The Left’s Way Back From Woke


On the face of it, the Right’s claims are not totally unfounded. The populist backlash is as much about culture and identity as it is about economics; states should have control over their borders and the fate of their citizens; and solidarity does require a greater degree of cohesion and sense of collective belonging than an unmitigated universalism could provide. This is how the argument goes, and there is little here that centrists or liberals would be particularly inclined to disagree with. But that is just part of a bigger story. The likes of David Goodhart, Matthew Goodwin, Eric Kaufmann, Paul Embery, Douglas Murray are not only trying to understand the rise of anti-systemic, in most cases illiberal and authoritarian, movements; they also seem to be interested in justifying and amplifying them. They are advancing a perilously nativist, White-majority-oriented agenda, while downplaying the far right threat to liberal democracy. The success of their project depends on the invention of a useful ideological nemesis, and what better candidate for this role than the woke Left, in the absence of more traditional enemies like, say, old-style communists or socialists?

British pundits take great pains to show that neither the woke Left nor their “progressive authoritarianism” is native to the British soil. Hence according to Matthew Goodwin, “Post-Brexit Britain is rapidly following America into the abyss of highly-polarised culture wars over populism and wokeism.” Everything changed the day Britain voted for Brexit:

I was no Brexiteer but, in a world where just one in ten academics backed a Brexit decision that more than half of the country supported, merely accepting the result was more than enough to make me an outcast. For the next four years, I faced a constant wave of criticism that at times bordered on harassment . . . Which is why, over the past year, a group of rebel academics began meeting to share ideas about how to push back against this illiberalism. I am proud to be a founding member of that secretive group.

This imagery of martyrdom, of joining a secretive resistance movement against wokeism is a tad rich coming from someone writing in The Daily Mail or The Sunday Times, two of the highest circulated daily newspapers in the UK, not to mention frequent appearances on the main national and international news channels. But why refer to “culture wars” as a specifically American concept, a foreign virus wreaking havoc on the otherwise healthy British body?

Oddly enough, despite its ubiquitous presence, there is, in all the work I’ve discussed so far, only one passing reference to the concept of culture wars as it is used in the American context, and that particular reference hardly does any justice to the way in which the concept is defined by the US sociologist James Davison Hunter who gave the term its popular currency in his influential 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.

For Hunter, the key contention of the culture war thesis is the belief that there had been a realignment in American public culture that had affected all major institutions, from special interest organizations and political parties to competing media outlets and professional associations, “and the elites whose ideals, interests, and actions give all of these organizations direction and leadership.” And here the British Right’s reluctance to discuss the origins of the concept starts to make sense.

Culture war is not the abstract pursuit of detached left-wing intellectuals, confined to the privileged life of university campuses or corporate boardrooms. Rather, it is “a competition to define social reality,” a “matter of social morality.” Hunter distinguishes between two broad camps in contemporary culture war: the orthodox and the progressive. Orthodoxy requires a commitment to an external, definable, and transcendental authority. For progressives, by contrast, moral authority is defined by the spirit of the modern age, “a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.” Hunter does not attribute a normative value to either orthodoxy or progressivism. These are merely “competing understandings of the good and how the good is grounded and legitimated.” Perhaps more importantly, these understandings are not mutually exclusive; “at the heart of the new cultural realignment are the pragmatic alliances” being formed across opposing traditions.

Hunter revisits his culture war thesis in 2006, and stresses once again that this is not simply a matter of “noisy extremists” or activists shouting from their ivory towers. “If the culture war is a myth and the real story is about the consensus that exists in ‘the middle’,” he asks, “then why is it that the middle cannot put forward, much less elect, a moderate who represents that consensus? If the center is so vital, then why is it that the extremes are overrepresented in the structures of power?”

Whatever the merits and limitations of Hunter’s overall thesis, his question is spot on. Culture war is indeed real; it is a manifestation of the structural inequalities produced by late-stage capitalism(or neoliberal globalization) and the cultural-political polarization the latter feeds into. And it will remain real for there is a whole industry of experts-cum-entrepreneurs, both on the Right and the Left, which is invested in it. This is what is missing in the Right’s response to the crisis of liberal democracy, and its astonishing blame shifting. By singling out the woke Left, the Right tries to conceal its own moralistic agenda, and its commitment to a transcendental authority, that of the flag, the faith, and the family. Defenders of right-wing populism are not the passive victims/observers of a culture war perpetrated by the woke Left. They are active participants in it.

Culture war is not only an operating system; it is also a business model.

In many ways, then, culture war is not only an operating system; it is also a business model. And a business model that simply does not, or could not, work – a point that James Davison Hunter himself underscored in an interview he gave five months after the Capitol Hill Riot. There are two factors that complicate the original culture war thesis, Hunter said. First, the Great Recession of 2008 drove a wedge between the White middle- and working-classes and the highly trained managers, technocrats, and intellectuals. As a result, class differences were overlaid on cultural differences, turning culture wars into “a kind of class-culture” conflict. And second, “race” replaced abortion as the main critical issue that animates culture wars, as reflected in the ways in which progressives speak about them. These are ominous signs for Hunter:

I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides. Obviously, on January 6, we not only saw an act of violence – I mean, talk about a transgression

– but one that the people who were involved were capable of justifying. That’s an extraordinary thing . . . the argument I made [in the book that followed Culture Wars] was that culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence. And I think that’s where we are. The climatological indications are pretty worrisome.

Regrettably, it is not only the Right which is invested in this business model.