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How to Put Woke Capital Out of Business

| Sep 02, 2021 | Politics

Photo by Sebastiano Piazzi on Unsplash

Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, by Vivek Ramaswamy (Center Street, 320 pp., $15.99)

Vivek Ramaswamy opens his book on the perils of woke capitalism by declaring himself a traitor to his class. He’s got the perfect elite resume: Harvard undergrad, partner at a hedge fund, Yale Law School, and founder of a biotech company today valued at $7 billion. He’s also, if not fully diverse by today’s standards—Indians, like Asians, are considered “white-adjacent”—at least not white.

Last year, however, Ramaswamy started writing op-eds for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and National Review in which he said things that members of the ruling class are not supposed to. He denounced wokeness as a fundamentalist religion. He condemned corporate retaliation to Georgia’s new election laws. And after the January 6th riots, Ramaswamy did the unspeakable: he defended free speech for President Trump and called for an end to tech censorship.

Two of his closest advisors resigned immediately. He received indignant emails from friends and employees. Less than three weeks later, he stepped down as CEO of the company he founded. He could have kept quiet, mouthed the diversitarian platitudes, and remained in good standing with the credentialed elite who run America. But Ramaswamy ultimately chose to speak out against corporate wokeness: “Why am I defecting? I’m fed up with corporate America’s game of pretending to care about justice in order to make money. It is quietly wreaking havoc on American democracy.”

There is something admirable about Ramaswamy’s commitment to honesty in such a dishonest age. The fundamental lie at the heart of woke capitalism deeply bothers him. Corporations and the oligarchs who run them pretend to care about social justice above all else when in fact they pursue profits with little concern for justice, social or otherwise.

Nike stands with Colin Kaepernick, but not with the children and Uighur political prisoners who work in its sweatshops. Uber supports Black Lives Matter, but not its drivers who want to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. The NBA’s management and star players criticize the President of the United States but rebuke critics of the Chinese Communist Party. “In the fight for justice,” Ramaswamy concludes, “for-profit corporations make fickle friends.”

Ramaswamy is not just an indignant moralist. He understands how the lies serve the corporate oligarchy. Woke capitalism is “about using trendy social values as a trick to generate more profits… [it’s about corporations] creating a new narrative of social purpose to disguise their old-school greed. The social causes simply serve as a form of reputational laundering for those same companies’ profit-seeking.” This concept of reputational laundering—which might be more accurately called “moral laundering”—is absolutely key to understanding woke capitalism.

The cheap social-justice talk and the tax-deductible donations to progressive causes do not just draw attention away from questionable business practices. They crown corporations “with a patina of moral authority” and, as such, shield them from the fury of left-wing activists. Performative wokeness puts corporations on the right side of the Manichean divide between the irredeemable cis-white-hetero-Christian patriarchy and everyone else.

As Joshua Mitchell has explained, such behavior is not intended to signal virtue so much as innocence. We are not guilty of racism, the corporations proclaim. And in our age, that is the only guilt that matters. Economic exploitation, greed, and dishonesty are, by contrast, no longer cardinal sins—if they remain sins at all.

Ramaswamy wrote his book not merely to denounce hypocrisy. He thinks that the unholy marriage between wokeness and capitalism ultimately represents the “death of our democracy.” He indicts woke capitalism for creating a system in which “business elites [tell] ordinary Americans what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to think. Each presents an equal affront to American democracy.” His critique is mostly directed at “this top-down elitism.”

While it is easy to sympathize with Ramaswamy’s populism—who after all wants be lectured about social justice by some smarmy 28-year-old CEO who looks like a hobo?—there is something naïve in the belief that “CEOs shouldn’t have a greater voice in our democracy just because they run companies.” Democracy means government by consent and equal rights under the law. It does not mean that all should have an equal voice in the public square.

Elites are a defining element of all societies. However incompetent, corrupt, and unpatriotic ours are, ditching them altogether would be quixotic; egalitarian democracy is a pipe dream. What we instead need are better, and admittedly less powerful, elites.

Corporate elitism, moreover, is merely epiphenomenal. CEOs do not, as Ramaswamy claims, “decide moral questions.” The intellectuals and activists in the media, the universities, Hollywood, and the NGOs do. Corporate wokeness is a lagging indicator, yet another instance of trickle-down leftism. What began in the 1960s in the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, second wave feminism, and the New Left has since infected every major institutional sector in America, including the last bastions of the old America: the churches and the military. Wokeness is now anchored in our laws, celebrated in our culture, and affirmed by our elites.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley.

