by Ed West
Tuesday, 21
September 2021
Response
12:34

Why wokeism won’t rule the world

Tyler Cowen thinks it will be America's next great export — I disagree
by Ed West

Will wokeism rule the world? That’s an interesting (i.e. terrifying) question asked by “the decidedly un-woke” Tyler Cowen.

Writing in Bloomberg, Cowen asks “whether the U.S. will be able to deploy this new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence. Put another way: if there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?” He continues:

Wokeism is an idea that can be adapted to virtually every country: Identify a major form of oppression in a given region or nation, argue that people should be more sensitive to it, add some rhetorical flourishes, purge some wrongdoers (and a few innocents) and voila — you have created another woke movement.
- Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

He’s optimistic about the prospect, and suggests that:

French culture and society will emerge just fine from this engagement with wokeism. Most of all, wokeism is a way of spreading ideas from a relatively feminized American culture to a world less supportive of women’s rights…It doesn’t much matter who controls the English department at Oberlin College. But it would be nice if the Saudis moved to allow more rights for women.
- Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

I am also decidedly un-woke, I think it’s fair to say, and I’m not sure its influence will be beneficial to America. Firstly, I get the sense that there has been a marked change in Britain in attitudes towards the United States this last year, with many British conservatives starting to see it as the Great Satan. Whether this view spreads across the western world in years to come I don’t know, but it’s not like they’re going to become less insufferable any time soon.

More importantly, I don’t think it will have the same global effect as liberalism. Liberalism has indeed had a positive influence where it has spread, and also furthered American interests, but then liberalism is fairly exportable because it’s the McDonald’s of political philosophy — a one-size-fits-all package in which certain rights are universal (conservatism, in contrast, differs from one place to another, and is happy with that difference). Liberalism doesn’t work everywhere, but with some adaptions it’s worked in a lot of places, because it’s consistent and coherent.

If wokeism was just an accelerated form of liberalism, then its influence might be mildly beneficial to Frenchwomen and extremely so to Saudi women. But wokeism differs in that it has conflict and difference built into it, and makes no attempt to be consistent. Not only is it illiberal in its hostility to free speech and difference of opinion, but it is also motivated not by freedom but by equality of outcomes — not between individuals but groups. That is the core point, and is why it has division built into it.

The movement ties up its contradictions with an appeal to sacred victimhood, directed at groups in need of protecting — primarily black people but also women, transgender people and some other racial minorities, depending on where they sit in this hierarchy. It succeeds because in some western countries there are strong taboos about the dignity of oppressed groups, an obvious hangover from Christianity (wokeism’s emergence at the exact same time American religion is in freefall is hardly some obscure esoteric mystery).

Outside of areas where western Christianity has evolved into white guilt, I’m not sure Arab, Indian and Chinese elites will be sold on sacrilising their minorities and truly embracing wokedom. They might show support for BLM, but that won’t be the same thing — in some ways rather the opposite.

While Al-Jazeera Arabic remains solidly conservative, its tweeny English language offshoot AJ+ is on Teen Vogue levels of wokeness, but wokeness in this sense means not just being progressive on gender issues but also anti-American, portraying the country as inexorably wicked and built on oppression. But then this is what high-status American thought leaders have been saying for decades.

Even if this is a perverse form of American psychological colonialism, I can’t see it making America stronger. At home, the Great Awokening has coincided with increased polarisation that has clearly weakened the country, but it must surely be damaging its reputation internationally, among both friends and enemies. Whereas liberalism has often meant exporting American values, wokeism is arguably exporting pathological anti-Americanism.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago

