How capitalism drives cancel culture

Beware of splashy corporate gestures when they leave existing power structures intact.

by Helen Lewis

Tumbrels are rattling through the streets of the internet. Over the past few years, online-led social movements have deposed gropers, exposed bullies — and, sometimes, ruined the lives of the innocent. Commentators warn of “mob justice,” while activists exult in their newfound power to change the world.

Both groups are right and wrong. Because the best way to see the firings, outings, and online denunciations grouped together as “cancel culture” is not through a social lens, but an economic one.

Take the fall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein, which seems inevitable in hindsight—Everyone knew he was a sex pest! There were even jokes about it on 30 Rock! But it took The New York Times months of reporting to ready its first story for publishing; the newspaper was taking on someone with deep pockets and a history of intimidating critics into silence. Then the story went off like a hand grenade. Suddenly, the mood—and the economic incentives—shifted. People who had been afraid of Weinstein were instead afraid of being taken down alongside him.

The removal of Weinstein from his company, and his subsequent conviction for rape, is a good outcome. But the mechanism it revealed is more morally ambiguous: The court of public opinion was the only forum left after workplace protections and the judicial system had failed.

The writer Jon Schwarz once described the “iron law of institutions,” under which people with seniority inside an institution care more about preserving their power within the institution than they do about the power of the institution as a whole.

That self-preservation instinct also operates when private companies—institutions built on maximizing shareholder value, or other capitalist principles—struggle to acclimatize to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social-justice causes. Progressive values are now a powerful branding tool.

Those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures—solemn, monochrome social-media posts deploring racism; appointing their first woman to the board; firing low-level employees who attract online fury—because they help preserve their power. Those at the top—who are disproportionately white, male, wealthy, and highly educated—are not being asked to give up anything themselves

But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival. (I’m not using the word woke here in a sneering, pejorative sense, but to highlight that the original definition of wokeness is incompatible with capitalism. Also, I’m not taking credit for the coinage: The writer Ross Douthat got there first.)

In fact, let’s go further: Those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures—solemn, monochrome social-media posts deploring racism; appointing their first woman to the board; firing low-level employees who attract online fury—because they help preserve their power. Those at the top—who are disproportionately white, male, wealthy, and highly educated—are not being asked to give up anything themselves.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the random firings of individuals, some of whose infractions are minor, and some of whom are entirely innocent of any bad behaviour.

In the first group goes the graphic designer Sue Schafer, outed by The Washington Post for attending a party in ironic blackface — a tone-deaf attempt to mock Megyn Kelly for not seeing what was wrong with blackface. Schafer, a private individual, was confronted at the party over the costume, went home in tears, and apologized to the hosts the next day.

When the Post ran a story naming her, she was fired. New York magazine found numerous Post reporters unwilling to defend the decision to run the story — and plenty of unease that the article seemed more interested in exonerating the Post than fighting racism.

Even less understandable is the case of Niel Golightly, the communications chief at the aircraft company Boeing, who stepped down over a 33-year-old article arguing that women should not serve in the military.

When Barack Obama, a notably progressive president, only changed his mind on gay marriage in the 2010s, how many Americans’ views from 1987 would hold up to scrutiny by today’s standards?

This mechanism is not, as it is sometimes presented, a long-overdue settling of scores by underrepresented voices. It is a reflexive jerk of the knee by the powerful, a demonstration of institutions’ unwillingness to tolerate any controversy, whether those complaining are liberal or conservative.

Another case where the punishment does not fit the offense is that of police detective Florissa Fuentes, who reposted a picture of her niece taken at a Black Lives Matter protest. One of those pictured held a sign reading who do we call when the murderer wears the badge? Another sign, according to the Times, “implied that people should shoot back at the police.” Fuentes, a 30-year-old single mother of three children, deleted the post and apologized, but was fired nonetheless.

In the second group, the blameless, lies Emmanuel Cafferty, a truck driver who appears to have been tricked into making an “okay” symbol by a driver he cut off at a traffic light. The inevitable viral video claimed that this was a deliberate use of the symbol as a white-power gesture, and he was promptly fired. Cafferty is a working-class man in his 40s from San Diego. The loss of his job hit him hard enough that he saw a counsellor.

“A man can learn from making a mistake,” he told my colleague Yascha Mounk. “But what am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.”

The phrase is haunting—not being racist is not going to save you if the lightning strikes. Nor is the fact that your comments lie decades in the past, or that they have been misinterpreted by bad-faith actors, or that you didn’t make them. The ground—your life—is scorched just the same.

It is strange that “cancel culture” has become a project of the left, which spent the 20th century fighting against capricious firings of “troublesome” employees. A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets.

We all, I hope, want to see sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination decrease. But we should be aware of the economic incentives here, particularly given the speed of social media, which can send a video viral, and see onlookers demand a response before the basic facts have been established.

Afraid of the reputational damage that can be incurred in minutes, companies are behaving in ways that range from thoughtless and uncaring to sadistic. For Cafferty’s employer, what’s one random truck driver versus the PR bump of being able to cut off a bad news cycle by saying you’ve fired your “white supremacist employee”?

Let’s look at another example of how woke capitalism operates. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, White Fragility, a 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo, returned to the top of The New York Times paperback nonfiction chart.

The author is white, and her book is for white people, encouraging them to think about what it’s like to be white. So the American book-buying public’s single biggest response to the Black Lives Matter movement was … to buy a book about whiteness written by a white person.

This is worse than mere navel-gazing; it’s synthetic activism. It risks making readers feel full of piety and righteousness without having actually done anything. Buying a book on white fragility improves the lives of the most marginalized far less than, say, donating to a voting-rights charity or volunteering at a food bank. It’s pure hobbyism.

