Tyler Cowen and the Woke Cold War

 “If there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?”

I can’t help but briefly comment on a piece that has recently been making some internet anger-waves, written by the well-known libertarian American economist Tyler Cowen and titled “Why Wokeism Will Rule the World.”

His essay is relatively long and touches on multiple subjects, so you should read the whole thing, but the core message boils down to a simple line of reasoning: that, despite being what the “decidedly un-woke” Cowen describes as a “stupid and inflexible” ideology, Wokeism (i.e. what I’ve called the New Faith) is a “winning” idea that is “underrated” in what it can offer the United States in terms of helping it spread American liberal values around the world.

In other words, given that “the woke are engaging in a much larger international arena,” the real question to ask is “whether the U.S. will be able to deploy this new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence.” Or rather, he muses, if Wokeism seems to provide an effective identity for “internationals of the progressive class,” then: “If there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?”

Fascinatingly, he quotes the British political philosopher John Gray that “Wokery is the successor ideology of neo-conservatism,” in terms of its relentless democracy promotion abroad and the general “glories of American cultural imperialism,” then asks: “Does that make you feel better or worse about Wokeism? I say better.”

What it comes down to, in his view, is that Wokeism will be pragmatically useful for the United States in terms of being “a way to keep people engaged” and essentially help smuggle American liberal values into their countries.

This is because:

“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.”

“Most of all,” he says, “Wokeism is a way of spreading ideas from a relatively feminized American culture to a world less supportive of women’s rights.” Which is positive because while “it doesn’t much matter who controls the English department at Oberlin College… it would be nice if the Saudis moved to allow more rights for women.”

And, sure, the French might grumble about how Wokeism is trashing their historical inheritance and tearing apart their society, “but even the un-woke among us might think Francophone society and culture could stand to be a little more woke” anyway, in terms of being less sexist and more pro-American. Besides, he is optimistic that “French culture and society will emerge just fine from this engagement with Wokeism.”

Ultimately, Cowen’s argument is to “view the spread of Wokeism as a net positive for the world” because “at the end of the day I think American culture is a healthy, democratizing, liberating influence, so I want to extend it.” And the best way to do that is to jump on the Woke Train:

“As the motivational speakers like to say, Winners win! And woke is right now one of America’s global winners. Part of what makes America great, and could help to make the rest of the world greater yet, is accepting a certain amount of semi-stupid, least-common-denominator culture.”

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There are of course a few things I could say about this.

The foremost obviously being: I told you so! This is Intersectional Imperialism and the Woke Cold War being rationalized as predicted – if in this case with a “pragmatic” (and very Washington D.C.) argument that is more imperial than intersectional.

So in one sense I agree with Cowen: “Wokeism” is definitely going global, having achieved a position of tremendous influence in the United States, the foreign policy establishment of which now sees it as the new American ideology du jour to foist on the rest of the world.

However, I think he makes at least three major errors.

The first is that he seems quite naïve about the nature of the New Faith, repeatedly conflating it here with classical liberalism and assuming that “Wokeism” will simply serve as a vector to spread the classical liberalism of free minds and free markets that he, as a libertarian, is so fond of. In other words he assumes it is just an especially young and radical version of liberalism that occasionally goes a bit overboard – rather than a revolutionary ideology that represents a systematic break with Enlightenment modernity and is in practice as much actively anti-liberal as it is anti-conservative.  

There is a wonderful Chinese idiom, qi hu nan xia, which means “once you’re riding a tiger, it’s hard to get off.” Cowen is here making the same mistake that so many of America’s elites have already made in thinking they can ride and control the Revolution, only to inevitably be devoured by it in the end. (He should check out the stated plan of his own university’s president to shape the institution into a “local, regional, and national beacon for the advancement of anti-racism” to see the teeth he’s probably headed for personally.)

The second error is to assume that the New Faith will actually improve America’s image and influence abroad. Suffice to say, I think the opposite is already happening. Even if we naturally leave aside the French as a lost cause, as UnHerd’s Ed West put it in his own write-up on Cowen’s piece, these days even “many British conservatives [are] starting to see [the U.S.] as the Great Satan.”

Finally, there is no reason to assume the Woke Revolution will actually have any effect in improving human rights in those places, like Saudi Arabia, that he is most hopeful it will. Those countries with strongly traditional cultures will probably just largely brush off woke ideas as baffling and alienating lunacy; it’s only in the less cohesive and self-confident, more liberalized/Americanized countries where the New Faith is likely to take hold (with a few added “rhetorical flourishes”). And when it does, the result is more likely to be societal fracture (with the occasional ethnic bloodbath) than a newfound love of women’s rights and supply-side economic policy.

Meanwhile, at time of writing President Biden just finished a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he declared that the U.S. is “not seeking – say it again, we are not seeking – a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.” But also that he was “not agnostic about the future we want for the world,” and that in a “new era of relentless diplomacy,” the United States “will champion the democratic values that go to the very heart of who we are as a nation and a people.” That included as his chosen example defending “the rights of LGBTQI individuals so they can live and love openly without fear, whether it’s Chechnya or Cameroon or anywhere.”

So I’m definitely still going to bet on the Woke Cold War going global. Contra Cowen, I just don’t think it’s going to work out that well for Western influence.