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Reviews | Netflix shows the limits of “awakened capital”

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Perhaps the most startling business development of the past decade has been the rise of what conservatives call “woke capital”: big business is taking increasingly progressive positions on divisive issues.

Progressives, of course, simply call it “it’s time.”

Many explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, but the most convincing attributes it to the polarization of education. With educated people moving left on social issues, companies must use their market power to campaign for social justice causes that appeal to this desirable demographic. You can tell this story with optimism – “a new generation of idealistic employees is finally making corporate America a force for good!” Alternatively, they’re just cynical gestures, leaving employees to pretend they haven’t sold to a corporate giant.

Cynics just got new evidence from Netflix.

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Hollywood has been the forerunner of many social justice issues, including the recent #MeToo movement and racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd. In June 2020, Netflix was among many entertainment companies that rushed to support racial justice and black creators.

Now the company is pulling a number of projects from some of its biggest black names, including an animated series based on “Antiracist Baby.” He also warned employees that he will not bow to internal pressure to remove “harmful” content, pressure such as last year’s employee walkout for a Dave Chappelle special.

“If you’re struggling to support the breadth of our content, Netflix may not be the best place for you,” reads a direct “culture note” from the company.

It seems to be part of a larger trend in Hollywood to move away from the overt activism of recent years. “Over the past few weeks,” the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday, “the entertainment industry has suffered a gradual decline in liberal social activism at the corporate level, at least when it comes to making big public statements on specific issues.Companies that issued statements of outright support during Black Lives Matter protests…have said almost nothing about the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade by the United States Supreme Court.

It’s probably too harsh to say that Hollywood’s so-called social justice commitments are just marketing strategies that companies abandoned as soon as the mood changed. But milder cynicism seems warranted: Hollywood was happy to make grand token gestures as long as they weren’t too expensive, but suddenly they seem more expensive.

Educational polarization might have made taking a stand on contentious issues less risky than it was for businesses, because the wealthiest customers — and educated employees — were all on one side. It seemed profitable to bow to their advice, even if it drove a lot of less well-to-do people crazy.

But lower-end customers are also spending money on movies and streaming services. Perhaps more importantly, they vote.

Earlier this year, during controversy over Florida’s new parental rights law, insider activists wanted Disney to use its considerable power as Florida’s major employer to pressure lawmakers to drop the law Project. Disney executive Bob Chapek initially resisted, saying he didn’t want the company to become “political football,” but after news of the dispute leaked, he finally relented.

The resulting fracas with Florida lawmakers saw Disney stripped of its special powers over the area surrounding Disney World, where the corporation essentially functioned as local government. Now, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, business leaders are asking a question: “How can we avoid becoming the next Walt Disney Co.?”

At least Disney has a growing streaming business, with subscriber growth unexpected in the last quarter. Netflix lost subscribers over the same period and now faces a slowing economy, inflationary pressures on households and rising interest rates that must be trying for a company built on top. from a mountain of debt. Layoffs soon followed, and corporate idealism was seemingly kicked out.

This is exactly what to expect. Netflix is ​​a business, not a charity. Denounce capitalist greed if you will, but of course that greed is really just corporations sending consumers back to themselves.

Netflix presumably refused to cancel Dave Chappelle in part because management thinks the service will gain more subscribers by keeping its shows than it will lose – and canceled ‘Antiracist Baby’ because it doesn’t think so. that the project will generate enough subscribers to justify the cost. If you think these decisions should be overturned, your feud is with the public, not Netflix.

Of course, it wasn’t crazy to think that Netflix and its brethren could wield their power to change some members of that audience. But that power was always going to be heavily constrained by the economic needs of the corporation, something the left seems to overlook by pressuring corporations to take the toughest stance possible on everything. There is no corporate shortcut to social change that avoids the need for politics and persuasion, because when faced with this choice, corporations will always choose to make money over history.