Facing Wokeness in the Workplace
In April, Jason Fried, CEO of the tech firm Basecamp, announced strict limits on “societal and political discussions” in the workplace. He also canceled certain benefits that he described as “paternalistic”—incentives for employees to exercise and shop at farmers’ markets, among other things. “It’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviors,” Fried said. In recent months, executives at Coinbase, Google, and Facebook have made similar moves.
These efforts come in response to the waves of employee activism inspired by the rise of #MeToo and the death of George Floyd. For some time, being a member of one of the professions has required publicly professing (or quietly conforming with) a set of moral, political, and quasi-religious beliefs. Anyone who openly dissents—say, by claiming that men cannot become women, or that racial disparities are not per se evidence of discrimination—risks being accused of creating a “hostile work environment.”
But now some executives seem to think that this sort of corporate politics has gone too far. Just as liberal regimes seek to reduce sectarian conflict by removing religion from politics, these men hope to reduce political division by decreeing the workplace an apolitical space in which clashing moral visions are checked at the door.
Any act of resistance to the woke ascendancy should be applauded. But opponents of wokeism are mistaken if they imagine that work can be separated from politics. First and most immediately, such neutrality is not permitted by civil rights law, which backs up many of the demands of progressive activists.
More fundamentally, humans are political and religious animals. Even those who do not go to any church or belong to any party will tend to identify with some greater cause, some larger community. Neither their material interests nor their moral dreams can be cordoned off from the worksite. Certain behaviors will always be encouraged and others penalized. Certain rites and ceremonies will take place, be it a Pledge of Allegiance before shareholder meetings (a practice that Ralph Nader once championed) or a corporate float in the Pride Parade.
Emile Durkheim argued for the inevitably political nature of work in a preface to the second edition of The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1902. In ancient and medieval society, Durkheim observed, professions had been organized into bodies that carried out political and religious functions. The striking parallels between these bodies made Durkheim believe that they met basic human needs. He expected something similar to occur in industrial society.
Medieval guilds, with their religious and political as well as economic aspects, were relatively well known. Durkheim showed how they fulfilled functions once performed by the professional corporations in Roman society. “Above all else,” Durkheim writes, “the corporation was a collegiate religious body. Each one possessed its own particular god, who … was worshipped in a special temple.” These bodies functioned as a “great family,” offering their members what might be called paternalistic benefits, including parties, free food, and common burial.
Durkheim thought that some moral and political structuring of economic life was especially urgent in his own time, when revolution and industrialization had swept away many of the forms that once structured European life. Something similar could be said today. Americans are much less likely than their parents to socialize with neighbors or participate in civic groups. Only 47 percent of Americans belong to some house of worship, down from 70 percent in 1999. Trust in government is likewise in decline, down from about 75 percent in the late ’50s to about 25 percent today.
Workplaces have gone woke not just because of passionate employees or intrusive laws, bothersome as those can be. Workplaces have absorbed the political and religious passions that lack other outlets in our society. For professional class Americans, the office is becoming the arena in which to exercise the rights and duties once associated with citizenship. As a writer for the Verge observed, “The US government has become staggeringly unresponsive to its citizenry. … Meanwhile, corporations—particularly big US tech corporations—tend to be very responsive to their workforces, courting their feedback regularly and using it to improve the operations of the company. And so the worse that the government performs, the more that workers ask of their employers.”
Efforts to keep politics and morals out of the workplace will not succeed in any nation or age, but they are particularly foolhardy in the America of 2021. Instead of seeking to banish politics from work, then, opponents of the woke ascendancy should ask what a healthier workplace politics might mean. Their answers will no doubt differ. But any new settlement will require more than a change in symbols and beliefs. It will require a change in economic forms.
Diversity, inclusion, and equity are elements of a managerial ideology. They empower a class of bureaucrats with an ever-expanding remit to seek out invisible but pervasive biases. People who find these ideas misguided and destructive will have trouble rooting them out unless they can substantially change our managerial regime.
Envisioning how this might occur is not easy. But such an outcome is less improbable than the idea of a workplace free of politics. Not just because laborers, managers, and owners have material interests that coalesce and clash, but because humans are the sort of animals who unite around common symbols and shared beliefs.
North of my office, a skyscraper is going up. From one of the beams, workmen have hung a gigantic Stars and Stripes. Like the Pride Flags that adorn so many nearby bars and cafes, it is a reminder that men today, no less than their medieval and ancient counterparts, will mix their work and politics.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things magazine, and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.