Welcome to a special edition of the Bluestocking.
I can’t claim many flashes of revelation in my life, but one of them came when I read She Said, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s book on the #MeToo movement. Hindsight is a terrible editor of memory: Harvey Weinstein’s fall now looks pre-ordained (everyone knew he was a perv! There were even jokes about it on 30 Rock!) But it took the NYT months of hard shoe-leather reporting to get the first story on Weinstein ready to publish. The women making accusations were nervous; Weinstein himself was bullish; the evidence was mainly testimony rather than documents. And they were taking on someone with deep pockets and a history of intimidating critics into silence.
What happened after publication? Twohey and Kantor’s work was explosive enough that the ground - and the economic incentives - shifted. People who had been afraid of Weinstein were now afraid of being taken down alongside Weinstein. Here’s what I put in my review of She Said:
Rich men accused of being sex pests are like banks: they are mostly too big to fail. But when enough investors finally get nervous, the “sell” sign suddenly flicks on. There is an unedifying stampede for the door. You now can’t find anyone in the film industry with a good word to say about Weinstein. He is the Lehman Brothers of groping.
A while back, a blogger called Jon Schwarz coined the “iron law of institutions”: people with seniority inside an institution care more about preserving their power within the institution than they do about the power of the institution as a whole. There’s a kind of gyroscopic balance to that. I am the King of Ashes!
A similar principle operates when companies - institutions built on maximising shareholder value, or other capitalist principles - struggle to acclimatise to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social justice causes. Progressive values have become a branding tool.
But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the Iron Law of Woke Capitalism: brands will gravitate towards low-cost, high-noise signals if these are accepted as a substitute for genuine reform. (I’m not using the word “woke” here in a sneering, pejorative sense, but to highlight that the original definition of wokeness is incompatible with capitalism.) Brands will tend to embrace the principles of social justice activism only as far as needed to ensure the survival of the business itself. In fact, let’s go further: those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures because they help preserve their power within the institution. They are not being asked to give up anything themselves.
A couple of examples. My Atlantic colleague Yascha Mounk has just written about Emmanuel Cafferty, a truck driver who appears to have been tricked into making an “OK” symbol by a driver he cut up at some lights. The inevitable viral video claimed this was a deliberate use of the symbol as a white-power gesture, and he was promptly fired. He’s a working class man in his 40s from San Diego. Ever wondered why all the regularly cited victims of “cancel culture” seem to be powerful men whose careers rebound just fine? Because by and large, no one cares about the Caffertys of this world. They get taken down and no one hears them fall.
The loss of his job has left Cafferty shaken. A few days ago, he spoke with a mental-health counselor for the first time in his life. “A man can learn from making a mistake,” he told me. “But what am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.”
I find this quote incredibly haunting, because . . . too right. This behaviour seems random, ungovernable. What can anyone do to protect themselves from this happening to them? Not being racist is not going to save you if the lightning strikes.
As Wesley Yang notes, this dynamic is quite a tactical change for a left which spent the twentieth century fighting against capricious sackings for “troublesome” employees:
Mounk also talks about the Civis thinktanker David Shor, apparently fired for tweeting research which found that political violence was less effective at changing minds than civil protest. (At the height of the BLM protests, this was deemed by some to be insufficiently supportive of the cause to the point of being racist.)
Please enjoy this picture of the board of the Civis think tank.
Two of these are the same man, surely?
Not all woke capitalists are companies. Some are individuals. You might have seen the incredibly disturbing video of a white woman cowering and crying as she is filmed by a man with a record of calling people racist as a prank. He claimed she gave him the finger at the traffic lights, and that he followed her home. Later, once a crowd had gathered, he claimed she called him the n-word. It was a classic “Karen” video: he portrayed her as a snooty white women aware of her social power over a black man.
The man involved in that video, which had 11.5 million views, immediately started selling merch. It was based on the phrases she whimpered as she confronted both the physical threat of a man who had followed her home, and the foreknowledge that she was going to be the latest Karen served up for the internet’s evisceration.
For when you want a T-shirt that says “I am a misogynist” AND “I am not sceptical enough about stuff I see on the internet”. Wash at 30 degrees.
Like you, gentle reader, I want to see sexism, racism and all other forms of discrimination decrease. But we have to be real about the economic incentives here, and they point towards individuals, and companies, behaving in ways which range from thoughtless and uncaring through to sadistic. For Emmanuel Cafferty’s employer, what’s one random truck driver versus the PR bump of being able to cut off a bad news cycle by saying you’ve fired your “white supremacist employee”? For Twitter, Karlos Dillard’s tweet was a success: great engagement! For Dillard, the video probably made him money in merchandise sales. All of this is “social justice activism” driven not by anti-discrimination principles, but economic incentives.
