Opinion | Don’t Be Fooled by the Fake Uproar Over Woke Capitalism

After the murder of George Floyd, companies fell all over themselves to embrace Black causes. Some actions were gestures that cost nothing, like music streaming services observing a period of silence. Content companies pledged to increase their programming for, by and about Black people. Many businesses made pledges to diversify hiring, especially in their executive ranks.

But the evidence so far shows little progress on these pledges. Netflix, the once unstoppable juggernaut that seemed likely to eat Hollywood for breakfast, is an interesting case in point. As its growth has slowed and the political climate has changed, it reportedly shelved a plan to produce an anti-racist video series. A look at its published diversity and inclusion track record shows a small decline in the proportion of Black employees generally and executives in particular.

Thomas Frank, a historian and journalist who has chronicled the culture wars for decades, told me that he “always suspected that the backlash politics that rolled over the country in the late ’60s and all through the 1970s came, at least in part, from the way commercial culture rubbed the noses of Middle America in coolness and in Middle America’s own inadequacy and uncoolness. But the political backlash that resulted didn’t hurt the corporations at all — on the contrary, they eventually just changed their marketing approach to fit the new mood and then entered a golden age with Reagan and the 1980s.”

The center left has been lulled by its seeming cultural power, which buttresses the belief that progress is inevitable if the time frame is elongated enough. In a world with “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “How could we be talking about locking up drag queens?” we gasp.

The deeper problem is that our politics is not responsive to people’s preferences. Our systems of government increasingly favor electoral minorities — like gerrymandered state legislatures in a polarized environment — rather than common-sense compromise. This leads to ideological zealotry. There are almost no checks on a state legislature bent on maximum cruelty.

In this atmosphere it is not that surprising that progressive consumers have turned to corporations to be a mirror of their concerns. Despite clear majority support for abortion rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, we are tilting ever more toward a system that allows a fanatical minority to impose its views as law. It’s easier for us to hold corporations accountable than politicians. We make decisions about how to spend our money every day. Best-case scenario is you vote in new officials every couple of years.

But woke capitalism is a paper tiger. Companies embrace identity and cultural inclusion as a way to expand their market share to new communities while obscuring their raw political power and the ruthless underpinning realities of shareholder capitalism. Elites on the right, meanwhile, know very well that it is a paper tiger but are more than happy to play along with a shuck and jive that allows them to wield “woke” as a cudgel against the left — and for some voters, it does the vital job of stoking resentment.

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