Woke Capitalism

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Michael Rectenwald:

"A peculiar phrase recently introduced into the political lexicon by media cognoscenti describes a new corporate philosophy: “woke capitalism.” Coined by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, woke capitalism refers to a burgeoning wave of companies that apparently have become advocates of social justice. Some major corporations now intervene in social and political issues and controversies, partaking in a new corporate activism. The newly “woke” corporations support activist groups and social movements, while adding their voices to political debates. Woke capitalism has endorsed Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo Movement, contemporary feminism, LGBTQ rights, and immigration activism, among other leftist causes." (https://www.michaelrectenwald.com/essays/2019/4/10/libertarianisms-versus-postmodernism-and-social-justice-ideology)


Michael Rectenwald:

"my topic today is the “social justice” of U.S. for-profit corporations. Although regarded as new, I will show that “woke capitalism” is but a subset and recent type of a broader and longer-standing corporate ethos that I call “corporate leftism.” As it turns out, analyzing woke capitalism tells us a great deal about contemporary corporate capitalism, the contemporary political left, and the relationship between the two. It also recalls an earlier corporate leftism. (Woke capitalism also helps to make sense of the topic of my next book, Google Archipelago, a study of Big Digital — the mega-data services; media, cable, and Internet services; social media platforms; Artificial Intelligence (AI) agents; apps; and the developing Internet of Things. The Google Archipelago is not merely an amalgam of digital business interests. It operates and will increasingly operate as what the only redeemable postmodern theorist, Michel Foucault, called a “governmentality,” a means of governing the conduct of populations but also the technologies of governance and the rationality that underpins the technologies.)

Despite the initial backlash, Nike’s “Believe in Something” ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick — whose national anthem kneel-downs brought #BlackLivesMatter protest to the NFL — dramatically boosted Nike’s sales. The ad’s success supported Business Insider columnist Josh Barro’s theory that woke capitalism provides a form of parapolitical representation for corporate consumers. Given their perceived political disenfranchisement in the political sphere, woke capitalism offers representation in the public sphere.

With wokeness, Ross Douthat of the New York Times argues, corporations offer workers and customers rhetorical placebos in lieu of costlier economic concessions, such as higher wages and better benefits, or lower prices. Short of a socialist revolution, New York Congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal seems unlikely to materialize.[6] Douthat suggests that woke capitalism works by substituting symbolic for economic value. The same gestures of wokeness may also appease the liberal political elite, promoting their agendas of identity politics, gender pluralism, transgenderism, lax immigration standards, sanctuary cities, and so on. In return, the woke corporations hope to be spared higher taxes, increased regulations, and antitrust legislation aimed at monopolies.

Meanwhile, at least one woke corporation appears intent on scolding its customers. I refer to Gillette and its “We Believe” ad. Like Nike, Gillette is a subsidiary of Proctor & Gamble. First posted to its social media accounts in mid-January 2019, the ad condescendingly lectures men, presumably “cishetero” men, about “toxic masculinity.” In the provocative ad, three men look into separate mirrors—not to shave but to examine themselves for traces of the dreaded condition. Voice-overs admonish men “to say the right thing, to act the right way.” Dramatizations of bullying, mansplaining, misogyny, and sexual predation shame bad men and enjoin a woke minority of men to “hold other men accountable,” or else face shame as well.

For Gillette, “shaving” now apparently means shearing away the characteristics associated with manhood now deemed pathological by the American Psychological Association[8]. To prevent the sudden onset or relapse of man-disease, self-groomers must exercise vigilance, scathing self-scrutiny, and unwavering determination. Even though their gender malignance has been “socially constructed,” men are responsible for immediately discerning and excising its outgrowths. The Gillette ad thus prescribes a new gender hygienics by which such brutes can “move upward, working out the beast,”[9] becoming “The Best a Man Can Get,” a newly-shorn animal, or rather a new kind of man shorn of animality.

Like the Nike Kaepernick ad, the Gillette “We Believe” ad provoked significant backlash. But parent company Proctor & Gamble’s executive response to the ensuing furor suggested that the corporation was willing to forgo profits for virtue points, at least for now. Jon Moeller, Proctor & Gamble’s CFO, told reporters that post-ad sales were “in-line with pre-campaign levels.” In advertising terms, in other words, the ad was a failure. Yet, Moeller viewed the expenditure as an investment in the future. “It's a part of our effort to connect more meaningfully with younger consumer groups," he explained, perhaps referring to those too young to sport the toxic stubble.

Unsatisfied with the above explanations, I still wondered how and why corporations assumed the role of social justice arbiters and how and why social justice came to be the ideology of major U.S. corporations. But before venturing my own theory, however, I’d like to retrace a history of corporate leftism, which will shed light on the relationship between leftism and corporatism.

Corporate leftism has a long history, dating at least to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I first recognized corporate leftism through the histories that documented the funding of the Russian and other socialist revolutions by leading U.S. capitalists and bankers. As Richard B. Spence boldly declares in Wall Street and the Russian Revolution 1905-1925, the term “socialist-capitalist” is not an oxymoron.

Spence was not referring to so-called “mixed economies” but rather to a false dichotomy, a mating of two supposed economic antinomies, socialism and capitalism. Understanding why the term is not an oxymoron does not necessarily depend upon the historical knowledge uncovered by Spence, and before him, by Antony C. Sutton — although, given that I am a historian, I found that this material revealing. But the apparent contradiction in terms is based on a mischaracterization of economic opposites and a failure to detect in the original name for the field of economics, namely “political economy,” the inherent possibility of such a conjunction. The real opposites are not capitalism and socialism but rather individual freedom versus centralized political control, whether statist or corporatist..

According to Sutton’s Wall Street and FDR (1975), “corporate socialism is a system where those few who hold the legal monopolies of financial and industrial control profit at the expense of all others in society.” For Sutton, “The most lucid and frank description of corporate socialism and its mores and objectives is to be found in a 1906 booklet by Frederick Clemson Howe, Confessions of a Monopolist.” In attempting to validate Sutton’s reference to Howe as the prototypical monopolist[15] or even corporate socialist, I was disappointed, but ultimately found the excursion rewarding.

Beginning with Spence’s Wall Street and the Russian Revolution 1905-1925, which had the same title as one of Sutton’s major books except for an added date range, I searched feverishly for “Howe” and “Confessions of a Monopolist.” (Actually, as is my wont, I searched electronic texts and the Kindle version of Spence, so my search produced nothing like a fever. But I am nostalgic for a past that I never knew, when in nineteenth century novels, the researches of fictional characters like Victor Frankenstein resulted in life-threatening frenzies.)" (https://www.michaelrectenwald.com/essays/2019/4/10/libertarianisms-versus-postmodernism-and-social-justice-ideology)

More information

  • Barro, Josh. “There's a Simple Reason Companies Are Becoming More Publicly Left-Wing on Social Issues.” Business Insider, 1 Mar. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/why-companies-ditching-nra-delta-selling-guns-2018-2.