DEFINITION: “Capitalism” is more or less synonymous with an economic and political system which permits the marketplace to operate freely and in which individuals are permitted to own property, make profits, and accumulate wealth without limitation (other than that imposed by taxation).
“Woke capitalism” is a form of capitalism in which many or most of the leading companies in the capitalist marketplace subscribe to, and actively promote, the ideology of “wokeness” (see below).
ETYMOLOGY: For the etymology of the term “capitalism,” see the Glossary entry entitled “capitalism.”
Grammatically, the word “woke” is the past participle of the verb “to wake” (which has both transitive and intransitive senses).
The verb “to wake” derives, via the Middle English verb waken, from the Old English verb wacan, all with the same meaning.
The slang word “woke,” which has its roots in African American Vernacular English, originally meant “to wake up” or “to be awake.” Over time, it came to mean “to be alert.”
In this sense, the word “woke” is attested from at least the 1930s. For instance, it occurs with this meaning at the end of Lead Belly’s comments following this performance of his 1938 song, “Scottsboro Boys.”
Later, the term “woke” came to mean “to be conscious of” and “to be aware of” the particular social phenomena posited by the “woke” ideology (see below).
In this latest iteration of the meaning of the term, the word “woke” began to spread into general usage in the US after about 2010.
USAGE: In its original form, woke ideology began as the claim that American society is essentially and irreparably racist.
This ideology maintained that, despite the seemingly great changes that have occurred over the years—the abolition of slavery with the Civil War, the legal dismantling during the 1960s of the system of apartheid reigning in the American South (“Jim Crow”), and the rise of a large and prosperous black middle class—nothing fundamental has really changed and that African Americans remain as socially, economically, and politically oppressed in the US in the twenty-first century as they have ever been.
Quite recently, the woke ideology has mutated in such a way that it has come to incorporate many other progressive political causes, notably the promotion of LGBTQ+ and transgender agendas.
It is important to make the following distinction.
The concept of “wokeness” clearly arose out of the social context of the very real oppression of African Americans in the American South, and indeed elsewhere, during the Jim Crow period.
However, the folding of the sex-based ideologies into the woke ideology was an additional action, which had more to do with intellectual trends within the Academy than with the lived experience of African Americans in the US.
At the academic level, woke ideology has three main intellectual sources:
- The so-called “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, beginning in the 1930s
- The “hermeneutics of suspicion,” inspired by the mainly French, radical literary theorists such as Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida
- The neo-Marxist analysis of power found in the writings of the French thinker Michel Foucault
All of the above schools of thought were heavily influenced by Marxist thinking, particularly:
- the idea that the official ideology of a society is a form of “false consciousness” designed to keep the governing “bourgeois” regime in power; and
- the idea that the primary social reality in any society is its stratification into “classes” and the struggle of the upper classes to maintain power and control over the lower classes
That, in a nutshell, is the nature and origin of the woke ideology.
“Woke capitalism,” then, is simply a situation in which many leading companies promote the woke ideology.
On its surface, it may seem strange that woke capitalism exists, given that woke ideology is at bottom a Marxist ideology, which represents a direct threat to the very existence of capitalism.
This seemingly paradoxical state of affairs may be explained by several factors.
First and foremost, there is simply the fact of intellectual fashion. The CEOs of the major corporations mostly received the same education and inhabit the same social world as the academics and the government, legal, and judicial professionals who all promote the woke ideology. For this reason, it would be hard for them to question that ideology.
Another reason may be the perception that corporate managers may have that it is beneficial to their companies to be associated with the popular woke ideology. In short, rightly or wrongly, the idea probably exists that trumpeting woke ideology is good for a company’s bottom line.
Finally, there is the fact that woke capitalism is in sync with the progressive principles of one of the American political parties, which is in power as of this writing. This fact provides a strong motivation for corporations to “get on board” with the woke ideology, especially in the context of crony capitalism which is ascendant as of this writing (2022).
How does woke capitalism manifest itself?
In addition to the public relations aspect of a company’s commitment to woke ideology, already alluded to, woke capitalism may also take the form of active support of progressive political parties and politicians by means of financial contributions and in-kind contributions consisting of free advertising and other forms of propaganda.
Perhaps more troubling is the active censorship of political opponents by woke information-technology and social media companies.