Authors: Nicole Aschoff
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.
The series is a collaboration between Verso Books and
magazine, which is published quarterly in print and online at
Other titles in this series available from Verso Books:
Playing the Whore
by Melissa Gira Grant
Utopia or Bust
by Benjamin Kunkel
Strike for America
by Micah Uetricht
For Ila and Simi
First published by Verso 2015
Â© Nicole Aschoff 2015
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the author have been asserted
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ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-810-6 (PB)
eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-811-3 (US)
eISBN-13: 978-1-78168-812-0 (UK)
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Printed in the US by Maple Press
We are all storytellers. We embellish, ignore, and cherry-pick moments of our lives to create an emergent story of us. The stories we tell are integral to our lives. They help us find friends and lovers, they demonstrate our values and beliefs, they showcase our competence and trustworthiness, and they teach our children how to navigate the world. Our stories make us appear interesting, compassionate, heroic, and responsible. Most of our stories lack potency, thoughâthey linger close to us and get lost in the cacophony of other people's stories. But on rare occasions stories grow, often in direct proportion to the power of their teller, to become big, all-encompassing stories that define a people, a social movement, or a moment in history.
Stories become powerful and defining because people love stories and society needs stories. Big stories reproduce the social order by providing meaning and mooring. They get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going in life. They identify our friends and our enemies. They stir our hopes and allay our fears. They keep alienation at bay. The big stories we hear and tell todayâstories about freedom and terrorists and the American Dreamâare as integral to society as the old stories of Anansi, Manas, Beowolf, and Parvati were to the societies that created them.
Capitalist society is particularly in need of stories. Our everyday lives are defined by going to school and to work, caring for our kids, listening to gossip, having a laugh, and stressing about this or that. Yet all of these micro-interactions take place within a set of larger structures and relationships whose primary purpose is to make a profit. The vast majority of people go to jobs that were not created to meet human needs but to give the owners of capital a return on their investment. All of us, wage-earners and capitalists alike, are locked into a system designed to perpetually accumulate more and more profit, not to satisfy human needs or provide for the common good. This is a strange way of organizing society. It goes against our nature as social, mutualistic beings. Yet for capitalism to survive and thrive, people must willingly participate in and reproduce its structures and norms. Coercion and duress work to integrate the poorest and most desperate members of society, but they are not sufficient to ensure the generation of profits in the long term. Large swathes of the population must actively, or at least passively, believe that capitalist society is worth their creativity, energy, and passion, that it will provide a sense of meaning, that it meets their need for justice and security.
But there is nothing intrinsic to the logic of profit-making itself that is capable of providing this sense of meaning and justice. Capitalism must draw upon cultural ideas that exist outside circuits of profit-making, some of which support the norms and structures of capitalism and some of which are critical of capitalism. As sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eva Chiapello argue, capital needs both types: while individual capitalists may attempt to repress and displace challenges to the primacy of profit-making, at the systemic level critical voices are productive and fruitful for capitalism, forcing capitalism to evolve and temporarily resolve some of its contradictions and thus preserving it as a system for the long haul. Indeed, capital's ability to periodically present a new set of legitimating principles that facilitate the willing participation of society accounts for its remarkable longevity despite periodic bouts of deep crisis. Following Max Weber, one of the foremost social thinkers of the twentieth century, Boltanski and Chiapello call this belief system, which justifies and legitimates capitalism and the primacy of profit-making, the “spirit of capitalism.”
Stories have long been a key component of the spirit of capitalism. Ascetic Protestants told stories glorifying economic rationalism and the entrepreneur. Benjamin Franklin taught us that “time is money” and that frugality and thrift are virtues demonstrating sound character. The great Captains of Industry told stories about perseverance, vision, and how the “law of competition” would further the human race. These work-as-virtue, profit-as-virtue stories have been remarkably successful. To work for our entire lives seems perfectly natural. That more and more things once outside the commodity relation are now for sale on the market is something we rarely question.
