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Woke Capitalism & Decadent Republicans

On LGBT issues, Walmart's woke capitalists tells Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson what to do (Walmart screenshot)

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, proving once again that many Republican politicians are as useless as teats on a boar when it comes to defending anything culturally conservative (or sane), vetoed a sensible law that would have prevented body-changing surgeries or hormones for minors suffering from gender dysphoria. Back in 2015, after Woke Capitalism came down hard on the state of Indiana over its state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, forcing its repeal, this same Gov. Hutchinson saw to it that the Arkansas version of same was strangled in its crib. Walmart, which is super-woke, cleared its throat, and Gov. Hutchinson did its bidding.

I wrote The Benedict Option because I believe we are in revolutionary times, and are in fact living through the collapse of our culture and civilization, and that faithful Christians needed to figure out how to survive intact. A friend this morning texts to say his nominally conservative religious institution has suddenly gone woke. He sent this quote from Jacques Barzun’s celebrated 2001 doorstopper, From Dawn To Decadence:

The system was rotten. This had been said over and over; yet the old hulk was immovable. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist… .

Except a satirist of our decadence would find himself not published, or otherwise exiled for daring to mock the pieties of this revolutionary age.

I hadn’t thought of that Barzun book in ages. I pulled my dusty copy off the shelf and flipped through it. This passage caught my eye:

How a revolution erupts from a commonplace event — tidal wave from a ripple — is cause for endless astonishment. Neither Luther in 1517 nor the men who gathered at Versailles in 1789 intended at first what they produced at last. Even less did the Russian Liberals who made the revolution of 1917 foresee what followed. All were as ignorant as everybody else of how much was about to be destroyed. Nor could they guess what feverish feelings, what strange behavior ensue when revolution, great or short-lived, is in the air.


Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement, buildings defaced, imaged destroyed, shops looted. Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage — Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long since settled: talk of free love, of priests marrying and monks breaking their vows, of property and wives in common, of sweeping out all evils, all corruption, all at once — all things new for a blissful life on earth.

A curious leveling takes place: the common people learn words and ideas hitherto not familiar and not interesting and discuss them like intellectuals, while others neglect their usual concerns — art, philosophy, scholarship — because there is only one compelling topic, the revolutionary Idea. The well-to-do and the “right-thinking,” full of fear, come together to defend their possessions and habits. But counsels are divided and many see their young “taking the wrong side.” The powers that be wonder and keep watch, with fleeting thoughts of advantage to be had from the confusion. Leaders of opinion try to put together some of the ideas afloat into a position which they mean to fight for. They will reassure others, or preach boldness, and anyhow head the movement.

Voices grow shrill, parties form and adopt names or are tagged with them in derision and contempt. Again and again comes the shock of broken friendships, broken families. As time goes on, “betraying the cause” is an incessant charge, and there are indeed turncoats. Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea.

Here is the fuller passage from which my friend’s quote comes. In it, Barzun is talking about the Reformation:

What were in fact the things of the church’s “head and members” that people wanted to be rid of? First, the familiar “corruptions” — gluttonous monks in affluent abbeys, absentee bishops, priests with concubines, and so on. But moral turpitude concealed a deeper trouble: the meaning of the roles had been lost. The priest, instead of being a teacher, was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety, was an idle profiteer; the bishop, instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and businessman. One of them here or there might be pious and a scholar — he showed that goodness was not impossible. But too often the bishops was a boy of twelve, his influential family having provided early for his future happiness. The system was rotten. This had been said over and over; yet the old hulk was immovable. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label. A decadent culture offers opportunities chiefly to the satirist… .

That is us. Think of the roles that have been lost: husband and wife, family, even — and this is the chief sign of the depth of our disorder — male and female. Has there ever been a culture in all of human history that lost the ability to understand the gender binary — that is, what males are for and females are for? Yes, there are cultural variations in gender roles, but that’s not what we are talking about with us. We have deliberately thrown away the idea of the gender binary. We deny biology. We deny reality. This is being written into law.

The Republican governor of a conservative Southern state vetoed a law that would prevent doctors and families from permanently altering the bodies of children — including severing the breasts of healthy girls — in an attempt to turn them into what they cannot be: someone of the opposite sex.

Not Massachusetts. Not California. Arkansas. This, almost certainly because the industrialist class demanded it.

Yesterday I published a long letter from a Catholic father who said he and his wife did everything they could to raise their children in a healthy environment, but his adolescent daughter, egged on by a corrupt friend and a decadent culture, embraced disordered sexual identity as her own, and merged it with self-harm. He wrote to me and gave me permission to publish the letter because he has been poleaxed by his inability to protect his family from the demonic chaos of this dying culture, and he wanted readers’ advice. A number of readers said in the comments that the father is the problem. This, to me, is another sign of the deep decadence of our time. Let me say it clearly and without apology: this father is not crazy, and he is not alone. 

Despite what you have heard from people who have never read the book, the Benedict Option was never conceived as a head-for-the-hills mode of escape. There is no true escape from this. I was happy when Malick’s A Hidden Life came out, because I could point to it as an example of the Benedict Option. Franz Jägerstätter and his family could not escape the Hitlerian Antichrist, but they had been living in such a way prior to the advent of Nazism that when it arrived at last in their Alpine village, they could identify it for the evil that it was, and also knew what they had to be prepared to suffer to resist it. I mean for the Benedict Option to prepare us Christians to be like the Jägerstätter family. I would hope to be able to protect my family from as much of this chaos and vileness as I can, but I can’t expect to be able to shield them completely. The deeper goal is to protect their souls. Better to suffer, even to die, for the truth than to capitulate to the madness.

