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'Left Is Not Woke'
A Q&A with Berlin-based philosopher Susan Neiman
Those of us who criticize “woke” politics often tend to hear from members of the public who are confounded by the movement, which claims to pursue social justice but often advances ideas that are antithetical to its cause.
This dynamic is especially confusing for lifelong leftists, who, as my guest at Lean Out today argues, have watched the so-called woke left reject key leftist tenets, such as affirming universalism over tribalism, making a distinction between justice and power, and upholding a belief in the possibility of progress.
Susan Neiman is an acclaimed philosopher and cultural and political commentator. She’s the director of the Einstein Forum in Germany, and the author of a timely new book, Left Is Not Woke. In it, she writes, “We rarely notice the assumptions now embedded in the culture, for they’re usually expressed as self-evident truths. Because they are offered as simple descriptions of reality rather than ideas we might question, it’s hard to challenge them directly.”
In this conversation taped yesterday in Toronto, on the book’s official publication date, Neiman unpacks the assumptions guiding the “Great Awokening,” reflects on the paralysis of pessimism, and insists on hope as a moral obligation.
TH: The book originated with a lecture you gave at the University of Cambridge. How is it that you came to be giving a talk on “woke” politics at Cambridge, which is often seen as a bastion of these politics?
SN: Indeed, it rather is. So, I was invited to give a high-profile lecture, the Tanner Lecture. You can talk about whatever you like. I had been having conversations for the previous year or so with so many friends in different countries, all of whom were complaining about phenomena that I discuss in the book, and concluding, “I guess I’m not left anymore.” My feeling was, “No, wait a second, I’m not going to cede the term left to anyone. I’ve been left all my life and so have you” — I said to the friends — “it’s they who aren’t really left.”
I decided to use the lecture as an opportunity to try and untangle the questions surrounding what’s woke and what’s left. I figured if they throw tomatoes at me, it’s okay; I was invited to do whatever I wanted to. To my great surprise, not only did nobody protest, there was a lot of excitement about the lecture. People saying they have heard plenty of right-wing critiques of woke, but nothing from the left. Then a publisher approached me and asked me if I would like to expand the lecture into a book. I thought, “If it might help untangle some of these questions, and might persuade people, I’ll give up my summer for that.”
TH: I have personally found it quite confusing trying to understand what’s going on [with “woke” politics]. Let’s first spend a moment on 2020, the unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I found it, as you did, quite hopeful in the beginning. This was a large multiracial coalition, some of the biggest protests in American history, and there was a rejection of the kind of violence that led to that moment. (I started my career in hip-hop; I spent my 20s sitting with men whose lives had been profoundly shaped by the criminal justice system.) And yet, as you write in the book, something changed with Black Lives Matter at some point in 2020. What is your view on what changed with that movement?
SN: It’s very hard to say who started it first. But at a certain point — it may have been the right who started saying, “This is identity politics.” And there are studies that have been done on this, there were more white people than Black people on the streets in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement. We shouldn’t forget, this was in the middle of a global pandemic where there were not yet vaccinations. So people were actually risking quite a lot to go out and demonstrate for Black Lives Matter. It was extremely powerful, extremely moving, and extremely multiracial. And somewhere around August the right began to say, “No, this is identity politics and this is a problem.”
Probably in reaction to that — I’m not absolutely certain — but probably in reaction to that, people who were running Black Lives Matter also began to say, “Yes, this is a movement for, and by, people of colour. And white people, if they want, can be allies.” The word ally struck me as extraordinarily problematic. I am not an ally of Black Lives Matter. I support Black Lives Matter, because I have a principled concern for human rights violations and the murder of unarmed people by the police is a human rights violation.
The example that I like to use is that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies for a short period of time during World War II, because they had a common interest. Not because they shared common principles. As soon as those interests diverged, the alliance was over, as alliances often are. But as soon as you start dividing a movement into the main actors and the allies, you undercut the deep solidarity that the left needs to have.
TH: I was also troubled by the religiosity of it. There was a sort of fervour to it. And there were some toxic ideas on race, which I think you do a good job of unpacking in this book. There was this sense of abandoning universalism and embracing tribalism. I’ve heard you say, “We can’t afford tribalism.” Talk to me about where this abandonment of universality comes from.
SN: One can see lots of influences that contributed to this. Somehow universalism got confused with fake universalism, and the claim arose in the last number of years that universalism is a trick by white Europeans to convince everybody else in the world to adopt their values and call them universal. I know quite a number of people of colour who take great offence at the idea that they would need to adopt universalist values from Europeans. There are many strands in movements of thought and action all over the world which appeal to universalism.
