The Woke Menace
I agree with this blog’s reader, Matt in VA, who says that American conservatives are so stupid about cultural reality, and so rigidly locked in to a 1980s playbook, that they think the real threat to liberty comes from the State. In fact, says Matt (and he’s right), Woke Capitalism is as great a threat, if not a greater one. He writes:
Basically, the State, itself, won’t need to send secret police out to arrest dissidents, and won’t need to censor samizdat directly. The big corporations (working hand in glove with the political elites, of course) will do it for them. Look at the power Amazon already has over the government and politicians — massive billion dollar subsidies for the world’s richest man (the Amazon deals for the headquarters — why not two new headquarters, right, since each deal means an insane profit taken directly from taxpayers!)
This strategy will be massively effective in no small part because conservative elites are so stupid and short-sighted and dogmatic that they will continue to say “the government has no right to interfere in the Free Market, if Google bans you, well too bad and go start your own search engine!” to its own people until its own people are all wiped from the internet altogether. This will mean economic and social pariah status, and conservative elites will tell their own base that they *deserve* this.
I also identify to a great degree with reader Lesley’s comment, also on the Socialism 2020 thread:
If the GOP dropped Reaganomics and would consent to sane market regulations (such as clamping down on the useless, rampant type of financial speculation that was a leading cause of the 2007-08 crash), a more fair tax structure, and negotiating trade deals with an emphasis on what’s good for American workers and not just what’s good for giant transnationals, they would pretty much have my vote forever.
As is, I want no part of unmitigated laissez-faire uber libertarian capitalism and I also want no part of toxic identity politics based tribalism. They are both wildly dangerous.
But if it really comes down to it, my rights to free speech and such are at least supposedly enshrined in the Constitution making them at least marginally harder to disrupt.
I currently have 0 legal or policy defense against having my job automated or sent overseas, being paid starvation wages, being bankrupted or fired because I get sick or injured, etc.
If I’m forced to pick between these, I’ll go with the identity politics harpies.
I would not, because they pose a far greater danger. But Lesley has a point, and it’s the same point Tucker Carlson has been making: if the Republicans don’t take economic insecurity seriously, they’re going to push people who ought to be their voters into the arms of the Democrats. Donald Trump’s election ought to have been a warning sign to them. Trump, unfortunately, doesn’t know what he’s doing. Having identified a real problem, he has no idea how to fix it, and has allowed himself to be distracted and dragged down by needless controversies. (I don’t think President J.D. Vance is going to have that problem.)
Anyway, let me explain here why I believe that the left’s obsession with identity politics is the primary form that socialism is taking in our country.
Let’s start by taking a look at this Commonweal essay by Carlo Lancellotti, who translated works by the late 20th century Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce into English. It’s worth quoting at length:
Contra the “Catholic Left,” which tended to regard Marx’s atheism as accidental, and tried to rescue his socio-political analysis from his religious views, Del Noce concluded that what Marx proposed was not just a new theory of history or a new program of political economy, but a new anthropology, one completely different from the Christian tradition. (Louis Dupré had made a similar argument in the pages of Commonweal; see “Marx and Religion: An Impossible Marriage,” April 26, 1968.) Marx viewed humans as “social beings” entirely determined by historical and material circumstances rather than by their relationship with God. He viewed human reason as purely instrumental—a tool of production and social organization rather than the capacity to contemplate the truth and participate in the divine wisdom. Finally, Marx viewed liberation as the fruit of political action, not as a personal process of conversion aided by grace. Marxist politics was not guided by fixed and absolute ethical principles, because ethics, along with philosophy, was absorbed into politics. Del Noce concluded that there was no way to rescue Marx’s politics from his atheism, which had as much to do with his view of man as with his view of God.
Nonetheless, after World War II Marxism experienced a resurgence in Western Europe, not only among intellectuals and politicians but also in mainstream culture. But Del Noce noticed that at the same time society was moving in a very different direction from what Marx had predicted: capitalism kept expanding, people were eagerly embracing consumerism, and the prospect of a Communist revolution seemed more and more remote. To Del Noce, this simultaneous success and defeat of Marxism pointed to a deep contradiction. On the one hand, Marx had taught historical materialism, the doctrine that metaphysical and ethical ideas are just ideological covers for economic and political interests. On the other hand, he had prophesied that the expansion of capitalism would inevitably lead to revolution, followed by the “new man,” the “classless society,” the “reign of freedom.” But what if the revolution did not arrive, if the “new man” never materialized?
