On reflection Cult is an inadequate term to describe the complex political phenomenon rocking the USA and other Western democracies to varying degrees. The display of raw power through protests, riots, physical intimidation and cancellation of dissenting voices have attracted the most attention but ultimately need to be understood within a wider context.
The woke movement is both a sign and a cause of profound socio-political change and as with all human behaviour the causes and consequences are multi-dimensional and entangled. But it's possible to unpack the various elements sufficiently to get beyond our own outrag.
At first glance the movement seems nothing more than an ideological furore over real and concocted historical events and accusations of victimisation generated by an elaborate intellectual algorithm created within critical race theory and intersectionality.
The woke algorithm defends itself against refutation, or indeed alternate points of view and historical nuance, by embedding the hierarchy of victim and oppressor in biological features. It ring fences its most far-fetched assertions by rejecting the ordinary rules of reasoning in science and scholarly analysis as devices whereby oppressive power structures perpetuate their privilege. In its place the subjective testimonies of selected and designated victims have sole authenticity fully immunised against empirical evidence.
Such claims are not as outlandish as they appear at first glance. Work by Henrich and others (1) demonstrate that the cognitive processes of Westerners in general are distinctive and differ significantly from those of other societies.
Furthermore it is possible to argue that normative science and traditional jurisprudence are ill-suited to the fine granularity needed to comprehend the subtle forms of stereotyping and denigration experienced by victims in the course of daily existence. Indeed this could serve as the foundation for a productive dialectic between the different perspectives to the benefit of society as a whole.
The woke movement is, however, uninterested in genuine discussion.Insofar as it is possible to extract coherence from the mishmash of grievance and victimhood which lies at the core of the movement, there is no expiry date or boundaries on its appetite for novel transgressions. The list of identities and injuries is sufficiently wide and amorphous to ensure new crimes can be manufactured on demand (2). And despite copious evidence of selective reporting and improved non-racist policing for example, the narrative of institutionalised and systemic racism and related identity abuses persists unchallenged in the mainstream media at almost all levels.
Without any sense of irony, identity is baked into pseudo-biological attributes of whiteness, blackness, indigenicity and sexual identity (amongst others) which each individual carries around as a badge of historical and current shame or victimhood. Racism, and 'otherism' more generally, is revealed by subtle social slights, some detectable only to the truly woke. Everyone is reduced to a role of oppressor or victim with no room for historical or personal nuance, and the occasional idiocies of an unruly adolescence can be excavated on demand by the specialist guild of outrage archaeologists to advance personal vendettas or for profit.
With few exceptions the woke narrative has been fully internalised by the major media, scientific and academic platforms in the West. In a revealing episode on Sky News recently, Michael Holding the famous West Indian cricketer broke down in tears when recounting the 'slights' he had received in the course of his career.
Holding is a charming, marvellously talented, articulate , widely admired man. The slights he recounted were real but extraordinarily trivial, certainly in comparison to the official recognition and popular adulation he has received from all races. I have certainly experienced far worse myself and any one of innumerable darker skinned South Africans has been subjected to far more offensive behaviour both racial and otherwise at the hands of others; not always from whites by any means.
Holding said he looks forward to a world in which race is irrelevant and all are equal in the dignity and opportunity they are accorded. Hear, hear, and increasingly that world is coming about. But those noble aims are emphatically not what motivates the woke movement and the bullying methods used make normal inter-racial relations close to impossible to achieve.
Mark Austin, the interviewer, naturally refrained from any penetrating questions directed at the holy cow of racial sensitivity expressed by a black man. A restraint he does not exhibit when faced with an interviewee from the other side of the political-racial spectrum.
The tie-in of the BLM furore with the increasingly venomous party political scene in the USA is glaringly obvious. According to Sohrab Ahmari "...what’s playing out is a counter-revolution of the neoliberal class — academe, media, large corporations, ‘experts’, Big Tech — against the nationalist revolution launched in 2016.". He goes on to say " The goal isn’t to rectify concrete economic injustices: massive inequalities in wealth, health and job security. The goal is precisely the opposite: to mitigate, to defer, to smooth over, to mask these substantive disagreements and instead have battles on procedural mechanisms for upholding manners."
The backdrop to Ahmari's narrative in the previous paragraph lies in the evolving socio-economic class structure in the USA (and possibly globally). According to Joel Kotkin, and in greater detail, Michael Lind, the stabilising middle class has become hollowed out and American society increasingly feudalised with mind-blowing wealth and power concentrated in the new oligarchy (aristocracy) of a few hundred or so individuals.
The oligarchs depend on and are validated by a much larger highly educated, upper-middle class (which Kotkin calls the clerisy and Lind terms 'the managerial' elites) centred in academia, the professions, government, the media, within the high-tech corporations and the entertainment industry. Both rest upon the services and labour provided by a larger underclass increasingly resembling the serfs of feudal Europe in their political powerlessness and economic insecurity.
