Oprah Is Not Your Friend: A Q&A With Nicole Aschoff

Originally published in Dissent on August 18, 2015.
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Nicole Aschoff, the Managing Editor at Jacobin magazine, is author of The New Prophets of Capital, a book that examines the modern mythmaking central to twenty-first century capitalism. It’s a short and agitating book that aims to critically examine some of the rhetoric espoused by “new prophets” like Oprah Winfrey, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Rachel Cohen: Your book makes the point that capitalism has always needed, and will always need stories for people to grasp on to, to “get us out of bed in the morning and remind us where we are going.” Why is this? Does socialism have its own prophets?

Nicole Aschoff: Stories, as a vehicle for norms, ideas, and morals, are important to all societies, and capitalist societies are no exception. In capitalist societies there is a disjuncture between the things we value highly—family, community, fulfillment, education, culture—and the architecture of our economy, which prioritizes profit. Stories about “creative capitalism” and positive thinking told by people like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey matter because they smooth over this disjuncture. They help to convince people that capitalism is the best, or only possible, way to organize society.

Just as there have always been people whose stories bolster capitalism—from Ben Franklin to John Mackey—there have also always been voices that challenge capitalism and the existing hierarchy of power. In the United States we can think about the stories told by people like Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Rachel Carson, to name a few. However, if we look at the history of the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements, the importance of collective actions and voices, rather than a few powerful prophets or hierarchical leadership structures, is striking. Successful social movements are made up of empowered, critical, ordinary people, and I think this is something to strive for.

Cohen: You explore the popularity of Whole Foods and discuss the rise of “lifestyle politics” whereby people conflate consumer choices with politics and citizenship. You acknowledge that for so many individuals, given that social change often feels incredibly elusive, there’s an aspect of empowerment that comes with modifying one’s consumer choices—like buying organic produce or going vegan. What, in your view, is wrong with this idea and what might be a better way to think about consumer action and social change?

Aschoff: It depends on what you want to get out of lifestyle politics. If your goal is to eat healthier, or simplify your life by reducing your possessions, then buying better things—if you have the money—can be quite empowering. But if your goal is to impact bigger processes, like environmental degradation or global poverty, lifestyle politics is not the answer. Companies that produce nice things like organic food or sustainable furniture are like all other companies, and must constantly expand and produce more to generate profits.

This does not mean that making better choices is useless or that we shouldn’t challenge the way things are being produced. It is simply a call for different kinds of projects. The environmental crisis is ultimately a social and political crisis that can only be solved by collective action.

Cohen: One chapter looks at the rise of “philanthrocapitalists” like the Gateses, Waltons, Broads, and Buffetts. In an era of scarce resources and shrinking government budgets, why should we be concerned about the growing influence of philanthropists?

Aschoff: Periods of increasing activity by philanthropic foundations, or these days “philanthrocapitalists,” are historically a symptom of social crisis associated with rising inequality. On the surface this might seem positive. But we can’t expect big foundations to solve inequality, or poverty, or any number of other social ills.

Foundations distract from how wealth creation works, by making it appear that philanthropists are doing people a favor out of the goodness of their hearts. This hides the fact that the wealth they have amassed was not simply the result of their own cunning or ability—it was made possible by all the people who worked for them, not to mention the public infrastructure made possible by taxpayers. By presenting themselves as do-gooders or charitable institutions, foundations erase the last four decades of aggressive lobbying for financial deregulation and tax-cuts and the concerted attacks on working people and unions by businesses and elites.

Unlike taxes, when foundations make philanthropic donations, they are choosing which projects they want to fund. These projects often have some progressive effects—poor children get vaccines when they wouldn’t otherwise. But they also often contain conservative goals—for example, the Gateses favor commoditizing health care rather than supporting universal health care, and many foundations support privatizing public education and reducing the voice of parents and teachers in how schools are run.

Whether we like foundation projects or not makes little difference because people like Bill and Melinda Gates are incredibly powerful and essentially unaccountable. We have no say over how foundation money is used, even when it impacts people’s lives profoundly.

Cohen: You note that challenging these stories about capitalism “require a fundamental rethinking of our current way of life, a prospect that evokes fears of violence and disorder, and a deeper apprehension that in the process of transforming our society, we might lose ourselves and the essence of who we are.” How do we overcome these fears?

