The looming danger of an ephemeral enemy of the people – the “woke” – has been a financial boon to traditional print media. Anti-woke headlines sell. While profitable, the term “woke” is also a galvanising force to push specific right-wing narratives into the public consciousness. It moulds our worldviews, shaping our categories and judgments.
Have you ever wondered what strip clubs, the military-industrial complex, corporations, quangos, medical education, capitalism, gardeners, a BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen book, The Railway Children, Scouting, Love Island, asset managers, the U.S. Federal Reserve, Chile’s new constitution, Thomas Jefferson’s home estate Monticello, fund managers, mathematics text books, Emmanuel Macron, a production of Richard III, the new GCSE list, the New York Police Department, Wall Street, the Met, the “Whitehall blob”, the Church of England, UK builders, Islamic fundamentalists, Nicolas Maduro, Justin Trudeau, USA Today, the U.S. Department of Defense, Yale University, Jaguar Land Rover workers, and multinational investment management corporations BlackRock and Vanguard have in common? According to the papers, they have all gone woke.
I discovered this after my husband and I sat down on our couch in mid-2022 and searched through newspaper headlines published in a single two-month period. We found 300+ examples in one afternoon, with minimal effort.
The book publishing industry has seen a host of books decrying the dangers of the “woke” in recent years. The fictitious right-wing media persona Titania McGrath published Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (2019); current US Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy authored Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam (2021); John McWhorter released Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America (2021). Then there’s James MacPherson’s Notes From Woketopia: Laying Bare the Lunacy of Woke Culture (2021); Diane Bederman’s Bullies of Woke and their Assault on Mental Health (2022); ex-Marxist professor Michael Rectenwald’s Beyond Woke (2020); Carl Rhodes’ Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy (2021); Brendan O’Neill’s Anti-Woke (2018); Mark Goldblatt’s I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism (2022); and Tom Pickering’s The Evil of Silence: Woke Culture and the Mechanics of Tyranny (2021).
If there are still holes in your knowledge of “woke” culture, you can turn to Joanna Williams’ How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason (2022); Ralph Calabrese’s Toxic Femininity: Why Woke Women are Trying to Disable Our Youth, Minorities, and Civilization (2021); Kevin Donnelly’s The Dictionary of Woke: How Orwellian Language Control and Group Think Are Destroying Western Societies (2022); Stephen Soukup’s The Dictatorship of Woke Capital (2023); and D. Watkins’ 2019 book, We Speak for Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress (2019). And so on.
How should we understand this “anti-woke” publishing phenomenon? Either everything has gone woke or the word “woke” is doing something else in our language. Personally, I think it best to view the term “woke” in light of how it functions as a speech act: as a “snarl word” (to use the technical term S.I. Hayakawa first introduced in Language in Thought and Action). Snarl words are highly connotative labels that circumvent usual critical analysis. It functions within language not as a descriptor with a clear delineation between what is and what is not, but as a reflection of the attitudes of the speaker. In other words, snarl words function more as a boo or a hiss, signaling the speaker’s disapproval and opprobrium.
The fourth of Paul Grice’s famous maxims, the maxim of manner, encourages us “to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and… [avoid] obscurity and ambiguity”. I am of the opinion that the use of the term “woke” obscures rather than clarifies: whatever unifies Wall Street, a BBC production of Jane Austen, and Jaguar Land Rover workers is far too diffuse to pick out anything of interest.
Furthermore, and more insidiously, snarl words are frequently the language of the status quo, the epithets politicians and media personalities daily hurl at their targets. Snarl words show up when the listener is tacitly told there’s no reason for anything to change; the speaker standing athwart history, shouting “boo” and “hiss” at people who think things could be a little bit better.
I was immediately reminded of this dizzying collection of headlines and books, as well as the potential problems in basing an entire book around a snarl word like “woke”, when I read Susan Neiman’s new book, Left Is Not Woke. We now have a leftist philosopher of some renown – a self-identified socialist, in fact – attempting to set forward a clear and focused critique of “woke”. When there’s the smoke of a thousand newspaper columns and a whole publishing bonanza over the dangers of “woke”, then presumably there is a fire of some kind.
