Once, the Left represented the fight for social justice, striving to dismantle classism and inequity. It was a symbol of unity for the oppressed, the proletariat, and the marginalized, pushing back against the bourgeoisie’s grip on society. However, it appears that the tables have turned; “woke” ideology, once an expression of awareness of social injustice, has transformed into a bourgeois identitarian movement, betraying its foundation.
There is no more sinister manifestation of this betrayal than the emergence of “woke capitalism”, the phenomenon of corporations adopting progressive stances on social, political, and environmental issues to attract customers and gain public approval (Gelles, 2018). This article explores how progressive ideals have transformed into a marketing strategy for corporations, thus undermining the goals of working class in the name of corporate responsibility.
A Brief History of “Wokeism”
Leftism, in its 19th-century origins, aimed to challenge capitalism’s inequalities, advocating for a classless society with power resting in the proletariat’s hands (Marx & Engels, 1848). However, the 21st-century “Woke” Left, preoccupied with virtue signaling and identity politics, has strayed far from its roots.
From Black Vernacular to Bourgeois Virtue Signaling
The term “woke” has its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), originating in the early 20th century as a colloquialism meaning “awake” or “aware.” Over time, the term evolved to signify a heightened consciousness about social and political issues, particularly those related to civil rights and racial injustice. The modern usage of “woke” gained traction in the wake of the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, with the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The phrase “stay woke” became a rallying cry for activists urging vigilance against systemic racism and injustice.
However, in recent years, the term has been co-opted and broadened to encompass a wide range of social and political causes, often leading to criticism and debates about its appropriation, dilution, and the potential for performative activism. The appropriation of “woke” by white liberals (Kendi, 2019) exemplifies this hypocrisy, with bourgeois ideology diluting the movement’s essence.
The Hypocrisy of “Identity Politics”
Accusations of elitism, classism, and fascism against the Right ring hollow when considering the bourgeoisification of wokeness. This movement displays the same elitism it claims to oppose, with “woke capitalists” and social justice CEOs protecting the very system they criticize (Douthat, 2021). As a result, the working class is increasingly driven to the Right, as the Left has abandoned economic redistribution and labor rights in favor of globalization, multiculturalism, and identity politics (Piketty, 2018).
The consequences of this shift are significant; while the “Woke” Left focuses on identity politics and social media attention, the staggering levels of income inequality in the United States remain unaddressed (Saez & Zucman, 2019). Leftism has been hijacked by bourgeois identitarian movements that sidelined the working class.
How Does “Woke Capitalism” Work?
Ben & Jerry’s, the popular ice cream brand, is often cited as a pioneer of socially responsible business practices (Ben & Jerry’s, 2021). Founded in 1978, the company champions progressive causes, such as fair trade, environmental sustainability, and marriage equality. This has set a precedent for other brands to follow. The late 20th century also saw the rise of cause marketing, with companies partnering with nonprofits and charities to raise funds and awareness for various social issues (Adkins, 2000).
In recent years, consumers have become increasingly vocal about their expectations of ethical business practices (Nielsen, 2018). Shareholder activism has also driven corporate responsibility (Davis & Kim, 2015). As a result, businesses have been compelled to adopt a more socially conscious approach to their operations. They have embraced a culture of woke capitalism to appease stakeholders.
Role of Social Media in Woke Capitalism
The lines between commercial interests and social activism have blurred. Social media platforms have provided a powerful means for corporations to amplify their messages and engage with consumers (History.com Editors, 2020). These platforms have enabled consumers to hold businesses accountable for their actions. This has given rise to viral campaigns and online movements that shape corporate behavior.
The impact of social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo on corporate stances cannot be overstated (Yohn, 2018). Companies are increasingly engaging with these movements, either out of genuine concern or to capitalize on their momentum. However, this engagement carries the risk of superficiality and performative activism, potentially undermining the brand’s credibility (Wagner, 2020).
