Woke: Collectivist or Individualist?
A short debate
A while ago reader Charles Pincourt contacted me with some thoughts on the nature of the “Woke” revolution and its challenge to liberalism and civilization. I found that we disagreed in ways that made for an interesting discussion, so we decided to turn the conversation into a mini-debate series of short essays for you all, below. Charles views Woke – through the lens of Friedrich Hayek – as a radically collectivist threat to classical liberalism, while I suggest Woke is instead better viewed as radically individualist, and a product of liberalism itself. This is an important distinction, because it will necessarily shape how we ought to best respond to the challenge. Let us know your own view in the comments!
Charles Pincourt is the author, with James Lindsay, of Counter Wokecraft: A Field Manual for Combatting the Woke in the University and Beyond. He writes on Substack at The Woke Dissident Newsletter, and tweets @wokedissident.
Charles Pincourt: Woke is a Collectivist Ideology
In the Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek describes the illiberal nature of totalitarian regimes using the Soviet Union and the Third Reich as iconic examples. When the book was written in the mid-1940s these regimes were (and continue to this day to be) considered antithetical to one another on account of where they fell on the political spectrum. Hayek, however, explains that the regimes were much more alike than they were different. What they had in common, and what characterized them more profoundly, was that they were collectivist regimes. The common and most defining feature of collectivist systems according to Hayek is the “deliberate organization of the labors of society for a definite social goal.” What distinguishes different collectivist regimes is the “nature of the goal to which they want to direct the efforts of society.” That collectivist systems seek to organize the “labors of society” towards a singular goal leads them to an “all-overriding desire to give the group the maximum of power to achieve these ends.” This implies a moral or ethical system that places the one goal above all other competing, and thereby subordinate, goals. As a result, the “ends justify the means” “becomes necessarily the supreme rule” to reach the societal goal.
As a result, Communism and National Socialism were not antithetical to each other. They were, rather, the same system albeit with different “definite goals.” The true antithesis to both these systems, and to collectivist systems more broadly for Hayek, is liberalism. To Hayek, liberalism is defined by an inclination towards the individual – and indeed all individuals – relative to the collective, and the many freedoms and negative rights this implies. These rights and freedoms (rights and freedoms that we expect and are accustomed to in the Anglosphere) include: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, and freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. The latter is particularly important since it harkens to another critical characteristic of liberalism: the rule of law. Hayek explains that, while often misunderstood and misconstrued, the rule of law is simply the principle that the law applies to all individuals equally, that all individuals are equal before the law, and, as importantly, that laws also apply to the state. It is typically easier to understand the liberal rule of law not through its definition, but through its ideal manifestation. Under the rule of law, individuals know how the state will act in any circumstance, and that the state will act in the same way towards all individuals. If an individual breaks a law, they know what the consequences will be. As important, the individual knows what the state will not do, e.g. arbitrarily violate their fundamental freedoms.
It would be easy to think that this all sound like ancient history, no longer relevant almost 80 years after the fall of the Third Reich and 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thinking this way is wrong and could be catastrophic. We are now living in a time where a contemporary collectivist movement has obtained control of almost all elite institutions, including the executive branch, the Senate, the legacy media, our universities, and the most influential corporate boardrooms. That collectivist movement is known by the name, of course, of “Woke.”
Unlike the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, Woke currently has two “definite goals:” Identitarianism and radical Environmentalism. Identitarianism seeks to retributively redistribute resources from so-called oppressor to so-called oppressed identities. Environmentalism, meanwhile, seeks to eliminate the so-called environmental impact that humans have on the natural world irrespective of the impact on humans themselves.
These two definite goals are both necessarily collectivist. The Identitarian collectivist strain relies on categories into which individuals are placed and which are ranked along an oppressor-oppressed continuum. The categories are used to justify whether resources or opportunities should be provided to, or denied, members of the different categories. Environmental collectivism starts from an assumption that individuals will not, on their own, behave to sufficiently reduce or eliminate their production of various environmental pollutants or effects, such as greenhouse gas emissions. That people will not on their own behave appropriately justifies increasingly invasive and restrictive collective coercion.
While on the face of it the definite goals seem very different, the two collectivist movements have found common cause in their desire to accumulate power to organize “the labors of society for a [their] definite social goal.” Increasingly this is done through the subordination of individual freedoms. This is seen in the contemporary Anglosphere informally, and more ominously and increasingly, formally, through legislation or the administrative state.
