Wokeism elicits a fantasy of subversion. Roger Scruton’s characterization of the gauchiste—the rich college kid—is instructive here, whose ideas that once occupied the café now occupy the institutions. And yet, as Jacob Yusufov so wonderfully observes, the ‘Woke’ New York City college kids could never be the gauchiste by Scruton’s definition. Consider Scruton in his Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left:
“The anti-bourgeois sentiment that lies at the root of French left-wing thinking partly explains its rejection of all roles and functions that are not creations of its own. Its main power base has not been the university but the café: for to occupy positions of influence within the ‘structures’ of the bourgeois state was for a long time incompatible with the demands of revolutionary rectitude. Whatever influence the gauchiste enjoys must be acquired through his own intellectual labour, producing words and images that challenge the status quo. The café becomes the symbol of his social position. He observes the passing show, but does not join it. Instead he waits for those who, attracted by his gaze, separate themselves from the crowd and ‘come over’ to his position.”
Implicit in Wokeism is a social convention that mandates a rather narcissistic pseudo-activism. The self-absorbed Stuyvesant apartment dwellers of 21st century America could never properly conform to Scruton’s definition because nothing keeps them from joining “the passing show”—if anything, in this brave new world, they are the main attraction, and digital likes and retweets symbolize the predominant currency of social recognition.
This is where that ‘Woke’ stereotype comes from. From their studio apartments in Manhattan that mommy and daddy pay for, the Woke college kids complain about whatever the chosen set of existential crises populate the weekly agenda. The Woke love their Change.org petitions and protesting Amazon’s unfair labor practices, but the Starbucks down the street endures no such criticism, if not for the fact that it keeps them awake enough to be woke.
But many conservatives seem to mistake Wokeism for something it so clearly isn’t: a sort of giant intellectual conspiracy designed to usher in socialism and overthrow America. The problem, though, is that Wokeism certainly isn’t nearly as intellectual as the age-old socioeconomic theories of the left. It offers no substance beyond Instagram infographic slide posts designed to educate people on all the world’s problems. It’s the personification not of a genuine effort to subvert, but of America’s new activist class: Look at us, we’re saving the world.
Wokeism is certainly a culturally left-wing phenomenon, but only in the narrowest sense of the word. It doesn’t carry with it the same intellectual rigor associated with Critical Theory, nor is it some elaborate Dutschkian initiative to destroy American institutions from the inside out. I should note that I do believe such an initiative does exist, but Wokeism in and of itself could not fully embody such an initiative. Wokeism appears as a cherry-picked intellectual hodgepodge of left-wing political theories.
When characterizing Wokeism as a culturally left-wing phenomenon in the narrowest sense, I mean that it appropriates left-wing political theories and wraps them in consumerism—an amalgamated package of all that is fashionable and neatly marketable as such. It acts as a “starter pack” of sorts for impressionable young college kids, enchanted by the cherry-picked one-liners of critical theorists and anti-racist gurus like Ibram Kendi, or Marcuse’s promises of Utopia. The university being a community of its own, the children grow detached from the communities they originally hailed from, harboring a contempt for their fellow countrymen in their zeal for a newfangled moral order that will supposedly uproot the oppressive status quo.
Wokeism endures the incorrect characterization—of being subversive entirely on its own—because it comprises both a grassroots and bureaucratic dimension. It is grassroots in the sense that it is faddish, deriving power from young people. Being “woke” is fashionable. It connotes a sense of enlightenment, that you know more about the world’s problems than most, and that you’re one of the enlightened few who knows the solution. You’ve “educated yourself.” Struggling to deflate one’s own ego is a common character flaw among the young and impressionable, and one that is hopefully—hopefully—eased over time through maturity. As a result, to claim political enlightenment all too often coincides with a false sense of moral supremacy.
The bureaucratic dimension is somewhat a byproduct of the grassroots dimension. The Woke seem satisfied with shallow corporate pandering. Whether it’s virtually every company changing its logo to a rainbow variation during “PRIDE Month” on social media, or the MLB moving its 2021 all-star game out of Atlanta due to Georgia’s controversial voting law, Wokeism’s activist criteria can be satisfied merely with a politically correct list of large multinational corporations that issue Woke-approved public opinions. Disney pushing gender ideology onto children is amazing, but Chick-fil-A is homophobic and deserving of boycott because it supposedly donates to Christian charities that may find homosexual marriage in conflict with their biblical view of the institution.
In the bureaucratic dimension, this culturally left wing orthodoxy becomes coercive through diversity quotas and mandated anti-racist training sessions by various corporations and institutions of higher learning. And so, the grassroots and bureaucratic dimensions are mutually reinforcing: the corporation, its main purpose being to maximize profits, will strive to become the embodiment of mainstream cultural appeal. The university functions in a similar corporate manner. And because the university is uniquely charged with housing and educating the very demographic in which this appeal is the strongest, it is all the more incentivized to facilitate an environment where the amalgamation of left-wing theory is promoted. Even if all these theories are appropriated or cherry-picked, the university is nevertheless a uniquely powerful disseminator. Wokeism isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, but it has become structural.
Even after all this being said, one still (rightfully) might ask why this is happening. Why has this cultural paradigm materialized?
The origins of Wokeism as a cultural paradigm, and why that paradigm is a cultural calamity.
The materialization of Wokeism as a cultural paradigm can most likely be traced back to the postmodernism of the 1960s-90s, which played a significant influence in the development of many of the prominent left-wing social theories discussed today, such as Critical Theory and its many derivatives. These theories were developed to be fundamentally subversive to the fabric of Western Civilization. “Critical” in this context does not connote the colloquial phrase termed “critical thinking,” but rather a critique of civilizational norms in an effort to challenge what critical theorists consider to be oppressive power structures subjugating the marginalized. In effect, ‘critical’ means to find these oppressive structures wherever one looks.