In that case, Del Noce realized, Marxist historical materialism would degenerate into a form of radical relativism—into the idea that philosophical and moral concepts are just reflections of historical and economic circumstances and have no permanent validity. This would have to include the concept of injustice, without which a critique of capitalism would be hard, if not impossible, to uphold. A post-Marxist culture—one that kept Marx’s radical materialism and denial of religious transcendence, while dispensing with his confident predictions about the self-destruction of capitalism—would naturally tend to be radically bourgeois. By that, Del Noce meant a society that views “everything as an object of trade” and “as an instrument” to be used in the pursuit of individualized “well-being.” Such bourgeois society would be highly individualistic, because it could not recognize any cultural or religious “common good.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the power of the bourgeois worldview to dissolve all cultural and religious allegiances into a universal market. Now, ironically, Marxist ideas (which Del Noce viewed as a much larger and more influential phenomenon than political Marxism in a strict sense) had helped bring that process to completion. At a conference in Rome in 1968, Del Noce looked back at recent history and concluded that the post-Marxist culture would be “a society that accepts all of Marxism’s negations against contemplative thought, religion, and metaphysics; that accepts, therefore, the Marxist reduction of ideas to instruments of production. But which, on the other hand, rejects the revolutionary-messianic aspects of Marxism, and thus all the religious elements that remain within the revolutionary idea. In this regard, it truly represents the bourgeois spirit in its pure state, the bourgeois spirit triumphant over its two traditional adversaries, transcendent religion and revolutionary thought.”
This was a very unconventional diagnosis. At the time, Communism remained a major political force worldwide, and Marxist ideas influenced large sectors of Western culture, including Catholic culture. Del Noce’s position was also out of step with the conservative habit of associating anti-Communism with an uncritical exaltation of the West. He was highly critical of the post–World War II “Western project of progressive modernization based on science and technology,” by which he did not mean science and technology per se but rather technocracy, the notion that all social problems can be solved by technical progress and economic growth, and that society must be ruled by experts. According to Del Noce this view, quite common among American intellectuals (for examples, see George M. Marsden’s masterful overview in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment), was not an adequate response to Marxism, not least because it shared Marx’s fundamental assumptions: the primacy of the economic dimension of life, an instrumentalist idea of knowledge, the priority of action over contemplation. Under close inspection, the affluent Western consumer of the 1960s looked suspiciously like Marx’s homo economicus. The main difference was that the Marxist dream of a revolutionary catharsis had transmogrified into a bourgeois utopia of liberation from sexual repression and the shackles of traditional morality.
Read the whole thing. Put into more concrete terms, Del Noce saw that having failed at economics, the Marxist idea migrated into culture. “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains,” proclaimed the Communist Manifesto (1848). The “chains” that the post-1968 Left proposes that we lose are all things limiting personal desire, especially sexual desire. This is why Philip Rieff, in his 1966 masterpiece The Triumph Of The Therapeutic, said that the cultural revolution underway in the West (the leading edge of which was the Sexual Revolution) was far more radical than anything the Communists dreamed up.
These days, people hate the term “cultural Marxism” because it has become an alt-right mainstay, but it happens to be true.
Here’s something interesting: in doing research for my new book, I ran across something the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko said in his great book The Demon In Democracy. He points out that the Left — both the actual Marxist left, and the progressives in our liberal democracies — identify the same enemies:
- The Traditional Family
- The Nation
- Moral Conservatism
- Classical Metaphysics (e.g., the belief that there is a transcendent dimension to reality)
Notice that none of this has to do with economics! That’s because, as Del Noce said, Marxism at its core proposes a new anthropology. It is possible to have a more “socialist” economic system — a liberal democratic welfare state — without embracing Marxist anthropology. This is the program that the postwar Christian Democratic parties of Europe pursued, and built. We could, and should, pursue economic reforms in the US along these lines. If the conservative party had any sense, it would embrace this reality, and recognize that unlike 1980, the greatest threat to stability, human flourishing, and the liberal order does not come from the State, but from unchecked Globalist Capitalism. Read what my reader Lesley said: if the GOP would defend her interests as a worker, they’d have her vote forever, but if they don’t, she might have to vote Democratic as a matter of economic self-defense.