If we are to “resist the lurch to the right”, Neiman argues that the left needs to put its intellectual house in order first and combat certain intellectual tendencies embodied by the “woke”.
Neiman’s goal is to save proper leftism from “woke”. While previous critics of the “woke” identified it with “the left”, Neiman disagrees. On the face of it, then, this is the one novel aspect to Neiman’s book when compared with prior anti-woke literature. If we are to “resist the lurch to the right”, Neiman argues that the left needs to put its intellectual house in order first and combat certain intellectual tendencies embodied by the “woke”. The first chapter begins with the question: “Can woke be defined?” Sadly, she demurs on setting out a definition. Instead, we receive a list of descriptions: “[Woke] begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization”; “Woke emphasizes the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice”; “Woke demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories”. For Neiman, it seems that “wokeness” has good intentions, but consistently oversteps its bounds. Unfortunately for the reader, Neiman does not provide examples of these alleged “woke” individuals going beyond the boundaries of acceptability, nor does she explain how these unnamed actions are unacceptable.
While Neiman struggles with setting out any substantive content of wokeness, she believes that “it does have some direction”. Specifically, it rejects “the epistemological frameworks and political assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment”, namely “commitments to universalism, justice, and the possibility of progress”. For Neiman, “woke” bears striking similarities to: the current Republican Party, the Trump administration, the UK government under then-PM Liz Truss, and the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, amongst others, for their focus on superficial trappings of identity rather than material substance, or, as Neiman says, “diversifying power structures without asking what the power is used for can simply lead to stronger systems of oppression”.
In other words, Neiman alleges that the “woke” are not interested in any real emancipatory struggle. Again, I wish that Neiman had listed some examples of “woke” thinkers doing this, but she doesn’t. I imagine they must exist – the church of self-identified leftism is so broad, after all, that some “woke” people somewhere must surely be doing this too, and not just all the centrist and right-wing thinkers and organisations she explicitly names throughout her book.
Neiman’s core thesis involves a genealogical claim: the alleged roots of “woke” are firmly grounded in “outright Nazis” like Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger: in Schmitt’s rejection of universalism and justice, and in Heidegger’s anti-modernism and “appeals to peasant virtues”. “Woke” is also allegedly indebted to Michel Foucault (because of its apparent focus on power rather than justice) and evolutionary psychology (because of its apparent cynical attitude towards altruism and belief that all human behaviour is selfish). All these genealogical roots are held together, so Neiman alleges, by a rejection of “Enlightenment” values. Neiman asserts that leftism is, properly understood, a child of the Enlightenment. Since the “woke” reject Enlightenment values, the “woke” is therefore anti-Left. Sadly, Neiman does not trace this genealogical pathway from Heidegger, Schmitt, Foucault and evolutionary psychology to any modern-day “woke” thinkers. In fact, she does not name a single “woke” philosopher, public intellectual or prominent advocate that is indebted to their thought.
For Neiman, “many of the theoretical assumptions that support the most admirable impulses of the woke come from the intellectual movement they despise”, i.e. fascist thought. But it is unclear to me why Neiman believes in an origin story that ties “woke” to Nazi intellectuals, rather than elsewhere, especially when there are other prime candidates. Neiman is an accomplished philosopher, so I assumed she would include the evidence to support this genealogy linking Schmitt and Heidegger to the “woke”. Richard Wolin’s 2023 book, Heidegger in Ruins, stands as an illustrative example, deftly tying together the evidence of Heidegger’s malign influence on some parts of leftist thinking; Neiman’s book does not.
Another illustrative example of Neiman’s failure to guide the reader through her argument stands out: a good portion of the latter half of Left Is Not Woke is an extended complaint directed at evolutionary psychology. Why a critique of evolutionary psychology is present in the manuscript is baffling, as the most well-known defenders of evolutionary psychology, such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, are well known for their anti-woke stances. Neiman does not say which “woke” thinkers are adherents to evolutionary psychology. Other writers have written extensively on evolutionary psychology’s integration into popular right-wing talking-points. I was hoping for Neiman to do the same for the Left. Sadly, she does not. She does, however, list numerous right-wing governments, neoliberal economists, right-wing talking heads, and so on, that have used it to provide weight to their own regressive social theories of dominance and subjugation being the natural (and thus good) order of things.
