Why progressive gestures from big business aren’t just useless – they’re dangerous

By Carl Rhodes

In early 2020, bushfires raged across Australia. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, reduced to ash and rubble by the unrelenting onslaught of flames. Tragically, 34 people died in the fires themselves, with an estimated 445 more dying as a result of smoke inhalation. More than 16m hectares of land burned, destroying wildlife and natural habitats. Nearly 3 billion animals were affected. So massive were the fires that the smoke was visible over Chile, 11,000km away. The record-breaking inferno that engulfed Australia was described as a “global catastrophe, and a global spectacle”. As reported in the New Statesman, Australia had come to symbolise “the extreme edge of a future awaiting us all” as a result of the climate crisis. The Australian government’s inquiry into the bushfires unequivocally reported that “it is clear that we should expect fire seasons like 2019–20, or potentially worse, to happen again”.

If we turn the clock back to less than a year earlier, 15 March 2019 marked the day that 1.4 million children turned out at locations around the world, on “strike” from school in support of action against the climate crisis. In Australia, the strikes were especially targeted at the government’s dismal record of inaction, with many politicians being climate-change deniers. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, was vocal in his criticism of the strikes. He wanted students to stay in school instead of engaging in democratic protest. His public statement said: “I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well. I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”

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In Australia, coal is a primary export, peaking at A$69.6bn in 2019. Morrison is remembered by many for holding up a piece of coal in parliament in 2017 as a protest against those politicians campaigning for renewable energy. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal,” Morrison jibed as his tittering colleagues passed the black lump between them. But as the harsh smell of smoke filtered into houses and offices in Sydney during last year’s fires, no one was laughing. Many wondered what kinds of anxieties the youth of Australia must have been feeling as they watched the blaze’s devastating sweep across the country, leaving destruction and death in its wake.

At the time of the fires, the Australian government had long worked hard to downplay or even deny the climate crisis, and many corporations supported this. Gina Rinehart, the billionaire mining magnate and executive chairman of Hancock Prospecting, had not long earlier been revealed as a multimillion-dollar funder of the Institute of Public Affairs, a rightwing thinktank that denies the climate crisis has humanmade causes. But other organisations sensed the global mood had changed, and called on Australia to fight the climate crisis. Another Australian mining billionaire, Fortescue Metals’ Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, promised a donation of A$70m to bushfire relief. While not explicitly linking the fires to the climate crisis, he did say in a statement: “I would like to say, unequivocally, in my view climate change is real. I accept that the warming of our planet is a primary cause of the catastrophic events we have been experiencing.”

But this grand gesture was not all it seemed. Of the $70m, $10m went directly to bushfire victims, and the same amount was given to mobilising hundreds of specialist volunteers who would play a part in the recovery. The remaining $50m went to research in “fire mitigation”, to be conducted by Forrest’s own Minderoo Foundation, raising questions about whether the findings would need to align with their boss’s interests. All of a sudden, the donation looked more like an investment.

Since the late 2010s, there has been an increasingly observable trend of corporations, especially global ones, taking a progressive turn. The political causes that such corporations have backed include marriage equality, addressing domestic violence, combating sexual harassment, ensuring rights for LGBTQ+ people, promoting equality for people with disabilities, raising awareness about mental illness, and action against climate emergency. As demonstrations took place all over the US in support of Black Lives Matter, companies came out publicly in the fight against racism. A Pepsi ad featured the celebrity Kendall Jenner handing out cold cans of cola to police officers during a BLM protest. In June 2020, the Walmart CEO Doug McMillon pledged $100m of his company’s money to support racial equity.

A still from the Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner handing a can to a police officer.
A still from the Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner handing a can to a police officer. Composite: Pepsi

Corporations have always interfered in politics, but what is different now is that they are publicly supporting “progressive” political causes. These apparently left-leaning businesses have been derided as “woke capitalists” by conservative media commentators who believe that businesses have capitulated under pressure from the left instead of staying steadfast to their mission of serving shareholders.