I fear you might be whistling in the dark, Mr West. In all sorts of areas the assumptions and prejudices of “wokery” are entrenched. Challenge them openly and you lay yourself open to a world of trouble. Managers routinely use Macpherson’s definition of “racist incidents” to circumvent due process; schools are stuffed with proponents of “anti-racist” dogma; universities silence dissent and the media quashes protest. Theatres will never look at traditional productions and comedy has vanished. The right – even the easy-going, habitual, small-c conservative right – has been boxed in. It doesn’t matter, therefore, that “woke” is unpopular. Do you really imagine that totalitarian regimes are actually loved by their peoples? And the left has discovered that totalitarian goals – surface uniformity, derogation of dissent – may all be put in place by the mere control of expression and a growing use of de facto “social credit”. They are using an exquisite economy of means to stifle us; rather than the bludgeon of camps and slavery, they are using the soft pillow of strategic dismissals and news blackouts. The fact that you can still buy old DVDs of non-PC films – to give an example of apparent liberty – is just a sign of how cleverly the left is operating. By letting the old, the provincial, the marginal, the retired and all dissenting portions of society take refuge in back-numbers and nostalgia, they further quell the will to resist. Yes, it is resulting in the same general oppression which marks all forms of communism – which is what we are dealing with; and this will ultimately mean death – but death spaced out, deferred, inflicted slowly, through solitude, frustration, bewilderment, denigration and the usual failures of “our” NHS. That hideous strength…

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The question is whether it is spreading outside America’s core influence – as in outside the English speaking core. Other question is whether conservatives outside the US see this as being a US ideology, hostile to them. That could fracture the west.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I think that is somewhat exaggerated, but in any case, Ed West’s point was that this absurd ideology has zero traction in non-western and more specifically non-anglophone nations. The leaderships of China, India, Iran Saudi etc are not going to capitulate before this utter nonsense of an ideology. Frankly, the wokists, and indeed much of the Green movement, are also entirely uninterested and ignorant in those nations, except perhaps a very generalised sense that they are ex-colonised ‘goodies’ as opposed to the white supremacist ‘baddies’. So it doesn’t matter much to them if Iran routinely hangs gay men. The laughable failure of so-called Extinction Rebellion to even protest outside the Chinese Embassy also shows that they do not actually even care about the issues they say they do, that their politics is performative and simply opposed to some imagined nasty right wing deplorables in their own country.

Last edited 10 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

It doesn’t matter to the American establishment if Saudi Arabia hangs gay men either.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago

Liberalism has a certain amount of rationality built into it being the child of the Enlightenment. Universal suffrage and women’s rights are relatively easy to sell to a diverse array of populations and cultures because the emancipation of half or more of society has obvious benefits and appeal (Saudi Arabia is an anomaly even in the muslim world). Wokism with its trans rights emphasis is focussed on increasingly tiny group identities and is asking for collusion in an elaborate charade of suddenly losing basic knowledge (of biological sex for example). Even East europeans will not fall for that let alone the rest of the world.

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
10 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

have we actually identified the ideology? isn’t wokeism a reboot of Marxist ideology where society is split between oppressors and oppressed. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, hasn’t the old class struggle of capitalists exploiting workers morphed into White Patriarchy oppressing people of colour, women and LGBT etc.? Although injustices and prejudice remain, it is nowhere near as bad as the wokeists make out, and the ideology by dividing and pitting groups against each other is self-defeating its ‘stated’ aim of equality? As a Marxist based ideology would it have more chance of infecting other societies?

George Glashan
George Glashan
10 months ago

whilst Tyler Cowen is obviously a more prescient thinker than myself, i think he’s miles off the mark on this one, fair enough he caveats that  “I am on record as saying that wokeism is stupid and inflexible, and will state here and now that it is also boring and predictable.
And yet: I have a nagging sense that, among its opponents, wokeism is underrated. (Its proponents, meanwhile, tend to overrate it.)|”

but his point ” is whether the U.S. will be able to deploy this new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence. Put another way: If there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?”
the number of LGBT / BLM flags flying over Kabul or China or Russia or any non-English speaking country which owes its current prominence to its former adoption of enlightenment values now would indicate a hard no to that question. The Woke ideology is a weak cultural import, any country which has a stronger indigenous ideology shows no sign of being susceptible to this American export. weak cultures who have been importing derivate American TV/ music / media for decades though are thoroughly infected.

Last edited 10 months ago by George Glashan
Mirax Path
Mirax Path
10 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Absolutely agree. And canny observers will distance themselves from the mess that is western wokism. Witness Xi JinPing’s crackdown on gaming, celebrity worship and other polluting habits from the west. Singapore’s government recently announced it was ending its collaboration with Yale and its American style liberal arts education after witnessing its own growing band of culture warriors over the last two years. Some societies will retreat into the certainties of old religions, others will create buffers in the form of nationalism.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Good point. Christianity was successful in part because of the intellectual triviality and incoherence of what it supplanted.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
10 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

I like your use of the word ‘Infected’. How appropriate.