Aschoff: Capitalism is a stressful system. People use up most of their energy just keeping their head above water, so telling them to imagine a different kind of society might seem silly or off-putting. But when we look back at U.S. history—at slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, Jim Crow, homophobia—these things didn’t get better by themselves. People fought and died to make them better, and they continue that struggle today. Capitalism is a historical development; there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about it. As renowned author Ursula Le Guin said recently: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” Reminding ourselves how change has happened in the past is important if we want to think seriously about creating a different kind of society.

Cohen: One chapter of your book explores Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s particular brand of feminism. Your argument, which I’ve also seen made by writers like Sarah JaffeElizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sarah Leonard, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, suggests that Sandberg’s approach of encouraging women to “lean in” may help a small slice of elite women access power, but ultimately won’t help women at the bottom of the economic ladder. Why does it have to be an either/or discussion?

Aschoff: Nearly everyone is dependent upon wages to pay for all the things they need to survive, but those wages come directly out of the profits of the businesses they work for. The job of a head of a company—whether male or female—is to maximize profits, and one way they can do this is by paying as little as possible in wages and taxes. This means the goals of women leaders are often at odds with the needs of working-class women. Having women at the top may help in the fight against sexism and smooth the way for other women to step into leadership positions, but the idea that women leaders will implement better conditions for women more broadly has little historical precedent.

Sandberg’s manifesto aligns perfectly with the needs of capital by encouraging women to map their dreams onto the growth trajectories of corporate America. Sure, seeing women in leadership positions can be aspirational, but turning this into the mechanism for achieving feminism hides the structural barriers preventing most women from achieving security and success, while simultaneously burnishing the meritocratic façade of big business. Real feminism—the idea that everyone, regardless of gender, should get decent pay and a voice in their workplace, dignity, respect, quality healthcare and childcare, the right to higher education and housing, and a robust support network for old age, illness, or disability—is incompatible with scaling the corporate jungle gym.

Cohen: When we hear about an anti-union company announcing they will raise their minimum wage, or give more flexible commuting options, or expand their paid maternity leave, how should we be thinking about these employers and business models? In an era where everything can seem bad and getting worse, how should we be thinking about these bouts of “conscious capitalism” in the marketplace?

Aschoff: Capitalism’s overwhelming power often inspires a feeling of helplessness or despair, so it is understandable to feel hopeful when businesses make small decisions that improve people’s lives, like raising wages or improving working conditions. At the end of the day, the goal of any political movement should always be about making people’s lives better. But there is a difference between gains granted by “conscious” companies and gains that are won through struggle.

Take for example the Fight for 15. Winning $15 an hour won’t change the fact these companies exist to make a profit—they can absorb higher wage costs and continue going about their business essentially unchanged—but that certainly doesn’t mean that $15 isn’t worth fighting for. It would represent a huge change for people living in poverty. Victories like the recent one in NY are exciting, and show that not only can workers win when they fight together, but also the potential of their struggles to build solidarity and confidence that can be channeled into a much broader, democratic movement for change.

On International Women’s Day: Baltimore Marches

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on March 9th, 2015.
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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen | March 8, 2015

When global corporations such as BP and Accenture become vaunted sponsors of International Women’s Day, it’s easy to worry that the holiday—first organized by early 20th-century socialists—has lost its radical roots. But for the 50 Baltimore citizens who convened on Sunday to celebrate, commemorate, and mobilize fellow women activists, the revolutionary spirit was alive and well.

The Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST) organized the three-hour event, which included a march that began at the corner of Hillen and Fallsway and ended with a rally outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Gathering at 3 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny afternoon, the organizers were clear about their objectives for the day.

“We have to remain vigilant about reclaiming and remembering the black female victims of police brutality because black women and girls’ lives matter too,” said Lynae Pindell, a 23-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We have only framed [police violence] as a black male problem.” Pindell spoke of the need to “move beyond that sexist lens” which renders invisible the racial profiling, sexual harassment, strip searches, rape, and other acts of gender-based violence that women and girls are regularly subjected to. Reading off a list of black women and girls who have died at the hands of police—including Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, and Aiyana Jones—Pindell pointed out that all of these women received far less media attention than Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.

