Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

How the liberal-left can fight woke ideology

There is a crying need for honesty in the woke debate.(Alamy)

There is a leftist case against woke ideology. It’s rare to hear it because it flies against many preconceptions and fears. Liberals and leftists are wary for two reasons. Conservatives love to highlight the first: the fear of being cancelled. And just because conservatives love to highlight it, does not mean it is not true.

I was at one of London University’s colleges a few days ago. I had better not say which one. The private WhatsApp groups of women academics are full of complaints about the trans movement overturning the gains of feminism.

There is a crying need for honesty in this debate

Not one academic dared make her thoughts public. Her university, her trade union and her colleagues would either happily denounce her heresies or would not dare to defend them. Such stories are everywhere.

The second reason goes to a more subtle form of cowardice. People on the centre-left believe, with justice, that their critiques will aid and comfort the right and indeed the far right. 

You ought to make an argument regardless of the consequences. But it is harder to chant fiat justitia ruat caelum when the consequences include boosting the agendas of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin.

I take this objection more seriously than I once did. But it remains cowardly and gives credence to a false line of argument, which is still widely deployed. Many believe, or affect to believe, that there is not a distinct social justice or identitarian or woke ideology – the fuzziness of the label reflects the fuzziness of the ideas – that grew in American academia in the early years of this century. 

They say that what the right calls ‘woke’ is what everyone else calls a decent opposition to sexism and racism. Undermine the woke cause and you are undermining your own values. 

I believe there is truth in the claim that people who denounce wokeness from the centre-left need to prove that they are not just covering for bigots. 

If they reject, say, critical race theory or concepts such as white fragility, they need to show they have a workable anti-racist alternative

And yet it remains the case that the new ideology is real and that it represents an oppressive and often inane break from the best liberal-left traditions of equal treatment for all. 

In these circumstances liberal-left critique is essential, and not because woke or social justice ideology is driving many rightwards. I have never had time for freshly minted conservatives who whine that: ‘I only support Donald Trump because a nasty leftie made me do it’.   

If you support Trump or other far right leaders that is your decision and your fault. You cannot blame others for your choices. Rather, there is a need to defend the honour of the left and show that it can still be a home for defenders of basic freedoms and the autonomy of the individual. The more so when woke ideology is failing to deliver on its promises.

Workers must sit through sessions denouncing ‘whiteness,’ ‘patriarchy’ and ‘colonialism’

If you think that identity politics, or wokeism or social justice is just common decency, then you have failed to understand how American the ideology is and how it carries the parochial biases of so many American doctrines. Because the United States never had a mass social democratic movement it developed a strange version of radicalism based on coopting managerial hierarchies.

The traditional left was concerned with limiting the power of employers. Now its successors demand that employers police the thoughts of employees by forcing them to attend propaganda sessions. They have no right to mould your beliefs, old European trade unionists would have once said. You give them your labour. They pay you an (inadequate) wage. That’s it. The notion that their human resource departments should have the power to peer into your soul and reprimand your real or imagined biases is outrageous. The company owns the fruits of your labour, not your innermost thoughts.

An old-fashioned trade unionist would have a second reason to be suspicious. Public, private and third sector bosses are endorsing an ideology that covers every prejudice except class prejudice.

On pain of reprimand or dismissal, workers must sit through sessions denouncing ‘whiteness,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘colonialism,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘cisnormativity,’ ‘transphobia,’ ‘ableism,’ ‘fatphobia,’ but not the class system. 

They are not encouraged to ask why their CEOs are paid so much money, and shareholders get a better deal than employees. You do not need to be a Marxist to understand the silence of the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Big businesses such as Levi’s have happily embraced social justice concepts (Alamy)

A system organised by management can never look at prejudice that is the responsibility of management. If ethnic minority groups are under-represented in private or public bodies, that is not the fault of the workers being lectured by the HR department. Whatever biases may lurk in their subconscious, they do not have hire-and-fire powers.

It is the fault of management. But no diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer will say that for fear of losing fees. They will dodge the responsibility of the truly privileged because among the privileges of the truly privileged is the privilege to hire and fire them.

At one level you have to take your hat off to American activists. They have made a cool appraisal of where power lies in the developed world. Socialism is all but dead as an ideology. Trade unions barely exist outside the public sector. 

No ideology that succeeds is wholly without merit

You are far more likely to win if you bully, shame and persuade the existing hierarchies of society to enforce your demands, than if you challenge their very existence.