Let’s take another example of Woke Capitalism. Here’s the New York Times bestseller list:
Yes, Robin DiAngelo is white. Her book is for white people, encouraging them to think about what it’s like to be white. (It tells white women off for crying if they get upset during anti-racism training, because it will stir memories of Emmett Till among the other participants.) I am boggled by the American book-buying public’s response to Black Lives Matter being . . . to buy a book about whiteness written by a white person.
This is worse than mere navel-gazing; it’s synthetic activism, which makes you feel full of piety and righteousness without having actually done anything. In America, buying a book on White Fragility improves the lives of the most marginalised far less than say, donating to a voting rights charity or volunteering at a foodbank. It’s pure hobbyism. As Freddie deBoer wrote recently: “Because the popular conception of fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia imagines those fights to be matters of moral and mental hygiene — because they define anti-racism et al as things you are rather than things you do — the snake will forever swallow its tail.”
Why is DiAngelo’s book so popular? Again, look at economics. Every big company has recently poured money into “diversity training”. But it is often no more scientifically grounded than Myers-Briggs: the “implicit bias” test is controversial and the claim that it can predict real world behaviour (never mind reduce bias) is a shaky one. But it looks like something solid and quantitative - ooh! a test score! - and therefore metrics-obsessed modern companies (ie all of them) love it. People have been given the idea that confronting their own bias is the best way to address racism. (Also, let’s be honest, there are probably quite a lot of people who have bought White Fragility because they think of themselves as the kind of person who would read a book like that, without actually wanting to read a book like that. It’s a Social Justice Brief History of Time.)
Anyway, here’s Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy Iris Bohnet:
“About $8 billion a year is spent on diversity trainings in the United States alone. Now, I tried very hard to find any evidence I could. I looked not just in the United States but also in Rwanda and other post-conflict countries, where reconciliation is often built on the kind of diversity trainings that we do in our companies, to see how this is working. Sadly enough, I did not find a single study that found that diversity training in fact leads to more diversity.”
Eight billion dollars a year! Imagine if you put that money into, say, paying all your junior staff a wage which allows them to live in the big city where your company is based, without needing help from their parents. You’d probably do more good at increasing your company’s diversity. Hell, get your staff to read White Fragility on their own time and give your office cleaners a pay rise.
But it’s the Iron Law of Woke Capitalism: better to have something you can point to and say “aren’t we progressive?” than to think about the real problem you’re trying to address. Diversity training is expensive, but it is in the “luxury” bracket rather than the “existential threat to my business if we do this” bracket. More importantly, it offers the minimum possible disruption to your power structures: don’t change the board, just get your existing employees to sit through a seminar.
These are powerful examples of the difference between what I’ve decided to call social radicalism and economic radicalism, but you could just as well describe them as the difference between identity and class. I don’t mean to dismiss the former, by the way. Many groups which face discrimination do so on grounds on both identity and class: women at work, for example, are held back by the perception that they aren’t suited for, say, maths jobs - as well as the belief that they’ll sod off at 30 and have babies. An employer might not see the worth of a black job applicant because he or she doesn’t speak the way they expect - or that applicant might not be able to take the job because their immigrant parents can’t subsidise them through several years of rubbish wages.
In Difficult Women, I wrote that the only question I want to ask big companies who chirrup on about “empowering the female leaders of the future” is this one: Do you have a creche? You can have all the summits and power breakfasts that you want, but unless you address the real problem holding parents (mostly women) back - the difficulty and expense of childcare - then it’s all a hollow facade.
It is kind of incredible to watch when woke capitalism dramatically misfires, as in Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad, in which she solves police violence with soft drinks and double denim.
Let’s move to another arena. Some onlookers (including at least two of the original founders) are baffled by the recent decisive turn at the charity Stonewall towards the T rather than the LGB. This can be explained by woke capitalism, too. In 2013, gay marriage was legalised: by a Conservative government, incidentally, highlighting the distinction between social radicalism and economic radicalism***.
With that, the LGB legislative agenda was nearly exhausted. Most companies were fully on board with hiring gay employees (they don’t cost any more than straight ones) and big brands embraced the rainbow, hiring floats at Pride marches. But if everyone is gay-friendly now, what’s the point of an LGB charity? Stonewall needed an injustice to fight in order to justify its continued existence. Its funding model depends on its “Diversity Champions” programme - where companies pay for a Stonewall kitemark certifying their commitment to LGBT rights. Their diversity champions include BAE Systems, Amazon, Paddy Power and most government departments and universities. (Please do your own “woke bae” joke.) I don’t think I’m being too cynical to suggest that £2,500 is a fair price to be validated as progressive by Britain’s biggest LGBT charity.
