The Ugly Secret of Woke Capitalism

Here’s what’s truly alarming about the apparent success of Nike’s “woke” Kaepernick ad campaign, now emulated by Gillette. It’s not that businesses have discovered they can make money, not by appealing to all customers,  but rather by taking explicit political stands that only some customers love. It’s not even that these political stands, so far, seem to be overwhelmingly “progressive.” It’s that — well, Scott Galloway of ReCode’s “Pivot” hit the sore spot when he said the key motivating factor in this trend is that

“progressives are capturing the majority of the income”

You might expect politicized advertising to split the country in two, along familiar blue/red, lines.  Progressives would have their ads and deplorables would have theirs. But you would be wrong. The two sides in the politicized commerce fight aren’t equal. Trump may have won the Electoral College and come close in the popular vote — but the Resistance seems to be decisively winning the money competition (something anti-Trumpers obnoxiously advertised after the election with boasts about how Hillary voters came from the economically most dynamic parts of America, i.e. the knowledge industries on the coasts).

However undesirable or desirable it might be to have politicized conservative marketing that match the growth in Woke marketing, we’re not going to see it.  No checks and balances here. Woke has the wad. A dystopian world opens up, in which the losers in the global income inequality game — e.g. blue collar workers in ex-industrial states — find that not only has capitalism let them down, but capitalism’s formidable marketing machinery has suddenly been marshalled to drive home the message that, if they’re conservative (as many, perhaps most are) they’re, such second-class losers that American businesses don’t even want their money, whatever pitiful amounts they might have.

Think about the texture of this new society. The old 1950s ideal was that we were all becoming equals as consumers. “The rich man smokes the same sort of cigarettes as the poor man,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in 1952, “shaves with the same sort of razor, uses the same sort of telephone, vacuum cleaner, radio, and TV set, has the same sort of lighting and heating equipment in his house, and so on indefinitey.” This was always a bit of a fantasy — even Allen noted that there was still a status hierarchy among consumers. It’s just that everyone more or less agreed what the hierachy was, thanks to “the immense influence of mass circulation magazines, the movies, the radio, and television in imposing upon Americans of all income levels the same patterns of emulation:”

But even if you couldn’t make it up this accepted consumer ladder, you could be confident that the great commercial actors still wanted to sell to you–if only hamburgers, Chevrolets,  Jockey shirts, Converse sneakers,etc. That was a form of respect.. Your money still talked, even if it ordered Budweiser instead of Heineken.

But in the Kaepernicked future we won’t even have status anxiety in common. Will MAGA-hatters in the Midwest even aspire to do what the rich post-grads on the coasts do (spend $400 to hear Bono lecture them about the wall)? Meanwhile, their former suitors in the Fortune 500, the ones who used to try to sell them sneakers, are now telling them to go fuck themselves.

It’s a new species of social inequality , I think.  Progressives who believe in greater income equality have, perhaps inadvertently, succeeded in harnessing the increasing money inequality of the age — which has made them relatively rich– in the service of a profound, innovative form of invidious class scorn. It could get ugly.