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Woke Capital in the Twenty-First Century
From Woke Disney to a Theory of Woke Capital, Or, Why Politics is Not Downstream of Culture
Today commences the first in a series of posts by outside contributors carefully selected by me to speak to the questions of interest to me and to those who are interested in the things that interest me.
In this post, Williams College Professor of Political Science Darel E. Paul, considers the question of “woke capital”, and the role that both right and left have played in the making of this bizarre ideological monster, and the role that both right and left critique must play in unmaking it.
By Darel E. Paul
On March 28, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. The law bans formal classroom instruction in public schools regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3 (hence “Don’t Say Gay”). It also requires Florida public schools to inform parents if their child receives any “services or monitoring” from the school, a measure intended to prevent school staff from hiding a child’s gender transition from his/her parents. Both practices exist in American public schools, and thus the Florida law is hardly gratuitous.
Well before DeSantis signed the bill, the powerful LGBT interest group Human Rights Campaign was ramping up its lobbying. HRC’s forte is less persuading politicians than pressuring CEOs. On February 28 it released a letter signed by over 150 corporations stating their opposition to the Florida bill and all similar legislation in other states. Observers immediately noticed that The Walt Disney Corporation, Florida’s #1 employer, was not on the list.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek started desperately triangulating. On one side he faced a popular bill backed by a clear majority vote of the state legislature and a popular first-term governor. On the other he faced the media, his social class, and his employees. Chapek first sought to placate “Disney LGBTQ+ leaders” in a private meeting on March 4. That failed. Then he issued a memo to staff on March 7. That failed, too.
By happenstance the Disney annual shareholder meeting was scheduled for March 9, just one day after the Florida Senate vote. Chapek used that opportunity to make his first public statement on the matter. In the morning he called Governor DeSantis to express his “disappointment and concern.” In the afternoon he openly declared his public opposition to the Parental Rights in Education bill. But that wasn’t all. Chapek sought to explain why hadn’t spoken out earlier in what amounted to an apology. He told the shareholders and members of the media that he had now signed the HRC letter. He pledged Disney would donate $5 million to LGBT interest groups including HRC. He promised Disney would generate more gay content. In a companion letter to all Disney employees, Chapek wrote, “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.” But that wasn’t good enough, either.
When it became widely known that Disney had made campaign contributions to many of the Republican legislators behind the Parental Rights in Education bill as well as to Governor DeSantis, Chapek announced an indefinite “pause” in all such contributions. Disney’s former CEO Bob Iger and the corporation’s content-providing subsidiaries began issuing their own scathing statements against the bill. Disney employees organized a “Disney Do Better Walkout.” dedicated to a week of daily 15-minute walk-outs during afternoon breaks.
Disney leadership forced Chapek into postponing a scheduled management retreat, and Disney employees forced him into a company-wide town hall meeting on March 21, scheduled in accordance with the afternoon walk-out. The meeting included a “fireside chat” with the CEO of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida and Disney’s Chief Diversity Officer. It concluded with Chapek promising a “global listening tour” by Disney executives as well as a new internal bureaucratic structure to continually steer the company toward LGBT values and interests.
All this activism culminated in a made-for-media nation-wide walkout on March 22 involving not only the employees of Disney but of its many subsidiaries as well. Do Better Disney Walkout used the protest to highlight a long list of demands, the first two being: 1) a permanent end to Disney campaign contributions to all Republicans associated with the Parental Rights in Education bill; and 2) a Disney capital strike against the State of Florida. The protesting employees specifically demanded a halt to all “construction and investment in the state of Florida until hateful legislation is repealed” as well as a halt to all employee transfers into Florida.
Should a Disney capital strike come to pass, it would hardly be the first time American business had used its structural power to thwart popular will. Factory shutdowns, mass layoffs, lockouts, and refusal to invest are all too common instances of capital’s strategic efforts to defeat its own employees. What is new in the history of capital, however, is the weapon of the capital strike used at the behest of employees against the state and democracy.
Year Zero is an ongoing inquiry into the ideological fever that overtook the governing and chattering classes of America during the Trump years. Free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.
American capitalism has gone woke.
Whether we call it the “successor ideology,” “social justice,” “intersectionality” or “wokeness,” a radical new social belief system has captured nearly all the institutions of private power in the United States from the professions to academia and education to media to Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
The success of wokeness in the business sector is perhaps the ideology’s most surprising success. It has confounded much of the Republican Party that has spent the past forty years carrying water for American capital and now finds itself conflicted over granting tax breaks and regulatory relief to corporations that despise the party’s voting base and cultural agenda.
In some ways the fight in Florida is a microcosm of the American culture wars that date back to the 1970s. Yet thirty or fifty years ago corporations largely feared getting entangled in the politics of sexuality, abortion, or race. As Michael Jordon famously observed in 1990, “Republicans buy sneakers, too”. Today much of the business sector has thrown that caution to the wind and joined with cultural progressives to stand on the ‘right side of history’. The rest of the field stays silent; it is no longer possible to find any Fortune 1000 firm—not even Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A—espousing a conservative cultural position on a topic of political controversy in America today.
