Do Stephen Bannon and the CEOs who abandoned the sinking ship of Trump have something in common, aside from the timing of their well-publicized exits? I think so—notwithstanding Bannon’s anti-corporate (thus genuinely populist) rhetoric, the secret ingredient in Trump’s recipe for political success.
Read David Gelles today on “The Moral Voice of Corporate America,” and you might begin to think so, too. In view of the diversity of their constituents—their shareholders, customers, and local politicians of different parties—the author wonders how CEOs found their progressive voice, especially since 2015, when they took on the Indiana state legislature’s ban on same sex or transgender public restrooms. He also wonders why.
I got some answers for him, and some follow-up questions as well. To begin with, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (558 U.S. 1 ) revoked a major premise of all precedent on corporate personhood and freedom of speech—which was precisely that any corporation’s shareholders were wildly diverse in their political opinions, and so could not be adequately represented in the unitary, anodyne voice of its board or its CEO.
Corporate politics can now be more easily personified and articulated because, after Citizens United, CEOs aren’t constrained by legally mandated attention to the variegated political concerns of their shareholders.
Accordingly, the “social responsibility” of corporations comes to mean bottom-line attention to a broader constituency—the consumers of their products—and this new orientation means attention to the social issues, the social media, and the possible boycotts that would follow from ideological inertia or assertion. For example, the CEOs who disbanded Trump’s business councils were first responders to the scandal of the president’s silence on Charlottesville; they were worried that their customers would think they were as ambivalent about white supremacy as Trump says he is.
In short, consumers at large are the heirs apparent to the small slice of society Milton Friedman designated as the only constituency of CEOs, in a neoliberal manifesto of 1970 that claimed they were responsible only to shareholders. To this limited extent, neoliberalism as sponsored by Friedman and his antecedents (von Hayek, Buchanan, et al.) is over.
So, it is no accident that the companies Gelles cites as exemplars of a new, outspokenly progressive voice are uniformly retail-level corporations that must think first, last, and always of their customers, who are consumers. Nor is it an accident that when Gelles waxes historical, he cites the desegregation of Woolworth’s as a result of the Greensboro sit-ins and the corporate divestment in South Africa as a result of similar performances. For these were results of consumers’ organizations, demands and boycotts, just as W.E. B. Du Bois had predicted in Dusk of Dawn (1940).
He was explicit about it. “Gradually economic revolution is substituting the consumer as the decisive voice in industry rather than the all-powerful producer of the past.” (He had already announced the end of capitalism as we knew it.) This new emphasis on the consumer had racial connotations that Du Bois understood and celebrated as the means to the end of black liberation. On the one hand, “as a consumer the Negro approaches economic equality [with whites] much more nearly than he ever has as a producer.” On the other, “in the Negro group the consumer interest is dominant . . . [Its] social institutions, therefore, are almost entirely the institutions of consumers.”
Ah, you will say, but the progressive neoliberalism of the CEOs who treat their “social responsibility” as a matter of meeting consumer demand for racial and social justice, well, this is just another pathetic rendition of identity politics, which distracts us from the fundamental economic issues of our time—the issues of redistribution (class) as against recognition (race, gender, etc.), in the terms proposed by Nancy Fraser, Mark Lilla, Todd Gitlin, and a host of other left-leaning liberals who want to rehabilitate the Democratic Party.
To my mind, this either/or choice is willfully obtuse if not merely ignorant because it treats past struggles with condescension bordering on contempt. The civil rights revolution was an early version of identity politics. Contemporaneous movements for women’s and gay rights were similarly animated. Can anyone plausibly claim that their results didn’t include redistribution of economic as well as cultural resources? Yes, income inequality has increased in the epoch of identity politics, but that is not due to inattention from the Left—it’s mostly a matter of the end of work and the breakdown of the labor market, as I argue in a recent book.
And that brings me back to Bannon. In recent interviews, with Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect and with Peter Boyer at The Weekly Standard, he seems to validate the conclusions of Fraser, Lilla, Gitlin, et al., by saying, for example, “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Also: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element . . . These guys are a collection of clowns.” And the lede: “To me the economic war with China is everything.” (Kuttner) Or again: “The Republican establishment has no interest in Trump’s success on this [the wall, immigration, repeal of Obamacare, real tax reform]. They’re not populists, they’re not nationalists.” (Boyer)
And yet Bannon is the guy who brought the “white nationalist” Breitbart constituencies into the White House if not the mainstream. You could say that Trump himself was cultivating them long before he campaigned for the presidency—he’s been peddling racist crap his whole adult life, as a pretend “entrepreneur” and as an apprentice politician. But, like George Wallace, Bannon dressed it up and made it respectable as homage to “the” working class. That was his strategic, anti-establishment contribution to Trump’s campaign.
But notice that even as Bannon ridicules “ethno-nationalism,” he invokes the specter of the Yellow Peril from the Far East, as it was named in the late-19th century by journalists and politicians in agreement with white workers who claimed that their jobs were at risk from a flood of Chinese immigrants. Notice, too, that Bannon approved, indeed encouraged, Trump’s defiant defense of the armed white supremacists who invaded Charlottesville.
In these related senses, Bannon has taken up covert residence in the camp of identity politics. “The” working class imperiled by economic war with China has a color, or a lack of one, as Melville would say, and it’s coded as both a race and a gender: it’s white men.
That’s the ostensible difference between those progressive neoliberal corporate CEOs and Stephen Bannon. They’re worried about consumers, their customers, who care about racial justice and gender equity. He’s worried about workers, the white guys who care about jobs and wages.
But the CEOs and this unruly insurgent agree on something important—redistribution is inconceivable absent recognition.