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

My best guess is wokeism will continue to infect the English-speaking countries with cultural similarities to the US. Its effect is already clear in Canada, UK, Australia and NZ. On a spiritual level it fills the “God shaped hole” referred to by Douglas Murray. We used to have the pseudo religion of consumerism and material success, but now the economy is so unbalanced many young people have no meaningful career and live on a subsistence income. At least wokeism provides an outlet for their dissatisfaction.
As other commenters have noted, wokeism only flourishes where a society lacks strong roots and a strong sense of its own identity. The Chinese are actively resisting it and it doesn’t seem to be taking hold in eastern Europe and certainly not Russia.
At this point, I’m very pessimistic about the future of the US and its woke-infested allies. In particular, the majority of people seem unwilling to fight it, either openly or at the ballot box or through withdrawal of their financial support for cultural organizations that accept this ideology. There are very few articles in the media (even the relatively unwoke publications such as Unherd) describing strategies for resisting wokeism.
It may be our current form of democracy, coupled with an economic ideology that values globalization above everything else, certainly above community, has reached its endpoint and that endpoint is woke.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
10 months ago

I believe wokeism is best described as liberalism without Enlightenment. When Enlightenment is taken away, many valuable lessons and traditions of liberalism become pointless. Why support free speech and open discussion when there’s no objective truth to discover? Instead, respect for different conceptions of reality takes the centre stage. If someone believes they’re a peacock, how’s someone else to say they’re not? Allowing for free criticism of someone’s reality only causes harm by denying them their dignity.
France is in a tough spot on this. Its foundations are from the French Revolution which stands on the universalist framework built by Enlightenment. Its establishment, its elites and culture rely on the primacy of Enlightenment.
So it has been interesting (even amusing) to see wokeism try to dominate the universities and public debate in France and receive a very hostile response to eventually fail badly – at least so far. It’d be near impossible for France to abandon its Enlightenment heritage unlike English speaking countries whose roots were formed earlier in Reformation and Puritanism.
Wokeism’s appeal therefore will be much stronger in those countries and traditions which don’t rely on Enlightenment. This explains the affinity and preference of the wokes for, say, Turkey’s Erdogan or Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood than the secularist Muslims or Arab nationalists. This is what makes it possible to make peace with the Taliban. This same alignment is also what causes potential rifts with Europe and Israel for America. Whether this is a strong enough foundation to project American imperial power remains to be seen, it’s uncharted territory in any case.

Last edited 10 months ago by Emre Emre
Mo Brown
Mo Brown
10 months ago

Wokeism is strictly a first-world white-guilt play wrt blacks in their society/societies. That is its foundation at least. Absent that, poof. No more. America is obviously the most vulnerable given its history. Other countries, less so or not in the least.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
10 months ago

The ‘woke’ do not support women’s rights. They might in Afghanistan but they certainly don’t in Britain. Ed Davey, for example, believes that there should be no private female spaces at all, including changing rooms and domestic violence refuges. ‘Wokeness’ is resulting in imprisoned women being given male cellmates who subject them to repeated rape.
Women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are discriminated against and abused because they are female, not because they think they are. If that is recognised there, it must also be recognised here.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
10 months ago

…agree with that Mr West. Yin and Yang will rebalance as usual, eventually, the only question is at what cost to whom and what,… and when. The current overbearing voice of the Feminarchy will hopefully be proscribed without the human devastation which accompanied the retribution on the overreach of the Patriarchy in the first half of the 20th century.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago

I suspect that wokeisum is more likely to cause the rest of the world to turn away from the US.
My son made the point that one of the unanticipated benefits of Brexit for Europe was to free Europe from the pernicious Anglo (i.e. US) influence for which the UK had been a Trojan horse leaving Europe free to forge a European identity

William Hickey
William Hickey
10 months ago

Ed, Tyler Cowen is a punk.

The new immigrants that those who love MLK have allowed to invade America aren’t going to give a damn soon about blacks or gays. Just look at CA, where the new Hispanic plurality has had no qualms about shooting and beating up blacks into running away from the state in huge numbers.