The Business Strategy of Slacktivist Branding
Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick and Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” campaign serve as notable examples of brand activism (Schawbel, 2018; Gillette, 2019). By aligning themselves with progressive social causes, these companies have generated both praise and criticism. This underscores the potential risks and rewards of such strategies.
While engaging in political activism can bolster a company’s image and resonate with like-minded consumers, it also carries the potential for backlash and boycotts (Schawbel, 2018). The importance of authenticity and consistency in brand messaging is paramount, as consumers are increasingly savvy and critical of corporate behavior (Yohn, 2018).
Corporate social responsibility has become an integral part of the business landscape, as corporations navigate the complex relationship between commercial interests and political activism. As consumers and shareholders demand increased accountability from businesses, it remains crucial for companies to engage with social issues in a genuine and consistent manner. Staying informed on the latest developments in woke capitalism and holding corporations accountable for their actions is essential for promoting a more equitable and just society.
The Dark Side of Woke Capitalism
While woke capitalism has resulted in some positive changes, such as raising awareness about social issues and driving some businesses to adopt more ethical practices, there are darker aspects that warrant examination.
Wokewashing and Corporate Virtue Signaling
Wokewashing is when corporations or individuals use social issues and progressive values as a marketing tool, without genuinely committing to those values or taking meaningful action (Banet-Weiser & Portwood-Stacer, 2019). Corporate virtue signaling refers to companies publicly expressing support for social or environmental causes, primarily to gain positive publicity and enhance their brand image.
Examples of wokewashing and corporate virtue signaling include Pepsi’s controversial 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which was widely criticized for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement (Garcia, 2017).
Consumer mistrust and corporate virtue signaling can lead to consumer mistrust and skepticism. When companies are caught in their deceptive practices, it can result in negative publicity and damage to their reputation (Banet-Weiser & Portwood-Stacer, 2019). Furthermore, these practices can dilute the impact of genuine activism, as consumers may become desensitized to critical social and environmental issues.
Exploiting Movements for Profit: Pseudo-Progressivism
Some corporations have been accused of co-opting social movements for their own gain, appropriating activism language and imagery to sell products or services. This pseudo-progressivism undermines activists’ genuine efforts and detractsfrom the real issues at hand (Littler, 2018).
When corporations exploit social movements for profit, it can delegitimize the work of genuine activists and grassroots organizations, as their efforts may be overshadowed by corporate marketing campaigns. This can make it harder for activists to effect meaningful change and may result in cynicism towards social and political activism (Littler, 2018).
Consumer Manipulation: Targeting Emotions for Profit
The modern era of woke capitalism often relies on emotional marketing strategies to appeal to consumers’ values and beliefs. By tapping into consumers’ emotions, such as empathy, outrage, or pride, companies can create a connection with their audience that fosters brand loyalty and drives sales (Bloom, 2018).
Emotional marketing raises ethical concerns, as it involves manipulating consumers’ feelings to encourage them to buy products or services. This can result in an exploitative relationship between corporations and consumers, with companies profiting off social and environmental issues without necessarily contributing to meaningful change (Bloom, 2018).
Economic Consequences and Widening Inequality
In recent years, woke capitalism has become a prominent force in the global economy. Large corporations are increasingly aligning their brands with social and environmental causes to appeal to a growing consumer base that prioritizes ethical consumption. While this shift may seem positive on the surface, it has significant economic implications that deserve our attention.
Effects on Small Businesses and Income Inequality
Small businesses often struggle to compete with large corporations that leverage woke capitalism to their advantage. By aligning themselves with popular social and environmental causes, these corporations can attract consumers who may overlook smaller, more ethical businesses that genuinely prioritize sustainability and social responsibility (Giridharadas, 2018). This can lead to further market consolidation and competitive disadvantage for small businesses.
In addition, woke capitalism also contributes to widening income inequality. As large corporations embrace social causes to increase profits, they often exploit cheap labor and resources in developing countries (Bhattacharya, 2020). The wealth generated by these practices typically remains concentrated among a small group of executives and shareholders, further exacerbating global wealth disparities.
