A movement which abandons Enlightenment values is no longer progressive.
The “woke”—that is, the regressive pseudo-left—are not part of the political left. They left the left when they abandoned Enlightenment values.
“Wokism” at its worst can be considered to be a modern parareligion, that is, an ideology which is not a religion in the strict sense of the word because there is no obvious supernatural element, but which nevertheless behaves somewhat like one because it displays some of the characteristics which are typical of religion. It is, among other traits, extremely dogmatic, Manichean and moralistic. Wokism displays an obsession for personal identities and minorities, and is racialist. It claims to be anti-racist, but in the final analysis generates more racism than it curbs. As it fails to respect the essential distinction between religious affiliation and racial identity, wokism completely dismisses freedom of conscience and thus becomes antisecular.
The woke have betrayed the left. They have abandoned universalism, objectivity, secularism and freedom of expression. Wokism is a disaster for the left. The task now before us is to rebuild the left on universalist, Enlightenment values.
Sommaire en français Une version française précédente est disponible. Une version française quelque peu modifiée paraïtra sous peu dans un volume sous la direction de Normand Baillargeon et Rachad Antonius.
The term “woke” is an Afro-American slang expression meaning politically awake, politically aware, especially about social justice issues. However, the word has come to acquire a much wider meaning and now refers to the dominant current of thought in ostensibly left-wing politics in the USA, Canada and several other countries. And yet, this school of thought is in reality not on the political left because it has abandoned Enlightenment values.
Those Enlightenment ideals include reason, tolerance, freedom, progress, universalism, human rights and secularism. Taken collectively, they are often referred to as modernism. The Enlightenment has given us much of what we take for granted today. Its products are many and include: the concept of human rights, the abolition of slavery, liberalism, Marxism, modern science and technology, the U.S. Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and secularism law (1905), the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and much more.
The Origin of the Political Left and Right
As many readers will recall, the terms “left” and “right” when used in the political sense originated from the seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante) during the French Revolution starting in 1789. Those seated on the left side of the chamber were generally supportive of the revolution, republicanism and secularism whereas those seated on the right remained loyal to the monarchy, the clergy and traditional institutions of the Ancien régime. These two poles corresponded roughly to support for or opposition to the values of the Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement which had been spreading throughout Europe for about a century. Indeed, the French Revolution was itself a product of the Enlightenment, as were the American, Haitian and Russian Revolutions.
Thus, the political left referred to those who supported such Enlightenment values whereas the political right encompassed those who opposed them. The same general pattern applies today. The political left and right are defined by support for and opposition to Enlightenment ideals. If a left-wing current abandons them, then it is no longer on the political left. This is the situation with “wokism,” if I may call it that, which is also known by several other monikers such as the “regressive (pseudo)left” or the “anti-Enlightenment pseudoleft.” The woke are left mostly in name only. Their mentality has become dominant among those who claim to be leftists and even centrists. There is (almost) no (real) left left.
Political & Philosophical Roots of the Woke
The woke mentality is based on a number of political and philosophical sources:
- Intersectionality, an obsession with personal identities, especially minority identities, which amounts to a simplistic point-system for determining who is lucky enough to have the most oppression points.
- Multiculturalism, or cultural relativism, an anti-universalist political ideology which attaches greater importance to ethnic or religious affiliation than it does to either universal rights or to citizenship.
- Postmodernism, a philosophy associated with cultural relativism and inspired by a scepticism about modernist ideas of objectivity, rationalism and knowledge.
- Post-Marxist defeatism, a degeneration of Marxism, resulting from Marxism’s failure to deliver on its promise of a brighter future based on Enlightenment ideals. This has led to blaming the Enlightenment itself. Also known as neo-Marxism, or cultural Marxism, or cultural post-Marxism
- Islamoleftism, an extension of the previous point, a further degeneration of post-Marxism, in which the priority traditionally accorded to class and economics is now replaced by the defence of minorities, especially Muslims, including Islamists.
Thus the woke mentality is derived, partially at least, from left-wing thought, but it is a perversion and degeneration of it. In particular, wokism is not Marxist. Marxism has a lot of negative and dubious things to answer for, but one cannot blame Marxism for the insanity of the woke movement. To put it succinctly, the woke mentality is a form of “post-leftism” which is approximately a combination of post-Marxism and postmodernism.
