Photo by James Wheeler
A debate is beginning, between the anti-woke and the emergent anti-anti-woke over the cultural and political future of the American left. The anti-woke camp argues that what has come to be known as wokeness—an aggressive form of progressive activism and culture—has gone too far and that its excesses are now doing more harm than good. The anti-anti-woke camp contends that, although left-wing political correctness and cancel culture can be overzealous, these are necessary evils in the uphill battle to dismantle neoliberal capitalism and make real change happen.
The anti-woke camp is increasingly concerned about the compulsion on the mainstream left to punish any perceived slight against members of marginalized groups, however symbolic or petty, and the concomitant belief in the all-determining power of historical oppression. Not only might this elicit conservative backlash, but it can also chill speech, stigmatize dissent and create a culture of conformity and fear in progressive spaces—all in the name of collective guilt and a quixotic pursuit of cosmic justice. This form of activism is hostile to individual liberty, out of touch with the electorate, allergic to class-based analysis and often just plain vindictive.
The anti-anti-woke camp, on the other hand, is not on board with canceling conservative intellectuals or holding white fragility seminars, but views these extreme measures as further evidence of the cultural maladies that result from the broader socioeconomic forces that the left is trying to overcome, rather than consequences of a specific ideology that must be countered. They also feel that those leftists who are highlighting the problems with woke culture are providing red meat to conservative opponents, who latch onto stories of political correctness gone haywire in order to paint the entire left as crazy. After all, racism, sexism, homophobia and the like are deep enough problems to justify heightened sensitivity. Wokeness is just something we have to live with—however weird and annoying it might sometimes be.
There are two fundamental differences between the opposing sides of this debate. One concerns how the left should define itself. If someone is in favor of economic redistribution, but is right-leaning on major cultural issues, can she truly be said to be a leftist? If someone likes the idea of universal basic income, but thinks we should reduce immigration, where does that place him politically?
These questions get to the heart of another, deeper issue: what actually divides the American left and right today? Some cite economic and political views, some think it’s about cultural beliefs and identities, some think it’s a mixture of both. The anti-woke—a group in which I include myself—believe that differences of culture and identity are irrelevant to the bigger issue of wealth inequality and the concentration of power. The anti-anti-woke, on the other hand, see no conflict between the cultural issues and these broader systemic problems and are highly skeptical of the idea that a person can be conservative about culture issues without necessarily being anti-left.
The second difference between the two camps is in their assessments of how bad the woke left really is. Are its beliefs—that America is structurally racist and sexist; that group identity is an essential aspect of who we are; that privilege is a stain on individuals and societies and must be atoned for; and that we hold implicit biases that perpetuate stereotypes, which in turn influence outcomes—really so harmful?
The anti-woke left insist that the answer is yes. How does symbolically accounting for asymmetrical historical power relations allow us to help as many people as possible in the present—regardless of their identities? Shouldn’t we be focusing on broad-based and identity-blind reforms? Wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr.’s main point that immutable characteristics should be irrelevant to the formation of policy? Wokeness, according to this view, is more about assuaging insecurities and amassing power than about achieving true equality.
To which the response is generally that this is naive. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to consider group differences in outcome and could simply prescribe solutions to inequality based on individual need. But we don’t live in an ideal society and the focus on correcting for historical injuries is well founded, even if its advocates are a bit overzealous at times.
Compromise or Mobilize?
Anti-woke leftists Angela Nagle and Michael Tracey have argued that the “fusionist left”—an amalgamation of identity politics and progressive economics—has been wholly exhausted of utility and that this largely explains the breakdown of the Bernie Sanders campaign and other electoral failures, such as Jeremy Corbyn’s historic loss to Boris Johnson:
In 2016, it felt for a brief moment like Bernie had miraculously opened up a similar potential for a radical reformulation on the left. Ultimately, however, left-wing fusionists proved themselves willing to self-annihilate in order to save liberalism. If any kind of open intellectual culture were permitted on the American left—a dubious proposition given its stultifying conformity—this defeat could at least present another opportunity for such a reformulation.