It Ain’t Easy Being Green: Environmental Consequences
Greenwashing is a form of wokewashing that specifically pertains to environmental issues. Companies may engage in greenwashing by promoting their products or services as eco-friendly or sustainable, without genuinely committing to environmentally responsible practices (Dahl, 2010). This can contribute to environmental degradation, as consumers may be misled into believing they are making environmentally responsible choices when they are not.
To combat woke capitalism, businesses must commit to sustainable and ethical practices. This includes being transparent about their environmental impact, actively working to reduce their carbon footprint, and supporting organizations and initiatives that promote social and environmental justice (Werbach, 2009). Consumers should also be critical of companies that engage in wokewashing and greenwashing, holding them accountable for their actions and demanding genuine change.
While woke capitalism has brought some positive developments, it is essential to recognize its darker aspects, such as wokewashing, corporate virtue signaling, and exploiting social movements for profit. By being aware of these negative consequences, consumers can make more informed decisions and support businesses that genuinely commit to social and environmental responsibility.
“Pride Month” as Capitalist Propaganda
Corporate involvement in Pride Month has become a prime example of “woke capitalism,” highlighting the potential hypocrisy of businesses adopting progressive stances on social issues as a means to attract customers and gain public approval. Every June, numerous companies around the world show their support for the LGBTQ+ community by launching Pride-themed merchandise, ad campaigns, and social media initiatives. While these gestures may seem like a genuine show of solidarity, critics argue that many corporations engage in performative activism, exploiting the LGBTQ+ movement for profit without genuinely supporting the community or enacting tangible change.
One aspect of this hypocrisy lies in the inconsistency between a company’s public displays of support for the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month and their actions throughout the rest of the year. Some corporations have been accused of donating to politicians who support anti-LGBTQ+ legislation or maintaining discriminatory practices within their own organizations. Furthermore, critics argue that the commodification of Pride Month by corporations often leads to the dilution of the event’s historical significance and the erasure of its radical origins. The commercialization of Pride can overshadow the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, reducing the movement to a marketing opportunity rather than a platform for meaningful advocacy and change.
Shaping Public Discourse and Eroding Democracy
The rise of woke capitalism has significantly shaped public discourse, as corporations increasingly use their platforms to take a stand on social and political issues (Giridharadas, 2018). While this may help raise awareness of critical issues, it also raises concerns about the erosion of democracy. Large corporations can wield considerable influence over public conversations, potentially stifling individuals and grassroots movements (Fisher, 2019).
Moreover, when corporations engage in woke capitalism, it can be difficult to discern genuine activism from self-serving attempts to increase profits. This blurring of lines can undermine public trust in democratic institutions and contribute to growing cynicism (Fisher, 2019).
Influence on Art, Creativity, Sports, and Entertainment
In addition, woke capitalism has also left its mark on art, creativity, sports, and entertainment. As corporations seek to capitalize on social movements, they may inadvertently commodify culture, transforming it into a marketable product (Stahl, 2020). This commodification can dilute the power and authenticity of artistic expressions, undermining their ability to challenge societal norms and provoke meaningful change (Stahl, 2020).
Artists, athletes, and entertainers may feel compelled to adopt or promote specific ideologies in line with their corporate sponsors, which can limit artistic freedom and hinder creativity (Stahl, 2020). This pressure may also lead to self-censorship, as individuals avoid tackling controversial subjects for fear of losing sponsorship or facing backlash (Stahl, 2020).
The Commoditization of Education
The ethos of woke capitalism has extended its reach into education, with corporations increasingly playing a role in shaping curricula and sponsoring educational programs (Hartman, 2021). While this may provide valuable resources and opportunities for students, it can also raise concerns about education commodification.
When corporations become involved in education, they may prioritize their interests over students’ needs, potentially skewing curricula and undermining knowledge pursuit (Hartman, 2021). This commercialization of education may lead to the erosion of critical thinking and reinforcement of dominant ideologies (Hartman, 2021).
