How the corporate-sociocultural alliance shaped our times
Recently, observers of Western political economies have debated corporate embrace of social justice ideology. A preferable term to the pejorative 'woke', social justice ideology emphasizes lived experience, emotional safety, direct action and the oppressiveness of established institutions.
Corporations have supported social justice causes such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, issuing social media posts and advertisements. In one prominent example, Nike ran a campaign with American footballer Colin Kaepernick, a player dropped by the NFL following his protest against police brutality. The phenomenon exists beyond the private sector, many public organizations using such branding.
In an important essay, the political scientist Darel Paul considers the foundations of this trend. Sectoral campaigns reflect economic logics. Firms with high shares of black customers, such as shoe manufacturers and sports leagues, tend to campaign for racial justice. Firms with high shares of young female customers, such as rideshare and dating applications, tend to campaign for abortion rights. Firms in manufacturing and wholesale trade, with limited brand recognition, tend not to run such campaigns.
Yet corporations embrace positions which seem contrary to commercial logic. For example, Disney has promoted LGBT-themed content and advertising, despite the attitudes of the parents of school-age children who comprise its customer base. Paul also dismisses the role of civil rights legislation – corporations are enthusiastic adopters of such measures – but emphasizes conditions within corporations,
‘Woke capital is the result of an interaction within the corporation between the professional and managerial classes. Its impulse is professional-class employees, especially in the creative industries, who press employers to serve their class interests in autonomy, personal fulfillment, and progressive social values. Managers, many with a professional background themselves, seek to order this skilled and powerful workforce toward capital’s demands for labor productivity and profitability while also pursuing their own interests in prestige and power.’
This raises questions about the origins and trajectories of this relationship. Corporations have a history of alliances with social groups. After the Second World War, capital and labour reached a famous compromise, corporations accepting regulation and labour tolerating private enterprise. In an important essay, the Paroxysms Substack compares the compromise to the relationship between corporations and professional classes.
But rather than professional classes, we might evaluate sociocultural classes, key literature theorizing their motivations and preferences. This class work in sectors such as education, healthcare and the arts and tend to have left-liberal political values. In these industries, task structures are ambiguous, necessitating creative responses, hierarchies are flatter and there are symbolic-interactive relations with clients who are the object of services, encouraging ideologies which value liberation.
There are few corporations in these sectors, yet corporate employment increasingly resembles such occupations. In recent decades, corporate jobs have become more creative, roles involving design and innovation coming to the fore. Younger corporate workers are more educated, education being a key sociocultural sector and associated with social justice ideology. Therefore, synergies between the interests of sociocultural and corporate workers are apparent.
The roots of the alliance may lie in the great 2008 recession. This did not kill neoliberal capitalism, Crouch observing its 'strange non-death', but entailed a legitimacy crisis which lasted into the 2010s. In this world, several paths were open to capital. Corporations might have avoided controversy, recovering reputations through quiet diligence. Alternatively, they might have allied with right populist movements such as Make America Great Again (MAGA), alliance with authoritarians being a traditional strategy. In contexts such as Russia and China, firms took this approach.
The path which Western corporations took reflected feasibility. Of all those groups disenchanted with capitalism, corporate employees had the most internal influence. Beyond their creative roles and preference for social justice ideology, such workers expect employers to articulate their values, reflecting the totalizing structure of corporate employment; increasingly, corporations resemble university campuses, employees working, socializing and sleeping on site. Had corporations embraced Trumpism, profound personnel challenges would have ensued.
More broadly, these stances develop corporate relationships with the glamorous world of film and popular music. In societies in which popular culture eclipses the fine arts in prestige – rather than Paris, aristocratic émigrés Harry and Meghan embraced Netflix and California – this motivation is considerable and confers extra legitimacy on corporations.
Oligopolistic market conditions consolidate this, the size of corporations creating barriers to entry. New entrants may develop conservative marketing strategies – PublicSq, a conservative online marketplace in the US, hosts 40,000 firms – but significant penetration is unlikely. For example, conservative startups lack the finances to write code to run Google and social media sites lack participants. This does not insulate the alliance between corporations and the sociocultural class from all pressure – as I argue below, the alliance has weaknesses – but establishes it for the medium term.
We may ask how such practices diffuse. Institutional theorists explain the emergence of common practices with reference to isomorphism; this is a ‘constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions’. In recent decades, scholars have theorized isomorphism in diverse organizational contexts.
In this case, the role of middle managers appears critical. In an important article, Foss and Klein argue that middle managers use their delegated responsibility and specialist status to advance social justice ideology. Three motivations underpin this,
‘First, executives may delegate initiative related to woke causes to middle managers, not only because executives usually lack expertise, but also as a form of “insurance” against claims they are insufficiently committed to wokeness. Second, middle-managers may push woke agendas that increase their authority or span of control… for example by positioning DEI initiatives as natural HR functions that are essential to managing a division or a function. Third, middle managers may also call out “woke-washing” (i.e., claims that the firm is supporting progressive causes externally but not taking them seriously internally), thus contributing to the creation of a woke internal culture, which again may be beneficial for instrumental as well as normative reasons, but also bolsters the internal power of these managers.’
