Reflections on Corporate Wokeness after Davos

With recent comments on the virtue signaling of wealthy participants in the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, I thought of going back to a commentary of mine from April two years ago.  I was reacting to “wokeness” as a long-hoped for awakening of moral sentiments that would “transform” capitalism into goodness and well-being for all.

Then, I was not convinced that “wokeness” would do any good at all.  I wrote:

For the Caux Round Table, the germane question has thus become: should wokeness be integrated into moral capitalism?

I have been thinking about this for some months now.  I wrote a first draft of this commentary on Christmas Day, 2020.  My considered answer is that, no, wokeness cannot be aligned with moral capitalism.

One of the carols I was listening to that day asserts: “God today has poor folk raised and cast adown the proud.”

Wokeness is a prideful, moralizing narrative about good and evil.  Like many narratives, first and foremost it serves the interests of the narrator.  In a sense, it hews to that peculiar American Calvinist tradition of the Jeremiad – prophetic voices predicting doom for sinners and salvations for true believers.  As in the Old Testament, revered by early Calvinists, prophets are tellers of narratives.  They spin a story of walking in God’s ways and never straying from his purposes, with woe to befall all those who fall short of his righteous demands.

Back in 2021, my conclusion, drawing on the political philosophy of the influential Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was:

For long term stability, any governing class needs its ideology, its narrative, to be accepted by the governed.  And so, for the future of the U.S., we must determine whether the woke narrative is credible or whether it is just another Rousseauist general will, a tale told by some narrator.  Whether it proceeds from the moral sense or from somewhere else in the human repertoire of social intermediations?

Last November, a senior executive at a successful American corporation, Jennifer Sey, published a book on her experience with “wokeness” and her resulting disdain for moralizing and canceling others.

In an excerpt from her book, published in the New York Post, she wrote:

“Woke capitalism” is corporate America’s attempt to profit off Millennial and Gen Z activism, often passive keyboard activism.  It exploits social-justice politics and transforms it into social-justice consumerism — and ultimately, investor profit.  Companies purporting to care about “progressive values” are really doing nothing more than striking a superficial pose meant to signal virtue while distracting from any company’s true motive: financial gain for shareholders.

You can read the full excerpt here.

I think we can be more seriously and prudentially just than mere “wokeness” can ever provide.  Moral capitalism can only make sense if it is grounded in the fullness of reality.  Self-serving personal narratives just don’t cut it when it comes to achieving social justice.