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Tumbrels are rattling through the streets of the internet. Over the past few years, online-led social movements have deposed gropers, exposed bullies—and, sometimes, ruined the lives of the innocent. Commentators warn of “mob justice,” while activists exult in their newfound power to change the world.
Both groups are right, and wrong. Because the best way to see the firings, outings, and online denunciations grouped together as “cancel culture” is not through a social lens, but an economic one.
Take the fall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein, which seems inevitable in hindsight—Everyone knew he was a sex pest! There were even jokes about it on 30 Rock! But it took The New York Times months of reporting to ready its first story for publishing; the newspaper was taking on someone with deep pockets and a history of intimidating critics into silence. Then the story went off like a hand grenade. Suddenly, the mood—and the economic incentives—shifted. People who had been afraid of Weinstein were instead afraid of being taken down alongside him.
Let’s look at another example of how woke capitalism operates. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and the protests that followed, White Fragility, a 2018 book by Robin DiAngelo, returned to the top of The New York Times’ paperback-nonfiction chart. The author is white, and her book is for white people, encouraging them to think about what it’s like to be white. So the American book-buying public’s single biggest response to the Black Lives Matter movement was … to buy a book about whiteness written by a white person.
This is worse than mere navel-gazing; it’s synthetic activism. It risks making readers feel full of piety and righteousness without having actually done anything. Buying a book on white fragility improves the lives of the most marginalized far less than, say, donating to a voting-rights charity or volunteering at a food bank. It’s pure hobbyism.
Why is DiAngelo’s book so popular? Again, look at economics. White Fragility is a staple of formal diversity training, in universities from London to Iowa, and at publications including Britain’s right-wing Telegraph newspaper, as well as The Atlantic. The client list on DiAngelo’s website includes giant corporations such as Amazon and Unilever; nonprofits such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hollywood Writers Guild, and the YMCA; and institutions and governmental bodies such as Seattle Public Schools, the City of Oakland, and the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis.
If this is a moment for power structures to be challenged, and old orthodoxies to be overturned, then understanding the difference between economic radicalism and social radicalism is vital. This could also be described as the difference between identity and class. That is not to dismiss the former: Many groups face discrimination on both measures. Women might not be hired because “Math isn’t for girls” or because an employer doesn’t want to pay for maternity leave. An employer may not see the worth of a minority applicant, because they don’t speak the way the interviewer expects, or that applicant might be a second-generation immigrant whose parents can’t subsidize them through several years of earning less than a living wage.
All this I’ve learned from feminism, where the contrast between economic and social radicalism is very apparent. Equal pay is economically radical. Hiring a female or minority CEO for the first time is socially radical. Diversity training is socially radical, at best. Providing social-housing tenants with homes not covered in flammable cladding is economically radical. Changing the name of a building at a university is socially radical; improving on its 5 percent enrollment rate for Black students—perhaps by smashing up the crazy system of legacy admissions—would be economically radical.
In my book Difficult Women, I wrote that the only question I want to ask big companies who claim to be “empowering the female leaders of the future” is this one: Do you have on-site child care? You can have all the summits and power breakfasts you want, but unless you address the real problems holding working parents back, then it’s all window dressing.
Along with anti-racism and anti-sexism efforts, LGBTQ politics suffers a similar confusion between economic and social radicalism. The arrival of Pride month brings the annual argument about how it should be a “protest, not a parade.” The violence and victimization of the Stonewall-riot era risk being forgotten in today’s “branded holiday,” where big banks and clothing manufacturers fly the rainbow flag to boost their corporate image. In Britain and the U.S., these corporate sponsors want a depoliticized party—a generic celebration of love and acceptance—without tough questions about their views on particular domestic laws and policies, or their involvement in countries with poor records on LGBTQ rights. Some activists in Britain have tried to get Pride marches to stop allowing the arms company BAE to be a sponsor, given its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, an explicitly homophobic and sexist state. When Amazon sponsored last year’s PinkNews Awards, the former Doctor Who screenwriter Russell T. Davies used his lifetime-achievement-award acceptance speech to tell the retailer to “pay your fucking taxes.” That’s economic radicalism.