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The Future of a Backlash
The pushback against corporate activism and what is sometimes called "Woke Capital" has made unprecedented gains recently. But how much further can it go?
Oxfam got into trouble this week for tweeting a pride video that contained an image of red-eyed TERFs ominously menacing some vulnerable shapes representing trans people. They were forced to withdraw the video following a torrent of complaints, and issued something like an apology, though a version of the video is still up; the hashtag #oxfamhateswomen was trending for a couple of days afterwards.
The decision to involve themselves in progressive politics has proved costly for the other companies in recent days. Target is facing a substantial boycott for selling Pride related items some of which were marketed to kids. The boycott stemming from Bud Light’s team-up with influencer Dylan Mulvaney has so far cost it $27bn in market capital, and it seems to be facing a massive permanent decline in sales of what had been America's most popular beer, Bud Light.
These events form part of a recent trend of people pushing back against the intrusion of progressive activism and politics into ostensibly neutral (or if anything, right-leaning) commercial and public spaces with unprecedented success. The question is not merely whether Woke Capital* has peaked, but can the role of corporations as activists at the vanguard of social liberalisation be reversed? I don’t think so, for two reasons.
The first is that women really like this stuff. Julie Blindel mournfully alludes to this fact in this interview with Katie Herzog: she notes that on any campus she visits to speak she get a variety of responses from different groups - but the most uniformly and volubly negative response is always from young women.
Women are bigger consumers than men, have a disproportionate hold on household spending, and are more likely to be highly educated than men. For corporations, they therefore represent a particularly valued group to appeal to. Commercial organisations want to get valuable consumers identifying with their products as early as possible, and even amongst women as a separate group, younger women are disproportionately enthusiastic about socially progressive politics. Women being more highly educated means they are also likely to be influential on decisions about the ideological directions of companies in terms of the products they stock and the causes they support.
The following research from Pew conducted in the US last on trans issues highlights many of these trends:
Women are more likely than men to say there is a great deal or a fair amount of discrimination against transgender people.
College graduates are more likely than those with less education to say the same.
Men and those without a four-year college degree are among the most likely to say society has gone too far in regard to trans rights.
Women are more likely than men to say views on these issues are not changing quickly enough and adults younger than 30 are more likely than their older counterparts to say the same.
There are crosstabs here, and confounding factors. I noted when I wrote about this previously that though consistent, the effect sizes are small. Pew themselves note that the biggest dividing factors are not sex but political affiliation or education; but of course we know that women are more likely to be highly educated than men, and more likely to vote for the “left-wing” mainstream party - and in both cases, increasingly so. So my personal view is that the divides of educated/ uneducated and left/right on this subject are mostly just proxies for female/male. Similarly, age is sometimes posited as the key driver of different attitudes, but again, young women are massively more in favour of this stuff than young men (and indeed any other large group).
These differences are part of what ensures issues around activism and the expansions of minority rights will remain on the corporate agenda - but it’s not just that. As I previously wrote, the centrality of Liberalism to our way of life and the decline of constraining factors means that:
… the only sacred value in our society is identification of new rights, advocacy for them, and their codification as morally, legally and aesthetically superior to any historic rights (…)
The identification of a new, marginal identity is to the social climber what the discovery of a new continent is to an explorer. Room to expand into; a store of riches to be mined; a base to rebuild the world as you would like it to be and from which to further explore (…)
There is an immense social and financial incentive to identify new rights and to expand them indefinitely once identified. Not only does no equivalent incentive exist on the restrictionist side of the equation - on the contrary, restrictionism is strongly disincentivised, socially (you’ll lose friends and status), financially (you’ll lose advertisers, sponsors, jobs) and legally (hate-speech laws, payment processor deplatforming).
Imagine a Venn diagram comprising three circles - improved social status, the promise of positive social progress, and commercial growth; activism in relation to marginal rights, and corporate support for it, is the shaded area. The fact is that corporations can make more money out of being outwardly progressive than they can out of being conservative; and individuals can use the same logic to better improve the social standing.
I’ve lingered on trans issues specifically but that is what’s driving the spate of recent incidents. But the same is true of any number of similar issues, Black Lives Matter being another great example.
All of this is at the level of averages, and of course you can find women passionately advocating for any political cause. Also, this is a purely structural view of the situation. There is a moral aspect which, along with camaraderie and the joy of the fight itself, is what motivates activists. They want to win but their involvement isn’t predicated on winning, it’s predicated on caring for vulnerable trans people on one side and the protection of children and women-only spaces on the other. The point is here not to make a judgement about the correctness of either side but to highlight that the progressive side is undergirded and strengthened by elemental commercial and by cultural forces, and the side other isn’t.
None of this is a criticism of women either; it’s just to note that a world that better reflects the views of western women will also be one in which (amongst other things) minority rights are continuously expanded to and beyond their conceptual limits, including into shared, neutral spaces via corporations, public bodies, NGOs and so on. Occasional pushback notwithstanding, there is no way that will change.
The most recent victories represent an enhanced marshalling of resources on the part of anti-trans activists and the successful enrollment of some groups of normies who feel that politics is encroaching on their space in an unwelcome way. But no one is under any illusions that wealthy, highly-educated and upwardly mobile young-to-middle-aged women are changing their opinions. That is the group the opponents of Woke Capital would actually have to reach in order to start turning the tide in their own favour, rather than merely limiting the territorial gains and business-as-usual proselytising of their opponents. They would also have to change the essential nature of Liberal society as one in which the identification and expansion of minority rights has a unique commercial and social value which restructionism doesn’t. I can’t see how one of these things would be possible let alone both, but then again I’m not an activist. The people who change society aren’t the ones who say “you’ve gone as far as you can”; the ones who see a possible future that others can’t, and work towards it.
God knows where we’ll be 5 years from now.
*I don’t like or agree with this term but there isn’t an obvious alternative and space is limited so I’m using shorthand.