Corporate America ‘makes money critiquing itself.’ The rest of us pay the price in diminished freedom.
Tunku Varadarajan | Wall Street Journal Opinion | June 25, 2021
A self-made multimillionaire who founded a biotech company at 28, Vivek Ramaswamy is every inch the precocious overachiever. He tells me he attended law school while he was in sixth grade. He’s joking, in his own earnest manner. His father, an aircraft engineer at General Electric, had decided to get a law degree at night school. Vivek sat in on the classes with him, so he could keep his dad company on the long car rides to campus and back—a very Indian filial act.
“I was probably the only person my age who’d heard of Antonin Scalia, ” Mr. Ramaswamy, 35, says in a Zoom call from his home in West Chester, Ohio. His father, a political liberal, would often rage on the way home from class about “some Scalia opinion.” Mr. Ramaswamy reckons that this was when he began to form his own political ideas. A libertarian in high school, he switched to being conservative at Harvard in “an act of rebellion” against the politics he found there. That conservatism drove him to step down in January as CEO at Roivant Sciences—the drug-development company that made him rich—and write “Woke, Inc,” a book that takes a scathing look at “corporate America’s social-justice scam.” (It will be published in August.)
Mr. Ramaswamy recently watched the movie “Spotlight,” which tells the story of how reporters at the Boston Globe exposed misconduct (specifically, sexual abuse) by Catholic priests in the early 2000s. “My goal in ‘Woke, Inc.’ is to do the same thing with respect to the Church of Wokeism.” He defines “wokeism” as a creed that has arisen in America in response to the “moral vacuum” created by the ebbing from public life of faith, patriotism and “the identity we derived from hard work.” He argues that notions like “diversity,” “equity,” “inclusion” and “sustainability” have come to take their place.
“Our collective moral insecurities,” Mr. Ramaswamy says, “have left us vulnerable” to the blandishments and propaganda of the new political and corporate elites, who are now locked in a cynical “arranged marriage, where each partner has contempt for the other.” Each side is getting out of the “trade” something it “could not have gotten alone.”
Wokeness entered its union with capitalism in the years following the 2008 financial panic and recession. Mr. Ramaswamy believes that conditions were perfect for the match. “We were—and are—in the midst of the biggest intergenerational wealth transfer in history,” he says. Barack Obama had just been elected the first black president. By the end of the crisis, Americans “were actually pretty jaded with respect to capitalism. Corporations were the bad guys. The old left wanted to take money from corporations and give it to poor people.”
The birth of wokeism was a godsend to corporations, Mr. Ramaswamy says. It helped defang the left. “Wokeism lent a lifeline to the people who were in charge of the big banks. They thought, ‘This stuff is easy!’ ” They applauded diversity and inclusion, appointed token female and minority directors, and “mused about the racially disparate impact of climate change.” So, in Mr. Ramaswamy’s narrative, “a bunch of big banks got together with a bunch of millennials, birthed woke capitalism, and then put Occupy Wall Street up for adoption.” Now, in Mr. Ramaswamy’s tart verdict, “big business makes money by critiquing itself.”
Mr. Ramaswamy regards Klaus Schwab, founder and CEO of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as the “patron saint of wokeism” for his relentless propagation of “stakeholder capitalism”—the view that the unspoken bargain in the grant to corporations of limited liability is that they “must do social good on the side.”
Davos is “the Woke Vatican,” Mr. Ramaswamy says; Al Gore and Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, are “its archbishops.” CEOs “further down the chain”—he mentions James Quincey of Coca-Cola, Ed Bastian of Delta, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, John Donahoe of Nike and Alan Jope of Unilever —are its “cardinals.”
Mr. Ramaswamy says that “unlike the investigative ‘Spotlight’ team at the Boston Globe, I’m a whistleblower, not a journalist. But the church analogy holds strong.” He paraphrases a line in the movie: “It takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one. In the case of my book, the child I’m concerned about is American democracy.”
In league with the woke left, corporate America “uses force” as a substitute for open deliberation and debate, Mr. Ramaswamy says. “There’s the sustainability accounting standards board of BlackRock, which effectively demands that in order to win an investment from BlackRock, the largest asset-manager in the world, you must abide by the standards of that board.”
Was the board put in place by the owners of the trillions of dollars of capital that Mr. Fink manages? Of course not, Mr. Ramaswamy says. “And yet he’s actually using his seat of corporate power to sidestep debate about questions like environmentalism or diversity on boards.”
The irrepressible Mr. Ramaswamy presses on with another example. Goldman Sachs, he says with obvious relish, “is a very Davos-fitting example.” At the 2020 World Economic Forum, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon “issued an edict from the mountaintops of Davos.” Mr. Solomon announced his company would refuse to take a company public if its board wasn’t sufficiently diverse. “So Goldman gets to define what counts as ‘diverse,’ ” Mr. Ramaswamy says. “No doubt, they’re referring to skin-deep, genetically inherited attributes.”
