Opinion | The Puny Power of ‘Woke Capitalism’

Early last year, the musician India.Arie posted a video on her Instagram that caused a lot of headaches for my then-employer, Spotify. It was a mash-up of the many times Spotify’s star podcaster, Joe Rogan, had used a racial slur for Black people on his show. I don’t need to tell you which slur it was. Unsurprisingly, the video quickly went viral, and a huge uproar ensued.

Rogan had already stirred up controversy by airing Covid misinformation and interviews with transphobic speakers. For Spotify, a company based in Sweden (the supposed mecca of social democracy) that serves entertainment to a largely young, socially conscious consumer base and employs a young, socially conscious work force, you’d think it would be obvious — if you were to listen to the characterization common from conservative politicians and “heterodox” pundits — what would happen next. The dictates of “woke capitalism” would surely require a ritual sacrifice of Rogan, despite the huge sums Spotify had paid to bring his show exclusively to its platform. It wouldn’t matter that he was the company’s No. 1 podcaster. The woke mob had spoken!

Needless to say, that’s not how things went. Rogan apologized in a long Instagram video, and Spotify’s response was not to pull the plug on his show and torpedo the interests of the company’s shareholders. Spotify stood by its star (even as several episodes were quietly removed). It also announced a $100 million fund to support underrepresented artists and podcasters. But, according to Bloomberg, a year later the company had spent less than 10 percent of the money.

Behold, the puny power of woke capitalism!

I have been thinking about this incident as I have watched ferocious campaigns building against companies that take even the most milquetoast stands on social and cultural issues, especially those involving gender and sexuality. It reached a peak last month with Pride, leaving a wake of social media videos of people outraged about things like onesies and Koozies emblazoned with rainbows.

These fights won’t stop with the end of Pride month. They are merely the skirmishes in what is likely to be a long culture war fueled by outrage about everything from the casting of a Black actor as Ariel in Disney’s live action remake of “The Little Mermaid” to investment funds including a modicum of concern about diversity and inclusion in deciding where to put their billions.

“Woke capital” is already a major theme of the Republican presidential race. The threat is apparently so great that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida invoked Winston Churchill’s famous Dunkirk speech, substituting “woke” for the Axis powers as enemy No. 1: “We will wage a war on the woke. We will fight the woke in education, we will fight the woke in the corporations, we will fight the woke in the halls of Congress.” Vivek Ramaswamy is couching much of his campaign in the themes of his 2021 book, “Woke, Inc.,” an excoriation of so-called woke capitalism that is somehow to blame not just for America’s social woes, but its economic problems, too.

This hyping of the power of socially conscious capitalism is understandable given how aggressively the notion has been sold to companies and consumers. Research studies, many of them conducted by companies that advise businesses on corporate social responsibility, have touted the power of “purpose” to drive consumer loyalty.

Color me skeptical. Consumers make choices for many reasons: price, convenience and marketing. Maybe politics. The other day I went to my local Walgreens to buy toothpaste and ultimately chose not my favorite brand but the only one that wasn’t under lock and key. I didn’t want to wait for an employee to liberate the Colgate, so Crest it was. Needless to say I did not use Google to find out which brand was more committed to bodily autonomy. What can I say? I was in a hurry.

My somewhat jaundiced view of the possibilities and perils of woke capitalism was shaped by seeing some of this play out from inside the corporate suite, albeit in the limited context of media and tech companies, running the editorial and business ends of a podcast company at Spotify and a global news organization, HuffPost, when it was owned by Verizon Media.

I have bad news for combatants on both sides of this war. For those on the left who take comfort in seeing big companies take bold stands on issues they care about, I’m here to tell you that those companies care much more about their bottom line than your beloved issue (see Spotify example above).

And those on the right who feel that the wind is at their back with successful boycotts of “woke” brands are likely to be disappointed for similar reasons. Even this year’s big success — a boycott of Bud Light after it worked with a transgender influencer as part of a broader social media campaign that apparently caused the stock of the brewing giant Anheuser-Busch to drop — was a Pyrrhic victory: It is all but impossible to find a beer company that doesn’t participate in celebrating Pride, thereby doing exactly what the right accuses them of: pushing a liberal agenda antithetical to conservative mores.

