Economics, Features, Politics

How the Social Justice Movement Fuels Corporate Capitalism

Before diving into a topic I’m sure will prove controversial, I want to start by clarifying that, as my other articles or my book Modern Sexuality can attest, I am very much pro-social justice. This piece is about how social justice has gone off the rails and been co-opted by capitalist or, dare I say, corporatist influences. Secondly, I am not anti-capitalist, in the sense of individuals having free rights to produce whatever product or service the market demands and receiving a fair price in return. Rather, I am opposed to unfettered, corporatist capitalism in which corporations create monopolies and influence politics and culture mainly to serve their business interests.

Lehman Brothers headquarters, New York City

With that out of the way, let’s go back to the fall of 2008 to examine how the social justice movement lost its way. On September 24, then-President George Bush made a special appearance on TV to warn the American public that the economy was on the verge of collapse. Several weeks prior, investment bank Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy, producing a domino effect and taking the rest of the financial industry down with it. On September 26, just two days after Bush’s live address, Washington Mutual also declared for bankruptcy. A few days later, the stock market collapsed, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 770 points. On October 6, global markets collapsed as well.

From the ashes of this economic catastrophe, the newly elected Obama administration bailed out the banks with tax payer dollars, passed some watered-down regulations that could only scratch the surface of preventing a repeat outcome, and appointed to his cabinet the same Wall St oligarchs who had almost tanked the entire economy. In the end, not a single bank oligarch was prosecuted.

Occupy Protestors in Oakland, 2011

On September 17 2011, a group of activists coalesced in New York’s downtown Zuccotti Park to protest the lack of government and Wall Street accountability. This gathering came to be known as Occupy Wall St and branches subsequently formed in many other metropolitan areas around the world. In this milieu, memes such as “The Ballerina and the Bull” and “We are the 99%” were created. Let’s take a look at the second of these, “We are the 99%.” Notice the key word “We.” This inclusive message finds distinction in only one category—class. For it is only class that separates the 1% from the 99%. Occupy Wall St, initially completely ignored by the media, then gained some early momentum before withering and dying in the following bleak winter months.

Issues such as unfair tax structures, government welfare towards banks and corporations, a lack of protection for the common citizen, and gaps in the social safety net are all social justice issues. But somehow, in the following years, these issues have seemingly disappeared from the public conscience. Instead, social justice discourse now revolves around ideas of privilege that focus on race, gender, and sexual orientation—in short, everything but class. Is this a coincidence? Somehow an anomaly? Of course, we as a society must address concerns around racial and gender-based discrimination, but is it reasonable to assume that the children of Barack Obama and LeBron James are less privileged than the children of an unemployed white coal miner in West Virginia? Certainly, privilege is intersectional, as an individual may encompass a number of identities. But why no mention of class? When poor and lower-middle class individuals voted for Brexit and Trump, parts of the media responded with accusations of a “white lash.” But why no accusations of a “poor lash,” or “class lash”?

Turn on any mainstream news outlet and you will hear a clear and consistent narrative of a country polarized along racial and gender lines, but almost no mention of the role of class. Instead, the very wealthy 1% in the media, academia, and government (all fields dominated by members of the upper class) are also the most eager to embrace this new version of social justice.

Feminist blogs such as Jezebel have emerged in the years following the 2008 banking collapse

Indeed, a polarized nation is exactly what a corporatist economy wants. It sells clicks online, eyeballs for television advertisers, and enough division and self-hatred to create an entire cadre of willing consumers, seeking to medicate themselves with conspicuous consumption. A message of 99%, on the other hand, is unifying. It creates cohesion, cooperation, and positive validation, and it turns the spotlight on those pulling the strings behind the curtain. But discussion of class privilege is dangerous, and must be curtailed at once. Race and gender privilege, by contrast, are quite safe to the powers that be, as they “Occupy Minds” rather than Wall St.

Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of The Times Magazine

I’ll go a step further and state that the current version of the social justice movement is mainly a convenient and useful vehicle for our corporatist system. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, advises women to “lean in”; this is how her book of the same title advises women to succeed in their careers. In her view, feminism is equated with corporate success. But what if some women (or men) don’t want to buy into the corporate system? Feminist Susan Faludi has criticized Sandberg for “encouraging women to promote themselves individually as ‘marketable consumer object[s]’ for professional advancement.” The wage gap is often brought up as a key example of female oppression, but studies show this gap is mainly due to female workplace choices (types of jobs, hours worked, etc) rather than systemic bias. It is telling that a key talking point of gender-based social justice revolves around corporate success.

Feminist Camille Paglia, in her new book Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, criticizes the “elitist garbage” and condescending attitudes toward the blue-collar lower class prevalent in academic circles. These academics happily focus on male privilege, even as they snark at those who plow the snow, fix ruptured sanitation pipes, and wash skyscraper windows. Paglia finds no humility or appreciation, let alone any empathy, for individuals doing dangerous jobs that make the lives of the wealthy easier. In the remote world of academic elites, class privilege isn’t considered important.

