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Tyler Cowen Submits To Wokeism

Like the Houellebecq protagonist, libertarian economist rationalizes accepting a strongly illiberal ideology
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The libertarian economist Tyler Cowen says he hates wokeness as “stupid and inflexible” and “boring and predictable,” but believes that “wokeism” will “rule the world.” (Note: “wokeism” seems to be the word we are going to use for “wokeness”; the French are already using le wokisme.) He says that his essay in his “attempt to explain why and how its enemies should learn to live with wokeism.” What is Cowen’s argument?

He says that wokeism is global.

One question raised by the woke movement, though hardly ever asked, is whether the U.S. will be able to deploy this new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence. Put another way: If there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?

Wokeism is an idea that can be adapted to virtually every country: Identify a major form of oppression in a given region or nation, argue that people should be more sensitive to it, add some rhetorical flourishes, purge some wrongdoers (and a few innocents) and voila — you have created another woke movement.

Unbelievable! The next form of US cultural imperialism is to export this malignant ideology that is tearing our country apart, so it can perform the same service for other countries. Foreigners, wake up!

Cowen writes:

Returning to the glories of American cultural imperialism, consider the British philosophical pessimist John Gray. He recently wrote the following, weird but insightful:

Wokery is the successor ideology of neo-conservatism, a singularly American world-view. That may be why it has become a powerful force only in countries (such as Britain) heavily exposed to American culture wars. In much of the world — Asian and Islamic societies and large parts of Europe, for example — the woke movement is marginal, and its American prototype viewed with bemused indifference or contempt.

Does that make you feel better or worse about wokeism? I say better. Again, keep the bigger picture in mind. It doesn’t much matter who controls the English department at Oberlin College. But it would be nice if the Saudis moved to allow more rights for women.

Note that it is not necessary to approve of all U.S. cultural exports to view the spread of wokeism as a net positive for the world. I do not like either Big Macs or Marvel movies, for instance. But at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.

This is such a characteristically American thing to say. I think we can all agree that women are mistreated in Saudi Arabia, and that things can change there. But Cowen has a bizarrely positive view of the disruption wokeness stands to bring to much older and less dynamic societies. “I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it,” he says. I don’t. I think American culture has turned sick, anti-democratic, and enslaving, and I hope to encourage other countries to resist it. It is … well, look, I can’t think of a better word: it is reprehensible that Cowen extols a highly illiberal ideological scheme that is ending the careers of his fellow academics, and that is turning every institution that it infects into a soft-totalitarian dystopia, because it might end up with Saudi women getting driver’s licenses. Wokeism is a utopian movement that separates the Elect from the Damned by virtue of the color of their skin, or their sex, or their religion, and so forth — and then treats people according to that classification. It calls this “social justice” — and now it has a prominent libertarian economist singing its praises.

Like I said, unbelievable. But here we are.

Cowen continues, asking,  “If not woke, then what?”

Another question is what are the alternatives to woke. Some people are going to be extremists no matter what.

One possible alternative belief system, for example, is QAnon. According to a poll released in May by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, 15% of Americans “agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that ‘the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.’” The same share said that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to restore order.

If QAnon were considered a religion, it would have more adherents than many other denominations. Even if not all of those believers are locked in, 15% is still a lot.

Of course there are many possible alternative belief systems more moderate than either wokeism or QAnon. But recall the question of the counterfactual: What exactly is wokeism a substitute for? If the woke didn’t believe in wokeism, what would they believe in? Something like the ideology of the Weather Underground of the 1970s? Classical liberalism? Moderate 1990s-style Clintonism? Or would they simply become disillusioned?

Woke and wokeism are a way to keep people engaged. To be clear, I think there are better alternatives to woke on the relevant margins. But simply asking the question is to realize the costs of woke are not as high as they might seem. The relevant comparison is not “woke vs. what I believe to be best,” but rather, “woke vs. a lot of the other crazy stuff people are going to believe if they weren’t woke.”

Wait, so the only alternative to wokeism is … QAnon?! Really?

I appreciate that Cowen understands that wokeism is a substitute religion — that is, a totalizing ideology that gives people a sense of meaning, purpose, and solidarity. But you know what? So was National Socialism. So was Bolshevism. We don’t say it’s fine for Johnny to become a Maoist because at least he’s engaged with the world, and at least he’s not a Nazi. QAnon is also a pseudo-religion, but (thank God) QAnon followers hold little to no power in our society. The woke run it all. Anyway, if the woke didn’t believe in wokeism, maybe they would believe in Christianity, or some other traditional religion. Maybe they would commit themselves to classical liberalism (though that liberalism cannot by its nature answer the fundamental questions that can only be answered by religion, or a philosophy lived as a manifestation of eternal, transcendent principles). It’s just bonkers to look at the evil of wokeism, and the destruction the woke are wreaking in American life, and shrug, saying, “Hey, it could always be worse!”

