What's Driving Authoritarianism Today?

Woke Capitalism and Sponsored Media Bias are Driving Leftist Authoritarianism

A Trump rally and protest at Van Buren St & Central Avenue, Phoenix, United States. Photo by AJ Colores

In early 2018, Jim VandeHei wrote an article about a “fascinating trend” where corporations are put under intense social pressure to take account of social issues that the Trump administration has ignored. Noting that this tendency was not prompted by corporate benevolence, VandeHei posits that this was unleashed by the “intense pressure from social media mobs and idealistic millennials in the companies’ workforces, who expect their employers to take stands.” A couple of days later, I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times opinion piece on this same subject where he details “performative wokeness” in terms of corporate America’s disassociation from the NRA (National Rifle Association) by airline and car rental companies. Lumping these manoeuvres under the category “woke capitalism,” Douthat elaborates upon the many high-profile corporations which took stands on immigration as well as gay and transgender rights. Douthat contends the story of woke capitalism in the US presents two seemingly contradictory aspects. 

The first aspect virtue signals for a more noble client base. The other, what he calls a “bait and switch at the common good’s expense,” is where we are presented with the theatre of “paying bonuses and raising wages after the passage of the corporate-friendly Republican tax bill, but actually reserving most of the tax savings for big stock buybacks, enriching shareholders rather than employees in an economy where wage growth still disappoints.” Douthat frames this dynamic not as two sides in conflict, but rather he shows how corporate interests are served by the theatre of corporate activism which serves to “protect the self-interest and the stinginess—to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers so that those same power brokers will leave them alone (and forgive their support for Trump’s economic agenda) in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.”

In both the above theories of woke capitalism, however, nothing was mentioned about the role media plays in driving the authoritarianism that for VandeHei is coming uniquely from the mobs’ exerting “intense pressure” and for Douthat is about corporate interests getting one over on the public through minor economic gestures while the corporate structure remains the same. We need to look at the bigger picture which is not limited to how authoritarian culture has blossomed under its ability to get corporations to hat tip to #MeToo or the acronym without end, LGBTQ+. The entire panorama must necessarily include the media’s collusion with authoritarianism. There is mounting evidence that corporations buttress the social justice mobs by meeting their demands while both the authoritarian mobs and corporations are given a hefty reward in terms of how left-of-centre publications run stories about how companies that have recognised “trans equality” or the #MeToo movement while also buttressing the political narratives they cover, mostly quite unquestioningly and with little balance. Also in the balance is that both the activists and corporations are adding to the crescendo of the managerial elite class which oversees which authoritarian doctrine is written into corporate strategies and which corporations get media kudos for having complied. 

Two years later and we are witnessing a similar rinse-and-repeat of this same strategy where the left’s recent activism functions in tandem with left-leaning media which have together been complicit in driving woke capitalism and authoritarianism. Conversely, activist groups like Black Lives Matter have been on the receiving end of the economic benefits from woke corporate structures while also receiving favourable media representation for their actions while most media elides any criticism of how these groups have destroyed grassroots activism while being sponsored economically in part by right-wing capital. It’s fair to say that where the authoritarianism of the left lurks behind corporate posturing and social activism, we can be guaranteed that the messages we are receiving from major media are cleansed of facts, often wiped clean of science, as we witness the onslaught of corporations getting down with leftist rhetoric on “race” and “gender identity” in recent years. And it’s not just that media has become the mouthpiece of the new authoritarianism emanating from the neoliberal left, but the economic, political and media rewards that all three groups are coterminously receiving and lending to each other in return have directly resulted in what has been euphemistically called “cancel culture.”

