminate diseases.  Mackey want to make a smarter market system, but even with his firm’s growth, even if it were a wonderful alternative to the WalMarts of the world, it doesn’t scale and just reinforces the privilege of the Whole Foods Shopper over any other consumer.

 The first essay in the book is the most troubling to me, since I have written positively of Sandberg’s “Lean In” crusade as trying to do the best within the capitalist system, even acknowledging Sandberg’s privilege of trying to make changes from the top. Aschoff and I have read a lot of the same writers, and she shows me the errors of my ways in being optimistic about the potential for change. Sandberg is focused on professional women and ultimately will only make incremental changes. Real change has to come from the bottom. Sandberg wants women to lean in, but the real goal is to lean against – and that is not just putting the onus for change on women, but it is the necessity of all people who want change to make a more equitable system.

 The book is short, but it is in the vein of Rosa Luxemburg, showing that yet again, reform is accepting the contradictions of the capitalist system, where real change is system change.