It is impossible to truly stand back from politics and take an “objective” view, since unlike Voltaire’s Micromégas, we are not from Sirius. But it is worth the effort to step back far enough to observe the contrast between the political power of certain ideas and their intellectual content.
Politics, like art, speaks to us in ways we had not yet thought of. This is as true of today’s absurdities as of the originary event, where the “politics” of the human community reflected the increased strength of mimetic appetite that could no longer maintain itself as such, but had to be deferred and converted into “worship” cum mimetic desire through the mediation of language.
The first humans had no intellectual culture to modify; it was all to be created. Today, political revolutions/revelations** take place in a context of political ideas. Yet their content and that of the ideas that accompany them are by no means guaranteed to be of similar importance. On the contrary, the more intellectually absurd a politically powerful idea, the more it is likely to reveal to us a truth about our society that we have not previously assimilated.
I need not waste time in deconstructing the idea of socialism, which continues to appeal in various guises. Based on the idea of making material existence coincide with the moral equality of our origin, its implementation has inevitably resulted in extreme inequalities in power and wealth, and frequently in mass murder.
Wokeism, although it attaches itself rhetorically to “cultural Marxism,” has the advantage over socialism of being largely compatible with liberal democracy, particularly in the USA. Its very lack of a positive political doctrine, of a blueprint for the “good society,” is the source of its strength in this context, which it transforms without the need for political revolution. Wokeism reflects conditions in the most advanced world cultures that have yet to become foci of analysis, if only because, unlike Marxism, it is based on the most primitive possible social analysis, the resentment of firstness in the context of originary moral equality.
Marxism, grounded in Hegelian dialectics, is a philosophy of history; wokeism is a vision of anti-history. For the woke, history tells the story of a series of evils that it is our task to undo. All the organizational structures that reflect the introduction of differential firstness into human relations are subject to criticism, and must be denounced until they eventually disappear; only originary reciprocity is without sin. The tactics of the movement find their primary inspiration in the intuitions of the young, the least original but the most originary sources of insight.
There is much to be learned from the woke phenomenon. “Don’t argue with it; learn from it” is a useful slogan to keep in mind. Wokeism and GA share the same originary intuition—the human community in symmetrical, reciprocal, “politically correct” conversation. But for the woke, all history beyond the originary event is a fall into sin that we must work to negate.
There is no point in arguing with wokeness. If the woke declare that “mathematics is white,” such a statement must be judged by its effects, not its “truth.” This assertion will not modify the role of mathematics in science and industry, or in daily life. But it is effective in encouraging minority resentment of the higher math scores of other races and the accompanying, or anticipating, compensatory reaction. As a result, it has led to the widespread elimination of math tests, and indeed, of numerically scored examinations, as criteria of admission to professions and universities. For the woke understand, as GA does, but as so many “Platonist” philosophers do not, that mathematics is in the first place a human institution. Whence the ability of woke teachers to claim that no student’s answer to a math problem should be considered wrong.
The strength of such ideas is that, by appearing to benefit their victimary clientele, they offer opportunities for virtue-signaling by establishment institutions, redefining “justice” by replacing equal opportunity with equal results. So far, at least, the idea that “no answer is wrong” does not function outside the classroom.
One of the points made in Chronicle 684 was that in the current state of Western social relations, the only available alternatives appearing to be tyranny or chaos, the woke version of liberal democracy might well appear the most attractive choice for nations that wish to retain some of their relative freedom of social interaction. We cannot ignore that China, with its multi-millennial imperial history, its vast population, its emphasis on competitively cultivating the intellect—and the resentment stored up from a century of Western domination—has a tradition and an incentive that allow its people to submit to a level of discipline that would be unimaginable in the West. This is particularly true in the digital age, when our most powerful institutional and business leaders see the world in terms far more “global” than national.
No doubt liberal democracy still has some real advantages in the generation of original ideas, and perhaps in the pragmatic areas of their application as well, although it is not clear that this must remain the case. One area in which we are definitely more proficient is in the kind of intellectual reflection that GA represents. It is unimaginable that a contemporary Chinese thinker could conceive the originary hypothesis, any more than it could come up with wokeness. This is indeed a tribute to the West’s vastly greater freedom of thought.
The much misunderstood significance of “French theory” was that it was both a significant anthropological breakthrough and at the same time a recycling of Marxist clichés about “late capitalism” that revealed, not the weakness of “capitalism,” but on the contrary, its compatibility with the “progressive” ideology that denies in theory the very values it embodies in practice.
This is more than just profiting from selling Che T-shirts. Our tech billionaires were not chosen by affirmative action, nor will those who in the course of history succeed them. Their corporate successes are not due to “diversity and inclusion.” Emphasizing the latter is not really to deny the significance of firstness, but merely to change the subject, the better to avoid criticism of the extraordinary inequalities that digital capitalism generates.
Wokeism should be thought of less as a “way of thinking” than as a means of social organization. Instead of taking its ideas seriously, we should think of them simply as slogans, and judge them not against the history of Western thought but, as in 1984, as organizing principles—only slightly less absurd than “ignorance is strength” or “war is peace”—while bearing in mind that these slogans are not so much imposed on us by force as replicated, as it were effortlessly, by our institutions.
