Woke Corporate Culture: Origins & Answers

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of a series written for The Epoch Times and its “American Promise” program.  This article was written on November 2, 2021.  Used by permission. 

By Lou Ann Anderson

Stay in your lane. That’s a phrase with growing applicability as woke corporations increasingly depart from core business operations to instead weigh in on social and political issues.

The phrase is often directed at a person or group taking actions or expressing positions on a topic outside their generally viewed base of knowledge or expertise. It can be used as advice or more aptly in this example, as a rebuke. Whether termed stakeholder capitalism, woke corporate capitalism, woke capitalism, woke corporatism, corporate wokeness, or even just wokeness, the issue is a growing concern as Americans see daily examples of its damaging influence.

Where did woke capitalism come from?

Storefront sign on Congress Avenue on 7-3-21. (Photo by Lynn Woolley for WB Daily)

Corporate shakedowns are nothing new. Al Sharpton has a long history of obtaining corporate contributions by threatening racial boycotts. Though similar efforts continue today, corporations seem to have learned from the Sharpton and “Godfather of Shakedowns” Jesse Jackson experiences and rather than passively wait to become a target, many proactively proclaim their wokeness so as to secure a place of prominence in the Church of Wokeism and to gain economic inoculation from the leftist mob.

“The woke movement is a slicker, more sophisticated and far more grandiose version of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson’s shakedowns of the 1990s,” Victor Davis Hanson wrote in What the Movement Toward American Wokeness is Really About. “Those, at least, were far more honest in leveraging cash with charges of racism — and came without the academic gobbledygook of critical race theory.”

Ross Douthat is credited with coining the term “woke capitalism” in a 2015 piece for The New York Times. Douthat defines it as how companies signal their support for progressive causes in order to maintain their influence in society.

Andy Olivastro, director of Coalition Relations at The Heritage Foundation, agrees with Douthat’s definition, but describes it further as “a top-down anti-democratic movement.”

“And it’s on the part of some of the biggest and most important names in American business to change the way that business functions, to change the definition of capitalism itself, and to permanently change the relationship between the citizen and the state,” Olivastro explained in a recent Heritage Foundation podcast.

In his book, “Woke, Inc.” Vivek Ramaswamy takes on the Church of Wokeism. Per The Wall Street Journal, he “defines ‘wokeism’ as a creed that has arisen in America in response to the ‘moral vacuum’ created by the ebbing from public life of faith, patriotism and ‘the identity we derived from hard work.’” Ramaswamy further argues “that notions like ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion’ and ‘sustainability’ have come to take their place.”

Ramaswamy describes how “our collective moral insecurities have left us vulnerable” to the propaganda of new political and corporate elites who are locked in a cynical “arranged marriage, where each partner has contempt for the other.” He also notes that each side is getting something out of the “trade” – something it “could not have gotten alone.”

Elements from American society and certain events helped give rise to the popularity of woke corporatism or stakeholder capitalism. Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance, a firm’s alleged collective conscientiousness for social and environmental factors, dates back to the 1960s when it was first known as socially responsible investing.

As younger Americans soured on capitalism in its traditional sense, Ramaswamy traces this evolution specifically to the years following the 2008 financial crisis when he believes conditions were ripe for a merger of wokeness and capitalism. He contends that wokeness and capitalism united following that panic as conditions were ripe for such a merger.

“We were—and are—in the midst of the biggest intergenerational wealth transfer in history,” he told The Journal. Barack Obama had just been elected the first black president and by the end of the crisis, Americans “were actually pretty jaded with respect to capitalism. Corporations were the bad guys. The old left wanted to take money from corporations and give it to poor people.”

Ramaswamy calls the birth of wokeism “a godsend to corporations” as it helped “defang the left.” Corporations found cover through applauding diversity and inclusion, appointing token female or other left-proclaimed marginalized directors and “mused about the racially disparate impact of climate change.”

The Journal describes Ramaswamy’s narrative as “a bunch of big banks got together with a bunch of millennials, birthed woke capitalism, and then put Occupy Wall Street up for adoption.” It further describes his conclusion as that now “big business makes money by critiquing itself.”

Andrew Stuttaford at National Review offers this take: “The stakeholder capitalism advocated by the Business Roundtable, the World Economic Forum (“Davos”), and other groupings of oligarchs on the make, is, at heart, an expression of corporatism, an ideology based around the idea that society should be run in a way that recognizes the importance of interest groups rather than individuals. Thus, when it comes to determining what a company is for, shareholders are just one group of ‘stakeholders’ who have to compete for management’s attention.”

Is Klaus Schwab, founder and CEO of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the leading proponent of this movement? Ramaswamy falls in this camp describing Schwab as the “patron saint of wokeism” and citing his aggressive propagation of “stakeholder capitalism,” the view that the unspoken bargain in the grant to corporations of limited liability is that they “must do social good on the side.”

Olivastro agrees in describing how “CEOs in prior generations, they led with the bearing of generals and quarterbacks, but their modern counterparts, they can’t even stand up straight because they’re constantly kneeling before an endless array of stakeholders. And in this, they weaken themselves certainly, but they weaken the share owners and the employees. We all pay the price for this.”

