One of the key doctrines for the Puritans and their Yankee offspring is that material blessings are a sign of God’s favor towards a person or an entire country. The corollary of this is that the wealthiest (i.e., the most favored by God) should be the religious leaders of the community. It has taken nearly 400 years, but now Yankee society is nearing the fulfilment of this ideal of theirs regarding wealth and religious leadership:
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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.
Source: Tara Burton, ‘Are corporations becoming the new arbiters of public morality?’, 17 Aug. 2017, https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/17/16162226/corporations-replacing-churches-americas-conscience, opened 24 Aug. 2017
The CEO-pastor and oversized-business-corporation-as-Church are the latest gifts to the South and the other States from New England ideology. But, fresh off caving to corporate threats in North Carolina and Texas over something as morally uncomplicated as who belongs in what bathroom, does the South have the will to withstand this latest large-scale attack on Christian tradition by the neo-Puritan corporate oligarchy of ‘self-proclaimed arbiters of the public good’? Or will Southerners quietly and unthinkingly complete their transition to homo economicus?
Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!
Anathema to the Union!