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Do the ‘Woke’ Betray the Left’s True Principles?

Photo: Tom Brenner/REUTERS

The “woke” have been called many things. Conservative polemicists have variously derided social-justice-oriented activists, institutions, and corporations as mob-like, “un-American,” and “insane.” But in her new book, the philosopher Susan Neiman tags the “woke” with a more stinging and unusual description: objectively not left wing.

In contemporary political discourse, wokeness is as ubiquitous as it is ill-defined. The right uses the term to denigrate all manner of avowedly egalitarian gestures, causes, and arguments: a multinational looking to appeal to young urban consumers (and deflect attention from its serial violations of labor rights) by associating its brand name with opposition to police violence; a university student declaring that wearing braids is cultural appropriation; a film studio allowing a nonwhite actress to play a mermaid; the idea that persistent disparities in socioeconomic outcomes between white and Black Americans partly derive from the latter’s subjection to centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, and dispossession. All of these are “woke,” in conservatives’ estimation.

The imprecision is the point. As Adam Serwer has observed, by collapsing the distinctions between the most hysterical or performative forms of social-justice advocacy, and banal claims about the origins of contemporary inequalities, woke enables the right to sound like it is “criticizing behavior most people think is silly,” even when it is actually “referring to things most people think of as good or necessary.”

Left-of-center critics of wokeness, meanwhile, tend to have a narrower target in mind. Mainstream liberals sometimes use it to denote an extreme or illiberal turn in progressive political culture since the Obama years, while some socialists deploy it to deride the superficial moralism of virtue-signaling corporations. Still, such critiques often fail to make clear where progressive politics ends and the “woke” variety begins.

To its credit, Neiman’s book, Left Is Not Woke, sets out to draw a bright line between the two. But its analysis is ultimately muddied by its failure to engage in detail with the objects of its critique.

Wokeness is in the eye of the beholder.

In Neiman’s account, wokeness is essentially a perversion of leftist politics. The former ideology shares the latter’s “concern for marginalized persons,” but fixates on select identitarian categories until it “reduces each” marginalized person “to the prism of her marginalization.” Wokeness rightly “emphasizes the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice,” but then grows so outraged by the fraudulence of our nation’s claims to “liberty and equality for all” that it forfeits all faith in the possibility of a society ordered by any force beyond raw power. The woke wisely demand “that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories,” but dwell on historical crimes until they conclude “that all history is criminal.”

Thus, the woke’s ostensibly radical critiques of liberalism are ultimately reactionary: Like their enemies on the far right, the woke speak as though (1) race is a — if not the preeminent fact of a nonwhite person’s identity, (2) members of the same race or gender share a set of essential traits or perspectives, such that any individual nonwhite person has the authority to speak for nonwhite people in general, (3) all claims to “justice” are really just masks that groups use to manipulate others in their bids for power, and (4) the possibility of progress is a myth.

All this is antithetical to leftism, as Neiman understands it. In her telling, “a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress” are all foundational tenets of left-wing politics.

The philosopher contends that the odd resemblance between woke and far-right ideology is not coincidental. In the academy, contempt for liberalism has led many radical and post-colonial theorists to embrace parts of Carl Schmitt’s oeuvre. When he wasn’t penning apologias for Nazism, Schmitt wrote bracing critiques of liberalism. To Schmitt, America and Britain’s legislative bodies were mere debate clubs that distracted from the true centers of power, while those nation’s pieties about “humanity and civilization” were mere fig leaves for rapacious colonialism. In reality, all the high-minded rhetoric of (supposedly) democratic politics just masked the eternal and inevitable struggle between groups for domination.

Schmitt’s iconoclasm — combined, perhaps, with the frisson of citing a Nazi — has rendered him a favorite of some radical intellectuals. Neiman endorses the claim of political scientist Alan Wolfe that “Schmitt’s ideas loom so large over the contemporary left that one need not even refer to him in order to be influenced by him.”

