Woke Capitalism – How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy

Carl Rhodes

Bristol, Bristol University Press, 2021. x+230 pp., € 26.10 pb.
ISBN 978-1529211672

Reviewed by Thomas Klikauer

Carl Rhodes’ latest book about ‘Woke Capitalism’ is asking us to ‘be alert’, i.e., woke to capitalism. The title of the book is transferring the African-American term ‘woke’ meaning to be alert about racism and racial prejudice – to capitalism. Yet, woke capitalism is a particular form of capitalism. To illuminate this and how woke capitalism sets up corporate morality – a contradictory term or tautology – is indeed ‘sabotaging democracy’ (the book’s sub-title), Rhodes offers thirteen highly readable and often rather entertaining chapters. The book begins with ‘The Problem of Woke Capitalism’ and ends with ‘Getting Woke about Woke Capitalism’.

Rhodes argues that woke is applied to ‘business corporations that publicly supported socially progressive causes’ (p. 8). Hence, ‘woke capitalism’ depicts corporations, especially multinationals that align themselves with social movements, and while using that alignment in widespread publicity and advertising. These mega-corporations are charged with ‘woke washing’: a marketing and public relations exercise, whereby companies hope that by being associated with right-on political causes, they will gain customer support and ultimately – commercial gain’ (p. 8). This goes to the core of what woke capitalism is. It is a seemingly progressive version of capitalism that uses corporate PR, as well as ideologies like corporate social responsibility (CSR), business ethics, corporate citizenship, etc. to frame corporations in a positive light.

In other words, woke capitalism and woke corporations are about corporate public relation or corporate propaganda to make corporations and corporate capitalism acceptable (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944; Enzensberger 1974; Herman and Chomsky 1988; Klikauer 2022). Meanwhile, conservatives fear that corporate executives are actually ‘serious about their wokeness’ (p. 9). Even worse, conservatives worry that CEOs might ‘pursue woke causes at the expense of what should be the true purpose of their business’ (p. 9) by making profits, short-changing workers, and destroying the environment while making all this acceptable to us (Klikauer 2018).

Of course, in a book like this, one will find the ultimate quote on corporate social responsibility, namely Milton Friedman’s 1970’s classic that states ‘the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits’ (p. 9). And, ‘to make as much money as possible’, as Friedman continued (p. 10). Occasionally, even staunch neoliberalists can speak the truth. To camouflage the truth, almost any ‘corporate voice [will] speak [a] sound bite-sized version of morality’ (p. 11).

Perhaps the truth behind the corporate use of business ethics, corporate social responsibility, etc. and what Rhodes calls ‘woke capitalism’ was once expressed by none other than Marx (1867, p. 788). Marx was indeed hitting the nail right on the head in Das Kapital when quoting T. J. Dunning (ibid., p. 788):

A certain 10 per cent, will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent, certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent, positive audacity; 100 per cent, will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave trade have amply proved all that is here stated.

This has not changed since the days of Karl Marx. What has changed under woke capitalism, however, is that the real danger is not that woke capitalism will weaken the capitalist system. Rather, it ‘will further cement the concentration of political power among a corporate elite’ (p. 13). Yet, woke capitalism will also assist the corporate elite in pretending that the corporate elite is perceived as a good-doing elite (Klikauer and Link 2021).

Rhodes is very clear about woke capitalism when closing his introduction by saying, ‘[i]n the name of democracy, and for the benefit of the many, woke capitalism must be resisted’ (p. 16). Rhodes offers plenty of examples on how woke capitalism works. One most instructive example comes from Australia’s 2020 bushfire. Rhodes alludes to the fact that mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest had vowed a donation of A$70 million to bushfire relief. Yet when taking a closer look, the following emerged. Out of the A$70 million promised, $10 million went directly to bushfire victims. The same amount was given to an army of helpers. The largest part – $50 million – was given to so-called research in fire mitigation. Cunningly, this was to be conducted by Twiggy’s very own Minderoo Foundation. In other words, the largest part of the philanthropic donation was, as Rhodes noted, ‘align with the boss’ interests’ (p. 20).

