Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Corporatism and Gay Marriage: Natural Bedfellows

The Left goes corporate as marriage becomes a consumer good.
gay marriage banner

One of the truer sayings that comes down to us is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Coalitions form and dissolve according to changing political winds and tides, and at times temporary partnerships are forged that are at best amusing, at worst, incoherent. The home-schooling movement has brought together anarchist hippies and conservative Christians; libertarians and social conservatives have spent some time shacked up together in their common animus against the activist liberal State; today, Catholics and evangelicals often find themselves manning the barricades against the HHS mandate. The list is long and sometimes amusing if not jarring.

One of the more remarkable partnerships that is least remarked upon today is the coalition that has formed around the effort to advance gay marriage—namely, left-leaning gay activists and corporations. If any political antipathy seemed to be permanent and unchangeable, one would have believed that it would be the Left’s hatred of the Corporation. Corporations, by the Left’s telling, represent almost everything that is wrong in contemporary America—crony capitalism, structural inequality, environmental degradation, worker indignity—in short, legalized immorality. Occupy Wall Street designated the corporation as Enemy #1, and the Left generally begins foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Citizens United as, effectively, a coup by corporate America against democracy.

Yet, generally unremarked upon has been the deep friendliness between the Left and corporations in the most burning issue of the day (according to the Grammy Awards at least)—gay marriage. It has been particularly noticeable to me as a recently transplanted Hoosier, given recent efforts to defeat the proposed amendment banning gay-marriage in Indiana by a combination of Left gay-activists and corporations. To the extent that the amendment has run into trouble, it has been arguably because of the concerted resistance not by the activist Left—who were always going to have limited traction with an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature—but corporations.

Here is what those corporations are saying: “A ban would tell talented workers to stay out of Indiana.” According to Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Indiana-based company Cummins, “If we have a climate in our state that makes people feel unwelcome in any way, we think that’s bad for Cummins, and we think that’s bad for business.” Similar arguments have been made by Nike in Oregon and General Mills in Minnesota. In New York, the push for legal recognition of gay marriage received major financial backing from some of the oft-denounced “wolves” of Wall Street—many of them prominent in conservative circles, especially Paul E. Singer, chairman of the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute. In Indiana, a coalition combining gay activists and corporations has been formed under the banner, “Freedom Indiana.”

In a period when the Left takes up the banner decrying “income inequality,” it should at least give pause to see them cozy up to corporate elites in support of their most darling issue of the day. Indeed, what is most striking is the not-so-subtle threat that is made by opponents of the Indiana gay-marriage amendment: if you pass this ban, talented people will leave, and even corporations will find it difficult to remain. The same threat that is often used by corporations to compel localities into watering down collective-bargaining powers, diluting environmental restrictions, crafting significant tax breaks and “sweetheart deals” is now being used by proponents of gay marriage to threaten the legislators of Indiana. A state struggling with high unemployment and a rust-belt economy can ill-afford to upset the Masters of the Universe.

Perhaps this is merely a marriage (no pun intended) of convenience, an instance of “strange bedfellows.” However, a deeper connection is discernible. Long before the current debate over gay marriage, modern capitalism required the redefinition of the family and marriage. Gay marriage is only the logical conclusion of a long process of the redefinition of marriage into a largely private, interpersonal bond whose main purpose is the self-actualization and personal fulfillment of the contracting individuals, to be made and remade at the convenience of both or even one of the contracting parties.

Marriage had to be redefined by the demands of the modern economy, no longer a bond between man and woman, each a part of intertwined extended families, embedded in a community rooted in multiple generations of memory, joined together as contributors to the future of that community by the generation of new life, bound by the self-sacrificial acceptance of debt to the past and obligation to the future. Marriage was not merely, and perhaps even not primarily, about the “love” of the two (or, increasingly, more) individuals—important as that certainly was and is. Rather—as the publishing of the “banns” indicates—it was the entry of a new family into the life of a community—and the community was thought to have a say in whether the marriage should proceed (“If anyone should have any cause….”).

To liberate individuals from such deep commitments to people, place, and generations, marriage had to be redefined in accordance with our self-conception as utility-maximizing consumers, free agents who are not permanently locked into any arrangements that might not prove to be continuously pleasing or rewarding (or, which forestall other, better arrangements). Defined today as one of our “rights” (rather than as part of our duty), marriage should be like a consumer good—something that satisfies us, in accordance with our desires. It does not partake of a moral and natural and communal and sacramental ecology. Rather, it is part of our dominant marketplace of choice, a marketplace extensively constructed by the modern economic realm, and in which the modern corporation flourishes. The Grammy’s showed modern marriage in its purest redefined form: the focus was on countless couples, unfamiliar with each other, before an assembly of total strangers and televised on commercial television which exists to sell things.

The modern corporation and modern marriage are born of the same philosophical roots: rootless individuals seeking self-gratification in whatever way they see fit, short of “harming” another. Marriage is just another consumer choice, with the added advantage of tax benefits (it’s especially interesting to witness the Left’s insistence on gay marriage as a means for wealthy, oft-childless homosexuals to avoid inheritance taxes. After all, U.S v. Windsor wasn’t about “love,” it was about money). Corporations thus defend gay marriage for the same reason (and using the same tactics) they seek to undermine unions, environmental regulations, and tax policy—most obviously short-term gain, but more deeply, a society that needs to be remade in such a way that short-term gain seems the only game left in town: a thoroughly mobile society devoted to personal satisfaction, composed of individuals whose relationships are fungible and who have no strong relationship to place, history, or the generations stretching between the past and the future.

When Dan Cathy, CEO of Chik-fil-A declared that he believed marriage was properly understood between a man and a woman, opinion makers decried that he was unnecessarily mixing moral judgments and business. One business journal advised that when dealing with a controversial topic like gay marriage, the preferred answer should have been “business and politics don’t mix.” However, in contrast to the circus-level attention that Cathy’s brief comments elicited—dealing with his private views—the political lobbying by Indiana corporations has hardly merited commentary.

This silence may be partly due to a double-standard on the part of media and today’s opinion elites, who favor gay marriage. But more likely, it reflects the deeper and far less discernible fact that the modern corporation and gay marriage arise from the same basic ethos: you are an individual, a consumer, and there should be no limitation on your pursuit of personal satisfaction, including obstacles in nature (biological or environmental) or morality (norms regarding sex or discouragements to greed). The ecology for both modern economics and modern marriage is one of untethered consumptive individualism. If a corporation speaks out against gay marriage, it is inappropriately mixing morality and business; if a corporation lobbies in favor of gay marriage, it is practicing good business. What we are seeing today in Indiana—as we’ve seen in many other States—is not an instance of “strange bedfellows,” but natural allies.

The Left likes to point to young people, who heavily favor gay marriage, as the embodiment of progressive worldview. But might it be that they are the first generation in human history almost completely shaped by a culture that is a creation of our incorporated world, which has almost wholly eviscerated nearly every existing local culture? Raised in a world in which they are not to judge, in which toleration easily shades into indifference, can we be really surprised that we are increasingly a society that officially sanctions the rule of the strong over the weak? The Left would once have blanched to be in bed with the corporate elite. But, with increasing clarity, it’s a marriage made not in heaven, but in America.