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Book Review: The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff

June 1, 2016

The New Prophets of CapitalThe New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.”

A perfect example of this is her first target, Sheryl Sandberg, who believes that women in positions of power automatically makes things better for women, a falsehood if there ever was one that is fueling many feminists groups’ support of a classist racist fascist corporatist capitalist like Hillary Clinton for President of the United States. “Putting women in charge will not change the power of the profit motive and the compulsion of companies to give workers as little as economic, social, and cultural norms will allow,” Aschoff reminds us, “the goal of feminism is justice and equality for all women, not simply equal opportunity for women or equal participation by women… [Sandberg’s] plan will help only a small number of women–the women that can finds a place within the limited number of power positions in the corporate hierarchy. Everyone else–the domestic workers, retails staff, caregivers, will remain excluded, their efforts undermined by the strengthening of capital and the women who burnish its meritocratic facade” (38-39). To whit, along with Marissa Mayer, Aschoff cites the example of Jen Holleran, whom Sandberg recommended to head Startup: Education in 2010.

The program, which Sandberg played a central role in designing, rewarded ‘highly effective’ teachers who produced high standardized test scores with bonuses by simultaneously putting teachers whose students performed poorly on a track record for dismissal.

Hundreds of teachers who have been deemed “unsatisfactory” are being kept on the payroll as substitute teachers and rotated between Newark’s seventy school while city officials and Newark school reformers use Startup and other funds to develop a buyout program similar to programs used in New York and Houston. The long-term goal is to reduce the number of tenured teachers, keeping the remaining ones on their toes with merit pay and weakened tenure rights, and bring in new short-term teachers through programs like Teach for America [in which the average participation is approximately eighteen months].

Jen Holleran achieved success at work and fulfillment at home, but her personal gain came at the expense of other women trying to defend their own gains and improve their schools in a complex, difficult environment…undermin[ing] the struggles if other women and bolster[ing] the gendered and racialized divisions of labor in our society. (37-38)

The capitalist imperative to destroy the modern educational system is highlighted in the fourth chapter, on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here I would like to remind readers that in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson stated that public education should consist of ” twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go” while Woodrow Wilson said, “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” This is part and parcel of the evil of capitalism that the Gates Foundation seeks to perpetuate. The masses are supposed to be the servants of the elites, undemocratically chosen and privileged, just as the Gates Foundation favors the elimination of democratically elected school boards and thinks people like Cory Booker and Michael Bloomberg should be the sole arbiters of how a city educates its people (142). To what purpose? They believe that the public school system is broken. Their evidence is nothing more than their own ethos and a strong right-wing capitalist mainstream media to back them up. In reality, the opposite is true, and test scores are up, and the achievement gap is nearly nonexistent when adjusted for income. On page 139, she cites this study that makes the Gateses appear to be flat-out liars:… . The Gateses are not lying, however. They just want to return education to its Jeffersonian/Wilsonian roots as a system that provides a large mass of laborers to do their work for them.

As capitalists, the Gateses see the product of education as test scores, students as inputs, and teachers as production processes. Aschoff cites Jamie Vollmer and the genocidal implications of this belief system. Vollmer states that if he receives inferior inputs for his ice cream (blueberries), he rejects them. The Gates Foundation supports charter schools, which reject students deemed “inferior,” and falsely show they can create higher tests scores than public schools by selecting which students they educate, which public schools cannot do, and thus make any comparison to the superiority of charter schools to public schools an illegitimate, apples to oranges comparison (131-2). The failure of an all-charter (a euphemism for “for-profit”) school system has been demonstrated in post-Katrina New Orleans. Not only does this have genocidal implications, but it is unquestionably fascist as well. Gates praises the schools of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), founded by two alumni of Teach for America.

The KIPP students follow an extended-day, strict disciplinary regime. Students lean how to walk, get off the bus, and use the restroom in the KIPP way. Students are not allowed to talk in school excpet to answer questions, and they have to “earn” their desks. At some KIPP schools students who break minor rules are isolated and forced to wear signs around their necks that read MISCREANT or CRETIN.