Thus, both Neiman’s conception of “wokeness” and her basis for asserting that it is objectively not left wing, are clear. The fairness of her critique is less so. The most frustrating aspect of her book is its persistent refusal to provide concrete examples of the contemporary arguments, behaviors, and causes to which she objects. This is especially problematic since Neiman’s definition of wokeness seems to describe, in part, implicit or unintended implications of certain modes of progressive discourse. It seems unlikely that very many “woke” activists are explicitly arguing that there is no such thing as justice, nor any possibility of social progress; the very act of demanding greater concern for the marginalized would seem to contradict such premises.

At one point, Neiman criticizes the anti-solidaristic nature of woke advocacy: Rather than framing demands for racial justice around the defense of “common ideals,” the woke portray equality as a concern peculiar to the marginalized, allowing a role for “white allies” but not white comrades. And yet, the fact that “woke” civil-rights advocates favor moralistic arguments — which is to say, the fact that they ask white people to atone for their racial guilt, rather than to fight for ideals of equality in which they too have an interest — would seem to cut against the idea that wokeness is a Schmittian ideology: If human beings are fundamentally motivated by a will to power, and their supposed concerns for justice and equality are just means of manipulation, then it would surely make more sense to appeal to whites’ common interest in constraining police brutality rather than their (nonexistent) social consciences. And yet, in Neiman’s own account, the woke prefer to appeal to guilt instead of mutual interest.

It is therefore unclear precisely which forms of putatively progressive rhetoric are (and are not) woke, in Neiman’s estimation. One can imagine what she might be referring to. For example, the socialist political scientist Adolph Reed has objected to the popular claim that mass incarceration represents the “new Jim Crow,” in part because such rhetorical flourishes elide genuine progress toward racial equality. Similarly, the historian Daryl Michael Scott has criticized the ideology of “thirteentherism,” the notion that slavery in the United States was never actually abolished but merely “evolved,” since the constitutional amendment ending chattel slavery allowed for “involuntary servitude” as punishment for a crime. Scott argues (persuasively, in my view) that “thirteenthers” are motivated less by historical accuracy than an ideological desire to deflate claims of racial progress.

Does Neiman mean to argue that these sorts of rhetorical tropes convey a Schmittian cynicism about the possibility of justice and progress? It’s impossible to say. Neiman’s neglect of concrete examples renders her critique less persuasive than it might otherwise be. After all, advocates for thirteentherism or the existence of a “new Jim Crow” would likely argue that their intention is to emphasize the limited nature of racial progress in the United States, not to deny the existence or possibility of such progress. And Neiman herself repeatedly affirms that Black Americans’ exceptional vulnerability to police violence and other forms of disadvantage is an outrage. So, what precisely separates rhetoric that indicts mainstream complacency about racial progress from rhetoric that promotes fatalistic acquiescence to a transhistorical white supremacy? Neiman may have detailed answers to that question. But she doesn’t provide them.

Neiman does provide a couple of discrete examples of objectionable wokeness. One is the call among some progressives “for the demise of monuments to Abraham Lincoln,” a man who, in Neiman’s words, “gave his life to defend African American civil rights” (Neiman notes that Lincoln’s killer was motivated by outrage at the president’s support for Black voting rights). Personally, I share Neiman’s opposition to the removal of tributes to Lincoln. Whatever that president’s actual faults and crimes, his primary historical legacy is the abolition of slavery. Monuments to Lincoln therefore constitute a validation of emancipation, every bit as much as Confederate monuments constitute repudiations of racial equality.

Still, to disagree with that assessment is not to claim that “all history is criminal” or that there is no such thing as human progress. From the standpoint of Black liberation, Lincoln’s legacy is undoubtedly positive. But the same can’t be said from the standpoint of Native American rights. Lincoln broke treaties with Native groups, confiscated millions of acres of ancestral lands, tolerated acts of genocide on the frontier, and approved the mass hanging of Dakota Sioux warriors who resisted dispossession. It seems entirely possible for someone to believe (1) that the United States should not celebrate the memory of a man complicit in ethnic cleansing, and (2) that America is more just today than it was in 1860.