It turns out queer consumers and their allies are important to companies’ bottom line, and — especially in a tight labor market — companies can hardly afford to alienate queer workers and their families and supporters. Even after getting dinged by conservative consumers and gay rights activists, Bud Light pledged to keep supporting queer businesses.

These fights disguise a bigger truth: Corporations, far from dictating cultural mores from some capitalist Mount Olympus, reflect and co-opt the social trends around them.

In 2018, as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered force, Nike created a controversial ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the Black football player who famously knelt during the national anthem to protest police racism and brutality toward Black civilians. The backlash was huge, but ultimately the social tide went in Nike’s favor: Its stock price popped and the advertising campaign was seen as a bold success.

But corporations can also shift course, quite seamlessly, when the mood changes.

At Cannes Lions, an advertising festival held each June in the South of France, members of this year’s jury that hands out awards for ad campaigns were instructed to steer clear of politics and celebrate work that was more focused on commercial success, Semafor reported.

This is a remarkable turnaround. I attended the festival a couple of times in my years as a media executive, and it often seemed like a competition to see what company could out-do-gooder the rest. It reminded me of a line from the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” in which a tech executive declares, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than we are.”

After the murder of George Floyd, companies fell all over themselves to embrace Black causes. Some actions were gestures that cost nothing, like music streaming services observed a period of silence to observe Floyd’s killing. Content companies pledged to increase their programming for, by and about Black people. Many businesses made pledges to diversify hiring, especially in their executive ranks.

But the evidence so far shows little progress on these pledges. Netflix, the once unstoppable juggernaut that seemed likely to eat Hollywood for breakfast, is an interesting case in point. As its growth has slowed and the political climate has changed, it reportedly shelved a plan to produce an anti-racist video series. A look at its published diversity and inclusion track record shows a small decline in the proportion of Black employees generally and executives in particular.

Thomas Frank, a historian and journalist who has chronicled the culture wars for decades, told me that he “always suspected that the backlash politics that rolled over the country in the late ’60s and all through the 1970s came, at least in part, from the way commercial culture rubbed the noses of Middle America in coolness and in Middle America’s own inadequacy and uncoolness. But the political backlash that resulted didn’t hurt the corporations at all — on the contrary, they eventually just changed their marketing approach to fit the new mood and then entered a golden age with Reagan and the 1980s.”

The center left has been lulled by its seeming cultural power, which buttresses the belief that progress is inevitable if the time frame is elongated enough. In a world with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” how could we be talking about locking up drag queens, we gasp?

The deeper problem is that our politics is not responsive to people’s preferences. Our systems of government increasingly favor electoral minorities — like gerrymandered state legislatures in a polarized environment — rather than common-sense compromise. This leads to ideological zealotry. There are almost no checks on a state legislature bent on maximum cruelty.

In this atmosphere it is not that surprising that progressive consumers have turned to corporations to be a mirror of their concerns. Despite clear majority support for abortion rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, we are tilting ever more toward a system that allows a fanatical minority to impose its views as law. It’s easier for us to hold corporations accountable than politicians. We make decisions about how to spend our money every day. Best-case scenario is you vote in new officials every couple of years.

But woke capitalism is a paper tiger. Companies embrace identity and cultural inclusion as a way to expand their market share to new communities while simultaneously obscuring their raw political power and the ruthless underpinning realities of shareholder capitalism. Elites on the right, meanwhile, know very well that it is a paper tiger but are more than happy to play along with a shuck and jive that allows them to wield “woke” as a cudgel against the left — and for some voters, it does the vital job of stoking resentment.

Following the dictates of plain old capitalism, Spotify choosing to stand by Joe Rogan, once the company had signed him up as an exclusive podcaster, was a good business decision. But the decision also made business sense for other reasons. It meant that if a right-wing mob came for queer programming on the platform, the company could point to that decision as it defends hosting podcasts that my colleagues made, stuff like “The Two Princes,” a fantasy show for kids about two princes who fall in love, and “Gay Pride & Prejudice,” a modern take on the Jane Austen classic. A simple policy of consistency about free speech within defined limits rather than appeals to the extremes of the culture wars is frankly better for everyone.

Above all, these partisan spats over politics and business serve as a useful reminder for everyone across the political spectrum: Corporations are not your friends. They do not represent your interests. Yield to their power at your own peril.

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