The New Prophets of Capital is a good starting point for anyone with a gut instinct that something might be amiss when they hear about the latest capitalist seemingly giving away their fortune, advocating a new lifestyle, or setting up projects to eradicate poverty and improve education.
Nicole Aschoff questions the messages of high-profile businesspeople, the ‘prophets’ of the book’s title: Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey and Bill and Melinda Gates. These individuals have the resources to promote their ideas to large audiences. They show awareness of social and environmental ills that afflict the world and offer appealing, seemingly realistic solutions, such as so-called ‘ethical’ products or tips for self-betterment.
Aschoff encourages us to be wary of such stories that promote business-friendly prescriptions. Even if well-intentioned and successful on a narrow level, perhaps these narratives also do harm. They serve to support and reinvigorate an economic system that tends to generate, exacerbate or reproduce problems, such as inequality, by putting profit above the needs of most people and the environment.
Each chapter of this short book spends time explaining the ideas of each ‘prophet’ in a patient, respectful manner. This tone helps to demonstrate why their ideas can be popular, while enabling Aschoff’s criticisms to go beyond attacking the personalities and whims of individuals. Even if these people have crafty or selfish intentions, we can to some extent give them the benefit of the doubt to concentrate instead on the wider implications of their ideas, values and practices. We should question the contradictory economic system and institutions from which they emerge, help to promote, reproduce and transform.
Aschoff’s book could introduce people to left politics and economics in an interesting and accessible way. By using familiar contemporary figures as reference points it may make it easier for readers to share their discoveries with friends, family and colleagues. At the same time it is rich enough to subsequently lead to deeper questioning of issues concerning production, feminism, democracy, ideology, and even the differences between Weberian and Marxist approaches.
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