Toxic forms of identity politics are real and bad.

None of this is to say that Neiman’s critique is directed entirely at straw men, or that it does not speak to genuine pathologies within the left. Her suggestion that many putative progressives indulge in ethnic “tribalism” (defined as an outlook that sees “the fundamental human difference as that between our kind and everyone else”) and racial essentialism are sadly well-founded.

The best testament to the latter tendency may be the prevalence of a document titled “the characteristics of white supremacy culture” in progressive institutions. That pamphlet, created by Tema Okun, the co-leader of the Teaching for Equity Fellows Program at Duke University, posits that valuing “objectivity” or conducting work with “a sense of urgency” are definitionally white, and therefore, that expecting nonwhite people to share these tendencies constitutes a form of white supremacy.

The notion that only white people recognize a distinction between objective and subjective truths, or believe that political action should be conducted with a sense of urgency, would not be out of place in a Stormfront thread. Indeed, Okun’s work has inspired a broader strain of putatively progressive commentary that affirms classically racist tropes. In 2020, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture published (and then retracted) a graphic that declared “rational linear thinking,” the valorization of “hard work,” “respect for authority,” and an inclination to “plan for the future” as values and traits peculiar to white people.

Graphic: NMAAHC

As Okun herself acknowledges, these bizarre racial stereotypes routinely sow dysfunction within progressive organizations by inviting their members to see any assertion of objective fact, authority, or deadlines as a manifestation of racism. But she offers no framework for differentiating appropriate invocations of her concepts from abusive ones. And her teachings effectively forbid group leaders from creating their own, since doing so would require holding subjective claims of victimization to objective (and thus, “white supremacist”) standards of evidence.

To virtually all left-wing public intellectuals, Okun’s work is a joke. But it is quite plausibly more influential within the progressive firmament than more sophisticated and respectable racial-justice advocacy. Okun’s work has been used in trainings for school administrators in New York City, and recommended by the National Education Association, the Minnesota Public Health Association, the Los Angeles chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and the Society of Conservation Biologists, among many other left-wing institutions.

In a recent essay, the social-justice activist and national director of the Working Families Party, Maurice Mitchell, lamented the way that Okun-esque identity politics has been undermining the basic functioning of progressive organizations, as some members refuse to recognize the legitimacy of disagreement or utility of reasoned argument, insisting that their identity confers on them an absolute authority to determine which internal policies are and are not oppressive.

Neiman offers a clear and incisive rebuttal to such “standpoint epistemology.” She notes that such appeals rest on multiple fallacies, among them, (1) the essentialist notion that the perspective of any individual marginalized person is defined by the most oppressive identity category imposed upon them, and is therefore representative of that marginalized group’s broader perspective, and (2) the idea that victimhood and trauma necessarily confer great insight.

Neiman’s sensitivity to these fallacies derives partly from her own identity as a Jewish critic of Israel. Apologists for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians incessantly seek to invalidate reasoned arguments with invocations of historical trauma and ill-substantiated allegations of hateful bias. And in many cases, their basic position is affirmed by all major Jewish American organizations and the most identitarian Jewish activists. But it does not follow from this that there is one essentially Jewish perspective on the occupation of the West Bank, let alone that rejecting the dominant perspective among Jewish organizations and activists is inherently antisemitic.

A tendency toward “tribalism” is also apparent on segments of the left. The progressive scholar of Africana studies Vincent Lloyd recently provided one illustrative example. Lloyd taught at a seminar for the Telluride Association’s summer program in 2022. Telluride aims to cultivate democratic and progressive sensibilities in American high-school and college students through workshops, seminars, and houses on college campuses. Lloyd had greatly enjoyed teaching a class titled “Race and the Limits of Law” to students at Telluride’s Ithaca branch in 2014.

