“Woke Capitalism”: more than a critique of the system, an attempt to save it

_ Loris Puccio Conti, Machiavelli Center, 23 December 2023.*

What is the essay’s theoretical core and who is Carl Rhodes

Adherence by big business to woke positions enables them to increase their profits and, in the long run, replace democratic institutions and preserve socioeconomic inequalities. Thus the pursuit of profit prevails over the pursuit of the common good while anti-sexism, anti-racism and ecologism are depotentiated into advertising slogans and removed from their original popular and anti-system framework. This is the theoretical core of Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality Is Sabotaging Democracy, Carl Rhodes’ latest essay published in Italy last September by Fazi Editore (Capitalismo Woke. Come la moralità aziendale minaccia la democrazia pp.317, €20.00).

Rhodes is professor of Organization Theory and dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology, Sydney, as well as the author of essays translated into several languages and articles that have appeared in “The Guardian,” “Fast Company” and other publications of international standing. In this, his latest book, he explicitly expresses his adherence to liberal positions and, in the finale, urges the reader to profess genuine wokism and strenuous resistance against alleged systemic racial, sexual and class oppression.

The Italian edition of the essay is preceded by a preface by Carlo Galli, a professor at the Alma Mater University of Bologna and a frequent visitor to parliamentary benches and left-wing party circles. Rather than a “preface,” however, it would be better to call it a “celebration”: in fact, Galli lays out a summary of the essay with resounding praise-“great book […] acute and reasonable arguments, impeccable, completely sharable, to which there is nothing to add” (p. IX). Images of the despot’s flattering satrap come to mind, of the suburbs subordinated to the more central regions of a weary, multi-ethnic, and nearly sunset-ish empire (nowadays woke in character and no longer Hellenistic or Persian).

Insults to the conservative world, an ill-concealed factionalism and naiveté

Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality Is Sabotaging Democracy represents an entirely internal critique of the woke world and supports all the “whining” of political correctness.

Rhodes, in fact, constantly devotes insults to anti-Wokeists, to a world that “attacks left-wing ideas wherever they show up […] with an all-conservative bravado” (p. 117). He sarcastically defines his opponents as “right-wing culture fighters” (p. 226), endowed with “typical right-wing sarcasm, dismissive as well as ill-informed” (p. 136) and always ready to exhibit “conservative reactions characterized by particularly seditious and unsubstantiated claims” (p. 159). The author then points the finger at Australia’s right-wing government and its “dogmatic and minority prejudices” (p. 160), at Donald Trump and “his typical style of school bully insults” (p. 197). And, again, he dismisses the views of British TV personality Piers Morgan to a “rant” and believes that in 2019, when confronted with the new Gillette commercial, “all over the world, right-wing reactionaries like Morgan were quivering with rage” (p. 217).

One could go on and report yet more derogatory epithets. But what is even more surprising about Rhodes’ essay is the typically liberal naiveté around the conduct of political battles. More precisely, more or less implicit appears to be the belief that in the West the political and social sphere is governed by limpid and linear procedures, by certain “rules of the game” that would easily allow for variations in the public agenda. In the present case, according to Rhodes, woke claims would come from below, would be capable in themselves of extraordinary effectiveness and diffusion of a planetary order, and only later would they be taken up by multinational corporations for marketing opportunities, profit and, in the long run, as a ploy to preserve the status quo.

Thus, following directly from the author’s words, in 2018 Greta Thunberg, “all alone, had sat outside the Swedish Parliament with a homemade sign next to her on which she had written ‘SCHOOL STRIKE FOR CLIMATE.'” Hers was a “simple act of resistance” capable of igniting “a global protest movement against the stubborn inaction of governments and corporations on climate change” and even instilling “fear” in “the powerful” and teaching “the international delegation of government officials the meaning of democracy” (pp. 132-133). In the same vein, the #MeToo movement, “thanks to the particularly zealous and often thankless work of real female activists, has become a global social movement” (p. 224) while the “success” of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations “reflects a shift in general political opinion toward racism” (p. 196).