While we are accustomed to seeing culture war issues as an ideological struggle, the rise of woke capital suggests a better framing of our predicament. We are deeply mired in a class struggle. One could even compare this exercise of distant elite power to colonialism.. To put it in the starkest of terms: globalized professionals and managers are on one side; regional elites and the middle classes are on the other. The stakes are high, impinging on democratic self-government and the power to define reality itself.
Over the last decade American corporations have intervened in the political process repeatedly on the side of wokeness. Simply speaking out firmly against socially conservative bills usually does the trick. In this way woke capital scuttled religious freedom bills in Arizona (2014), Arkansas (2015), Indiana (2015) and Georgia (2016). Capital strikes are more rare but have been used in Georgia against a recent abortion law (2019) and a new election law (2021). The most significant woke capital strike in America is undoubtedly that against the state of North Carolina in 2016-17 over its Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The main intent of this law, better known as the “North Carolina bathroom bill,” was to overturn the City of Charlotte’s ordinance that granted transgender persons free access to sex-segregated facilities of their choice, including “restrooms, shower rooms [and] bathhouses”. The ensuing capital strike against North Carolina was broad and swift. Led by PayPal, the NBA, the NCAA, and the movie and television industry, the state economy suffered over $600 million in lost investment and revenue in the first seven months after the law’s enactment. After just twelve months on the books, the Republican-led state legislature cried ‘uncle’ and repealed the law.
American capital is not uniformly woke, and neither are its CEOs. Unlike Bob Chapek, former Disney CEO Bob Iger repeatedly assumed progressive stands in the company’s name on matters of immigration, abortion, and homosexuality. But the phenomenon of woke capital is not driven by woke individuals in positions of power. Even Larry Fink, head of the $10 trillion investment fund BlackRock and arguably the most powerful woke CEO in America, is only one man. Instead woke capital is a consequence of a particular structure of capital concentration, of class relations, of class culture, and of broader American culture that has developed since the 1960s and gained particular solidity since the 1990s. The disappearance of already highly marginalized anti-woke capital in the 2010s is testimony to the powerful structural conditions under which we all now exist.
Understanding woke capital as a structure of power is the first step toward theorizing it and ultimately disciplining it. This task will not be solved at the next election or with the next piece of legislation, but only after years or even decades of struggle. Only once we understand woke capital and from where its power comes can we have any realistic hope of subduing it over the long run.
Many such attempts have been made in recent years. No fewer than three books were published on the subject just last year.
The Dictatorship of Woke Capital by the political analyst Stephen Soukup offered a conservative critique of the “environmental, social, and governance (ESG)” movement in financial investing and made a plea to “depoliticize business”. In Woke, Inc., tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy gave a corner office account of corporate wokeness as a form of both religious enthusiasm and reputational ‘wokewashing’; he fears for the future of American democracy. Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy by academic Carl Rhodes presented a left defense of wokeness as corrupted by capitalist hypocrisy and issued a call to progressives to defend social democracy from woke corporate co-optation.
These books offer various explanations of woke capital. One is a demand-driven claim that woke consumers induce corporate wokeness. It is certainly true that brands in entertainment, travel, banking, fashion or alcohol selling luxury goods to elites will try to reflect the values of their consumers. But this not help us explain how and why elites became woke in the first place, or why corporations like Disney that sell products and services to a broad audience also got woke.
A second account focuses on investors and the rise of ‘shareholder capitalism’. Thanks to the power of financial capital and the market-based (rather than bank-based) model of investment in America, institutional investors and activist shareholders now demand “environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria” be used in corporate decision-making as the price of access to investment capital. In short, if the New York City Comptroller wielding $215 billion worth of workers’ pension funds demands that you support abortion rights, you support them. While this argument also has some explanatory power, it requires an explanation of the rise of wokeness in finance, a serious evaluation of the ‘business case for wokeness,’ and an account of the structural conditions allowing capital to sacrifice profitability for progressive social causes.
A third argument advanced by the materialist left is a diversionary theory of woke capital. From this perspective, wokeness is a fraud perpetuated on the progressive masses seeking to legitimate corporate power and rampant material inequality. Thus Disney supposedly produces gay-friendly content to hide the fact that the company filmed Mulan in Xinjiang province, and Amazon promotes its commitment to racial equality today so that consumers will forget to demand an increase in the corporate tax rate tomorrow. This claim relies on several questionable assumptions, not least that the audience for performative wokeness is unusually dim-witted and morally bankrupt. It also needs to demonstrate that woke justifications actually produce corporate legitimacy, to explain why the progressive left is so powerful, and to investigate how a right economic policy intertwines with left cultural values.
