What a relief it was to hear several days ago that the ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s is supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. In a statement, the company claimed there is an “urgent need to take concrete steps to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms.” Thank God, I thought, at least now I can tuck into my overpriced ice-cream knowing that its enlightened creators are not venal racists. And better still, they are encouraging me not to be either. Later I saw that Amazon, Facebook and Nike had also weighed in with their own words of support.
There is something deeply weird about big multinational companies assuming prominent social stances. On the face of it there is nothing intrinsically wrong with institutions taking principled stands against aspects of society with which they disapprove. But we should be profoundly suspicious whenever big business suddenly develops a social conscience. In the pursuit of growth, market share, customer satisfaction and brand development, corporations are prepared to absorb and then regurgitate almost any modern-day trend, fashion or faddery – however important or frivolous.
Vicarious identification is often cringeworthy, but it is made considerably worse when multinationals ascend the pulpit and denounce moral neglect and indiscretion. And while it has been more than a year since the backlash over Gillette’s toxic masculinity advertisement campaign, nothing much seems to have changed. Many companies continue to bestride the world stage like the enormous, jabbering Woke-asaurus-Rex, using corporate activism as yet another means of production, as yet another way of being “front of mind”.
While Karl Marx was wrong about many, many things, on some aspects of commodity fetishism he was surely right. As later Marxists observed, capitalism is a very adept and malleable system which – like a chameleon – can assume different forms of human emotion to entice the consumer. Here, corporations are actively seeking to infuse and ally their products with popular movements. The commodification of feelings brings together the material product itself along with the feel-good street-cred that comes with supporting brands which publicly endorse a particular cause.
Curiously, this is a position held by many high Tories, who deplore the gluttony of commodity culture just as fervently as do the Marxists.
While this is a divisive game, it also a cheapening one. Imagine, for example, if General Motors, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Coca-Cola, during the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, felt they needed to come out in support of the ideas expressed by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Surely a movement, through the power of its ideas, self-belief and people, does not require something as kitsch and transparent as “brand support”. It can prosper without the faux praise and encouragement of corporate America.
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We look on at America in despair, for the murder of George Floyd, and what it represents, and for the violence which has ensued these past days. But we do not need to be told by global corporations that this is an issue we, or even they, should care about. On the big questions facing society we should reject the rank hypocrisy and pseudo-activism of corporations and leave it to citizens to decide – and act.