This may overstate the role of middle managers. Whilst such managers can be crucial agents of change, literature on institutional entrepreneurship emphasizing their role, they cannot advance agendas which do not have wider support. We may recall Paul’s emphasis on internal conditions within corporations, employees agitating for measures which fulfil class interests.
Preference falsification limits opposition; accusations of bigotry can kill a career. Technological developments reinforce this, social media providing unparalleled opportunity to sully corporate reputations.
More broadly, the alliance depends upon the commitment of sociocultural classes who do not work in corporations. Notwithstanding tensions – sociocultural classes tend to be left-liberals, implying certain opposition to corporations – two advantages compensate. Firstly, corporate embrace of social justice ideology consolidates the position of sociocultural sectors. Social justice ideology originated in these sectors, particularly universities, and the extension of its influence is a success. As corporations embrace the ideology, there are multiple economic benefits. Sociocultural classes design and appraise such schemes, creating new opportunities for profit and employment. Recently, a sub-industry has developed, straddling sociocultural and corporate sectors, which specializes in this. For sociocultural classes facing hard times, such patronage is irresistible.
Secondly, corporate embrace of social justice ideology entails symbolic concessions to sociocultural classes. To an unusual extent, corporations use symbols. During Pride month, one cannot miss these. Whilst symbolic politics can be hollow and counterproductive – in post-war contexts, symbolic concessions to working classes would have been inadequate – certain measures can be forceful. Sociocultural classes are receptive to such gestures; they are primarily concerned with cultural politics, rather than economic politics, and sensitive about diminishing status. Therefore, such symbols boost the esteem of sociocultural classes. They may face exclusion from labour and housing markets, but their values are hegemonic.
We may reflect on the trajectories of this alliance. In the medium term, it appears secure, satisfying the needs of corporations and sociocultural classes and opposition within these institutions being marginal. Beyond corporations and sociocultural classes, the alliance fulfils systemic functions. In recent decades, post-industrialism has defined developed economies, entailing need for educated, creative classes. This has driven major institutional changes, such as the expansion of higher education.
Whilst new institutions may reflect systemic needs, this do not entail the absence of negative externalities. The rise of sociocultural classes has involved such externalities, surplus elites enduring hardships and resenting the system. In turn, this creates need for institutions which mitigate such effects. Therefore, the corporate-sociocultural alliance reconciles sociocultural classes to the existing order, promoting stability.
But compensatory institutions can have weaknesses, jeopardizing their long-term viability. Comparisons between the corporate-sociocultural alliance and post-war compromise are instructive. The latter had deep popular support – majorities always supported redistribution, enduring throughout the neoliberal period – and opposition was marginal. Following Gramsci, the compromise was a hegemonic idea.
The corporate-sociocultural alliance enjoys no such status. Among publics, social justice ideology is unpopular and key social sectors, such as right-wing parties and evangelical churches, mobilize against it. In universities, there is a counter-movement which, though unloved by sectoral managers, enjoys some popularity among the public.
The alliance may survive in these conditions – as we have seen, it has a medium-term basis – yet seems unlikely to thrive. Popular opposition has several outlets. Though many consumers tolerate social justice ideology, there have been recent campaigns against brands which embrace the ideology, some being successful. Conservative brands might not break into the mainstream, but may pressure corporations to move from ideological branding.
Political opposition is key. Conservative parties are reliable opponents of social justice ideology. If such parties move in an authoritarian direction, they may break up the alliance; a second Trump administration might attempt this. But success appears unlikely, opposition to right-populism being too strong in Western countries.
The reaction of left-liberal parties may be more important. In many contexts, these parties are supportive, North American parties being prime examples, yet the existence of public hostility entails pressure to follow voter preferences. Recently, the UK Labour Party has adopted more conservative positions.
Opposition from such parties might place disproportionate pressure on the alliance, bringing about its long-term erosion. The US Democratic Party will be crucial. Should it go cold on social justice ideology, left-liberal parties in smaller countries may follow suit. In this environment, corporations might reduce ideological advertising, perhaps maintaining internal commitment to social justice ideology.
How would sociocultural classes react to this? As we have seen, the corporate-sociocultural alliance reconciles sociocultural classes to the existing order, promoting stability. Its weakening would not please sociocultural classes and might produce further externalities. However, such a development would placate conservatives, this demographic having become alienated from political and economic establishments.
Perhaps the precarity of the corporate-sociocultural alliance reflects our times. Compared to the post-war compromise (1945-73) and neoliberal era (1979-2008), our age has no defining theme. Neoliberalism has survived, but is weakened. Right populism and social justice ideology have emerged, but are unpopular.
In coming years, a dominant force may emerge. Potentially, the corporate-sociocultural alliance will influence the nature of this force. Certainly, such a force would have profound implications for the corporate-sociocultural alliance.
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