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The Woke Capitalism Grift

If you say nice things about progressive causes, your corporation can shield itself from criticism over its business practices

I gotta hand it to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning matriarch of The 1619 Project. She’s doing very, very well thanks to Woke Capitalism. If Shell Oil pays her to lead “emancipation conversations” about race in America, it buys lots of goodwill from nice liberals who might otherwise look askance to Shell’s global business practices.

Here’s where that image above came from:

The World Socialist Web Site has been hell on Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project because it regards the project as a massive distraction from the problems of class and economic exploitation. In their essay about NHJ’s collaboration with Shell, Trévon Austin and Bill Van Auken write:

Hannah-Jones’ appearance in Texas was sponsored by the Houston-based Shell Oil Company. This is the US subsidiary of the oil and gas corporate giant Royal Dutch Shell, which is confronting international public outrage over its involvement in massive human rights abuses in the African country of Nigeria. The focus of protests has been Shell’s collaboration with the Nigerian government in the suppression of the Ogoni ethnic group. The company currently faces multiple court cases over its complicity in the murder of thousands, including the Nigerian dictatorship’s hanging in 1995 of the well-known Ogoni writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Hannah-Jones is unsparing in her condemnation of the moral failings of the democratic revolutionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries. She can barely contain her contempt for those who failed to leap out of the historical epoch in which they lived and embrace the rhetoric of 21st century middle-class identity politics. But the unforgiving code of ethics she imposes upon the historic figures of the past does not seem to apply to herself. Her own personal moral compass does not seem to be in working order.


The crimes committed by Shell in Ogoniland did not occur in the 18th, 19th or even the early decades of the 20th centuries. This is a contemporary event and an ongoing crime. Shell is now on trial at a court in The Hague, charged with complicity in murder, rape and burning down villages by the Nigerian regime. The plaintiffs are the widows of four of the nine Ogoni leaders who were hung after being falsely convicted by the dictatorship’s sham tribunal. Shell fought an earlier attempt to try the company in the US all the way to Supreme Court, where the case was thrown out on jurisdictional grounds.

A report by The Guardian published on February 12, 2019 quoted Mark Dummett, a researcher at Amnesty International, who stated that the widows of the executed Ogoni leaders “believe that their husbands would still be alive today were it not for the brazen self-interest of Shell.” The trial, Dummett continued, “is an historic moment which has huge significance for people everywhere who have been harmed by the greed and recklessness of global corporations.”

The oil giant is facing a second criminal prosecution in the Netherlands on charges of bribery and corruption for its part in handing out $1.1 billion that went into the pockets of Nigerian politicians and middlemen to secure lucrative offshore drilling rights.

Read it all. 

I’m certainly not a socialist, but that crew of socialists understands clearly how culture war is often a front for class war. Say something nice about The 1619 Project, and your corporation can blackwash its reputation for cruelty and exploitation in Africa. I’m sure NHJ was well paid for her speech, as she should have been; there’s nothing wrong with being paid for your words, as anyone who makes a living through writing and speaking will attest. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with giving a speech before an audience at the behest of people whose politics you may not share, as long as you speak what you know to be true.

But the World Socialist Web Site is not wrong about how Shell Oil is using NHJ and the 1619 Project. This is what Woke Capitalists do. They colonize progressive causes by donating to them and publicizing them, with the hoped-for effect of silencing criticism from the left. Jesse Jackson was a master at exploiting this grift back in his heyday. Almost twenty years ago, I wrote about his Wall Street Project and its left-coast offspring, the Silicon Valley Project, which was ostensibly about getting more blacks into the finance and tech industries, but which had the miraculous effect of raising money and status for the Rev. Jackson. As I wrote in the NYPost back then:

It’s long past time for corporate heads to smoke out the real Jackson, a shakedown artist who squeezes millions from businesses by, in effect, offering them protection against bad, race-based publicity. His Wall Street Project is supposed to encourage financial firms to be more open to minority employment and opportunities.

Its Web site brags that it “helps determine corporate targets who should be trading partners” – that is, supporters.

“Targets”? “Should be”? They’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse. Jackson has the same scam going out west – the Silicon Valley Project.

From sea to shining sea, only T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, has had the courage to stand up to Jackson.

When Jackson came calling, hat in hand, Rodgers rebuffed him, saying Silicon Valley had nothing to be ashamed of regarding its diverse work force.

The response? A Jackson ally told the press, “We can now officially describe Cypress Semiconductor as a white-supremacist hate group.”

Got it? Cross Jesse Jackson, and find your company likened to the Ku Klux Klan. No wonder so many CEOs are scared.

“I don’t care if he screwed somebody. I care about whether or not he’s running a scam for his own benefit,” Rodgers told me.

To be fair, I have no reason to believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones is doing the Jesse Jackson thing now. I think that she and other progressives ought to be aware, though, of how their activism is being co-opted by corporations. If the only thing she cares about, or if the thing she cares the most about, is the state of black people in the US, then maybe it’s worth it, in an un-cynical way, to get major corporations to buy into her project. But as the WSWS observes, it’s not particularly in the interest of black people in the parts of Africa where Shell Oil does business.

And once again, it is way past time for conservatives to understand that Big Business is no friend of ours. One of the points I bring out in my forthcoming (9/29) book Live Not By Lies is that woke capitalists are agents of left-wing social transformation, and will eventually ally with the government to administer the pink police state. As I write:

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.

The awakening of conservatives to the fact that Big Business mans the biggest guns in the culture war — and that they are pointed right at us — is something that needs to happen, and happen fast. May Live Not By Lies hasten the red-pilling of the Right.

(Readers, I am going to be on the road for most of Monday, traveling for business. Please be patient with my approving comments. And as ever, please realize that the Disqus mechanism routinely marks as spam comments that I have approved. Don’t assume that I have spiked your comment. Just do note as much in a subsequent comment, and I will go into the spam folder looking for it when I have the time.)



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