The confused case against "woke capitalism"

Is the right for it or against it?

If you want to know what the right means when it rails against “woke capitalism,” I think the core argument emerges from statements by two Republican Senators.

The first came from Marco Rubio just a few days ago in USA Today. Rubio argues that “Amazon has waged a war against working-class values” - for example, it “bans conservative books and blocks traditional charities from participating in its AmazonSmile program.” In the future, he warns, Amazon might impose “a requirement that workers embrace management’s latest ‘woke’ human resources fad.” And it isn’t just Amazon: “For decades,” he writes, “companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war”.

This, Scott Greer observes, is a straightforward attack on what he (and other right populists) call “woke capitalism”. And the upshot is simple: when certain values are being advanced in the private sector, this is “woke capitalism” and it must be opposed.

Now let’s step back to the last time Democrats controlled the White House and Congress and Republicans, in response, adopted a radical anti-establishment populist posture. (Funny how that works!) Here’s what Rand Paul had to say in 2010 (edited for clarity, full transcript here):

MADDOW: How about desegregating lunch counters? …were you in favor of that?

PAUL: Well, what it gets into is…if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant, even though the owner of the restaurant says…we don’t want to have guns in here, because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other. Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?


MADDOW: I understand that you’re not condoning violence, but the people who were beaten for trying to desegregate Woolworth’s lunch counters weren’t asking to be beaten. [crosstalk]

PAUL: Those people should have gone -

MADDOW: You’re saying those people should have gone to different places? Left them segregated?

PAUL: …I wouldn’t attend, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t go.

Here, as Dave Weigel noted at the time, Paul was gesturing towards a standard right-wing argument about capitalism and wokeness:

Paul believes, as many conservatives believe, that the government should ban bias in all of its institutions but cannot intervene in the policies of private businesses. Those businesses, as Paul argues, take a risk by maintaining, in this example, racist policies. Patrons can decide whether or not to give them their money, or whether or not to make a fuss about their policies. That, not government regulation and intervention, is how bias should be eliminated in the private sector.

In other words, a decade ago the right-wing position was actually the exact opposite of the line they are taking today: the position then was that capitalism is actually a good and appropriate way to litigate questions of wokeness.

What changed?

If you only started paying attention to the US right in recent years, you might be tempted to see the rhetoric about “woke capitalism” as the first glimmers of some kind of authentic popular anti-capitalist movement among the GOP. You’ll have to ignore the fact that capitalism is still wildly popular with Republicans (74% support it, as opposed to 53% of Democrats), and you’ll probably end up making all kinds of insane demographic arguments like the Brookings-Cruz county-realignment analysis.

But in light of history, it should be perfectly obvious why right-wing critiques of capitalism persistently begin with the word “woke,” and why they mirror the liberal obsession with identity. And why even as they criticize “woke capitalism,” Rubio argues that “adversarial relations between labor and management are wrong,” while Greer argues that Amazon unions must be crushed precisely because they would empower their workers, who “lean-left.”

The explanation is that the right does not actually oppose the economic system that exploits and disempowers workers. All they really oppose is a very narrow effect of capitalism: as Marx put it, that “venerable prejudices…are swept away…and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Their critique is not that capitalism needs to move towards socialism, but that it needs to move back towards feudalism; it is a fundamentally reactionary and opportunistic critique, and as we see in the case of unions, it evaporates the moment workers threaten to gain an ounce of power.