The criticism that corporations are either appealing to progressive customers, or responding to pressure from leftwing cultural warriors, is a spurious explanation of what is going on. It is true that at their most benign, corporate gestures in support of progressive causes are simply marketing initiatives to take advantage of changing public sentiments. At its most dangerous, however, we are witnessing corporations muscling in to take over political power that was once the exclusive domain of the state – not just by lobbying government and influencing policy, but by directly funding political initiatives and engaging with citizens on matters of public concern.

Corporations are not just trying to influence politics, they appear to be trying to take the place of politicians. Either way, the self-interest of the corporation remains paramount. They are unlikely to take a risk when supporting a progressive cause. When corporations do take a political position, they are generally the followers, not the leaders. It is real activists who do the long, often unrewarding hard work of opening public debate to important and controversial topics. Corporations follow, generally once public opinion has already made up its mind and they can ride its wave.

On 11 January 2020, the luxury jewellery company Tiffany & Co placed full-page advertisements in leading Australian newspapers. Suddenly Tiffany had started to behave like a climate activist. The ads demanded action from prime minister Scott Morrison on the climate crisis. The statement said:

WE STAND WITH AUSTRALIA

Dear Prime Minister Morrison,

As the brave people of Australia continue to battle bushfires that are devastating communities and wildlife, now is the time for bold and decisive climate action. This disaster of climate change is too real, and the threat to our planet and to our children is too great.

TIFFANY AND CO.

Tiffany’s gesture seems a prime example of corporate generosity going hand-in-hand with the pursuit of self-interest. Head of Tiffany & Co’s Australian operations, Glen Schlehuber, said: “I feel very proud to work for an organization willing to stand up and take action on climate change.”

It would appear that, to the Tiffany execs, redirecting the company’s advertising spend to a climate-related ad constituted positive action. It is easy to dismiss this ad as nothing more than a stunt designed to bolster the brand, and Tiffany received plenty of criticism for it. Rightwing Australian tabloid the Daily Telegraph ran the headline “Posh mineral retailer goes woke”. Elsewhere, the Australian media claimed that Tiffany and Co’s ad used “the pain and hardship of bushfire victims to sell itself to Australians”.

But there is more going on here. What is interesting is that Tiffany & Co appeared entirely comfortable, if not self-righteous, about weighing in on political debates unrelated to their commercial activity. The rhetoric that they used positioned them not as an interested party, but as representatives of the people. When well-resourced and self-interested corporations don the cloak of civic minded political disinterestedness, we have to ask whether the line between private and public interests has been crossed. At the same time, the engine of capitalism – the cause of the industrial processes whose results were creating such suffering – kept on turning. The fires kept on burning.

Australia burning was a result of gross political inadequacy. Lack of satisfactory action to combat climate change over decades had made Australia prone to more and bigger fires. When the fires did arrive, corporations stepped in. Major banks offered grants to customers who had lost their homes, supermarkets delivered water and food to evacuation centres, and phone companies took care of the mobile phone bills of firefighters.

The Australian tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of the software company Atlassian, criticised the government for climate inaction. He also slated those Australian businesses who argued that measures to address climate crisis would be “economy wrecking”. Australian mining company Rio Tinto divested itself of its coal-mining activities in 2019, and last year publicly pressurised industry association the Business Council of Australia to take a positive stand on climate change advocacy. Shareholders, while holding on to their interest in iron ore, aluminium and copper mines, were getting ahead of public opinion on climate.

On one hand, corporations stepping up to address the effects of climate disasters such as the Australian fires can appear as something to be welcomed, in the spirit of solidarity and charity bequeathed by corporations and billionaire business owners. On the other hand, we need to ask what are the long-term effects on our political system. There was a time when corporations were inextricably associated with rightwing conservatism, and focused narrowly on the bottom line. Now corporations are touting themselves as progressive and politically active, often with a billionaire CEO as the conspicuous spokesperson cum (political) action hero.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2019.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2019. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

After the Australian fires, major corporations began bankrolling activities that many would have expected to be funded by the state. The situation we have arrived at is one where the failure of the state is enabling a corporate and managerial overclass to shift their power base to include not only the economic realm but also the political one. In one sense, we have come a long way from the old mantra that the true purpose of business is to pursue profits within the confines of the law. But that does not mean any fundamental change has taken place to the economic system. The corporate espousal of progressive causes is not a reversal of the self-interest that underpins capitalism, but a marked extension of it.

