It’s Time to Take Woke Capital Seriously

It’s Time to Take Woke Capital Seriously

The left tends to dismiss corporate pandering to identity politics as insincere and inconsequential. It does so at its peril.

“There was an economic imperative at the heart of the civil rights movement.” The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. (FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Corporate America appears newly awakened to the cause of social justice. Major companies have mobilized in defense of electoral democracy and express support for racial equality and the rights of women and sexual minorities. Some businesses not only fill the airwaves with clever commercials and editorial statements about these issues but also put their money where their mouths are. As early as 2015, corporate opposition forced Republicans in Indiana and North Carolina to back off anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation. More recently, Coca-Cola and Delta have criticized voter-suppression laws and have been punished for their troubles (Georgia, for instance, threatened to revoke state tax credits for Delta’s jet fuel). In 2019 over 180 CEOs posted a full-page ad in the New York Times to say restrictions on abortion were bad for business. A year later Goldman Sachs established a $10 million fund to promote racial equality to “honor the legacy of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.” The investment bank was hardly alone; money for racial-justice organizations poured in from Walmart, Amazon, Google, and Spotify. And, after the January 6 fiasco, more than fifty companies said they would no longer contribute to the eight Republican senators who objected to certifying the presidential election.

In response, conservatives have taken to condemning what they call “woke capital.” High-tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Apple; pretty much all of Hollywood; the lion’s share of the Fortune 500, including Starbucks, Nike, GM, Bank of America, and even BlackRock, the asset-management firm with $9 trillion under its direction—according to the right, all are meddling where they shouldn’t. In National Review, Kevin D. Williamson attacked the “stampeding herd of grievance professionals who think that reserving a locker room for the ladies is more or less the same thing as apartheid.” Senate hopeful J.D. Vance warned that “woke” foundations are “destroying our country.” A conservative dark-money group has even launched an ad campaign targeting woke capital’s real vulnerabilities: American Airlines for its CEO’s high pay amid layoffs and bailouts, Coca-Cola for its contribution to the obesity epidemic, and Nike for its forced labor in China. Senator Mitch McConnell has threatened serious consequences for companies that are “dabbling in behaving like a ‘woke’ parallel government.”

Criticisms like McConnell’s amount to transparent hypocrisy. Business has been knee-deep in politics as long as we’ve had politics to be knee-deep in. The Republican Party, which has operated on the assumption that the business world was its natural constituency, feels aggrieved and abandoned. Corporate alliances with the Democratic Party are nothing new, however. Wall Street, for example, held a core position in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Dating further back, important sectors of the business community—high-tech firms of the day, some mass producers and distributors of consumer goods, and a number of banks and investment houses—welcomed key aspects of the New Deal; some were seeking precisely the kind of labor stabilization that the Wagner Act offered. Capital is not inherently conservative but is, rather, adaptive. It incites change yet fears it; while it can shapeshift to meet a new political moment, it draws the line where the basic prerogatives and profits of capital accumulation are threatened. If the left is to make the most of the anti-capitalist sentiments that have surfaced alongside other appeals for equality during the past decade, it must distinguish genuine pathways to economic and social justice from illusive ones.

 

Elites for Revolution

The last time circles of wealth and power displayed this kind of incongruous penchant for social reform—generating a similar angst among right-wing politicians—was during the turmoil of the 1960s. Populist demagogues like George Wallace and more traditionalist conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr., as well as mainstream politicians such as Richard Nixon, used the epithet “limousine liberals” to target elites who displayed an affinity for that era’s social liberalism, particularly racial equality. During his 1970 campaign for governor of Alabama, Wallace railed against “rich folks” who gathered in country clubs, drank “those martinis with their little finger up in the air,” and called for integrated schools. “Guess where their children go to school,” he said. “They go to lily-white private school. They’ve bought above it all.”

“Limousine liberal” evoked a patrician of outsized wealth: socially connected, credentialed by the toniest prep schools and the Ivy League, and raised to rule. Because of either excessive credulity or something more sinister, they had gone over to the dark side. A limousine liberal is history’s oxymoron, an elitist for revolution, working to undermine the ancient regime—or at least pretending to do so. Such people championed the cause of the poor, and particularly of the black poor, but they were insulated from any real contact with poverty, crime, and the everyday struggle to get by. They lived in exclusive neighborhoods, sent their children to private schools, sheltered their capital gains and dividends from the tax man, and got around town in limousines. They weren’t about to change the way they lived, yet they wanted everyone else to change—to have their kids bused far from home, to shoulder the tax burden of an expanding welfare system, to watch the racial and social makeup of their towns and neighborhoods transform.

Limousine liberals composed a diverse social class, full of rich people, high-level government bureaucrats, policymakers, foundation heads, university presidents, media lords, and a sliver of bespoke politicians from both parties. The typical limousine liberal was not from the corporate world, notwithstanding the appearance here and there of a rogue businessman or Wall Street banker in the ranks of elite revolutionaries.

