Still from a controversial Gillette commercial on toxic masculinity
Still from a Gillette commercial on toxic masculinity

In 1965, two years after his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King addressed Oberlin College, outlining what needed to be done to ensure the success of the civil rights movement. This speech was called “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”. King recalled Washington Irving’s short story “Rip van Winkle”, which was published in 1819 but set at the time of the American Revolution. As King reminded his audience, the story is about much more than a man who went to sleep for 20 years:

“[There] was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was.”

King reads in the story the remarkable idea that someone could not be aware of revolutionary events that surrounded them, and through this could lose their very sense of identity. More specifically, he took the idea of being awake as a metaphor for awareness of political and social change. “There is nothing more tragic,” he said, “than to sleep through a revolution.”

The metaphor of being awake as a signifier of political engagement and awareness remained present in African American culture for decades after King’s speech. In 2008 “the godmother of soul” Erykah Badu’s hit “Master Teacher” kept the ideal alive, with the refrain “I stay woke” as she dreams of a world without poverty. “We say it [woke] means we just pay attention to what’s going on around us, and are not easily swayed by the media, or by the angry mob, or by the group,” Badu has said. “You know: Stay focused, pay attention.”

Black Lives Matter and the culture war

The Black Lives Matter movement that arose in the aftermath of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s tragic death in Sanford, Florida in 2012 brought a new political power to the word woke. When George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watchman who shot Martin dead, was acquitted of any crime in 2013, the Black Lives Matter protests not only erupted into the news, they also became an engine house for Black political awareness and solidarity in the face of institutional racism.

By 2017 the word had extended beyond Black Lives Matter, and was in widespread usage in the US and across the world. In June of that year “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, adding the more contemporary meaning of being “well informed” or “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

Not long after the word was absorbed into mainstream culture, the meaning of woke took a sudden reversal at the hands of a reactionary politics that undermined its radical genealogy. Today it is often used to refer to a false, superficial and politically correct morality. Think, for example, of Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry flying by private jet to a climate summit at a luxury resort in Sicily funded by Google. It is difficult not to be cynical about the authenticity, or at least consistency, of their politics – it is this kind of apparent gesturing and hypocrisy that many right-wing pundits now call “woke”. Stemming from this cynicism is the idea that to be woke is merely an ethical fashion statement that gestures support for progressive political causes as they relate to, for example, movements against sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination and oppression. Other supposedly woke causes are environmentalism, mental health awareness, LGBTQI+ rights and economic inequality.

Crucially, the negative use of the term “woke” proposes that those people who support progressive causes are insincere as well as ineffective in their politics. If someone disparages you as a “woketard” or a member of the “wokerati” then you are accused of being obsessed with appearing ethically right-on because it is the fashionable thing to do. Such accusations reach a crescendo when those advocating for particular political causes have no real stake in the issue they champion; largely well-to-do white people.

The labelling of people as woke, in this negative sense, is part of a culture war fought largely by reactionary conservatives against liberal progressives. In recent years, progressive causes have dominated the public imagination through, for example, highly publicised debates over racism, same-sex marriage, climate change, animal rights and gender equality. These are serious responses to entrenched social, political and environmental causes. Those who are politically opposed to them, however, have responded not necessarily by making reasoned counter-arguments, but by trying to undermine the people who make the arguments by questioning their sincerity.

Corporate saviours

The recasting of wokeness as being inherently shallow, self-serving and insincere has entered new territory when it comes to business and capitalism. Indeed, it did not take long for the word to be applied to corporations who publicly supported socially progressive causes. These corporations are charged with “woke-washing”: a marketing and public relations exercise whereby companies hope that by being associated with du jour political causes they will attract customer support and, ultimately, commercial gains.

There are many examples. When Ben & Jerry’s introduced the Pecan Resist ice cream flavour to “peacefully resist the Trump administration’s regressive and discriminatory policies”, Fox News reported, “Ben & Jerry’s has a new ice cream flavor, dedicated to the resistance. And like the resistance, it contains nuts.” They went on to dismiss this as an “another example of how the left injects politics into everything”. Just recently Disney became embroiled in the debate over Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, which seeks to outlaw gender identity and diverse sexualities being included in school curricula. The company’s support of their LGBTQ+ employees led the inventor of the term “woke capitalism”, Rod Dreher, to write in The American Conservative that “Disney can go to hell” along with “Woke Capitalism’s whores” who support them.

