Monday, Dec. 04, 2023|
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The theatrically combative presidential candidacy of Vivek Ramaswamy seems to be premised on two messages. One is his disdain for identity politics, which he argues creates a citizenry obsessed with victimhood and a corporate sector in thrall to trendy left-wing obsessions, leaving America trapped in a “cold cultural civil war,” as he put it last month in the first Republican debate. The other is his devotion to Donald Trump, whom Ramaswamy relentlessly defended in the debate, promising to support the former president, if Trump wins the Republican nomination, or to pardon him, if Ramaswamy wins the White House. He called Trump “the best president of the 21st century.”
Both these stances, however, are complicated or contradicted by Ramaswamy’s literary trilogy: “Woke, Inc.” (2021), “Nation of Victims” (2022) and “Capitalist Punishment” (2023). In these works, Ramaswamy is more thoughtful, but also more confused, than his smiling, trolly, rapid-fire campaign persona. He can’t seem to decide if woke capitalism is a public-relations ploy or a mortal threat to the republic. And even as he lionizes Trump among his conservative heroes, he writes that Trump’s calls for American greatness degenerated into “just another tale of grievance, a persecution complex that swallowed much of the Republican Party whole.” (Swallowing much of something whole is a typical Ramaswamy hedge, one of several categorical assertions in these books that find room for a little wiggle.)
In “Woke, Inc.,” published some seven months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Ramaswamy assails the rise of so-called stakeholder capitalism, the notion that companies should not solely serve the interests of shareholders but should also serve the interests of workers, the environment or society writ vague. The traditional principle of maximizing shareholder value is not just about encouraging corporate greed, he argues, but about keeping capitalists in their lane, making sure that their business judgments do not lapse into moral ones. Yet that is precisely what happens, Ramaswamy complains, when CEOs and investors conspire with activists to push for, say, racial equity audits or socially responsible investing.
Here, Ramaswamy struggles to make up his mind. Stakeholder capitalism is a “farce,” he writes, an example of “corporate opportunism” and “self-interest masquerading as morality,” a “do-good smoke screen” through which businesses distract the public from their perfidy. “The social causes simply serve as a form of reputational laundering for those same companies’ profit-seeking,” Ramaswamy maintains, with businesses “performatively one-upping each other to show that they’re the good guys.”
But if the whole thing is just a lucrative PR scam, then it is hard to see how it is also “the greatest long-run threat of all to American democracy itself,” as Ramaswamy warns readers. On one page, businesses are pushing radical agendas and imposing their elite progressive values on our democratic process; on another, they are just “feigning wokeness” to win favor with consumers, “pretending to care about justice in order to make money.” So, is stakeholder capitalism a punch in the mouth to our nation’s principles or just lip service to justice? In Ramaswamy’s writing, the answer is never quite clear.
Even when he is certain that something nefarious is underway, Ramaswamy doesn’t seem quite sure who the bad guys are. He warns that Facebook and Google “have effectively assumed the role of the state itself,” censoring public discourse under the guise of fighting hate speech and misinformation. “The rise of Wokenomics consummates Silicon Valley’s coup over our democracy,” he writes ominously. Yet just a few pages later, readers learn that it is Congress that has “co-opted Silicon Valley” to restrict speech for its own purposes. So, is the tech industry the puppet or the master? Consistency seems irrelevant to Ramaswamy’s scattershot populism. In “Woke, Inc.” there are enough culprits to satisfy everyone.
I don’t know if Ramaswamy has an underlying philosophy or just an underlying shtick, but if one of these books captures it, it is probably “Nation of Victims.” In this book, Ramaswamy laments that Americans have lost their scrappy, underdog attitude and defaulted to a mentality of group identity and collective grievance — an outlook that becomes self-fulfilling. “If we divide the world into black and white, virtuous victims and evil oppressors with no shades of gray, we will create the nation that we see,” he writes.
Ramaswamy concedes that “the Constitution brought justice to black Americans with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education,” but since then virtually every possible identity group has been battling for a perch on what he derides as the “victimhood podium.” The result, he concludes, is a nation that has lost confidence in itself — a culture in decline, a less productive economy, a society that produces activists rather than engineers, a country so weakened that it “would almost certainly lose” a naval war with China over Taiwan.
This could be the core of Ramaswamy’s political message: He marries anti-woke messages to pro-growth ones and links culture wars at home to shooting wars abroad. If Ramaswamy makes any contribution to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party, it will be in broadening the case against identity politics from the realm of book bans and bathrooms to that of economics and national security.
“Capitalist Punishment,” the latest and slimmest of his books, is something of an outlier in the Ramaswamy canon. It is narrowly cast, focusing on his criticism of investment funds that adopt ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles to guide their strategies. Here, Ramaswamy’s transgressors are the investment firms BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard. “The Big Three are becoming a threat to democracy,” he contends, because they impose social-activist values onto the industries in which they hold significant positions, including the oil and banking sectors, and because pension fund managers adopt ESG investing even if individual pensioners may be ignorant of (or hostile to) such principles. “When elites force their values onto everyone else,” he writes, ordinary people lose trust in important institutions. “And that, in turn, makes society fall apart.”
As in his other works, some tensions emerge in “Capitalist Punishment.” When Ramaswamy complains that ESG investing is radically transforming corporate America but also revels in the fact that ESG funds are “underperforming” and “dropping like flies,” it’s hard to tell if ESG investing is pervasive or in decline. Yet, near the end of the book, readers gain some clarity on Ramaswamy’s own interests and motives.
He calls for antitrust lawsuits against the big three and suggests that Black Rock break itself into two smaller firms. Ever helpful, he also offers an alternative for investors — an investment firm called Strive, co-founded in 2022 by Ramaswamy himself.
And here the book reads almost like a fund prospectus: “Strive’s mandate to underlying companies is simple: focus on excellence over politics; provide excellent products and services to your customers; and maximize value for your shareholders by doing that rather than advancing any particular social or political agenda.”
Though he retains a multimillion-dollar stake in the company, Ramaswamy resigned from the board and relinquished his day-to-day responsibilities at Strive earlier this year because he was running for president. Even so, depending on the standards to which one holds politicians, Ramaswamy’s self-serving approach in “Capitalist Punishment” may be disheartening or pedestrian. At the very least, encountering it does persuade me, as Ramaswamy argues in these books, that there are plenty of business people out there “pretending to care about justice in order to make money.”
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