As divided as the Trump years became, political blacklisting seemed a concern far removed from the lives of most people not working in academia, the arts, or Big Tech. But in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, companies as disparate as the Gap and Coca-Cola pledged their ongoing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial equality. Nevermind that the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which was the primary beneficiary of this influx of corporate cash, has been suspended by Amazon Smile and is out of compliance in several states for not disclosing its financial records. Corporations wanted us to know they were doing the right thing even if Floyd was never in Nordstrom’s or Evian’s target demographic.
An observer with any business acumen could be forgiven for wondering how corporate support of a fringe movement could do anything but damage to a company’s bottom line. However, business motivations, especially for luxury and aspirational brands become much more clear considering that data compiled since 2020’s summer of riots has shown protestors and BLM supporters are largely white, college-educated people under 40 from homes generating six-figure incomes–a demographic quite similar to the audience that made AMC’s Mad Men a unicorn show for its advertisers and turned its network into a multibillion dollar powerhouse. Yet, for Vivek Ramaswamy, the problem he outlines in his first book Woke, Inc. goes beyond catering to a wealthy subset of consumers; it is about companies run by industry and cultural elites who engage in social issues as a strategy of “serving the managerial class itself.”
What makes Woke, Inc. such an essential book on an oft-neglected subject is its hybrid status as memoir and researched political tract. Until the summer of 2020, Ramaswamy–a first-generation American entrepreneur hailing from India with a law degree–served as the executive chairman of iconoclastic biotech company Roivant Sciences dedicated to making drugs more effective and affordable. But as the corporate world began its public reckoning with the aftermath of Floyd’s death, a vocal minority of his largely Ivy-educated staff kept pressuring him and the company to take a similar stand. Rather than succumb to the mob, he took a backseat at the business he founded to focus his attention on the unholy amalgamation of public policy and corporate interests that he deems the woke-industrial complex
Ramaswamy’s central thesis takes direct aim at the concept of stakeholder capitalism, a financial approach encouraging corporations to integrate addressing important sociopolitcal issues into their identity as a way to give back to the communities “responsible” for their success—a trend most apparent in the ESG (Environmental Social Governance) scores investors increasingly use to make decisions about where to direct their funds. For Ramaswamy, this approach is fraught largely because the managerial class it fosters disempowers stakeholders such as the founders and investors who assume risk as a way to privilege buereutractic intermediaries like executives and board members removed from creation and innovation. Worse, shareholder capitalism’s predilection for integrating former politicos like Al Gore and Barack Obama into its organizational structure allows for a sense of collusion that undermines democracy. While a divided federal government or opposite party control of individual states can restrain policies espoused by progressives but unpopular with the general public, elites blurring the boundaries between the private sector and government can achieve their goals outside the legislative process while circumventing the unwashed majority who lack a seat at Davos.
Much of Woke, Inc. consists of asides detailing the often pathological hypocrisy of the corporate world’s wokest behemoths–Amazon’s support of a $15 minimum wage as a way to undermine Wal-Mart; Coca-Cola’s role in the diabetes epidemic plaguing African-American communities that goes unnoticed amid its Instagram posts and mandated diversity training based on the work of Robin DiAngelo. But Ramaswamy’s most illustrative anecdote is his indictment of Unilever–the owner of Dove soap and Lipton tea committed to “making sustainable living commonplace.” After receiving a UN award for its work empowering women, the company attempted to silence a group of female workers on a Lipton tea plantation in Kenya who were raped by their superiors during a post-election riot. While the women’s demands amounted to a negligible cost for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, it spent millions in legal fees to silence its own workers while basking in the PR shield that its complicity with the woke-industrial complex provided.
Building on this series of exposés, Ramaswamy offers cogent solutions to lawmakers and individual employees whose livelihoods woke capital threatens. Unlike many on the right, Ramaswamy rejects rolling back Section 230 protections for Big Tech, arguing that doing so would unintentionally undercut startups hoping to challenge the dominion of Meta, Google, and Twitter. Instead, he advocates amending section 230 to require any entities that benefit from it to abide by the First Amendment or risk losing the legal immunity that fueled their rise to power. While his approach to Big Tech offers a fresh perspective, Ramaswamy’s legal walkthrough of how an employee torn between speaking out and conforming to mandatory participation in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and other woke causes can assert themselves without facing termination makes the book a must read. Relying on his legal training and dozens of examples of precedent from SCOTUS and the lower federal courts, Ramaswamy makes a case for positioning such mandatory embrace of woke causes as a form of religion that management forces on its employees, highlighting the illegality of punitive action against those who object according to the religious protections built into the policies of the EEOC and other governmental offices charged with policing discrimination.
Despite such brilliant flourishes, Ramaswamy makes an occasional misstep. His idea to create a mandatory summer government service program for high schoolers as a way to both dislodge white liberal privilege and unmoor the idea of serving from resume padding seems a curious blindspot in a book otherwise alarmed by government overreach and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Still, Woke, Inc. remains the most intellectually sound and comprehensive book on an economic trend that threatens to crush us all as its adherents obsessively erect a monument to corporate sainthood.