The problem with the not-so-radical solutions to global inequalities

Sheryl Sandberg and Bill Gates at the 2015 World Economic Forum. (Credit: Esther Dyson/flickr)

At a time when inequality is an increasing problem around the world, leaders have emerged with new solutions to address the ills that face Americans and people elsewhere. From gender equality to the environment to global poverty, these leaders are putting ideas into action to make the world a better place. Or so it seems.

A new book challenges the notion that these “new prophets” are advocating for things that will actually change the world. Sociologist and Jacobin contributor Nicole Aschoff argues that ideas espoused by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, Bill and Melinda Gates and Oprah Winfrey claim to fix problems faced by the world while doubling down on the root causes.

“Most of us share the concerns of Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill and Melinda Gates, and we long for simple, feasible ways to improve society,” Aschoff writes in The New Prophets of Capital. “But the stories and solutions they offer will not end inequality, poverty, alienation, oppression, or environmental degradation. They will not resolve the contradictions of capitalism.”

The short e-book is divided into sections dealing with each of the four “prophets.” It comes at a time when many Americans are looking for change. It is evidenced by the growth of movements like Occupy, the Tea Party, the push for increased minimum wage, and the support for outside presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. People want something different and are looking to fresh ideas and leaders. Aschoff noticed that many of the emerging leaders come from the top.

“I think most people out there really are concerned about things like inequality, poverty, environmental degradation,” said Aschoff in an interview with Humanosphere. “These kinds of elite storytellers are the main people kind of addressing them. They offer solutions that seem achievable.”

Sandburg rose to fame in the past few years with the release of her oft-debated book Lean In. Its premise is to address the problem of gender equality in the American work place. Sandburg uses her own story and experiences to offer advice on how women can close the gap between men and women. It is a type of feminism that is as attractive as it is wrong.

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“If we look historically at successful development they’ve come through big state-led infrastructure, health, growing domestic markets. Not this one-by-one strategy of lifting up women,” said Aschoff. “It fits in a broader neoliberal prescription for how we can solve inequality and poverty without addressing the things that cause inequality and poverty.”

Women rising to leadership roles and increasing power is a good thing, she explained in our conversation. The issue is whether the power gained by women, like Sandberg and those who follow her advice, reach other women farther down the corporate ladder. Women in the workplace still deal with smaller salaries compared with their male counterparts and lack of support on things like maternity leave.

Similar problems are exposed in the other three leaders. Mackey aims his business practices to reduce environmental degradation. But he looks to capitalism as the answer, thus promoting the worrying pace of consumption that is causing harm to the planet. For Gates it is about technological fixes – new vaccines and toilets – to issues that are far more complicated. And Oprah, with her television show, magazine and brand, tells her followers to seek inner happiness to fix the problems a person faces.

“The ads in O are the other half of the feel-good formula. Fill up that hole inside you with spirituality and really nice stuff,” Aschoff writes in the book.

All of the solutions ignore the significant issues of power and politics. Uncertainty caused by a slow economy and job loss cannot be cured by reading the latest Deepak Chopra book. But it is the feeling of insecurity experienced by Americans today and the offer of easy solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems that makes the ideas of these “prophets” so appealing, Aschoff argues.

A socialist, she sees meaningful change taking place with a complete overhaul of the status quo. The things that make the four people featured in the book wealthy and influential are contributing to the problem of income inequality and the overall feeling of insecurity.

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Aschoff worries that philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates have little accountability for what they are doing. Money spent supporting education in the United States by the Gates Foundation targets the things they feel are most important and work best. That at times operates outside of the publicly accountable actions of local and national governments.

“The Gates Foundation, whether they are doing good things or bad things, they are not a democratic institute. They are doing the things Bill and Melinda want,” she said.

And what they want, says Aschoff, is to solve problems with measurable solutions. For example, the foundation is leading the charge to end polio. The disease is on the brink of eradication thanks in large part to the financial support provided by the foundation for vaccines. It is an issue that has a known solution. But there is less certainty from the foundation on something like universal health coverage.

“Once you understand their approach to fixing problems, it makes perfect sense that they don’t really get behind universal health coverage. It is a project that relies on developing and working through the state. It is not something easily quantifiable. You cannot put the results up on a chart,” Aschoff explained.

Her hope is that the book will spark new ideas and help the people who are feeling unhappy with the way things are and the proposed solutions. Momentum built more than a decade ago during the anti-World Trade Organization protests eventually petered out. But similar movements against power are making a comeback. Aschoff sees the early successes of movements to raise the minimum wage as cause for optimism.

“The good things that we have in the U.S. or elsewhere are the result of people challenging the status quo and organizing collectively to do,” Aschoff said. “A lot of the new organizing now has learned from the past mistakes and successes over the past few years.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Though being of Leftish persuasion, and a Greens voter, and an international development worker of many decades (more missionary than mercenary), I have to look askance at many of my friends and colleagues who seem to be trapped in an unreconstructed socialism. The criticisms of Gates et al, are sound, but the tired old single-cause totalising solutions seem to lack reflection on history.

    I’ve been to Tuol Sleng. I’ve worked with people whose families were decimated by hunger under the Sorbonne-educated leadership of the Khmer Rouge. I remember when I asked one of them whom they consider the “father” of their country: “Our country has no father: only evil step-fathers.” This was the result (and by no means the only case) of “root cause” thinking, and of “a complete overhaul of the status quo”.

    Here’s my alternative: Change will be led by those on the front lines, not academics from NYU, MIT, Columbia (you know who I’m talking about) or the Sorbonne. It will be led be people resident in each community, country and region. It will proceed in a mess of initiatives, none of which is totalising. There will be no single ideology. Many errors will be made. Much learning will be missed. But none of these errors will be fatal. Seven billion different hearts and minds and hands will muddle through, and where we all arrive will be a place not foreseen by those of us alive today… any more than those in the 19th century foresaw how we live and think today, as I type on a machine manufactured in China, driving electrons through quantum mechanical hoops, across a globalised mesh of light-carrying glass fibres.