Universalism is simply the idea that beyond all the differences of culture and history and appearances that are important — nobody would deny that they’re important culturally — but beyond all those, there is a core of humanity that ties us all together. Now, humanity, or humankind, whatever you want to call it, it’s not a natural notion in a certain sense. It’s something that arose in the 18th century when people began to acknowledge the ascription of human dignity to everyone.
I see it as a normative notion. It’s not something that you can pick out necessarily by looking at people. People look different, they have different histories, they have different cultures — and there’s no reason not to be interested in them and respect them culturally. But politically, what ties us together are a basic set of demands for human dignity and human rights.
TH: Do you mean the left?
SN: No, what ties all of us as human beings together. What’s been so confusing about the last few years, with the so-called woke left, is that that idea has traditionally belonged to the left — universalism. And it’s traditionally been the right who insisted we only have deep connections and genuine obligations to people who come from our clan. That’s always been a right-wing sentiment.
It was an act of progress for people in the Enlightenment to say, “No, beyond tribal loyalties and clan similarities, there’s something important about being a human being and staking a claim to human rights.” That was always a left-wing claim. And suddenly that has been seen as a scam — not suddenly, it’s been building up for a number of years, of course. But it’s become accepted that the idea of universality is a scam.
What is so confusing about these discussions is that there are sets of assumptions that are rarely stated clearly, but they’re presupposed. So, when someone from Black Lives Matter says, “This is a Black-led movement, you can be an ally if you want to be,” it’s not quite saying, “The only thing that really matters are tribal ties.” No one would go out and say that, but it’s presupposed. And those kinds of assumptions are disturbing genuine left-wing solidarity.
TH: And we see this filtering down into the DEI movement, where we now have affinity groups. It does have a large reach, I think … So, that is the idea of universalism and tribalism. The second pillar of your book is this view of justice versus power. And one of the theorists that you talk about here is Michel Foucault, who is very popular on the so-called woke left. Walk me through your main criticisms of what people take from his body of work.
SN: Well, actually, Foucault undermines all three of the assumptions that I think are crucial to being on the left. One is the notion of universalism and tribalism. It’s not exactly that he’s tribalist, it’s that he thinks the entire idea of humanity, or humankind, was constructed and will disappear — as he famously said in, I believe it was his first book, The Order of Things. I would agree with the claim that it was constructed, but I think it’s an achievement. A lot of achievements are constructed; they’re not obvious and they’re not natural.
The second assumption that he undercuts is the idea that you can make a clear distinction between justice and power. Once again, the claim that justice is simply a scam to disguise claims of power is something that goes all the way back to the Athenian Sophists in the 5th Century BC. And certainly we have plenty of instances in history where claims to justice or virtue have in fact been used to cover up claims to power.
Look at the Iraq war. Bush’s claims to be bringing democracy to the Middle East were fairly clearly, to most of us, simply designed to cover over what was a search for hegemony in the region. Also, an interest in distracting people from what was then viewed as the worst presidency in American history; we didn’t imagine it could get worse. It was clear that his claims to be going to war to spread democracy in the Middle East were actually a scam. But it doesn’t [follow], from the fact that claims to justice can often mask claims to power, that every single claim to justice [is a scam]. If you’re on the left, you believe that it’s possible, in principle, to distinguish between these two.
Foucault doesn’t. Foucault is somebody who concludes, like 5th century Athenian Sophists, that simply because certain attempts to establish claims of justice have turned out to be disguises for claims of power, we should give up trying to make that distinction.
It’s a facile argument. One can see how one might conclude it. I mean, if you’ve been disappointed by plenty of people who have deceived you about what was genuinely moving them, it’s easy to say, “Okay, everybody is just out for their own interest and their own power.” This is, of course, something that’s been reinforced in contemporary culture by evolutionary psychology, which I also discuss in the book. That seems to give these kinds of ideas of Foucault and others a scientific basis. It doesn’t. But it sounds scientific.
Then the third problem with Foucault is that he undermines another absolutely crucial tenet of the left, which is that it’s possible to make progress. Progress is not inevitable, but it’s possible. Now, here’s where I think the woke are often quite confused. Because there are plenty of activists out there who clearly are working towards progress, in terms of inequalities of income and racial inequalities and gender inequalities. But by refusing to acknowledge that progress has been made in the past, they undermine their own cause.