Where the ostensible good practice of media holding up to scrutiny corporations, politicians, political policies, and private institutions, we are seeing very little balanced journalism that asks hard questions on all sides of public debates for well over the past two decades. To the contrary, journalism has all but disappeared. There is no better example of this than the recent basement coverage of CNN’s own journalist cast as a “news story” whereby Chris Cuomo’s “COVID-19 experience” was choreographed by CNN and expected to be taken seriously as journalism even if this bizarre hybrid situated somewhere between cinéma vérité and Keeping Up with the Kardashians was anything but news. Similarly, on other fronts, the media aims to bring the viewer “up to speed” as in re-education from another era. The past decade we have been given one article after another by Vox which informs us that we just don’t understand “transgender identity” or that we are “too embarrassed to ask” as every piece deftly avoids science and this company’s brand of journalism tends towards self-help advice or listicles of “how to be a good ally.”

More recently, local and independent media have questioned some of the orthodox views coming out of the WHO regarding COVID-19 while many of these outlets and scientists have had their videos removed from YouTube. Similarly, anyone who questions the contradictory claims made by ACLU lawyer, Chase Strangio, who stated that sex and gender mean “the same thing” in February of this year while Strangio asserted just the opposite 18 months earlier, not only risks being branded a transphobe, but these individuals face losing their livelihoods. In recent years, going against this wave of authoritarianism has resulted in public shaming and threats to contact one’s employer just as pointing out any number of contradictions in an official narrative and the gatekeepers to these institutions will harshly punish those who point out facts. And media like The Guardian and Vox among many other left-of-centre publications gleefully abet the public shaming with articles that step up the correct views one must hold. 

In turn, this kind of public castigation, social media mobbing or termination of employment directly affects public opinion since the example of the individual serves as the public lesson for what can and will happen to you. In his analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Michel Foucault demonstrates how surveillance society modelled on Bentham’s infamous prison design where guards monitor prisoners under constant watch whereby the individual prisoners who cannot see the guards watching them, assume that they are always under a state of constant monitoring. Foucault takes this prison model and expands surveillance to the public domain of society where the surveillance and control mechanisms in society are much more expansive and imperceptible where it is assumed that someone is always watching and controlling within society. In this way, cancel culture largely operates by virtue of the public naming and shaming that private enterprise, social media giants, and trans-national media mutually engage in as they set the standard of free expression so low that few will wish to transgress for fear of losing their income. If anything Foucault’s model shows us that contemporary power in this totalitarian era means that the threat of homelessness has most perfectly replaced the public hanging.

So, let’s first examine some of the machinations behind the scenes of how woke authoritarianism works in sync with corporate and media interests. 

Among the corporate-friendly media, Forbes is one of those which likes to post, in listicle format, those companies which are LGBTQ-friendly, such as “These Are The Top LGBT Employers To Work For In The U.K.” which tells us quite matter of factly that the verdict is in on these companies’ wokeness. What Forbes fails to mention is that number six on the list, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a pharmaceutical company with a rather blemished reputation given the recent bribery and harassment scandal by GSK against one of its sales representatives in India, yet another bribery scandal in China, and the 2018 lawsuit against Judy Lewent over the US opioid addiction crisis. Lewent was the GSK non-executive director while also serving on the board of opioid drugmaker Purdue Pharma for more than four years until 2014. Where GSK might be “inclusive” for one strata of woke points in the public eye—after all, who wouldn’t want to by their OxyContin from a feather-boa-ed rainbow rep? Scratch a little further and you can see that GSK pays for sponsored articles on Forbes in a section called “BrandVoice.” Since 2010, BrandVoice has helped Forbes rake in about one-third of the company's advertising revenue according to a company statement. The fee for Forbes’ two-article per year minimum for a Special Features campaign goes for $200,000. What’s not to trust from a media source that receives its funding from corporate structures with the left hand while writing ostensibly “unbiased journalism” with the right?

