Few would have guessed that in 2020 an alleged resurgence of ‘white supremacy’ in the United States would face condemnation from a plucky ice cream maker based in Vermont. Yet after a black man was killed in Minneapolis, Ben & Jerry’s issued a statement calling for an end to “a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black [sic] bodies as the enemy from the beginning”.
“Today, we want to be even more clear about the urgent need to take concrete steps to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms,” the ice cream maker said. It had four demands.
First, politicians must “commit our nation to a formal process of healing and reconciliation”. Second, a commission must be formed “to study the effects of slavery and discrimination from [an early slave landing in] 1619 to the present” and suggest remedies. Third, a national task force must be formed to draft legislation ending racial violence and increasing police accountability, with funding implications for the criminal justice system. Lastly, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division must be revived, reversing Trump administration policies that harm the rights of black and brown people.
Ben & Jerry’s programme is radical and the language saturated in social justice rhetoric, with the appropriate words capped up and a nod given to the New York Times‘ controversial 1619 Project, which seeks to reorient American history around a slave landing in Virginia. But why is a company most famous for cookie dough ice cream making such demands?
Some of you will have followed the spread of critical theory into mainstream discourse for some years, but 2020 has proved pivotal. Ben & Jerry’s might have been defending the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016, but corporate statements of support for the cause have never been so ubiquitous.
British companies based some 4,000 miles from where George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis have committed to paying reparations to black representatives to compensate for their founders’ involvement in slavery. “It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s,” said Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Greene King, a pub chain and brewer.
Jamie Dimon, chief executive of the financial giant JP Morgan Chase, was likewise pictured taking a knee in emulation of Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers who used the gesture to protest racist and police brutality at the start of National Football League games. ‘Woke capital’ has rarely been so explicitly represented.
Although some commentators have contrasted companies’ response to Black Lives Matter this year and previous ones, the evidence has long existed that companies are becoming woker. Diversity programmes for hiring, although often justified on business grounds, are political projects that many companies feel obliged to pursue. The rainbow flag of LGBT Pride has also become ubiquitous among big companies, with many restyling their logos or putting out limited run products during Pride Month in June. Although not every advocate of minority rights is impressed with the results, companies’ willingness to participate is evident.
Some business figures will believe in the woke agenda, advocating internally for such change out of sincere principle. However, given that most Western companies are governed by the profit motive, with shareholders, management and staff’s financial interests always being the priority, more cynical factors must also be at play.
Research from the communications firm Edelman over several years has shown consumers’ increasingly claiming to buy things based on companies’ positions on social issues. A survey conducted by the company in June 2020 showed that majorities across racial groups in the US would choose, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its politics. Similar results were found in an Edelman survey in 2018 across Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan and the United Kingdom, with “belief-driven” purchases more pronounced in poorer countries.
Such research backs up an intuition many companies have already drawn: not taking a political stand may prove a greater liability than remaining silent. This turns on its head the joke that basketball player Michael Jordan made about his apolitical stance during the 1990s: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Nowadays companies increasingly believe that appealing to people’s politics is a key part of selling shoes.
Academics have noted for a while that in many Western countries a new kind of segregation is growing, although not the kind that the Black Lives Matter movement rails against. The politically like-minded have increasingly been found clustering together, even beyond the familiar urban-rural divides that puts liberals in cities and conservatives in the countryside. The political analysis website FiveThirtyEight even produced a series of maps illustrating the phenomenon across many American cities.
The politicisation of companies – beyond their material interests in relevant legislation – risks creating a similar balkanising effect in how people interact with companies. Just as countries with sectarian religious divides have businesses catering to different denominations, the West could have businesses that cater to those with differing political views.
The launch of Parler as a competitor to Twitter is an example of such a phenomenon. For some rightwingers Twitter’s seeming progressive bias makes the platform inhospitable. Should enough people migrate, the median Twitter user will grow increasingly progressive and Parler emerge as a rightwing alternative.
There’s a case that this might not matter too much. British newspapers, which are essentially businesses (albeit of dubious profitability) take explicit political stances and attract a readership that reflects that, much as American broadcasters do. Although such business models attract their critics, there’s a case that they fulfil a vital if divisive political function.
Given that social media platforms are similar publishing tools a centre-right Parler and centre-left Twitter could work. Some would even argue that social media users already divide themselves politically on the same platform by deciding what content to engage with.
However, the case for political business is weaker elsewhere. Health implications aside there’s little political about Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches. What benefit to the consumer or the business is there in such businesses taking a view of police reform or gay marriage? And will boycotts prompt rivals to set up nearby touting similar products but the opposite political message?
That said, the notion of businesses taking opposing stances looks benign compared to the alternative of a political monoculture in business. The stampede by corporations to make woke declarations in the wake of Floyd’s killing suggests this isn’t an implausible prospect.
The stereotype used to be that businesses were dominated by conservatives and the arts by progressives. The latter still holds true, but does anyone believe that big business is still the preserve of social conservatives? Many of the signals coming out of American corporations and their copycats in other Western states suggests otherwise.
The shift must partly be linked to liberalising attitudes throughout the West. Companies are pro-gay marriage in part because their societies are pro-gay marriage. Likewise, engaging beyond straight white men can only increase a company’s potential customers. Even women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people buy sneakers, after all.
There is, however, a darker side to this trend. When Amazon plastered Black Lives Matter banners on its frontpage, its chief executive Jeff Bezos received some angry complaints. As he remarked when reposting these to Instagram, there are certain customers he is “happy to lose”. Given the tone of some of the complaints, the feeling was mutual.
In a free market such complainants can take their business elsewhere, in theory. In practice many industries are comprised of a handful of big participants. Customers may be left with the unappetising choice of indirectly supporting causes they are opposed to, buying a sub-standard product elsewhere, or going without.
The implications are worse when one considers employment. The sacking of software engineer James Damore from Google for his sceptical paper on diversity from July 2017 was an injustice for him personally. The unnoticed victims are those who agreed with him but felt obliged to keep quiet. Reports that in Silicon Valley conservatives hide their politics are all too plausible, and likely mirrored elsewhere.
Diversity in recruitment has long been sold as a boon to innovation by drawing on diversity of experience and thought. Political attitudes grounded in psychological differences are likely a better vector for diverse thinking than any of the protected characteristics the woke are so obsessed with. Ironically, political diversity may well be good for business.
Vote without your wallet
Yet the fundamental case for de-politicising business is that enforcing ideological conformity through economics is degrading to the human spirit. Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of politics are not good just because they allow us to progress; the ability to think for yourself and express those thoughts is good in itself.
Companies, crude instruments that they are, will continue to follow the money. Although it may be in citizens’ short-term political interests to pressure them into taking a stand on the issue of the day, the long-term consequences are bleak.
Although some issues are appropriate for companies to have a voice on – environmental regulations for oil companies, say – treating business as politics by other means is as pernicious as exploiting the courts to the same ends. We have processes to deal with politics; they should remain distinct from those for buying ice cream.