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Corporations Will Never Lead the Movement for Justice

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One reason, I think anyway, that so many people look to corporations as places of activism today is that the government is immobile and social movements are weak. So putting corporate pressure on evil actors seems effective. Around the margins, it can be. But a corporation is inherently a very conservative institution and the kind of reform it is going to work for is going to have very sharp limitations. After all, Republicans buy shoes too.

One movement that has leaned in heavily for corporate activism is the queer rights movement. Here there’s an additional reason, which is that there are plenty of wealthy queer people who may not be that liberal otherwise. But, as Joanna Wuest notes in a lengthy Boston Review piece, it’s not really a very effective strategy if you want real change.

There was nothing terribly unusual about South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s recent decision to bar trans girls from participating in sex-segregated sports. After all, Noem has become a darling of the most socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. Prior to taking office in 2019, she had been an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage; since then, she has spoken multiple times at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and has sought to “crack down” on her state’s abortion providers.

What was unusual was how long it took Noem to back the restrictive legislation. In 2020 and 2021, the governor faced fierce opposition from the state’s business elite, many of whom cautioned that a strident stand against transgender rights might invite destructive boycotts. Regional chambers of commerce warned that laws banning sports participation would alienate Amazon just as it was set to expand its operations; cities, too, might lose lucrative contracts with sports associations like the NCAA. The state’s largest health care network, Sanford Health, opposed another proposed bill that would criminalize transition-related care for trans youth. Some of Noem’s closest staff warned that going too hard and too fast on the issue could elicit the same business backlash that had doomed previous attempts to curtail LGBTQ+ rights by governors such as Indiana’s Mike Pence in 2015 and North Carolina’s Patrick McCrory in 2016. Noem’s reticence incited fury among conservative media figures who scandalized the fact that her chief of staff and advisors were affiliated with businesses that opposed the legislation. Despite the outrage, pressure from the business sector hindered the legislation. Unlike Governor Ron DeSantis’s willingness to punish Disney for the company’s opposition to an anti-LGBTQ+ state law, Noem was cowed by economic threats. She moderated and balked for two years.

Of course, this trend of corporate activism is not confined to queer rights or even progressive causes. Following Georgia’s enactment of anti-voting rights reforms in March last year, a group of over 100 business executives organized a business blockade against similar endeavors. In the fall of the same year, Match Group CEO Shar Dubey announced her opposition to Texas’s anti-abortion SB8 legislation. At the same time, right-wing counterreaction has itself been a highly coordinated corporate affair. The interest groups and media outlets that advance assaults on queer rights, reproductive health, and election law—including The Federalist and the Alliance Defending Freedom—are bankrolled by shadowy industrialists like Charles Koch and Betsy DeVos, who see a benefit in scapegoating minorities en route to larger power grabs. This libertarian-traditionalist alliance has grown steadily over the past half-century. Since the dark money floodgates were opened in 2010 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, such right-wing business activism has swelled.

How is it that dueling associations of economic elites came to hold such sway over civil rights, and what do these struggles over “woke capital” portend? In our era of diminished democracy, capitalists of various ideological stripes play the most prominent role in nearly all political developments. As the strength of the trade union movement and mass membership in civic organizations have depleted, political power has been consolidated among wealthy individuals and industrial leaders who now hold the reins of U.S. democracy. For individual firms and business associations like the Chamber of Commerce, championing a range of liberal causes is lucrative. On the other side of the aisle, billionaire libertarian ideologues and their avatars in government, such as DeSantis, have discerned that such economic motivations can easily be undone—that what look like robust pledges to uphold the principles of diversity and social equality are actually thin commitments based on investment calculations.

This harsh reality does not mean that business support for social justice is any less meaningful when it does deliver on civil rights. Of course, a substantive policy change such as a more inclusive antidiscrimination law that protects a person’s ability to put food on the table and remain in one’s home is something entirely different than a Wall Street firm holding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops. The incessant debate over whether one or the other is more “real” or “authentic,” however, is an argument based in obfuscating abstractions—a “mystification.” They are both the products of a capitalist class that largely determines the country’s policy landscape (which can have positive or deleterious effects for minority rights) and an ideological manner through which that class rationalizes the current state of affairs—i.e., the notion that, historic rates of economic inequality aside, we are steadily moving toward a more just society if 7 percent of boards of directors identify as LGBTQ+ to reflect their estimated proportion within the American population.

What the ongoing corporate conflict demonstrates most of all is the long defeat of working people’s movements for social change, and their substitution for a business-backed one that does little more than provide some—albeit vital—benefits on the margins. As such, the last thing one should do is ask whether these developments are a net positive or negative for something that is amorphously gestured to as the “political left.” That fact is essential for comprehending the promise and peril of business defenses of civil rights.

One thing I like about this piece is the clear vision that authenticity is irrelevant–it’s not that the corporate moves on these issues are meaningless. They do have meaning. They are just incredibly limited and lead to no wide-reaching change. Only bottom-up social movements can do that.

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