My argument is that the Democratic Party is not primarily a vector for economic socialism, which is a harder sell in the US. My argument is that it is primarily a vector for cultural socialism, which is to say Marx’s anthropology, translated into customs, practices, and even laws. Identity politics is the chief manifestation of this fact, and the force that’s driving its realization.
Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp recently said, and accurately said, that identity politics is the main force in American political life. More recently, he praised Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a rising star in the party who delivered the official Democratic response to the SOTU, for her robust defense of identity politics.
You can read Abrams’s original essay here. This is an excerpt from Beauchamp’s summary:
The core of Abrams’s argument is that identity politics is not something that members of marginalized groups can ignore. If they want equality, they must address the issues and social structures that oppress them.
“The marginalized did not create identity politics: Their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt,” Abrams writes. “What Fukuyama laments as ‘fracturing’ is in reality the result of marginalized groups finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity — activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it.”
The point here is not that it’s bad to be labeled as “black” or “female”; Abrams personally embraces both labels. Rather, it’s that the social significance assigned to being a member of an oppressed group — the mental baggage, stereotypes, and mistreatment you experience from others as a result of your identity — is not something individuals can choose to take on or reject. Your race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion cause you to be treated in a certain way, forcing you to be aware of your marginalized social role and identify with it whether you’d like to or not.
As a result, Abrams argues, minority groups face two choices: either ignore their own oppression or engage in some form of so-called identity politics. Asking minorities to eschew identity politics is tantamount to asking them to ignore their own oppression. How can you include black Americans in modern politics if you don’t talk about police violence and voter suppression? How can you include women without talking about the gender pay gap, or LGBTQ Americans without addressing the lack of federal anti-discrimination laws?
You can’t, at least not meaningfully. In Abrams’s view, critics like Fukuyama are functionally telling people like her to sit down and shut up.
You see how this works? If you disagree with Abrams, a black woman, then your argument must be in some way bigoted. Thank goodness Fukuyama is of Japanese, not Caucasian, descent, or he would have been dismissed as an Old White Man. It’s a wonder Beauchamp didn’t say “critics like Fukuyama are functionally telling people like her to go to the back of the bus.” The right-wing version of this would be to dismiss a conservative who says the GOP needs to care more about building a robust social safety net and protecting precarious workers by saying, “Sounds like you want socialism, mister.”
Abrams also finds the alleged alternative, a class-focused politics, unpersuasive. She points to the Democratic party’s nationwide victories in 2018 as evidence that candidates can run on identity issues and win (although Abrams herself did not).
She also argues that positioning messages based on class and those based on identity as being in conflict is part of the problem — and results in the exclusion of minority concerns from politics.
Here’s what the identity politics people on the Left (and the journalists who write favorably about them) don’t see.
First, you cannot simply wish away these internal conflicts. It is perfectly understandable, and just, to factor in concerns of racial and sexual minorities into one’s politics. We live in a pluralistic, multicultural democracy, after all. What these IP Democrats are doing, though, is privileging certain groups over others. Look at Legutko’s list of the Left’s traditional enemies, and you’ll find a close correspondence with the IP Democrats’ scapegoats:
- Religion — traditional Christians are bigots, and their schools are bigot factories
- The Traditional Family — heteronormative and sexist; must be deconstructed, with toxic masculinity excised, and gender nonconformity extolled
- The Nation — people who oppose open immigration and globalization are bigots; the history of the United States and Western civilization generally is nothing but oppression
- Moral Conservatism — the philosophy of oppressors who hate women and gays
- Classical Metaphysics — there is no such thing as objective truth; “justice” is whatever benefits favored classes
If you are white, male, heterosexual, and religiously and/or socially conservative, and if you have a problem with open borders, well, sorry bud, but there’s no place for you on the ID Left. And if you appeal to old-fashioned liberal ideas of fairness and justice, well, that just goes to show that you don’t understand how privilege works, and that in order for justice to be realized, people like you are going to have to lose their jobs and positions in society.
The ID Democrats deny this all the time, but it’s true. It’s like the Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you people will deserve it.”
If, as I have done, you spend serious time looking at the experience of people who lived under communism, you will see a startling similarity between what’s being prepared in America by the Woke Left, and what they lived with. One of the main similarities is scapegoating people by classes (as defined by the communists), and demonizing anyone who doesn’t agree with communism. Whenever you see people in this country being no-platformed by the Left, attacked by a progressive mob for their political views (real or alleged), and seeing their ordinary belief and practices pathologized (e.g., the American Psychological Association’s recent paper on “toxic masculinity,” powerfully rebutted here by Jordan Peterson), you are watching the Marxist playbook in action.