In this perspective, current progressivism in the form of woke ideology has nothing to do with the material needs and economic insecurities of the modern serfs within the West (or globally). Rather it provides a convenient ideological veneer of social concern leaving the unequal, semi-hereditary distribution of power and wealth intact while relaxed immigration laws and off-shoring ensure a steady supply of skills and cheap labour.
Simple calculations of rational self-interest seldom fully explain the complex of motivations underlying human choices and the long march of the woke narrative through the educational and communication industries of the West has certainly had a profound effect on the minds of the elite youth.
Nevertheless, this happy symbiosis of public virtue and private profit may well account for the alacrity with which major corporates and the educated elites embedded in academia, the media, the entertainment industries and the Democratic Party in the USA have rushed to endorse the most outlandish claims of their co-elites running the BLM show.
The sacrificial lambs are of course the lower-middle and working class, including poor blacks trapped in urban ghettoes. With the police rendered impotent by a weaponised media narrative their situation will only deteriorate while the connected (shades of South Africa) get plum jobs within the academic-managerial-media-entertainment-corporate complex.
What is noteworthy is that a significant minority refuse to take the expedient route by asserting their full human agency and rejecting the poisoned chalice of perpetual victimhood.
Before ending it's worth asking whether the entangled culture wars rattling the Western democracies with the epicentre in the USA has anything to do with the periphery? The obvious answer in an interconnected world is 'yes' and, specifically, that's true for South Africa.
It will not have escaped the eagle eyes of PW readers that S. African history, and even its current cultural and demographic features, bears some striking similarities to the USA. These include European settlement, virtual obliteration of indigenous cultures and peoples, serious intra-settler warfare and conflict between European and African peoples. This goes hand-in-hand with a taste for American cultural products while exhibiting a fashionable, snobbish anti-Americanism.
The differences are equally obvious and significant but for the present I want to emphasise vast discrepancies in the reservoirs of economic and expertise available to the USA compared with SA. Thus in the battle for hearts and minds, material realities perhaps figure more prominently in South African choices than in American.
Partly for that reason the remarkable power of abstract moral ideologies to dominate the USA and UK political culture is not entirely replicated in South Africa, though clear echoes of it are found within academia and the media-entertainment-managerial elites here too. But our serfs, mainly black, are in an even worse economic and educational position than their white and black counterparts in the USA.
Despite our democratic constitution their main power lies in their capacity for disruption and violence. Otherwise, by a mix of patronage, intimidation and shrewd ethno-tribal manipulation our ANC-media axis has been able to ensure that their connected elites, black and white, are well protected from being turfed out by the democratic process - so far.
That is why they are so scared of being outflanked by political populists on their Left capable of mobilising the masses. Fortunately for the ANC, the same masses are quite aware of the dead-end offered by Malema et al and so their radical theatrics is mainly attractive to elites seeking a vehicle for self-advancement or self-expression. But in extremis such populist cults can be attractive to those at the end of their tether.
These dynamics leave our own ANC reformists (interpreting the term liberally), corporates and managerial class in a bind. They can see the chaos coming down the road and would prefer to alleviate at least the worst of the miseries suffered by the South African underclass, even if only to keep the status quo largely intact.
But decisive action would leave their alliances of mutual convenience shattered and represents a step too far into the unknown. Whether the normal processes of democratic politics can be sufficient to find a path through these thickets of factional ideologies, ethnic identities, mutual distrust and material interests is in serious question.
As the only demonstrably competent, inclusive and generally pragmatic party in South Africa the DA should be at the centre of any reformist initiative but the path is beset by landmines, booby traps and red herrings. It's also existential for the ANC Alliance which is unlikely to survive genuine reform. Right now the pandemic has put politics mainly in a holding pattern which provides time to consider possible scenario more fully.
References and Notes
1. The Weirdest People in the World? by Joseph Henrich, Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2010, 33:1-75. (Much worksubsequntly and a forthcoming book)
2a. America’s cultural revolution is just like Mao’s By Xiao Li https://unherd.com/2020/07/americas-cultural-revolution-is-familiar-to-the-chinese/ 2b. The woke have no vision of the future by John Gray https://unherd.com/2020/06/the-woke-have-no-vision-of-the-future/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups=18743&tl_period_type=3
3. General References for those interested in a wider perspective
- Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays by Peter Turchin - https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2013-11-20/blame-rich-overeducated-elites-as-our-society-frays***
- The ‘Diversity’ Trap by Zaid Jilani - https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-diversity-trap-jilani
- Facts vs feelings in the BLM debate by David Goodhart - https://unherd.com/2020/06/facts-vs-feelings-in-the-blm-debate/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups=18743&tl_period_type=3
- Moral Cruelty and the Left by Blake Smith - https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/judith-shklar-politics-of-fear
- Linking “Micro” to “Macro” Models of State Breakdown to Improve Methods for Political Forecasting by Peter Turchin et al - https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1xt9k875
*** Written 2013. Highly prescient by a major thinker.