Only the Economic Left Can Beat the Woke

David Rieff

Only the Economic Left Can Beat the Woke

A Woke takeover of what, with apologies to President Dwight Eisenhower, can fairly be called the Academic-Cultural-Philanthropic Complex in the United States and throughout the so-called Anglosphere is now all but complete. This should be both surprising and unsurprising: surprising, because the dominant—that is to say establishment—conceptions of the purposes of education, culture, and even language itself have been transformed in such a short period of time; but also unsurprising, because Woke is an extremely powerful, coherent, and for many morally attractive, not to say morally imperative, worldview, especially to the young, which is something most of its critics can’t seem to bring themselves to fully acknowledge. And almost wherever you look, from K-12 teachers’ unions, to library associations, to museums, to, perhaps more surprisingly, medicine and other STEM disciplines, Woke’s inherent appeal—above all, its immensely seductive moral urgency—is being institutionalized by a bureaucracy whose reason for being is precisely to consolidate this worldview’s cultural hegemony. In these conditions, what will be surprising is if this new cultural system _fails _to prevail.

All that said, there is increasing resistance to Woke. Some of that resistance—above all, from conservative governors and state legislators—appears more powerful than it actually is, while other centers of opposition—above all, from elements of what remains of an anti-identitarian, class-focused left—are likely to prove strong and more resilient than they appear at first glance.

Before going any further, it is important to be precise about what wokeness is and what it isn’t, and, especially, to be careful with analogies. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million people died during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; millions more were stripped of their professions and livelihoods and deported from cities to the countryside, where they remained for as long as a decade. By contrast, not a single person has died from the insaturation of wokeness and of Ibram X. Kendi-style critical race theory in cultural and academic institutions. To insist on the point isn’t to say that ruined careers, forced early retirements, and self-censorship brought about by wokeness are of no importance. They are hugely important, above all, to the fate of the culture and the life of the mind. But it is a plea to keep things in proportion: Just as the McCarthy era, vile and, as with Woke, culturally and intellectually repressive and censoring as it was, wasn’t a reign of fascism, so this era isn’t a new reign of the Khmer Rouge. So here is a plea for keeping things in proportion and for eschewing the self-absorption and provinciality that so marks the American debate over Woke (and most everything else, it must be said) at every point along the ideological spectrum. I think Woke is a cultural disaster, but it is not a tragedy. Ukraine: That is what real tragedy looks like.

In contrast, my own admittedly minoritarian view—among those of us opposed to Woke, I mean—is that Woke is not what a real ideology looks like. It is easy to demonstrate that whatever explains its rise, the success of Woke isn’t the result of a masterful plot on the part of determined Marcuseans and other Continental revolutionaries burrowing their way into institutions until they dominate them, as anti-CRT activists such as Christopher Rufo have suggested. I am skeptical, too, of treating Woke as a secular religion—the Great Awokening and all that. Woke is indeed first and foremost a moral project with vast appeal, as anyone who has spent any time among its young adherents discovers immediately. It is not being imposed from above—or more precisely, it _is _being imposed from above, by human resources and diversity and inclusion bureaucracies, obviously, but also by peer pressure, social networks, the desire that is so strong among young people throughout the ages to fit in, to belong.

“It doesn’t seem to me that the right (most of it, anyway) has any coherent answers.”

If Rufo is wrong on this, as I think he is (even though I greatly admire his zeal as a muckraking journalist), is the woke-critical-theory nexus best thought of as the “successor ideology” to the liberal tradition, as the brilliant Wesley Yang has suggested? Here again, I think the answer is no. And for a fairly straightforward reason: Wokeness has almost nothing to say about the economy, and, more crucially, the more we see Woke in action in the larger world outside academe, the clearer it becomes that Woke is perfectly compatible with the current economic ideology—that is to say, with capitalism.

To be sure, the Woke vision of education touches all the contemporary causes of the contemporary identitarian left. Examples of this are legion. Take the peroration of in “Observing Whiteness in Introductory Physics: A Case Study,” a journal article that appeared in March 2022 in The Physical Review. “As we dream, and as we wait for whiteness as social organization to be dismantled,” write the authors, “we can work to reduce harm in the spaces we move and work. Harm reduction, as a framework, acknowledges that white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, fatmisia, transmisia, ableism, xenophobia, and myriad other systems of oppression infuse space and structures and are a part of our socialization.” But anyone who has observed Woke and CRT in action will be aware that race and gender are the overwhelming priority, with exclusionary judgments of people’s appearance and physical capacities a poor second, while class and capitalism almost invariably come in a very distant third. Consider the online medical magazine MedHealth. It is full of articles on racism, on the exclusion of LGTBQ+ people in medicine, on the need for mainstreaming “gender-affirming surgery,” and so on. There are also passionate demands for the use of people-first language—You are not a diabetic, you are a person with diabetes—and on what pronouns to use. But there are very few articles in MedHealth on hospital-billing scandals, for example, or the ways in which the health-insurance system is dramatically reducing the time doctors can spend with patients and the number of tests they can run. If Woke is an ideology, then it is the first to have no ideas and little interest in how the economy should be ordered.