Foucault very famously took on — it was a brilliant move — the elimination of torture, which was one of the first causes of the Enlightenment. And in his most widely read book, I think, Discipline and Punish, he begins with the story of someone who tried to kill King Louis XV and was drawn and quartered in a public Paris square. You shudder reading this description, though you don’t forget it either. Then he goes on to say, “When we stopped drawing and quartering people, it looked like an instance of progress.” But then he argues that contemporary prison arrangements are actually a more subtle but more devastating form of surveillance and control. And one can see that, in a certain way. It’s a hypnotically convincing kind of argument.
Foucault never says, “Therefore, it would be better to be drawn and quartered than to be imprisoned.” Because one of Foucault’s tricks — which was passed on to all kinds of theorists who call themselves critical — is that you don’t make normative statements. You just say, “I’m just describing how things are.” But the normative implication is very clear. And people go away thinking, “I’m not really sure that I’d want to be drawn and quartered, but I have no hope for reforming a criminal justice system. Because anything I try to do would only make things worse.” The same goes for all kinds of other attempts to make progress. Again, I’m simplifying slightly. But only slightly.
TH: That has a paralyzing effect. But also, the pessimism that comes with that is an unappealing political vision.
SN: Absolutely. By the way, I was told just a few days ago — although Foucault is the most-read theorist in postcolonial studies, none other than Edward Said believed that he was a quietist, and had a paralyzing effect on the liberatory intentions of the left.
TH: Let’s spend a moment on Carl Schmitt. This is an astonishing one. How is it that the left has taken up the theories of an actual Nazi?
SN: Schmitt was not only an actual Nazi, he was an unapologetic Nazi who believed, to the end of his days, that he had been right, and tended to spend his free time in Franco’s Spain. This is somebody who never apologized. And not only never apologized, but supported fascism to the end of his days.
There’s only one explanation for why people on the left, or the liberal left, have found Schmitt enticing. It’s because he talks about the hypocrisy of liberal institutions. First of all, he describes Parliament as a weak and pointless debating society. And certainly those of us who have looked at Parliaments can sometimes understand that criticism. But more importantly, he talks about the hypocrisy of Britain in making claims to democracy when it’s actually running a large empire that he said was based on simple piracy. Or the United States and its Monroe Doctrine. Now, he’s absolutely right that both the British Empire and the Monroe Doctrine are acts of simple piracy. To make claims about preserving democracy and justice and self-determination while you’re maintaining those empires, or quasi-empires in the case of the United States, is a monumental act of hypocrisy.
But people rarely notice what the dates were of [his claims] — it’s 1942. He’s supporting the Nazis, who are at that moment at war with Britain and the United States. Schmitt is not an anti-colonialist. He’s saying, “Your claims to be better than us are hypocritical, so we can go ahead and colonize all of Eastern Europe if we want to. There’s nothing worse in our actions than in yours.” And this, by the way, is something that Hitler himself claimed. He talked about the genocide of Native Americans by European colonists in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, and used that, again, as justification for his own desire to colonize all of Europe.
This is a fairly childish response to moral and political criticism: “Well, everybody does it, so why can’t I do it too?” It’s not a serious deconstruction of claims to empire. But oddly, people have found it [compelling]. I suppose they think that it’s realist, or that they think it’s hard-cutting. Honestly, I don’t think there’s been enough thought about why exactly Schmitt is so appealing to certain people on the left.
There’s a whole confluence of forces, which I tried to describe, however briefly, in the book. The main ones that I picked out were Foucault, Schmitt, and evolutionary psychology, which all tend to [advance] the same set of rather cynical views about what drives human beings to act.
TH: One other thread I wanted to tease out was the idea of cultural appropriation, which has been a huge issue of debate in this country, and has at times even been extended to food culture. Which has been personally devastating for me because as I travel, food is one of the ways I’ve always been able to connect with people, and explore different cultures, and forge a bond with people. Talk to me about your views on cultural appropriation.
SN: I can quote a friend mine who says “culture is appropriation.” I can also say that the idea of cultural appropriation completely undercuts the idea of culture. Culture is not something that you own. It’s almost always the result of a combination of influences from all kinds of places. And the power of culture is, actually, that it does allow us a window into other people’s lives and traditions. When people first began talking about cultural appropriation, I began to try to understand the other side, as I usually do. But I’ve wound up getting very angry at the idea that culture belongs to a particular tribe. Because the only way and in which we can understand each other’s commonalities, but also differences, is by trying to understand bits of other cultures.
