What’s Left — and what’s Woke?

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What’s Left — and what’s Woke?

Tony Blair, Keir Starmer and Susan Neiman

Sir Tony Blair’s message to Sir Keir Starmer in today’s Sunday Times includes the following advice: “Avoid vulnerability on wokeism.” During the last decade, within the vocabulary of political abuse, the word “Woke” leaked into the word “Left”.  This was partly because both words have fluid meanings.  But it was also an example of the Right’s skilful manipulation of language.  On 13 November 2023 Rishi Sunak appointed Esther McVey, MP for Tatton, Minister without Portfolio — an appointment widely understood as “Minister for Culture Wars”, rooting out “wokery” and pinning it on the Left.

Like so many words, “Woke” migrated from the USA. It originated in a call in a 1938 song by folk and blues singer Lead Belly, protesting at the conviction of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape, to “stay woke” to racism.  That call to be “woke”, or awake, to the persistence of racism, was powerfully renewed by Black Lives Matter in 2013, after the acquittal of a police officer who had fatally shot an unarmed seventeen-year-old African American.  In 2020, during mainly peaceful protests at the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Black Lives Matter movement brought some 20 million Americans onto the street.  Protest soon spread to other countries and the word “woke” travelled with them.

By contrast, “Left” as a political identifier has been around a long time.  Its meaning has had 250 years to change from its origins in the choice of seats in the French National Assembly during the early days of the French Revolution to now naming a broad spectrum of political positions that share a commitment to social justice, a fair economy and internationalism.  In short order, “Woke” mutated to become an expletive directed at the “Left” and at an ill-defined “elite”, which is accused of suppressing the common sense and language of “ordinary people”.

Like a fish bone stuck in the throat, the UK had its Empire as well its slave trade, lodged in its national memory.  It did not take long before accusations of woke were made against anyone challenging the normative story of Empire, bringing law and civilisation, or dwelling on the violence of imperial expansion and colonialism. In universities the noise of battle rolled over trimmed lawns and across seminar rooms.  Even the National Trust came under fire for starting to provide information about slavery in properties where it was deemed relevant.

The political landscape of the Left, of course, had also been changing.  The supposed triumph of neo-liberalism after the ending of the Cold War reduced the ambition of the Left to achieving slow incremental change.   A rightward slide gained pace as economies stagnated and inequality grew.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman, in her book Left Is Not Woke (Polity 2023), makes much of the Left having swallowed whole the pessimistic writing of the French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault and of his fatalistic impact on woke thinking.  Foucault’s critical writings about justice as a chimera and power as the determining reality became key university texts.  Moving out beyond the universities, the take-away, Foucault for the masses, was that trying to make things better is most likely to make things worse, feeding into a general loss of hope in progress.  Behind any Enlightenment objective truth lay concealed a subtle exercise of power, rendering an impoverished majority powerless.

There was, of course, a reaction.  In the words of the celebrated Left-wing French economist, Thomas Piketty: “When people are told there is no credible alternative to the socioeconomic organisation and class inequality that exist today, it is not surprising that they invest their hopes in defending their borders and identities instead.”

According to Left Is Not Woke, what the Left and woke share is “empathy for the marginalised, indignation at the plight of the oppressed, determination that historical wrongs should be righted”. These are virtuous emotions.   But emotions, as Hamlet’s replied when Polonius asked what he was reading, are expressed in “words, words, words”.  Or, sometimes, in expressive acts like pulling down statues.  And both the woke and their opponents certainly focus on words.  In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch had to make a grovelling public apology because, whilst supporting the cause of black actors, he had used the word “coloured”, not black.  “Action, not words”, as the Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer, said in his first press conference.  As Neiman tartly points out, changing your pronouns is no substitute for changing your society.

Virtuous emotions, such as empathy, have proved no match for an — excluding — nationalist or ethnic consciousness.  The Left absorbed a kind of exclusive collective identity that inadvertently magnified tribalism — Nieman’s word.  But anyone’s identity is so much richer and broader than can be captured in a single word, such as black, female, Jewish or even French.  With the best of intentions, people are lumped together as the marginalised, as victims, rather than as individuals with a range of opinions, tastes, and sentiments.  They have every reason to say – as I have once had said to me — “sometimes I just wish I could be me, not the Muslim woman with a hijab”.   And tragically, we have seen where victimhood as an integral part of Arab/Muslim or Jewish identity can take you in Israel or Palestine.

Getting the right balance between the “we” and the “I” for the common good, is as important to the Left as it is to those neo-liberals who sometimes seem to share some of the Left’s values.   Exclusive emphasis on national, ethnic, religious and gender identity, cherished components of diversity, risks forgetting the diversity of individuals’ character, integrity and skills which matter, not least in political life.  For every diverse Obama government — not of course without its mistakes — there is an equally diverse Truss Cabinet, promoting, in Neiman’s words, “the most extreme Tory policies in living memory”.

Cancel culture is an unfortunate consequence of woke in action.  Aiming to further the common good through sensitivity to people’s feelings and respect for their dignity, one result has been a damaging climate of self-censorship.  But we all need a shared understanding of what and why certain language is offensive, and of the difference between unintentional and intentional offense.  And we all need to discuss matters that are contentious and sensitive, and not be blackmailed into silence for fear of offending.

Each of us belongs to a tribe as well as to so much more.   And whatever nationality or origins, whether Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, male or female, we do, say and write things for many more reasons than being members of a tribe.  With a new centre-Left government now tackling the grave problems facing the UK — and found in both the USA and Europe — what kind of society the Left stands for needs to be explored and discussed without fear.  The analysis of Woke, bravely attempted by Susan Nieman, is a good start.

 

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 56%
  • Interesting points: 67%
  • Agree with arguments: 57%
48 ratings - view all

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