But Telluride’s brand of liberalism had long evolved with the times. And when Lloyd returned to teach its high-school summer program in 2022, he found that the association’s “anti-racism workshops” were indoctrinating students into a bleak, identitarian dogma that resembled Neiman’s pejorative conception of wokeness. As Lloyd writes:

I am no stranger to anti-racism workshops: I have participated in many of them, and I have facilitated them myself. But the Telluride workshops were being organized by two college-age students, filled with the spirit of the times. From what I gleaned, they involved crudely conveying certain dogmatic assertions, no matter what topic the workshops were ostensibly about:

• Experiencing hardship conveys authority. 

• There is no hierarchy of oppressions — except for anti-Black oppression, which is in a class of its own. 

• Trust Black women.

• Prison is never the answer.

• Black people need Black space.

• Allyship is usually performative.

• All non-Black people, and many Black people, are guilty of anti-Blackness.

• There is no way out of anti-Blackness.

He then explains how these doctrines unraveled his seminar. One representative anecdote:

During our discussion of incarceration, an Asian American student cited federal inmate demographics: About 60 percent of those incarcerated are white. The Black students said they were harmed. They had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacy. Outside of the seminar, I was told, the Black students had to devote a great deal of time to making right the harm that was inflicted on them by hearing prison statistics that were not about Blacks. A few days later, the Asian American student was expelled from the program. 

It is not news that high-school and college students are liable to embrace absurd ideological fads and pretensions. But the character of those fads is not constant. It is notable and disquieting that the strand of anti-racism most potent in some segments of the young left is hostile to forging solidarity across lines of difference, keen to reify the social fiction of race, and fatalistic about the possibility of transcending racial animus.

The prevalence of toxic identity politics may have less to do with academic fashions than social conditions.

If Neiman’s book describes genuine pathologies, it is unclear how effective it will be in mitigating them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background as a philosopher, Neiman is principally interested in defending the insights and progressivism of Enlightenment thinkers, and exposing the reactionary character of postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault, who’ve come to enjoy greater currency among a contingent of radical scholars.

Neiman’s primers on the anti-colonialism of Immanuel Kant and neoliberalism of Foucault are accessible and engaging enough. But it seems doubtful that imploring young progressives to read more Kant and Voltaire is an effective means of countering woke ideology. It seems plausible that one can draw a line of devolution from Foucault and Schmitt’s theories of power down to the bizarre dogmas found in a Telluride anti-racist workshop or Okun pamphlet. But it does not follow that rebutting the former will lessen the latter’s cultural influence.

The backlash against the Enlightenment within post-colonial studies departments may well have been a precondition for the emergence of wokeness as Neiman defines it. But the appeal of bastardized versions of identitarian theorizing surely derives from a specific set of social conditions. Some of these are macrohistorical: The two great universalist faiths of the American left — Marxism and liberal nationalism — have both been badly bruised by failure. Although socialism has come back into vogue, it still boasts nowhere near the self-confidence or popular faith that it did before the exposure of the Soviet Union’s humanitarian evils and economic inadequacies. America’s liberal tradition of civic nationalism, meanwhile, is shadowed by its inability to improve the lot of the Black underclass, win broad white support for egalitarian reform, cultivate faith in government, or marginalize the most authoritarian elements in U.S. politics.

Other enabling conditions are found at the micro level. Today, progressive politics is conducted, to an unprecedented degree, within social-media platforms, academia, and nonprofit organizations, rather than formal political parties, trade unions, or other mass-membership institutions. Progressives on Twitter, in university departments, or at 501(c)(3)s are not generally accountable to any mass constituency. Nor do they face the imperative to build broad coalitions. Instead, they confront a very different set of incentives and forms of ideological discipline.

