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Woke Capital is not your friend

It is unconscionable that @StarWars has not yet tweeted the words #BlackLivesMatter — Chris Taylor

A Bugman is your typical big left leaning city dweller… Everything about his personality and life is not defined by who he is, but by what he buys and his consumerist tendencies — Urban Dictionary

Businesses don’t make money by setting themselves in opposition to their consumers, and the rise of the urban liberal both as market to be sold to and employee to retain has led to a corresponding shift in the values espoused by corporate PR. It is no longer sufficient for a company to simply sell you widgets; it must now sell you widgets while telling you about its grand social purpose, and this phenomenon is on full display in the current firestorm engulfing the US. Across that great country, legions of humanities graduates are composing sombre missives — white text, black background — to be posted on social media emphasising OmniGlobalHyperMegaCorp’s dedication to equality and support for social justice. The best that can be said for these posts is that they are usually no more than mildly grating in tone and content.

Occasionally, however, they’re pretty funny.

If it hadn’t been for the current conflagration, we might never have learned that The Dow Chemical Company believes strongly that when “we see injustice and inequity, we cannot be silent. We must stand up and speak out”. Strong words, and an admirable message, with a small caveat: the injustice and inequity can’t have anything to do with the Bhopal disaster. Then things are a little more complicated; Dow didn’t own Union Carbide at the time of the chemical leak, it didn’t take on its liabilities when it bought it, and standing up and speaking out is a mere moral obligation of very little weight compared to a dense mass of paperwork that shows it isn’t your problem anyway.

And while Nike has stood behind (and funded) activist Colin Kaepernick’s work on this issue for years, we wouldn’t have understood just how dedicated it is to grassroots activism; the company’s belief it’s time to be “part of the change” and that we can’t “pretend there’s not a problem” is a strong and welcome corrective to any confusion that might have arisen about its values. Confusion of the sort that might have been created last year, when Nike was busy removing Houston Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores after the team’s general manager supported protesters in Hong Kong.

But maybe this was to be expected. We don’t look to clothing brands for moral leadership. Disney, though. Disney we can trust. Disney is devoted to ensuring “we are fostering a culture that acknowledges our people’s feelings and their pain”. Admittedly, this culture was fostered too late to prevent the posters for the Chinese release of The Force Awakens carefully minimising the presence of black actor John Boyega, or the editing out of a same-sex kiss in Singapore, but look, it’s something, right?

And anyway, Disney’s record is far better than that of Apple, where CEO Tim Cook can write to employees to say that while people “may want nothing more than a return to normalcy… [that] desire is itself a sign of privilege” without reflecting on his company pulling an app used by Hong Kong protesters to track Chinese police.

Or Activision Blizzard, that can simultaneously “support all those who stand against racism and inequality” and suspend players who support protests in Hong Kong. Or Gap, that tells us that “WE MUST STAND UNITED. Because together we are stronger. Together we create change”, while also making craven apologies for failing to respect “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in not including Taiwan on a map of the country. Or Facebook, where staff “stand with the black community” in America and trained Rodrigo Duterte‘s campaign in the Philippines.

And, of course, they’re all better than Tik Tok, that’s “proud to provide a platform where #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd generate powerful and important content with over 1 billion views” and “committed to fostering a space where everyone is seen and heard”, just so long as they don’t bring up Tiananmen Square or Tibetan independence.

Broken. It’s all broken. America is broken. Isn’t time you drove a Ford? — Eddie Pepitone

I’m not suggesting that the people in America saying these things don’t believe them with every fibre of their beings. I’m just saying that if tomorrow it were more profitable to believe the opposite — and perhaps crucially more socially acceptable to do so — the corporations they work for would switch sides faster than you could say “hypocrite”.

And they’d do so with good reason. The responsibilities of a corporation — and the determinants of management pay — generally run to “promote the interests of shareholders” and end there. Any other obligations tacked on are pretty clearly viewed as secondary; constraints on the achievement of this objective.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a scenario where a company finds an immensely profitable asset which will, sadly, destroy the world in 100 years time, and then proceeds to quite rationally make use of it to please the shareholders. It wouldn’t be hard because it’s already happened. Exonn knew perfectly well that burning hydrocarbons was leading to changes in the climate. It did the coldly rational thing; it continued to drill, and funded climate denial. On a more human scale, the tobacco industry knew perfectly well that the cigarettes it sold caused cancer. The firms manufacturing leaded petrol knew that it damaged the brain. Oh. And, of course, a whole suite of American companies did highly lucrative business with the Third Reich.

My point is not that corporations are staffed with repugnant hypocrites who will surely be up against the wall come the revolution but that woke capital is not your friend. The point of a corporation, as an entity, is to remove legal responsibility from the owners. That’s fine and probably good. But what it also does is move people into a realm of systemic incentives. Corporations are value neutral by definition.

When they publish their statements on Black Lives Matter, or talk about their dedication to social justice, or how much they care about the environment, or how they’re working to improve diversity in their workforce, they’re doing this because they’re selling you what they think you want to see.

A corporation is never going to take a stand for values on the edge of social acceptability when it can just reflect wider society. At best, it’s going to back a cause that already has the press and politicians behind it. This isn’t virtue signalling because a corporation does not have virtue. It’s PR. It’s an identity a marketing team tries to create and project.

In turn, this sometimes throws activists who are used to using the language of the underdog. Finding out that you’re the cultural mainstream rather than the rebel alliance can be a hell of a shock to the system. But the fact that every time they demand statements they get them in sombre black and white text shows it.

A more interesting question is why they’re so desperate for the companies they buy from to write these meaningless statements. All I can think of is that people are so bound up in brands as part of their identity that they need them to reflect and validate their views, rather than simply provide them with goods and services.

In the end, of course, Star Wars released a suitably sad statement in plain white text on a black background.

Image courtesy of Sarah Corriher, used under a Creative Commons licence.