Exposing the False Prophets of Social Transformation

August 12, 2015

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A growing group of elite storytellers present radical solutions to global problems, but their ideas actually inhibit real change and strengthen the status quo.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was a shock for many people. For a moment it seemed like capitalism, or at least ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, was on its last legs. But the moment passed and capitalism survived. The combination of huge cash subsidies for Wall Street and austerity for working people revived corporate profitability, trade, and production growth. Yet a sense of crisis and uncertainty remains pervasive in American society and many other countries around the world.

In the US, the economy remains the top concern. Good jobs lost during the recession have been replaced by low-wage, part-time jobs, while traders and lawmakers worry over whether Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s plan to raise the federal funds rate this year will derail the ‘recovery.’ The runaway success of Thomas Piketty’s treatise on global inequality; the surprising crowds drawn by an openly socialist candidate for the US Presidency like Bernie Sanders; and recent widespread mobilizations against police brutality in cities across the United States, all indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Outside the spheres of politics and economics, a different but related sense of crisis is apparent. There’s a growing feeling of dread that our way of life is destroying the planet, highlighted by books such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and popular films like Elysium and Snowpiercer. Naomi Klein’s far-reaching critique of capitalism and global warming has received the most attention, but she is not alone. Voices from across the political spectrum have declared that capitalism is in crisis.

These critiques don’t necessarily imply that capitalism is racing toward collapse under the weight of its own contradictions; instead, the system is facing a crisis of legitimacy. A growing number of people feel that this system can no longer meet their needs for justice and security and that, while capitalism is capable of generating fabulous wealth, its side effects are rapidly making life on Earth untenable for large swathes of the global population. The list of ‘new’ capitalisms that are being touted in response–‘conscious,’ ‘creative,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘equitable’ and ‘inclusive,’ or ‘philanthrocapitalism’ or ‘eco-capitalism’–illustrates the widespread feeling that something fundamental needs to change.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people aren’t independently wealthy and must work to meet their basic needs, coercion is insufficient to maintain their support. Capitalism relies on legitimacy: it needs people to believe in it, and willingly devote their energy, creativity, and passion to helping companies grow and make profits. Yet, as scholars like Jennifer Silva show, the belief that society will provide young people a life as good as that of their parents’ generation is waning, particularly among poor and working class youth. There are currently over five and a half million ‘disconnected youth’ in the US (young people aged 16-24 who are neither working nor in school), many of whom feel that society holds no place for them.

This problem, particularly in the context of job-destroying technology, is generating increasing concern. Starbucks, along with 11 other U.S. companies including Walmart, CVS, Target, Microsoft, Taco Bell, and Macy’s, recently announced an initiative called 100,000 Opportunities to provide job training, internships, and jobs for up to 100,000 young people. In a press release, Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks said “As business leaders, I believe we have a critical role to play in hiring more Opportunity Youth and offering these young people excellent training, and the chance to dream big and reach their aspirations.”

But this will hardly put a dent in the problem of youth unemployment. As Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut of the think-tank Demos recently reported, the U.S. needs to add 4.4 million jobs just to get back to pre-recession youth employment numbers.

Schultz is interesting for another reason, however: he is part of growing group of elite storytellers who are raising their voices to critique and present solutions to some of the thorny problems caused by capitalism like poverty, environmental degradation, gender inequality, anxiety and alienation.

These days the loudest critics of the status quo are not social movements or labor unions; they are people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey, and John Mackey. Each of them has a plan to solve the problems of society, and they use their power and reach to share their stories and implement their ideas.

Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, believe in the power of markets and the profit motive to solve problems like childhood disease and unequal educational attainment. They believe that these problems exist because markets don’t serve poor people equally, so institutions like the Gates Foundation need to step in and engage in ‘creative capitalism’ by commoditizing health care and using market logic to make public schools and teachers more ‘competitive.’

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, thinks we need to foster ‘true’ or ‘free-enterprise’ capitalism to save the planet from ecological collapse. He presents another new model called “conscious capitalism” that emphasizes free markets and entrepreneurship to optimize value for stakeholders and create an “operating system” that is “in harmony with the fundamentals of human nature” and the planet.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is passionate about ending gender inequality, while Oprah Winfrey is concerned about anxiety, depression and alienation. Both women tackle these problems by emphasizing internal barriers like fear, socialization, and negative thinking. They encourage people, especially other women, to take charge of their lives by being assertive and thinking positive, and insist that if all of us as individuals think and act more productively then we will reach our goals—whether the goal is ‘feminism’ Sandberg-style or prosperity and happiness in the case of Winfrey.

These storytellers and others like them are extremely powerful. Their voices are heard and their messages are internalized by millions of Americans and other people around the world. Bill and Melinda Gates are attempting to transform public education and global public health completely. Their popularity stems, in large part, from their wealth and power, but their messages also resonate with people because market-led solutions seem safe and achievable. They appeal to a widespread desire to fix problems like poverty, oppression, and environmental destruction, and they reinforce the hope that we can do so by making small changes—like buying better things, thinking differently, or supporting a charity.  

The problem is that these solutions don’t work. They may improve the lives of a few people in the short run, but they do nothing to tackle the broad systemic problems that need to be solved. In the long run they may actually make things worse by deepening the reach of inherently divisive market forces. They burnish the meritocratic façade of corporate America while encouraging people to blame themselves for their failure to achieve a comfortable life, rather than empowering them to examine and challenge the political and economic structures that order their lives.  

So while elite storytellers present ideas like creative or inclusive capitalism as radical solutions to global problems, their ideas actually inhibit real change and strengthen the status quo.  

This might appear overly cynical, so an example is in order: take John Mackey’s model of “conscious capitalism.” Everyone wants to live on a clean, vibrant planet, and preserve nature’s beauty for their children and grandchildren. Mackey argues that this can be achieved by creating and supporting companies like Whole Foods that pay slightly higher wages, adopt eco-business practices, and sell sustainable products. If all companies become ‘conscious’ companies they can dig the world out of the environmental mess that traditional capitalism has created.

This message, while certainly appealing, is not a solution. It ignores the fundamental imperatives of global capitalism that force every company, conscious or not, to continuously expand, overcome their competitors, and most importantly, earn profits. As researchers like Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister argue, eco-business practices do very little to challenge the way we produce, consume, and dispose of material goods. When we channel our desire to end global warming or rainforest destruction or species extinction through corporations, our desires end up by getting absorbed into business strategies for growth and expansion, strengthening the production-for-profit architecture that’s consuming and destroying the world’s resources. 

In covering up the structural nature of problems and putting a radical sheen on ideas that reinforce existing hierarchies of power, these solutions ‘kick the can down the road,’ displacing critique and enabling capitalism to survive as a system. But we don’t have time for false starts and platitudes. It’s imperative that we train a critical eye on easy solutions and start building collective, democratic projects of our own that develop real alternatives for change.  

Nicole Aschoff’s book The New Prophets of Capital is published by Verso.

Tags: capitalism, critiques of capitalism, postcapitalism, social movements