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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 circumscribe 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 Jouvenel 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.
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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 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.
The depressing but necessary conclusion to be drawn from all of this, is that an intellectual confrontation with Wokeness cannot achieve very much. This isn’t to say that there’s no utility in understanding the arguments and the intellectual heritage of the Woke, or that there’s no tactical advantage to be had in ridiculing them, but in no scenario will winning the argument cause them to pack up and go away. Everyone preaching Wokeness is either a direct, personal beneficiary of the power process it represents, or a would-be target seeking ideological cover. The end state towards which the Woke are driving, academically, is a university system where an all-powerful administration manages a wholly subordinate faculty employed on renewable contracts. At the political level, they aim to expand the managerial state still further at the expense of the native middle classes. Whatever the specifics, the goal is always to replace the ‘aristocrats’ of the prior system – which is to say, those whose status and position is partly independent of and a check upon the current regime – with a new nobility, who owe their position entirely to the administration or the state.
I doubt there is any stopping this process once it has begun, though I do see a few bright spots. The first, is that the institutions which Wokeness seizes will be worse in every way once the revolution is complete, and all of us in our own small way can contribute to their decline by withdrawing our efforts and attention from them. I know that’s not very satisfying, but I think in the longer term it will be decisive. The second, is that it’s not clear the puppetmasters of Wokeness have full control of their revolution, and there’s a substantial chance that, at least in some cases, they’ll fail to rein in their low-side allies and find themselves devoured in turn by the Woke at the bottom, as happened in 2017 at Evergreen State College. The third, related to this, is that the escalating radicalism of the Woke very much reflects their brittle and uncertain hold on power. The more they hollow out the middle for their own gain, the more they isolate themselves at the top, and their vulnerability has many expressions. We see the emergence of Soviet-style gerontocracies, as those in power come to fear the rivals they’ve spent decades displacing so much, that they can’t even countenance preparing the way for their own successors. I think the growing political obsession with the rainbow identities also arises from a growing, unhealthy demand for low-side allies that outstrips supply, because the most salient feature of these identities is that one can opt into them.
The power processes and ideologies of the high-low alliance are products of the modern world and the technological advances which have made mass society possible, but that doesn’t mean we’re condemned to permanent revolution. Institutions have developed many means of stabilising themselves in the face of these forces. The Woke world we inhabit now is the product of deliberate campaigns to undermine these stabilising defences on the one hand, and an inattention to their role and their importance on the other hand. I think liberalism is deeply implicated here, because it has blinded a lot of people to how power actually works. Key among these defences is the maintenance of substantial barriers to entry, as a means of managing the size and the makeup of the bottom tier. A university which only appoints talented faculty won’t have a pool of under-published diversity hires eager to cut deals with power-hungry administrators, and politicians who preside over countries with substantial immigration restrictions won’t have the opportunity to import regime clients. Anybody advocating for the relaxation or the adjustment of these defensive barriers is almost surely a serious enemy, for in the modern world, changes at the bottom – however they’re advertised – presage systemwide revolution within the space of a generation.
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