Colleen Davidson, an activist with FIST, reminded the crowd that their International Women’s Day march was coinciding with the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”—the famous civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The fight against racism, she stressed, is deeply intertwined with their battle against patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and police brutality. “More communities are mobilizing, and the struggle is growing,” Davidson said enthusiastically.

Before the march began, the crowd was encouraged to shout out names of women who are important to them. “Ella Baker! Mother Jones! Nina Simone! Coretta Scott King! Harriet Tubman! Leslie Feinberg! Billie Holiday! Sojourner Truth! Audre Lorde!”

When the diverse crowd finally began to march—with women leading in the front, and men instructed to hang in the back—activists lifted banners and bright green picket signs, chanting, “Free our sisters! Free ourselves!”

Jessye Grieve-Carlson, a sophomore at Goucher College, was there with fellow members of the Goucher Feminist Collective. She said she was looking to do more off-campus activism and engage with local organizers. Another marcher, Ellen Barfield, said she dreams of a time when there will be an International Men’s Day because that will mean that women will have gained power. Barfield, an army veteran and longtime peace activist, co-founded the Baltimore chapter of Veterans for Peace, but notes that the group is largely male. “Even though they’re well-meaning for the most part,” she says, “they’re still pretty blinded by the patriarchy.”

When the group arrived outside of the Baltimore City Detention Center, standing beneath the tall barbed-wired fence, activists took turns making speeches, reading poems, and singing songs. Central to the speeches were calls for economic justice—specifically for better jobs with living wages, increased access to affordable housing, and an end to mass incarceration.

According to the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative, “Maryland taxpayers spend nearly $300 million each year to incarcerate people from Baltimore City.”

“We are not just out here marching for Planned Parenthood and abortion rights,” said Sharon Black, a 65-year-old activist with the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly. “We are here for our real liberation.” Pointing her finger at the bleak-looking detention center, Black urged, “People don’t need to be locked behind bars and treated like animals. Our sisters deserve better.”

After the rally concluded, the activists left East Baltimore and relocated to the church hall of the First Unitarian Church in Mount Vernon, marching along with chants like, “No justice! No peace! No sexist police!”

Waiting for them in the church was a big buffet of chili, macaroni and cheese, salad, sandwiches, desserts, and other snacks prepared by the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly and IWW union members. Local activists, like Tawanda Jones—the sister of Tyrone West and a leader in Baltimore’s fight against police brutality—were recognized by the organizers and given awards. Other honorees included Palestinian activist Laila El-Haddad, Black Lives Matter protest organizer Sara Benjamin, and Tiffany Beroid, a leader pushing for Wal-Mart to grant pregnant workers their rights.

So what’s next for these women and men?

“We’re not looking to form a new organization, because a lot of us are already involved in so many groups,” Black told me. “But we want to help unite everyone, so that next year we’ll be more poised to take collective action.”

Black reiterated this sentiment when she addressed the crowd, suggesting that maybe everyone would consider reconvening quarterly, to strategize for more sophisticated city and statewide efforts. She also made a plug for the Fight for 15 movement’s next national day of action, which is scheduled for April 15. Though the Fight for 15 movement has not been as strong in Baltimore as it has been elsewhere, the organizers hope to at least plan a march in solidarity with the fast food strikers in other cities.

Tawanda Jones also encouraged everyone to come to Annapolis March 12, where the Maryland legislature will be considering several bills that address police accountability reform. “We can’t bring Tyrone back but we can stop another family from feeling the same,” said Jones. “That’s why we do what we do—justice for all victims of police brutality.”

Marginalized Economists: Revisiting Robert Heilbroner

Originally published on the US Intellectual History blog on May 25th, 2014.
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While historians have begun to take interest in the history of economic thought, the tendency to research the most influential figures, the “historical winners”, has persisted as the predominant scholarly trend. But there are merits to studying the dissenters, too. Following not only how the economics profession took the turn it did but also looking at those who tried to advocate for an alternative vision, can help to clarify the seeming intellectual hegemony of our economic times.