This argument is a familiar one: if Democrats were less dogmatic on cultural issues, such as immigration and racial and sexual politics, an economic consensus would be more likely to emerge, as a kind of reverse third way, bringing together centrist cultural politics and leftist economic principles. The material concerns faced by the majority of Americans—most of whom live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have $500 in savings—are more important than the cultural and demographic cleavages that take center stage in national politics. Speaking explicitly to broad-based economic issues and downplaying identitarian differences offers the best chance of developing a truly unified and inclusive left.
However, in his response, “We Need A Class War, Not A Culture War,” Dustin Guastella blames “larger historical and structural forces,” such as the decline of organized labor and the media’s entrenched establishment bias for Bernie’s defeat, and critiques Tracey and Nagle for their overemphasis on online discourse.
The near universal distaste for political correctness revealed by the 2018 Hidden Tribes study on polarization, Guastella argues, suggests that the left should build a message around “destroying the obscenity of inequality and providing universal public goods” and “unit[ing] workers across race, gender, region and ideology,” that isn’t paired with “an alienating ‘woke’ aesthetic.” In other words, we can marshal a diverse working class coalition without embracing divisive identity politics outright. In this telling, wokeness is not necessarily wrong, but merely strategically problematic: an alienating aesthetic. This is a key distinction in this debate.
Moral Clarity versus Ambiguity
The global Black Lives Matter protests and their institutional fallout have cast doubt on the possibility of a working class revolution of this kind and have rendered the differences between the anti-woke and anti-anti-woke camps all the more glaring. The vast upheavals that ensued after the police killing of George Floyd went viral were accompanied by a string of incidents in mainstream media, major corporations and universities, in which resistance to the prevailing woke narrative was swiftly punished and dissenters summarily purged.
Matt Taibbi has detailed the systemic cleansing of contrarian voices:
We’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness. The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.
Taibbi cites numerous controversies and internal uprisings in the media in which younger, woke journalists demanded that colleagues be reprimanded or fired. Notable episodes include the public shaming of young investigative journalist Lee Fang of the Intercept for interviewing a black citizen who asked “why does a black life matter only when a white man takes it?” and the ousting of New York Times editor James Bennet for publishing an article by Senator Tom Cotton, arguing that troops should be used to quell the riots (a view that was held by a majority of Americans).
Asked everyone I spoke with today if there was anything they wanted to get off their chest about the movement. Max from Oakland, a supporter of BLM, had a measured critique he wanted to share. pic.twitter.com/07qMQyCdJ9
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) June 4, 2020
Without an environment of free inquiry and fairness, the media becomes nothing more than an organ of propaganda and groupthink, Taibbi argues, in which paternalism and grievance-mongering stifle intellectual diversity and freedom.
Nathan J. Robinson clapped back with a piece called “Has The American left Lost Its Mind,” in which he takes Taibbi to task for reproducing hyperbolic Fox News caricatures, failing to distinguish between establishment liberalism and grassroots leftism and misreading examples of leftist excess. He argues in favor of moral clarity in journalism, over both sides-ism and faux objectivity.
In a near perfect summary of the anti-anti-woke position, Robinson writes:
Right-wing takes on Social Justice and Cancel Culture are everywhere. Frankly, I hear people complaining about the thing far more than I encounter the thing itself. And while you can find examples of oversensitivity and overreaction, I tend to think this is a fairly minor issue that mainly occupies the attention of people who spend too much time on social media. I sometimes see certain condemnatory tendencies among activists that are counterproductive, and I am frustrated by them, but I am much more in sympathy with the activists than with their over-the-top, frothing-at-the-mouth critics, who usually plead for Civil Discourse even as they denounce the left as Stalinists and “Twitter Robespierres.”
Robinson sees woke discourse as an exaggerated phenomenon—to be mended, but not ended. For Robinson, a genuinely leftist movement is not incompatible with the radical anti-racist activism or intersectional feminism that occasionally veers towards unhelpful extremes, but it should not include closet reactionaries, who spend all their time attacking such extremes, instead of focusing on the system of oppression that is eliciting these extreme reactions.