Again, please note: none of this has to do with economics! As Del Noce saw decades ago, the form post-1968 Marxism takes is fundamentally bourgeois, amounting to a repudiation of traditional Christian anthropology, and the morality that came with it.
What is happening now, though, is a new phase. Progressivism has become more explicitly Marxist in its promotion of Marxist anthropology, and in its willingness to weaponize victimology for political purposes. This form of identity politics is radically anti-liberal, as the liberal scholar Mark Lilla pointed out (and, for his trouble, was called an apologist for white supremacy by a Columbia University colleague). Back at the turn of the 21st century, Rene Girard wrote that we had now made the Victim “our absolute.” And:
The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.
It has become far, far worse since Girard first made that observation. He added:
The intellectuals and other cultural elites have promoted Christianity to the role of number one scapegoat.
Not a single one of the emigres from the communist world have expressed to me alarm about rising tax rates, socialized medicine, or the creation of an industrial policy — though for all I know, they really are worried about these things. No, what unnerves them is the cultural totalitarianism that they see fast emerging from the Left — and, as Matt in VA observes, the power of Woke Capitalism to enforce this ideological orthodoxy.
We do not yet have an organized political Right in the US that fully understands what’s happening, and is prepared to take on the Woke Menace. So many on the Right are still enamored of what Del Noce, per Lancellotti, said was an “uncritical exaltation of the West.” If Donald Trump is going to rail against “socialism” in his re-election campaign, well, even if he doesn’t really get the full meaning of the concept, it will offer the rest of us an opportunity to talk about what Marxism on the cultural front means for America.
To put it another way: if the only thing socialists wanted to do was change our economic system to better represent their idea of justice, I would welcome that conversation. Though I’m in no way a socialist, I believe they have something important to say, and provide a much-needed corrective to globalist hypercapitalism. But that’s only a small part of what socialism means! For the Democrats, it means identity politics, which for them entails the marginalization and suppression of scapegoats (whites, non-tame males, traditional Christians, social conservatives, the traditional family) and constant campaigns to stigmatize opposition as racist, sexist, homophobic, et cetera.
Yesterday I wrote about the San Francisco pervs (the Fog City Pack) who go around pretending that they’re dogs as a sexual fetish, and who were profiled favorably in Slate for their pro-social outlook. Of course these people are extremists and outliers, but I cited them to make a point about the people I call “Fog City Democrats”. Do I believe that Democratic politicians endorse public manifestations of sexual freakery? Generally, no, I don’t. But where do they draw the line? Do they ever? This is a serious point, and it has to do with identity politics. Most of them cannot bring themselves to condemn things like this, because their anthropological beliefs forbid it. On what basis would a Democrat condemn these men? They are simply expressing, with mutual consent, their freely chosen identities. The valorization of the Fog City Pack is entirely consistent with progressive identity politics — and my pointing this out shows, through reductio ad absurdum, the ultimate radicalism of what the Woke Menace stands for.
Anyway, to wrap up: the main thing that well-meaning progressives who embrace identity politics can’t seem to grasp is that to privilege certain classes — racial minorities, gays, women (but not conservative women!) — requires de-privileging outgroups. You can’t have it both ways. Stacey Abrams says you can, but Francis Fukuyama is pretty much right here in this response to her:
The country’s single greatest weakness today is the intense polarization that has infected its political system, a weakness that has been exploited by authoritarian rivals such as China and Russia. In practical terms, overcoming polarization means devising a posture that will win back at least part of the white working-class vote that has shifted from the left to the right. Peeling away populist voters not driven by simple racism means taking seriously some of their concerns over cultural change and national identity. I agree that the burden is on Republican politicians to stop defending Trump, but they will do so only when they realize that their own voters are turning against him.
The contemporary Middle East, like the Balkans before it, is an extreme example of out-of-control identity politics and what ultimately happens to countries that do not invest in integrative national identities. The United States is fortunately far from that point of state breakdown. But what is happening in the country is part of a larger global shift from a politics based on economic ideas to a politics based on identity. In the 2018 midterm elections, Trump was reportedly advised by Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, to campaign on the 2017 tax cut and economic growth; Trump chose instead to go the identity route by railing against migrant caravans and birthright citizenship. This is identity politics on steroids.
