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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up