Why is DiAngelo’s book so popular? Again, look at economics. White Fragility is a staple of formal diversity training, in universities from London to Iowa, and at publications including Britain’s right-wing Telegraph newspaper, as well as The Atlantic.

The client list on DiAngelo’s website includes giant corporations such as Amazon and Unilever; nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hollywood Writers Guild, and the YMCA; and institutions and governmental bodies such as Seattle Public Schools, the City of Oakland, and the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis.

In the United States, diversity training is worth $8 billion a year, according to Iris Bohnet, a public-policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And yet, after studying programs in both the US and post-conflict countries such as Rwanda, she concluded, “Sadly enough, I did not find a single study that found that diversity training, in fact, leads to more diversity.”

Part of the problem is that although those delivering them are undoubtedly well-meaning, the training programs are typically no more scientifically grounded than previous management-course favourites, such as Myers-Briggs personality classifications. “Implicit-bias tests” are controversial, and the claim that they can predict real-world behaviour, never mind reduce bias, is shaky.

A large-scale analysis of research in the sector found that “changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour.” Yet metrics-obsessed companies love these forms of training.

When the British Labour leader, Keir Starmer, caused offence by referring to Black Lives Matter as a “moment” rather than a movement, he announced that he would undergo implicit-bias training. It is an approach that sees bias as a moral flaw among individuals, rather than a product of systems. It encourages personal repentance, rather than institutional reform.

Bohnet suggested other methods to increase diversity, such as removing ages and photographs from job applications and reviewing the language used for advertisements. (Men are more likely to see themselves as “assertive,” she argued.)

Here is another option for big companies: Put your money into paying all junior staff enough for them to live in the big city where the company is based, without needing help from their parents. That would increase the company’s diversity. Hell, get your staff to read White Fragility on their own time and give your office cleaners a pay raise.

This, however, would break the iron law of woke capitalism—better to have something you can point to and say “Aren’t we progressive?” than to think about the real problem. Diversity training offers the minimum possible disruption to your power structures: Don’t change the board; just get your existing employees to sit through a seminar.

If this is a moment for power structures to be challenged, and old orthodoxies to be overturned, then understanding the difference between economic radicalism and social radicalism is vital. This could also be described as the difference between identity and class. That is not to dismiss the former: Many groups face discrimination on both measures.

Women might not be hired because “Math isn’t for girls” or because an employer doesn’t want to pay for maternity leave. An employer may not see the worth of a minority applicant, because they don’t speak the way the interviewer expects, or that applicant might be a second-generation immigrant whose parents can’t subsidize them through several years of earning less than a living wage.

All this I’ve learned from feminism, where the contrast between economic and social radicalism is very apparent. Equal pay is economically radical. Hiring a female or minority CEO for the first time is socially radical. Diversity training is socially radical, at best.

Providing social-housing tenants with homes not covered in flammable cladding is economically radical. Changing the name of a building at a university is socially radical; improving its 5 percent enrollment rate for Black students—perhaps by smashing up the crazy system of legacy admissions—would be economically radical.

In my book Difficult Women, I wrote that the only question I want to ask big companies who claim to be “empowering the female leaders of the future” is this one: Do you have on-site child care? You can have all the summits and power breakfasts you want, but unless you address the real problems holding working parents back, then it’s all window dressing.

Along with anti-racism and anti-sexism efforts, LGBTQ politics suffers a similar confusion between economic and social radicalism. The arrival of Pride month brings the annual argument about how it should be a “protest, not a parade.”

The violence and victimization of the Stonewall-riot era risk being forgotten in today’s “branded holiday,” where big banks and clothing manufacturers fly the rainbow flag to boost their corporate image.

In Britain and the US, these corporate sponsors want a depoliticized party—a generic celebration of love and acceptance—without tough questions about their views on particular domestic laws and policies, or their involvement in countries with poor records on LGBTQ rights. 

Some activists in Britain have tried to get Pride marches to stop allowing the arms company BAE to be a sponsor, given its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, an explicitly homophobic and sexist state.

When Amazon sponsored last year’s PinkNews Awards, the former Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T. Davies used his lifetime-achievement-award acceptance speech to tell the retailer to “pay your fucking taxes.” That’s economic radicalism.

Activists regularly challenge criticisms of “cancel culture” by saying: “Come on, we’re just some people with Twitter accounts, up against governments and corporate behemoths.” But when you look at the economic incentives, almost always, the capitalist imperative is to yield to activist pressure. Just a bit. Enough to get them off your back.

Companies caught in the scorching light of a social-media outcry are like politicians caught lying or cheating, who promises a “judge-led inquiry”: They want to do something, anything, to appear as if they are taking the problem seriously—until the spotlight moves on.

Some defenestrations are brilliant and long overdue. Weinstein’s removal from a position of power was undoubtedly a good thing. But the firing of Emmanuel Cafferty was not. For activists, the danger lies in the cheap sugar rush of tokenistic cancellations. Real institutional change is hard; like politics, it is the “slow boring of hard boards.”

Persuading a company to toss someone overboard for PR points risks a victory that is no victory at all. The pitchforks go down, but the corporate culture remains the same. The survivors sigh in relief. The institution goes on.

If you care about progressive causes, then woke capitalism is not your friend. It is actively impeding the cause, siphoning off energy, and deluding us into thinking that change is happening faster and deeper than it really is. When people talk about the “excesses of the left”— a phenomenon that blights the electoral prospects of progressive parties by alienating swing voters — in many cases, they’re talking about the jumpy overreactions of corporations that aren’t left-wing at all.

Remember the iron law of woke institutions: For those looking to preserve their power, it makes sense to do the minimum amount of social radicalism necessary to survive … and no economic radicalism at all. The latter is where activists need to apply pressure. This essay was first published in The Atlantic magazine

Helen Lewis is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.

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