Book Review: Woke Capitalism – Socialist Party

Adam Harmsworth, Coventry Socialist Party

Woke Capitalism provides a useful introduction to the well-deserved critique of corporations that co-opt and sabotage progressive movements.

Author Carl Rhodes gives us many examples of companies embracing slogans, gimmicks and campaigns on social issues: Ben and Jerry’s “Pecan Resist” flavor with proceeds going to charity, the Nike ad featuring former American footballer Colin Kaepernick – famous for “taking the knee” in protest against police racism – and Gillette’s “best a man can be” anti-sexism ads.

There is not much sincerity in the boasting of the capitalists. This book is full of examples.

Nike

Nike used Kaepernick in its ad campaign. But its well-documented use of sweatshops with child labor and starvation wages has not been addressed.

At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, leaders talked about saving the planet by reinventing capitalism. The COP26 climate summit followed with its completely insufficient measures.

Rhodes gives us some reasons why companies are “waking up”. The first is profit – the main driver of capitalism.

Large corporations generally do well financially by supporting social causes. After his Kaepernick campaign, Nike earned $6 billion in market value.

Rhodes makes the connection between rising inequality and the corporate shift towards “woke capitalism”.

The collapse of Stalinism opened the floodgates of neoliberalism in the 1990s. Workers’ parties moved towards capitalism and hopes for socialism receded.

But since the crash of 2007-08, no major capitalist economy has been able to restore confidence in capitalism. The working class has paid for the failures of the rich with austerity and has dramatically increased inequality and poverty. Working class anger is bubbling below the surface.

Some capitalists recognize that their system is in crisis. Capitalism can claim to solve social problems, especially in a way that does not threaten the profit system. They benefit from weakened workers’ organizations and the absence of mass workers’ parties that could really challenge capitalism.

Businesses now operate on this agenda – donating money to charities and social causes and making progressive political statements. They try to deflect anger.

Black Lives Matter is less about the millions demanding fundamental change in policing and an end to inequality, and more about the donations from Nike. Climate change is about Shell and Exxon promoting how individuals can reduce their “carbon footprint”, rather than how the rigged capitalist economy is causing the ice caps to melt.

But the capitalist charade does not work. The movements around Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the growth of labor activism, the climate change walkouts and the massive BLM protests show that the anger of the working class is not being quenched.

The economic conditions of capitalism force people to question the system. Capitalism cannot solve inequality and poverty.

Unfortunately, Rhodes makes a mistake. One conclusion he is determined to draw is that “woke capitalism is a subterfuge for the corporate takeover of democracy.”

He thinks that growing anger over social problems terrifies the ruling class enough to seek to take control of the state and of democracy itself, and to rule nations as an “awakened” plutocracy. The expression he uses is “neo-feudalism”.

Rhodes does not seem to recognize that the bosses are already running the “liberal democratic” state. They have their own parties that dictate policy and act in their interests. They use their economic power and press propaganda to steer countries in the “right” direction.

Espionage and assassination

When the working class flexed its muscles, corporations used the forces of the state to impose repression, from espionage and subversive human rights abuses to assassinations, coups and wars.

Capitalism doesn’t need “woke capitalism” to claim the state – it already has it. Without this understanding of capitalism and the state, Rhodes cannot give us a clear conclusion on how to fight woke capitalism.

Rhodes asks readers to “step in to put the world on the path to equality and justice for all.” We can undertake this task, but our “intervention” must be the suppression of capitalism.

It must be a revolution that takes power away from private corporations and banks so they cannot interfere in a workers’ democracy – a revolution that places all of society’s wealth in the hands of the working class to manage it democratically. You can only end “woke capitalism” by ending capitalism.

Woke Capitalism, published by Bristol University Press, is available for £12