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20 October 2021

The goodness business: how woke capitalism turned virtue into profit

No corporation is without its ideals in the new “emoticonomy”. But what do companies want with their new moral authority?

By Will Dunn

On the morning of 7 April this year, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, published his annual letter to shareholders. The head of America’s largest bank reflected on “the brutal murder of George Floyd and the racial unrest that followed” (the week after Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Dimon was among the first CEOs publicly to take the knee, while visiting a branch in New York) and described how the bank was “fully engaged in trying to solve some of the world’s biggest issues – climate change, poverty, economic development and racial inequality”.

Later that day, Dimon and the board of JPMorgan Chase published another document, their proxy statement to the bank’s annual shareholder meeting. In it, Dimon and his board recommended voting against proposals aimed at helping make the changes he had claimed to support. One called for the bank to undertake a racial equity audit; another asked that it review its practices on political lobbying. Neither proposal was passed. The statement also revealed that Dimon – whose letter had opined, a few hours earlier, that the “fault line” in his fractured country “is inequality” – is paid 758 times the median American income.

For a company to say one thing and do another is hardly new. But in the past year, the contrast between the virtues espoused by businesses and the real activity from which they make their money has become so stark that it has reached a kind of breaking point.

The workplace has become politicised as never before. On the work-focused social network LinkedIn, 188,000 people describe their job as “activist”. There are more activists than there are midwives, historians, orthodontists or scriptwriters. In the past year employees at Apple, the world’s most profitable company, have broken their strict code of silence with letters that demanded the sacking of an employee who had written a novel they considered sexist, requesting a public statement in support of the people of Palestine, and protesting a policy asking that they return to office working. Google – a company founded with the motto “Don’t be evil” – is now engaged in a legal battle with workers who say they were sacked for protesting against its work with US border control.

To ask for ethics from a corporation is like expecting a scalpel to have a sense of humour: it is a mindless tool, the design of which is wholly at odds with such expectations. But it would not be fair to say that the workers of Apple or Google were naive. People have not suddenly become more sensitive or more gullible. But they have, for decades, been told by the managerial class that the companies to which they give their time, their energy, their ideas and their money exist for a higher purpose than simply making a profit.

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In many organisations, this is affirmed at board level by a chief impact officer or “impact partner” (Harry, the Duke of Sussex, holds both titles, for the coaching company BetterUp and the asset manager Ethic). Such moral agency must also be communicated to consumers; the PR company Edelman identifies “cause marketing” – taking a position on an issue wholly unrelated to your business – as one of the more effective ways to shift units.

For some, this is as a corruption of capitalism’s true purpose. When Dimon and other Wall Street CEOs were called before the Senate Banking Committee in May, the Republican Tim Scott complained that banks were taking political positions on issues such as Georgia’s new voting laws, opponents of which say restrict the voting rights of people of colour. “Woke capitalism,” Scott said, “seems to be running amok throughout the financial institutions of our country.” In the same week, the group Consumers’ Research launched a seven-figure advertising campaign that targeted the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Nike and American Airlines for “putting woke politics over consumer interests”.

But arguing that capitalism should be unfettered and amoral is itself a political position. No business is without its ideals in the new “emoticonomy”. This is not a circumstance created accidentally by political parties, activists or workers, but deliberately, by businesses. It has been going on for some time.

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After the end of the Second World War, companies in the US and Europe made use of low interest rates to launch a long period of acquisition, using cheap debt to make offers other companies’ shareholders couldn’t refuse. This allowed some companies, especially in the US, to grow rapidly into large conglomerates. But because antitrust legislation prevented such businesses from buying up their competitors, these conglomerates were strange, many-tentacled beasts; the telecommunications company ITT bought hundreds of companies in the 1960s, diversifying into hotels, schools, houses, timber, bread and make-up.

The apparently rapid growth of these new corporate giants was attributed to the genius of the captains of industry who oversaw them, men such as James Ling and Harold Geenen. But this scale was bought with bonds and debentures – with debt – and this debt demanded efficiency. The great conglomerates faced the problem of persuading tens of thousands of people to be loyal, hard-working employees of a giant, faceless holding corporation.

