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This former tech CEO takes down woke capitalism but misses the point on wokeness

Where Roivant Sciences chairman Vivek Ramaswamy is right about woke corporations, and where he’s wrong about “wokeness” in general.

This former tech CEO takes down woke capitalism but misses the point on wokeness
[Photo: Woke, Inc.]
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It probably goes without saying that Jamie Dimon was doing allyship wrong. In the days just after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase tweeted a photo of himself taking a knee, Colin Kaepernick-style, in front of an open bank vault. The image might have made more sense were Dimon on both knees, facing the vault, ecstatic in prayer for a robust Q3. Instead, he was facing away from it, his face a latex mask of solemn concern, animated by his (and, ostensibly, JPMorgan Chase’s) urgent, nascent commitment to inclusion.

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Obviously, this macabre performance was a flop for many reasons. A New York Times report about blatant racism at JPMorgan Chase the previous year is only one among them. But while just about anyone could sense the deep-space emptiness of Dimon’s gesture, it’s fascinating to read a thorough unpacking of this kind of behavior from someone who occupies a neighboring tier of the financial stratosphere—specifically, the founder of a $7 billion biopharma company.

[Photo: Woke, Inc.]
Vivek Ramaswamy, the brains behind Roivant Sciences, is a self-proclaimed class traitor. Back in January 2021, he resigned as CEO from his thriving company, citing a desire to speak freely about the climate that produced Dimon’s photo op, with no repercussions for Roivant. (He has since become a regular op-ed writer for the Wall Street Journal and a Fox News contributor.) This pivot toward punditry has now produced Woke, Inc., a just-released book that harnesses its author’s insider perspective to explain why corporations that pick up social justice causes like TikTok dances are not merely tacky, but actively harmful for society. The book is brimming with insights about the current state of America, although not all of them are intentional.

Ramaswamy sees the broad corporate outpouring of support toward social justice last summer as a pivotal example of “stakeholder capitalism.” This term, used interchangeably throughout the book with “woke capitalism,” represents the idea that each corporation isn’t beholden merely to its shareholders, but rather to everyone who might be indirectly affected by its actions or inaction. This concept became officially enshrined as corporate status quo with Fortune’s fall 2019 cover story, about the adoption of stakeholder capitalism by Business Roundtable, an association of nearly 200 VIP CEOs.

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The summer of 2020 may have marked the pinnacle of this philosophy in action, but companies have been increasingly aligning themselves with social justice causes over the past decade, especially following the 2016 election. Despite being widely mocked, a 2017 Pepsi ad in which Kendall Jenner solves racism with carbonated syrup seemed to only further ignite the trend of morality-based marketing. Ramaswamy singles out WeWork, for instance, as “a decent real estate leasing business,” whose owner inexplicably describes his company’s mission as “elevating global consciousness.”

HBO’s hit Succession lampooned this trend of cutthroat businesses cloaking themselves in lofty language a few years ago. In an episode from the series’ first season, Kendall Roy (a surrogate Murdoch scion played by Jeremy Strong) meets with a startup called Dust that claims to “increase the reach of young artists and the democratization of art.” Kendall quickly and correctly diagnoses the company’s actual mission, which is buying paintings from struggling art students and jacking up the price. (In a twist that Ramaswamy would appreciate, Dust eventually turns down Kendall’s investment offer because being financially yoked to a Roy would make their hustle too obvious, breaking kayfabe.)

The problem goes deeper than obfuscating descriptions, of course. Setting aside the ridiculous notion that anyone would choose one asset manager over another based on the company’s professed beliefs around social justice, Ramaswamy notes how often such declarations are rendered moot by a company’s actions. Around the same time that Uber was committing to being “an antiracist company” last summer, for instance, it was also aggressively lobbying for Prop 22 in California, which exempts Uber from treating its drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. This move is an example of what Ramaswamy calls a “do-gooder smokescreen,” where corporations declare a new moral imperative just as their ethical deficits need deflecting. He notes that when Goldman Sachs announced in early 2020 a new policy of taking companies public only if they have at least one “diverse” board member, the financial giant was embroiled in scandal over helping to steal $5 billion from Malaysia. It may have been a tad too convenient to be a coincidence.

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Other times, Ramaswamy’s issue isn’t with what companies choose to denounce while behaving unethically, but rather what they simultaneously choose not to denounce. For instance, despite Airbnb throwing its weight behind stateside social justice, the company has remained silent about extreme human rights abuses in China—a country with whom Airbnb happens to have done serious, data-breaching business. As Ramaswamy mentions, a host of other companies in league with China—including Apple, Disney, and the NBA—help “lend a silent moral authority to all the CCP’s oppressive acts” when they speak up for domestic causes but keep quiet about Uighurs in internment camps. Even when companies do take the odd moral stand on the global stage, like Uber snubbing its Saudi investors in 2018, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it tends to be only a temporary stand.