The Overton Window
In a review of The Populists Guide to 2020: A New Right and a New Left Are Rising by Krystal Ball and Sagaar Enjeti, hosts of the popular YouTube show “Rising,” that facilitates cross-party discussion, Robinson expresses the view that right-wing populism is simply a front for unadulterated bigotry and reactionary nostalgia. The main thrust of Ball and Enjeti’s book is that left and right-wing populism both arise from a common disdain for the current system. This is a position shared by much of the anti-woke crowd, who view political correctness as a tool that the elites use to keep Americans divided—attacking each other as racist and sexist, instead of making common cause in order to upend the neoliberal economic order.
To Robinson, however, what passes as right-wing populism is a fraud. Right-wingers hijack widespread concern about gross economic inequalities and the elitism they foster in order to enact harmful policies, which uphold traditional hierarchies and norms in the name of the downtrodden working man. What is right-wing populism, he ponders, besides militarized borders, rabid nationalism and xenophobia? The differences between left and right are irreconcilable, and to believe otherwise is to compromise one’s principles as a leftist and empower the worst kind of people.
Robinson describes Ball as naive and Enjeti as a fascist, who occasionally echoes some pro-worker talking points. The two respond here:
To Ball, the costs of refusing to engage with the other side outweigh the benefits of leftist solidarity, and the benefits of engagement outweigh the costs of appearing to endorse right-wing views. Even if right-wing figures like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán take advantage of populist energy to achieve reprehensible ends, that energy ought to be addressed, rather than dismissed as evil. We should attempt to persuade our opponents on key issues and work together when appropriate. We should be expanding the Overton window of acceptable opinion on the left, rather than narrowing it in ways that effectively dissuade people from joining our movement—so the argument goes.
Robinson responded by expounding on the difference between debating right-wing populists and collaborating with them. It’s useful to platform right-wing views, so long as they’re thoroughly scrutinized, he argues, advocating the precise opposite of a Dave Rubin-esque approach, in which softball questions are lobbed at provocateurs. These people must be put on the defensive: not tacitly endorsed.
There are no obvious answers to the questions posed by this debate. As to what should define American leftism and whether there’s a conflict between economic and cultural leftism, the answer is more likely to emerge from the bottom up, as political subgroups form on the ground. The conflict between economic justice—implementing policies based on class—and woke or social justice—implementing policies based on group membership—seems irreconcilable, but that doesn’t mean that alliances can’t be formed for the pursuit of mutual interests. But, for the foreseeable future, there will probably be multiple factions of leftism, in dialectic with one another in accordance with the cultural ebb and flow.
As for how bad woke ideology really is, reasonable people disagree on the specifics. But how much power does this ideology really have? If one principle of leftism is to critique power and challenge the status quo, it may be of more import to determine what the status quo is than whether a given ideology is mostly good or bad.
The fact that every cultural institution expressed unanimous solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests, despite the fact that those protests unfolded in the midst of a pandemic, and that public health officials expressed support for the protests regardless of the obvious risks should tell us all we need to know. Wokeness is the cultural hegemony, and leftists must contend with the power it wields.
So long as woke ideology continues to pervade our institutions, we can expect the debates about it to shape public conversation. The differences in how we respond to this reality are as much about taste and temperament as they are about contrasting visions of society and the ongoing realignment of political parties. At bottom, the debate concerns national identity. Is there a place for cultural nationalism on the American left or not? Is it acceptable to take pride in one’s Americanness, while adhering to a left-wing economic agenda? Are leftists willing to compromise on cultural issues in the service of economic change? If the answer is no, this offers a major opportunity for the right to launch an anti-woke counterculture grounded in anti-corporatism, social conservatism and redistributive economics, in order to meet the populist demand that isn’t being met by the left. I, for one, would be happy to see such a thing.