This lopsided focus is easy to find almost everywhere you look. Neil Young might withdraw his music from Spotify, because the company wouldn’t get rid of the podcaster Joe Rogan, and even tell Spotify employees to quit their jobs “before it eats up your soul.” Netflix employees might be up in arms because the streaming service wouldn’t cancel Dave Chappelle comedy specials. Disney employees might demand that the company take a political stand against Florida’s law restricting what public-school teachers can say about LGBTQ issues in classrooms. Woke activists are far less likely, however, to militate against, say, exorbitant CEO pay or monopolistic practices or their employers’ entanglements with authoritarian regimes in China and elsewhere,

Nor, indeed, do they criticize American popular culture itself. Where an earlier generation of left cultural critics excoriated the commodification of culture and entertainment, Woke leftists have no beef with the Magic Kingdom and its ersatz “imagineers,” as Disney calls them. Nor is this worldview critical of what has become of Hollywood, where basically most movies made must appeal to adolescents and, if we’re being honest, not very intelligent adolescents at that. But as long as the moronic movies in question have appropriately diverse and representative crews and casts, they can remain as moronic as they always were, no questions asked, no challenges offered.

As for class, well, demands for diversity and for representation almost never seem to get around to the question of class, not at the newsrooms of The New York Times and The Washington Post, not in Silicon Valley, not on Wall Street. A tour of the diversity statements of major universities makes it clear that there is a blanket assumption that the underrepresented groups are either nonwhite or non-cisgender. The new consensus strongly favors race-sex-and-gender representation, rather than material inequality, as the locus of political action.

It is no mystery why this consensus is meeting so little resistance. For although many liberals and conservatives view Woke as an existential threat to their cultural commitments—all too rightly in my view: A culture no longer about transcendence, but almost exclusively about representation, has repudiated almost everything that makes culture valuable—almost no one who has watched the mainstreaming of Woke, especially in corporate America, can any longer imagine the ideology as a threat to capitalism. To the contrary, the cultural radicalism and economic conformism of Woke turn out to work very well together.

When a recruitment commercial for the Central Intelligence Agency includes a paean to intersectionality; when, during the 2020 US Open tennis championship, the familiar ads for the event’s traditional sponsors such as Rolex watches and Emirates Airways nestle comfortably alongside expressions of  grief over the murders of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor and expressions of support for Black Lives Matter; and when advertising seemly almost overnight became much more racially representative, but these black, brown, and Asian faces are selling the products and services they have always sold, it does look like capitalism has embraced the old saying that in order for nothing to change, everything has to change.

And in important ways, even on college campuses, seemingly so changed, much is the same. Take, for example, the case of Ilya Shapiro, the director of an institute at Georgetown University Law Center, who tweeted that he thought it wrong for President Biden to limit his range of choice for the next Supreme Court nominee to African-American women. This created a firestorm in Georgetown, with the Black Law Students Association and its many campus sympathizers demanding that Shapiro be fired. There were protests, rallies, long meetings between student-activists and the university administration. But even assuming the students were right, the trauma Shapiro’s words had triggered surely wasn’t more serious than the fact that in Washington, where Georgetown is located, black small-business owners had been decimated by the pandemic and lockdowns.

I want to be very clear: Not only is there no possible justification for claiming the students _in principle _cared more about Shapiro’s words than the economic disaster in Washington’s black community, indeed, many campus activist groups committed themselves to help restore black small businesses. Nonetheless, it is simply undeniable that what in practice student identitarian groups really threw themselves into was a university-related event. In this, they were not really all that different from the pre-Woke, pre-CRT students who had come before them at places like Georgetown, Harvard, or Stanford. In those places, students and administrators alike have always been more concerned with events on campus than off. For example, the same Yale administration that hounded a young conservative law student for tweeting something it deemed racist had no compunction in the pandemic forbidding Yale students to shop or eat and drink off campus, a huge blow to local workers and small business. In other words, “gown” was recapitulating the same disdain for town it always had.

The surprise is that anyone is surprised by any of this. While there are a plenitude of moral, intellectual, and social arguments against Woke being made by brilliant critics such as Yang, Thomas Chatterton Williams, John McWhorter, Catherine Liu, and Adolph Reed, Jr., there are no _capitalist _arguments against Woke—just as there were no capitalist arguments against multiculturalism 40 years ago, when in an essay I described capitalism as multiculturalism’s silent partner. Yes, today, everything is louder, more absolutist, and, not to mince words, stupider than it was then. But if these past decades have demonstrated anything, it is that capitalism, far from being on its last legs, is, in fact, doing very well—that is to say, doing what it does best: adapting to new conditions and figuring out how to make a profit out of them. Flexibility: capitalism’s “secret sauce.” Why should capitalism oppose Woke? Obviously, the catastrophe in Ukraine may change all this, but big business emerged from the pandemic more profitable and as strong, if not stronger, than ever. Watch Fox News, or, indeed, read anti-woke liberals like Andrew Sullivan and George Packer, and you would think the world was collapsing. But watch Bloomberg or CNBC, and these are happy, happy days, indeed, with stock prices near all-time highs, and Wall Street bonuses more than keeping pace.

