The Genius of ‘Woke Capitalism’
‘Woke capitalism’ is a phrase that has been on our lips for quite some time. To me it is the same old exploitative capitalism, just with a different aesthetic. For the past decade at least, the upper echelons of society and culture, pop culture, academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the corporate sector have been eager to demonstrate — or ‘virtue signal’ as some will prefer to say — just how committed they are in fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination and promoting equality, diversity and multicultural values.
Nevertheless, following the sickening murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, the new lease of life the Black Lives Matter movement has received, and the righteous ‘awakening’ (or ‘awokening’ if you will) across society in the United States and beyond to the reality of racism and poor black Americans suffering under the jackboot of police violence, this trend has accelerated and intensified to an unforeseen degree. Slogans, catchphrases and policies that have long been associated with esoteric academics and incandescent activists have now been affirmed by corporations. Ben and Jerrys has explicitly supported the ‘Defund the police’ movement. Goldman Sachs have established a $10 million fund to support organisation combating racial disparities, structural inequality and economic inequity. Adidas has pledged to reserve at least 30% of new positions for black and Latino people.
Co-founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanian resigned from his position, specifically demanding to be replaced by a black candidate. L'Oreal and Unilever announced they will remove the words ‘whitening’, ‘fairness’ and ‘lightening’ from all skin care products they sell. White voice actors are recusing themselves from voicing black characters on cartoons, declaring black actors should voice black characters.
The English Premier League commemorated the movement with special made jerseys baring ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back supplanting the players names. The Statue wars that has enraged over the past few weeks has claimed statues and monuments dedicated to slave owners, colonialists and notable racists have either been toppled, removed or defaced. Though the cruzada has expanded itself to targeting any figure who is designated insufficiently ‘woke’ for its own cathartic sake — to the point where representations of abolitionists, Abraham Lincoln and the Shaw memorial have become ‘collateral damage’ in the campaign of symbolic purification.
Even the perennially irrelevant Dixie Chicks have made their contribution to this ‘reckoning’ by altering their stage name to simply ‘The Chicks’ (I’m not sure ‘Dixie’ axiomatically denotes you as a white supremacist per se, but you do you). What is noteworthy about this whirlwind of figurative cultural change is how swift, somewhat preemptive, dare I say how orderly it has been. In most instances there has barely been a struggle, let alone a riotous demand, let alone resistance from elites determined to guard their authority, except for some disgruntled mumbling on Twitter, or hysterical right wing screeds fretting about ‘cultural Jacobins’ and the ‘woke Taliban’.
Comparisons with the turmoil of the 1960s are en vogue, but a key difference is Black Lives Matter and the recent protests have majority support across all ethnic groups, even among white Americans, much more than Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement did in its apogee. Moreover, the uprisings of the 1960s were in direct defiance of authority and officialdom, and certainly did not have their approval. Today, officialdom, while dutifully condemning outright instances of rioting and looting, for the most part, is for Black Lives Matter, at least rhetorically. Mayors and governors have participated in the protests, given speeches at them to raucous applause, even violating their own executive orders barring mass gatherings to enforce social distancing measures meant to arrest the spread of Covid-19. If Mitt Romney is unashamedly marching alongside Black Lives Matter, then it says a lot.
The recognisable spokespeople of the Black Lives Matter movement (to the extent one can point to such a thing for a broad contradictory movement) supposedly are self-admitted ‘trained Marxists’ and socialists dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism (alongside white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity). Yet, the ubiquity in which the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ is accepted throughout officialdom is fascinating. On the one hand, it unveils just how broadly liberal mainstream society and culture is (as usual, Kenan Malik penned a smart piece in The Guardian on how the culture wars actually obscure how liberal society has become). Anti-racism, in its most basic moral sense, is mainstream, an organising principle of the new ‘moral majority’. Most reasonable people believe racism is foul and abhorrent. These people are also consumers with purchasing power, employees with a voice, investors with influence. So they will want the companies and institutions they interact with to embody the principles they cherish.
On the other hand, there is blatant pandering and ‘woke washing’. This moment clearly provides a ripe opportunity for these corporations, to tap into the cultural zeitgeist in order to bolster their PR strategy, while concealing their inherent exploitation. For instance, DoorDash pledged $500k to Black Lives Matter and promote black businesses and entrepreneurs, while spending $30 million plus in California this year on a lobbying push to deprive delivery workers of the right to join a union, earn minimum wage or collect health care benefits.
Of course, this is hardly the first time an ostensibly anti-capitalist movement has been effortlessly appropriated by capitalism and consumer culture (nor will it be the last). The infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert influenced again by Black Lives Matter is an obvious recent example. Others include Colin Kaepernick being the poster child of Nike and the cringy Gillette advert from last year. One of my favourites though was when in 2016, Wells Fargo sponsored a Black Lives Matter event in which it even lauded the Black Panthers, but then rejected a custom-designed debit card featuring a fist and the text “Black Lives Are Important.” This is despite the fact the banking company was sued for racial discrimination in denying loans to black and Latino families. Hell, even Shell has sponsored lectures given by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leading matriarch behind the 1619 project.
Say what you will about it, but you have to give to the devil what belongs to the devil: Notwithstanding the current crisis, global capitalism has proved far more resilient, flexible and adaptive than either its harshest critics or most zealous exponents ever expected. You have to admire its perverse ability to assimilate everything that supposedly wishes to ‘dismantle’ or ‘abolish’ it into itself, commodifying it, marketing it, then adding a price-tag. It’s genius. Devilish, but genius nonetheless. As Maurice Brinton explained all the way back in 1974: “Class society has a tremendous resilience, a great capacity to cope with “subversion”, to make icons of its iconoclasts, to draw sustenance from those who would throttle it.”
The votaries of ‘wokeness’ on steroids, the supposed millennial ‘anti-capitalists’ simply do not understand what they’re up against. Hence, whenever the latest ‘culture of resistance’, or the latest ‘radical’ intellectual fad is appropriated by market forces, the reaction is of acute discombobulation, bemusement, rapidly mutating into resentful bitterness. How dare they co-opt and commodify this justice movement, sell it as a consumer product, for the sake of profit! The real reason ‘radicals’ get so upset over such ‘co-options’ is that it reflects all their cosmetic, obsessed with symbolism, feelgood faux cultural radicalism in full nudity, stripped of all the posturing.
No wonder the bourgeoisie feel utterly unthreatened. They don’t merely tolerate ‘wokeness’, they positively thrive on it. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it is radical or revolutionary. Self-proclaimed anti-capitalist radicals are much too harmless, despite their phanstasmic self-image as recalcitrant rebels. As the twitterati love to say: Do better!