Without clear descriptions, definitions, or examples of “woke”, and without quoting any “woke” thinkers at any point, it may seem Neiman is battling a series of straw-people.
Without clear descriptions, definitions, or examples of “woke”, and without quoting any “woke” thinkers at any point, it may seem Neiman is battling a series of straw-people. Who precisely is her target? Neiman counters such worries by noting “this is not a scholarly book. … Scholarly investigation would complicate the claims I make about Foucault or Schmitt or evolutionary psychology”. It is all well and good to avoid “scholarly investigation”, but even non-scholarly books list a few examples of the very object of criticism now and again. Furthermore, her neat dismissal of “theory”, her occasional cobbling together of a thinker’s position from a few disparate quotes, and the simplistic dichotomies that structure each chapter (universal vs. particular; justice vs. power etc.) mean that the book is largely indistinguishable from similar titles flooding the “anti-woke” market such as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories (2020).
To be fair, Neiman does name one “woke” group: the New York Times: “While it [the New York Times] still embodies the mainstream neoliberal consensus it always represented, since 2019 it has been increasingly, demonstratively woke”. I have attempted to reconcile the claim that the New York Times is “woke” with its active participation in the most recent “anti-woke” moral panic about trans people; its continued obsession with highlighting minor cases of petty theft and downplaying systemic wage theft; its history of sympathetic profiles of right-wing extremists ranging from Adolf Hitler in 1922 to the leader of the overtly white supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party in 2016; or its recent opinion piece excusing the public murder of a homeless man on the New York subway. I suppose these cases are just the embodiment of the mainstream neoliberal consensus.
Another thesis of Neiman’s book that runs alongside her thin genealogical argument is the idea that the “woke” reject the Enlightenment principle of universalism and thus cannot be truly leftist. As with her genealogical argument, Neiman does not list examples to support this second thesis. Instead, she provides a list of examples of what is best described as fraudulent victimhood: Benjamin Wilkomirski, a man that falsely claimed to have been a Holocaust survivor; white Americans falsely claiming to be Black; and a Black actor staging a racist attack on himself. Having read Neiman’s book, I do not understand how these examples represent a rejection of universalism or even, more generally, whether these individuals are intended to be “woke” or not.
Neiman’s digression to “woke” victimhood leads to another critique, the one time she substantially engages with another philosopher: a critique of Miranda Fricker’s work on standpoint epistemology. This is an opportunity for Neiman to display her philosophical acumen. She begins with a quote from Fricker discussing feminist thought: “Feminists [took the idea that] … a life led at the sharp end of any given set of power relations provides for critical understanding”. Neiman’s response is brief: “Critical understanding can arise from powerlessness, but does it always do so? … [C]an we allow the experience of powerlessness to be elevated to an inevitable source of political authority?”
Neiman does not do justice to standpoint epistemology or feminist thought in this section. Instead, she conflates two distinct things: on the one hand, we have an epistemic principle that previously silenced voices may have a valuable perspective in virtue of their voices being silenced; on the other, there is the much stronger claim that previously silenced individuals are inevitably a source of political authority. I am unaware of any leftist intellectual that has ever endorsed this latter claim. Perhaps there are, but if so, Neiman does not name them. Additionally, it is unclear how this addresses her claim that the “woke” reject universalism or other Enlightenment values, since standpoint epistemology and feminism both appear to be fully compatible with Enlightenment values.
Neiman contrasts universalism with “tribalism”, invoking Nazi jurists that developed the Nuremberg Laws about racial purity and the American “one-drop rule”. I don’t suppose Neiman is in any way suggesting that Nazis and American white supremacists are “woke”, but once again the book would have benefited immensely from the inclusion of examples of “woke” thinkers who had succumbed to the reactionary tendencies of tribalism she frequently names and shames on the right. Otherwise, we are just left to assume that in a neat feat of dialectics, the “woke” left is simply the unacknowledged mirror image of the identitarian right (i.e., white supremacists), viz. her assertion, “[M]any of the theoretical assumptions that support the most admirable impulses of the woke come from the intellectual movement they despise”. This kind of allegation is murky at best. The American conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg, for example, argued in his Liberal Fascism (2008) that modern liberalism is linked to Nazism because both contain a cult of the organic, citing Hitler’s vegetarianism as the key piece of evidence for this line of reasoning.
