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The Material Roots of Wokeness

(Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

So, the fact that what is now called wokeness is a minority persuasion, believed by a small group of elite left-liberals and pursued through the instruments of the managerial state and corporate oligarchies, should not be surprising.”

The issue of entrenched cultural progressivism is one that the political right in the United States and Great Britain obsesses over. The progressive war on everything deemed good, morally beneficial, and life-affirming is seen as a direct threat to the viability of Western civilization. This rhetorical inflation demonstrates both the very real alarm felt at something undeniably real and also a form of politics divorced from the reality of where wokeness comes from. Dark mutterings about so-called “Postmodern Neo-Marxism,” the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism, Critical Race Theory, and on and on conceal what actually causes people to believe these diffuse ideas and ideologies captured by the word “wokeness.” A dose of material analysis is in order, cutting through the echo-chamber verbiage. 

Those such as James Lindsay, among others, spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of words to trace what they see as the precise ideological heritage of wokeness. The endless intellectualizing over wokeness’s roots is all very worthy, but it does not really lead anywhere and does not offer an answer as to why those who espouse and spread this ideology do so. It gives in to what James Davison Hunter calls the “idealist fallacy,” where ideas themselves are so strong as to move history and drive change by themselves. This ignores the role of social and institutional structures and material forces, like economic change and class interactions. 

As Hunter writes, “the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more ‘dense’ the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.” Cultural change on a deep, seismic scale is top-down, not bottom up, and “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.”

Let us define wokeness in light of this and look at it as a set of beliefs, an ideology, by, of, and for an elite class. Eric Kaufmann defines wokeness as “the sacralization of historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual identity groups.” This neatly encapsulates what people mean when they use the word “woke” to describe a left-liberal social movement instantiated by (and entrenched through) the structures of the managerial-administrative state and the corporate oligarchy. This ideology implemented through state and corporate structures is what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology.”

A sociological view of wokeness that accounts for the role of institutional networks is given by Charles Fain Lehman in a recent City Journal piece on “woke capital,” whereby  commercial empires espouse ideas seemingly inimical to pursuing profit above everything else. He traces the managerial obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion to the bureaucratic implementation of morally righteous civil rights laws, throughout the administrative state and the corporate world in the mid-20th century. The irony was that, despite their unpopularity with the public at large, by the time President Ronald Reagan came to power promising to reverse red tape, the professional-managerial class (PMC) working in these structures was more than happy to keep it and did not want to give it up. 

Civil rights compliance, and its associated measures for group representation had become a self-reinforcing mechanism, woven into the managerial cultures of the administrative and corporate worlds. This goal of diversity is open-ended, always looking to increase its purview, and to expand its institutional power and prestige through the recognition endowed by bigger budgets. This view accords with Hunter’s arguments on the role of elite networks and institutions in remolding socio-cultural norms: It does not require complex explanations of abstruse philosophical theories—just an awareness of institutional incentives and the ways individuals interact with these and adapt their own worldviews and behavior to attain and retain membership. 

So, the fact that what is now called wokeness is a minority persuasion, believed by a small group of elite left-liberals and pursued through the instruments of the managerial state and corporate oligarchies, should not be surprising. The organization More in Common’s Hidden Tribes report puts such elite left-liberals at around 6-8% of the American population. These people have beliefs, particularly on race, well to the left even of black Americans. Wokeness has its social base in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are now the party of the wealthy, with the richest areas of the United States voting for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 and now-President Joe Biden in 2020. These are also the places most invested in the woke worldview. The woke worldview is the ideology of America’s PMC. 

This might suggest that wokeness’s increasing vehemence is based in social and institutional dominance, and this is partly true. But all is not well in the PMC. The rise and increasing shrillness of woke ideology and the radicalism of its adherents is due to intra-elite competition for dwindling opportunities for advancement, even membership, within this elite. This, in turn, imbues a sense of desperation in its more junior members. The Occupy movement’s own slogan was wrong: It was not the 99% vs. the 1%, but, as Julius Krein has argued, it is increasingly the 9.9% vs. the 0.1% that defines the direction of our politics and culture. What Peter Turchin has labeled “elite overproduction” has meant that there are more and more individuals passing through the academic and professional structures of elite accreditation, only to find on the other side that there are fewer and fewer roles for them to fill within the elite class. This is particularly bad in the United Kingdom, where the New Labour goal of pushing half of young people through tertiary education has destroyed the graduate premium, but it is also playing out across hyper-competitive East Asia, with South Korean education making the Colosseum look genteel. 