James Lindsay, who has studied these issues extensively, sums up the situation thus:
Marxism is an economics-based social theory, and Critical Social Justice actually usurps economic analysis and obscures it to use it as a proxy for its peculiar approach to identity politics. To be more specific on that, for example, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that economic causes are the sources of many of the phenomena Critical Race Theorists name as “systemic racism,” but they use the fact that there are statistical economic differences by race to claim that racism (not capitalistic exploitation) are the ultimate causes of those differences. Thus, they make class a proxy for the site of oppression that they’re actually obsessively focused upon, race, and thereby obliterate any possibility for liberal, rational, or even materialist or Marxist analysis of the underlying issues.
The woke movement is an especially American phenomenon, although its various components originate in several countries and its influence is strongly felt throughout the English-speaking world as well as in France and elsewhere. As for the French origins of postmodern philosophy—a major ingredient in this soup of philosophism—the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner sums up the situation with spirited wit:
Deconstructionism […] was indeed a product of French intellectuals of the 1970s who exported it to campuses on the other side of the Atlantic. We provided them with the virus, and they rewarded us by sending back the fully developed disease.
Wokism at its worst is a modern parareligion. I define a parareligion as an ideology which is not a religion in the strict sense of the word because there is no obvious supernatural element, but which nevertheless behaves somewhat like one because it displays some of the following characteristics which are typical of religion:
- Dogmatism, a rejection of reason.
- A penchant for non-falsifiable assertions, i.e. hypotheses which can never be disproven and are thus meaningless. Example: “God” is responsible for everything: if good things happen, then praise “God” — however if bad things happen, “God” works in mysterious ways.
- Manichaeism, a worldview divided into absolute good and evil, denying moral nuances and ambiguities.
- Moralism, an obsession with personal morality, again neglecting moral complexities.
- Privileges for the faithful, thus opposing universalism.
- Cult of personality, i.e. worship of gods or goddesses, or deification of human leaders.
One example of a parareligion is authoritarian communism of the Stalinist, Maoist or North Korean variety, where dogmatism and the cult of personality are particularly obvious. Various pseudosciences (homeopathy, astrology, etc.) and some conspiracy theories can also be viewed as parareligions.
The Woke Parareligion
The woke parareligion displays most of the above characteristics (although not the cult of personality). It is extremely dogmatic, Manichaean and moralistic, and while it pretends to value “diversity” it is zealously opposed to intellectual debate and diversity. This is manifested by so-called cancel culture, basically social censorship of anyone who disagrees with the woke mentality or who is judged (summarily, without due process) to be morally dubious. The woke are obsessively hostile to those whom they consider to be privileged (whites, men, etc.) and the woke program is to privilege the other pole. Thus, racial and other minorities, even religious ones such as Muslims, are given special consideration, just as Judaism considered the Hebrews to be the chosen people. This implies the abandonment of universalism which values equality for all, regardless of race, sex, etc.
The Woke Antiracist Movement is Anti-Universalist and Racist
The woke are obsessed with minorities and with personal identity, to the detriment of our common humanity. Intersectionality combined with multiculturalism and the other ingredients of the woke mentality create a toxic mixture which leads to an overemphasis on minorities and contempt for majorities and the universal. Some minorities are favoured obsessively, granting them near impunity, while the corresponding majorities are denigrated. Thus, the current antiracist movement has itself become racist. Furthermore, in true parareligious fashion, the most extreme so-called antiracists make the non-falsifiable claim that racism is literally ubiquitous. Instead of asking if racism is present in a given situation, they ask “Where is the racism here?” and assume that it is never absent. The result is a politics of guilt and paranoia. This approach is nonsensical, for if racism is always present, then the word loses all objective meaning.
According to Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, whites are necessarily racist because it is impossible for them not to be racist. Furthermore, DiAngelo claims that any attempt by a white person to deny his or her racism constitutes proof of racism. We recognize in this vicious circle an ideology which renders itself impervious to criticism by being unfalsifiable.
Ibram X. Kendi, author de How to Be an Antiracist, displays a similar attitude. He alleges that it is impossible to avoid being racist unless one campaigns actively and constantly against racism. A white person is thus condemned to be racist unless one dedicates one’s life, body and soul, to the struggle against racism, in particular one’s own racism. To be simply non-racist is not an option. These two authors are currently the darlings of the American “antiracist” movement and promote the concept of systemic racism which, according to DiAngelo and Kendi, is ubiquitous and unavoidable.
A half-century or more ago, during the civil rights movement which was so important in the fight against anti-black racism in the U.S.A., especially in the southern states, right-wing opponents would sometimes accuse civil rights activists of “reverse racism” against non-blacks. Similarly, in the heyday of second-wave feminism, those who opposed sexual equality would sometimes accuse feminists of hating men. These were both obvious attempts to denigrate the civil rights and feminist movements. No one was fooled by such self-evident deception. Both movements were universalist, promoting equal rights for blacks and women without attacking non-blacks and men in general.