The reality of things is exactly the opposite of what Rhodes ingenuously sketches. In this part of the globe, in fact, the marshy mechanisms of a political “game” prevail that allows only a few social demands – certainly not the most widespread among the less affluent bangs of the population – to assume wide echo in public debates and impose themselves on the political agenda of governments. In this context, multinational corporations do not come later to adhere to woke demands but, on the contrary, build their foundations and enable their diffusion.

From the highest pedestals of the Western Academies, Rhodes’s gaze may be clouded by fog and be unaware of the difficulties of authentically anti-system activism, the efforts of a student to set up a social critique rag, the impossibility for a movement on the fringes to force into the public eye such utterly serious topics as sovereignty, labor, housing first, health care and the demise of identities. Thus, in the present state of affairs the hardships of the middle classes practically fall into oblivion; the courageous “anti-vax” stances of Novak Djokovic are demonized; the sufferings of Armenians and other peoples who are the children of a lesser mass media god (even just the Eastern Ukrainians themselves before February 2022) are unknown to most.

In a word, it is possible to consider Rhodes’ essay as an example of an approach, typical of academia and semicultured circles, of intellectual indolence, aimed at being content with convenient, superficial and Manichean explanations.

Some guidelines on how to set up an authentic critique of woke capitalism

Rhodes hits the nail on the head when he denounces the fragility of democratic institutions and the self-preservation instinct of woke capitalism. Similar themes, however, must be traced deeper, beyond the external corporate adherence to wokeism and, in the long run, beyond liberal philosophy itself, than its investigations directed exclusively at phenomena, forms and procedures.

In this sense, it is possible to consider the woke spirit as the latest incarnation assumed by capitalism. Thus, the latter was born fully – following Werner Sombart’s analysis – in the second half of the 19th century with bourgeois, conservative and patriarchal overtones, developed by accentuating its bureaucratic and managerial traits from the 1930s until it confronted the more recent phenomena of computerization and globalization. Finally, capitalism only absorbs woke instances in recent decades, that is, it paradoxically encapsulates anti-capitalist critiques by further transforming and reinvigorating itself. Indeed, hedonism, individualism, consumerist bulimia, scientism, flexibility and multiculturalism permeate today’s capitalism and its dominant ideology and are contrasted with the asceticism, virility, religiosity, stability and will to power typical of the first phase of capitalism. A similar juxtaposition appears with utmost clarity by emblematically comparing the austere figure of Cecil Rhodes with those of Sam Bankman-Fried and Caroline Ellison, the two fiancés immersed in a whoremongering, cocaine-addicted, polyamorous lifestyle and engaged in the all-virtual running of the now-deceased FTX. Within this framework, anti-racism, anti-fascism and feminism not only combat specters that have been all but extinct for several decades but also end up paradoxically reinvigorating the status quo. It is precisely the latter that can be identified, following Vilfredo Pareto’s suggestive reflections, in a “demagogic plutocracy,” in a system in which the alliance between stateless financial oligarchies and the lowest and most marginalized classes (i.e., variously “colored” minorities) thrives at the expense of the other classes, middle classes in primis.

In these terms, the breeding ground of woke capitalism can be identified in the financialization of the economy, more precisely in the flows of the world market. Here only a microscopic portion of the movements responds to the data of the real economy while the very large part of the transactions concerns speculation. In this intangible magma, a fourth power of technocratic character, namely monetary sovereignty, engulfs the three traditional powers of the state and annihilates the will of the people. On the agenda of governments are thus imposed “diktats,” one-way agendas citing the fashionable motivation of the moment (“There Is No Alternative,” “Europe requires it of us”, “The Science says so”). The Maastricht Treaty itself, as Janus Accame lucidly captured in The Power of Money Empties Democracies, assigns maximum freedom of action to central banks and explicitly prevents democratic institutions from any meddling.

Overall, then, a real critique of current capitalism must transcend Rhodes’ perspectives and turn against the woke spirit and its elements (hedonism, individualism, financialization of the economy, flexibility, the demise of popular sovereignty…). On the intertwining of these issues only sketched here one can, thus, engage in a real battle, that is, be authentically “on the alert,” understanding things in depth and rejecting comfortable and superficial perspectives.

* Republished from the original publication with the Machiavelli Center.

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