A New Era of Neocolonialism
Despite adopting progressive stances on various social issues, many corporations continue to exploit resources and labor in the Global South (Bhattacharya, 2020). This neocolonialism in the name of woke capitalism perpetuates global inequality and undermines social justice (Bhattacharya, 2020).
By presenting themselves as champions of social progress, corporations engaging in woke capitalism can obscure their role in perpetuating global inequity and exploitation. This can make it harder for activists and grassroots movements to hold these corporations accountable for their actions, undermining genuine change (Bhattacharya, 2020).
The impact of woke capitalism on society and culture is a double-edged sword. While it may raise awareness and promote social progress, it can also lead to the commodification of culture, the erosion of democratic principles, and the perpetuation of global inequality. As consumers and citizens, we must remain vigilant in distinguishing genuine activism from corporate self-interest. We must continue to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
Big Tech and Woke Capitalism: A Dangerous Alliance
Tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon play a significant role in promoting woke capitalism. These companies wield immense power and influence, and their embrace of social and environmental causes can shape public discourse and consumer behavior (Fisher, 2019).
The alliance between tech giants and woke capitalism raises concerns about power concentration in a few corporations. As these companies continue to grow and dominate various sectors, their influence over social and political issues can lead to an erosion of democratic principles and stifling of diverse perspectives (Fisher, 2019).
Investors and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)
ESG criteria have become increasingly popular among investors and companies as a means of evaluating corporate responsibility and sustainability (Friede, Busch, & Bassen, 2015). However, there are several criticisms of ESG’s efficacy in driving meaningful change. These criticisms include some questioning its ability to accurately assess corporate performance and its potential for unintended consequences.
One criticism of ESG is the lack of standardization and consistency in its application (Kotsantonis, Pinney, & Serafeim, 2016). With no universally accepted framework for measuring ESG performance, companies and investors often rely on a variety of different metrics and approaches, leading to inconsistencies in how ESG factors are considered and reported (Kotsantonis et al., 2016). This lack of standardization can make it difficult for investors to evaluate the ESG performance of different companies. This reduces ESG’s overall effectiveness as an evaluation tool.
Another concern is the potential for greenwashing, a practice in which companies overstate or exaggerate their commitment to environmental or social issues to improve their public image (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015). With the growing demand for ESG investments, some companies may be incentivized to engage in greenwashing to attract investors and enhance their reputation without making meaningful changes to their operations (Lyon & Montgomery, 2015). This undermines ESG investing’s core objective, to promote responsible and sustainable business practices.
Critics also argue that ESG may not always result in superior financial performance, as proponents often claim (Bauer, Derwall, & Otten, 2007). While some studies have found a positive relationship between ESG performance and financial returns, others have reported mixed or inconclusive results (Bauer et al., 2007). This inconsistency raises questions about ESG reliability as an indicator of economic success and may deter investors from fully embracing ESG principles.
Moreover, the focus on ESG can sometimes lead to unintended consequences, such as the exclusion of certain industries or companies from investment portfolios (Capelle-Blancard & Monjon, 2012). While this exclusionary approach may align with some investors’ ethical preferences, it can also result in a lack of engagement with industries that have the greatest potential for improving their ESG performance (Capelle-Blancard & Monjon, 2012). By excluding these companies, investors may limit their ability to drive positive change through their investment decisions.
Influence on Politics and Democracy
The alliance between tech giants and the woke capitalism movement raises concerns about power concentration and its impact on democracy. In recent years, woke capitalism has also found its way into politics, with candidates leveraging the trend to appeal to voters. By aligning themselves with popular social and environmental causes, politicians can attract support from individuals who prioritize these issues. However, the sincerity of these commitments can be questioned, as some politicians may use woke capitalism as a tool for political gain.
Weaponizing woke capitalism in political campaigns can undermine democratic processes and distort political discourse. By exploiting popular social and environmental issues, politicians may divert attention away from other critical policy matters, skewing public debates and priorities (Giridharadas, 2018). Furthermore, this trend can create a polarizing environment where political discourse is reduced to shallow virtue signaling, rather than focusing on substantive policy discussions.