However, the situation today is much different. Given the obsession with identity and the lionization of certain minority groups which are hallmarks of the woke mentality, denigration of whites, men and other non-minority groups has become the norm. Current “antiracists” sometimes go so far as to devalue certain virtues such as objectivity, rationality, self-discipline, planning, etc., rejecting them as so many “white” standards, thus strangely echoing the discourse of white supremacists.
The Woke Oppose Privilege Rather Than Fight Discrimination
One of the maxims of the woke mentality is the concept of “white privilege” which is a backwards approach to antiracism. If so-called white people have the advantage of not being discriminated against, that is not a privilege; rather it is a right, a basic human right. If blacks are discriminated against, that is not a lack of privilege, rather it is a denial of rights. The proper approach to antiracism is to promote equal rights for all, universally, regardless of racial group, and to oppose discrimination against any group. To emphasize white privilege leads to a politics of guilt and resentment, indirectly strengthening the political right.
Instead of equality, i.e. equality of opportunity, the woke promote equity which implies equality of outcomes. Furthermore, if equality of outcomes is not achieved, and it practically never is, then the woke generally assume that the situation is caused by some kind of prejudice such as racism or sexism. Thus, if a profession does not display the same demographic diversity as the general population, then prejudice is assumed to be the cause. This is irrational because, as James Lindsay observes:
this is literally impossible without large-scale social engineering including forced quotas. (Random stochasticity, that is, noise in the system, should make perfect alignment with prevailing demographic percentages extremely improbable, after all, even if the system were perfectly free of difference and discrimination of every sort.) That means that “Equity” implies using identity-based quotas and vigorous social engineering to achieve them.
This is what got James Damore fired by his employer Google, because he wrote a rather innocuous document in which he suggested that the lower numbers of women in software jobs might be partially explained by women’s preferences. In other words, sexism may not be the only reason. But such ideas are blasphemous for the woke, so he was dismissed.
The Woke Oppose Secularism
The woke abandonment of Enlightenment values and its rejection of left-wing values are most blatant in woke opposition to secularism. Their obsession with minorities extends to even religious minorities. The woke tend to conflate race and religion, which amounts to jettisoning freedom of conscience and condemning individuals to the religion into which they had the bad luck to be born. This racialisation of religious affiliation plays right into the hands of fundamentalists, especially Islamists.
With Islamoleftism added into the wokeness mixture, Muslims are given special priority and impunity, especially the most pious and even fundamentalist. This leads to extreme complacency with respect to Islam and Islamism. So-called “Islamophobia” is condemned. The whole process is rendered even more toxic by the non-recognition of some minorities. For example, secular Muslims are ignored, as they do not fit the Muslim stereotype which the woke insist upon, where women are veiled and men are groomed stereotypically, etc. Ex-Muslims are denigrated even further.
Can Secularism Curb Parareligion? False Hope.
Helen Pluckrose is a British author who, along with her American colleague James Lindsay, studies and criticizes the various manifestations of the woke phenomenon in its struggle against “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ)—where the capitalization distinguishes it from the more liberal concept of social justice—founded on what they call “applied postmodernism.” Pluckrose has observed that racism, as conceived by DiAngelo, including the principles of whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, represent “a complex and internally consistent belief system” which bears a curious resemblance to a religion by virtue of several of its characteristics such as the concept of original sin (i.e. whiteness). Although she does not use the term “parareligion,” Pluckrose thus arrives at a conclusion similar to mine.
But Pluckrose goes one step further: she proposes a solution, a familiar solution to a familiar problem. Setting aside the question of whether a given belief system, such as a religion, is true or false, secularism defends the individual’s freedom of conscience and the right not to endorse a system which some may try to force upon others. Thus, the solution to wokism would be secularism. Having suggested this solution, Pluckrose affirms her optimism, declaring that “We currently live in societies that do a pretty good job of applying this rule to religion…”
If only this were so! Unfortunately, Pluckrose’s optimism is eminently debatable, especially in the Anglo-American world where secularism is a much weaker notion than the republican secularism (laïcité) which prevails in the French-speaking world. Religions continue to enjoy enormous influence in the United States despite the secular pretensions of that country. Even in France, secularism is threatened.
