James Foley

James Foley

Let Them Eat Woke

Two new reports claim that "wokeness" is a liability for the left. But the real problem, claims James Foley, is when it becomes impossible to think about emancipation in any other terms

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“We should openly embrace liberal, tolerant but common-sense positions on the ‘culture’ issues,” says Tony Blair, in the foreword to a new report addressing Labour’s post-Brexit electoral woes, “and emphatically reject the ‘wokeism’ of a small though vocal minority.” If Blair has a skill, it is exploiting the left’s emotional fragility; if he has a signature aesthetic, it is style over substance. Thus, true to form, his inflammatory preface yielded controversy over findings that were otherwise a bore: anyone reading for a titillating debate on “wokeness” will be wasting two hours. The report is too dull to deserve its evil reputation.

Still, Blair got his wish: the aggregate of online leftism is nothing if not predictable. But for future reference, rather than rising to Blair’s bait, my preference would be to consider the conclusions of another report, also published last month, by the leftist journal Jacobin. 

While Blair’s jibes are unsupported by data, and amount to evidence-free policymaking, the Jacobin report explores “wokeness” in conceptual and empirical depth. Its conclusions, even if predictable to many, do challenge echo chamber leftism and by extension much of Jacobin’s readership. “Progressives do not need to surrender questions of social justice to win working-class voters,” it warns, “but ‘woke’, activist-inspired rhetoric is a liability”.

Now, few can deny that “wokeness” is a slippery concept, and ripe for abuse on all sides of polarised debates. Just as there are few self-described “populists”, few nowadays would self-describe as “woke”, given the word’s increasingly pejorative connotations. At that level, very few “wokesters” exist (although a larger element will feel personally stung by any criticism of “woke” behaviours – hence Blair’s inflammatory use of the term).

At another level, most of the population is “woke”, compared, at least, to twenty years ago. All sides of the culture war have incentives to exaggerate the influence of “social conservatism”. But measurements of social attitudes suggest that a vast liberalism prevails: on aggregate, people are less and less worried by the sexual, religious or social behaviours of their neighbours, with the caveat that these behaviours do not impact on others. Most “culture war” debates occur within this liberal consensus: does allowing male-bodied people to access women’s prisons threaten the safety of female-bodied women? Does Islam pose a threat to globalised, cosmopolitan consumer capitalism?

Equally, majorities are suspicious of “political correctness”. This is most especially true of working-class people, across all lines of gender and race. Jacobin offers further evidence for these conclusions. White working-class voters are not turned off by ethnic minority or openly anti-racist candidates; black and Latino working-class voters are turned off by faux-academic, activist rhetoric. Defending people from oppression is not, itself, the liability – “wokeness” is.

 “Wokeness”, says the report, is not defined by its defence of the oppressed – on that front, their positions are often shared by large majorities – but by a “specialized vocabulary”: “These phrases usually denote familiar concepts, but the specialized language has the effect of signalling a particular awareness of or attitudes toward certain group-specific issues or inequalities”. It is less about progressive, liberal attitudes, than about the obscurantist, competitive and censorious culture that surrounds the enforcement of new norms. 

How relevant are these findings? Compared to Jacobin’s and Blair’s reports, I am less anxious about electability or even – as such – remoteness from the working class. Both are worrying enough, but ultimately, worries about electability do little to challenge wokeness itself. Activists in this subculture are not much animated by winning popular majorities: they may object that, even if their views are temporarily unpopular, their aim is to be on the “right side of history” against an (often imagined idea of the) illiberal public. To be clear, here they have a point: some unpopular views are worth defending. 

Cynics might add that their true aim is subcultural status for themselves, as opposed to collective power for a class. Equally, while some of “woke” is self-interested or merely pretentious, good faith wokeness is troubling in different ways: rather than suggesting something opposed to true leftism, wokeness is then the expression of the vacuum where leftism should be.

Either way, wokeness flouts majority opinion while demanding competitive conformity to the subculture: if popular attitudes catch up, goalposts must be moved, or the subculture will dry up and go barren. Thus, showing that wokeness fails to cut with working-class attitudes does little to challenge its spreading influence.

But there is a more profound problem here, which transcends immediate electoral considerations. My worry is that uncritical deference to academic/NGO fashions might render us incapable of remembering other, more collectivist traditions of liberation. Since “wokeism” does not and cannot aspire to universalism, we will be left with persistent, false divides between “taking race/gender/sexuality seriously” and giving credence to “ordinary” people. That divide is neither productive nor necessary. And the dichotomy, if it persists, will preclude the collectivism that could generate a real leftist revival, which is not the same as space in an Urban Outfitters book counter.

In truth, contemporary “wokeness” involves historically peculiar claims about emancipation. In the socialist tradition which dominated the twentieth century, transitory categories – masculine and feminine, black and white, etc – were to be overcome by determined efforts to uproot their social causes. 

The founders of contemporary “wokeness” emerged in dialogue with Marxism, and doubtless made legitimate claims against “class reductionism”. But soon – and by soon, I mean the 1980s, not the 2000s – they vanquished this mode of universalism. Deconstruction and fragmentation went viral. Postmodernism ruled the roost. Undergraduates were trained by rote to refute the past pretensions of historical materialism and class analysis, until those traditions virtually disappeared as legitimate academic topics.

The new activist politics is a highly simplified, moralised version of this post-1980s consensus. For some, it is the only game in town for liberation politics. But this is more about intellectual conformity than about “listening to”, far less “centring”, actual minorities or women.

Socialists sometimes feel compelled to imitate “woke” vocabulary and tactics, as some kind of adaptation to “popular consciousness”. This is where opinions polling, for all its limitations, can be a useful counterweight to “activist experience”. The Jacobin report conclusively shows that these are not default opinions, even among women or ethnic minorities, but rather those of subcultures where socialists are over-represented. Perhaps the flaw, from Jacobin’s perspective, is that they are forced to plead with that subculture to keep some sense of proportion.

Equally, it is surely a law of subcultures that imitating their behaviours never commands respect. One may think of Menzies Campbell and his Arctic Monkeys. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it invites ridicule when it is based in ulterior motives – and, to be clear, relative to liberal identity politics, socialists should have ulterior motives. They will more likely command respect if they retain self-respect: there is nothing so tragic as a trendy vicar getting down with the kids. 

None of this precludes respectful dialogue with the “woke”. But respect implies both an initial distance and honesty about motives. Rather than presenting socialism as the shoutiest version of radical liberalism, the best socialists can offer the “movement” is a less drearily conformist (but more universalist) vision of emancipation. 

To its promoters, wokeness promises a universalism truer than socialist traditions, where neglected voices are centred, where standpoints of oppression intermingle and generate a “multitude”. Yet wherever wokeness dominates, leftist subcultures are engaged in a furious competitive race to the bottom.

Some say the “true” woke is kind, compassionate, collectivist and nothing like its online incarnation. But practice often tells tales on failures of theory. And if one surrenders the view that wokeness is the vanguard expression of women’s or Black experience, then one is forced to find its roots elsewhere, at that juncture in academic “activism” where postmodern becomes first conventional, then banal, then entirely absorbed, to the point that we no longer need its name.

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