In The Counterweight Handbook: Principled Strategies for Surviving and Defeating Critical Social Justice Ideology – at Work, in Schools and Beyond (just out from the Swift Press) Helen Pluckrose provides liberal arguments against the woke agenda.

Pluckrose, if you do not know her work, is one of the most conscientious and principles critics of the worst strains of progressive thought. Reading her dissection of contemporary ideology, you realise that a climate of fear allows asinine ideas to flourish: sex differences aren’t real; the denial of racism/transphobia/homophobia etc is evidence of racism/transphobia/homophobia etc; the marginalised have access to special forms of knowledge; policing language and silencing is not only necessary but also good; science is oppressive; everything is a social construct; only white people can be racist.

As with Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trapwhich should be read in tandem with this book, Pluckrose understands the roots of the ideology she critiques. 

Going back to Michel Foucault, it sees power everywhere embedded in thought and language, rather than concentrated in the governments, religions, and businesses the old left opposed. 

No ideology that succeeds is wholly without merit. If you were a young Foucault, a gay man in 1950s France, you would not be over concerned with traditional enemies of the left when homophobia was all around you in communist and capitalist regimes, left and right, religious and secular institutions.

But the result of the 21st fusion of postmodernism and activism is an obscurantist belief system. If power is everywhere, it is nowhere. If power is everywhere, you need not worry about the state and big business and single them out as the prime targets of your political campaigning. On the contrary you can co-opt them to enforce your agenda.

The overwhelming majority of the population may not, for example, believe that society is infected with white supremacy or transphobia. They may not even know what white supremacy and transphobia are. But that only shows how deep the worm of prejudice has buried into their consciousness.

Pluckrose writes that ‘heteronormativity, cisnormativity, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, etc., are believed to infect all aspects of society and even the most benign everyday interactions.’ Their pervasiveness means that people are unable to avoid being racist, sexist, or transphobic because they have absorbed the bigoted discourses that are all around them. Dictatorial thought flows from these premises. 

Any disagreement with critical social justice beliefs is evidence of either ignorance or a selfish unwillingness to accept one’s complicity in oppressive power systems. Thus, any disagreement is automatically invalid. 

The liberal belief in the individual’s agency to evaluate a range of ideas and accept or reject them becomes ‘a self-serving myth, and liberalism, above nearly all other ideologies, becomes an impediment to achieving critical social justice,’ Pluckrose concludes.

In other words, the illiberalism of so much contemporary progressive life – the public shaming, the denial of freedom of speech, the substitution of assertion for argument – is not a bug but a feature. The assumption that knowledge is a construct of power created by dominant groups to oppress and marginalise nondominant groups inevitably makes any appeal to argument suspect.

Woke ideology is merely an excuse for a sadistic desire to humiliate and control

The result is an intellectual system that creates a priest-like caste of initiates. Only those who have studied critical social justice theories are able to see the invisible power systems that hover in the ether around us. Only they can demand that we study their thoughts and listen to their injunctions to ‘do the work’ and ‘educate yourselves’. Education means no more and no less than the unconditional acceptance of the truth of their ideas. It is an authoritarian schooling.

Pluckrose calls her book a handbook for the good reason that it includes draft letters to send to bosses who are trying to indoctrinate you. The requirement to provide gender pronouns, she says ‘amounts to requiring them to pretend to hold beliefs they do not hold about gender’. Employees may have philosophical or religious objections and the employer has no right to override them.

Or if you are faced with plans to segregate employees into racial groups – a true example of the horseshoe theory in action and of the far left becoming the far right – she advises calling out ‘a deeply regressive step that recalls a deeply racist history.’

I truly educated myself by reading her. But I want to end with a criticism of me and anyone who finds joy in lambasting the folly of progressive fads.

There is a crying need for honesty in the woke debate. If so many leaders of left opinion were honest with themselves, they would admit that they are using left-wing politics to indulge their Nietzschean will to power. Woke ideology is merely an excuse for a sadistic desire to humiliate and control.

But what of their critics? They (we) have to be sure that, while mocking and denouncing, we are not just finding arguments for the maintenance of an unjust status quo. 

If we reject American anti-racist strategies, as we should, we need to be able to offer an alternative, otherwise we will be acting in bad faith.

The woke injunction to ‘educate yourself’ is nowhere as urgent or as powerful as the original demand of Western philosophy: the Socratic injunction to ‘know yourself’.