People have also told stories that challenge capitalism, and, indeed, critiques of capitalism are as old as capitalism itself. The story of the Haymarket Massacre and the anarchists who died fighting for the eight-hour day was told by workers across the globe. In 1886, workers gathered in Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the killing of several workers by police the previous day. An unknown person threw a bomb at the police as they tried to disperse the crowd, and police responded by firing into the crowd, killing four workers and injuring dozens more. Workers from around the world protested the killings and the sham trial that followed, designating May 1 as International Workers' Day to commemorate the event. In the early years of the twentieth century Joe Hill and other Wobblies travelled the country telling stories and singing songs like “Solidarity Forever” and “The Rebel Girl” about worker solidarity and building “one big union” to unite workers against the bosses. Countless retellings of the bitter campaigns to organize Pullman sleeping car porters and the 1930s autoworker sit-down strikes turned people like A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther into working-class heroes.
Stories that challenge the status quo are not just about the economic logic of production, profits, and class struggle. The circuits of power in capitalist society are bolstered by systems of oppression and domination that extend beyond class to gender, race, and sexuality. The 1950s and 1960s were alive with stories about the anger of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at Jim Crow and racism. People commiserated with Betty Friedan's frustration with the cult of femininity and listened to stories about Rachel Carson and her quest to curb pesticide use and later about the Oglala Lakota and their standoff with the FBI at Wounded Knee. Throughout the world, stories circulated of emancipation from imperialism, colonialism, and totalitarianism. They gave rise to a larger vision of society, one that looked different from the postâWorld War II era of Jim Crow, corporate power, exploitation, and domestic domination. By the 1960s and 1970s, the US Congress was implementing watered-down versions of what these movements were demanding, passing unprecedented legislation protecting workers, women, people of color, consumers, and the environment. World leaders bemoaned an “excess of democracy.”
This led to a serious crisis of confidence for capital by the late 1970s. Competition had steadily increased in the postwar period, and beginning in the 1960s corporate profit rates stalled and then began to decline at the same time as unemployment was rising and prices were increasing. Many companies stopped investing in new jobs and started investing in finance instead. The grand narrative of progress and modernity led by big companies and the state had become suspect, capitalism no longer seemed to offer the best of all possible worlds, and the state came to be seen as a source of domination and oppression rather than the protector of the common good. As students, workers, women, and people of color continued to demand something different, the crisis deepened and political leaders seemed genuinely uncertain what to do.
New voices emerged to offer guidance. Milton Friedman was one of them, repurposing some very old ideas to argue that the state was the problem. Milton's simple narrative blamed the economic troubles that people found themselves in, and the crisis facing the state, on budget deficitsâtoo much spending that had pushed things out of whack. To get back on course, the state simply needed to stop spending, and to stop listening to the demands for more and better jobs, consumer rights, and protection from the market.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, he used his position to silence dissenting voices and promote a new vision. He told stories about “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs, the “Communist menace” lurking on the horizon, and “getting the government off the backs of the people” through tax cuts and deregulation. He squashed organized labor (breaking the PATCO strike by firing 11,345 air traffic controllers and banning them from future employment in the federal government), weakened environmental protections, and cut funding to agencies tasked with ensuring worker and consumer safety.
Feminist, civil rights, and environmental activists kept fighting, but the powers that be moved with a new, unified force to crush dissent: Organized labor was shaken and class-based movements were discredited. The War on Drugs, followed later by Bill Clinton's Three Strikes law, fuelled an unprecedented trend of mass incarceration that overwhelmingly targeted black and Hispanic men; and the rise of the radical right brought women into direct conflict with each other, focusing feminist battles on holding ground already won rather than embracing more encompassing visions of liberation. The balance of power that had seemed, for a moment in the early 1970s, to favor working people shifted definitively in favor of capital. But the defeats of the 1980s weren't simply a result of capital gathering its forces and stamping out dissent. Proponents of this “counterrevolution” seized on the horrors of Stalinism and repurposed New Left critiques of the repressive apparatus of the state to delegitimize the state, reframing its crucial role in providing a social safety net and regulating corporations as oppressive “big government.” Businesses incorporated the demands of workers and students for flexibility and autonomy by replacing the archetypal Company Man with “self-organized,” “networked,” “creative” individuals with little job security and lots of stress. Companies also found novel ways to undercut unions rather than confront them head on, decentralizing and outsourcing production, offering job security for older workers while eliminating jobs for new workers, and increasing technology to replace workers altogether. In the end, they often simply stopped producing things, opting to earn money through the financial markets instead.