Neiman does, however, make one hard-hitting claim: “Universalism is under fire on the left because it’s conflated with fake universalism: the attempt to impose certain cultures on others in the name of an abstract humanity that turns out to reflect just the dominant culture’s time, place, and interests”. Neiman rightly acknowledges that this “happens daily in the name of corporate globalism,” but corporate globalism isn’t “woke” according to Neiman. That sounds to me like capitalism, another child of the Enlightenment. This attempt to situate “wokeness” alongside global capitalism is one example of many in the book (e.g. an odd metaphor of a “bunch of guys passing time in a rich man’s house” that opens chapter 3) through which Neiman attempts to situate “wokeness” as a privileged stance that is the luxury of those whose material needs are adequately met. Perhaps this is true, but without evidence her claims are distinctly unconvincing.
Neiman’s distinction between a “genuine” and “fake” universalism serves to open up a series of key questions that remain unanswered in the book.
Neiman’s distinction between a “genuine” and “fake” universalism serves to open up a series of key questions that remain unanswered in the book. For example, how are we to handle cases when apparent tribalism can be a covert case of universalism and vice versa? Neiman writes, “Woke movements deserve praise for making many people aware that even for genuine universalists, universal was more often colored white than brown, gendered male rather than female, presumed straight rather than gay”. Neiman does not recognise the obvious issue: can we reliably determine if any proposed “genuine” universalism is “genuine” and not, say, a covert tribalism peddling universalist language?
Take Kant as an example. Neiman presents Kant as “a man of his time”, i.e. a racist. Kant was of course a man of his time, but, as Stella Sandford points out, “he was racist even by the standards of his day”. Neiman wishes to minimise the role of Kant’s “occasional racist comments” in light of his larger commitment to condemning Eurocentrism and colonialism. There are two issues at stake here. Firstly, is it fair to dismiss Kant’s racism as simply “occasional racist comments”? Kant in fact went far beyond the racism typical of Enlightenment figures, as, for example, when he offers the following advice: “use a split bamboo cane instead of whip, so that the Negro will suffer a great deal of pains (because of the Negro’s thick skin, he would not be racked with sufficient agonies through a whip) but without dying”. And second, is it fair to see Kant’s racism as basically an aberration in an otherwise purified philosophical legacy? Given the recent publication of Huaping Lu-Adler’s Kant, Race, and Racism: Views from Somewhere (2023), there is a sense in which these debates are just beginning. In short, there remain good reasons why scholars will continue to critically engage with Enlightenment models of universalism and their alleged contemporary heirs.
And what of Marxism? It is surely a child of Enlightenment rationalistic and utopian thinking. It is also presumably on the left, but is it Marxism tribalistic or universalistic? Certainly, its focus on the proletariat over the bourgeoisie appears to undermine its universalism, but do its origins in the Enlightenment save it from thereby being labelled “woke”? What of the long European history of anti-fascist thought and action? Anti-fascism is surely tribalistic, so perhaps anti-fascist thinkers are no longer leftist, perhaps even “woke”. What of the Frankfurt School’s charge that fascism was itself a child of the Enlightenment? Is the Frankfurt School “woke”? If a climate scholar foregrounds the enduring legacy of colonialism and racism on contemporary climate policies (e.g. the work of Malcom Ferdinand and Romy Oppermann), are they de facto “woke” or are they genuinely of the left? And so on. Neiman does not offer a clear enough picture to help us with these conundrums.
Inevitably, there is a relationship between the kind of “woke” particularism Neiman considers to be operating at the level of (racialised and gendered) embodiment and the kind of abstract universalism that Neiman considers to be the legacy of the Enlightenment. At its best, the new forms of identity-based thinking will serve to enrich our aspirations for a true humanism. In this, as with her discussion of power and justice in chapter 3, Neiman shows her Kantian disdain for any muddying of the purified ideal of universalism/justice with the messiness of the real world of flesh and blood humanity. Perhaps it is because Theory is trying to muddy these neat conceptual waters that Neiman has such a problem with it?
