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Are corporations becoming the new arbiters of public morality?

After Charlottesville, CEOs have become our public conscience. Here's what that says about capitalism in America.

Have corporations become our conscience?
Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and Donald Trump’s controversially tepid response — a surprising group has emerged as the self-proclaimed voice of public morality: corporations.

Members of Trump’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative and his Strategy and Policy Forum, including the CEOs of companies like Blackstone and 3M, determined that Trump’s implicit association with white supremacists was bad for the nation — or at least, bad for business. They resigned from the advisory positions, prompting the president to eventually just shut the councils down completely.

The CEOs’ resignations are part of a broader trend of major corporations taking a public stand on issues of social justice. Web hosting site GoDaddy took down neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer after the Charlottesville violence, and Google later declined to host the site. (It reappeared, briefly, on the dark web, then subsequently with a Russian address.) Airbnb deleted the accounts of members it deemed to be white supremacists looking for Charlottesville accommodation. GoFundMe took down a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the legal fees of the white nationalist who killed counterprotester Heather Hayer with his car.

The political decisions of corporations on both sides of the political aisle have influenced the spending choices of their supporters — or their detractors — as corporate branding has become even more politicized. This weekend’s planned, and likely postponed, alt-right rally was scheduled to take place on the Google campuses: a protest against the company’s firing of an engineer who circulated a sexist internal memo on women’s capacity to lead in business. Meanwhile, sites like #grabyourwallet offer consumers information about which companies do business with the Trump administration. And conservative boycotts of companies that have made statements perceived to be anti-Trump have also made news — like Nordstrom’s, which dropped Ivanka Trump’s shoe line.

Ridge Montes is the founder of Impakt, a startup that automates ethical purchasing for online shoppers. In a Facebook post he shared with Vox, he wrote: "To a greater extent than ever, the battle against extremism will take place on fronts that are operated and administrated by privately managed companies ... Private companies will become powerful organs in the fight both for and against democracy, humanity, and civil liberties."

In a follow-up interview, Montes highlighted the degree to which our social and informational infrastructure and the way we communicate with one another exists within the realm of private ownership.

“There is nothing on the internet,” he says, not a forum, a comments section of a news site, or a social media platform used to coordinate political protest events, “that isn’t owned by somebody.” In other words, political discourse and discourse about social goods is shaped at every level, for better or for worse, by companies with a financial interest in that discourse.

It would be tempting to praise many of these companies unreservedly for “taking a stand.” And indeed, their stances are worthy of praise, insofar as the intolerance of Nazis demands more than the bare minimum in terms of accolades.

But it is worth, too, examining what it means to live in a society where public morality is dictated by corporations with a financial interest in our sense of virtue. If, say, Dutch airline KLM wishes to celebrate LGBTQ rights in a recent, controversial, advertisement, are they doing it on principle? Or are they riding the wave of viral interest that is sure to come their way, assessing, likely rightly, they’ll court more customers from those who wish to spend their travel dollars with an outwardly inclusive company than lose customers outraged by pro-LGBTQ sympathies?

Likewise, does a folksy craft company like Hobby Lobby, whose Christian values are now synonymous with its corporate branding in the wake of its landmark Supreme Court case, make the same business calculation?

If so, what’s remarkable is not the decision of an individual company — Airbnb, say, or Google — to make a principled and visible choice to ally its personal brand with a given set of values, but rather the prevailing winds of cultural change. The remarkable thing here is the overall climate that makes it profitable for them to make it.

At the same time, there is an extreme danger in conflating companies’ statuses as a bellwether for their target demographics’ values and their de facto status as mouthpieces for some imagined form of the public good. They do not shape public discourse, nor are they totally subject to it, but rather reinforce the values its customers wish to ally themselves with.

Once, a company might have sold sex, or wealth; the opportunity that buying this product would make you into the person you want to be. (Just remember Mad Men’s Don Draper’s famous maxim, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”) Now, they sell a community-based form of virtue.

Corporations across the political spectrum have taken an outsize role in identity formation, functioning the way, say, a church service or other ritualistic gathering once did. A well-meaning left-wing college student might choose to spend her money on companies whose values align with her own, choosing to buy her sandwich from Starbucks (or, more likely, an independently-run, sustainable, fair-trade equivalent) instead of Chick Fil-A. But every time she goes there, or tweets her support of this or that brand, she reinforces her own identity, both to herself and others, as a member of a group with particular and specific values. So, too, the right-wing “free speech” activist, who may choose to patronize censorship-free platforms like the chat application Discord, or use, as the Daily Stormer did, hosting platforms like Cloudflare.

Critics of either set of behaviors might dismiss either set of spending choices as “virtue-signaling”: the process of performing “good” behavior to achieve a higher status within a given targeted group. But, in practice, the reinforcement the company provides — demanding the spending of money as a ritualistic as well as transactional act, fostering communal interactions with its fans on social media — is less unilateral. It’s not just virtue-signaling, but virtue-creating.

In this, corporate identity functions as a kind of religion, at least in the sense understood by 19th century French social scientist Émile Durkheim, who envisioned religion’s function ultimately as a kind of social glue fostered through the affirmation of one’s own identity, in which people "feel bound to one another because of their common beliefs.” Consumption, in other words, has replaced community.

In such a paradigm, where corporations and “branding” mediate our own sense of self and contribute to the affirmation of our values, is it really such a surprise that they have also become, more than ever, self-proclaimed arbiters of the public good? In an increasingly fragmented society, where the largest “religious” group in America is the religiously “unaffiliated,” where even religious faith is increasingly decentralized, corporations have become the closest thing many people have to religious bodies. For all of the power of the Christian right as an umbrella movement, we no longer have a unifying cultural body like, say, mainline Protestantism was a century ago. Our own consumerism and corporate loyalty is the closest thing some see as a way of expressing faith.

It’s difficult to say whether that’s necessarily a good or a bad thing. It is as much a result of wider cultural forces than its cause — no more or less than KLM’s decision to run a pro-LGBTQ ad or Google’s choice to fire a sexist employee. But it’s worth comparing Airbnb, Google, or any other corporation whose stated morality can easily change with what’s trending on Twitter, with its polar opposite in terms of approach to public opinion: the Catholic Church, a body that has, by and large, steadfastly resisted altering its doctrines to reflect a given cultural mood, even when many of its members might like it to.

Both sets of institutions — and both approaches to morality — have their pros and cons. But, when it comes to conflating corporations’ business decisions with their moral stances, we cannot afford to overlook the extent to which they reflect, and reinforce, capitalism as a major religious, as well as economic, force in American society.

We affirm our values — and identity — at the shopping till as much as, or more than, the altar.

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