Furthermore, Pluckrose’s proposal must confront another major obstacle: how can secularism be used as protection against the excesses of wokism when we know full well that the woke have no respect for freedom of conscience and fiercely oppose secularism? Indeed, the obsession with identities, the deliberate conflation of race with religion and the essentialization of religious affiliation, which are the rule among the woke, result in freedom of conscience—which includes both freedom of and freedom from religion—being categorically spurned and denied by the woke.
Pluckrose overestimates secularism. It is insufficient to protect us, whether against religion or against parareligions such as CSJ.
WWLD: What Would the Left Do?
A truly left-wing approach to religion would be to defend freedom of conscience, while criticizing any and all religions (and parareligions) frankly and unabashedly. This means, for example, that the three Abrahamic monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to name them in historical order—should be regular targets of left-wing criticism because, taken together, they represent the most important religious block on the planet. The very idea that Islam should enjoy some sort of immunity from criticism, or that Christianity should be targeted far more often, are utterly incompatible with secularism which is a core value of the Enlightenment. And yet, that is precisely the woke approach: give Islam a free ride because it is considered to be the religion of the oppressed. The spread of the tendentious term “Islamophobia”—functionally synonymous with blasphemy against Islam—is a prime manifestation of the privileges which the woke grant to Islam.
A Marriage Made in Hell
The woke love affair with Islam is not the only illustration of how the woke are not leftists, but it is a particularly shameless one. The woke facilitate and support fundamentalist Islam, an extreme right-wing politico-religious ideology which is to the right of Naziism, and they so do at least indirectly and sometimes even directly.
The antisecularism of the woke is particularly evident in the fanatical opposition to Quebec Bill 21 which the woke vilify without even attempting to understand the relevant issue. Support for secularism in the English-speaking world has always been weak, but now, with the advent of the woke mentality which conflates race and religion, the situation is even worse. Some antisecularists even go so far as to denounce secularism as “racist.” In Canada outside Quebec, several ostensibly secular organizations have fallen victim to this scam and have abandoned secularism.
The Woke Strengthen the Political Right
The Manichean worldview of the woke, seeing everything as either good or evil, lead them to slander anyone who disagrees with them as “xenophobic” or “racist” or “fascist.” This is a very infantile attitude. Accusations of being far-right have begun to lose all credibility. Reasonable people who see what is happening may be cowed into silence, but they recognize that many of those who currently call themselves leftist are destructive and foolish. This leads some people with normally leftist sympathies to consider the political centre or right. This is one of the reasons Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
The political right will often conflate the woke with the political left. This is not surprising, as it is in their interest to do so. As the woke, or at least those who are the most woke, are clearly irrational fanatics, labelling them as leftists discredits the left and makes the political right look better in comparison.
Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Karl Marx would undoubtedly be outraged by the irrationality and fanaticism of the woke.
The Woke Have Betrayed the Left
The woke mentality is reactionary and retrograde, a degeneration of left-wing politics into a cult which is sometimes more akin to the political right, sometimes allied with the religious far-right, and generally just lost in some ill-defined neverneverland. The woke have betrayed the left. They have abandoned universalism, objectivity, secularism and free speech. While claiming to promote diversity and inclusion, in reality the woke are puritanical, dogmatic, closed-minded and extremely intolerant, constantly witch-hunting. They have largely abandoned economic and class issues. Having replaced economic issues with an obsessive racialization of everything, they see racism everywhere, but only those forms of racism which they recognize from the USA, seeing everything through an American lens. The woke respond to almost any disagreement with ridiculous accusations. They tolerate no dissent. Intellectual diversity is foreign to them. Their obsession with minorities and their anti-universalism lead to inevitable fragmentation and division.
Wokism is a disaster for the left, leading to its near destruction. The task now before us is to rebuild the left on universalist, Enlightenment values.
- Collins, Patricia Hill; Bilge, Sirma; Intersectionality, Polity Books, 2016.
- Harman, Chris; The Prophet and the Proletariat, International Socialism Journal 2:64, Autumn 1994.
- Lindsay, James; The Complex Relationship Between Marxism and Wokeness
- Bastié, Eugénie; Pascal Bruckner: « La seule identité encore autorisée pour les blancs est l’identité de contrition » (“The Only Remaining Legitimate Identity for Whites is one of Contrition”)
- DiAngelo, Robin; White Fragility, Penguin Random House, 2018.
- Kendi, Ibram X.; How to Be an Antiracist, Penguin Random House, 2019.
- Lindsay, James; The Diversity Delusion
- Damore, James; Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber
- Rand, David; The Battle Raging Between Racialism and Secularism
- Pluckrose, Helen; White Fragility Training and Freedom of Belief
- Rand, David; Why We Support Bill 21