“Capitalism must be modified to do a better job of creating a healthier society, one that is more inclusive and creates more opportunity for more people,” said Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. In order to protect capitalism, was the message, we must change.

On 17 February 2020, Jeff Bezos, founder and then CEO of Amazon, announced on Instagram the launch of the Bezos Earth Fund. He made a staggering US$10bn commitment to the fund, with the stated aim of working “alongside others to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share”. Riding the wave of public opinion, Bezos’s multibillion-dollar gesture came just after what had been described by German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle as the “year of climate consciousness”. Making an investment to influence the climate change agenda is a smart decision, and in the interests of a business such as Amazon that relies on transport, and unceasing consumerism, for its success.

While the fires were still burning in Australia, on 21 January 2020 the world’s elite gathered in the Swiss Alpine resort town of Davos. Politicians from around the globe mingled with business moguls and high-minded celebrities. Their stated goal was to “shape the global, regional and industry agenda”. So, what shape were they promoting? They spruiked the importance of “stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world”. According to the New York Times, “Woke capitalism […] was the dominant motif at Davos 2020”.

The talk at Davos was all about the way big business should step up to address the grand challenges facing the world today, whether that be climate change, inequality, populism or the abuse of big data. Davos is the kind of forum where it is abundantly clear that big business and their billionaire owners think they have the right to define the world’s moral and political agenda, and to address the world’s problems. William Burke-White from US thinktank the Brookings Institution summed it up when he said: “Since governments seem unwilling or unable to address the challenges we face without corporate leadership, power and wealth must be united to drive the changes on which our collective future depends.”

Little did we know, at the time of the Davos meeting, of the global disaster that was on its way with the outbreak of Covid-19. What the bushfires showed in Australia was magnified to monstrous proportions by the pandemic. The world mourned as millions of people lost their lives to the virus, and it became clear that the idea that humanity can dominate and control nature was delusional. Davos acolytes and enthusiasts had told us that corporations would back progressive political causes out of genuine concern for others. They would take over where governments left off in the provision of public goods, we were promised. So where were these corporations when Covid-19 hit? Were they eager to step up to meet their promised dedication to their stakeholders? With the devastation brought on by Covid-19, the promises made at Davos about a “better capitalism” appeared laughable.

Greta Thunberg during a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 21 January 2020.
Greta Thunberg during a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 21 January 2020. Photograph: Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA

Take the multinational investment company BlackRock. During the first outbreak of Covid-19, BlackRock’s contribution was to fork out $50m of relief for those affected. Whoever benefitted from that would be undoubtedly grateful. Still, it was a financial drop in the ocean for the multitrillion-dollar firm and its billionaire boss, CEO Larry Fink. By mid-2020 BlackRock’s stock price was up 14% from the beginning of the year, as a result mainly of multibillion-dollar government injections into the US securities market. Already a billionaire, his annual remuneration rose to $25.3m.

In the lead-up to Davos 2020, rightwing commentators had been decrying what they perceived as corporate capitulation to the left. “Woke capitalism is our enemy,” ran a headline in The American Conservative. The conservative media vilified corporations for practising what Fox News condemned as “corporate socialism”. The view was that business people should stay focused on the direct pursuit of commercial goals. Conspiracy theorists asserted that an “agenda of the left” had hijacked the corporate world. Others said that corporations had been “succumbing to progressive ideologies”.

If it wasn’t clear before, 2020 showed that the reactionary pundits had nothing to fear. Feelgood corporate self-righteousness did nothing to make any real changes to the heart of capitalism’s agenda; if anything, it strengthened it. The agenda remained corralling wealth in the direction of the owners of capital.

The role of politics in sport has long been a source of public debate, and the part played by big business even more so. Nike courted controversy in 2018 when it released an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the American football player effectively excluded by the professional league for protesting against police killings of African Americans by taking the knee. The ad had an important impact in stimulating public debate about racism and police brutality in the US and around the world. It also bolstered Nike’s brand and presaged a $6bn increase in the company’s market value.