[see also: The woke capitalism of Apple and Amazon makes hypocrites of us all]

The solution was found in work that had begun in the 1920s at Harvard’s School of Human Relations. As Gillian Tett explains in her recent book Anthro Vision, companies such as Western Electric had begun employing anthropologists to listen to their employees and understand their working culture and social relations. Building on the theory of “scientific management” developed before the war by the engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor and the growing field of industrial-organisational psychology, corporations realised there was money to be made in understanding how their employees felt.

In 1953, the American economist Howard R Bowen published Social Responsibilities of the Businessman, in which he introduced the idea of corporate social responsibility – the need not only to respect the rights of those inside the business, but also to avoid causing harm in the wider world. This idea was controversial at first – to Bowen’s colleagues at the University of Illinois, it reeked of socialism, and he was forced to resign in 1950 – but it proved useful to the new corporate titans. Employees of huge conglomerates could now be united by popular values, such as patriotism and a sense of contributing to wider socio-economic progress.

These ideas were spread by the growing class of professional managers. From a handful of students at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania in 1908, the “Master of Business Administration” (MBA) programme spread across American, European and Asian universities in the second half of the 20th century, until by 2008 more than 100,000 MBA graduates were entering the workplace each year.

At the same time that moral managerialism was taking over the world, the political parties to which people had once looked for moral guidance were gradually running out of credibility. In the 1960s, half of British voters knew immediately which side they’d take in a general election. By 2018, just 9 per cent of the electorate identified as strong supporters of any political party, according to a report published by King’s College London’s Policy Institute. But people had not become uninterested in politics itself: issues, causes and projects were now their focus.

In his short film Oh Dearism, the film- maker Adam Curtis traces the rise of issue-based politics back to the 1967-1970 Biafran War and the charitable appeals that followed. TV news and events such as Live Aid, he argues, simplified complex crises such as famines and civil wars, removing their political context and presenting them as little more than natural disasters. But while political parties vacillated, unable to respond in equally simple terms, businesses began to claim the moral high ground. No sector was more committed to this transfer than the rapidly growing companies of Silicon Valley.

Man on a mission: as CEO of Apple Steve Jobs inspired in his employees a sense of purpose. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 1983, John Sculley gave up his job as the youngest ever president of Pepsi when a 28-year-old Steve Jobs asked him: “Do you want to sell sugar-water the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” When Sculley repeated this anecdote to me, 30 years later – he has repeated it many times – the excitement in his voice was still audible.

What Jobs had offered Sculley was something no benefits package or equity share could ever match: a sense of purpose. In the decades since, Apple has hired thousands of the world’s most talented workers with some version of this promise.

In September 2009, the British advertising executive Simon Sinek spoke at an event in a ballroom in a suburb of Seattle. He began by asking the audience why Apple was so successful, how Martin Luther King came to lead the civil rights movement and why the Wright brothers were first into the air (as if these were all comparable achievements, made by similar people).

“I made a discovery,” Sinek said. “There’s a pattern. All the great, inspiring leaders and organisations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way.” On a flip chart, Sinek then drew a circle – “the golden circle” – and in the middle he wrote the word “Why”. The secret to success was not efficiency or inventiveness but vision: “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief?”

Sinek’s talk has been watched more than 50 million times. The reason for its popularity is not that it’s true – it is the magical bullshit of the professional speaking industry – but because it tells the managerial class that it can (like Steve Jobs!) summon the vision necessary to propel companies to greatness. It will be that vision, not the people in the factory, on the sales floor or in the delivery vans, that is the difference between failure and glory.

This idea is fundamental to Apple, Google, Facebook and the other companies of Silicon Valley, which are built on the idea that “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation”, as the 20th-century sociologist Max Weber put it. Such companies see social, environmental and political issues, from climate change to racial inequality, as equations to be solved by the genius of a gifted few. Google’s “moonshot division”, Google X, says it aims to use technologies such as machine learning and robotics “to solve some of the world’s hardest problems” and “improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people”. (It also happens to generate thousands of valuable patents per year.)

The billionaire CEOs of these companies are presented as saviours of the human race. Mark Zuckerberg wants to “cure all disease”; Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates want to address the climate crisis; Elon Musk wants to establish human colonies on Mars in case Jeff and Bill’s plan doesn’t work. The former CEO of WeWork, Adam Neumann, claimed that the purpose of WeWork was not to sublet office space, but to end world hunger, to “elevate the world’s consciousness” and to give all 150 million of the world’s orphans a family.