Read the whole thing. It’s longer than a usual column, and offers more arguments. Cowen says that corporate America is woke, because “wokeism has passed a market test that has been going on for decades.” Well, there you have it: there is no higher praise from a libertarian economist than that Big Business likes it. I would remind Cowen that there was a time when corporations had hiring practices that greatly disadvantaged women, racial minorities, and Jews. If all the big companies followed those policies, presto, they “passed a market test,” so all must be well.

Conservative readers, understand that this is why conservative like me favor restricting the market to prevent companies from engaging in discriminatory hiring. What is good for Big Business is not necessarily what is good for America and Americans. It has never been true.

Finally, here is how Cowen concludes:

The arguments have been so fully joined because they are about how to define success, which is the fundamental American ideology. I believe such debates are not only healthy but also necessary. I also believe that the ideology of success will endure, though it may take less familiar forms over time. In some ways wokeism is what a feminized, globalized version of 21st century U.S. triumphalism looks like.

You don’t have to like that. But you may have to get used to it.

 Again, read it all. If Cowen is right, then “success” is defined by embracing and implementing a malignant ideology that reduces all social relations to power, and actively discriminates against people based on identity characteristics. It is an ideology that tramples free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. It is beyond my ability to comprehend how a principled libertarian can in any sense endorse wokeness. But that’s what Tyler Cowen has done. I don’t understand it. Honestly, I don’t. I am not a libertarian, obviously, but I like and even admire much of what Tyler Cowen writes. I can’t work out in my mind how he, as a principled libertarian, rationalizes embracing wokeness.

He reminds me of François, the protagonist in Houellebecq’s Submission, who converts to Islam not out of conviction — he is very much against what Islam stands for — but because Islamism is the wave of France’s future. In that novel, Islamism is what “success” looks like in the fictional France coming into being. Under a different set of circumstances, Cowen would be penning a surrender note to Islamism.

If Cowen is right, and 21st century American triumphalism looks like the globalization of wokeness, then I devoutly pray that America does not triumph in this century. This will be yet another naive and moralistic American attempt to bring the blessings of American liberty to the world, and wreaking havoc. We never, ever learn. Never.

One more thing: I certainly understand why Americans of the left despise Viktor Orban, but why do Americans of the right hate him? He understands the threat of wokeness much better than American conservative politicians do (I suspect that our Republicans will be following Cowen on the road to rationalizing wokeness). Orban does not do politics like a classical liberal, in part because he well understands that what we call “liberal democracy” has become illiberal to the left — in the ways Cowen recognizes. Orban is fighting this. He might lose, but at least he is not doing what most of the American right’s leadership is doing: either working out the terms of internal surrender to wokeness, or wasting energy on futile lib-owning schemes that gin up people’s anger and separates them from their paycheck, but do nothing to roll back wokeism.

UPDATE: Reader Wency comments:

Watching the oil industry, I recently arrived at a seldom-discussed factor in corporate America’s rising Wokeness: the simultaneous rise of index funds and ETFs that have no reason to care about companies’ profits. I’ll probably start hammering this point for a while until I see someone influential catching on to it.

Traditionally, shareholders of companies mainly cared about things like whether the company was generating good shareholder returns. This was true whether the shareholder was an individual investing his own money, or a mutual fund company or hedge fund investing money on behalf of other people but judged by those people primarily on their investment performance. Most of the time they just supported the CEO and sold the stock if they decided they didn’t like him, but when they did object to the CEO and decided to launch a shareholder battle against him (which was always a time-intensive and fraught endeavor), it was always for financial reasons.

But recently we’ve seen shareholders go after the oil industry in particular for reasons that seem purely political and not for any financial benefit. We also have increasing mandates for more minority and female board members. And big index fund groups like Vanguard, Blackrock, and State Street are signing off on all these things, while generally never supporting actual substantive changes at companies to help shareholders. Why is this?

Well, index funds, which now control roughly half the US stock market and rising (up from around 25% a decade ago) don’t actually have a reason to care about the financial performance of the stocks they hold. They aren’t judged on investment performance like with traditional mutual funds; they are judged on tracking error — i.e., how well they mimic an index, up or down, at the lowest possible cost. And yet they wield all this power: how to use it? Well, in the absence of any reason to wield their power to productive ends, they default to wielding it for virtue signaling and naturally Conquest’s Second Law starts to kick in.

Increasingly, if any publicly-held company tried to resist Wokeness, its CEO would have a massive target painted on his back by the index fund companies (really, activists channeling themselves through those companies), who will vote relentlessly for a board that promises to fire that CEO and replace him with someone more diverse and bien pensant. And since they own half the stock market and rising, more often than not they’ll have the votes to do it. We haven’t seen many battles like this in the open, but I have to think CEOs are increasingly cognizant of it and submitting to it in advance.