(Originally posted on Mises.org)
These days it’s not your typical latte-sipping millennials who are going woke. Taking a stroll around America’s largest metro areas will have one believe social justice is the latest fad that’s sweeping across corporate boardrooms. Much has been written about woke capital—businesses’ recent pivot to signal their affinity for leftist movements—and what it means for society at large. Suffice it to say that since last year, this trend has accelerated at breakneck speeds.
Scratching one’s head in utter confusion should be a natural response to corporate America’s virtue signaling. One has to wonder why big business, which has traditionally been perceived as a reactionary institution aligned with the political right, would make common cause with radicals on the cultural left. Counterintuitive as it may seem, corporations and prominent business moguls have many incentives to jump on the virtue-signaling bandwagon.
For megacorporations, woke signaling is a matter of self-preservation in order to protect themselves from ravenous mobs in both the virtual and physical realms. What’s more, in a time when hall monitors—state and nonstate—are lurking around every corner waiting for individuals to commit some kind of impropriety, many institutions will go out of their way to signal their compliance with the regime’s standards. Not abiding by the regime’s accepted behavior comes with major social and financial costs that the bulk of businesses are not willing to bear.
For wealthy members of society who have leftist inclinations, there’s a diminishing marginal utility of money, as Mises Institute president Jeff Deist spelled out in an interview with Jay Taylor two years back. Put simply, spending hundreds of millions on civilization-destroying campaigns is a casual expense for America’s premier tycoons, who have plenty of money to spare after covering their expenses on basic necessities.
When someone is rich, say an individual who has $10 billion, they have the luxury of throwing money at uneconomic ventures without losing any sleep about meeting their basic economic needs. The multibillionaire spearheading a woke project that is rejected by the public will not land in the poorhouse from the financial fallout. They can go back to their private affairs or pivot to another political cause that is not as divisive. By contrast, for a small business owner, such virtue signaling could mean bankruptcy if their customer base tends to be right wing or is at least hostile toward culturally radical virtue signaling.
Indeed, one of the more perverse developments in Western societies is the rich’s penchant to squander away the wealth they’ve accumulated by funding all sorts of bizarre social projects. Only in such a developed economy, characterized by hyperabundance and unprecedented luxuries, can people engage in bizarre activities that in previous eras would have been viewed as masochistic and self-destructive.
The likes of George Soros and Michael Bloomberg offer stark counterexamples to the business elites of the past. The two financial titans have built a reputation of bankrolling a wide network of gun control groups which strive to pass legislation designed to infringe on millions of people’s ability to defend themselves. By contrast, Bloomberg and his left-leaning oligarchical counterparts have the luxury of living in gated communities and relying on private security to defend themselves. In fairness, business magnates in previous eras were likely not fervent champions of wedge political issues like gun rights, but you would not see them enthusiastically throwing their weight behind the latest political fads the Left gravitates toward these days.
Bolsheviks and Billionaires
Although the Left has changed in its overall strategy, going from class-reductionist conflicts toward an identity politics focus over the course of the past century, there exist several commonalities between the contemporary left and its past iterations. Foremost of these is its elitist origins.
In his polemical work, Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution, economic historian Antony Sutton uncovered the oligarchical backing of Bolshevism—the twentieth century’s most destructive political movement in terms of the body count and economic mayhem it unleashed in countries that embraced its precepts.
Contrary to the mythology that leftist historians have created, Bolshevism was no spontaneous uprising of workers, but rather a movement of elite aspirants. Lenin himself counted on a law degree and worked as a writer and political activist during his time in exile while living in Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom. Similar to Karl Marx, who relied on industrialist Friedrich Engels’s lavish patronage to subsidize his daily activities, prominent financiers such as Swedish banker Olof Aschberg helped bankroll Lenin and his revolutionary compatriots, Sutton’s work revealed.
It’s perhaps counterintuitive for financial heavyweights to throw their weight behind an individual and a movement advocating for the destruction of private property, but it makes sense when analyzing how rent-seeking economic actors behave in the context of state centralization.
The inherently centralist nature of socialist systems, even when policymakers make deviations around the margins, as seen with Lenin’s New Economic Policy, remains attractive to unscrupulous financial actors, who seek to exploit these features for the sake of easy profits while not facing any serious competition. Sutton observed how economic radicals and big financial interests can become strange bedfellows:
Bolshevists and bankers have then this significant common ground—internationalism. Revolution and international finance are not at all inconsistent if the result of revolution is to establish more centralized authority. International finance prefers to deal with central governments. The last thing the banking community wants is laissez-faire economy and decentralized power because these would disperse power.
Likewise, Ludwig von Mises acknowledged in Omnipotent Government how the salt of the earth are not the ones responsible for making collectivist political movements mainstream:
It is not true that the dangers to the maintenance of peace, democracy, freedom, and capitalism are a result of a “revolt of the masses.” They are an achievement of scholars and intellectuals, of sons of the well-to-do, of writers and artists pampered by the best society. In every country of the world dynasties and aristocrats have worked with the socialists and interventionists against freedom.
“Wokeness” as a Public Relations Strategy
Furthermore, woke signaling has an obfuscation function that businesses and individuals can use to divert attention away from their questionable behavior. In a world dominated by woke standards of conduct, these actors are banking on the assumption that being against the prevailing orthodoxy constitutes a larger social offense than providing shoddy services or participating in morally questionable behavior.
Instead of competing with other companies on the basis of fulfilling consumer wants, companies try to one-up each other by trying to display their woke credentials. Those with skeletons in their closets would likely find use in this type of signaling as a way to avoid any unwanted attention. Going woke acts as a release from all social obligations. By viewing their nation’s history as fundamentally bigoted, individuals and institutions no longer feel compelled to abide by basic rules of decency and serve their clients and community.
With this in mind, one cannot underestimate the role of ideology in shaping the way corporate actors behave in contemporary times. Business magnates are often caricatured as homines oeconomici whose only concern is profit and who see human relations through an exclusively transactional lens. Such a perception understates the level of socialization that has permeated across class lines throughout America.
There’s nothing special about the upper-middle class and higher that exempts them from being infected by the cultural left’s ideology. As a matter of fact, America’s well-to-do grow up in milieus, from the educational institutions they’re enrolled in to the social clubs they participate in, that expose them to the dominant political and social trends. Over the course of their development, many members of this class end up being conditioned to accept the established ruling doctrine.
The current crop of business elites have little in common with Gilded Age corporate titans who still operated within the confines of bourgeois propriety. In fact, traditional values and resistance to cultural radicalism are more the province of the working classes and other Americans who have not placed themselves in the PC conveyer belt that is the contemporary education-to-corporation pipeline.
One thing is certain, though: woke leftism is not about fighting for the interests of the common man. Grievance politics’ ornamental displays of victimhood only obscure the oligarchical nature of this project.Author:
José Niño is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Sign up for his mailing list here. Contact him via Facebook or Twitter. Get his premium newsletter here.