He describes this sort of corporate imposition—“a market force supplanting open political debate to settle the essence of political questions”—as one of the “defining challenges” America faces today. “If democracy means anything,” he adds, “it means living in a one-person-one-vote system, not a one-dollar-one-vote system.” Voters’ voices “are unadjusted by the number of dollars we wield in the marketplace.” Open debate in the public square is “our uniquely American mechanism” of settling political questions. He likens the woke-corporate silencing of debate as akin to the “old-world European model, where a small group of elites gets in a room and decides what’s good for everyone else.”
The wokeism-capitalism embrace, Mr. Ramaswamy says, was replicated in Silicon Valley. Over the past few years, “Big Tech effectively agreed to censor—or ‘moderate’—content that the woke movement didn’t like. But they didn’t do it for free.” In return, the left “agreed to look the other way when it comes to leaving Silicon Valley’s monopoly power intact.” This arrangement is “working out masterfully” for both sides.
The rest of corporate America appears to be following suit. “There’s a Big Pharma version, too,” Mr. Ramaswamy says. “Big Pharma had an epiphany in dealing with the left.” It couldn’t beat them, so it joined them. “Rather than win the debate on drug pricing, they decided to just change the subject instead. Who needs to win a debate if you can just avoid having it?” So we see “big-time pharma CEOs musing about topics like racial justice and environmentalism, and writing multibillion-dollar checks to fight climate change, while taking price hikes that they’d previously paused when the public was angry about drug pricing.”
Coca-Cola follows the same playbook, he says: “It’s easier for them to issue statements about voting laws in Georgia, or to train their employees on how to ‘be less white,’ than it is to publicly reckon with its role in fueling a nationwide epidemic of diabetes and obesity—including in the black communities they profess to care about so much.” (In a statement, Coca-Cola apologized for the “be less white” admonition and said that while it was “accessible through our company training platform,” it “was not a part of our training curriculum.”)
Nike finds it much easier to write checks to Black Lives Matter and condemn America’s history of slavery, Mr. Ramaswamy says, even as it relies on “slave labor” today to sell “$250 sneakers to black kids in the inner city who can’t afford to buy books for school.” All the while, Black Lives Matter “neuters the police in a way that sacrifices even more black lives.” (Nike has said in a statement that its code of conduct prohibits any use of forced labor and “we have been engaging with multi-stakeholder working groups to assess collective solutions that will help preserve the integrity of our global supply chains.”)
Born in suburban Ohio in 1985, Mr. Ramaswamy grew up “a nerdy Indian kid with glasses, carrying books from class to class.” Peers in his public junior high school didn’t like his attitude—paying attention in class, getting his homework done, being polite to teachers—and “a much bigger kid” pushed him down a stairwell in an act of “anti-achiever” payback. He needed hip surgery after the attack, and his immigrant Hindu parents, fearing for his safety, switched him to a Catholic school.
There he was the sole Hindu, yet his uniqueness never felt like isolation. It pushed him to learn about another religion, even as it reinforced his faith in his own, and taught him, he says, how to fashion responses to difficult questions that he hadn’t encountered before—responses that needed to be constructive, not combative: “I was often pushed to change my mind.”
Mr. Ramaswamy despairs of changing the minds of the woke in America, and offers instead a couple of practical methods by which a battle against wokeism may begin.
First, he suggests a reform that should be “at the top of the conservative political agenda right now.” There needs to be “a new movement that adds political belief right there next to race, sex, national origin and religion” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs employment discrimination. “If you can’t discriminate against somebody because they’re black, or gay, or Muslim, then you shouldn’t be able to discriminate against them because of the expression of their political perspective.”
Another legislative fix would be an amendment to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes website operators from lawsuits by giving them vast power to moderate third-party content while specifying that they are not to be treated as the “publisher or speaker” of such content. This is what permits sites like Twitter and Facebook to ban disfavored users like Donald Trump without fear of legal challenge.
Likening the benefit Twitter and Facebook derive from this state-mandated immunity to the federal funding that universities receive, he calls for strings to be attached to tech companies as part of the bargain. “If you benefit from Section 230, a federally provided form of pre-emptive immunity, that’s fine. But you’d then have to abide by the same standards as the federal government itself, including the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.”
He’d also like to extend the protection of the religion clause of Title VII to victims of wokeism. Title VII prohibits discrimination against an employee on the basis of religion. “Its flip side,” says Mr. Ramaswamy, “is that if you’re an employer, you can’t force your religion down the throats of your employees.”
In making this last point, Mr. Ramaswamy insists that wokeism is a religion, and needs to be seen as such. It is a view that is becoming increasingly plausible. Perhaps it will be tested in court.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.