It’s in commercials! It’s on storefronts! It’s on social media, on television shows and streaming platforms! We may not be able to define what “woke” is, but, dammit! Like any obscenity, we know it when we see it! They’re ramming it down our throats and shoving it up our asses! Okay, okay, not the best metaphor to use during a “Pride” month celebrating sodomy. But you know what I mean!!!
Just a couple of months ago, Bud Light suffered a backlash because it hired a transgender spokesperson who shared a sponsored post on their Instagram account on the weekend of the NCAA Basketball Men’s and Women’s National Championship. Kid Rock stood up for family values when he used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot up cases of Bud Light for all to see!
Then, Target got caught in the crossfire of another controversy when it removed some “Pride” merchandise from some of its stores to avoidbacklash. (And what is it with this “Pride” stuff anyway!? You don’t see Straight Pride Parades! Gimme a break!)
Founded on solid Southern Baptist Christian values by a man whose WinShape Foundation gave millions to bolster conversion therapy, Chick-fil-A’s COO (son of the founder) has always been steadfast in his opposition to same-sex marriage. But even they have now been infected by the Woke Virus! They hired a VP of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”!
As if that were not the ultimate indignity, the Texas Family Project, which has joined with Defend Our Kids to protect “our children’s innocence by uncovering and highlighting the left’s public displays of sexual degeneracy”, has announced: “We take no pleasure in reporting that Cracker Barrel has fallen.” Imagine that. We now have to be subjected to the outright pornographic display of a rainbow-colored rocking chair in a Cracker Barrel Instagram post! The Southern-born Old Country Store chain had the utter audacity to desecrate its Instagram feed with this:
You know it’s the end of the line when this company — a company that once fired employees because of their sexual orientation, that was forced to pay an $8.7 million settlement because it “discriminated” against black employees and mistreated black customers, a company that put the “Cracker” in Cracker Barrel (H/T EY) — goes woke! What is this world coming to?
And mind you, this whole woke nightmare is nothing new. Companies of every brand have been “taking lefty positions on political issues” for years now. Social media platforms and search engines like Google are hammering us with “left-wing algorithms”. In 2019, Nike recalled its Betsy Ross Flag Sneakers after Colin Kaepernick, who had the insolence to take a knee during the national anthem, criticized the design. Even AirBNB, Lyft, and Uber had the gall to protest former President Donald Trump’s America Firstimmigration ban!
Is it any wonder that our courageous state legislators have risen to combat this tide of immorality?! Over 650 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across 46 states to protect our families, our children, our very social fabric.
Does all this sound a little unhinged? A little hysterical maybe? OVER THE TOP?
Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!
WTF is Happening?
It was in 2018 that Ross Douthcat introduced the phrase “Woke Capital” in the New York Times. But it was already part of the zeitgeist. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic noted the “politicization of the public sphere” that was leading “nonpartisan companies to take one partisan stand after another.” Thompson wrote:
In many cases, America’s corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes. Nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, including Amazon, Aetna, Apple, American Airlines, American Express, and AT&T (and those are just the ones starting with the first letter of the alphabet). Hundreds of executives, many from tech companies, signed a 2017 letter urging the president to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When North Carolina passed a law against transgender-friendly bathrooms, the NCAA announced in 2016 that it would pull its college-basketball tournament from the state (and other companies withdrew their business, too).
Make no mistake about it, however. Though some corporate types are no longer quiet in what may in fact be a genuine endorsement of progressive social justice causes, many put their fingers in the air just to see which way the wind blows. As my friend Ryan Neugebauer observes:
Liberal Corporate Capitalism in its welfare-statist form seeks a stable society for profit generation. It doesn’t care what kind of families you have, who you have sex with, or what gender you identify with. All it cares about is profit generation. So, in the 1990s, a corporation could throw gays by the wayside when it was much more acceptable to be anti-gay and then do a 180-degree spin in today’s climate, with very pro-gay policies because the national opinion has changed. Profit determines values and actions.
Despite its general endorsement of conservative economic policies of lower taxes and fewer regulations, companies cannot bolster their bottom line by alienating more and more consumers through exclusion. Nor can they broaden the pool of cheap labor by opposing immigration. Still, even in today’s climate, by seeming to endorse a gospel of inclusion, many businesses are now alienating traditionalists. Just for noticing or marketing to marginalized groups, companies are being eviscerated by traditionalists as exemplars of “woke capitalism” and “woke corporatism”. This is not unusual. As I stated in a recent essay, “as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their ‘traditions’, they fight like hell — [even] passing laws and regulations — to keep them in place. But the very dynamics of the market society they claim to value are such that traditions are among the practices that are often brought into question. That’s one of the reasons that Friedrich Hayek himself proclaimed he wasn’t a conservative.”
A Digression: The Problematics of “Woke” and “Capitalism”
It should be noted that, throughout all these discussions, I am bothered by the problematic usage of such terms as “woke” and “capitalism”.