Best-selling author Nassim Taleb has written in a similar vein about what he calls the “Intellectual Yet Idiot.” These idiot intellectuals are the 1% in the media, academia, and government who advocate for policies that may adversely affect the rest of the country, and do so from a position of comfort and privilege and without having to worry about the consequences. On issues like international trade agreements or immigration policies or crime and discord in urban communities, these modern-day aristocrats have “no skin in the game.” Instead they are happy to denigrate the lower classes as ignorant buffoons—the “basket of deplorables” to which Hillary Clinton infamously referred.

In this way, the 1% has found a very effective strategy to maintain and reinforce its privilege. Intersectional privileges, while important, are secondary to class privilege but they drum up enough internal division to distract from the original goals of the social justice movement. In this way, the 1% is no longer the enemy; they are the friends and benefactors of all downtrodden people around the world. The enemy is other poor and disenfranchised people.

Keep bashing “the system” while blogging on your expensive Apple laptop in Starbucks and continue your social media advocacy on publicly traded Twitter. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the elite get a hall pass because they are “woke.” Is it any wonder that the Far Left (and I’m saying this as a liberal) voted en masse for the most corrupt corporatist politician of all time, Hillary Clinton? She said all the right things, who cares if she took $20 million from homophobic, misogynistic countries like Saudi Arabia? I’m not saying Trump is any better, and many of his ideas are truly dangerous, but I don’t believe he would have won if the Democrats hadn’t trotted out a corporatist shill. (What happened to Bernie?)

In many ways, the current Democratic Party is a coalition of two very separate, but now oddly unified forces—social justice and corporatism. As a society, we deserve better than that. We deserve real justice, the kind that is both progressive and unifying. Based on people. Not corporations.

 

Michael Aaron is the author of Modern Sexuality: The Truth About Sex and Relationships, and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Visit his website at www.drmichaelaaronnyc.com and follow him on Twitter @MichaelAaronPhD.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the author of "Modern Sexuality: The Truth About Sex and Relationships," and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Visit his website at www.drmichaelaaronnyc.com.
Michael Aaron
Filed under: Economics, Features, Politics

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Michael Aaron is the author of "Modern Sexuality: The Truth About Sex and Relationships," and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Visit his website at www.drmichaelaaronnyc.com.

20 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. The net effect is just more distraction from meaningful economic change.

    That said, the right wingers here are going to get all fired up and call you a statist.

  2. I am a Christian conservative and I support your arguments. The treatment of the poor and lower class has become in this country is a worldwide disgrace! It is essential to adopt measures that foster the common good not the ‘individualism’ of the wealthy elites. The various Catholic Social Encyclicals, starting with Pope Leo XIII, to Francis outline a holistic and genuine social justice approach.

  3. AJ Butler says

    It is critical to recognize the symbiosis here. Social Justice warriors constantly envision a more-involved state enforcing the social justice norms and supporting the underprivileged. Corporatists are happy to support this as long as the government borrows to pay for it rather than directly taxing the elites.

    Elitist capture of government is not the same as pure capitalism. Capitalism works for all classes. Capitalist principles are invaluable to understanding life. However consumerism is NOT a capitalist principle. It is the antithesis of capitalism. It does creat an inefficiency that capitalists can easily exploit.

    If kids were actually drilled on capitalist priciples in public schools, the whole system would break down. But instead they are taught the principles of biology and chemistry and told “get a job so you can pay your car loan and mortgage and still afford nice things.” Which isn’t capitalism.

    • I don’t agree on your vision of capitalism because the capitalism you think exists does not and may never have existed. The logic of capitalism is that there is no higher value than money/wealth and, as Margaret Thatcher quipped, there is “no such thing as society.” This is not only an immoral concept by all traditions it is scientifically about as valid as saying the sun revolves around the earth. However, we can agree that freer markets would help us a lot and I’m in favor of that. Currently we have, basically, a variant of monopoly/crony capitalism where corporations use Congress and other bodies to write regs and laws that limit competition. I believe in a mixed system but one where the obvious political power of corporations is sharply limited. As a small businessman I can assure you we are at a steep disadvantage in competing with corporations.

  4. An attractive bit of speculation that also rings true. It begs the question: Is everything really controlled by a cabal or junto?

    Clearly, one of the least discussed problems with globalism and the new world order is the question who will speak for those being governed if the prosperity of the governing class absolutely depends on the governing class being able to act like the “The Taxman” and enforcing the rule “one for you and three for me.”

    The alternatives seem to be; 1) that we accept at face value the governing elite’s representations that they are rational, reasonable and benign and so constitutions, voting and representation simply don’t matter any more or 2) we return to a collection of nation states and hope that most of them are liberal constitutional democratic republics.

