Why wokeness has pitched the left into crisis

Criticism is emerging from unexpected quarters over the puritanical aspects of the current wave of political correctness that puts the focus on identity and difference

Protestas en Florida
LGBTQI rights supporters at a protest against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in November 2022.GIORGIO VIERA (AFP/ GETTY IMAGES)
Sergio C. Fanjul

Woke is not what it used to be. For some years, the term was used to describe those who are sensitive and involved in the struggle against social injustice, especially in U.S. politics, but also in the politics of other countries following suit perhaps to a lesser degree. Woke was a label proudly worn by activists in pursuit of social and climate justice: from Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo movement and the fight against global warming. Woke seemed to advocate a new era of equality and justice.

Now, however, the concept is being turned on its head by a growing anti-woke contingent that, according to the laws of action and reaction, has imbued the term with the kind of contempt that discredits those progressive causes. What began as a kneejerk reaction from the right has now spread to encompass an element of the left that is dissatisfied with woke’s current prominence, is concerned by what they consider its excesses, and its lack of universality. Woke is now used as an insult. The growing criticism of the woke from some members of the left is generating tensions, as reflected by authors and philosophers such as Susan Neiman, Umut Özkirimli and Stéphanie Roza, not to mention the exuberance of right-wing critics within the field.

“By subverting the word ‘woke,’ the ultraconservative sector of the U.S. Republican Party managed to turn it into a kind of catch-all to criticize any progressive aspect of the political spectrum, be it education on racism, feminism, identity politics or even books they consider inappropriate,” explains journalist and writer Lucía Lijtmaer, author of Ofendiditos. Sobre la criminalización de la protesta (Anagrama, 2019). Today, anti-woke, especially among the U.S. right, could be considered a movement in itself.

The response to wokeness is complex and varies according to political sensitivities. The ultra-right has long used the term to attack identity policies and environmental movements in general, painting them in terms of dictatorships: the woke dictatorship, or the environmental dictatorship, or simply the dictatorship of political correctness, also encompassing gender ideology, the gay lobby and all things queer. In its fearmongering, it warns of the advent of a kind of cultural Marxism, which will destroy white, Christian, capitalist, heterosexual civilization. “There is a manic compulsion to discover the woke everywhere; they are like hyper-motivated Pokémon hunters,” says writer Gonzalo Torné, author of La cancelación y sus enemigos (Anagrama, 2022), who points out that attempts at censorship have generally come from conservatives in the past.

The International Women’s Day demonstration, which was not transinclusive, as it passes through Madrid’s Gran Vía on March 8.
The International Women’s Day demonstration, which was not transinclusive, as it passes through Madrid’s Gran Vía on March 8.Claudio Álvarez

The U.S. anti-woke right has pushed the conservative political agenda into ever more extreme reactionary positions, which have succeeded in banning sex education in schools and abortion in several states. In Florida, for example, the Stop Woke Act has been used by the state’s conservative governor, Ron DeSantis, to try to prohibit companies and educational institutions from spreading anti-sexism and anti-racism content. Parts of that act have just been declared unconstitutional, after an appeals court found that they could violate freedom of speech. In a bid to become the presidential candidate, DeSantis had said he was “leading the war on woke” and that Florida “is where woke goes to die.”

Woke capitalism

So-called woke capitalism has also been criticized across the political spectrum; for example, wokeness in film with the feminism implicit in Barbie or the choice of Black actors for roles considered the domain of their white counterparts; advertising employing a more diverse range of actors or touching on environmental concerns ― at times mere greenwashing; and inclusive policies in large corporations. The fact that some large corporations have adopted an agenda of inclusion and social justice, especially if it has no negative impact on economic results, is seen by some as progress; by others, it is viewed as the advance of the radical left and by others, simply as a matter of mega companies promoting a more woke image for their own ends: in other words, pure opportunism.

From more centrist positions, the legitimacy of feminist, LGBTQI+ and environmental struggles is recognized, but the “excesses of wokeness” are rejected ― excesses such as the so-called cancel culture, the outbursts of puritanism and the condemnation of historical injustices, which has led to a wave of attacks on statues and monuments to colonizers and slave traders. Within feminism, a gap has opened up between traditional feminism, with its conservative views on the trans issue and the abolition of prostitution, and another more inclined to queer theory and the regulation of sex work ― a divide apparent in some March 8 International Women’s Day demonstrations.

In some quarters of the left, it is thought that mere engagement in the woke debate is to buy into the right’s stance on wokeness. In other quarters, aside from wondering whether certain struggles have gone too far, it is also considered valid to call into question the essence of identity, thereby reclaiming a universalist left that focuses on the human being in general and less on certain oppressed minorities. In other words, one that deals with what we have in common rather than our differences.

