The swiftness with which Ingraham has found herself in dire straits has left some perturbed. Commentators have raised concerns about the fairness of boycotts and the threat they pose to free speech; some conservatives have also attempted to initiate counter-boycotts of the companies that have parted ways with Ingraham.
Yet it’s not quite right to classify these advertisers’ decisions as a straightforward boycott. In the context of Ingraham’s long career in right-wing media, sniping at a teenager over college admissions is perhaps one of her less obscene stunts, which suggests it’s unlikely that these companies suddenly grew a collective conscience and decided to bring their expenditures into accord with their morals. It’s more likely that Ingraham is the victim of a capital strike, when investors withdraw or withhold investments en masse because they’ve determined that potential hazards outweigh potential gains.
Remember: Capital is capital; it is not your friend. Conservatives are learning this the hard way, and those on the left shouldn’t forget it, even when companies happen to decide the best bet is the morally correct one. As Ross Douthat pointed out recently in the New York Times, “Corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather, the activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess — to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone.”
But the fact that we can’t rely on capital to do much besides look out for its own cupidinous interests presents more than comeuppance for conservatives who’ve spent the past few decades building strategic political alliances with big business. It also foregrounds a key imbalance in our politics: While capital can strike on a whim and effectively shut down a political program or initiative, labor’s ability to similarly assert itself in the public sphere is comparatively limited.
There are no regulations or laws preventing or even restricting capital strikes. This means that the social and political aspirations of capital always have an effective instrument on hand. But the same can’t be said for labor. All over the United States, euphemistically titled right-to-work laws strangle organized labor, preventing the kind of coordination among workers that allows for effective striking. Then there are anti-strike laws, some of which fine public-sector unions huge amounts for going on strike, while others criminalize striking for individual workers. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is in the midst of deciding a conservative-backed case against public-sector unions that, if successful, could weaken American labor even further. Some groups — including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — have even expressed concern that an anti- labor ruling in the case could damage the future of private-sector unions, too.
Normally, this capital-financed onslaught against labor is interpreted as capital just doing what it does: trying to squeeze maximal profits out of business transactions, workers be damned. And it is that. But in light of the power of capital strikes in public life, it should also be understood as something else: an effort to limit the ability of labor to exert the same kind of control over politics and discourse as capital itself does. It adds a dimension of social and political imbalance, in other words, to the already- existing material imbalance between capital and labor in a capitalist society.
Some workers — smart, courageous ones — have overcome this imbalance to a degree by virtually ignoring anti-strike laws, such as the West Virginia teachers whose successful wildcat strike has already inspired a string of hopeful labor actions in other red states. To narrow the gap further will require either better laws or more strategic lawlessness, at least where advancing the interests of labor are concerned. This might rankle capital, and it should. But remember: Capital is not your friend. Just ask Laura Ingraham.