As I’ve argued before, the very word “woke” verges on becoming what Ayn Rand once called an “anti-concept” insofar as it entails some kind of “’package-deal’ of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context”. Indeed, at this stage, it has become a mere pejorative, which in the hands of its ‘opponents’ is used as a bludgeon against any legitimate social justice cause. So, the moment I hear that word coming out of the mouths of its ‘critics’, I know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s an all-inclusive four-letter word to denigrate anyone who is interested in addressing the historic marginalization of people because of their race, religion, belief, sex, sexuality, or gender.
But problematic terminology is not restricted to the word “woke”.
For nearly twenty years now, I’ve avoided using the word “capitalism” to describe the socio-economic system that I value. That word was coined by left-wing critics who understood the system’s history in stark contrast to the “unknown ideal” projected by its ideological defenders. As I reiterated in a recent essay, “just as the state was not born of a bloodless ‘immaculate conception’, so too, capitalism, ‘the known reality’, like every other social system, arose from a bloody history. It emerged through the state’s violent appropriation of the commons, enclosure, and mercantilist and colonialist expropriation.”
Libertarian defenders of capitalism have typically used various modifiers to distinguish their model from the historical realities: whether they call it “free-market capitalism” or “laissez-faire capitalism” or even “anarcho-capitalism” in contradistinction to state capitalism or crony capitalism, they project an ideal that has never existed. That’s problematic not only for its defenders but also for its critics. Its defenders can’t easily bracket out state intervention when the state has been so integral to the historic formation of the system. And its critics can’t easily bracket out state intervention when many of the ills of the system are generated by it.
Laissez-faire capitalism has never been, is not, and never will be. Granted, by any measure, state interventionism has increased exponentially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But not even the “Gilded Age” of nineteenth-century capitalism was absent such intervention. In virtually every industry — from transportation, energy, and manufacturing to the crucially important banking sector, it is big business that has led the march toward full-throttle corporate state capitalism, thru government subsidies, grants of monopoly, regulatory formation or capture, and a foreign policy of intervention abroad.
The economic instrumentalities of the system have always been organically intertwined with the politics of the state. It’s no wonder that theorists who focus on this area of study call it “Political Economy”. It has always been political. And it always will be.
The Importance of Markets
While capitalism has never provided us with free markets, or even freed markets, the importance of markets cannot be underemphasized. Markets long pre-date capitalism. But even within capitalism, at their best, they are conduits of human sociality. And for those who respect the value of “markets, not capitalism”, they can be useful, even virtuous, tools for the dissemination of social knowledge and the peaceful proliferation of exchange along a wide continuum of human interactions — whether through interpersonal, cooperative, or communal arrangements.
But if history has shown us anything, it’s that markets are not neutral. There can be markets in the slave trade, markets in human trafficking — all sorts of markets serving ends that no humanist can support. Markets are always embedded in historically specific cultural and structural contexts. This means that markets are shaped not only by the structures of politics and economics, but also by the cultures within which they function. Markets will tend to reflect the cultural attitudes of those communities they serve. If the dominant culture of a community places a high value on cosmopolitanism, markets will tend to reflect the tolerance and diversity that cosmopolitanism enriches. And if the dominant culture of a community places a high value on illiberalism, markets will tend to reflect the intolerance that such illiberalism breeds.
Because markets are not neutral, it should also be understood that market actors are not neutral. The idea that prior to “woke capitalism” companies were sashaying down the runway of nonpartisanship is laughable at best. Not saying a word is a political stance. Acting in ways that fortify “traditional” values is a political stance. Just because companies didn’t explicitly ‘market’ their products by slapping the colors of the ‘rainbow flag’ on them does notmean that they were being apolitical. If not rocking the boat helped corporations to sell products in states that had a history of segregation and Jim Crow or a history of criminalizing same-sex relationships and alternative lifestyles, their silence was a political stance. And sometimes, as in the case of Cracker Barrel and many other companies, corporate America regularly adopted policies of exclusion directed against marginalized groups.
The Proliferation of Identity Politics
Given that we have always lived in a political economy, and that markets are never neutral, why does it seem that we have reached a point in history where there is this vast proliferation of groups at war with one another? And why has this manifested with such virulence in identity politics?
On these questions, we can draw lessons from two of capitalism’s most vocal defenders: Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. It was Hayek who argued in The Road to Serfdom that as the state comes to dominate more and more of social life, state power becomes the only power worth having. This sets off a war of all against all, in which groups vie for political power at the expense of one another.
