Politics & Policy

The Disciplinary Corporation

Nike shoes at a sporting-goods store in New York City. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Nike, the athletic shoe giant, has pulled a product off the shelves in response to a storm of social-media protest.

Nike, the athletic shoe giant, has pulled a product off the shelves in response to a storm of social-media protest. The product was a sneaker collaboration with sportswear brand Undercover, whose principal designer, Jun Takahashi, published these unspeakable words on Twitter: “No extradition. Go Hong Kong!”

Nike says it made the decision “based on feedback from Chinese consumers.” Just so.

The context is this: Hong Kong, a free, liberal, democratic, self-governing city was handed over to the powers that be in Beijing — a clutch of corrupt, brutal, dishonest, organ-harvesting, gulag-operating murderers — as part of an agreement with the United Kingdom, who once had sovereignty over Hong Kong as a colonial power. Beijing wants Hong Kong to be more like the rest of China, and the people of Hong Kong do not. They recently took to the streets to force the reversal of a decision that would have subjected Hong Kong residents to extradition to the so-called People’s Republic of China for certain crimes rather than be tried in Hong Kong under Hong Kong law. Because the junta in Beijing has no compunction about drumming up charges for political purposes, this would have represented a noose around the neck of every dissident in Hong Kong. Jun Takahashi tweeted his support for liberal democrats against mass-murdering national socialists.

And Nike sided with the mass-murdering national socialists.

Swoosh: There goes your soul.

Nike likes to position itself as a courageous sponsor of dissidents in the economically and racially charged world of sports, for instance giving the heroic treatment to controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a series of cinematic advertisements. Irrespective of your view on the particular merits of Kaepernick and his national-anthem protest, that is the sort of thing one likes to see a big corporation such as Nike do — to say, in essence: “Yes, this is potentially unpopular, and we may lose a few sales over it, but we’re Nike, and we’re big enough and rich enough to do what we think is right.” But of course there is rather less to it than that. Nike, like any politician testing the winds of the moment, has polling to guide it, as Yahoo! Sports reports:

The poll revealed a deep racial, political and generational division when it came to player protests. Specifically, divisions in which a majority of white NFL fans supported disciplining players for not standing for the anthem versus a majority of the NFL’s African-American and Latino fans who didn’t. The sources also said a majority of Republican NFL fans supported the disciplining of players versus a majority of Democrats who didn’t, and a majority of Baby Boomer NFL fans significantly supported discipline more than both Generation Xers and Millennials.

Maybe Nike was being bold — or maybe Nike just did the math and calculated that supporting Kaepernick would appeal to its growing future markets and that that was worth paying a price with its older shrinking markets. Given Nike’s performance in the Undercover matter, it is difficult to give the company and its executives the benefit of the doubt. Red China is an awfully large market, and little Hong Kong is just one city beset on all sides by butchers and brutality. If Colin Kaepernick takes a knee for “March of the Volunteers,” there will be Hell to pay.

The unfortunate and deeply stupid evolution of mob politics in our time is the subject of my new book, The Smallest Minority, Chapter 5 of which is titled “The Disciplinary Corporation.” Ochlocracy — mob rule — sometimes takes the form of rioting or other kinds of open violence, as in the case of Antifa, but more often it consists in the mob bullying third parties — government or, increasingly, businesses — into implementing the mob’s agenda. The vectors of causality can get complicated: If anybody thinks that the Chinese nationalist pressure on Nike was entirely extraneous to the actions of the Chinese state is dangerously naïve. Mobs lean on politicians, but politicians also whip up mobs. In articulating his infamous “fire in a crowded theater” standard — in a case that involved the question of whether the Democrats could lock up war protesters — Oliver Wendell Holmes created our ruling tautology: The government must prohibit the expression of unpopular political ideas, he argued, as a matter of public order, because the mob would not tolerate the expression of those unpopular political ideas, in that case the Socialist party’s criticism of the war effort and conscription. The state consults the mob and the mob presses the state: It becomes a matter of shouting “Fire” in a crowded feedback loop. The evolution of the corporation as an instrument of explicit political discipline in its role as investor and in its role as employer is troubling. A certain kind of old-fashioned libertarian socialist (oxymoronic, or simply moronic, as that formulation may sound to the modern ear) understood the modern state and the modern bureaucratic corporation as being sides of a coin, twin creatures of the same regimenting and centralizing impulse. That line of criticism has much to recommend it, and contemporary conservatives should take note of it.

Nike is willing to act as an instrument of Chinese nationalism, just as firms such as Facebook and Google are willing, and sometimes even eager, to knuckle under to political pressure from governments as different as the one in Beijing and the one in Berlin. Sometimes, this is obviously crass commercial self-interest, but sometimes it is ideological as well. The corporation’s role in American community life is not merely economic: The corporation is a source of status and indeed a source of meaning for those affiliated with it, and what guides the executive decisions within Facebook and Twitter is as much ideological as financial calculation. What ideology will our corporate giants embrace? That is one of the most important and least explored questions of our time.

The news from Nike is not good.

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