By the 1990s a different kind of capitalism had emerged, one that scholars have described using various terms: post-Fordism, postmodernism, poststructuralism, late capitalism, and even neoliberalism or globalization. The movements of the 1960s and 1970s persisted, but their radical vision had vastly diminished. People began retelling stories about better times, when people were engaged in a vibrant civil society. As sociologist Francesca Polleta argues, many stories treasured by civil rights activists and progressive scholarsâsuch as those told about the Montgomery bus boycott and Freedom Summerâbegan to serve a commemorative purpose rather than as a blueprint for changing society.
Today these stories have even become fodder for the Right: Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin quote Martin Luther King without batting an eyelash.
More important, by the close of the century the stories people told no longer seemed connected to a broader vision of a different society. Life beyond capitalism no longer seemed plausible or even possible. The growing fascination in popular culture and media with apocalyptic narratives and end-of-the-world scenarios reflected a widespread sense that the destruction of society itself seemed more plausible than life after capitalism. The successful absorption and displacement of critique by capital led to confusion, ideological disarray, and an overwhelming sense of fatalism.
Capital's victory in the 1980s brought a surge of profitability and bolstered the power of the elite through massive tax cuts, probusiness legislation, and the gutting of the welfare state. But in capitalism halcyon days are always fleeting. As geographer David Harvey says, “Capital doesn't solve its crisis tendencies, it merely moves them around.”
The booming mid-1990s brought massive income inequality, increased poverty, environmental degradation, skyrocketing levels of consumer debt, persistent gender divides, and widespread anxiety about the future. The 2007/2008 financial meltdown heightened the sense of crisis, and once again questions about the future of capitalism are on the table. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the nation is handling poverty and more than half of the middle class names financial insecurity as their chief concern.
In this moment, a new generation of storytellers has emerged to tell us what's wrong with society and how to fix it. The most powerful of these storytellers aren't poor or working people, they are the super-elite. The loudest critics of capitalism these days are people like Bill Gates, who decries poverty and inequality, and Sheryl Sandberg, who laments persistent gender divides, but they are not calling for an end to capitalism. Instead, they are part of a chorus of new elite voices calling for a different kind of capitalism. The long list of “new” capitalisms being touted or disdainedâconscious capitalism, creative capitalism, sustainable capitalism, equitable capitalism, philanthrocapitalism, eco-capitalism, inclusive capitalism, crony capitalismâillustrates the widespread feeling that capitalism needs to change.
The New Prophets of Capitalism
examines the stories told by four of these new storytellers: Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods), Oprah Winfrey (media mogul), and Bill and Melinda Gates (creators of the Gates Foundation).
I argue that each of these storytellers acts as a prophet of capitalism. They believe that there are serious problems with capitalism, or with the effects it has on society, and they have a plan or framework the rest of us can use to solve these problems.
What does it mean to be a “prophet” of capitalism? Max Weber defined a prophet as a charismatic individual who, upon receiving a “personal call,” embarks on a mission to disseminate a new doctrineâa new vision of how we can enrich our lives and make the world a better place. The prophet's power comes from her personal giftsâher revelations and her charisma. In the pre-industrial era, charisma meant the prophet's ability to demonstrate his powers through using magic or performing miracles. Today's prophets don't perform magic tricksâtheir charisma comes instead from their capacity to accumulate wealth. Moreover, Weber argues that the key factor distinguishing a prophet from a priest (or a snake-oil salesman) is that the prophet's quest to make people's lives better and solve social problems is unremuneratedâshe spreads the word free of charge. Oprah Winfrey and Melinda Gates don't promote their vision of a better world for personal financial gain. They do it because they want to, because they believe their vision for fixing society's problems is true and effective. Their true believer status, combined with their aura of competence (derived from their “magical” ability to accumulate wealth), gives their stories widespread appeal and makes them prophets.