At one point, Neiman argues that “the valorization of trauma leads to a politics of self-expression rather than social change.” To build Twitter clout, however, a politics of self-expression is precisely what is called for. On social media, we tend to share pictures and personal anecdotes that will promote a particular impression of ourselves, or which we believe will resonate with a given parasocial community. Such considerations surely can’t help but color which political sentiments we choose to develop or express. Anodyne invocations of our collective interest in certain concrete reforms or universal values may be conducive to organizing a union or winning an election. But for the purpose of cultivating online attention, giving voice to tribal grievances and animosities may be a better bet. The crudest varieties of identity politics may make for poor analysis, but they also allow one to rapidly secure a sense of recognition and loyalty from a ready-made audience.

Neiman’s book makes plenty of implicit critiques of academia’s peculiar incentives. Most relevant to her concerns may be the temptation to imbue one’s scholarship with an air of iconoclasm or novelty through hyperbolic rhetorical flourishes, such as those that lead some radical scholars to sound as though they do not believe American society is any less inequitable today as it was in the era of chattel slavery. (Ironically, Neiman herself engages in such hyperbole in Left Is Not Woke when she writes that Carl Schmitt “described liberal democratic parliaments as institutions that do nothing but endlessly talk, while real questions are decided elsewhere — a description that fits the 21st-century U.S. Congress as well as the Weimar Republic’s Reichstag.” In fact, as Congress’s disparate responses to the 2008 and COVID recessions make plain, the actions of America’s elected representatives do not mechanically translate the will of a singular ruling class into law; plenty of real decisions, with profound social consequences, are made in Congress.)

Progressive nonprofits, meanwhile, must navigate the tension between their egalitarian goals and the exorbitant privilege of both their funders and the bulk of their staff. This tension suffuses virtually all progressive politics in the United States. In a world where the median household earns $12,235 a year — and each of us has the power to instantly wire thousands of dollars to an impoverished family in the Global South — any American progressive who keeps the bulk of their middle-class salary must confront the disparity between their putative egalitarianism and actual selfishness. Further, to work at a major progressive nonprofit, one typically needs to (1) graduate from a university (often, an expensive one), (2) move to a city with high housing costs, and (3) seek work in a field infamous for poor pay. Inevitably, people who come from affluent backgrounds will be overrepresented in the population willing and able to do those three things.

Thus, people from marginalized backgrounds who gain access to elite-dominated progressive organizations are liable to experience alienation and microaggressions. Conversely, privileged liberals uncomfortably conscious of their own hypocrisies may be reluctant to contest allegations of bias, even in instances where such claims are ill-founded. In this context, norms of deference to claims of victimhood from less privileged members are liable to arise. And some immature individuals are liable to eventually weaponize those norms for the sake of advancing claims of victimization that are sincerely felt but mistaken, or else consciously cynical, since such claims become a means of securing power and influence, goods that most of us covet. The perverse forms of anti-racism that Lloyd and Neiman lament seem well-adapted to such purposes.

My sense is that calling attention to the peculiar dynamics of contemporary progressive institutions — and noting that these yield incentives that are often diametrically opposed to the imperatives of effective political action in an ethnically and ideologically heterogenous democracy — may be a more effective means of combating wokeness, in Neiman’s pejorative sense, then excavating the anti-colonial side of Kant.

To be sure, there is still some value in the latter enterprise. And Neiman’s expertise may render her uniquely qualified to undertake it. But my sympathy for Neiman’s broad outlook makes me wish that she engaged “wokeness” less at the 10,000-foot level of highbrow philosophy and more at the immediate one of specific intra-left arguments. It is not easy to say precisely how the left should balance the obligation to spotlight particular forms of disadvantage with the imperative to cultivate a universalist consciousness or build broad coalitions. I share Neiman’s sense that many on the left aren’t striking the correct one. But for precisely that reason, it’s important for “anti-woke” progressives to explain in detail when, how, and why their ideological bedfellows are doing it wrong.

Do the ‘Woke’ Betray the Left’s True Principles?