Robert Heilbroner, arguably the most prominent dissenting American economist of the late twentieth century, followed his changing discipline with despair. So great was his anxiety over the powerful trends capturing the minds of his colleagues, championed by individuals like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman and Gregory Mankiw, that he dedicated himself to addressing what he felt were economics’ existential threats. Yet despite his efforts, with over twenty books to his name, Robert Heilbroner never gained recognition and mainstream respect. Even in 2014, there remains little work written about him. [1]

Born into an affluent German-Jewish family in 1919, Robert Heilbroner was no stranger to privilege. Yet when his father died when he was just five years old, and his family’s chauffeur then became his surrogate father, Heilbroner developed a nascent sense of class-consciousness. Heilbroner “sensed the indignity of [his driver’s] position as a family intimate yet a subordinate.”[2] Later in life Heilbroner would say that he felt the experience “explains something about my…personality and hence about my work. I’ve found myself pulled between conservative standards on the one hand, and a strong feeling for the underdog on the other.”[3]

Heilbroner went on to Harvard in 1936, and became interested in economic thought after readingThe Theory of the Leisure Class during his sophomore year. He called the experience “an awakening” and went on to graduate with majors in history, government and economics. [4] (Fortuitously: read Andy Peal’s recent post on Veblen’s “iconoclasm”.) Throughout his life one could spot the Veblenian influence in Heilbroner’s work; it was his central conviction that the “search for the order and meaning of social history lies at the heart of economics.”[5]

Heilbroner worked during an era of great political and cultural upheaval. In the late 1940s and 50s, while other European countries were suffering from the harsh ramifications of the war, American economics grew rapidly. Not only was America’s economy growing strong, but employment opportunities for economists were also expanding ever since the passage of the New Deal. Moreover, when many war veterans went off to college on the GI Bill of 1944, many of them chose to study the social sciences, creating a new demand for economics professors. Thus, economics departments grew to a size that American universities had never before seen.

Additionally, partly due to the influence of wartime planning, statistical study and empirical work became increasingly interwoven. After 1945, economics grounded itself more firmly within the confines of quantitative methods, including algebraic procedures, theoretical models, and economic statistics. When Paul Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis in 1947, he constructed a persuasive framework that would guide the economic discipline towards a field defined much more through the development of testable propositions. The influence of John Maynard Keynes also helped to establish mechanisms that could be analyzed formally, setting the stage for the transition to math. [6] Economists like Milton Friedman also followed up on all this in the early 1950s, pushing for a “positivist” economic movement that would be “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.”[7]

As economics drifted in a more mathematical direction, the former stronghold of the institutionalist camp began to falter. Universities espousing the new mathematical approach like MIT, the University of Chicago and Berkeley rose to prominence, while former bastions of institutionalism, like Columbia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, declined dramatically in relevance and influence. [8]

Robert Heilbroner’s most famous book, The Worldly Philosophers, provides insight into what he thought about these new professional trends. Published in 1953, the book which traces the lives of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others, became one of the most widely-read texts ever written on the history of economic thought. Although Heilbroner self-described politically as a democratic socialist, he reserved immense admiration for economists like Smith and Schumpeter. In fact, realistically, he hoped to see a return to economic conversations rooted in the spirit of thinkers like Smith. That would demand, for example, that to really theorize on markets and businesses, as Smith does in The Wealth of Nations, one must also delve into topics like justice, virtue and conscience, as Smith does in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [9] In a 1999 New York Times interview, just six years before his death, Heilbroner said, ”The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system—the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical… modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much.” [10]

To be sure, Robert Heilbroner did not oppose the entry of mathematics into economics. He felt a quantitative approach could augment the thick, social and philosophical analysis already (or at least formerly) employed. And he recognized that math is simply the only tool economists have available to answer certain questions. Heilbroner differed from his colleagues not over whether math was useful, but over what math was capable of explaining. Where colleagues like Friedman pushed a positivist agenda to avoid “normative” answers to some of society’s toughest questions, Heilbroner tried to show that all decisions carry inherently normative judgments. And when individuals like Greg Mankiw asserted that economists were capable of tackling economics with the same objectivity as that of a natural scientist, Heilbroner pushed back.

“What does it mean to be “objective” about such things as inherited wealth or immissterating poverty? Does it mean that those arrangements reflect some properties of society that must be accepted, just as the scientist accepts the arrangements studied through a telescope or under a microscope? Or does it mean that if we were scrupulously aware of our own private endorsements or rejections of society’s arrangements we could, by applying an appropriate discount, arrive at a truly neutral view? In that case, could one use the word “scientific” to describe our findings, even though the object of study was not a product of nature but of society? The answer is that we cannot.”

