One of the more bizarre aspects of American culture is the personification of corporations. Brands are intimately equated with personal identity; no matter how massive the corporate entity, we love to imagine that the people at the top are, basically, just like us, and in turn carry the same values and norms that we do. This delusion is not totally our fault; corporations savvily work to engender emotional connection to their products in the public. No examples of this have been more grotesquely cynical than the world’s biggest corporations latching onto progressive social movements and attempting to leech away goodwill.
Most people recognize how tone-deaf and stupid these campaigns have been. I don’t think anyone was impressed with Pepsi and Kendall Jenner’s ability to mend the social scars of police brutality. But corporate woke-washing has served a more insidious role as a broad cover-up for attacks on organized labor and as a mechanism for cleansing questions of corporate power from mainstream discourse. By engaging with social issues, companies position their interests and the interests of average people as one and the same. Questions of wealth inequalities and corporate crime fade into the ether of radical, non-acceptable discourse.
Coca-Cola has been at the forefront of corporate activism, tweeting out support for the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, releasing a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd, and condemning the attack on the capitol by Trump supporters as “an affront to the ideals of American democracy” (links to Tweets below). This last statement is particularly interesting given Coca Cola’s history in Colombia, where the company allegedly funded the kidnappings and murder of union members throughout the 90s and early 2000s (Brodsinzky, 2003). Despite their fervent words of support for racial justice and the rule of law, the company has demonstrated what they’re willing to do when those ideals run up against profit margins.
Amazon quickly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer, emblazoning their homepage with the movements’ logo in a show of support. The world’s second richest man, Jeff Bezos, even bravely declared that he “didn’t mind losing racist customers” (Ken, 2020) over his stance. Of course, you don’t have to dig very deep to see the limits of Amazon’s support for Black lives; Chris Smalls, a Black Amazon employee, was fired after he lead a walkout protesting the lack of COVID protections in the company’s warehouses (evidently Amazon only thinks Black lives matter if they’re being endangered by cops, not the pandemic) (Ibid). The case is indicative of Amazon’s heavy-handed attempts to control their workforce, which has included the hiring of union-busting security services to surveil and infiltrate labor, environmental, and social justice movements across Europe (Gurley, 2020). In addition to losing the money of racists, Bezos doesn’t seem to mind violating labor laws if it ensures the unopposed expansion of his all-consuming empire.
Most of the time, all of this sits in the back of our minds. It’s hard to not be exposed to the depravity of Amazon, Coca-Cola, and companies like them through social media, and I think most Americans understand on some level that platitudes about ethical business are mostly bullshit. So then why does public action against corporate power remain so shallow and ineffective? I would argue that the main issue preventing meaningful action is one of self-identification.
The public gets upset when a CEO says something racist or unfair business practices are exposed, but the reaction is usually just consumer boycotts which die away once the offender is fired and the company issues a statement promising to change their ways. Underlying inequalities go unchanged when the public sees themselves primarily as consumers, whose political power is connected directly to their purchasing power. Consumer politics is a dead end because it passively surrenders to capital’s definitions of appropriate protest. Social justice based advertising is a perfect representation of this system, where politics become another product.
The only productive framework for challenging corporate domination is one based on class consciousness. The public has to reckon with their relationships to those at the top and understand the limits of real freedom under capitalism. The first step is analyzing these companies, not through a perception of the supposed individual virtues of their CEOS or public personas, but as a institution whose interests are irreversibly opposed to ours. Corporations will always employ violence against the working class and the marginalized to protect their profits. No group appreciates the concept of class war better than the capitalists: they’ve been winning it for the last three hundred years.
Coca Cola Tweets: https://twitter.com/CocaCola/status/614482787572297728/photo/1 (2015 Tweet on gay marriage) https://www.coca-colacompany.com/news/where-we-stand-on-social-justice (2020 statement on the murder of George Floyd) https://twitter.com/CocaColaCo/status/1347224074024579075/photo/1 (2021 Tweet on Capitol Building riot)
Brodzinsky, Sibyllia, “Coca Cola Boycott Launched After Killings at Colombian Plant” (2003) https://www.theguardian.com/media/2003/jul/24/marketingandpr.colombia
Kan, Micheal, “Amazon CEO ‘Happy to Lose’ Racist Customers Over Support for Black Lives Matter” (2020) https://www.pcmag.com/news/amazon-ceo-happy-to-lose-racist-customers-over-support-for-black-lives
Gurley, Lauren Kaori “Secret Amazon Reports Expose the Company’s Surveillance of Labor and Environmental Groups” (2020) https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dp3yn/amazon-leaked-reports-expose-spying-warehouse-workers-labor-union-environmental-groups-social-movements