Beyond Woke and Evil

There was a cheap and easy way to check your pulse on the morning of November 9. If your feelings upon waking were demoralized or defeated, they were a symptom of the limp and lifeless disposition of a bottom-feeding liberal. For those who thought their candidate should have won because She deserved it, and that the foremost task of democratic rule is to reward the résumés of Washington careerists, that Wednesday was a crisis verging on the existential. (Old joke from an old friend: “I feel like existential problems aren’t real problems.”) But in the odd chance you woke up and felt a queasy sort of thrill—a moment of dreadful clarity after an eight-year drunken bender—then the events of the last few weeks were an invitation, as well as an admonition, to leave the land of the #woke and to repair to the world of the living.

I’m not referring simply to the flippant sense of vindication of those who knew how bad that Clinton was from the beginning—although after a year of being gaslighted and shamed by insufferable know-it-alls, the liberal meltdown was sweet to the same degree that it was salty. Near the end of the Democratic National Convention, when it was clear the forces of wonky moderation would prevail against the most popular left-wing candidate the woman-hating working class, I put it thus: “The revolution will be salted with artisanal liberal tears”—and this is what I mean. If the querulous heavy breathing of Woke Liberals at the Wells Fargo Center was any indication, who needs enemies on the right with friends like liberals on the left? The greatest gift that Trump has given is to spare us eight more years of liberal condescension.

The very prospect of “eight more years” becomes more drab and stultifying the more you think of it. Did anyone really think the shabby taxidermy of American liberalism was worth preserving? One shudders to imagine it. Eight more years of pantsuit flashmobs dabbing through the culture wars, borne on the shoulder pads of Lena Dunham to a soundtrack by Beyoncé, out to purge the final bastions of appropriation and all things problematic…their sanctimony was exceeded only by their cluelessness. It hardly occurred to liberals, in all their wokeness, to conceive of politics beyond their multiculti cocktail brunch. This was politics as college hobby, as hashtagtivist extracurricular, concerned less that black people are poor than that poor people are black.

To each their own, I suppose. But it behooves us now to ask when these petty moralists crossed the line from mild irritation into actual impediment. Was it when these liberal stooges pilloried Bernie Sanders as a “nationalist” for opposing globalization? Or when they smeared as “sexist” all who dared to criticize an imperial warmonger and corporate gangster their Queen? (In Donald Trump’s America, you can bet the left’s invective on the authoritarian sadist will be called out for “kink-shaming.”) One of the most cynical hot-takes peddled by the partisans of Clinton was to position Bernie Sanders as yet another white male (naughty, naughty) intruding on the path of Clinton’s self-actualization. Now that Woke Thatcher has been thoroughly discredited, the libs have doubled down on their identity-politicking, prole-shaming all the brocialists for mansplaining how “the working class” is still a relevant term. Nothing can be richer than to hear these cocktail liberals intone how “class” is an abstraction for the privileged, or else a dogwhistle for “centering” “white interests.” Ask yourself: Why is it so essential for the breathless brunchtime libs to make the story of this election one of race or sex, and to eschew all talk of class? Cui bono? To ask the question is to answer it.

The story of this election should be about how liberals weaponized social justice, respectability politics and Very Serious Expertise to be the footsoldiers, as well as the human shields, of the ruling class.

Many of us on the left had grown wary, not to mention weary, of the social justice jig that has become regnant in our quarters; not because the woes of the excluded and the marginalized are irrelevant (and as a descendent of colonial subjects, I count myself among them), but because it traded liberation for a politics of inclusion. And yet inclusion, divorced from a critique of material relations, is little more than a reshuffling of the hierarchies of capital—what Professor Adolph Reed has called “the left-wing of neoliberalism.” The whole game is decidedly bourgeois: upwardly distributing identity, instead of downwardly distributing security, as if the height of social justice were to be found in the glittering careers of a diversified elite. It offers nothing to the working class, except to some a small way out; it leaves the status quo untouched beyond a smattering of color. The truly rotten thing about this Benetton rainbow politics is that it fails on its own terms: who stands to suffer more from economic inequality than the inheritors of sexual or racial animosity? Conversely, who stands to gain from a political program whose chief concerns are the vocabulary, or composition, of the managerial elite? To those who thought the left’s revulsion to a second Clinton was proof positive of “toxic masculinity”—and not, say, of ideological opposition—perhaps you might forgive us for not being properly enthused by our ladyboss receiving a promotion.