Ramaswamy’s devastating critique of tech censorship, in his chapter entitled the “Silicon Leviathan,” may well be the best concise treatment of the subject to date. He clearly sees that Big Tech’s “exercise of power over the content of public discourse is without precedent in human history.” He calls Facebook, Twitter, and Google “technology tyrants” and denounces Zuckerberg and Dorsey as “technocratic autocrats.” He compares the broad wave of conservative deplatforming to “a Soviet-style purge of political dissent.”

To his credit, Ramaswamy understands that, however distasteful we may find the views of the deplatformed, there is no limiting principle to so-called “hate speech”: “This isn’t about silencing conservatives. That’s just how they get you on board with the idea of censorship.” Even more importantly, he understands that there is no limiting principle to the reach of censorship:

If Twitter has a moral obligation to censor misinformation and offensive speech in public tweets and private direct messages, does Google have an obligation (and therefore justification) to censor private emails? Will Verizon say it has a responsibility to stop hate and conspiracy from spreading via text messages? If text messages become fair game, then why not live phone conversations too?

Ramaswamy sees what so many establishment conservatives and libertarians refuse to see: in the eyes of the woke Left, we on the Right are all racists who should be made untouchables. Censorship creep is real.

Had Ramaswamy left it at that, Woke, Inc. would be a fine book exposing corporate wokeness and warning readers about the dangers of tech censorship. But Ramaswamy presents several concrete policy reforms to rein in corporate wokeness and protect Americans from its depredations. His proposals should interest all thoughtful conservatives who wonder what can be done in the face of such overwhelming corporate might.

First are his recommendations to make corporations think twice before pushing wokeness down our throats. Ramaswamy wants to restrict the scope of limited shareholder liability (which protects shareholders’ assets if the company is sued or goes bankrupt) and of the business judgment rule (which protects CEOs and corporate directors from litigation for bad business decisions) to cover only core, profit-generating practices. If corporations or CEOs choose to engage in social activism, then they should not enjoy the legal privilege of protection from lawsuits. That privilege, after all, was only afforded to encourage risk-taking in pursuit of profit—not social activism in pursuit of leftist applause.

Ramaswamy is well aware that corporations and CEOs may simply claim, in response, that everything they do, including the woke propaganda, is in the service of profit. To which, he says, good! This would “reveal the true essence of stakeholder capitalism for the self-interested farce that it is, in a way that would enlighten consumers and citizens alike about the true motivations of today’s newly woke capitalist class.” Such a defense, of course, would not necessarily hold up in court, and executives would therefore think twice “before writing a check to BLM or exhorting their customers to support Joe Biden or Donald Trump or whatever else it is that they feel an impulse to do from their seat of corporate power.”

Second, are his proposals to protect Americans from tech censorship. Ramaswamy is a recovering libertarian who is not so foolish as to think that we can just build our own Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon. In retelling the sad fate of Parler, he concludes that “the free market is no match for the monopoly of ideas.” That said, he dismisses the idea, now increasingly in vogue among the New Right and democratic socialists, of invoking antitrust to break up Big Tech. Antitrust laws were designed to protect consumers from cartels and monopolies from price-fixing, not the present pathology he calls “idea-fixing.”

He likewise dismisses the Right’s new obsession with repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. He agrees with Jack Dorsey(!) that a repeal, at this point, “is probably too little, too late—and may even do more harm than good given that the network effects already enjoyed by the larger incumbents like Facebook and Twitter would only be strengthened by making it more costly for other startups to reach their scale and reach.”

What then are we to do to the Silicon Leviathan? Ramaswamy wants to apply the First Amendment to Big Tech to protect the free speech rights of Americans. And he proposes using existing jurisprudence to do so, rather than waiting for Congress to take action.

Ramaswamy expands upon an argument he first developed in The Wall Street Journal with Jed Rubenfeld to argue that the courts have long recognized that governmental threats or the provision of certain immunities can turn private conduct into state action. The immunities afforded by Section 230, coupled with Democrats’ threats to punish tech companies that fail to censor so-called “hate speech,” justify treating Big tech as state actors.

Last, is an interesting idea to protect employees from wokeness in the workplace. Ramaswamy convincingly argues that woke ideology fits the EEOC’s definition of a religion and, as such, cannot be imposed on employees. Your boss should no more be able to fire if you deny the divinity of Christ, than if you affirm that all lives matter. Ramaswamy would thus extend the protection of the Civil Rights Act to cover political opinions both on and off the job.

Some jurists on the Right will surely question Ramaswamy’s legal reasoning, but to quote she who should have been president: “at this point, what difference does it make?” The hour is late, corporate America grows more woke by the day, and Ramaswamy’s proposals, if implemented, would be a game-changer.

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David Azerrad is an Assistant Professor and Research Fellow at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Hillsdale, Azerrad was the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. He previously taught at American University and the University of Dallas.

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