Don’t Buy Into Woke Cap­i­tal­ism

On the Pit­falls of Per­for­ma­tive Ally­ship and “Eth­i­cal Buy­ing”

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Phoebe Pan­nier The Mcgill Daily

con­tent warn­ing: sex­ual abuse

Afew weeks ago, The Mcgill Daily pub­lished an ar­ti­cle about “woke cap­i­tal­ism,” or the prac­tice of ap­peal­ing to con­sumers seek­ing the so­cial cap­i­tal that comes from be­ing so­cially aware. This ar­ti­cle will con­tinue that con­ver­sa­tion.

Cap­i­tal­ism is a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in which pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions, rather than the gov­ern­ment or the work­ers, con­trol in­dus­tries and the means of pro­duc­tion. In the­ory, this does not seem in­her­ently neg­a­tive. How­ever, in prac­tice, cap­i­tal­ism al­lows for busi­nesses to be vir­tu­ally un­re­stricted when it comes to the treat­ment of their em­ploy­ees. While most Western coun­tries have laws pre­vent­ing cer­tain hu­man rights abuses, cor­po­ra­tions’ con­trol over the in­dus­try gives them un­due po­lit­i­cal sway in how laws are writ­ten. Labour laws there­fore con­tain loop­holes that al­low for ex­ploita­tion re­gard­less. All ma­te­rial con­sump­tion in a cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety plays into this sys­tem of ex­ploita­tion. While there are brands which truly are less ex­ploita­tive than oth­ers, their mere ex­is­tence as for-profit cor­po­ra­tions hurts marginal­ized peo­ple.

Fac­to­ries are of­ten lo­cated in Ma­jor­ity World coun­tries, where pop­u­la­tions, and there­fore em­ploy­ees, are not white. Through sys­temic op­pres­sion, racial­ized com­mu­ni­ties over­seas end up co­erced into per­form­ing cheap, ex­ploita­tive labour un­der cap­i­tal­ism. Even within Mi­nor­ity World coun­tries, the in­sti­tu­tional racism in­her­ent to cap­i­tal­ism cre­ates ex­ploita­tive labour through poverty wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions which are ex­em­pli­fied in sweat­shops. As peo­ple of colour in the West are not af­forded the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as white peo­ple, they are of­ten over­rep­re­sented in un­der­paid and dan­ger­ous types of jobs.

Fur­ther­more there has been a trend in re­cent years of com­pa­nies per­form­ing ally­ship and “woke cap­i­tal­ism” in or­der to suc­ceed eco­nom­i­cally. Cor­po­ra­tions have re­al­ized that the qual­ity of their prod­ucts has be­come less sig­nif­i­cant to cus­tomers due to the sheer num­ber of sim­i­lar re­tail­ers in the mar­ket. In or­der to stay com­pet­i­tive, they po­si­tion them­selves as su­pe­rior to the other, less-eth­i­cal brands. They have rec­og­nized that peo­ple are speak­ing out against sys­temic in­jus­tice, es­pe­cially en­gag­ing with fem­i­nist rhetoric and they have re­branded them­selves as “woke.”

The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is Nike, who has hired Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivist Colin Kaeper­nick as their new spokesper­son. Kaeper­nick’s slo­gan is “Be­lieve in some­thing. Even if it means sac­ri­fic­ing ev­ery­thing.” But Nike’s sup­posed ac­tivism hardly con­sti­tutes sac­ri­fice; on­line or­ders of their prod­ucts rose 27 per­cent com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year. Mean­while, they have not ad­dressed al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights abuses directed against them. As re­cently as 2017, the Fash­ion Trans­parency In­dex gave Nike the low­est pos­si­ble score due to the poverty wages they pay their work­ers. Be­yond be­ing un­der­paid, Nike’s labour­ers in these Ma­jor­ity World coun­tries have also been sub­ject to in­hu­mane work­ing con­di­tions, such as work­ing in 37°C heat dur­ing ten-plus hour shifts, six days a week. In many cases, this has led to se­ri­ous health con­se­quences for these pre­dom­i­nantly racial­ized work­ers, who are of­ten work­ing un­der pre­car­i­ous short-term con­tracts and can­not file re­ports against their em­ploy­ers with­out los­ing their jobs. Yet Nike’s rev­enue con­tin­ues to rise as a di­rect re­sult of their per­for­ma­tive ally­ship.

