Left Is Not Woke

Susan Neiman

My review 2023-11-01

Is it necessary for someone on the political left to also be woke? And is it self-evident that being anti-woke is the same as being on the political right? Judging by the way many activists and intellectuals are positioning themselves, it seems that there are only two possible positions: Either one is woke and left, or anti-woke and right. The moral philosopher Susan Neiman does not accept this. Her book "Left is Not Woke" is an impassioned defense of Enlightenment ideals over the ideas that, in her analysis, powers the woke agenda. And those Enlightenment ideals are not the ideals of the right.

A very loud and divisive debate surrounds the term "woke". Politicians such as the American right-wing presidential candidate and one-time Trump sycophant Ron DeSantis use it as a rhetorical weapon against anyone to the left of him. In his usage, any liberal is woke, and therefore an adversary. But there is also a debate among liberals and others who consider themselves on the left about the the ideas usually considered to be "woke". This debate is independent of the fulminations of the Trump crowd.

In Neiman's view, woke has become a politics of symbols instead of social change. Its relentless focus on marginalization, inequalities and historical crimes leads it to the conclusion that politics, in the common sense, is impossible, and that some very ill-defined and vague revolution is needed. A political agenda for justice and progress, as commonly understood, is derided as hopelessly naive.

Neiman considers herself a leftist, not a liberal, so her arguments differ in some ways from those of Yascha Mounk in his recent "The Identity Trap" (which I have reviewed). But there are also important similarities. One such is the explicit affirmation of "universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress." Both writers are champions of universalism, and both argue that one of the main problems with wokeness is that it embraces tribalism.

Another difference between Neiman and Mounk is that Mounk's text is rather dryly analytical and a little too much like an academic lecture. Neiman is an academic, to be sure, but her text is much more passionate and therefore has more life than Mounk's, although it is less well structured. Neiman is on a mission. There is a barely contained rage at the betrayal she feels the woke movement has committed against the Enlightenment ideals. So even if the levels of difficulty of the two texts are about similar, Neiman's is an easier read, because there is a force in it that sweeps one along.

Neiman adds one very important aspect to the analysis of the intellectual roots of wokeness. Not only does she investigate Michel Foucault's standpoints and arguments, and finds them in the final analysis anti-political and cynical. She also has a look at how the thinking of two Nazi intellectuals, the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, has influenced the debate. I criticized Mounk's book for not doing this, so I am very pleased that Neiman digs into the topic. The anti-liberalism of Heidegger and Schmitt has impressed some on the left, and some of their arguments have been taken up in the leftist discourse. This has influenced the woke movement, especially the contemptuous attitude towards ideas such as justice and progress, which Heidegger and Schmitt considered as hypocrisy and sham ideals.

Neiman's text also contains a discussion of evolutionary psychology. I must confess that I am slightly baffled by this. It is not clear why she feels this has a place in the current discussion. She does make good points about how some have taken arguments from evolutionary psychology to make reactionary political points. She ties evolutionary psychology to the argument that we are inherently tribal, and that its view of human nature is cynical in the same way as Foucault's is. I am not convinced.

A great aspect of Neiman's text is her passionate defense of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment has been accused of hypocritically talking about human rights, while at the same time condoning and even furthering racist notions of the West being inherently superior to the colonized peoples of the New World and the South. Refreshingly, Neiman will have none of it. She points out that several of the major Enlightenment writers found inspiration in the different ways of living discovered in other parts of the world. This became part of their critique of the Western societies they lived in. She writes: "Enlightenment thinkers invented the critique of Eurocentrism and were the first to attack colonialism, on the basis of universalist ideas." The Enlightenment ideals have affected Western societies, but not all that happened in the West, or came out of it, can be blamed on those ideals. Other philosophies and forces were also at play. To say that Enlightenment equals the West and all its actions is just stupid.

The influence and effects of woke thinking is very different in countries such as the US, Great Britain and Sweden, partly due to the differing impact the ideas have had in academic environments. In the US, the use of so-called DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) statements as a tool for selection of students and academic staff at colleges and universities has become widespread. This amounts to a selection by political affiliation. As a way to shut out non-woke persons from academia, this is clearly very bad news for an open society. Such statements have, as far as I am aware, not seen the light of day in Sweden except possibly in a few isolated cases, and I believe there is little danger that they will become any more common. Of course, fads from the US do tend to make their way into Sweden at one point or another, so one never knows. Neiman's analysis is important even if woke ideas have not yet had the level of negative effects that they have had in some areas of the US society.

In summary, Susan Neiman's book adds a very important perspective to the debate. As a liberal, I do not agree with every point, but her analysis is hard-hitting in many ways, and it deserves to be widely read. It would be nice if its message could come across so that the simplistic equations of left=woke and anti-woke=right could be seen for what they are: false.