Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Metaphysics Of Woke Capitalism

How the identity-politics left and the market-worshipping right conspire to create a 'spiritual technology'
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Earlier today, I tweeted out this quote from Louis Betty’s analysis of the novels of Michel Houellebecq:


By “economic understanding of the human being,” Betty means understanding the human person according to a wholly materialist ontology. Everything human becomes a marketable commodity.

Let that be background to this dense, thoughtful letter from a reader. I kept identifying details out of it at his request, to protect his identity. It may (or may not) be important to you to know that he is a churchgoing Christian. He wrote this as a response to my post about identity politics in the California school curriculum:

I’d like to relate some of the details of an incident that required me to meet with the principals – both of them – at our local middle school last winter. One of my sons found himself involved in the disciplinary process by goofing off during a free study period; instead of reading, completing homework, or some such thing, he and his friends utilized the school’s computer network to produce and disseminate dozens of memes. Summoned to a meeting with the principals, I was presented with a fairly thick folder filled with printed copies of this wastage, most of which ranged from the innocuous to the faintly embarrassingly silly, but some of which clearly passed over the boundary into edgelord racist territory. My countenance collapsed. I was mortified, praying silently that my son had neither originated nor disseminated the offensive memes. Mercifully, for me, the school’s computer network can track all of the activity associated with all of the individual accounts, and I was assured that my son had not, in fact, either created those memes, or disseminated them.

That relief, however, quickly morphed into a generalized sense of unease, inasmuch as most of the boys in this social grouping are GS (gifted support, and no, none of them are on the spectrum) kids, and it was obvious that, regardless of the specifics of their family backgrounds, internet edgelord culture was only resonant for them because aspects of their social milieu primed them to see in it a means of reacting and rebelling against things they perceived as adverse to them – and adverse not merely to their interests, but to them as people. The answer to the proverbial question of priority – chicken or egg? – is both, that this is a dynamic process. This is not a school district which actively foregrounds identity politics; it’s present as a faint, but perceptible background radiation: a modest poster here or there about tolerance for this group or that, a small flag deftly placed in the admin offices. Nonetheless, as everyone knows, this generation is engaged on social media in ways, and to degrees, that few of us Gen Xers are, and social media and the social/instructional milieu of school will inevitably both overlap in various ways, and will be associated in the minds of the students as elements of a more or less homogenous discourse. To use a critical theory term, they are being interpolated, defined by an authoritative discourse, and invited, even instructed, to define themselves in relation to that discourse; and, unfortunately – though one hopes and prays that this specific form of rebellion will pass – some of these kids have already started down the path of rejecting that discourse precisely by inverting it. And yes, that is what they are doing: inverting it under the surface form of mockery.

I feel this personally. We have always made plain to our children that alt-right racialist discourses and identity politics alike are dubious, and to be rejected, on theological, ethical, and political grounds. Our parish is diverse. Our neighbourhood is diverse. All of the quaint towns and neighbourhoods we like to visit, in the major regional city and the surrounding counties, are strongholds of professional middle class liberalism, of the sort that generated the p***yhat protests of January 2017. My wife and I feel no personal pull towards any sort of reactionary, racialist politics. Our politics are pretty far to the Left, in the sense that Siarlys Jenkins would recognize. What we feel is that we’re between the hammer and the anvil, that this increasingly hegemonic identity politics discourse, which is the ideology of professional middle class types – the courtiers and servant classes of elite capitalists – is relentlessly and resentfully pounding, remorselessly pressing out the space that affords us the luxury of not choosing one of these sides. To preempt a tired criticism that liberals, be they naive or cynical, often voice, that space will never be wholly closed off, but it will grow smaller and more difficult to occupy, especially as a matter of lived experience. For us, in middle age, this is perhaps less of a problem, but our children are still malleable, forming their conceptions of the world, and being formed within and by those worlds, and they are undergoing these formations in this shrinking space, increasing the probability that they will run off the rails in one direction or the other. And yes, we despise the liberal PMCs [Professional Middle Classes] all the more for making our jobs as parents that more more difficult, as they are both more numerous and more powerful than all the unshowered alt-right edgelords.

There is no modal world in which the discourse of identity politics could have had any other expression or set of consequences. Firstly, even if we try to steel-man the argument for identity politics, that none of these identity categories/mediations are essential, that they are all social constructs, and are therefore malleable, permeable, and ambiguous; that they are therefore provisional, and useful for diagnosing cross-cutting structures of oppression and domination, with a view towards their eventual (eschatological?) overcoming, it is still the case – and absolutely insuperable – that the overwhelming majority of people neither are, nor ever will be, theorists with the interest in, and time for, parsing distinctions between the essential and constructed. Most people will only ever receive this sort of discourse on an exoteric level – X ascriptive identity characteristics good, Y ascriptive identity characteristics bad – because, not being theorists, they will understand them associationally, as bundles of images, metaphors, words, experiences, and stereotypes having homologous affective colourations. They will be bundled together in mental/social images – memes – because each component of the bundle will have been given a similar emotional content.