All of this is to say is that there is one notable absence from this defence of Enlightenment values: Neiman does not seriously confront the traditional leftist critique that the Enlightenment promise of universalism was a false bill of goods, a cheque that could never be cashed, nothing but empty rhetoric. Who cares, these critics asked, if the abstract idea of universalism is appealing when it is not actualised in the everyday experience of so many untold people? You can eat bread, but can justice also nourish you? Whether or not this pessimistic stance on the possibility of true universalism is correct, Neiman overlooks this influential and important criticism long-advocated by scores of leftist scholars and activists who don’t think progress is some abstract principle but something that we must fight for, daily, against a real opposition seeking to push many of us down.
At one point, Neiman imagines a dialogue with a “woke” interlocutor: “But the Enlightenment was the ideology of colonialism!” the faceless woke individual says. Neiman responds: “Do those who make this claim imagine there was no colonialism before the Enlightenment? Presumably not”. Neiman goes on to list a series of brutal empires before noting: “[a]s far as we know, there was one thing they lacked: a guilty conscience”. This is something the Enlightenment provided, so Neiman claims. Let’s assume, along with Neiman, that this is true.
Caroline Elkins’ recent book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire details how this guilty conscience can be incorporated into the very fabric of the sadistic methods of empire, with the voice of a few dissidents becoming part of the exculpatory narrative lampooned in Eric Williams’ quip, “British historians write almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. Or, as the Conservative MP Suella Braverman suggested recently at the National Conservatism conference (this time without irony), “The defining feature of this country’s relationship with slavery is not that we practised it, but that we led the way in abolishing it”. Elkins’ argument that the rhetoric advocating Enlightenment values is a form of self-justifying propaganda is worthy of attention here: we, after all, are civilised, and accept “universalism, justice, and the possibility of progress”, while those who reject these Enlightenment principles need to be civilised – for their own good.
Neiman’s response to the use of Enlightenment rhetoric to justify and exculpate global violence against non-Europeans rests on a hypothetical appeal to an imagined guilty conscience: “Rousseau and Diderot and Kant would have seen through the scam – and wept to watch their own ideals turned into ideology”. I suppose an imagined guilty conscience is better than no conscience at all.
In summation, I assume some unnamed leftists are exclusively intellectually indebted to evolutionary psychology, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. They must exist, and they must be the sole targets of Left Is Not Woke. However, I do not understand how these faceless individuals are appropriately dubbed “woke”, especially given the common use of the term. Neiman’s use is far too idiosyncratic. To me, at least, many of these descriptors pick out some leftists – of a sort. And we already have a label for most of them: they are “reactionary”.
There is a point to be made about the reactionary mindset that some leftists can and have succumbed to, both in the past and presently.
There is a point to be made about the reactionary mindset that some leftists can and have succumbed to, both in the past and presently. That isn’t in dispute, and would have been a viable target for Neiman. That is to say, there is a glaring elision at the heart of Left Is Not Woke, namely any discussion of the tendency by some members of the Left to adopt an exclusionary class reductionist position, embracing nihilism, “zero-sum” thinking, or “might makes right” rhetoric. This is often done in response to the very complexities introduced by many allegedly “woke” thinkers, i.e. those theorising about the complex relationships between gender, race, disability, and class.
This reactionary tendency has led to some prominent class-first leftists advocating anti-LGBT+ and racist policies, constructing red-brown alliances with right-wing groups that advocate the same purity logic reviled by Neiman, and descending into “ironic” traditionalism, hierarchicalism, tribalism and nihilism. Think of the political trajectories of individuals and groups associated with the “dirtbag left” and “Dimes Square”; journalist Glenn Greenwald; author Michel Houellebecq; and philosophers Nick Land, Nina Power, and Slavoj Žižek, for example. What direction are they going? Why? Do they generally fit Neiman’s diagnostic criteria? I believe many of them do, to varying degrees, and would have been interesting real-world case-studies for Neiman. And yet, personally, I don’t think the appropriate diagnosis is that they have all gone – along with The New York Times – “woke”.
Susan Neiman's book, Left Is Not Woke, is published by Polity.
Nathan Oseroff-Spicer is an editor at The Philosopher. He lives with his husband and cat in a small London flat.