‘Woke’ Capital: Pinkwashing Exploitation

“What do we have to show for the billions spent on pink ribbon products? A lot of us are done with awareness. We want action.” - Karuna Jagger, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action

It is no longer enough to simply sell a product. The percolation of market fundamentalism into every facet of life has blurred the distinction between our identities and our consumption habits, meaning that we now desire products that carry a deeper significance, i.e. a message about social justice. The result? A pernicious and contradictory phenomenon: Capital with a human face. ‘Woke’ Capitalism involves corporations cynically utilising socially progressive causes such as LGBTQ and women’s issues, or climate change, to sell their products while maintaining the same underlying structures of profit-maximisation and exploitation of workers and resources around the world, particularly in the global South. Moreover, in a post-2008 era of economic turmoil, ‘Woke Capital’ provides an opportunity for the Right to assert that large corporations are in fact, the tools of a left-wing elite that is hostile to the common man, and so doing, to downplay the culpability of capitalism itself.

The ‘free’ market is not an entity that exists in a vacuum, independent of the social and cultural paradigms surrounding it. To consistently make profits and remain competitive in a crowded marketplace, businesses must appeal to the ever-changing social attitudes of consumers, and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ identity has provided an ideal marketing opportunity for large corporations. Pride parades festooned with the presence of multinational corporations are not uncommon in the modern day: Pharmaceuticals company Gilead sponsored New York Pride, despite having patented the HIV risk-reducing drug Truvada, causing some of the poorest people in the United States to die due to lack of access to it. LGBTQ Black men, who have a higher HIV rate than any other group in the United States, comprise just 9% of applicants for Truvada, demonstrating the effects of these barriers to entry. Although this is arguably one of the most galling examples of the hypocrisy of corporations who cynically feign awareness and progressivism while continuing the profiteering, it is by no means the only example. The establishment of monopoly control over production and distribution through patents is no aberration; it is a logical step for large corporations, and will continue for as long as the profit motive continues to be the dominant force in the economy.

In 2018, former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the face of Nike’s campaign, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of its’ ‘Just Do It’ slogan. The cooptation of Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and the maltreatment of African-Americans is particularly striking given that it has come from Nike, a company that still employs Black and Brown workers at below poverty wages in the global South. Despite co-founder Phil Knight being forced to admit to using sweatshops and child labour in 1998 and to change Nike’s business practices, a fresh wave of recent accusations have impugned the company further. In Vietnam, where Nike employs 400,000 workers and has 91 factories, workers are being paid at wage rates that are only just over half of the living wage. In Indonesia, where Nike has 39 factories and around 200,000 workers, the wages paid to workers were $200 less than that which would be required to meet their basic needs. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Nike has earned the support of William Stepp of the libertarian Mises Institute, who has argued against the minimum wage.

The response from corporations such as Nike, Ford and others to the climate crisis and increasing awareness of environmental issues is, perhaps, the most egregious illustration of their hypocrisy. Apple, for instance, displays its low carbon footprint as an example of its progressivism while outsourcing production to China, where greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere at alarming rates. Nestle also promotes environmental sustainability on their website, but were accused of complicity in the illegal destruction of rainforests in Sumatra. The exacerbation of the conditions of already critically endangered species in the region is one of many consequences that large corporations’ vast economies of scale have on the environment, but environmentalism to them is merely a discardable fad that will generate revenue.

The pernicious impact of ‘Woke’ Capital goes beyond just its hypocrisy and continuation of exploitation; it affords the Right an opportunity to portray the Left as elites while exonerating themselves and obscuring the true problem: the underlying imperatives in the forces and relations of production. Why acknowledge that the aforementioned ‘woke’ corporations are simply doing what corporations have always done: appeal to consumers in the interests of short-term profits, when you could brand them as ideologically-motivated, left-wing, virtue signalling elites who despise ordinary people and their families? Indeed, this is exactly what Tucker Carlson is extremely effective at doing: arguing that 2019 is the year of the ‘woke’ billionaire, he has claimed that an unholy alliance had taken place between virtue-signalling billionaires and the ‘socialist’ Democratic Party. This tactic is quintessential to the reactionary Right, as the portrayal of the Left and the Billionaires being motivated by the same progressive, internationalist ideology makes it easier to appeal to ‘Middle America’, and to dissuade them from examining the root of the problem.

Eric Hobsbawm, writing in his book Age of Extremes about the rise of fascism, argued that one of the common themes in these movements was the resentment of “the little man” in a society dominated by the interests of big business and organised labour. The reactionary Right, in an attempt to preserve the status quo in a time of economic collapse, would attempt to stave off forces of socialism and internationalism by portraying themselves as the allies of working people against the perceived unholy alliance between ‘the Left’ and big business. In Europe’s fascist States during the 1930’s, this was an important tool that brought such regimes to power. A concoction of privatisation, tax cuts for the wealthy and a bonfire of workers’ rights followed, demonstrating the true nature of their regimes. The recent attempts by Tucker Carlson to deflect from the culpability of the neoliberal system in an era of rampant inequality, limited bargaining power and plummeting wages are clearly part of a similar ploy; arguing that the large corporations are acting in the interests of the Left increases Middle America’s hatred of socialism, and in doing so, prevents any substantive anti-capitalist case from being heard, thereby maintaining the status quo.

Woke Capital, therefore, absolves the reactionary Right of having to face the consequences of their own economic orthodoxy. The Right do not have to face the fact that mass immigration to Western nations is, in part, a result of unequal terms of trade that have subjected the local farming and small industries of global South nations to debilitating competition, forcing vast numbers of people to flee, if they can argue that immigration is a deliberate tool of ‘woke corporations’. Once again, the portrayal of corporate greed as a Leftist idea precludes any rigorous analysis of Capital from taking place, and reduces the factors precipitating mass immigration from material realities to abstract ideological forces. The consequent scapegoating and vilification of immigrants that characterises them as interlopers in Western societies, which parties across Europe and North America continue to engage in, allows the rich to get richer and maintain their power at the expense of the rest of society.

The veneer of altruism and inclusivity feigned by ‘progressive’ multinational corporations disappears with a cursory examination of their productive processes, which reveal that, at heart, their modus operandi is driven by the same unscrupulous exploitation of labour-power and resources that it always was. The rejection of liberal, faux-progressive corporatism and the bogus contention that Capitalism can be made any less ruthless or exploitative by dressing it up in rainbow colours is an important part of a genuine socialist ethos. Only a persuasive, comprehensive and thorough analysis of the contradictions of capitalism will allow the Left to fight back against the contention that ‘Woke’ Capitalism is in any way progressive, and to champion the cause of those who are most exploited by it.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.