Guest Columns

How Capitalism Went “Progressive”


Mark Edmundson


  Not long ago, a thoughtful political science professor at Williams College, Darel E. Paul, took a stab at understanding one of the mysteries—maybe it’s the mystery—of our political moment. Why did the corporations go progressive? Capital is not supposed to be progressive. Capital is supposed to be conservative. Its natural ally is—or has been—the Republican party. That has been the party of the (relatively) free market, low taxes on business, and the rights of the individual entrepreneur.
  Now everything has changed. Corporations push gay rights, trans rights, and women’s rights. They endorse pronoun choice. They’ve contributed massive sums to Black Lives Matter. They’re committed to intersectionality. They’re down with what are apparently the more radical elements of the democratic party.
  What happened?
  Professor Paul brings forward a few theories as to how and why the fusion of capitalism and “progressivism” occurred. One is what he calls the “diversionary theory.” “Thus,” he says, “Disney supposedly produces gay-friendly content to hide the fact that the company filmed Mulan in Xinjiang province, and Amazon promotes its commitment to racial equality today so that customers will forget to demand an increase in corporate tax rate tomorrow.” Paul dismisses this argument as simplistic, and rightly so. But I do think it’s on the right track. What we’re seeing here in the merger of “progressivism” and capital is a matter of consciousness. It’s a matter of people being able to hold two apparently incompatible ideas in their minds at once and feel fine about it. You can now be all for capitalism and be a progressive, too. How could that happen?
  Let me offer a speculation. We’re dealing with states of mind here: it can be no more than that.
  I think we have yet to understand what a shock to the American political system the 2016 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders truly was. Bernie apparently came out of nowhere. A grumpy, charmless, unapologetic leftist suddenly emerged and for a while it looked as though he was going to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. It’s possible that but for some chicanery on the part of the DNC, he would have won the nomination. He was that popular. Bernie fired up a vast segment of the politically aware, progressive population, especially among the young.
  Bernie was a democratic socialist, emphasis on democratic. He was not communist: he did not want one party rule, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or any of the other authoritarian nonsense associated, often rightly, with Marx. What he did want was a significant redistribution of resources. He wanted to raise the minimum wage; institute consequential job training programs; subsidize day care for the poor; improve schools, especially in low income neighborhoods; and institute single payer medical care. He did not want to do these things for Black people or Brown people exclusively. He wanted to help all of the poor and the working class. He said of his 2020 run, echoing Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “This campaign is by the working class, for the working class, and of the working class.” It was even more true in 2016 than in 2020. No other major candidate could or would say such a thing. Elizabeth Warren, apparently his closest ideological ally among democratic presidential candidates, said she was capitalist to the tips of her fingers. Bernie was not.
  How was Bernie going to pay for his programs for the poor and the working class? He was going to tax the rich, and tax them good. There’s a moment in the Manifesto when Marx and Engels say, in sum, you members of the bourgeoisie charge us with wanting to do away with private property. That’s right. We’re going to do away with your private property and the sooner the better. Bernie was not going to do away with all private wealth, far from it. But he was going to shift some of it around. The rich were going to get a bit less rich, the poor significantly more prosperous. When he launched his campaign in Burlington, Vermont on May 26, 2015, he said, “I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process.”
  There followed panic among the overlords. The New York Times made it clear that it despised Bernie. The paper gave him minimal coverage, given his strong showings in multiple primaries. And the coverage he did get was often dismissive. The Times eventually admitted as much. The Times ombudsman (a position that no longer exists, significantly enough) concluded, as of September, 2015, that the paper “has not always taken his candidacy very seriously. The tone of some stories is regrettable dismissive, even mocking at times. Some of that is focused on the candidate’s age, appearance and style, rather than what he has to say.” As time passed, things only got worse. The Times mocked Bernie Bros; they unearthed purported instances of sexism among his campaigners. It was harder to mock his record, for Bernie had a proclivity for being right. When most other members of Congress voted for stupid, wasteful wars, Bernie said No. When it was time to support working people, Bernie was at the forefront.
  Most all of the 2016 democratic presidential candidates who’d spent time in office had serious misjudgments to apologize for. Hillary had her pro-war votes and her remarks about super-predators. Bernie wasn’t without flaws. Some found him too easy on guns–he voted against the Brady Bill. Though Bernie represented the citizens of a state where many hunted not only for sport but for sustenance. Overall, Bernie had little to say Sorry for.
  Bernie wanted to take a measure of the corporations’ money. He wanted to appropriate some of the hills of cash that the overclass had been piling up over the past decades. This was terrifying. It was clearly terrifying to the New York Times, and it was surely terrifying to the CEOs of Nike and Apple and Ford and BlackRock. Though one must also say that the policies that Bernie recommended, and still recommends, are in many ways those of a New Deal Democrat. Roosevelt would probably have applauded them; Eisenhower might have, too. But the country has moved so far right, that what looks now like dangerous socialism rhymes pretty well with the politics of the New Deal.
  Still, Bernie was a serious problem. What was to be done?
  You couldn’t discredit Bernie personally. He was an individual of conscience, or as close to that as we have in politics. Noam Chomsky, not an easy judge of character, once said that he did not understand how anyone could possibly do what Bernie had done: spend his life in politics and, decades into the game, have his integrity just about fully intact. Bernie’s followers saw the same thing. They were not going to be dissuaded from supporting Bernie, often passionately, by any facile attempt to discredit him or run him out of town. Bernie has been our nation’s equivalent of a prophet from the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew prophets don’t foretell the future, term for term. What they do is to point down the road and say, in sum, “Keep moving in this direction and here’s where you are going to end up—in something not unlike terrestrial hell.” The Hebrew prophets are often ignored—and for some time Bernie was too. But around 2015, things changed.