As much as woke corporations may be pilloried by the right as being weak, opportunistic and hypocritical, they have also been accused of posing a danger to capitalism itself. Distracted by causes that do not support the proper function of business to maximise profits for shareholders, critics argue that woke capitalism is a threat to prosperity and economic growth. Or to use the extravagantly populist turn of phrase preferred by US Senator Marco Rubio, “securing the American dream for our children and grandchildren’” means that we have to “fight the woke elites running corporate America” and the “Marxist mobs” they “kowtow to”.

The conservative fear is that executives are serious about their wokeness. Even worse, this seriousness might lead them to pursue politically correct social causes at the expense of what should be the true purpose of their business. From this perspective, woke capitalism receives criticism because, in distracting business from its true economic mission of maximising returns to the owners of capital, it is a dilution of capitalism itself.

The political implications

Contrary to the logic of its reactionary critics, it is also worth considering the possibility that the corporate adoption of wokeness does the very opposite of what those critics condemn it for. Rather than being its death knell, might business becoming woke serve to extend the power and reach of capitalism by appropriating progressive causes? If we follow this line of thought, problems for democracy arise as the considerable might of corporate resources gets mobilised to capitalise on public morality. Cloaked in the apparent moral glow of self-righteous and often facile political positions, civic debate and democratic dissent are replaced by the self-congratulatory slickness of marketing and public relations campaigning.

This is often done in line with what British journalist Helen Lewis calls the ‘‘iron law of woke capitalism”: “Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform.” Meanwhile, as Lewis goes on to describe, “Those at the top – who are disproportionately white, male, wealthy and highly educated – are not being asked to give up anything themselves.” Lewis argues that care needs to be taken not just to dismiss corporate wokeness as meaningless, but rather to be attuned to the seriousness of its political implications, especially as they involve bolstering a socially unequal status quo. The implications for the future are considerable, as the democratic tradition that values equality, freedom and debate between participating citizens becomes overwhelmed by a corporate voice drowning out others in its soundbite-sized version of self-serving morality.

In 2019 the Business Roundtable, whose members are the CEOs of major corporations from Amazon to Xerox, released the new version of its statement of the “purpose of a corporation”. Their previous commitment to shareholder primacy was replaced with an affirmation of “the essential role corporations can play in improving our society” through “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders”.

All well and good, but despite the positive media attention little changed. A year after the new purpose statement was released, US Senator Elizabeth Warren called the Business Roundtable to task. Warren slammed the statement as a “public relations stunt” that came with “great fanfare”, while making no difference whatsoever to the corporate self-interests being pursued by the leaders of the world’s biggest organisations. “It is difficult to identify how any of these commitments were widely operationalised, and corporate actions instead indicate that there may have been no intention to do so,” Warren asserted.

Indeed, it is this absence of fundamental change that is a defining character of woke capitalism. When Warren supported a radical plan to tax the rich to raise revenue for the public good earlier this year, the Business Roundtable was decisively silent. It would seem that some stakeholders are more equal than others.

Woke capitalism is a growing and troubling dimension of contemporary life. The real danger may not be that it will weaken the capitalist system, but rather that it will further cement the concentration of political power and economic wealth among a corporate elite. Woke capitalism extends corporate influence deep into the formation of public opinion and the setting of political agendas. Along the way those same corporations use this influence to further their commercial objectives.

As we have seen, the meaning of being woke has been sadly misshapen into a description of insincerity and self-serving expressions of moral righteousness. When applied to capitalism, this has tended to refer to corporations seen to be using politics to pursue economic self-interest, as exploiting their influence to push their own political values on others, or as being hoodwinked into supporting progressive causes. But let’s not forget the original meaning of the word “woke” as it was used in the Black Lives Matter movement. In this meaning, the idea of being woke is deeply democratic.

This approach can serve as a guiding light for how to respond not just to racial inequality and violence, but also to the broader and interconnected realities of how capitalism has been allowed to run riot in its pursuit of shareholder value over everything else.

The gross inequalities and environmental devastation that have resulted from unbridled capitalism are a direct affront to the very meaning of democracy – insofar as that meaning resides in an ongoing pursuit of freedom, justice and shared prosperity for all. Despite its pretensions, woke capitalism will not address these problems. At worst, it is both exacerbating and trying to obscure them. The corporate stakeholder – whether it is an ethical consumer or activist shareholder – is no substitute for the political citizen. Woke capitalism needs to be resisted on democratic grounds because it allows for public political interests to become increasingly dominated by the private interests of global capital.

In a true democracy, it is the people who hold final authority. Sticking to that democratic ideal requires us to be aware of woke capitalism’s political effects. Now is the time to be woke to woke capitalism.

“Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality Is Sabotaging Democracy” is published by Bristol University Press

This piece is from New Humanist summer 2022. Subscribe here.