(In this regard, let us bear in mind the concept of “glass ceilings” was coined in corporate spaces, and that its primary concern is the anatomy of those who get to exploit the rest of us.)

There’s something weirdly Protestant about the liberal woke ethic, so to speak, not only in its fixation with personal achievement, but also in its tending toward the puritanical. One can detect it in the penitent obsession with the original sin of privilege, the virtue signs of the elect, the sola fide of being woke and bearing witness to the oppressed. Yet it retains the Catholic predilection toward reverence of symbolism and language; it shares in the Confucian wont to rectify the proper naming of names; it is Maoist, too, in its demand that all transgressions be “called out” in struggle sessions where the faithful reassert the Party line. None of this syncretic posturing can mitigate the fact that they’ve become the P.R. thought police of neoliberal hegemony. It’s almost as if our corporate rulers had a vested interest in reducing the demands of social justice to the cosmetics of the rich and the powerful.

Once you accept the premise of social justice as a question of who is seated at the table, it is very easy to be contented by concessions in the table manners or the makeup of the seated few, while the undeserving rest of us lap up their slobbered crumbs. By reducing the issue of oppression to discrete phenomena of prejudice or hate, and by insisting on the singularity or authenticity of the “lived experience,” the liberal identitarian has nowhere to go but up—ingratiating herself by ascriptive in-groups into the upper rungs of remedial elitism. This get-your-own mentality is fertile ground for the sort of culture wars whose aim is to diversify the billionaire elite, or to enforce a heritable claim to cultural private property; at its very worst, it reproduces a reactionary line, as in the coziness of feminists with the prison-industrial complex. But it is woefully unfit to form the basis of genuine solidarity. To be woke is to be hyper-conscious of the abundant ways we are imprisoned but to be blind to the material that constitutes our cells. If the wellbeing of black males under the first black male president was not a firm enough rebuke of representational social justice—a trickle-down mentality if there ever was one—at least it showed the limitations of a politics skin-deep. Soon enough we’ll start to hear about the great diversity of Trump’s administration, or Marine Le Pen’s courageous shattering of the French glass ceiling, and then we’ll know how utterly impoverished a politics of the epidermis or of the genitalia can be.

One of the favored metaphors of the alternative right is the denomination of our present state as Weimerica, in reference to the dismal years before the German Third Reich. Without wishing to dignify the imagination of neo-fascists, I think there is some truth to it. The Obama years had mollified the liberal consensus, ushering in a period of decadence and distraction, where the great concerns of our political consciousness were the cosmetics of a neoliberal edifice built on crisis and disrepair. It’s rather telling that the biggest symbol of liberal resistance to Donald Trump is a multiracial Broadway musical put on by and for the glitterati, as if the end-point of our politics were to redistribute privilege—not to abolish it—or to melt the sentimental hearts of neo-Nazis. And as the experts and the thought merchants exhorted us to kill the “privilege” within us, they gave a smokescreen to the privileged elite who ran the show. This was punching-down as much as punching-left, but now that big bad Daddy’s come to do us in, we’ll see how flimsily eight years of smug and ineffectual liberalism has prepared us to protect our precious crumbs.

Now is the time to return to our first principles and to articulate a genuine left-wing politics, one that resists the liberal urge to drive a wedge between identity and class, as much as it resists the coming onslaught from the right. No more listening to the experts, to the wonks and to the woke. Being so disastrously wrong after a year of gleeful condescension means that libs have forfeited their right to do what liberals do to every left-wing opportunity, which is to bungle it.

Milan, 2016.

One thought on “Beyond Woke and Evil

  1. Pingback: Goodbye to All That | A E S T H E T I C I D E

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