Ramaswamy’s main beef isn’t with corporate disingenuousness or hypocrisy, though, but rather with corporations inclined to interfere with politics. The author cites as insidious threats to democracy Big Tech’s crackdown on Donald Trump following the Capitol Riot in January, along with companies boycotting Georgia over its new voter restrictions shortly afterward. He also sees John Kerry whipping up pledge money from banks to put toward climate action as the Democrats’ way of circumventing the system to pass their agenda. (What would the banks be getting in return, Ramaswamy wants to know; a fair question.)

The author’s arguments are far more convincing, however, when supporting his spot-on analyses of corrosive corporate duplicity, rather than the big-picture conclusions he draws from them—which arrive filtered through a Fox News funhouse mirror.

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Reading between the lines in Woke, Inc., Ramaswamy often seems more concerned with so-called wokeness itself than with woke corporations. First of all, the term woke is both too narrow—he defines it as “obsessing about race, gender, and sexual orientation”—and too broad, in that it also apparently refers to obsessing about climate change and voting rights. Everything liberals are known to be in favor of can seemingly be flattened into another facet of wokeness. Considering the author’s, uh, liberal use of woke, it’s odd that the term systemic racism is too amorphous for him to take seriously. “Personally, while I believe racism exists and should be eliminated, I don’t believe in ‘systemic racism,'” he writes. “In fact, I don’t even know what it means: to me, it sounds like a catchall phrase designed to allow political leaders to escape accountability for solving real-world problems like poverty and failure in education.”

According to the author, systemic racism is so far from the realm of real-world problems, it’s not even worth learning what activists mean by it. Therefore, anyone professing to be concerned with systemic racism is either running a scam or hopelessly duped by one. The book ultimately places woke consumers’ in the latter category.

It’s insulting to suggest that Americans only care more about social justice issues recently because corporations want them to, rather than the other way around. But as Ramaswamy sees it, the idea that “consumers are demanding it and [corporations] are just giving them what they want” is “often just a hollow excuse to justify top-down power-grabbing by influential executives and investors.”

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According to what, exactly? His hunch? To pick apart just one example, the companies who boycotted Georgia over its voting restrictions earlier this year were caving in to pressure from activists and concerned citizens, not inciting it.

The author appears to overestimate how much sway corporations hold over the general public’s core beliefs. Did liberals “widely praise” Jamie Dimon’s kneeling episode, as Ramaswamy claims, or did some of them do that while many others rolled their eyes? Does he really think that everyone who is concerned about things like over-policing and redlining also uncritically loves corporations? Woke, Inc. certainly reads that way.

“Companies like Airbnb would never command the blind allegiance of naïve American users by simply selling a humdrum product,” he writes. “That’s why they douse it in morality.”

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Airbnb has almost certainly touted social justice causes disingenuously to some success, but the idea that Airbnb only succeeded because of its wokeness, rather than because it exploits people, is a rentable bridge too far.

The problem with railing against whatever one considers to be woke is that it can easily lead to anti-wokeness, which is just sneering at anyone trying to make any kind of positive impact. Ramaswamy flirts with anti-wokeness throughout his book. Not only does he consider AstraZeneca’s 2020 pledge of $1 billion to combat climate change a wasteful act of virtue-signaling, he considers the U.S. government’s later pledge of $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine efforts the fulfillment of a quid pro quo. Would he have preferred the pharma giant not be funded for vaccine research during a global pandemic? More to the point, just because Al Gore personally reaped massive rewards from his climate change advocacy doesn’t mean everyone invested in finding solutions is only in it for prestige and profit.

Even if they were, though, the end result would be the same: More money for a cause that’s existentially important.

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The underlying truth about virtue-signaling is that the difference between a truly virtuous person and someone disingenuously acting like one—in terms of impact—is often negligible. Some companies align themselves with social justice for indefensible reasons, as detailed above, and they should ideally stop. But if a company senses where the public is going and cynically panders to us by, say, using more interracial and LGBTQ couples in its ads, well, even if one doesn’t believe that representation matters, being pandered to is part of the American experience, and it means being taken seriously as a demographic.

Ramaswamy engages with this discrepancy at one point in his book. Early on, he explains why the Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street is a cynical, manipulative form of pandering, only later to be shocked when a woman claims she was nevertheless inspired by it. “That’s exactly the bargain that corporations offer you with woke capitalism: accept the way they profit from your ideals because they’ll help spread them,” he writes. “The bargain did good things for her. I just wish they could’ve done them in a better way.”

There’s no easy way for corporations to be truly virtuous, nor is there an easy way for consumers to navigate the crowded field of impostors who claim that’s what they are. For consumers just trying to do the right thing in an evolving world, the expression, “No ethical consumption under capitalism” should be a comfort when a company they have supported falls short, not a defeatist excuse to abandon ethical choices altogether.