Aside from sponsored advertising, there are the internal public relations operations of companies that use social media and workshops to employ authoritarianism. This is where wokeism becomes the gold standard for businesses and media alike. It’s basically free advertising where a company pays its social media person no more in her salary to tweet a message of support related to the death of George Floyd or to “stand in solidarity with the Black community.” Corporations have become all too aware that posturing a certain level of political consciousness on social media or holding a one-day workshop on bias has steep economic payouts. Similarly, major media, also in the business of selling its subscriptions, steps in to highlight the social good of these corporations who often buy paid advertising at the very same publication where their future profits are being pretty much guaranteed through fake news stories. 

As for the connection between corporate funding and authoritarian narratives from the left, just look to who is funding Black Lives Matter. It’s a Who’s Who of exploitative corporations to include Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb that take aim at the poorest which pretty much means a mixture of black, brown and white communities. Forget the fact that Google, Uber, and Lyft have systematically blocked the formation of unions by their workers or that Lyft and Uber have systemically fought against their drivers becoming employees granting them much-needed unemployment and healthcare benefits. Let’s even put aside the fact that Amazon has been criticised for its ties to police, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the US Defense Department—most especially for its sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement which can be used for the surveillance of the public. At the end of the day, the millions given to BLM equates to postmodern penitence to the overlords of good public relations.

Amazon has also donated $10 million to the ACLU Foundation, the NAACP, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Urban League. Conversely, Amazon has also provided technological support (cloud computing resources) to the controversial government contractor Palantir which in turn gives these services to ICE. And Airbnb not only has a dire lack of diversity among its employees with only 3.5% of employees who are black and only 6% of leadership roles being filled by black staff, but Airbnb has crippled the rental market in almost every city around the planet hurting the lower classes who depend on affordable housing. In Greater London between 2008 to 2015, rental prices rose 46 per cent and the rates of housing inflation are the same throughout every major North American and European city. Where Black Lives Matter and other groups have raised tens—if not hundreds—of millions of dollars to fight what is framed as “systemic racism,” this narrative is being sponsored by corporate donations used to plump up the reputations of big businesses which overwhelmingly do not have the best interests of brown and black people in mind. Where on Monday Black Lives Matter for corporations, brown lives seem to matter even less the rest of the week. 

Another vector of the authoritarianism within corporate America is the recent revelations that major companies have been taking notes from Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility, what John McWhorter rightfully calls a “racist tract.” As these companies are more than happy to tweet out feel-good messages of “Black Lives Matter” instead of enacting real structural changes within their organizations, we must be sceptical of how woke capitalism is part of the problem and not the solution. Take BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms producer with 95 per cent of its sales going to military customers who invariably use these weapons against mostly darker-skinned populations. I mean do we laugh or cry at the fact that BAE has quite recently changed its website page “Diversity and Inclusion” after the massive protests in the US to reflect a more woke-angled page to highlight its diversity. Just in case you were worried that women and people of colour might also wish to take part in the making of bombs that will land on the homes of Yemeni civilians

Showing solidarity against systemic oppression can now be addressed through a workshop, hashtag, public confession, and/or publicly-advertised multi-million-dollar donations. DiAngelo herself has also had bookings for public lectures, private workshops and speeches with school faculties, university administrations, government agencies, and companies such as Microsoft, Google and W.L. Gore & Associates. So much for Microsoft’s diversity with only 2.7% of its executives being black or the fact that these workshops only further remove the problem of how disempowerment might be best addressed without having segregated bias training at work or having white people confess for their sic “privilege.”

As CEOs tweet their rage over the deaths of black Americans, the media happily runs one feel-good narrative after another about these well-meaning corporate leaders with little to no mention of the harm they enact on the very class to which George Floyd and Breonna Taylor belonged. Where money is involved, the plethora of curated news stories that double as advertisements overshadow the far more balanced investigative journalistic pieces that attempt to draw lines between a company’s problems with “diversity” and its profiteering from a tragedy in order to renovate its image. Take Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which had its annual stockholder meeting on 3 June where it rejected a shareholder proposal calling for executives’ salary packages to be tied into the company’s diversity and inclusion goals. The company had already been scaling back diversity efforts. Why worry about why so few black or female executives exist within Google when they can tick box having paid for a workshop led by DiAngelo herself while also donating to Black Lives Matter?