What do our new overlords care about slavery and Jim Crow? As Freddie Prinze used to say, “That’s not my yob, man.”

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
10 months ago

Wait a second, what does “wokeism” have to do with the US or US culture? It is an ideology that hates the US, is trying to erase its history, and hates the vast majority of the population. It’s an offshoot of Marxism, which is a European import. BLM in particular brag about this, though in fact nearly all of the various woke groups do to some degree or another. The very fact they are following a European–rather than a more traditionally American–ideology is one of the bragging points for a lot of them, which is a tad ironic considering their view of European history or anyone with paler skin. In fact a common rallying cry for these groups is that the US needs to be ‘more like Europe,’ which in their minds means more socialism and more governmental ability to control individual rights like free speech (I know, both of those issues are quite variable across the continent, but subtlety and leftists don’t get on well).
But regardless, why is Europe afraid of a tiny percentage of the US trying to export the idea of being ‘more like Europe’ to Europe? That was even among the very first criticisms I saw of woke when it really began to get attention–that it was taking our own ‘political correctness’ and taking it to European levels of insanity (yes, I know, it varies with region), such as not mentioning the race of someone the police were looking for in relation to a crime–which is kind of critical to knowing if you’ve spotted them or not, or neglecting to mention someone shouted “Allah Akbar” while shooting up a nightclub because that could associate the RoP with terrorism. Until woke came around those kinds of censorship didn’t happen here, but some Euro countries brag about how that has been longstanding policy. And if they think that’s how it should be, that’s their business, just don’t go blame us for an idea that others were doing first and that isn’t even widely accepted here.
A lot of people–actually the vast majority I talk to, and I live in a blue city–in the US still don’t even know what ‘woke’ is, or at least didn’t until this past year when some politicians and school boards began pushing hard to introduce Critical Race Theory in schools. But that in itself has led to a very large backlash, more than a fair amount at national level, but even more at state level, and the most at local level, which is where it really matters. If you follow the news (not CNNBC/ABCBS), there have been a surprising number of school boards either replaced or who just quit due to the amount of pushback they have received against this idea. It doesn’t even poll well among blacks, in fact much worse with them than with rich left-leaning whites.
Wokeism is just an idea that mostly exists on social media, with a certain class of government worker, and with some of the extremely wealthy such as celebrities and leaders in large corporations. Side note on that: I just today saw an article about how the former CEO of CVS Pharmacy, who had the largest difference between the average salary of the workers and the CEO of any company in the US, was forcing his hourly workers to attend classes about their ‘privilege.’ That is probably the most perfect encapsulation of wokeism you can find.
Absolutely none of those groups have a high approval rating in the US. I can’t figure out why foreigners–and yes, it’s more Europeans than anywhere else–are so obsessed with them. Their money or position gives them some power over Americans, and the corporate leaders in particular are beyond our ability to change (school board members are not, as they have been learning the hard way). For anyone in Europe, only an obsession with them can give them any influence. If you don’t like their ideas, just ignore them. But at the very least, don’t be afraid of these insane ideas getting loose over there. Most of them were already over there before they were here. Like hamburgers and hot dogs, we just made some minor alterations and exported them right back. Although with a key difference: hamburgers and hot dogs really are popular over here, so at least that stereotype has some basis in fact.
This whole article reminded me of one from The Economist years ago, when I would still read it. It talked about how extremely common it was in a particular region for people to claim they were descended from Cherokee princes. It then helpfully pointed out that there never was such a thing. Funny part was, I grew up in that region, and had never even heard the term “Cherokee prince” until the Economist insisted everyone around me claimed to be one. Kind of like hearing everyone over here is ‘woke’ now. My only knowledge of them comes from the Internet and occasional pronouncements from the current administration, which Europe at large seems to have wanted to win.

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
10 months ago

That’s the best short analysis of the current state of our world I’ve read all year.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
10 months ago

Wokeism is ridiculous and just about all non-Anglo-Saxon countries can see this and think it’s stupid. It makes the USA look weak and foolish. It’s time to begin revealing the Emperor’s-New-Clothes.
Let me begin: ‘Systemic racism’ is not a thing.

Last edited 10 months ago by Cathy Carron
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
9 months ago

Commercialise it by all means. It’s the American way. Monetise it and dollarise it. I can see a paradox somewhere.