This is why the most important chapter in Live Not By Lies is the one about the willingness to suffer for the truth. There is no way around it. It is the total opposite of the middle-class mentality, which will do anything to maintain security, comfort, status, and prosperity — but that is why it is the one necessary thing.

The Benedict Option idea comes from that final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which bears repeating here:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. [Emphasis mine — RD] What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Is maintaining our current imperium something that moral people should dedicate themselves to? When not even a Republican governor of a culturally conservative state will stand against corporations and the media, to stand in defense of children threatened by the Idea — well, you tell me?

A reader writes:

Any serious concept of geographic separation as far as the US is concerned needs to take into account the marginalized status of anything approaching cultural conservatism in the 2021 United States. As seen by the general lack of representation in elite circles (not counting those who adopt such a stance for grifting or performative purposes), cultural conservatives are still politically influential but have generally speaking failed to cultivate the wealth, power, prestige, and influence that makes any kind of separatist gamble even remotely plausible. I would also note that we are also seeing a broader collapse of the coping myths that cultural conservatives told themselves, namely that they would outbreed the left over time and that the security organs of the state would still be on their side. As it now stands, there is absolutely nothing that US elites would like more than an excuse to further ostracize, stigmatize, and formally gatekeep against cultural conservatives as some kind of nascent threat, particularly white Evangelicals who are now even more hated for their unwavering support for Trump. This is why any separatist discussion is about as realistic as attempting to put a Stuart back on the throne in the UK, that ship sailed a long time ago.

As far as the convergence between woke capital and governance, what I think needs to be understood is that the Chinese communist critique of the baizuo [Chinese term meaning literally “white left”; meant as a term of derision for idiotic white Western elites — RD] left is basically correct: it uses cultural concessions to the left as a means of avoiding economic concessions and deploys identity politics as a poison pill against class consciousness, which is why areas where woke capital prevails such as the US superzips maintain a class stratification that looks increasingly like something out of the Third World between the elite and everyone else. Both woke and elite discourse are largely carried out on Twitter, which is not representative of the US population as a whole (if it were Joe Biden would never have been the Democratic nominee) but is extremely important to elite discourse. As soon as the propaganda that the Georgia voting law was the equivalent to Jim Crow, Twitter erupted and big business reacted, likely because all of their marketing and PR types who are woke true believers framed the situation in the most extreme and apocalyptic way possible.

This is an old story and one that has played out dozens of times because, as mentioned, they know that GOP outrage is just sound and fury. As it now stands, all that has to happen is for big business to clear their throat to the donor class and the GOP falls into line, whether or transgender issues or anything else. This is why expecting any cultural reversal in the current dynamic is unrealistic in the extreme, since even if by some miracle SCOTUS overturned Roe vs. Wade or some other hot button issue you would just see the corporate and donor class cave across the board to the left at the state level. Douthat to his credit recognizes this, which is something that is more or less ignored by many cultural conservative activists on the right:


The key issue is that right now cultural conservatives have big business, high (academic) and low (popular) culture, key institutions including the security state, and the elite credentialing mechanism and incentives structure all stacked against us. One can bemoan that state of affairs or you can change it and the mechanisms to do so are not some arcane secret, since they can already be readily observed or employed by other actors. You make a credible and sustained threat against big business and they will cave, just like most self-interested members of the US elite. The GOP leadership class does not possess a monopoly on spinelessness; very few members of our current elite class are prepared to undertake personal risk if their career and livelihood is threatened. The difference is that the left has successfully developed a broad infrastructure and support network to capture and hold key institutions, whereas the right has done no such thing and is largely concerned with performative antics, grifting, and owning the libs in the style of Trump. If the GOP is able to wring actual costs from big business over Georgia then that would be a step forward, but thus far evidence to this assertion has been extremely limited because you have to overcome decades of fusionism and libertarian creed that it is inappropriate for the state to take any action against big business under any circumstances. As long as you adopt a position of unilateral disarmament big business has absolutely no reason to take conservative threats or outrage seriously.

If there is going to be any meaningful resistance at all to the complete victory of the Cultural Revolution, it is going to have to come from political conservatives turning, and turning hard, on Woke Capitalism. In my view, that is not likely to be enough, but it must be done, even if it ultimately amounts to going down fighting.

If you are any kind of social, cultural, or religious conservative, you need to shed the illusion — right now, this very day — that Big Business is anything other than your enemy. From Live Not By Lies

The embrace of aggressive social progressivism by big business is one of the most underappreciated stories of the last two decades. Critics call it “woke capitalism,” a snarky theft of the left-wing slang term indicating progressive enlightenment. Woke capitalism is now the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice, because it unites progressive ideology with the most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.

In his 2018 letter to investors, Larry Fink, CEO of the global investment company BlackRock, said that corporate social responsibility is now part of the cost of doing business.

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Fink wrote. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

Poll results about consumer expectations back Fink up. Millennials and Generation Z customers are especially prone to seeing their consumer expenditures as part of creating a socially conscious personal brand identity. For many companies, then, signaling progressive virtues to consumers is a smart business move in the same way that signaling all-American patriotism would have been to corporations in the 1950s.

But what counts as a “positive contribution to society”? Corporations like to brand themselves as being in favor of a predictable constellation of causes, all of them guiding stars of the progressive cosmos. Woke capitalist branding harnesses the unmatched propaganda resources of the advertising industry to send the message, both explicitly and implicitly: the beliefs of social conservatives and religious traditionalists are obstacles to the social good.

Normie Republicans have to shed both the Reagan-era shibboleth that Big Business is our friend, and the Trump-era shibboleth that performative owning-the-libs is sufficient to fight this particular dragon. It might not be conquerable in the near term — but we at least have to prepare ourselves to endure occupation without losing faith.

UPDATE:The Arkansas legislature has just overriden Gov. Walmart’s veto. Good!

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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