These people are not scientists, doctors or aid workers. They are MBA graduates, selling targeted advertising, web hosting and office space. But as Sinek made clear, there was no longer any need for a business’s real activities to have any connection to its mission.

This mindset allowed Andrew Bosworth, a vice-president at Facebook and creator of the social network’s News Feed, to tell the “ugly truth” about his company to his colleagues in a 2016 memo. “All the work we do in growth is justified… the subtle language that helps people stay searchable… the work we will likely have to do in China,” he wrote. “Anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

As Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang described in their book on Facebook, An Ugly Truth, this view allowed senior Facebook employees to ignore the crises their company was creating. The managers of Silicon Valley do not need to think about what their companies are doing now; to do so would be a distraction from their real business of changing the world. Any technological (and financial) advancement is to them inherently right because it represents progress.

The Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has expanded this position over several books, including Compassionate Capitalism (2004), The Business of Changing the World (2006) and Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change (2019). He has campaigned against discriminatory legislation in Indiana and Georgia, and for greater support for homeless people in San Francisco. At the same time, Benioff has amassed a personal wealth more than 80,000 times the American median, and Salesforce has used legal measures to minimise its tax payments: over the last three years, the company has made $4.1bn in the US and paid no US federal tax whatsoever.

Executive megalomania extends, in subtler forms, across the whole managerial class. People who once saw themselves as selling trainers, beer or IT services now consider themselves the leaders of “mission-driven” companies, solving the world’s problems.

In recent years the idea has spread that moral authority can be assumed not only by a company or its C-suite, but by capital itself. This idea was codified in a letter sent to hundreds of business leaders by Larry Fink, the co-founder and CEO of the US investment firm BlackRock, in 2018.

BlackRock invests more than $9tn of other people’s money, and its risk-management platform, Aladdin, is used to manage a further $25tn. It is the largest shareholder in many of the world’s companies. After reminding the CEOs that BlackRock’s clients “are the true owners of your company”, Fink explained in his letter that governments were “failing to prepare for the future”, and that “society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges”.

Carl Rhodes, a professor of organisational studies and author of Woke Capitalism (due to be published in November), says Fink’s letter was a turning point: “He’s not talking about their core business activities. He’s saying this is an additional responsibility, which exists above and beyond that.” Fink, arguably the world’s most powerful CEO, was instructing companies that the sense of purpose essential to modern managerialism had now spread to capital markets. Securities would be priced against virtue.

But the growth of investments rated against environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria does not actually entail the “real commitment to green growth” Rishi Sunak said was needed in his Budget speech in March, any more than buying a Tesla will propel humanity to other worlds. Governments, for all their talk about a “green industrial revolution” (Sunak again), have left it to banks to make rules on what counts as ESG.

The result is, to pick one product, the $244m GIF Global Lower Carbon Equity fund, which states its mission as “reducing carbon exposure” but invests, according to its most recent filings, in coal mines and coal-fired power stations (through AGL Energy and Origin Energy), oil and gas drilling services (through Maersk), and mining (Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto). Its biggest holdings include Microsoft, Amazon and Google, all of which are decarbonising their own companies while supplying billions of dollars’ worth of cloud computing and machine learning services to the oil and gas industry, helping companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell increase production and unlock new deposits.

Many other ESG funds contain investments in BP, which in 2018 claimed to be drilling the Arctic “to support the global energy transition” (it has since sold its Alaskan assets), and Altria (owner of Philip Morris), a “tobacco harm reduction company” that sells more than 200 billion cigarettes per year.

Again, this is about progress. Just as Silicon Valley’s sense of mission persuaded the world that mass surveillance, limitless consumerism and the monetisation of private space were progressive innovations, the moral capital flowing into oil and tobacco companies allows them to argue (with straight faces!) that they are the ones best placed to fix the crises they created.

In the last ten years, Google searches for the term “imposter syndrome” have soared as millennials have ascended to the managerial class and exchanged work that has directly observable results for administration and strategy. In the US and UK, managerial and administrative jobs have grown faster than other areas of the economy. As the late anthropologist David Graeber wrote in his 2013 tirade against the make-work of the modern economy, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working”.

