The poet W. B. Yeats observed long ago that the centre will not hold. As interwoven crises of capital persist and the political centre struggles to be credible, liberals turn to the ideas of the oppressed to compensate for their deficiencies, albeit to ideas hollowed of their original content. It is in that vein Tyler Cowen, Professor of economics at George Mason University, wrote for Bloomberg that the “woke movement could be the next great U.S. cultural export”.
Two bad choices
Cowen came to this view despite being “decidedly un-woke”; a free-marketer who regards “wokeism” as “stupid and inflexible”. Yet he also thinks it is underrated, seen outside of a local context where it is mostly annoying. Rather, he argues it can be a “new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence.” His interest is not in the emancipatory potential of whatever he imagines constitutes “wokeism”, but in leveraging it for imperialist domination.
Cowen argues that, while wokeism has little inherent value, encouraging the spread of what he also calls “a relatively feminized American culture”, it is a useful tool for American soft-power abroad. Worse, the only alternative he suggests is the far-right cult QAnon. In short, choose between an imperialist woke ideology or fascism. And in the conflict with Ukraine we can see a version of Cowen’s two bad choices presented quite seriously. A craven liberalism that uses progressive politics to spread its influence and exploit the crisis, while from the sewers bubbles a reactionary politics Marx once characterised as “the shit of ages”, the amalgamated mass of prejudices and dogmas from the past.
This age-old shit is as evident in “the West” as it is in the Kremlin. As people in Ukraine face tanks on top of the pandemic, “comedian” Konstantin Kisine complains that the “West spends more time talking about pronouns than it does about things that matter”. Meanwhile Zoe Strimpel for the Telegraph argues the conflict exposes “just how shallow the self-obsessed woke world view really is”. Also writing for the Telegraph, Camilla Tominey describes “a decadent elite” as “Putin’s real useful idiots”. And for Spiked, the embodiment of a contemporary Red-Brown alliance, Bredan O’Neill asserts that “Putin has unquestionably been emboldened by the incoherence of the West”, citing “the nonsense of transgenderism” as an example.
Such opinions are not relegated to the fascist press. In a piece on how Putin “gambles that the West is weak”, former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott wrote of a “deliberate subversion by cultural Marxists” (referring here to the ‘cultural marxism’ antisemitic conspiracy theory) that results in a time when “the rights of men who want to be women routinely trump those of women”. Redolent of Cowen’s liberal appropriation of “Wokeism”, Richard Moore, the British chief of the Secret Intelligence Service argues that British LGBT+ rights distinguish us from Putin, while ex-BBC hack Andrew Neil froths at the mouth about how this is exemplary of why Putin “thinks we’re in decline/decay”.
Uniting generational, anti-left, anti-trans and pro-war hate into a bizarre word salad, Louisiana Republican Rep. Clay Higgins wrote the spectacular tweet: “You millennial leftists who never lived one day under nuclear threat can now reflect upon your woke sky. You made quite a non-binary fuss to save the world from intercontinental ballistic tweets.” What little is clear from such nonsense is how the themes of anti-wokeness, decadence, subversion, decline, decay, red baiting, homophobia and racism are clustered into a shared transphobic fascist panic. And gripped in this panic, many commentators and politicians see Putin as their idol.
In this context, where is Cowen’s liberal wokeism? The liberal commentariat has shown its usual lacklustre solidarity. James O’Brien, for instance, rightly condemned the far right’s raging bigotry in the context of the war. But against a background of rising transphobia, as someone who has contributed to that moral panic with his dog whistle complaint about not believing “that people with penises should be allowed into women only spaces”, O’Brien’s list of the right’s bigotries includes racism, homophobia and misogyny.
That sin of omission mirrors the similar cowardice of Biden’s White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Inspired by a now overturned British court judgement against the use of puberty blockers for trans* teenagers, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has attempted to declare gender-affirming treatments for children to be a form of child abuse, threatening to have the state kidnap young trans* people from their supportive families and put them in care. Addressing a question about this, Psaki dodged even the word transgender, talking instead of “the kids who need support the most, LGBTQI+ students”.
Racist tropes about Ukraine
Meanwhile, far from “Wokeness” inspiring liberal solidarity, much of the traditional press, from liberal left to conservative right, has been shockingly brazen about its racism, coming to the fore in coverage of Russia’s aggression. The Telegraph’s Daniel Hannon writes on Ukraine, “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.” A CBS Reporter deems Ukraine “relatively civilized” compared to Iraq and Afghanistan to explain his upset. And speaking on the BBC, Ukrainian former Chief Prosecutor for Georgia, David Sakvarelidze, states that “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair.”
Whether we face a woke imperialism or a fascist condemnation of decadence, it makes little difference to the undercurrent of bigotry that defines every faction of capital, liberal or conservative; reactionary or “progressive”. It then must fall elsewhere and to another class to outline a new politics, one to reject the false choices of Cowen or Higgins. But where are the socialists at this moment?
Campism and left sectarianism
Sadly, socialism is locked in the politics of campism and left sectarianism. Having faced our own crisis of organisation, driven out of politics since the postwar consensus and then again during the expansion of neoliberalism, the left plays petty games to distract itself from its own catastrophic irrelevance; often, shamefully, siding with one or other side of capital in the split between “Woke” imperialism and outright reaction.