Obviously there’s cultural exploitation. I’m not talking about people who steal people’s music or clothing, and make lots of money off of it, when the original creators are impoverished. We know that that happened certainly with Black music in the United States. But what people forget is that it was a triumph when Black music began to be played on mainstream radio. It didn’t used to happen. You didn’t used to be able to hear — first jazz, and then jazz got mainstreamed — but blues, gospel, soul, that was called “race music” when I was growing up. And it was an achievement when people said, “No, that’s not just music for African-Americans, that’s part of American culture.” Or, if you like, international culture. “It’s something that we all can cherish.”
So I guess I’ve come from a position of trying to understand why someone would insist on culture being tribal to, in the end, feeling I don’t understand it at all. It’s antithetical to the purpose of culture, which is to help us, as you said, connect, whether through food or music or literature or film. Connect with other people. Which gives us a window into other people’s lives, and also allows us to question our own cultural assumptions, if we only come from one culture.
Once again, I would caution against thinking that you can really understand a culture superficially. I mean, I think really attempting to walk around in another people’s culture involves more than sampling a piece of food, or a piece of music, or something that doesn’t come from yours. I’m sure you would agree with me. And there’s no way that we can have access to all the different cultures that there are in the world. But I would highly recommend everybody trying two. You could pick them by accident; it almost doesn’t matter. Although it’s definitely better if you can pick one that functions in a language other than your native language, because that makes a big difference. Simply immersing oneself as much as possible in another culture will give you both an understanding of human diversity, but also unity.
TH: I want to spend a few minutes on hope. Pessimism is very prominent on the left right now.
SN: I need to start by saying that I’m not an optimist. I think it would be obscene to be optimistic at this moment in history, when we are threatened by so many real dangers that could bring us down, from a rise in fascism in many countries to the climate crisis.
Optimism and pessimism are making predictions about what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t make any predictions about what’s going to happen. But I do argue that if we give in to pessimism, the worst will happen. Because the only way in which we can prevent the worst is if we maintain hope that, by working together, we can actually avert the worst and make things better. It’s an argument that goes back to [Immanuel] Kant. It’s one that Noam Chomsky also holds. It’s really easy. It is: There’s not much of a choice, if you give in to pessimism, we will all go to hell.
TH: Lastly, I’d like to talk about the working class. There are a few points in the book where you note that the population has been ravaged by neoliberal economics, by neoliberal thinking. And there is a certain rage out there that is, in some cases, an expected response to what everyone has been dealing with. And yet on the left, there is a view of the working class that I’ve encountered a lot over the last couple of years — a sort of lumping of the whole working class into this “deplorables” basket. A disdain for working people, and an impatience with their worldviews. What do you make of that?
SN: We are living in an entirely unreasonable social and economic structure, no question about it. Different countries have different levels of unreasonableness. In my own experience, the United States is the craziest. I mean, deeply crazy in so many ways. Whereas Western Europe is a bit saner. It has a set of social democratic structures, in which labour rights are considered to be rights. Healthcare is considered to be a right, and education — not simply a benefit, or a privilege, that belongs to people who can afford it.
My own feeling about working-class rage is that it is indeed a reasonable response to a completely unreasonable system. But people like Donald Trump, et cetera, know exactly how to instrumentalize that. What we on the left need to do — and this was one reason for writing this book — is to focus on those bits of unreasonableness that could actually be changed if we focused on them. And not on the sort of virtue signalling that is often a response of the woke, which does drive people crazy. It’s easier to change your pronouns than it is to change deeply oppressive structures.
But if we don’t work on changing those structures, we will continue to alienate some of the people who are being hurt the worst by that. Now, I’m not saying that it’s easy. Because, of course, racism in various forms is a common response when people feel abused and oppressed. So I’m not denying that people in the working class can do and say deplorable things, no question about it. But figuring out how to reach the real sources of anger is, it seems to me, the first task of the left today.
TH: Do you feel hopeful that the left is making some progress, in terms of reclaiming the left from this more extremist [“woke”] element within the left?
SN: I don’t look at hope as a feeling, I look at it as a moral obligation. I have to feel hopeful in order to continue to act. I’m hoping that the first reactions to my book — which have been very, very positive, and people have said it untangled questions that they themselves have been having about the relationship between the woke and the left — I’m hoping that that will be useful in helping people to move forward.
That’s why I wrote it. Once again, I don’t pretend that I don’t have moments of real despair. I do. We are living in a terrifying world. But if I give in to despair, there’s absolutely nothing that I can do to make a difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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