What, if anything, can be done? It doesn’t seem to me that the right (most of it, anyway) has any coherent answers. Wokeness and CRT are imbricated in the culture now, so deeply and so widely in K-12 education, in colleges and universities, in museums, concert halls, and now increasingly in hospitals and the rest of the scientific-technical world, that laws passed by conservative state legislatures banning this or that aspect of the ideology are very unlikely to succeed. To put it brutally, you can’t fight a culture war when you really have never been interested in culture before. Yes, it is true that the arts and culture are largely subsidized by progressive philanthropies, such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation. But it is also true that long before Woke or multiculturalism, culture was a stronghold of the left; indeed, after US trade unions shifted right in the 1950s, culture was perhaps the left’s principal stronghold.

And the right? Well, with respect, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and a handful of others do not a culture make, though you might not know that if  you only read the few cultural journals of the right. To put it bluntly, the right’s cultural bona fides are basically nil. A sign of how weak a hand the right is playing in the culture war is how often in order to try to turn the tables on Woke, conservatives borrow from the lexicon of their adversaries: Book X is hurtful, image Y is undermining. This is, of course, profoundly disingenuous. But more important, it is a strategy that is doomed to failure. Fundamentally, the mainstream right, and even much of the hard right, finds itself hoist on its own petard. For generations, it mocked the left for demanding that capitalism develop a social conscience. The business of America is business, in Calvin Coolidge’s celebrated phrase. But what the right never foresaw was that a social conscience actually could be good for business. The customer wants identity-based products? Well, the customer is always right. What a cultural critic might call Balkanization, big business simply sees as market segmentation.

I am aware, of course, that there now exists what might be called a “dissident” right, largely though not entirely made up of religious conservatives. It is now increasingly anti-capitalist, and given the turn the business establishment has taken culturally, with good reason. But the dissident right is even more marginal in the United States today than the non-Woke left. This may be an intellectual and moral strength, but it is a political disaster: The dissident right is religious, or it is nothing. But the traditional left is now almost entirely secular, as is an ever-swelling share of the population, right, left, and center. As a result, the chances of a coalition between the right and the non-Woke left is miniscule, except perhaps on some very specific issues. Lest it be forgotten, there are other culture wars than that between the woke and non-woke, and these two are for the most part zero-sum-game affairs.

To be sure, there have been some cultural and academic projects meant to break Woke’s virtual monopoly among academe. But if we are being honest, even if the University of Austin gets off the ground, is a degree from that institution going to get your kid into Stanford Law in the foreseeable future? The question answers itself. This isn’t a trivial point: The willingness of parents with kids in elite high schools to put up with wokeness and CRT curricula owes largely to the fact that graduating from these schools gets you into the top universities. The CRT stuff? Well, it’s like compulsory chapel in prep schools in the 1950s; Stanford is worth a Mass. As the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andreessen quipped in a recent tweet, “the modern university is a political madrassa, attached to a trade school, attached to a hedge fund, attached to a sports team, attached to an adult daycare center, attached to a visa law firm.”

It is true that only a right willing to turn its back against capitalism could have the intellectual and moral tools to dispute woke ideology. But while stranger things have happened than the “re-moralization of the Christian world” that the integralists hope for (but I strongly suspect are not optimistic about), it isn’t likely, to say the least. And any new fusion analogous to that between neoconservative hawks and religious conservatives cemented during the Cold War is almost impossible to imagine. It is for this reason that only the non-Woke left has any hope of pushing back against wokeness. American liberalism is a spent force, and all the Harper’s letters in the world won’t revitalize it. The mainstream right simply doesn’t have the intellectual tools to fight a battle of ideas. And the integralists and other dissident conservatives really will need a miracle to prevail.

That leaves the non-Woke left. By that, I mean the editors and writers associated with Jacobin and_ Dissent_ magazines, the Trotskyists with their attacks on the 1619 Project, and, above all, the growing number of  academics who initially were dismissive of the idea that Woke was something that needed to be confronted, but who have now realized that this ideology is leading the culture in a disastrous direction. That is because, unlike the right, this left understands that despite Woke’s emancipatory boilerplate, an ideology without class analysis and without any economic ideas is radical all right—but it isn’t left. And unlike the mainstream right, the non-Woke left genuinely cares about culture and can field a critique of Woke that isn’t just reactive. When Adolph Reed, Jr., writes that the real project of Woke is to diversify the ruling class, and little else, in a sentence he has described the essence of the new cultural system. I am not optimistic about anything in this low, dishonest, cretinous era. I still think the odds are in favor of Woke prevailing. But without indulging in false hope, I think it is also undeniable that the odds are by no means as lopsided as they were even a year ago.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies.

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