The problem with “woke capitalism”

The problem with “woke capitalism”

Photo Credits: MELINDA CHEN / AGGIE

How the marriage of market capitalism with social progressivism trades the interests of the worker in favor of profit

While it may have already fallen out of relevance in our ever-accelerating news cycle, Procter and Gamble Co.’s Gillette ad targeting so-called toxic masculinity stirred up yet another culture war frenzy last month. The commercial, praised by some and the target of scorn for many more, was yet another entry in a growing list of corporate adverts aimed at promoting social justice. Yet the main takeaway from the ad may be just how hypocritical and exploitative the relentless force of “woke capitalism” is.

In an era when a burgeoning populist right has grown increasingly hostile to the free market and an anti-capitalist left is emerging as a legitimate electoral force, major corporations have found themselves facing increased scrutiny. In turn, these companies have found a winning formula in the adoption of socially progressive branding. By co-opting social justice movements, major corporations have been able to largely absolve themselves of the responsibilities they owe their workers while simultaneously adopting a type of broadcasting with increased appeal to Millenials. You can now get away with wage suppression and union-busting, so long as you adopt the right corporate messaging.

In decades prior, the relationship between major corporations and their workers was largely dominated by collective bargaining. Trade unions, long a bastion of economic leftism, represented workers’ common interests against the powerful onslaught of corporate elites. This was especially true in the era succeeding the New Deal, when unions had accumulated significant political capital. This in turn forced companies to come to the bargaining table by making them pay breadwinners and their families living wages.

As de-industrialization has diminished the political influence of unions, however, corporations have no longer found themselves obligated to answer the needs of their workers. Furthermore, the decline of economic leftism and the increased focus on identity issues borne out of the culture revolutions of the 1960s and 70s has allowed corporate America to rebrand itself through performative wokeness.

Accordingly, capitalism has become entirely compatible with left-wing identity politics. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the president of the Women’s March Alliance is an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, or that defense contractor Raytheon — which has profited extensively from the ongoing slaughter in Yemen — is lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for making efforts towards LGBTQ inclusivity in the workplace.

Workers in developing countries are similarly exploited and hidden behind the curtain of corporate social progressivism. Consider ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, whose Pecan Resist flavor won over the hearts and minds of those who felt disaffected by the Trump administration. Nevermind that Ben & Jerry’s is a subsidiary of the multinational mega-corporation Unilever, an organization that, alongside none other than Procter & Gamble, has been indicted by Amnesty International for its use of child labor in Indonesia.

Similarly, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick-inspired advert earlier this year became a rallying cry for progressives in the culture war, paying the company dividends — Nike sales increased 31 percent after the ad campaign. Missing from the national debate was the fact that it came out at the same time Nike was fending off allegations from United Students Against Sweatshops over worker exploitation. Ironically, Nike did little to reciprocate the political action of their consumers — they immediately proceeded to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to congressional Republicans during the 2018 midterms.

Ultimately, the appropriation of social justice by major corporations has done little to benefit these movements themselves. Instead, it has traded the interests of the worker in favor of the shareholder, allowing corporate giants to pursue relentless capitalism. But as corporate exploitation becomes increasingly apparent, it is debatable just how long this tactic can last. Unfortunately for now, it is a winning strategy.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

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