That programme helps explain why big companies - and universities - have been slow to acknowledge that there might be reasonable concerns about the abolition of women’s single-sex spaces. Stonewall believes such spaces should be abolished. And if you disagree with Stonewall, you risk losing your Diversity Champion status. (Amusingly, the LGB Alliance, a group set up to challenge Stonewall, is trying to have it investigated by the Equality And Human Rights Commission for failing to take into account the needs of lesbians in its work. The Equality And Human Rights Commission is . . . a Stonewall diversity champion.)
By the way, I don’t know if I’m going mad, but . . . an arms company is a diversity champion now, and the organised left is OK with this? (Some activists have tried to get Pride marches to stop using BAE as a sponsor, given its arms sales to the distinctly unwoke Saudi Arabia.) In happier news, Amazon sponsored last year’s Pink News awards, and Russell T Davies used his acceptance speech to tell them to “pay your fucking taxes”. That’s economic radicalism.
(This is ill-advisable in Riyadh)
All this context should be kept in mind when we talk about “cancel culture” or “mob rule”. Activists like to challenge criticisms of cancel culture by saying that, come on, we’re just some guys with Twitter accounts up against governments and corporate behemoths. But look at the economic incentives and you realise that, almost always, the capitalist imperative is to yield to activist pressure. Just a bit. Enough to get them off your back.
Sometimes, I support these defenestrations. The removal of Harvey Weinstein from a position of power was undoubtedly a good thing for the world. But the removal of Emmanuel Cafferty from his job driving a truck was not.
And what I come back to, again and again, is the cheap sugar rush of unleashing the tumbrils. Real institutional change is hard; like politics, it is the “slow boring of hard boards”. Convincing a company to toss someone overboard for PR points risks winning a victory that is no victory at all. The pitchforkers are sated. But the corporate culture remains the same. The survivors sigh in relief. The institution goes on.
I get so animated by this stuff because (I hope) I genuinely care about progressive causes. But woke capitalism isn’t just a waste of time and money; I think it’s actively impeding the cause, by siphoning off energy and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is.
All this I’ve learned from feminism, where the contrast between social radicalism and economic radicalism is very apparent. Equal pay is economically radical. Hiring a female CEO for the first time is socially radical. Pride floats are socially radical. Changing building codes to mandate male, female and gender-neutral loos and other facilities is economically radical. (Cheaper to shout down women’s concerns.) Diversity training is socially radical, at best. Providing social housing tenants with homes not covered in flammable cladding is economically radical. Paying your cleaners a living wage is economically radical. Changing the name of a building at an American university is socially radical; improving on its 5% enrolment rate for black students - perhaps by smashing up the mad system of legacy admissions - would be economically radical.
Both forms of radicalism have their uses, but remember the iron law of institutions. For those looking to preserve their power, it makes sense to do the minimum amount of social radicalism necessary to survive . . . and no economical radicalism at all. That’s where activists need to apply their pressure.
This is a special edition of The Bluestocking, the premier source of all my Thinks which are too half-formed for publication elsewhere. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Anyway, feel free to forward this on and encourage your friends to subscribe. And if you would like to buy a book to display ostentatiously rather than read, may I recommend Difficult Women? The cover is very pretty.
Not long after I finished this, Ralph Leonard published a Medium piece on “woke capitalism” making similar arguments to the ones I’ve made here, but with some different examples. It’s well worth reading: “Say what you will about it, but you have to give to the devil what belongs to the devil: Notwithstanding the current crisis, global capitalism has proved far more resilient, flexible and adaptive than either its harshest critics or most zealous exponents ever expected. You have to admire its perverse ability to assimilate everything that supposedly wishes to ‘dismantle’ or ‘abolish’ it into itself, commodifying it, marketing it, then adding a price-tag. It’s genius.” (There’s also a Ross Douthat piece from last year, which I also discovered when I googled to see how widely used the phrase was.)
*** I’m currently reading Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, which notes that she had plenty of gay men working for her, without apparently ever being aware that they were gay. It reminded me of something which conservative thinkers will often say privately: the Conservative party is a vehicle for gaining and holding power, which allows it to be extremely ideologically flexible. When and where identity wars are a vote-winner, it will embrace them; when they aren’t, it won’t. A Tory MP told me recently that the party hoped beyond hope to fight the next election on identity rather than economics, given the British economy is likely to still be in the toilet by 2024. A therapeutic crusade against the “loony left” while actually being fairly social liberal in comparison to the average voter would be just the electoral ticket.