Technology, Resistance and Power in the New Gilded Age

Nicole Aschoff

Beacon Press (Spring 2020)


In the span of a decade smartphones have become ubiquitous. More than half the world now uses one. In the United States, 77 percent of the population, including 92 percent of young adults, owns a smartphone today. The smartphone is a high-powered computer that is always on and always with us. It’s a real-time, high-speed digital freeway, connecting us to others and others to us twenty-four hours a day. Most of us are rather blasé about this development, but we shouldn’t be. This perpetual connection is both unprecedented and deeply meaningful; it is central to radical changes in work, family, love, markets, politics, and ideas, and is fundamentally shaped by existing structures of race, class, and gender.

In this New Gilded Age corporations and governments have hijacked the digital freeway, co-opting our connectivity for profit and control. Network effects and aggressive efforts to control markets have turned platform companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon into modern-day monopolies with dire consequences for privacy, job creation, and inequality. Meanwhile, an unprecedented surveillance state has emerged that uses our phones to digitally monitor, harass, and even kill in countries across the globe.

But people are using their smartphones to fight back. After a long bout of quiescence to the neoliberal status quo, global capitalism is experiencing a growing crisis of legitimacy. In a moment when the boundaries between the public and the private and the digital and the “real” are increasingly blurred, our hand machines have reconfigured how people engage in politics and how we understand democracy and privacy. New modes of resistance are emerging, signaling the possibility that our pocket computers could be harnessed for the benefit of people, not profit.

The birth of the smartphone alongside the deepest financial crisis of the past seventy years have generated a society that looks qualitatively different from the one we’ve known for the past four decades. Yet the nature of this shift is not yet well understood. The battle over who controls our smartphones will determine whether our hand machines will tether us ever more tightly to processes of commodification and oppression, or serve as a liberatory tool to resist corporate monopoly and increasingly authoritarian governments—and build a better future.


Praise for The New Prophets of Capital:

“A highly original and fascinating exploration of what we might think of as ‘changeless change’—the kind of innovation that simultaneously upends current practices and studiously protects existing wealth and power inequities. Through four well-chosen and emblematic case studies, Aschoff tackles this slippery subject with confidence and subtlety, providing readers with key intellectual tools to separate fact from fiction.”

Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

“Nicole Aschoff expertly dissects the magical thinking behind America’s idolatry of the invisible hand. In a series of lively and closely argued case studies, she lets readers see the threadbare state of our rationales for the market’s uncontested sovereignty. And just as impressively, she urges us not to be daunted by the challenges ahead.”

Chris Lehmann, author of Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class

“Nicole Aschoff has skewered the high priests and priestesses of our most unshakable religion: capitalism. Anyone persuading you to ‘lean in,’ engage in ‘conscious capitalism’ or admire philanthropists will be (rightfully) upset by Aschoff’s takedown of some of the big-name ‘ethical capitalists’ of our era: Sheryl Sandberg, Bill Gates, Whole Foods’ John Mackey. Aschoff takes apart the platitudes of liberal capitalism and offers a solid set of alternatives that stress the collective over the individual, people over profit, and real narratives over cover stories.”

Nina Power, author of One Dimensional Woman

The New Prophets of Capital is intellectually serious without succumbing to critical jargon, and Aschoff makes her points both thoughtfully and rigorously.”

Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Wry and adroit.”

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, The New Republic


Nicole Aschoff is a writer and sociologist. She is the author of The New Prophets of Capital (Verso, 2015). She is a member of the Jacobin editorial board and her writing has been featured in the Guardian, the Nation, Al Jazeera, Dissent, and openDemocracy. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University, taught at Boston University, and is the former managing editor of Jacobin magazine.