“Limousine liberal” remains a component in the right-wing arsenal of pejoratives; Hillary Clinton incarnated the type. And traits associated with it are often attributed to woke capital and its figureheads: cosmopolitanism, snobbery, mastery of obfuscation, moral laxity, bleeding hearts, softness. Despite surface similarities, however, there is a categorical difference between the two epithets. “Limousine liberal” did not train its sights on the corporate world. “Woke capital,” in contrast, depicts and condemns first and last the main institutions of the economy. The right has zeroed in on the country’s capitalist core—something that one might expect from the left and is nearly unthinkable from mainstream conservatism.

This new stigma has emerged from the right in response to a change in the American political economy and an associated change in capitalist political culture. Limousine liberals appeared amid early signs that the New Deal order was foundering. Woke capitalists arrived when the neoliberal order—an economy based on asset-price appreciation without much underlying productive investment—was itself flailing about in protracted crisis.

 

Limousine Liberalism and the Racial Dilemma of the New Deal Order

Racial liberalism was at the core of both of these elite awakenings. Neither would have happened without the pressure of mass movements—the civil rights uprising of the sixties and the Black Lives Matter protests of recent years.

There was an economic imperative embedded in the heart of civil rights insurgency, most directly expressed in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This imperative shaped the ascendancy of both Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. (most explicitly in the closing years of his life). The civil rights movement challenged the basic political chemistry of the New Deal order, which rested on an alliance with the southern Democratic Party. It also highlighted the failure of the New Deal economy to incorporate large sections of the black working class (although not only the black working class), leaving them excluded and marginalized rather than directly integrated into the system of capitalist exploitation.

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act put a legal end to apartheid. They amounted to a profound historic transformation (and one that cost the Democratic Party the South). On the economic front, the state response was more palliative, essentially consisting of the War on Poverty and, later, affirmative action. The expansion of the welfare state meaningfully improved the lives of the poor, but it did not make the kinds of structural changes to labor markets, the flow of investment capital, and the nature of state intervention in the economy necessary to move the marginalized into the arena of productive, decently remunerated labor. Indeed, the economy was already headed in the opposite direction, with the first signs of deindustrialization surfacing in Detroit, the East Coast industrial belt, and elsewhere.

What changes were made had little to do with the business community. Corporations didn’t take out ads supporting the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, or any of the programs designed to materially benefit the poor. But neither did they attack those reforms. Instead, those fragments of the upper bourgeoisie that allied themselves with the movement for formal racial equality largely succeeded in steering the mass insurgency away from more fundamental economic solutions to the dilemma of the black poor. At the same time, their embrace of the civil rights movement earned them the enduring enmity of the white ethnic lower-middle and working classes, including portions of the unionized working class, who felt abandoned by an elite that seemed to hold them in contempt.

Confronting this shifting political environment, the progressive community divided. Most felt a basic kinship with the limousine-liberal viewpoint and saw white working-class resistance to initiatives such as busing and affirmative action as the principal obstacle to progress. Long before today’s regnant convictions about “white privilege,” elements of the New Left and of the emerging black middle class, a segment of the Black Power movement, mainstream liberal institutions like the Ford Foundation, and Democratic Party initiatives like Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1968 Kerner Commission (which investigated the causes of the ghetto uprisings of that era) all pinpointed the same enemy: a bone-deep racism.

Others reacted differently. The Black Panther Party stood out for its forthright anti-capitalism. So too did the black militants within the unionized workforce, particularly in the United Auto Workers.

The official labor movement was caught betwixt and between. By its nature, it had to keep its eye trained on the economic dilemmas facing its own membership. Keynesian fix-its were proving less and less effective by the end of the 1960s. And it could never subscribe to the white-skin-privilege perspective, both because it was, in some measure, an institutional embodiment of that system and because the limousine-liberal wing of the Democratic Party was increasingly invested in the new identity politics that shunted even modest class-based demands to the sidelines.

Finally, a strand of the New Left had always prioritized capitalism as its systemic enemy. Its interpretation of the New Deal and subsequent eras of reform, which treated these initiatives as a form of social containment from above, in some sense anticipated a critique of limousine liberalism, but from the left. (That the origins of the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society in particular, lay in labor-connected social democratic organizations—however frail those connections became—helps account for this identification of capitalism as the core problem.) The notion that capital had adapted to social pressures with something other than blunt instruments posed an alternative to the conviction that white privilege and prejudice were the social questions ne plus ultra.

 

Woke Capital at the Barricades

Corporate expressions of social conscience are hardly new. Model company towns, where business patriarchs would presume to look after the general well-being of their employees, go back into the early nineteenth century. Welfare-capitalist plans adopted by leading corporations in the first part of the twentieth century attempted to smooth out labor relations with various forms of company beneficence, including stock ownership, profit-sharing, employee get-togethers, sports teams, and cafeteria services. Enterprises avowing their Christian purposes—such as Walmart today—have also cropped up recurrently. The not-so-hidden agenda in many cases was to prevent unionization, but these efforts stayed by and large outside the political arena.