KIPP is not unique, At the Achievement First network of schools, minor infractions such as whispering, humming, or not following directions quickly enough, warrant “re-orientation”–students (including kindergartners ) must wear a white pinny over their uniform shirt and are not allowed to speak with other students or participate in music or phys ed while wearing the pinny. To remove it the student must present an official apology to the class and get all of her teachers to sign a letter saying she is ready to be readmitted to the group, and her classmates must vote to decide whether to welcome her back to regular activities. (133)

These methods were developed by Martin Seligman and are used by the CIA to enhance torture. Students who cannot cancel this are expelled or “counseled out,” and only 40% of the matriculating students ever finish. The U.S. Department of Education has found many that such charter schools fail to comply with their students’ civil rights (133-134). Ironically, a major proponent of charter schools is Oprah Winfrey (139), who is discussed in the book’s third chapter, which was excerpted in part in The Guardian.

Oprah, who is so ubiquitous that her surname appears only once in the chapter outside the footnotes and official names, derives much of her ideology from the nineteenth century New Thought movement, of which the faith I was raised in from the age of 4, Unity, is a major part, but like Rhonda Byrne, whom she has featured on the show, she is a metaphysical malpractitioner, applying the principles of New Thought in dishonest, abusive ways that examine the individual in a vacuum and ignore the socioeconomic context in which the person lives. Metaphysical malpractice (a term not used by Aschoff) is rampant among Unity congregants, particularly those new to the movement, and Unity ministers remind us that it is a tactic from which we need to refrain. It is rarely done with maliciousness, and Aschoff is quite clear that she does not consider any of the four individuals she discusses as acting maliciously. One of the most common examples of metaphysical malpractice is, “what were you thinking that caused that to happen to you,” which many A Unity minister has said from the pulpit is simply a New Thought prettification of the spiritually abusive fundamentalist cry of, “you sinner!” This is a generalized version of the form Oprah’s abusiveness takes. As Paul James Tenaglia said in excoriation of Byrne, the adage, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” applies to Oprah’s approach to New Thought. In a four-part class I attended, Tenaglia accused Byrne of jumbling together a few metaphysical ideas to concoct half-truths, then make most readers feel like losers with repeated use of the word “easy.” One of my favorite authors, Steve Gerber read the book on his deathbed and noted on his blog wanting to reread it because he did not think he understood it the first time, while Wyming Sun stated from the platform of Unity of New York that Byrne’s conception of metaphysics is not the way it works, yet, thanks to Oprah, it remains extremely popular, even though it does not work for most people, any more than capitalism does. Rather than the term “metaphysical malpractice” that is the jargon of the New Thought movement, Aschoff calls Oprah’s ideology “Cotton Mather meets Norman Vincent Peele” (92). I was required to read Mather’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in eleventh grade not long before reading Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible , which was in our English textbook. I was late in reading it and failed the pop quiz miserably, never guessing that Mather preached of a God that “abhors” humankind between my Unity upbringing and even hearing the Billy Graham Crusades on TV saying “God loves you.”

Of the four prophets Aschoff chose to discuss, Oprah seems the most sincere, and therefore possibly the most dangerous. Oprah could discuss whatever she wanted and never worry about money again, yet chooses to discuss this in a way that would make minimal difference to her finances. On pages 81-82, Aschoff discusses Oprah’s win of the Horatio Alger Award, but notes serious differences–Alger’s heroes became middle class with a steady job, and usually through a luck break and kindly benefactor, while she believes her success comes from “being excellent.” I know of many people far more talented and excellent than she is not making anywhere near as much money. Aschoff quotes Oprah saying, “You can overcome poverty and despair in your life with an education. I am living proof of that.” this is a foolish, arrogant position. I have a master’s degree, have lived in the New York City homeless shelter system for four years as of May 25, 2016, and I am currently in a job making $12.60 an hour, which is not a living wage for the locality in which I work. It is not practical for me to move because I have no car and a physical disability, and few cities have public transportation the way New York does. Social Security also denies me disability on the grounds that I can work a desk job, even though it took three years to get hired–by a temp agency that first tested me six years ago with a 96/100 on word and an 87/100 on Excel. Omitted from The Guardian‘s presentation of the chapter is how the flaws in the Oprah mentality directly spawned the Occupy Wall Street movement–

young, middle-class twentysomethings who have done nothing but passionately pursue social and cultural capital in the hopes of landing their dream job, but who have little to show for it except a mountain of student loan debt and a job at Banana Republic. Opportunities for economic advancement aren’t unlimited and open to all. They are strictly regulated and open to a (relative) few, mainly the wealthy, and as wealth becomes more concentrated economic opportunities contract. (105)

Aschoff notes that H.L. Mencken considered Alger delusional, and Mark Twain displayed his disdain for Alger in “The Story of the Good Little Boy” (82).

