Amazon is suspending police use of its face-recognition software, HBO Max has pulled Gone With the Wind and Paramount Network announced the cancelling of long-running series COPS. These and a steady stream of other corporate giants have taken unambiguous political stances in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed. It is a mistake to doubt their sincerity. There was a time when corporations feigned interest in black and ethnic minority consumers. Hollywood was particularly notorious for this and there was an entire glut of movies in the late 1990s and early 2000s that were marketed to the ‘urban’ demographic (they didn’t use the quote marks back then) by adding a single black character, often a rapper, but seldom as anything more than comic relief. Studio executives considered this highly progressive.
With this in mind, it is easy to dismiss these latest interventions as brazen bandwagon-jumping from brands not known for their boardroom diversity. Certainly, marketing departments in the United States and Europe are acutely aware of the changing make-up of their target markets. They also grasp the value of conscientious consumers – those educated, metropolitan progressives with disposable income who want to buy into ethical lifestyles and identities. The power of the woke dollar is something no multinational can afford to neglect.
It is wrong to assume that this is all just money-grabbing grubbiness. The reigning corporate ethic is socially and culturally to the left of the general population because these are the politics of the executive elite. On the top floor, the order of the day is now race, gender and environmental progressivism – so long as corporation tax remains low and unions weak, CEOs have no particularly affinity for conservatism or conservative parties. The beliefs and prejudices of vast swathes of their customer base are alien to them and, what’s more, they have no interest in understanding them. Nike, the NFL and Gillette have supplied illustrative examples of this.
On the corporate world’s response to current racial unrest, Professor Brayden King, chair in management at Northwestern University, puts it best: ‘There are a lot of corporate leaders who are genuinely sympathetic. There’s also a wariness of being on the wrong side of the issue and having their reputation damaged. At this point there’s more risk in not speaking out than in speaking out.’
That calculus of risk should serve as a warning to radicals. Their ideas might be in favour for now, but a capricious capitalist class that maintains ‘a workplace environment in which decency, respect and dignity [are] absent’, while reworking Ta-Nehisi Coates into corporate talking points, is hardly a reliable guardian of progress.
The left have an in-built suspicion of corporations, but the right lacks a similar defence mechanism. Right-wingers have come to reflexively defend corporations in the erroneous belief that they are on the same side (and, more importantly, because the left is forever railing against them). This is a fallacy based on an oversimplification rooted in a myth. Corporations are not your friend; they do not share your values; they do not especially like you. If they could choose their customers, they would not choose you.
Conservatives need to unlearn their affinity for big capitalism, not least if they object to corporations talking sides in the culture wars. If big business is waging war on conservative instincts and traditions, why are conservatives expending so much political capital maintaining favourable corporate tax and regulatory regimes? What is the point of right-wingers boycotting this company, or that, if right-wing policies are still geared to boosting their bottom lines? This needn’t involve adopting stances antithetical to economic growth or free enterprise, but it can mean reorienting the culture war onto the democratic battlefield. There are pleasures to be derived from victimhood and conservatives may wish to luxuriate in them, but while the right feels culturally embattled it enjoys unrivalled political power. Why not use it?