Socialist researcher Padraic Gibson has usefully drawn attention to Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius pamphlet, written while she was jailed during World War I. It can be beneficial in such a moment to remind ourselves that we inherit a theoretical legacy more than capable of seeing through the false choices described above. Luxemburg’s comments on the idea of Europe as uniquely civilised cuts right to the heart of a crisis that echoes today, a moment to relearn the importance of internationalism in our politics.
“For the first time, the ravening beasts set loose upon all quarters of the globe by capitalist Europe have broken into Europe itself… This same ‘civilised world’ looked on passively as the same imperialism ordained the cruel destruction of ten thousand Herero tribesmen and filled the sands of the Kalahari with the mad shrieks and death rattles of men dying of thirst; as forty thousand men on the Putumayo River [Columbia] were tortured to death within ten years by a band of European captains of industry as in China where an age-old culture was put to the torch by European mercenaries; as in Tripoli where fire and sword bowed the Arabs beneath the yoke of capitalism, destroyed their culture and habitations. Only now has [the ‘civilised world’] recognised this, after the beast’s ripping talons have clawed… the bourgeois civilisation of Europe itself”
No equivocations about the aggressor and aggressed need be made to notice that neither Putin, nor the so-called “West”, possess solutions to the compound crisis of capital motivating unjustifiable military attacks. Effective solidarity with Ukrainian people means supporting their resistance and survival, but also robustly opposing the British state’s hostile environment policy for refugees fleeing the conflict. (And therefore opposing the new Crime Bill that makes such opposition difficult). In declaring ourselves as being for neither nor, socialists should not downplay one struggle against another but clarify that all struggles are bound up with each other.
Such an internationalist attitude requires refusing to ignore the mistreatment of African and Indian foreign students, who encounter markedly racist hostility from Ukrainian security forces and Polish border officials as they too seek safety. If empathy is more forthcoming to white refugees from Ukraine than it is to others, then it is the task of socialists to make the parallels and show the contradictions in a decrepit and unfit liberal humanitarianism.
To be able to act, however, socialists must be able to reject the false dichotomies we are offered in lieu of our own theoretical coherence. Woke is cited again and again by so many different factions, it all too easily comes to mean everything and therefore nothing. But by tracing the word’s living history, we can clearly see how the term came to be such a free-floating signifier for establishment hopes and fascist nightmares, but also what it means, has meant, continues to involve, for many of the oppressed.
Radical origins of ‘woke’
Although it has older roots, woke was popularised in recent times by Black people on Twitter as an online rallying point with appropriately vague associations, but has been subsequently taken up by racists (and thereby general bigots) as an alternative to now declassee terms such as “uppity”. Similarly “cancel culture”, now nearly synonymous with woke, was a Black performed online expression of powerlessness against celebrity representation. Today it describes various online behaviours (both imagined and genuinely bad) so diverse it often just means “bad social media thing”.
A collapse in the ability of people to communicate between opposing political positions, or, in the case of Higgins, communicate whatsoever, is itself neither desirable nor undesirable. It is inevitable during a collapse of the political (and therefore cultural) centre. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein realised, “if a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” What Wittgenstein meant is that to communicate, we must share a lifeworld, associations of meaning. And as Marxists we should understand that lifeworlds are inherently sensuous, the domain of the everyday material production and human reproduction replete with all of society’s contradictions and from which not only language, but types of consciousness, emerge and are daily reconfirmed by experience.
Rather than bemoan with the liberals the collapse of their consensus of meanings, or allow them to take and mangle the language of the oppressed for their own nefarious purposes, socialists should bolster and cultivate the self-understanding of the oppressed and exploited. Rather than jump into a collapsing centrism in fear of a fascism whose hate has overtaken all of its capacities to make sense of the world, we should confidently assert our socialist ideas as powerfully explanative of the horrors produced inevitably and cyclically by capitalism, a cycle that threatens the survival of so much – possibly all – human life.
The culture wars are more and more incoherent, as can be seen when a prominent culture warrior like Tucker Carlson complains that M&M chocolate cartoon mascots are now too androgenous to take a fancy to. However, the rhetorical strategy of the far right of blaming the oppressed for social decline remains dangerous. And relying on liberalism to defend even its own measly gains is proving a failing strategy for a socialism that has shown itself to be too poorly prepared for our times. Liberals only ever seize on anything liberatory as an opportunity to reclaim their own militarism, state violence and inevitably betray the marginalised people they once ‘championed’.
It is time, now, for socialists to refuse to pick between our enemies and recover our confidence. To reject the false logic that says the enemy of our enemies are our friends, and to not only say no to Putin, to NATO, to Washington, to the facile rhetoric making light of military conflict, but also yes to the working class, to the oppressed, to socialism. Decades of defeat made us forget our strength. Let us say yes to the Woke that was a rallying cry for our Black siblings, to the ongoing struggles of people suffering and resisting in Ukraine, to the liberation of the oppressed, and to humanity. We must, because nobody else will, and the other possibility is so horrifying it is scarcely thinkable.
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