Heilbroner also strove for economic conversations that ended the “precipitous decrease” in the presence of the word capitalism. Without referring to the economic system by name, Heilbroner argued, we encourage individuals to forget what the system is for and in whose interests it is working. He looked to Joseph Stiglitz, who penned a 997-paged economic textbook, and found in it a grand total of zero references to the word “capitalism.” These types of absences reinforced Heilbroner’s angst that society was losing sight of a fundamental descriptor necessary to conceptualize modern economics. [11]

If these were Heilbroner’s only academic critiques, perhaps he would not have been so marginalized. But Heilbroner went further in his attempts to push social analysis into economics, suggesting that, “indeed the challenge may in fact require that economics come to recognize itself as a discipline that follows in the wake of sociology and politics rather than proudly leading the way for them.” This suggestion of inverting the disciplinary hierarchies highlighted an epistemological modesty not shared by many other economists in the field. [12]

While Robert Heilbroner never lived to see economics revert to a broader, more social analytical framework, his work nevertheless may have had some tangential influence over areas outside of economics. Cornell sociologist Richard Swedberg observed that “one of the most important developments” for the social sciences in the past few decades “has been the race to fill the void created by mainstream economics’ failure to do research on economic institutions.” For example, a new academic field began to take form in the 1980s—that of economic sociology. In 1985, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published an article entitled, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”, laying an intellectual base for the new field. Granovetter’s goal, echoing Heilbroner’s rhetoric, was to push economics from its knee-jerk emphasis on rationality towards a greater focus on the ways in which social structure and social relations factor into economic systems and power hierarchies. As Granovetter said, “there is something very basically wrong with microeconomics, and that the new economic sociology should make this argument loud and clear especially in the absolutely core economic areas of market structure, production, pricing, distribution and consumption.” [13]

New programs within graduate history departments have also emerged, designed to focus more specifically on the relationship between historical events and economics. Duke University’s Center for the History of Political Economy was founded in 2008 and Harvard University’s Joint Center for History and Economics was founded in 2007.  And, just this past springthe New School launched a new center, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which seeks to blend “the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.”[14]

There is some evidence that suggests that even the economics profession might be changing. When Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in the spirit of the worldly philosophers, he advanced an argument for a global wealth tax not only based on his analysis of quantitative data, but also from his engagement with philosophy, history, and even 19th century literature. And the Institute for New Economic Thinking, founded in 2009, is meant to support economic projects and research that challenge the traditional paradigms of rational models and markets.

More aspects of Robert Heilbroner’s work deserve revisiting. His attentiveness to history and his fundamental humility led to some very fascinating writings about the future, technology, business civilization and the capitalist order. His rich 40-year career leaves us much more in which to sift and question.

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[1] The best, albeit limited, secondary sources I could find included Loren J. Okroi’s Galbraith, Harrington, Heilbroner: Economics and Dissent In an Age of Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press1988), Mathew Forstater’s “”In Memoriam: Robert L. Heilbroner The Continuing Relevance of The Worldly Philosophy” in Economic Issues 10.1 (March 2005) and Robert Pollin’s “Robert Heilbroner: Worldly Philosopher” in Challenge (May/June 1999).

[2] Pollin, “Heilbroner”, 34.
[3] Okroi, Heilbroner, 183.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers. (N.p.: F. Watts, 1966.) 16.
[6] Backhouse, Roger and Philippe Fontaine. History of the Social Sciences Since 1945. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 39, 40, 46, 52.
[7] Friedman, Milton. Essays in Positive Economics.(Chicago: UChicago Press, 1953) 4
[8] Backhouse, History of the Social Sciences, 42.
[9] Dieterle, David Anthony, Economic Thinkers: A Biographical Encyclopedia. (Greenwood, 2013) 131.
[10] Backhouse, Roger; Bateman, Bradley. “Worldly Philosophers Wanted.” New York Times.November 5, 2011.
[11] Heilbroner. The Worldly Philosophers. 314, 318, 315, 318.
[12] Heilbroner, Robert L., and William S. Milberg. The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought. (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995) 126.
[13] Swedberg, Richard. “A New Economic Sociology: What Has Been Accomplished, What is Ahead?” Acta Sociologica.(1997), 161, 163, 164.
[14] Ott, Julia, and William Milberg. “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto.” Public Seminar RSS. Graduate Programs at NSSR, 17 Apr. 2014.