A unified theory of woke capital does not abjure any of these arguments and in fact incorporates some of their insights. To do so it begins in a very different place, however, with social class. Professionals are a social class defined by their mode of work and relationship to capital. They receive a salary (rather than a wage), enjoy high job security (especially through employment contracts), and work along clear lines of occupational advancement (a ‘career ladder’). Links in the professions between effort and pay are indirect because professionals work on non-routine tasks with high degrees of autonomy. For all these reasons, professional labor tends to be highly skilled. Many in the media refer to professionals as “knowledge workers” or members of the “creative class.” This is an ideal type, of course, and many professionals work under attenuated versions of this model. Thus engineers, accountants, professors, lawyers and physicians reflect a more pure (‘higher’) version of the type than do K-12 teachers, nurses, social workers, musicians and professional athletes (‘lower’). Collectively, however, their level of skill, work autonomy, security, and sense of career strongly distinguish them within society.
Woke Disney shows the clear importance, even centrality, of professional class employees in the creation and perpetuation of woke capital. It is employee revolt, after all, that drove Bob Chapek to action. Disney is highly dependent on precisely the sort of skilled non-routine labor characteristic of the class. But so, too, are all the wokest industries in America. Tech companies are repeatedly in the news for driving out individuals at the behest of their woke employees: Brendan Eich from Mozilla; James Damore from Google; Antonio García Martínez from Apple.
As far back as 2014 not a single Am Law 200 law firm would agree to represent US states seeking to defend their ‘defense of marriage’ bills. More recently, major sports leagues have been forced into enthusiastic support for Black Lives Matter by players. In media and publishing, even mid-level staffers can get their boss fired (Teen Vogue) or a book contract canceled (Random House) for violating progressive pieties. Like the labor movement of old, professional class employees know there is power in numbers. Unlike the unions of the twentieth century, however, professionals wield the power of their skills as well. They know their labor is valuable and they have ample evidence that their employers are willing to placate their politics.
The professional class pioneered wokeness. It originated in academia, spread first to the ‘helping professions’ of education, medicine, and counseling, then to the media and legal profession, and eventually the culture of the class itself. By the 2010s abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and transgender rights had simply become the cultural values of American elites. Corporate managers have come on board to professional class values as well so that we can now speak of a broad professional-managerial class culture dominating all peak American institutions save those few, per O’Sullivan’s Law, that are self-consciously right-wing.
In decades past, Americans would express and advocate for their cultural values through their churches, fraternal organizations, charities and clubs. As such institutions declined since at least the 1990’s, the workplace emerged as the most important—and for many, the only—site of popular sociocultural action. As professionals increasingly identify with their employers as institutions, they call upon those institutions to reflect what were once considered ‘personal’ values. Corporations are hardly innocent in this affair. The American managerial class long integrated psychology into processes of production, especially in the context of the service economy, ‘team work’ and the mixed-sex office. Management and construction of the Self became a selling point to professional labor as these employees especially were continually encouraged to ‘bring your whole self to work.’ Trainings, whether for new software packages or new cultural values, are ubiquitous in the American office setting. Managers perform double-duty as therapists while professionals expect their employers to build a therapeutic corporate culture.
In this way, woke capital is hardly an anomaly to what is characteristically American. In fact woke capital is the epitome of two intertwined developments in the American political economy since the 1960s: globalized corporate power and a national therapeutic culture. The first is uncontroversial enough that I think it needs no elaboration here. Regarding the second, narratives of suffering and healing, of authenticity and liberation, of self-care and self-actualization, overflow the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and counseling to fill schools, churches, corporations, and the state. It stands today as our national collective moral philosophy. Thus woke professionals and managers exercising power through woke corporations find a welcome home in this wider therapeutic culture. Victimhood ideologies are layered on top of this therapeutic cultural base, identifying specific groups owed particular cultural recognition and reparations for the harms they have suffered. A monopoly capital political economy in which competition and growth is attenuated through financialization, oligopoly, imperfect markets and rent-seeking regulatory regimes materially enables the culture, elements that calls for their own theorization in turn.
The backlash against wokeness is already here: witness the many new regulations and bills prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, reinscribing traditional definitions of girls’ sports, and in Texas subjecting transgender therapies for minors to heightened legal and medical scrutiny unseen anywhere else in the United States.
Yet without broader supportive conditions, all the above states are subject to threats of capital strikes and the exercise of federal power at the behest of the national professional-managerial class. Any successful intellectual and political project must therefore confront both wokeness and capital. Left critiques of capitalism, if they are to offer any worthwhile insights for political action, must incorporate the central role played by the professional-managerial class and its distinct culture. Right critiques of wokeness, if they are to become anything more than red meat for culture war fundraising appeals, must recognize the structural power of this class enabled by the neoliberal political economy the right itself has helped to create. Most important intellectually, the right must accept that neither politics nor the economy are ‘downstream from culture’. The polity, the economy, and culture are jointly self-reinforcing structures of power, and all must be engaged simultaneously if the conquest of woke capital is to have any hope at all.