Woke capital is different. It’s a political phenomenon first and foremost, but it does not turn its attention much to labor relations, or for that matter to questions of economic inequality, except insofar as inequality can be addressed by diversifying the labor force (particularly in its upper ranks, since diversity is already the norm lower down the labor ladder). Nor does it display the faintest interest in doing anything about exploitation, a term rarely seen in public life today. Instead, woke capital is a late recognition of the power of a sanitized identity politics.

In the business world, identity politics was a commercial strategy before it became a political one. Sensitive to the growing cultural weight of various identity groups, corporate America has for decades cultivated niche markets across a broad spectrum of the expanding social-liberal universe. Identity politics also made an indirect impact on labor relations through changes in human-relations and community-relations departments, and through the growing number of diversity officers. The business of diversity has become an $8 billion industry. When it came to political action, however, corporations stayed agnostic, content to pursue their interests—on taxes, subsidies, tariffs, deregulation, and fiscal policy—through customary channels running through both major parties. When, in the past few years, major companies seemed to jump suddenly into more partisan conflict, two generations of changing business culture had paved the way.

During the age of patriarchal capitalism in the nineteenth century, even the largest capitalists were bound to the racial, religious, and other hierarchical predispositions of dynastic families—a legacy that partly lives on today, as in the cases of the Koch, Sackler, Murdoch, and Walton families. Though managerial capitalism later supplanted patriarchal authority, labor markets still tended to reproduce racial and gender exclusions, as financial institutions did in the housing market. (Although, as geographer Garrett Dash Nelson pointed out in a recent Dissent article, redlining by the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and local banks was based as much on class as it was on a race.) Today, however, capital openly advocates for a limited form of racial and gender justice, and it is willing to weather the inevitable backlash from the right.

This change might appear surprising, but it reflects an adaptation to the problems facing the neoliberal order. The United States is experiencing a pervasive economic anxiety that began with the Great Recession, was aggravated by the slow recovery, and then was raised to new intensity during the pandemic. Even if COVID-19 subsides, an economy resting on fragile asset bubbles is just holding its breath, waiting for the next implosion. The mounting political consequences of this anxiety have frightened corporate America. Trumpism has made the Republican Party a less congenial home for segments of the big-business class, although it still attracts the privately controlled firms and wannabe tycoons who fill the party’s coffers. The GOP’s restorationist impulses alienate too many middle-class submarkets, where people are ensconced in modern ways of life and don’t pine for the return of some patriarchal nirvana. The party’s irreverence has passed over into a right-wing rowdyism that leaves social and political life chronically unsettled—an instability that business does not like. And, now and again, the party’s more plebeian base directs its resentment against financial institutions and the state economic agencies upon which the corporate world relies.

On the other hand, there is Bernie Sanders—both the person and the political phenomenon. His relentless emphasis on economic inequality, coming after decades of silence about this sore subject, scared both the political class and its patrons in the business world. The Sanders camp still represents a challenge to corporate preeminence inside the Democratic Party. Outside the party, it has a presence in the streets that has the makings of a movement. Taken together with a new restiveness among unorganized and organized workers in both blue-collar jobs and in the service and gig economies, there is a growing cultural persuasion antagonistic to wealth and the undue influence of corporations in public life; it’s not anti-capitalist exactly, but it’s getting there.

Corporations are not about to craft any commercials applauding movements to restructure the economy, redistribute wealth and income, or assert public control over the flow of capital. Better, instead, to flow with the tidal momentum of identity politics, with which they have no fundamental quarrel. To do so places the business community at the ideological heart of the Democratic Party. The potential is there to widen the gulf between the party center and its progressive wing by burying its incipient challenge to capitalism under an avalanche of feel-good pieties drawn from identity politics: all this, despite the efforts of the party’s left to incorporate both the more frontal attack on capitalism and the struggle for formal equality.

Much will depend on the evolving response to the economic upheaval of the pandemic and to the longer-term existential crisis of global warming. The Biden administration and the party’s center have been accumulating political credit for economic relief (most of which, once itemized, has gone to the corporate and banking sectors, as Robert Brenner argued in New Left Review) and for its infrastructure legislation (which pleases business-oriented Republicans and always has). More fundamental economic redistribution and restructuring await further lawmaking, and their fate is bound up with the byzantine protocols of the legislative branch—almost always a bad thing. Labor-law reform seems unlikely, and the same can be said for substantial action on climate change; powerful interests stand in the way. However, in another instance of capitalism’s flexibility, a sizeable portion of the corporate world can already envision a capital-friendly version of energy alternatives that might open up a new era of accumulation (Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, has said, “sustainability should be our new standard for investing”).

Ours may or may not become an anti-capitalist moment, in part depending on just how the left reacts to these dilemmas. Just as corporate America feels at ease with the world of identity politics, so too do the circles still in command of the Democratic Party. That alliance, a political response to profound capitalist dysfunction, cannot be ignored. Its political chemistry inflames long-simmering resentments against liberal elitism. In response, the right takes woke capital with deadly seriousness. However, that same political chemistry can work to short-circuit a burgeoning anti-capitalism. The left tends to dismiss woke capital as insincere and inconsequential, but it does so at its peril. On this question, the right is right.


Steve Fraser is a historian and writer. He is the author of The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (Basic Books).


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