The Future of Woke Capitalism
Woke capitalism has become a pervasive force in the corporate world, with many companies embracing social and environmental causes to bolster their public image and tap into consumer sentiment. This phenomenon has drawn both praise and criticism. Many wonder whether woke capitalism can lead to real change or remain a superficial trend that prioritizes profit over genuine progress.
Authentic Change or False Promises?
In some cases, woke capitalism has led to tangible progress, such as increased diversity in the workplace, improved environmental practices, and support for marginalized communities (Bhattacharya, 2020). By raising awareness and dedicating resources to social and environmental issues, corporations can drive positive change. This will contribute to a more equitable society.
However, critics argue that woke capitalism is often superficial and focused on optics rather than substantive change (Giridharadas, 2018). They point to instances of “wokewashing,” where companies tout progressive values but fail to address systemic issues within their own organizations or industries. In these cases, woke capitalism can be seen as a marketing ploy rather than a genuine commitment to social change.
The Power of Consumer Choices
Consumers play a critical role in shaping the woke capitalist movement. By making informed purchasing decisions and supporting businesses that prioritize social and environmental responsibility, consumers can send a strong message to corporations about the importance of genuine commitment to these issues (Joy et al., 2012). In turn, this can encourage companies to move beyond superficial gestures and focus on creating real, lasting change.
One way to promote genuine corporate responsibility is by supporting companies that are certified as B Corporations, which meet rigorous social and environmental standards (B Lab, n.d.). By patronizing these businesses, consumers can help create a market for more responsible and equitable corporate practices.
The “go woke, go broke” phenomenon refers to the idea that businesses adopting progressive stances on social issues ultimately face financial decline. At the core of this argument lies the belief that working-class individuals have a strong distaste for inauthenticity and are quick to recognize when a company’s commitment to social causes is not genuine, but rather driven by profit motives. This perceived lack of authenticity can lead to customer loyalty decline and company financial success.
One reason behind working-class individuals’ sensitivity to inauthenticity is their intrinsic understanding of struggle and the importance of fighting for social justice (Zmuda & Ferrell, 2016). They often experience firsthand the consequences of inequality and recognize when a company’s stance on social issues is merely a facade. As a result, they are more likely to dismiss businesses that superficially adopt progressive ideologies without making genuine efforts to address the underlying societal problems (Zmuda & Ferrell, 2016).
In contrast, when companies demonstrate an authentic commitment to social issues by engaging in meaningful initiatives and demonstrating transparency in their operations, they are more likely to earn the trust and support of working-class individuals (Carroll & Shabana, 2010). Consumers appreciate businesses that align with their values and work towards creating a more equitable society, and are therefore more inclined to support them (Carroll & Shabana, 2010).
Furthermore, working-class people understand the power of collective action and their influence as consumers (Micheletti, 2003). By choosing to boycott or withdraw their support from businesses that engage in performative activism, they send a strong message to corporations about the importance of genuine commitment to social issues (Micheletti, 2003).
The Role of Governments and Regulatory Bodies
Governments and regulatory bodies also have a crucial role to play in holding corporations accountable and ensuring that a woke capitalism leads to genuine progress. By implementing and enforcing stricter regulations around corporate social and environmental responsibility, governments can help create a level playing field where companies must prioritize these issues to remain competitive (Gupta, 2019).
Increased transparency is essential in determining woke capitalism’s authenticity. Standardized reporting and disclosure requirements can help provide consumers and investors with the information they need to assess a company’s commitment to social and environmental issues. This, in turn, can encourage companies to focus on genuine progress rather than superficial gestures.
The future of this era of capitalism will depend on our ability to strike a balance between profit and social responsibility. By recognizing the importance of both aspects, companies can make meaningful progress while remaining financially viable and competitive.
By working together, businesses, consumers, governments, and civil society organizations can address systemic issues that underlie economic and environmental challenges. Through partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives, we can create a more equitable and sustainable future where woke capitalism is a genuine force for change rather than a superficial trend.