While independent media has been better about covering the contradictions between Black Lives Matter’s message and its having received funding by companies who are not true to the equality they espouse, the question of gender identity has a far more imbalanced coverage by both major and independent media. One could easily make the argument that independent left-leaning media together with corporate-driven funding has almost entirely driven the discourse of “gender identity.” In turn, media bias on the subject of gender identity has directly resulted in the heightening of “cancel culture” in recent months which takes the form of public mobbing and humiliation on social media, buttressed by real-life harassment as employers are often contacted and many people ultimately are dismissed from their jobs. It’s the ultimate in authoritarian threats of recent years: Recant your statement on social media or we will ensure that you have no income. Until now, this ploy has panned out quite well for the authoritarians even to the surprise of many on the left who, outside of this subject, almost unequivocally support organisations like Liberty, Amnesty International, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. The consensus among leftist women seems to be that when it comes to their rights, the left has become more regressive on a number of issues over the right. 

I spoke with Maya Forstater, a London-based researcher and visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development (CGD), an international think tank which campaigns against poverty and inequality. Forstater lost her job at a think tank for tweeting that men who identify as “transgender” cannot change their biological sex. Her contract at the think tank, based both in Washington and London, was not renewed last March after a dispute over her having expressed the view that sex is real with her former employer claiming she used “offensive and exclusionary” language. In December Forstater lost a test case because her opinions, according to Judge James Tayler, were deemed to be “absolutist.” Forstater’s case comes up for judicial review later this year. 

Forstater is hardly alone in having lost employment for social media posts and is joined by many others who have been no-platformed, lost work gigs or have suffered the loss of their employment entirely due to the authoritarian trend that seems to be more increasingly buttressed by the media and corporate culture alike. Spiked has recently published an annotated list of 25 individuals who have been fired or who lost work as a result of their views and it is, by every measure, an incomplete list. One of the people missing from this list is Rachel Ara, an artist who was no-platformed by Oxford Brookes University, just as she was about to travel to give a series of tutorials and lectures there. The day her lecture was due to take place, Ara was subject to a series of hostile social media tweets about her from an anonymous account called @TERFsOutOfArt that had targeted her because of her belief that “biological sex, and not an inner feeling of ‘gender identity’, should be recognised in law and policy; and for my past public support of organisations that share this view.” Ara was later contacted by the event organiser to say that her guest lecture was not going ahead. I spoke with Ara this week and she told me that right after she was no-platformed, she stopped receiving commissions. And since she launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money to ask for a judicial review of her case, Oxford Brookes University has “officially acknowledged their public duty to uphold academic freedom and fe-extended the invitation for me to speak.” Still this gesture, unrealised due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in Ara being shunned by the art world after a very successful 2019. As Ara told me, “Labelling or suggesting someone is transphobic sticks.”

Much of what Ara, Forstater and many others have lived through by losing employment and professional engagements has taken place virtually unhampered in the public arena largely due to how the media has shaped public opinion. Take The Guardian’s regular coverage of gender in contrast to how this publication is set to the left of the political spectrum while still holding an editorial line which is regularly antagonistic to women’s voices. The Guardian regularly runs stories from transgender-identified individuals and has a Genderqueer generation series supported by the Open Society Foundations. There was even a journalistic kerfuffle in 2018 between the US Guardian staff and those who penned an editorial that advocated for free and open debate on the issue of the conflicts between women’s rights and those of whom identify as “transgender”. That editorial pointed specifically to the stifling of debate on the proposed reforms to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act after the paper had run almost entirely pro-gender identity pieces for many years. The attempt to create a simulation of editorial balance, however, lasted all of two days as The Guardian was back to publishing almost entirely pro-transgender arguments with little space afforded other voices. Owen Jones is just one of many Guardian staff writers who has expended quite a considerable amount of energy on the transgender debate.