The anti-woke left

The first book that questioned identity politics from the left in Spain was La trampa de la diversidad (Akal, 2018), by Daniel Bernabé, which caused a stir by declaring that woke policies were a product of neoliberalism that fragmented the working class with its individualist focus on identity and that distracted from its struggles with symbolism far removed from anything material or labor-oriented ― considered the main struggle, due to its transversality. In her recent book Left is not Woke (Debate, 2024), the American philosopher Susan Neiman defends this universalist character of the left against the woke, which she sees as focused on minorities, and considers a form of tribalism.

Wokeness, according to Neiman, is based on emotions common to all members of the progressive left, who in general advocate the defense of the oppressed and the vindication of historical injustice. “But, at the same time, it is influenced by philosophical theories that are right-wing, and even reactionary: tribalism, for example, or the belief that all claims to justice are covert claims to power,” she says. She condemns how the right uses the caricature of wokeness to discredit the global left, to the point of almost making woke synonymous with left ― hence the title of her book. “The right uses woke as an insult to discredit anyone who fights racism, sexism or homophobia. It’s dangerous, because those evils have yet to be fought. But the way the woke fight them often leads to outright rejection. It also leads many on the left to feel alienated because they don’t agree with all their demands,” she says.

The current malaise reflects to a degree the criticism during the 20th century directed at modernity, based on the Enlightenment. The attacks came from different philosophical contingents, such as the Frankfurt School (for example, Adorno and Horkheimer) and postmodern thinkers (such as the ubiquitous Foucault and Deleuze), which blamed Enlightenment for using reason to produce colonialism, domination, homogenization, destruction of nature, and even concentration camps and nuclear bombs. Enlightened humanism, says the philosopher Rosi Braidotti, put the human center stage, but not just any human ― specifically a white, European, male, heterosexual, thereby marginalizing the rest.

To pursue the goals of emancipation, which are noble, Neiman proposes a return to concepts pertaining to the Enlightenment. “What unites most woke individuals and postcolonialists is the rejection of any ideas derived from the Enlightenment,” she says. “If they were to look at the theories, they would find that some important woke concepts, such as that the world should not only be seen from European perspectives, come directly from the 18th century movement they think they despise.” Neiman also criticizes the effectiveness of wokeness in developing policies that seem to get lost in symbolism and “policing language.”

Neiman is not the only one to criticize the woke’s hostility towards the Enlightenment. French philosopher Stéphanie Roza, in the recent La Gauche contre les Lumières?, points out that the criticism of rationalism, progressivism and universalism is becoming increasingly fierce. “Contemporary debates are heirs to this declaration of war on the Enlightenment,” she writes.

Roza does not believe this opposition leads to any progress in intellectual, moral or political emancipation, but rather represents a “regression” to the “arguments and theses of the old conservative and counter-revolutionary anti-Enlightenment critique.” Awareness of this situation is necessary for the “ideological rearmament of the left in the face of contemporary challenges.”

The so-called cancel culture is another trigger point. Some consider it to be an attack on freedom of expression; others, quite the opposite ― believing it to be the voice of those who never had one, who can now express their disagreement through what they choose to consume or via social media. “I would say that the [criticism of] the cancel culture is a smokescreen used by public figures to try to avoid the criticism that may come to them from a public that has found its voice on social networks,” says Gonzalo Torné, who points out that, in general, those who complain about the cancel culture usually do so, paradoxically, from powerful public platforms. “It is playing the victim to curtail the legitimate freedom of expression of audiences,” he adds.

According to leftist critic of the woke, Umut Özkirimli, in his book Cancelled. The Left Way Back from Woke (Paidós, 2023), “When I try to explain wokeness to my older friends and family, I tell them to think of Stalinism. It all fits. Instead of gulags, we have social death, cancellation. Of course, the old Stalinism is worse, but not much different.” Özkirimli thinks that wokeness pertains to the most extreme versions of identity politics, but he also thinks that identity politics today is extreme. “Wokeness is a distortion and betrayal of the original identity politics, which were open to coalition building, concerned with all sorts of inequalities, and unabashedly socialist,” he says. Major social advances, such as gay marriage in some countries and other rights for the LGBTQI community, were won before the eruption of wokeness.

Wokeness is, according to Özkirimli, narcissistic; it is more interested in perceived individual slights than in structural historical injustices, and prioritizes individual empowerment over systemic change, and symbolic resistance over collective struggle. He also says it focuses on the specific as opposed to the universal, which, according to the woke, is restricted to the dominant classes and used as a generator of oppression. Therefore, it is argued, difference must be included in order to broaden the range of human representation.

There are those who, observing the debate from a global perspective, think that the confrontation between material and identity politics generates a schism on the left that only benefits the right, sowing discord by pitting class against race, gender or sexual orientation. This contingent believes the left must reject the confrontation. “What arises is a false dilemma: minorities are overrepresented among the working classes, and, conversely, the proportion of working classes is higher among racial minorities,” Éric Fassin, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Paris 8, told EL PAÍS. “There’s no reason to oppose recognition and redistribution policies.”

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