Rainbow Capitalism

Suppose you have a beach house and a “friend,” Jane, who invites herself to use it all the time. I put “friend” in quotes because Jane does not actually value you as a friend; she values you only for your beach house. From July to May, Jane is hard to get in touch with. Every time you reach out to her, she comes up with transparent excuses about how busy she is. But during the month of June, Jane eagerly reaches out to you and ingratiates herself to you so that she can enjoy your beach house during her vacation month. When you eventually sell your beach house because of financial troubles, Jane predictably stops associating with you.

If you are anything like me, you will have a low opinion of someone like Jane. By someone like Jane, I mean someone who feigns intimacy with someone or some group of people to advance her own interests, without affording due consideration to the interests of the person or persons with whom she is feigning intimacy. Unfortunately, there are many Janes in the world. But not all Janes are individual people. Sometimes, they are corporations. 

LGBT+ Pride month is coming to a close, and so too are the annual discussions about “rainbow capitalism.” For those who are unfamiliar with the term, rainbow capitalism refers to how corporations pander to the LGBT+ community and its allies, especially during Pride month, by branding their products with Pride symbols such as rainbows. Some believe, for example, Target essentially does to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you in the scenario above: Target ingratiates itself to the LGBT+ community to profit from the sale of limited-edition merchandise, without ever substantively showing concern for LGBT+ people. Others, however, argue that rainbow capitalism, if not wholly good, is “a step in the right direction” because it normalizes LGBT+ representation in public. After all, just 15 years ago we would not have dreamed of the public embracing Pride the way it does today. 

In my view, both and neither of these positions is correct. If Target were doing to LGBT+ people what Jane does to you, then Target would be engaging in problematic rainbow capitalism. But this is not what Target is doing. To see this, let’s return to our example with Jane. Suppose that instead of valuing you for your beach house alone, Jane valued you for many reasons. She values your happiness and flourishing for your own sake among other things. Still, in addition to all of that, she also values being able to go to your beach house. When you sell your beach house, Jane is upset, but supports you and respects your decision. This is closer to what Target does when it engages in rainbow capitalism: Target employs LGBT+ people, has an LGBTQ+ diversity business council, published a Pride manifesto, and took a stand for transgender people when the transgender bathroom controversy was ablaze, in addition to branding merchandise with rainbows for profit during the month of June. To be a rainbow capitalist under these conditions seems to me genuinely benign. 

Now consider a different case. Some corporations have allegedly donated substantial sums of money to anti-LGBT+ organizations. It is not always clear what one means when they say that an organization is anti-LGBT+, though, so let’s stipulate that a hypothetical organization lobbies to abolish the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, and some multinational corporation funnels hundreds of millions of dollars to this organization. Then, during Pride month, the corporation slaps rainbows and “#LoveIsLove” on tees they sell to profit off of the LGBT+ community and its allies. This is clearly problematic, and worthy of criticism. Still, some will insist that the corporation participating in Pride by selling limited-edition merchandise is good on balance because it represents the strides we’ve taken toward including LGBT+ people in our society.

Social inclusion, of course, has value. Still, social inclusion for the right reasons has even greater value. It may be valuable for the awkward friend to be invited to an important party, even if the only reason he is invited is because he is friends with people cooler than he, who are also invited. But it would be of undoubtedly greater value to the awkward friend to be invited to that party because the party host likes him and wants him there. In my view, criticisms of rainbow capitalism are legitimate when they are aimed at getting corporations to treat LGBT+ people with dignity year-round, rather than showing indifference or hostility to the community until it benefits them enough to hypocritically proclaim their commitment to equality. This does not necessarily mean that we should boycott businesses that are transparently performative in allying themselves with the LGBT+ community, or that we should demand they stop selling flamboyant paraphernalia during Pride month. But it does mean that we can (and should!), in some way, hold corporations to account for failing to live up to an ideal of inclusion for the right reasons.

Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

By the way, Radical Classical Liberals turns 1 tomorrow! Honored to be a part of it.