By comparison, Nike’s contribution of $25m in response to Covid-19 in 2020 was pathetic. The list of other global corporate giants making token contributions was long. Amazon committed £3.2m in the UK in March 2020. As the pandemic took hold, the Gates Foundation and Netflix pledged $100m each. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, threw in $25m to develop treatments for the virus. Such amounts are chump change in the vastness of corporate wealth. Nike shares soared in price during the pandemic, increasing its market capitalisation by 37% to $215.5bn by the end of 2020. From the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020, Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth had increased by $25bn.

In any case, corporate contributions were tiny compared to what was needed to address the health and economic effects of Covid-19. Early analysis estimated that the bill would be at least $5tn in the US alone. There is more to it than that. As equality activist Luke Hildyard said at the time, the types of donations that were being made could also serve to overestimate the generosity of the givers: “Very generous individual grants can obscure the fact that on the whole, wealthy people’s charitable giving is pretty minimal. Indeed, studies show that poor people donate more than rich, as a proportion of their income.”

A torched car amid dead trees after wildfire destroyed the Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat in New South Wales, January 2020.
A torched car amid dead trees after wildfire destroyed the Kangaroo Valley Bush Retreat in New South Wales, January 2020. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Covid-19 turned out to be a boon for the billionaire class. While workers suffered job losses, employment insecurity and wage stagnation, the wealthiest increased their wealth. Naomi Klein has defined it as “disaster capitalism”, while Oxfam calls it “pandemic profiteering”. In a July 2020 report, the charity said: “As we face our deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a subset of companies is experiencing dramatic, windfall profits. […] Covid-19 presents us with a choice as a society: Do we want to continue distributing our economic resources to the already wealthy and well connected, or shall we choose to redeploy this money into the once-in-a-century fight against Covid-19 and the inequalities it brings in its wake?”

The US’s billionaires increased their wealth by $2.1tn during the pandemic. That’s up by about 70% to a staggering $5tn. Internationally the number of billionaires in the world increased by 660 to 2,755, as their collective wealth rose from $8tn to $13.1tn. Meanwhile, across the world inequality widened as working people took on more and more debt.

What the rightwing press called “woke capitalists” are not the socialists in disguise that reactionary conservatives accuse them of being. Instead, they represent a very real and dangerous side of contemporary capitalism. Making a gesture towards progressive causes has become a substitute for action. As their wealth increases in a world beset by inequality and income insecurity, the CEO billionaires stand proud as they profess caring, progressive values. Central to the devastation of Covid-19 was the sudden unemployment that affected so many working people the world over. How did the big corporations address the financial catastrophe that so many people experienced? Where were they in building new forms of employment to put people back to work? Nowhere. Much easier to issue feelgood platitudes and make a few tokenistic donations.

That large corporations and their billionaire owners and CEOs achieve massive financial gain from their endeavours while espousing a social justice agenda might seem incongruous. But look a little deeper and there is no contradiction.

Populist capitalism appeals to people’s anxieties – in this case, the anxiety that selfish and greedy corporate elites will hoard the world’s wealth, pillaging a burning planet along the way. The irony is that this appeal is actually helping them get away with it. Talk of inclusion and shared values are a distraction from inequality and injustice.

In 2019, the Business Roundtable (the US club for big-time CEOs) felt it reasonable to proclaim that the purpose of business had fundamentally changed. No longer beholden to shareholder primacy, CEOs were now dedicated radically to all “stakeholders”, which they defined as “customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders”. OK, but when Covid hit the world economy in 2020, corporations the world over were expecting taxpayer-funded government bailouts (even though, when it came to corporate regulation, they had been lobbying hard for small government).

What 2020 demonstrated was that so-called “woke capitalism” is a trend that poses a threat to democracy. We need to ask what the real effects are of businesses and billionaires asserting that they should direct the moral and political life of citizens. It is possible that we are being asked to trade the democratic right to self-governance in return for handouts from the fickle hand of corporate benevolence, and the price is too high.

In the midst of the crisis, we saw the return of elected governments in setting the conditions for the future welfare of citizens. The lesson from Covid-19 is that we need to get back to building a future that restores a socially driven democracy. In the dark heart of the pandemic, there arose a need to restore hope in mutuality and shared prosperity.

This is an edited extract from Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy by Carl Rhodes, published by Bristol University Press on 9 November

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