  The corporations have spent real money on the ostensibly left wing causes of the day. They have contributed heavily to Black Lives Matter. They have created initiatives to hire more minority workers. They’ve sunk significant resources into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. They’ve created lavish ad campaigns to underline their commitment to women and racial minorities. They’ve helped the best educated of Black people—what W.E.B. DuBois called the talented tenth—to rise professionally.
  And all of this has cost money, significant money.
  But this money amounts to nothing compared to what the corporations would have spent if Bernie had his way. Then the corporations and the super-wealthy would have bled cash out into the public world. They would have felt a gash, a gaping wound. They would, truly, have felt the Bern.
  What the corporations did in response was in effect to split progressivism down the middle. They bought into the cultural imperatives. They were down with the progressives on statues and bathroom and pronouns. They told the world that Black lives mattered. They came up big in defense of trans people. They affirmed intersectionality. They took it in stride, when their employees walked out for an hour to protest this infraction against right-think or that one. If an employee wanted to be Ze on Monday and They on Friday, that was cool. Simply change the entry on the web site.
  And this cost money and took time. But it was nothing compared to what straight up Bernie style democratic socialism would have cost. The corporations could claim to be socially progressive. Look at our adsfor body positivity—no fat shaming in our house! But they got to keep their money, and indeed to make more of it, lots. It was a small price to pay.
  And many people bought in. It turns out that the kind of social activism that the corporations were selling worked fine for them. They liked Bernie a lot, but the truth is that many of his college educated followers probably never cared much for the part of the program geared to help poor white people. The college-taught had learned that these people were mainly backwards and racist and didn’t deserve much help, sick and drug addicted though many were. The whole wealth redistribution bit went by the wayside.
  If you follow the path of corporate progressivism, it is fine to get rich. As long as you have the right positions on issues emanating from the progressive alphabet—BIPOCLGBTQ and on—you are a progressive. You’re cool, and you can gather in all the cash you want. Bernie was noble, OK. But Bernie threatened his followers with having to lead lives of less than modest means. Could you be true to the cause of democratic socialism otherwise? Now, we can be progressive, righteous, cool—and we can be rich. What’s not to like?
  The overlords succeeded in splitting the progressive movement down the middle. We now have a vast quotient of leftists almost exclusively concerned with cultural issues. And we have a far smaller quotient hanging on to the idea that progressivism is about giving all of the poor and working class a chance to elevate themselves, whether we like their ways of life, their culture, and their politics or not.
  America’s capitalists did not sit down at a table, or configure themselves on Zoom, to make this happen. They simply made many canny localized moves that seemed to work toward their major goal, keeping the wolf of democratic socialism at bay. Adam Smith spoke of capitalism’s Invisible Hand, which in time became a trope for capitalism’s powers to control markets efficiently, determine prices, and create maximum profits and minimum obstructions to growth. Maybe that Invisible Hand functions ideologically too, moving quietly to help engender modes of consciousness that secure the interests of the rich and keep the poor and working class in their place. Perhaps the Hand can pull a curtain shut before the eyes of even the best intentioned, most progressively inclined. By going “progressive,” capital won yet another round.