Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Why the business world’s gone woke

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NATURALLY, TCW readers keep abreast of matters woke. But if you’re like me, there’s a nagging comprehension gap. Sure, you resignedly grasp why Marxist academics embrace progressive causes; metropolitan luvvies likewise. Why, though, you ponder, has capitalism followed suit, and with such alacrity? If the customer is king, why do businesses rub our regal noses in diversity?    

Help is at hand, courtesy of a newly published book, Woke Inc: Inside the Social Justice Scam. Author Vivek Ramaswamy is a highly successful entrepreneur. He’s jumped ship, and wants the self-interest of virtue-signalling CEOs exposed. He’s fed up with the baleful impact of boardroom wokeness, not just on consumers but on voters. Wokeness, he argues, is ‘polarising our politics . . . dividing our country to breaking point’.

The book is written from an American standpoint (fleeting references to US tort law sailed serenely over my head). But don’t let that put you off; much of it resonates with Western consumerism writ large.

From the outset, Ramaswamy fully justifies the ‘scam’ in the subtitle. For corporates, it’s all about deflection. Here’s the ruse: to ‘pretend like you care about something other than profit and power, precisely to gain more of each’.

The author’s premise is that more and more people are becoming woke, obsessing about race, gender and sexual orientation. When corporations cottoned on to this, they inevitably began to use wokeness to make money. It soon became a two-way thing: companies started influencing as well as reflecting the fashionable views of the public.

Routinely, customers searching for a cause (perhaps there’s the rub: in materially comfortable times, many are) fall for the trick of businesses presenting themselves as the good guys, even when they throw money at BLM.

Jumping on the social justice bandwagon, according to Ramaswamy, allows the new ‘woke-industrial Leviathan’ to divide us into tribes. That makes it easier for corporations to turn a profit, coaxing us into adopting new identities based on superficial characteristics. Witness ‘stakeholder capitalism’ at play, the insidious but alas lucrative mixing of morality with commercialism. As long as the punters aren’t questioning capitalism itself, everyone’s happy.

The wokeness decoy often masks nefarious corporate activity. In January 2020, at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Herr Schwab’s domed head pops up throughout), Goldman Sachs announced it wouldn’t take companies public unless they had at least one ‘diverse’ board member. This cost it nothing because nearly every company was already implementing change. The hidden motive was to distract from its recent agreement to pay $5billion in fines for its role in a bribery scandal in Malaysia. Wokeness can thus act as a corporate shield or insurance policy. Pontificate piously enough about a social justice concern and nobody, you reason, will scrutinise less savoury aspects of your operation. 

As for power, in this trendy new corporate model companies are run no longer solely for shareholders but for other interests and society at large. Wokeness not only helps the balance sheet. It’s the means by which woke businesses frame key social debates. This should be the domain of politicians and voters. But ‘whoever has the gold makes the rules’.

In the case of outlandishly wealthy CEOs such as Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, making more dough is no longer the point. It’s what it can buy – such as election outcomes and the silencing of ideological opponents. Consider Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden scandal in 2019, and Facebook’s banning of President Trump. The main victim ‘isn’t the consumer in the market; it’s the citizen in our democracy’.

For all the book’s many insights, I still can’t fathom why rubbing conservative consumers up the wrong way makes good business sense. Surely the Right-wing pound carries some clout. Maybe there are fewer of us than we imagined. Or, more likely, that we’ve nowhere else to go.

To be sure, it’s a brave company which seeks to escape the woke cartel. Remember what happened to Parler, the free-speech platform blocked by Google, Amazon and the rest on spurious agent-provocateur grounds following the Capitol Hill incident. At home, has GBNews really broken the mould? Would advertisers allow it to?

A few ‘Go woke, go broke’ examples in the book wouldn’t have gone amiss, even just to keep the spirits up. All in all, though, Woke Inc. is a lively and welcome contribution to the debate on corporate wokeness. And for me, there’s been a practical takeaway. Now, whenever I encounter in-your-face corporate diversity – on screen or billboard, in the shopping centre – I mutter the magic word ‘deflection’. It doesn’t remove my contempt, but it mollifies my bewilderment.

Oh, for the days when businesses just sold stuff.       

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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