top of page

Who made woke capitalists gods?

1 May 2021 The Australian

When Scott Morrison raised the alarm about the rise of identity politics, was he thinking about its ascendancy in the world of business? For Australian corporations, like their competitors abroad, have decided that going woke is good for business. They are not simply attempting to gain a bigger share of the market but also vying with one another in the woke saviour stakes.

The cosmetic giant Aesop was quick to get off the mark in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year. “If systematic racism is to be defeated, we all need to stay educated, become involved and understand our role in both the problems, and the solutions,” it stated in an Instagram post. Other companies anxious to promote their brand quickly piled in to show that they were on the right side of the angels. Quay, the well-known sunglass company, echoed the message “educate yourself” and asserted that there is no “neutral position on racism”.

CottonOn, one of Australia’s biggest global retailers, posted that it has a “duty” to use its influence and community to speak out against “racism, hatred and injustice”. Its assertion that a company has a “duty” to become a political player and campaign for its pet policies fundamentally redefines the role of a capitalist corporation.

The assumption of the duty to use the power of Big Business to bring about political and cultural change is the most disturbing feature of woke capitalism.

Fighting the culture war is a duty that numerous Australian CEOs have casually embraced.

Back in 2017, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce called for other companies to campaign for the legalisation of same-sex marriage on the grounds “that’s what good businesses do”. He added that they help “promote societal change”. Numerous CEOs responded to the call to duty. A who’s who of the Australian corporate world — Telstra, Commonwealth Bank, AGL Energy, NRMA Insurance — embraced their newly found political vocation and campaigned for support of same-sex marriage.

The impulse to moralise and lecture the public comes naturally to woke CEOs. Mike Cannon-Brookes, the owner of the software company Atlassian, personifies the businessman turned culture warrior. He wants bosses to speak out on environmental and social issues and claims that it is “the responsibility of business leaders to provide leaders in areas of the community”.

One of the most disturbing consequence of capitalism going woke is that influential groups of unaccountable executives have a corrosive impact on public life. The threat to democracy posed by woke capitalism is all too evident in the US. Many critics poke fun at the ice-cream company Ben and Jerry’s, the wokest of woke companies. This company employs a “a social mission and activism manager” and now promotes policies that are extreme even by the standards of many woke capitalists.

Ben and Jerry’s has put forward the demand for defunding the police and contends that the “system can’t be reformed” and therefore it “must be dismantled and a real system of public safety rebuilt from the ground up”.

Last year, Ben and Jerry’s took it upon itself to criticise Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary, about her plans to control illegal immigration across the English Channel. Treating Patel as if she was a thick unaware nonentity, the company tweeted: “Hey Priti Patel, we think the real crisis is our lack of humanity for people fleeing war, climate change and torture. We pulled together a thread for you …”

In this instance an unaccountable American company, owned by the global giant Unilever took it upon itself to lecture an elected member of the British cabinet about the facts of political life. It is worth noting that the arrogant tone adopted by a company that brands itself as open and cuddly, reflects the paternalistic and intolerant instinct of the woke oligarchy.

Changing culture

The missionary zeal of Ben and Jerry’s is more than matched by Alan Jope, the smooth talking boss of their parent company, Unilever. Jope advocates for brands that “promote action in the world” and has demanded that advertisers “work with Unilever in a new way and bring us new ideas that drive the kind of behavioural and cultural change that’s required to fix the big challenges of our time”.

The project of harnessing the power of big business and the public relations industry to fuel “behavioural and cultural change” usurps the role traditionally ascribed to religious and political institutions.

Assigning a pivotal role to corporations for the project of changing culture is sometimes justified on the ground that whereas the public trust in government is fairly low, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic trust in business ethics is fairly high. Therefore, claims Katherine Davidson, a portfolio manager at Schroders, “people are increasingly looking to corporates to step up and lead us not just out of the coronavirus crisis, but also to address wider societal problems”.

Woke capitalists are doing far more than just stepping up. They are leading the charge against the refuseniks who insist on remaining un-woke. Their campaign style resembles the authoritarian practices of hard-line advocates of cancel culture on campuses. The intolerant and censorious practices of social media giants towards opponents bears all the hallmarks of the no-platforming of political opponents on university campuses. Amazon’s decision to ban socially conservative books indicates that this powerful global corporation assumes that it has the power to decide what can and what cannot be read.

Numerous observers have been surprised by the speed with which the corporate world has absorbed the language, values and practices associated with identity politics on campuses. They frequently suggest that what’s at work is simply a case of “woke washing”, of brands cashing in on the culture wars. The implication of the charge of woke-washing is that the branding of woke virtues is merely a public relations exercise. Others assert that the wokeness of capitalist firms will not endure or that it is not as influential as it appears.

Writing in this vein, a commentator in The Wall Street Journal predicts that the American business community is all right: “The problem isn’t the American corporation. The problem is a small but influential and unbearably sanctimonious swath of leaders who’ve gone gaga over progressive politics.”

In reality woke has gone mainstream and its outlook has permeated the boardrooms of the most influential and powerful businesses. With the likes of Amazon, Nike, BlackRock, Google, Apple and Warren Buffett going woke the problem is far from small.

The reality is that the bosses of some of the largest corporations in the world are woke themselves. Many of them may exploit woke issues to promote their brands but they also believe that throwing in their lot with the cultural politics of identity is the way forward. As one commentator in Forbes, the American business magazine, acknowledged, “the young, elite and talented swing left” and business leaders need to respond positively to their values. He added that therefore there are “good, capitalistic reason for corporations to play the political game”.

It is certainly the case that the recently employed cohort of young executives has played an important role in promoting cancel culture within a variety of businesses. At present, the publisher Simon & Schuster has been criticised by younger members of its staff for signing a deal to publish the memoirs of Donald Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence. It faces strong internal pressure to scrap this deal.

Yet blaming the young business elite for the ascendancy of woke capitalism underestimates the grip that the cultural politics of identity holds on business leaders. Most CEOs and executives have been educated into woke values. Many of the elite private schools in the Anglo American world have been in the forefront of promoting countercultural values. These sentiments were further reinforced during the course of their university education. Those who went to business schools to get their MBAs soon discovered that the curriculum they were offered was not that distant from the ideals they encountered in social science and humanities departments.

One factor that is often overlooked is the significance of symbolic and cultural capital for reinforcing the reputation and status of a business leader. At present symbolic capital is the monopoly of the woke. It is the values promoted by Netflix, Hollywood and leading cultural entrepreneurs that endows status on an ambitious individual. When executives rehearse their TED Talk, they know that in order to make an ­impact they have to voice these values.

Those who believe that woke capitalism is just a fad that will soon disappear had better think again. I still remember when similar sentiments were expressed about the university sector 30 years ago. What began as a fad turned into the new normal to the point that most universities have thoroughly institutionalised it.

The cultural politics of identity triumphed in universities because it faced very little opposition. Morrison’s warning that Australians should not surrender to “identity politics” has a special relevance to the world of business. For unless business leaders decide that their job is to produce goods and services rather than to moralise and play at politics, the workplace will soon resemble a university seminar room. And that will be to the detriment of both business and our democracy.


bottom of page