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Under Discussion: “Woke Capitalism”

distorted photograph of Times Square building stretching into sky

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.

Adam Smith’s matter-of-fact account of the moral consideration we should expect in our economic transactions will strike many as the self-evident ideal. The divorce of the social or political from the economic is nothing more than savvy industry. Business-as-usual. The introduction of sentiment to our dealings would only make for bad business and worse politics. This is the position of those condemning the rise of “woke capitalism.”

“Woke capitalism” has become a catch-all term standing in for a hodge-podge of ideas, convictions, and positions. Coined by Ross Douthat in 2015 to describe businesses’ hollow virtue-signalling, the term has been expanded to include even the slightest appearance of corporations “bending a knee” to the cancel culture mob.

Critics characterize woke capitalism as a kind of ill-informed and ill-intentioned boardroom activism solely invested in the construction and maintenance of a PR image. It represents a superficial dedication to sanitizing bad looks and poor optics. It presents as an unwillingness to countenance anything with a whiff of controversy about it. In this, cynics see a poorly disguised feint aimed at getting out in front of political blowback and indicating one’s social justice bona fides before the torch and pitchfork crowd come knocking.

But for many, the problem isn’t so much its falseness as its ambition. Corporations, these voices contend, shouldn’t be in the business of criticizing public policy or shaping public opinion. They shouldn’t be throwing their weight around when it comes to matters of state. It’s corporatism, plain and simple rule by unelected magnates rather than by the will of the people.

Thus the woke capitalists are either cowards submitting to progressives’ demands in pursuit of the path of least (commercial) resistance, or power-hungry usurpers bent on circumventing Congress in transforming their cultural preferences into social reality. Whether motivated by fear or greed, these elites are beginning to play an outsized and objectionable role in shaping our shared future.

But does this picture reflect reality?

Progressives would be surprised to see CEOs listed as co-conspirators. Woke capitalism will strike many as an oxymoron. Exploitation appears inevitable and its effects are not suffered equally. Our consumer society’s commitment to cheap goods and even cheaper labor seems wholly at odds with the project of social justice dedicated to revealing and combating inequality and discrimination.

While we may have moved on from Milton Friedman’s assertion that a corporation’s sole responsibility is to its shareholders, we’re still struggling to articulate a vision of businesses’ greater obligations that might be as equally concrete and action-guiding. We remain in dire need of defining just what considerations these corporate entities owe us the people who make these businesses run, as consumers, laborers, voters, and tax-payers. From offshoring to tax evasion to union-busting, we need to know whether a corporation can be an ally.

The ongoing debate over the power and limitations of “woke capitalism” provides ample material, space, and opportunity for sustained examination of the kinds of problems corporations create, the kinds of problems they aggravate, and the kinds of problems they can (and cannot) solve.

-Tucker Sechrest

Kenneth Boyd What Is Unwoke Capitalism?

Daniel Story Corporate Activism and Non-Ideal Democracy

Elizabeth Williams The Limits of Consumer Activism

Giles Howdle Rainbow Myopia: A Left-Wing Case Against ‘Woke Capital’