The woke phenomenon has become the political religion of the digital age. It functions to provide cover for the efficiency of market processes that have made possible, indeed, inevitable, extraordinary prodigies of firstness, concentrations of wealth and power of a sort that were inconceivable in the machine age.
As proof of its authority, one need only examine the ever-awokening state of the English language (and the French and no doubt others are following suit), particularly in the domain of sexual identity. Nor does today’s political marketplace contain a counterweight to the moral force possessed by the process of “diversity and inclusion” that currently dominates the institutional scene.
The fact that California voters recently rejected a measure to remove the bar on racial preferences created in 1996 by Proposition 209 will surely have little effect on the reality of such preferences at the University of California and elsewhere. Nor do arguments against them by such as Thomas Sowell or Ward Connerly have any real effect. It is and will probably remain unquestionably safer to take “the side of the victim,” whether this really serves the “victim” or not. And it goes without saying that spokesmen for victimary privilege can always be found within the chosen communities and, lacking a genuine revolution in outlook, given at least passive support by a majority of their members.
None of this is critically detrimental to the overall success of “capitalism,” but in competition with a determined Chinese adversary, it is hard to imagine that a nation that can only maintain its viability by doing penance, not just for past and persisting evils, but for its “racial” identity, can once again mobilize its forces for total victory as it did in winning WWII.
There are certainly advantages to American pragmatism over strict hierarchy. Wokeness does not impose such hierarchy, only an endless series of taboos that not so much oppose the system as render it less efficient. But given that the competition with China, outside of broader geopolitical considerations, turns on maintaining the highest efficiency, we must measure the advantages we gain from a freer flow of information and lack of authoritarian obstacles to free thought against the downside of this accumulation of taboos—such as the recent fires and blackouts directly attributable to woke environmentalism.
From the standpoint of maximum productivity, wokeness must be seen as a self-imposed handicap, as though spotting one’s opponent a couple of pawns were a fitting compensation for the evil of Western “racial” firstness. We could not have won WWII with this mind-set, and we cannot expect to outdo the Chinese with it now.
As an example of how wokeism works in the small, I refer you to David P. Goldman/”Spengler”’s recent article https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2021/02/16/mediocritys-envy-of-genius-the-dirty-secret-of-cancel-culture-n1426112 ). Spengler’s reference to “cancel culture” is in effect a euphemistic way of speaking about something more insidious. The focus of the article is an African-American music professor, who “has won his fifteen minutes of fame by denouncing whiteness in classical music.” In Spengler’s words, this person “dismisses Beethoven as merely ‘an above average composer’ whose prominence erases the contribution of composers of color.”
Black Americans have made great contributions to American and world music, and denigrating Beethoven contributes nothing to their glory. Nor will this denigration prevent talented musicians of whatever skin color from pursuing their ambitions for greatness. But what it will do is operate to deflect the goals of blacks in music and other fields from focusing on objective excellence—firstness of their own—to finding excuses for mediocrity in the unfairness of a “white” civilization’s judgment of the greatness of Beethoven. Such are the wages of “diversity and inclusion” in our culture.
This all goes back to the infantile presumptuousness of wokeness, the originarity that is the source of its power. Wokeness is a distant legacy of the American Century confirmed by our victories in WWII and the Cold War. The woke mindset is that of children living under the care of all-powerful parents, whose fun and games can be “outrageous” because the conditions of their lives are guaranteed by daddy and mommy through processes they need not concern themselves with.
The parents tolerate the brattiness of their woke-children, who were not allowed to lose at T-Ball. Faced with the difficulties of competition in the digital age—difficulties that I can only thank my lucky stars for having avoided—the children throw tantrum after tantrum in the confidence that mommy and daddy will get the message.
So far, this strategy has paid off handsomely, at least in symbolic terms. What is new in our “cancel culture” is that this tolerance of youthful foibles is increasingly exercised with a 1984-like eye to “canceling” any deviation. Those we once thought of as responsible adults now comfort the “progressive” in their delusion that woke inefficiency is a “virtuous” compensation for “white privilege,” rather than above all a way of guaranteeing the role of our giant corporations in the global market system.
But when “freedom of speech” comes to mean in practice that one is free to denigrate great white contributors to culture for the benefit of other races, but that defenders of the former must be very careful to avoid offending the sensibilities of the denigrators, the very function of “speech” has been stripped of its civilized function of seeking objective truth and returned to its primitive role of creating communal harmony coûte que coûte.
In short, the originary intuition of the woke has achieved the long-sought “overcoming of metaphysics” that refutes Parmenides’ separation of truth from opinion. It provides a powerful lesson in originary anthropology—one that demonstrates the terminal incoherence of the dream of a “post-metaphysical” Western civilization.
**A Derridean (je parlerai, donc, d’une lettre…) might propose revelution, reflecting the inextricability of political revolution and revelation (this works in French as well as English). Admittedly not as neat as différance.