I was curious why a left-leaning publication like The Guardian has so enthusiastically and persistently covered this debate from almost entirely one side. So, I wrote the newspaper’s press office to inquire about the “Supported by Open Society Foundations” statement indicated on The Guardian’s website under its “Genderqueer generation” series. I was sent a very quick response informing me that the “Open Society Foundations made a grant to The Guardian for reporting on gender equality, not specifically for that series.” I then asked The Guardian to confirm what I had found on the its website regarding OSF funding. The Guardian verified that they had received a $250,000 one-year grant from the OSF last Fall. The OSF similarly has delved into the transgender movement funding this as if it were its own political lobby to the tune of over $3 million annually in recent years to include furnishing a legal brief on transgender children and youth and funding gender studies programmes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Is it any wonder that feminists don’t have a chance of having their perspectives heard by media on the left when there are these sorts of funds to drown out their voices?

Each facet of the mechanisms through which corporate interests feed and are fed by media which in turn feed and are fed by public sentiment turned authoritarian have led to the outgrowth of several frightening trends. First, there is the corporate surveillance of employees’ individual expressions and their private use of social media upon which their employment can often hang in the balance. This results in the authoritarian decisions to force people from their livelihoods for holding certain viewpoints that go against the current orthodoxy framed by the left-of-centre media as the only acceptable point of view to be held. Conversely, those on the left who hold independent inquiry as essential to public life are in trouble. With the rewards engrained today, corporations are training future generations to step in line for fear of loss of employment while the media similarly rewards the very corporations which give them grants through good PR. After all, The Guardian has positively covered the OSF over 800 times in recent years. 

There are many players among the NGOs and corporations that fund the media which in turn reciprocates the favour through positive public relations coverage in what seems to be, on the surface at least, objective news stories. Take the Washington DC-based NGO, Human Rights Campaign, which has similarly had an overwhelming pervasive and positive media presence in The Guardian and The New York Times in recent years in addition to their corporate partnerships. Originally, an LGB organisation, HRC has expanded far more into transgender issues over the past decade despite this latter demographic’s much smaller population base. HRC has also been directly involved in political debates such as the town hall last autumn in Los Angeles. Skip over to the resources portion of the HRC and the mention of transgender persons far exceeds that of lesbians. Then, look to HRC’s financial statements and this organisation gave over $4 million in 2016, $4.2 million in 2017 and $3.7 million in 2018 for the purpose of “telling our stories to the American public through the mainstream press.” I have reached to HRC on this subject and they have declined to comment. This begs the question: Who mediates what stories are told and how honestly are they told if money and barter is the determining factor at work in media representation today?

The situation is even worse for the many formerly LGB publications like Pink News which publish a large portion of their articles on transgender issues. To wit, Pink News’s CEO, Benjamin Cohen, is married to Anthony James, a trainee doctor and a trustee of Mermaids, a charity that identifies its client-base as “transgender children” and their parents. It is therefore curious that Pink News writes relentlessly positive articles about this charity despite its being a political lobby, having worked almost exclusively on pushing for the transitioning of children in defiance of basic safeguarding measures. Conflicts of interest and bad journalism don’t even begin to describe this scenario. It might just be up there with Craigslist advertisements that begin with, “Believe me, this is the best used car you will ever own!”

This is the story of how corporations and media have piggy-backed upon one another to push political agendas that shine a light on curated topics of the day—from anti-racist to transgender identity activism and beyond—only to spin these narratives hard for the sake of sales, donors and/or private and government-funded grants. It’s high time that media put the wokery to sleep and this can only happen if the public demands an end to media’s corporate ties and if media commits to an ethics-based journalism. It will also require a readership that begins to consider challenging viewpoints as both healthy and necessary to our collective existence, instead of something that must at all costs be evacuated from the public square.