It is not surprising to see that ‘[w]oke capitalism […] was the dominant motif at Davos 2020’ (p. 22) the meeting of the global ‘do good elites’. Meanwhile, corporations are playing a PR trick on the public by appearing progressive while gaining considerably from ‘economic policies, especially corporate tax cuts’ (p. 42) and neoliberal deregulation – read: pro-business regulation.

Worse, corporations even come up with something Rhodes calls ‘performative wokeness’ (43) which basically means ‘manipulating the political system in their own favour’ (p. 43), also known as ‘corporate lobbying’. At the same time, what is sold as corporate social responsibility is designed to forestall giving the government ‘cause to intervene’ (p. 52). It weakens state regulations while giving corporations more power. Rhodes argues that woke capitalism is also useful so that ‘when it comes to paying tax, there is one rule for the super-rich and big companies and another for ordinary people’ (p. 55).

It is just as Carl Rhodes emphasises, ‘woke capitalism is primarily about corporate power: it involves breaking the chain that has long been connected to liberal democracy and capitalism, so that corporations can continue on the path of global domination in the political, as well as the economic realm’ (p. 68). In other words, woke capitalism is dressed in progressive sheep’s clothing while remaining wedded to long-term corporate interests, as well as capitalism. Yet, woke capitalism and corporate social responsibility are not the same. What makes woke capitalism different from the ideology of corporate social responsibility and business ethics (Klikauer 2017) is that it is about four elements. The first element is the ideological legitimacy woke capitalism reproduces for capitalism and for the continued domination of managers, corporate apparatchiks, CEO, etc. A second element lies in the prevention of emancipation and revolts of workers against capitalism. The third element of woke capitalism is that it thwarts regulation. On this, the potential of raising corporate taxes still constitutes one of the worst fears of CEOs, owners of capital, and corporate apparatchiks. Finally, and fourthly, the ideology of woke capitalism works rather well in preventing any form of democracy inside companies and corporations that could challenge the power of management.

Overall, Rhodes notes that ‘woke capitalism is a defensive move … to preserve, if not enhance, a status quo where corporations hold an increasing share of political power’ (p. 83). Furthermore, corporate philanthropy remains a truly fantastic way to divert attention away from the systemic pathologies – environmental vandalism, global poverty, and rising inequalities (Chancel et al. 2022), etc. – caused by capitalism. Simultaneously, it casts CEOs and billionaires ‘as the good guys’ (p. 87).

Rhodes is right when saying ‘we need to remember … that paying tax is the main way that corporations can contribute to society … paying tax is the corporate social responsibility’ (p. 90). Yet, that is exactly what corporations do not want to do. Hence, they fancy ideologies like woke capitalism, corporate social responsibility, business ethics, corporate citizenship, etc. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Corporation is a prime example. In the decade to 2019, Amazon paid a microscopic $3.4bn in taxes. Yet, the company earned a revenue of $960bn. This is a rather laughable ‘tax rate of 12.7 per cent compared with the standard corporate tax in the US of 35%’ (p. 90). Even better, in 2018, Amazon paid no corporate tax in the US whatsoever despite earning profits of $11bn’ (p. 90). Simultaneously, ‘profits in 2019 were US$13 billion, but the effective tax rate was just 1.2%’ (p. 90).

Meanwhile, warehouse workers in Britain were ‘urinating in bottles rather than going to the toilet, so that they did not miss their performance targets or were not disciplined for being idle’ (p. 92). Amazon’s horrendous work conditions, its stratospheric profits, and despotic management regimes signify the contradictions of woke capitalism. On the one hand, corporations like Amazon pretend to support social and political causes that many would see as progressive like climate change, poverty alleviation, education, same-sex marriage, human rights, etc. On the other hand, Amazon – like many business organisations – displays the usual corporate pathology, the normal capitalist greed, inhumanity and dehumanization, as well as exploitation.

