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.”