Secondly, however, the identity politics theorists give the game away themselves, most blatantly in their employment of the ‘privilege’ framing. The cash-value of all of that turgid verbiage, in the end, as shown in the CA curriculum, is that those bearing the ascriptive identity characteristics of “whiteness” are called upon to use their ‘privilege’ by renouncing it, relinquishing power and position to, and in solidarity with, those in every pullulating category of marginalization. In practice, there is no dialectical transition, as required by the steel-man argument for identity politics, from the multiplication of identity characteristics/mediations to a universal humanity which has transcended such finite categories. There is only the assumption that, because bearers of one bundle of ascriptive identity characteristics have been ‘first’, and bearers of others have been ‘last’, now the ‘first’ shall be ‘last’ and the ‘last’ ‘first’. That is all there is. More abstractly, this is simply a problem of finitude: man being a finite being, he is incapable of becoming the concrete universal, ie., man-in-himself, beyond all of the finite and historical, contingent categories by which he understands himself and orients himself in the world, and towards others. Moreover, there are so many of these identity categories, socially actual and potential, and so many weightings of these categories, as individuals and groups bring them into relation and fashion composite identities, that it is mathematically impossible that all, or even a majority, of the identity groups will ever arrive at similar normative and practical weightings for all of the traits and categories, thereby passing over into that eschatological universality. Again, the inversion of an historical (and oddly static and essentialized, yet constructed) hierarchy is all there is.

Finally, the discourse of identity politics is the discourse of woke capitalism, and at a deep level. Woke liberalism maintains a bizarre dialectic of individual liberation and group identity, mediated by the aestheticization of identity, which is to say, the association in identity of deep subjective impulses and desires with various commodity/consumerist/lifestyle fetishes. The functional upshot of woke capitalism/liberalism is the liberation of the individual from any identity or association which might constrain the ability of the individual to function as a fungible unit of economic production and consumption, and the conscription of the individual into group identities which facilitate consumption, and whose in-out group dynamics are oriented around struggles over representation in institutions of authority, which reinforces the givenness, or ‘naturalness’, of those institutions. The easiest way to perceive the former dynamic is to consider the vogue for tiny houses or van life; mainstream, neoliberal economic discourse, has, since 2008, been obsessed with the notion that we must be forced to be free, in the sense of being forced, by various economic nudges, to be nomadic, without permanent or even long-term homes and stability, the better to serve the requirements of Capital, which goeth whithersoever it wills. This very neoliberal impulse resonates with the pseudo-left theorizing of Hardt and Negri, according to which, once all of humanity has been subjected to these atomizing influences, and thus rendered monadic and nomadic, stripped of all localizing and inherited identities, and made into the Multitude (Hardt and Negri), somehow – underpants gnomes time! – something liberatory, maybe kinda sorta socialist, but maybe unknowable and unsayable, and maybe just the eternal return of the Multitude – will manifest itself.

There are tensions there, between the older, neoliberal End of History delusion, and the somewhat newer, but, in reality, merely alter vision of the Multitude. Both are visions of the Universal and Homogenous State. Ultimately, though, what they hold in common binds them together: neoliberals may be primarily concerned with the creation of a frictionless world for the benefit of Capital, and the pseudo-leftists/ radical liberals with the conjuration of a universal and abstract humanity from the profaning solvents of modernity; but the neoliberals cannot create their frictionless world without the lifestyle commodity fetishism of identity politics, and the pseudo-leftists/radlibs cannot create man-in-general without Capital’s dissolution of every fixity and profaning of every holy thing. That is, again, assuming the steel-man versions of their own arguments, that they really want these things, and that they are attainable. They don’t; and they aren’t. Capitalism wants certain frictions eliminated, because it is profitable to do so, and it wants others to remain, because frictions create the opportunity for arbitrage. The pseudo-left advocates of identity politics don’t actually wish for a universal and abstract humanity, merely to invert certain historical relations of which they disapprove. And, in any event, both a frictionless economy and a universal humanity are impossible. Even were the nomadic economic Multitude to come into being, it could never move with the speed of Capital, and so labour arbitrage would always be possible; and even that nomadic economic Multitude would not be a universal humanity, but a vast horde of people, of every conceivable identity mediation, subject to the same economic coercions and imperatives.

In fine, the discourse of identity politics is merely a late variant of the fantasy of a Universal and Homogenous State; since neither this nor its predicate, a universal humanity, can actually exist, and since its practitioners actually know this, functionally, identity politics is a Foucauldian discourse: one aimed at the creation of subjects who govern themselves in accordance with its dictates, who internalize them, and who are thus mediated by them. Its aim is to remake the soul. It is a spiritual technology. All identities are equal, but some are more equal than others. Ergo, renounce your privilege and position, like a novice renouncing the world upon entrance to a monastery, and make your vow of obedience, ultimately, to Capital.

This is very dense stuff. I need to read this over several times and think on it. I find myself eager to know what Carlo Lancellotti thinks about it.