This sense of corporate uselessness is pervasive. In 2019, a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that almost a quarter of the UK workforce thought their job made no useful contribution to society. Seven million people in this country see no point in going to work, other than to make money.

At the same time, the cost of entering the white-collar workplace has risen precipitously. In 15 years the average level of student debt (at the point of repayment) has more than quadrupled, from under £10,000 to over £40,000. Apprentices, too, pay heavily for their training: the minimum wage for an apprentice is £4.30 an hour. Entry-level workers must contend with much higher costs of living, stagnant wages and competition from others who can afford unpaid internships.

Despite these challenges, Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, says it is not the case that an angry new cohort of woke youngsters has arrived to disrupt the workplace. Duffy says there is “not massive evidence that social purpose is a particularly strong, or new, driver for current younger generations… in terms of what they want from employers. There’s interest in social purpose from all generations.”

What has changed, says Duffy, is the attention paid by businesses to social issues, and with it, the emergence of an “industry of lots of consultants and trainers who focus on micro-differences between generations, devoted to pretending that major generational divisions exist in the workplace”. It is not so much that younger generations demand more from the workplace, but that the visionaries of the managerial class must be seen to understand the future. In the absence of unions, which now represent less than 14 per cent of private-sector workers, it has become much easier for a company to make disputes appear the fault of restive young snowflakes.

“You don’t see corporations arguing for an increase in the minimum wage,” says Carl Rhodes. “You don’t see corporations arguing for an increase in corporate taxation, so that society can provide better schools and hospitals.” There may be limited demand for wokery from employees, but for companies, says Rhodes: “It shifts attention away from economic differences… and works to sever the connection between the political and economic.”

What does woke capitalism want? Beyond the brand value generated by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “passionate performance of virtue”, there is a greater prize at stake.

Last month, five of America’s largest financial institutions, including BlackRock and Goldman Sachs, announced plans to use a new questionnaire when buying municipal bonds – the securities issued by states and local governments to raise money for public hospitals, policing, libraries and transport infrastructure. The questionnaire asks whether elected representatives are “willing… to engage with investors on issues regarding racial equity… on an ongoing basis”, and requests data on police officers’ behaviour.

This programme is still being developed, but it could lead to a situation in which financial institutions decide which cities or states can raise money for public works based on their politics. Executives will decide if a population is morally deserving of new school buildings and water systems.  

For such power to be handed over, something essential needs to change, and there is evidence that this is happening. Every year since 2000, Edelman has released its “Trust Barometer”, a global report on attitudes to government, business, NGOs, charities and the media. The 2021 report, which surveyed more than 33,000 people in 28 countries, found that in a year in which governments have raised trillions to fight a global pandemic, it is businesses that have gained credibility. Respondents were more likely to believe a statement from their employer than their government, and when asked which group they trusted “to do what is right”, respondents chose CEOs over journalists, religious leaders or those in government. Business is the “only institution seen as both competent and ethical”, the report states, and the “only trusted institution”.

The final section of Jamie Dimon’s letter to his shareholders is a 19-page section on “public policy” – not the specific policy that regulates the banking sector, but the whole of government. It is a presidential address, Dimon’s vision for his country – a country that has for too long been run by politicians. “Frankly, we punted too much of the responsibility to our government,” he writes. “Few of our institutions are blameless.”

The embarrassing mismanagement of the world around us – the Brexit shambles, the Trump years, the failure to act upon the climate crisis – presents a moment for business to take on the moral agency of government itself: and the power that comes with it. For companies that already straddle the globe, this is where further expansion lies, because they are still, for the moment, much smaller than the states they inhabit.

When Jeff Bezos, then the world’s richest man, took the first commercial passenger flight beyond the Kármán line and into space this year, he did so in safety and luxury, to widespread disdain. Six decades earlier, Alan Shepard made the same trip, in discomfort and the knowledge that his rocket stood a good chance of exploding; he returned a national hero. That 60-year gap, and the risk Shepard was prepared to take, is the difference between the state and private enterprise, between being transacted with as a company and being loved as a nation. And that is the real objective of woke capitalism: faith, and the authority it confers.

[see also: The spirit of the age: Why the tech billionaires want to leave humanity behind]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West