This shift, echoed in other countries, is not compatible with modern liberal democracy. The latter is rooted in the rights of individuals, and not the rights of groups or fixed communities. And unless the United States counters this trend domestically, it will continue to set a bad example for the rest of the world.
I say “pretty much right,” because Trump’s vulgar identity politics — which I do not share — emerged as a response to the identity politics on the Left. Calm down, I’m not blaming the Left for Trump. But I am saying that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You cannot demonize entire classes of people based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, or religion, and expect them to sit back and take it like some neutered Pajama Boy. Identity politics simply are American politics today. If Donald Trump disappeared tomorrow, nothing about that would change.
It’s fine for people to talk about economic inequality and jobs. It’s good and it’s necessary to do so! But people should not be fooled into thinking that that’s the only thing the Left is concerned with. It’s not even the main thing. Hence the Woke Menace. If the only thing we talk about when we talk about socialism is the economic aspect of it, we will miss what these people will do to our country.
Marxism is an anthropology. It gains a foothold among us because so very many of us good capitalist liberal democrats have already accepted that anthropology, and we don’t even know it.
Last item: here’s a Yale Daily News column by Isis Davis-Marks, a black woman and, more importantly, a Yale undergraduate, which makes her one of the most privileged persons walking the planet. She is already part of the ruling class. In the piece, she talks about the necessity to be a spy and an informant for Wokeness. Excerpts:
Everyone knows a white boy with shiny brown hair and a saccharine smile that conceals his great ambitions. He could be in Grand Strategy or the Yale Political Union. Maybe he’s the editor-in-chief of the News. He takes his classes. He networks. And, when it comes time for graduation, he wins all the awards.
One day, I’ll turn on the television — or, who knows, maybe televisions will be obsolete by this point — and I’ll see him sitting down for his Senate confirmation hearing. Yes, he’ll be a bit older, with tiny wrinkles sprouting at the corners of his eyes and a couple of gray hairs jutting out of the top of his widow’s peak. But that smile, that characteristic saccharine smile, will remain the same.
When I’m watching the white boy — who is now a white man by this point — on CNN, I’ll remember a racist remark that he said, an unintentional utterance that he made when he had one drink too many at a frat party during sophomore year. I’ll recall a message that he accidentally left open on a computer when he forgot to log out of iMessage, where he likened a woman’s body to a particularly large animal. I’ll kick myself for forgetting to screenshot the evidence.
And, when I’m watching him smile that smile, I’ll think that I could have stopped it.
To be honest, I’m not sure what the solution is. This expands beyond vocalizing problems about sexual assault: The core of this problem has to do with our values. The problem isn’t just the Yale administration; it’s Yale students. We allow things to skate by. We forget. We say, “No, he couldn’t have done that,” or, “But he’s so nice.” No questions are asked when our friends accept job offers from companies that manufacture weapons or contribute to gentrification in cities. We merely smile at them and wave as we walk across our residential college courtyards and do nothing. Thirty years later, we kick ourselves when it’s too late.
But I can’t do that anymore — I can’t let things slip by. I’m watching you, white boy. And this time, I’m taking the screenshot.
Here’s Ryszard Legutko, on something liberal democracy shares with socialism:
It happens that both systems never suffered from a shortage of people willing — often without being asked — to survey the political purity in communities, institutions, groups, and all types of social behavior.
The atmosphere the systems produce is particularly conducive to engendering a certain type of mentality: that of a moralist, a commissar, and an informer rolled into one. In one sense, this person may think that he performs something particularly valuable to humanity; in another, the situation helps him to develop a sense of power otherwise unavailable to him; and in a third, he often cannot resist the temptation to indulge in a low desire to harm others with impunity. For this reason tracking opposition and defending orthodoxy turned out to be so attractive that more and more people fail to resist it.
If you are white and male, you would be well advised to stay far away from Isis Davis-Marx, I mean, Davis-Marks. She’s watching you, white boy. Whiteness and maleness are evil.
The fact that in the Yale Daily News, she is able to publish a column with these actual words, whereas a white guy who wrote a column about, say, disproportionate black male crime rates, and ended by saying that, “I’m watching you, black boy,” would be thrown out of school and the campus shut down in a paroxysm of social-justice agony — well, that tells you a lot about the nature of the Woke Menace. It’s anti-human moralists, commissars, and informants all the way down.