On Wokeness, Its Nature, and Its Prospects

In response to my piece on leaving academia, a few asked me for my thoughts on Wokeness, and how one might go about doing away with it.

There’s nothing I would like more, than to have a good answer to this question. Alas, I’m very pessimistic about achieving any victory here, but I also don’t think Woke is going to be a permanent menace. Sooner or later, the forces driving this ideological cancer will try to dial in the Woke, and if they fail, they will themselves be consumed by it. The damage has been done and the pre-Woke world can never be re-achieved, but Wokery isn’t a stable ideological system. It is instead the mere ideological expression of a revolutionary process.

I’ve written a lot about the phenomenon of the high-low alliance. The idea isn’t original to me; a great many thinkers, from Bertrand de Jouvenal to Curtis Yarvin and others, have articulated the same basic idea in varying terms. It’s central to understanding the modern political order, and in particular leftism and the various forms it adopts.

In Antiquity, empires and kingdoms faced substantial practical limits on the exercise of their power. Even relatively sophisticated systems like the Roman Empire had to make do with a rudimentary institutional apparatus by modern standards. In the Middle Ages, depopulation and a shrinking economy simplified this apparatus further still; most people lived their whole lives without encountering a single agent of the king. A semi-autonomous aristocracy emerged to collect rents from the peasantry and provide local security. Royal power was hemmed in on all sides, and although peasants were subject to varying degrees of unfreedom and often very serious poverty, they were not all that closely governed.

As the economy and with it the institutional apparatus grew, the distance between the top and the bottom of society collapsed, and rulers availed themselves of new opportunities to extend their powers. They could present themselves as allies of the common people and the merchants, who regarded the autonomous aristocracy as their oppressors and saw in the distant the monarch a more attractive protector. State agents replaced the aristocrats; unlike the aristocracy, they owed their position and their loyalty to the king. This ideological and political transformation inevitably sidelined royal power as well; notional sovereignty moved from the king to the people, on whose behalf state agents claimed to govern. The growth of technology and communications facilitated these changes by vastly increasing the reach of the state, and hence the status that the state could provide to its agents. A new political rhetoric and a new ideology of freedom, rights, and the popular will emerged – all of it betokening, ironically, a closer governance of the common man than history had ever seen before.

Now, I’ve framed this in roughly Jouvenelian terms, but the advancement of power via alliances of opportunity between the high and the low is in no way limited to the political sphere. Universities, corporations and religious institutions are subject to identical processes of administrative progression. Wherever you have less-advantaged people at the bottom, rulers at the top, and the accumulation of some independent prerogative and autonomy between them, the board is set. Nor is the tactic of the high-low alliance against the middle ever definitively finished. For one thing, there are always new people accumulating at the bottom – foreigners and immigrants, the recently impoverished, the sick, and many others. For another, no completed revolution of the high and the low can continue for very long before yielding new ranks to loot just below the top. The merchants and later the capitalists drove out the landed aristocracy, only to find themselves the target of new socialist revolutionary movements in the nineteenth century.

Ideologies have a highly important if subordinate role to play in this system, for they demarcate which groups at the bottom are unjustly disadvantaged and to whose aid the rulers or the administrators are called. The highly unstable nature of the lower classes in modern society, driven by mass immigration and rapid economic change, accounts for the volatility and malleability of leftism, which is the ideological cluster that is primarily responsible for articulating and justifying these high-low alliances. Classical Marxism promised justice to factory workers, the New Left of the postwar era shifted its focus to students, and today their Woke successors forge alliances with racial and sexual minorities. The promise is always one of a totally egalitarian society, but even when completely successful, the revolution merely extends the power of the rulers.

Wokeness first got off the ground in Anglophone universities after decades of hiring and admissions preferences had filled them with revolutionary tinder at the bottom. The expanding administration seized this opportunity, and via ever new initiatives in the area of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, aligned itself with the affirmative action fraternity against that old academic aristocracy, the tenured faculty and their departments. That is, at base, all that Wokeness is. The basic ideological programme found purchase outside the university environment simply because immigration policies and hiring preferences provided nearly identical opportunities for high-low alliances in many other areas. Where Woke has made fewer inroads, for example in Continental Europe, the reason is insufficient immigration and the absence of long-standing affirmative action initiatives. Despite many other changes, the lower tiers here have remained relatively stable, though of course that’s changing as I type this.

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