  5. Rick says

    Nice thought-provoking article and critical to discussion of how the left can win.

    The old left before WWII was about capitalism, but repression and Cold War ended it. The new left starting in the 60s was about individual issues, which were encouraged by corporations. Occupy Wall Street was a blip that was put down. Bernie is another opening we should be running with.

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  7. Luke Reeshus says

    Good essay. William Deresiewicz makes the same point in The American Scholar while writing about the social justice group-think that prevails at elite, private colleges:

    Political correctness is a fig leaf for the competitive individualism of meritocratic neoliberalism, with its worship of success above all. It provides a moral cover beneath which undergraduates can prosecute their careerist projects undisturbed. Student existence may be understood as largely separated into two non-communicating realms: campus social life (including the classroom understood as a collective space), where the enforcement of political correctness is designed to create an emotionally unthreatening environment; and the individual pursuit of personal advancement, the real business going forward. The moral commitments of the first (which are often transient in any case) are safely isolated from the second.

  8. Nitpicker says

    “Intersectional privileges, while important, are secondary to class privilege”

    I agree with pretty much every part of this essay, and am grateful for it. However, I think the above quote represents an assumption that will allow the social justice movement to simply ignore the rest of the argument.

    If class privilege is more important than intersectional privileges, I’m afraid the author doesn’t prove it here. He does make the case that class privilege *unites* more than intersectional privilege, but that doesn’t have anything to say about either movement’s relative import.

    I’d argue that everyone would be better off if we focused on the things that united us rather than divided us, things we could do that would be in the common good. But again, making statements about the relative “worth” of these movements strikes me as counterproductive. It’s best to just leave this particular argument as “the social justice movement divides people who would otherwise be allies, and fuels corporate capitalism.” That’s a potent enough argument on its own, no need to make bigger claims that will alienate the people who most need to hear the argument.

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  10. A lot wrong with this, especially the sidestepping of the causes of the crash, and the dogmatic adherence to some of the more odd Social Justice concepts (especially class/caste), but worth reading to see a stunning admission from a self-described Social Justice supporter that the wage gap is more a result of women’s work/life choices.

    Now if we can get the rest of the “99%” to understand that, we might actually get somewhere.

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  12. Bill Haywood says

    Like the author himself in his initial qualifications, social justice activists oppose both corporate power and expressions of racism and sexism in their personal lives. So the author’s choice of target is curious. Leftwing activists are not the ones keeping class out of the media — that would be the corporate editors. The Zuccotti occupiers still believe what they believe, even if they don’t currently have a vehicle that cuts through the chatter and gate keepers. The author himself cites the number of “idiot intellectuals” at 1%. That’s the basis for slamming a movement? Social justice “supports” corporate power? Really?

    Mr. Aaron needs to get out of the office more. There are plenty of people still focused on class rule. Sure, there are some arrogant liberals who don’t care about working people. They need to be specifically named in criticism, rather than a sloppy, curmudgeonist denunciation of an entire movement. Hillary is not us. And Mr. Aaron knows even without reading this sentence that many people voted for the corporate shill because Trump is so much more dangerous to real people’s lives. I would have voted for Clinton instead of Stein if my state (Arkansas) were in play. The dig at Hillary voters strikes me as cold and doctrinaire; it ignores the difficult choices working people face — you know, those whom this snide article claimed to champion.

  13. Isherwood says

    Even the lexicon that corporations and social justice advocates use is the same. Listening to these individuals is like being in an Human Resource Development Course. Society in general is becoming increasing corport-ist.

  14. severeves says

    It’s quite simple. Not to sound like a non-revisionist, 19th century Marxist scholar, but in order for capitalism to thrive, there must be working class division. Keeping the white proles at the throats of non-white proles and vice-versa is a necessary aspect of divide and conquer capitalist strategy. As we can see from the more homogeneous European societies and American states, leave white people to their own devices and socialism is what follows. But for whites and non-whites to unite would be a bad thing in their eyes…so they increase immigration (division, consumers and cheap labor), ramp up the identity politics, and start dialogues that attack the white majority…there will never be working class unity, and socialism will remain but an afterthought.

  15. Yes, it is simple. [except for radical rare exceptions] you can’t change your racial background or skin color; you can’t change your sex/gender; you can’t change your country of origin;

    U.S. social justice warriors know this. They want to solidify victim-hood per these un-chosen realities, in order to justify government-enforced egalitarianism.

    But you can change your economic status.

    SJWs don’t want to focus on “class” because deep deep in the American soul, we know we have agency and freedom.

  16. Manny says

    Don’t be so afraid to come out and state anti-capitalist sentiments. Sad that the article needed a disclaimer to pander to the libertarian readership.

    Intersectionality, liberal feminism, etc., is so good for corporate capitalism because the aforementioned concepts are wholly compatible with capitalism’s perpetuation of the reification and strengthening of class systems.

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