Underlying this is the fact that the gains of the last few decades in income and wealth, particularly in the United States have mostly gone to the 0.1%, what Joel Kotkin calls the Oligarchy. In the United States, the top 1% has indeed gained around half of income growth since the 1980s, rising from 11% to over 20%. However, the income share of the top 0.1% of the American population rose from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012. The gains from an economy less and less built on productive growth and more and more on rent-seeking and gains from capital means that those in the 10% are in a vicious competition to retain wealth and status. 

As Krein writes, “The performance gap between the top 1 or 0.1 percent versus the top 10 percent is actually larger than the gap between those right at 10 percent and any part of the bottom 90 percent…Since 1979, the real annual earnings growth of the top 1 percent has more than tripled that of earners at 10 percent, while growth for the 0.1 percent is, in turn, more than twice that of the 1 percent.” Income grew 226% from 1979 to 2016 for the top 1%, while only rising 79% for the next 19% of Americans. The white-collar professions of law, finance, hedge funds, private equity, high-end science research and development, and technology no longer guarantee the sure path to elite prosperity they once did. 

Those in the PMC must run faster and faster to avoid falling out of the top 10%, with the costs of preserving elite status for oneself and one’s posterity having risen disproportionately for the 9.9%. Across the Western world, we have seen concentration of human and corporate capital into ever more exclusive postal codes, dubbed “superzips” in the United States. To achieve anything like the earning and savings potential as parents, young people must move to places like London, New York, Washington, D.C, San Francisco, Paris, etc. to engage in the managerial economy. Spiralling property  prices far outstrip earnings, defeating attempts at saving for prosperity or posterity. Add to this the crushing burden of student debt in the United States, with tuition costs rising faster between 1973 and 2013 than the income growth of the 1%—and more than double the rate of the income growth of the top 5-10%. Layered on top of which is the ever-rising costs-of-daily-living in elite areas, and it is no wonder that it now takes more weeks than the year has to make enough to buy a property stake in Western societies. 

Each ruling class has its own systems of morals, manners, and mores that strengthen and stabilize its position. As Gaetano Mosca wrote, ruling class power is rendered legitimate “as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognized and accepted.” This sounds cynical, but two things can be true: the adoption and support for an ideology can be rooted in group interest, while also being sincerely believed. Rob Henderson writes about how Thorstein Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption” for showing class distinction has been superseded by what he calls “luxury beliefs.” Status is a zero-sum positional good, valuable only insofar as it provides distinction. As Henderson writes, “trendy clothes and other products [have] become more accessible and affordable, [so] there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods. The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” 

It is undoubtedly true that the costs of luxury beliefs of wokeness fall disproportionately on those lower down the social scale, with increased social tensions, breakdown, lawlessness, and economic upheaval, all rooted in a drive to greater “openness” and tolerance. But the appeal of wokeness does not rest in its costless distinction as its costless membership of an increasingly unattainable elite status. The increasing volume of woke efforts stems from access to the top 9.9% being based in holding the correct beliefs and demonstrating loyalty to the correct worldview. The radicalism of the young PMC elites stems from a despairing rage at their inability to gain security, never mind progress up the increasingly steep and narrow PMC cursus honorum. 

Wokeness functions as a substitution of correct moral values for real material attainment and security. The thrill of crusading righteousness, projecting PMC neuroses onto those lower down the social order, salves the pain of material precarity through struggles to right great moral wrongs, regardless of whether or not those below desire this salvation. It also gives a sense of self-justification to those aware of their ever-more tenuous position in an elite that lacks the legitimizing ethic of noblesse oblige to those below. Today’s fragile elites have all the guilt of good Christians, but it is expressed in post-Christian identitarian ways, for a materially and existentially unstable post-Christian world. 

Neither the bromides of zombie Reagan/Thatcherite conservatism nor left-liberal pseudo-radicalism are adequate to the task of dealing with this intra-elite strife driven radicalism. Each faction of neoliberalism acts as the enabler of those in positions of power on each side of the political aisle, each entrenched in a neoliberal system that prevents others rising to continue the cycle of elites. Solutions to our current predicament will come from within the elite: A disenfranchised working-class and increasingly proletarianized middle-class will not provide it. We must hope that new countervailing groups on either the Left or Right achieve a level of wisdom and prudence that allow them to address the material root causes of our present ideological strife. The signs are not hopeful.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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