Yet, one of the reasons for this is – not to make the world a better place as the apostles of woke capitalism frequently announce so happily – but to preserve and if possible, even enhance the status quo that has made them extremely rich. By shifting taxes onto philanthropy, lobbying governments for pro-business regulation, woke capitalists and its corporate apparatchiks in companies and corporations seem to shift democracy – slowly but steadily – towards ‘plutocracy: a government by the rich’ (p. 96).

Rhodes is correct when saying that the ‘fundamental tenet of woke capitalism [is] commercial self-interest – is not at all incompatible with corporate activism’ (p. 109). Yet, one of the problems of woke capitalism is that big business bosses have assigned themselves the right to represent people even though we – the people – have not chosen or elected them as our political and democratic representatives. Instead, their corporations are localisations of extreme anti-democracy: no manager is elected. Worse, this political self-appointment is a central feature of woke capitalism today, even though, as Rhodes argues, ‘it is downright anti-democratic’ (p. 110).

Like traditional capitalism’s advent since about two centuries ago, woke capitalism too, lives on the self-assigned assumption that those who ‘own capital have the right to control labour’ (p. 115) – and this means: us! This is the so-called right to manage, also known as managerial prerogative. Beyond that, Rhodes argues that ‘corporate activism is commercial as much as it is political – it is a marketing strategy geared at the management of corporate values and identity, as well as reputation building’ (p. 145). Although, one might add that this is not really the task of marketing. The task of marketing is to sell products. It is the task of corporate public relation or corporate propaganda (Klikauer 2022). While it might not be marketing’s but a corporate PR’s task, the outcome is the same: make the global pathologies of capitalism (Benson and Kirsch 2010) – including woke capitalism – look good, normal, neutral, and acceptable. If done right, corporate PR can achieve the unachievable, namely that we see this as acceptable (ibid., p. 158):

In 1913, the top 1 per cent of US income earners took home 18.6 per cent of the country’s earnings, while the bottom 50 per cent acquired a total of only 15.4 per cent. Fast forward to 2019 and the situation has worsened: the top 1 per cent claim 20.5 per cent while the bottom half gets just 12.7 per cent.

Rhodes closes his exquisite book with the ‘getting woke to woke capitalism’ (p. 167). Woke capitalism is a ‘public relations’ stunt that [makes] no difference whatsoever to the corporate self-interest’ (p. 168). Rhodes ends his book by saying, ‘with woke capitalism, corporations have essentially realized that they have needed to change how they go about pursuing the financial self-interest of their shareholders’ (p. 168). If anything, woke capitalism is yet another ideological attempt to sell capitalism as a really nice thing to us.

In the end, the book falls a little short on ‘sabotaging democracy’ which is, after all, the subtitle of the book. Yet, it is extremely comprehensive in illuminating what woke capitalism is and how it operates. Secondly, it could have a somewhat stronger emphasis on what is located between corporations and us. Here we find a medium – corporate mass media – that transports two things to us: a) it makes us buy things – this is the task of marketing; and b) the media transports corporate ideologies into the general public to make us believe that capitalism is a wonderful system – serving all, etc.

Unlike Rhodes’ 19th century robber barons – which he discusses in his book to perfection – 21st century capitalists depend on the media to a much more significant degree than the robber barons (Josephson 1934; Solganick 1965). Today, capitalism can no longer be thought of without the media (Smythe 1977). We have entered the age of media capitalism (Ali 2022; Klikauer 2022); Rhodes’ woke capitalism is all but another signifier of this development. Having said all this, Carl Rhodes has delivered an utmost exquisite book.

1 September 2022


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URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/20460_woke-capitalism-how-corporate-morality-is-sabotaging-democracy-by-carl-rhodes-reviewed-by-thomas-klikauer/

This review is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License


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