The history of capitalism has been characterized by both the transformation of more and more aspects of people’s lives into commodities and the reshaping of people’s lives into commodities and the reshaping of our expectations, values, and norms to align with the needs of business. (148)

Citing Janice Peck, a journalism professor who has studied Oprah, her “enterprise [is] an ensemble of ideological practices that help legitimize a world of growing inequality and shrinking possibilities by promoting and embodying a configuration of a self compatible with the world” (quoted on page 87). This is an abuse of New Thought principles, which say that changing the inner self merely makes you more conducive to the expression of your desires in the external, but is not about an ability to control factors outside of oneself. Aschoff then launches a discussion of O Magazine‘s practice that basically advocates buying one’s way to happiness (90), noting that 70% of an issue focusing on anxiety is advertising (91), amongst articles that are little more than propaganda for the advertised products.

Oprah’s reality is not reflected in the data, which show that “Wealth isn’t earned fresh in each new generation by plucky go-getters. It is passed down, preserved, and expanded through generous tax laws and the assiduous transmission of social and cultural capital,” citing Miles Corak’s paper, “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility” (2013).

Americans are indoctrinated by the delusion that

if you work hard your circumstances and wealth won’t determine your chances of success. This may hold true for a small sample of the population, but at a systemic level it is patently false. Extreme concentration of wealth, enabled by tax laws favoring the rich, inhibits democracy and de-commodification in a fundamental way, starving the public treasury and eliminating the means to provide a good life for everyone. (149-150)

If any of the four prophets, by Aschoff’s definition, are disingenuous, it is John Mackey, who expresses a wholehearted belief in ethical, sustainable capitalism, all of which is based in mythology that plays to his advantage. “The free market narrative lacks empirical weight,” Aschoff tells us, citing Karl Polyani: “Capitalist markets are a product of state engineering” (59). Citing Jon Gertner, she shows that the majority of technological innovations were created at government-funded universities, and not by private companies (60). Aschoff also points out that there is no reasoning behind what Mack believes that states should naturally do and why others like state health care and higher education are unjustified (61).

Designating the market as natural and the state as unnatural is a convenient fiction for those wedded to the status quo. It makes the current distribution of power, wealth, and resources seem natural and thus inevitable and uncontestable. But of course this isn’t true. States shape, sustain, and often create, markets, including neoliberal markets…Capitalist markets, and the inequality and degradation they engender, are a political creation not a product of nature” (62).

Mackey believes that companies that once had conscious capitalism, by his definition (GM, IBM, Kodak) lost their way and got lazy. Aschoff disagrees. “The fact that none of these principles has stood the test of time is indicative of the long-term effects of competition, not greed or laziness” (67). “No matter how conscious or high-minded a business owner, if faced with a competitive market where profits are declining, her only choices are to abandon her principles or perish. Competition trumps philosophy every time” (68). “Ideas of conscious capitalism, sustainable capitalism, or eco-business all mask the essential need for firms to keep producing more” (68). “As long as production is designed to increase profits, as it must be ion capitalism, rather than to meet the needs of humans, the environment will never be healed” (69).

Aschoff also criticizes the lack of democracy in Whole Foods’ structure. All stakeholders cannot be honored equally (70), and his “optimization of value” for stakeholders gives short shrift to workers (71). While the company may treat its workers better than Wal-Mart, wages and benefits are nowhere near that of unionized supermarket chains of a few decades ago (72). Mackey has compared unions to herpes and wants to keep Whole Foods 100% union-free (72-73). He even has a points system which can lead to firing an employee for calling in sick regardless of circumstances (72). She also notes that the store relies on prisoners making 60 cents a day for much of its food production outside the store, such as artisanal cheeses, citing a Forbes article by Jennifer Alsever (71).

Foundations were established in the early twentieth century due to public opinion being “intensely anti-capitalist at the time” (113, citing Joan Roelofs). Thankfully, 51% of millennials are now anti-capitalist, but it isn’t enough to stand in the way of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which even discredits a Lancet study it helped fund showing that universal health care is necessary to end poverty (129). As foundations were used to fund the NAACP to keep blacks away from communism (114), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation use more taxpayer dollars than go to TANF (143) to fund their bogus claims that health care works better as a commodity (130) and force African farmers to buy Monsanto seeds on the unsubstantiated grounds that traditional methods are poor (136).

Aschoff has three basic solutions, Thomas Piketty‘s wealth tax, de-commodification of necessities into rights (housing, health, education), and democracy.

View all my reviews

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