Likening Schwab to Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil character in Austin Powers, he describes the World Economic Forum, its Great Reset agenda and the alliance with woke capitalism as a “Dr. Evil meets corporate boardroom kind of a thing.”

Winners? Losers?

 Who benefits? Who doesn’t? It’s not a compelling list for anyone who values freedom, individual rights, limited and non-centralized government, a level economic playing field, etc. In other words, it’s not a compelling list for anyone having enjoyed what’s come to be known as the American way of life. But let’s get specific.

Winners of woke corporatism? The corporations, woke activists, their affiliated celebrity cheerleaders, even the Chinese Communist Party – – after all, the CCP would see this as imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

And losers of woke corporatism? The American people and American democracy itself.

Stated again, it’s not a compelling list for traditional Americans.

Who are the “woke” corporations?

 Who’s woke? The easier question to answer might be who’s not.

Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta with the Georgia legislature’s passage of reasonable election integrity legislation that was inaccurately vilified by the corporate media. Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and the Ford Foundation also joined in as per Fox Business Network’s Charles Payne, “to preempt the torch and pitchfork crowd.”

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s 2020 death, companies heavily donated to Black Lives Matter and other racial/social injustice organizations despite the deaths of up to 19 and actions resulting in up to $2 billion in damage for looting, arson and vandalism across 20+ states.

At The American Conservative, Rod Dreher identified how in 2019 when some states passed strict limits on abortion on demand, more than 200 CEOs of companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Yelp, and Bloomberg signed a New York Times advertisement condemning the new laws and claiming they were “bad for business.”

The news site Vox offered this 2018 overview of corporations getting political. Despite providing an informative look at who’s giving what to whom, the left-leaning site closed the article with a telling reminder of just how and where corporate wokeism comes down.

“Since the dawn of the industrial age, corporations have battled the idea that they’re evil. While that perception hasn’t vanished, companies increasingly grapple with the notion that to do good, they must act. Today, greed and exploitation continue to mark businesses as morally bankrupt, but so does failure to speak out during an age when many refuse to tolerate silence, politeness, and thoughts and prayers any longer. Social action has always been a matter of life and death, but when migrant children are being placed behind bars, mass shootings have grown routine, and the climate is changing, taking a stand now signals that a company has values.”

Businesses are undoubtedly taking social actions yet too often these actions seem from a values-based agenda seeking not the betterment of our society, but the undermining of America’s traditional culture as well as its governmental and economic systems.

So what do we do?

 Writing at Mises.org, Professor William L. Anderson discusses “the problem of businesses becoming bureaucratic in their drive for social justice” and notes how “the issues are much more far-reaching now than just the policies that govern the human resources offices of these firms.”

“While the drive to create a workplace atmosphere not unlike what would have existed under the Stasi in the former East Germany is turning many corporations into pockets of “soft totalitarianism,” he contends, “they don’t stop at their own property lines in their zeal to ‘reform’ US society.”

Anderson quotes Dreher’s observation that “the Woke firms are not just satisfied with policing their own employees for un-Woke attitudes and thoughts. These companies also are imperialistic in pushing their social and political views elsewhere and not being afraid to use threats when challenged.”

Olivastro encourages concerned Americans to familiarize themselves with organizations like 2ndVote, a group that educates consumers to make informed decisions that align their dollars with their values and empowers them to impact corporate/organization activism. He also recommends searching out 1 Investor with 1 Share Can Call Out Corporate Leftism, a process used at the Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Olivastro reminds that everyone has a voice, but with regard to the business world, “if you’re a share owner or an employee, this is your property, this is your time, this is your talent, this is your expertise, this is your capital that’s being used in a way that may undermine your values, it may undermine your beliefs, and it’s certainly going to undermine the American way of life if we don’t step in and stop it.”

Ramaswamy has his own views of the path forward. He believes we need “a new movement that adds political belief right there next to race, sex, national origin and religion” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs employment discrimination. “If you can’t discriminate against somebody because they’re black, or gay, or Muslim, then you shouldn’t be able to discriminate against them because of the expression of their political perspective.”

He additionally calls for a legislative fix to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that would attach strings to tech companies’ part of the bargain. “If you benefit from Section 230, a federally provided form of pre-emptive immunity, that’s fine. But you’d then have to abide by the same standards as the federal government itself, including the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.”

Extending the religion clause protection of Title VII to victims of wokeism is another measure for which Ramaswamy advocates. Title VII prohibits discrimination against an employee on the basis of religion. “Its flip side,” Ramaswamy says, “is that if you’re an employer, you can’t force your religion down the throats of your employees.”

In addition to tagging wokeism as a religion, Ramaswamy urges that “the antidote isn’t to fight wokeness directly.”

“It can’t be,” he says, “because that’s a losing battle. The true solution is to gradually rebuild a vision for shared American identity that is so deep and so powerful that it dilutes wokeism to irrelevance, one that no longer leaves us susceptible to being divided by corporate elites for their own gain.”

Lou Ann Anderson is a Texas-based writer and podcaster.  POLITICAL PURSUITS: The PODCAST is available on most platforms.

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