Rand saw further that this power struggle was endemic not only to political economy, but to the very genesis of the state, which was born from “prehistorical tribal warfare.” Political elites have historically perpetuated racial hatred, scapegoating and subjugating racial and ethnic groups to secure power. But “the relationship is reciprocal,” said Rand: Just as tribalism is a precondition of statism, so too is statism a reciprocally related cause of tribalism. “The political cause of tribalism’s rebirth is the mixed economy,” marked by “permanent tribal warfare.” In Rand’s view, statism and tribalism advance together, leading to a condition of “global balkanization.”
Since statism and tribalism are fraternal twins, as it were, and the “mixed economy” has always existed in some form, Rand argued that intensifying state domination of social life has an impact on every discernable group, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society “into warring tribes.” The statist legal machinery pits “ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting.” Her point here is a keen insight into the inexorable nature of social conflict. Given that these are the conditions that exist, given that “this is a society’s system, no power on earth can prevent men from ganging up on one another in self-defense — i.e., from forming pressure groups.” Got that? In self-defense.
Identity politics, which has proliferated since the 1960s and 1970s, has been characterized as “a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities.” Typically, “identity politics is deeply connected with the idea that some groups in society are oppressed and begins with analysis of that oppression.” But here’s the thing. An insidious form of “identity politics” has always been at work in this country. It began in this country as a tool of the oppressors, not the oppressed. It began with the “Western” conquest of indigenous peoples, the building of a slave economy, and, later, the tyranny of Jim Crow segregation. “Identity politics” was ensconced in this country’s constitution the moment it allowed states to count three-fifths of enslaved people toward their congressional representation. It was furthered even after slavery met its bloody end in the Civil War, when Southern states relied on Jim Crow laws and the KKK to subjugate, oppress, brutalize, and murder ‘uppity’ blacks who wanted to pursue their own rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
So, let’s not kid ourselves when we look at marginalized groups today as caught up in some kind of grand woke conspiracy to destabilize white, male, heteronormative elites. White, male, heteronormative elites were using their identity as the basis for political policies for more than 200 years before marginalized groups began to use political and economic means to redress power imbalances. In self-defense. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it does put things in perspective. It also helps us to understand why right-wing traditionalists are now using their power to reassert their historically privileged status.
That said — let there be no mistake about where I stand on the frontlines of the culture war.
I am on the side of those who have been marginalized and who are fighting against the encroachments of right-wing reactionaries who seek not merely to take away the hard-won freedoms of the oppressed but who are engaged in a cultural campaign against any semblance of “virtue signaling” on behalf of the oppressed.
Even if that “virtue signaling” takes place in the simple act of selling a rainbow-colored rocking chair during Pride Month.
Given my long-time association with libertarianism, I’d like to address, in this concluding section, the campaign against “wokeness” that has manifested in libertarian circles.
I have long identified as a dialectical libertarian. Indeed, given my own values as expressed here and elsewhere, I am a dialectical left-libertarian. For years, I criticized those right-libertarians who had fallen into the trap of reductionism: reducing all issues to the cash nexus or to questions concerning The State and The Market. Rand rightfully criticized libertarians for being oblivious to the role of culture in the struggle for human freedom and personal flourishing — for it is culture that typically engenders bottom-up social change.
Given my dialectical predilections, I appreciated the fact that by 1990, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, who had long believed in the sole necessity of a “nonaggression axiom” as the basis for a libertarian society, finally recognized that libertarianism could not succeed without a “certain cultural matrix”, which he called “Liberty Plus”. Those in right-libertarian circles who followed him have indeed placed greater emphasis on the importance of culture. But in doing so, they’ve embraced reactionary cultural norms.
The libertarianism that nourished me in the late 1970s and early 1980s welcomed cosmopolitan values. Today, right-libertarians have championed a stultifying cultural conservatism in their attempts at “Getting Libertarianism Right”. Mind you, it’s not just “right”, but “alt-right”: it is a vision that aims to build a stateless society based on such “Western” “family” values as hierarchy, white-male dominance, the segregation of the races, and the expulsion of “degenerates” (that is, those who identify as LGBTQ+).
As I argued in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, this vision of “Liberty Plus” will result in minus liberty. Hayek long noted that marketsevolve in ways that will challenge traditions. That is part of their dynamism. In an increasingly interconnected, global community, right-libertarians seek a society that will use private property as a tool to hermetically seal off their own chosen set of deplorables. They oppose state-enforced segregation and state-enforced integration, but their anarcho-capitalist vision of private property fiefdoms is based on the centrality of exclusion: the power to segregate, to separate, or to annihilate those whose values they deem as destructive to their bizarre vision of social order.
There is no foreseeable future in which such an anarcho-capitalist social order might be possible, let alone feasible. Hence, we are left with an obscenity far greater than the rainbow-colored rocking chair sold by Cracker Barrel or any of the Pride merchandise offered by Target.
When those who are supposed to be on the frontlines of the battle for a free and open society end up embracing illiberalism of the worst sort — and its war on difference, diversity, and tolerance — I can think of no more insidious way of undermining the struggle for human freedom and individual authenticity.