Many other brands have also par­tic­i­pated in woke cap­i­tal­ism, sell­ing clothes with mes­sages which are not re­flec­tive of their ac­tual hu­man rights records. For­ever 21 has been ac­cused of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and trans­pho­bia. Yet, For­ever 21 is cur­rently sell­ing over a hun­dred dif­fer­ent rain­bow-printed items. And no, their de­sign­ers don’t just like rain­bows. Search “LGBT” on their web­site and you’ll see ev­ery­thing from skinny women in rain­bow-striped thongs to skinny girls in rain­bow shirts that say “girls for the fu­ture.” Rec­om­mended for me is a t-shirt which reads “What I want / what I really really want / is equal­ity” and iron­i­cally costs more in “plus” sizes than in smaller sizes.

Re­brand­ing cor­po­ra­tions as “woke” has been taken fur­ther by brands such as Fem­i­nist Ap­parel. The com­pany ex­clu­sively man­u­fac­tures prod­ucts fea­tur­ing catchy fem­i­nist slo­gans, such as “pizza rolls not gen­der roles” and “men of qual­ity re­spect women’s equal­ity.” They use pop­u­lar sym­bols, such as the pride flag and Rosie the Riv­eter, which have been adopted by young ac­tivists. The web­site clearly states that con­sent is “clear, con­scious, and en­thu­si­as­tic,” and that we should “talk about con­sent.” How­ever, the com­pany’s founder and CEO must not be a man of qual­ity; he is an ad­mit­ted sex­ual abuser. When con­fronted and asked to re­sign by his em­ploy­ees, he fired them all with­out no­tice or sev­er­ance. Be­yond this bla­tant dis­re­gard for em­ploy­ees’ rights, Fem­i­nist Ap­parel showed that when forced to choose be­tween ethics and profit, they chose profit. This isn’t an iso­lated in­ci­dent, for-profit cor­po­ra­tions can­not, by def­i­ni­tion, pri­or­i­tize any­thing over their rev­enue.

Do the peo­ple who buy these things know that they’re sup­port­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing the very in­jus­tices they claim to op­pose? Do they care? Most con­sumers of “woke” clothes are priv­i­leged enough that they don’t need to worry about how their things are made, who they’re made by, and what im­pact their pur­chase has on the lives of oth­ers. “Ac­tivism” that uses money to buy fem­i­nist shirts and LGBT Mac­book stick­ers while not en­gag­ing in anti-op­pres­sive prac­tices is just per­for­ma­tive ally­ship. Af­ter all, per­form­ing wo­ke­ness is the eas­i­est way to achieve “good per­son” sym­bolic cap­i­tal, and doesn’t re­quire much time, en­ergy, or de­sire to ac­tu­ally create change. The fail­ure to rec­og­nize the in­her­ent ex­ploita­tive and per­for­ma­tive na­ture of woke cap­i­tal­ism not only com­mod­i­fies ac­tivism, but also per­pet­u­ates cy­cles of op­pres­sion. Ac­tu­ally par­tic­i­pat­ing in ac­tivism, how­ever, re­quires both phys­i­cal and emo­tional labour.

Yes, the use of young peo­ple’s ac­tivism by cor­po­ra­tions as a new way to make profit is wrong and should be ac­knowl­edged. How­ever, while ex­ist­ing in a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, ev­ery­one can make choices that com­bat cap­i­tal­ist ex­ploita­tion. Ow­ing to priv­i­lege, it isn’t fair to ex­pect ev­ery­one to make the same less-ex­ploita­tive choices, but no one is en­tirely pow­er­less. You can buy things used, you can use trad­ing groups on Face­book to get rid of things you don’t need in ex­change for things you do. If you have to buy some­thing new (I just don’t want used un­der­wear and I can’t shame any­one for feel­ing the same), do your re­search about which brands you choose. There will never be eth­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism, and con­sumers need to rec­og­nize that and take their im­pact into con­sid­er­a­tion ev­ery time they buy any­thing. Giv­ing up and just buy­ing a cheap tee with a pseudo-fem­i­nist slo­gan is cer­tainly not a so­lu­tion.

Fur­ther­more there has been a trend in re­cent years of com­pa­nies per­form­ing ally­ship and “woke cap­i­tal­ism” in or­der to suc­ceed eco­nom­i­cally. “Ac­tivism” that uses money to buy fem­i­nist shirts and LGBT Mac­book stick­ers while not en­gag­ing in anti-op­pres­sive prac­tices is just per­for­ma­tive ally­ship.

Nelly Wat | The Mcgill Daily

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