David Reiff, in an article published in Compact Magazine entitled “Only the Economic Left Can Beat the Woke,” which houses a main point of view I ultimately disagree with, nevertheless states a truism central to the argument I make in this essay:
“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.” (Emphasis added)
The illusion of subversion elicited by Wokeism is the main factor in why it has become such a cultural calamity. Whatever profundity it lacks in genuineness and intellectual honesty, it makes up for in its politically and culturally authoritarian tendencies (or its grassroots and bureaucratic dimensions), which render it a sort of left-wing McCarthyism at its absolute worst.
Senator Joseph McCarthy famously claimed that he had a list of over 200 names of so-called communists that were working in the U.S. State Department. That list was never revealed by McCarthy or anyone else, and there remains no definitive proof to this day that confirms McCarthy’s claims.
Wokeism carries the same paranoia that McCarthyists directed at those who they suspected to be communists, only now white supremacy is the subject of this fear mongering. These suspected “white supremacists” are without a doubt targets of modern-day blacklisting and unpersoning efforts. These efforts are usually carried out via the various institutional mechanisms that Woke proponents have managed to construct over time, such as ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ boards or, in the case of colleges and universities, Title IX investigations catalyzed by student accusations of “hate speech” or other actions that rub against the grain of Woke orthodoxy.
Wokeism’s potential to foster both grassroots and bureaucratic pressure to ruin people’s lives is without a doubt the most notorious effect of its hegemony in professional environments. Notable examples include UCLA professor Gordon Klein, who was suspended from his professorship after refusing to grade black students with more leniency than white students at a student’s request. Or how Ilya Shapiro was suspended from his professorship at Georgetown University for criticizing President Joe Biden’s decision to only consider a black woman for the vacant Supreme Court seat to be left by Justice Stephen Breyer when he retires in January. He has since been reinstated at Georgetown, but chose to resign out of principle and frustration with the university’s partisan interpretation of his statement in the first place: that criticizing Ketanji Brown Jackson is somehow automatically racist.
The growing pains of a movement: The conservative intellectual handicap.
A point of discomfort and dissonance within the modern conservative movement is its inability to throw off the near-ideological adherence to preserving a sort of hyper-libertarian free market system that has shown only to preserve corporate hegemony over our institutions with nothing to show for it, except the platitudinal excuse, “Limited government.” It is not so much that a limited federal establishment is completely absent of virtue, but rather such a position becomes meaningless when failing to honestly define it. There are many disagreements among conservatives regarding what the government ought to be limited in doing. The constitutionalists want a federal government strictly restrained within the parameters and functions set by the Constitution, and for the most part I’d agree. But there are issues regarding the ambiguity of a significant portion of the Constitution’s text, which may make “constitutional parameters” difficult to define, especially when factoring the zeal of left-wing judges who would much prefer to make the law rather than interpret it.
The neoconservatives say they’re in support of a limited government, but all we have gotten from them over the past 20 years are endless foreign wars (coupled with neo-liberal interventionist policies, courtesy of the Obama administration), an outsourcing of labor from foreign countries, and a sort of rugged individualism that detached a man from his community and placed him in the corner office.
I am admittedly influenced by Russell Kirk when I commentate on what conservatism is, properly understood. Being one of the most influential intellectuals in modern conservatism, it might surprise many people to know that Kirk harbored a sizable disdain for capitalism in addition to his disdain for socialism. He reminded conservatives that “capitalism” was a term coined by Karl Marx to critique free Western economies, and in addition to his scathing critiques of Marx and the ideologues of his school, there is also no shortage in his writings of criticism toward the ideological adoption of rugged “individualism” by many conservatives. In a letter he wrote to Victor Milione, president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), he wrote, “I never call myself an individualist; and I wish that you people hadn’t clutched that dreary ideology to your bosom.”
Kirk agrees with Edmund Burke when critiquing both the collectivists of the left and the individualists of the right when saying that, while a refusal to judge human beings as individuals is dangerous and leads to totalitarianism, an excess of individualism leads a man astray, detached from his community and his culture. This may explain why so many people conceptualize the intellectual as set apart from the community.
As Scruton observed in an episode of Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson, a production of the Hoover Institution, the left-wing skew in academia makes the impressionable youth look upon their fellow man and the communal traditions they uphold with contempt. The left-wing (pseudo) intellectual—the gauchiste—is led astray from his community, with his focus allocated almost exclusively toward the manifestos that have persuaded him.
No matter the nature of the consensus on the matter, there must be a willingness in the conservative movement to be critical of the current relationship between government and market. When the platitude of limited government becomes the end-all be-all litmus test for every policy proposal within conservatism, there will inevitably be a failure to properly consider the more corrosive effects of classical liberalism—the increasing emphasis on corporate autonomy due to the ideological belief that any governmental involvement is somehow an indefensible encroachment on civility.
The “Big Tech” debate is predicated upon this exact struggle. The unbridled ignorance of libertarians who balk at conservative cries to regulate social media goliaths, declaring them unprincipled for breaking their presupposed ideological blood oath to indiscriminately defend free markets is self-evident. What the libertarian doesn’t realize, is that a market in where a handful of companies are empowered by law with broad moderation powers to act as gatekeepers to Americans’ access to information—powers expressly given by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—is in no way whatsoever a “free” market.
I somewhat agree with Curtis Yarvin, who once wrote that one of the key flaws with republics is that they leak power. I disagree with his conclusion (that we need a monarchy instead), but his observations about our government—and the non-governmental entities that ultimately take part in governing us—are quite compelling.