Informally, the subordination of individual freedoms such as those of speech and conscience is observed daily around the Anglosphere. People are publicly shamed, “canceled,” lose their livelihoods, etc. for expressing views contrary to the diktats of Woke collectivism. Moreover, Woke collectivists find evidence for insufficient progress towards ever-more fine-grained indicators of their definite goals. The response to this is to find more and more ways to subordinate personal freedoms and the rule of law to achieve these goals. Identitarians advocate, enshrine, implement, and legislate different forms of affirmative action whose goal is to ensure that people are treated unequally according to their group identities. Radical environmentalists, on the other hand, try everything from banning plastic bags, to replacing automobile with bicycle lanes, to setting automobile emissions standards that are only achievable by electric vehicles.
As noted by Hayek, the most notorious past examples of collectivist regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) were characterized by singular definite goals: Nazi Germany with German “racial” supremacy and the USSR with communism. The current Woke collectivist movement on the other hand is characterized by the competing Identitarian and Environmentalist streams. Given the collectivist orientations of both these movements, one wonders whether their coalition can be maintained. Should Woke collectivism continue to gain more control over the levers of power in the West then, given the different definite goals of these two movements, won’t there eventually and necessarily be a conflict between them? The answer seems obviously to be yes, therefore begging the question: “which would win?”
While both streams of Woke collectivism are fanatical, they don’t appear to be equally so. For example, while questioning the narrative of apocalyptic human-induced climate change may result in a Twitter storm and the loss of current or future research funding, there are no cases of tenured professors being fired for such Environmental Woke-heretical views. The same is not true for those challenging Identitarian doctrines – indeed most cases of tenured professors or other high-profile cases of being fired seem to be due to Identitarian transgressions.
Similarly, both streams of Woke collectivism are able to co-opt almost any domain, although not to the same extent. Environmental collectivism does this to almost any area of enquiry through the adoption of the word “sustainable”: from sustainable investing to sustainable architecture. Likewise, Identitarian collectivism is able to subordinate any discipline with the word “justice” such as corporate justice or educational justice. Importantly, however, while Identitarian collectivism has been able to subordinate Environmental collectivism through the term “environmental justice,” the opposite is not true – there is no racial environmentalism.
Both of these examples point to a more effective, extreme, and ruthless militancy that Identitarian collectivism appears able and willing to impose upon unbelievers. As a result, if I had to make a bet, I would put my money on Identitarian collectivism as the winner in a face-off with Environmental collectivism. That collectivist movements seem to coalesce around one definite goal, suggests that an impending clash may soon be at hand.
Personally, I am against collectivism in any form, be it Identitarian, Environmental, or Cuddly Stuffed Animal collectivism. At the same time, the most threatening collectivist strain currently appears to be Identitarian collectivism. Given the power that the Woke collectivist coalition now has, it needs to be fought and overcome if we are to keep our society free. If we are unable to, we may very well end up living under an Identitarian collectivist regime – only this time it will not be called National Socialism.
N.S. Lyons: Woke is Individualist
Charles, I find your classification of racial idenitarianism and radical environmentalism as the two competing “pillars” of “Woke” to be particularly interesting, and want to hone in on that. This is because I think this classification misidentifies the true competing forces among the Woke, and in doing so accidentally elides its true origin and character, and therefore the broader nature of the challenge to our societies. Obviously this diagnosis is important to get right because the answer will structure how we should respond.
To me, the existing internal divide among the Woke doesn’t appear to be between identitarian racialism and environmentalism (the latter of which notably long predates Wokeism and seems to have simply agglomerated itself to Woke via common association among the people involved in Progressive political movements). Instead the obvious divide seems to clearly be between the two big camps of Race and Trans. You have not touched on transgenderism above at all, but it has become by far the most visible and aggressive aspect of Woke radicalism today other than “anti-racism” (and indeed today seems to have even have surpassed it). But whereas racialism is, I agree, collectivist in nature (though perhaps is more specifically described as a tribalist), the trans craze is not. Rather, it is a manifestation of an out-of-control hyper-individualism.
Trans ideology asserts that an inner psychological “self” is not only a but the only legitimate and authoritative judge of truth and reality. The authority of the self is then asserted as superior over all external claims, whether social or biological. Even the material reality of the body itself is seen only as a form of unjust oppression, an artificial limit imposed on the full sovereignty and “freedom” of the self and its desires that must be overcome through “liberation.” Moreover, the “true identity” of the self (whether conceived of as fixed or fluid) is taken to be so unimpeachable that it can justifiably be imposed externally, in the form of demands for total acceptance and affirmation from others, whose own sovereignty is necessarily seen as subservient to the true self (me). Indeed trans ideology’s central demand is that, for the sake of justice, the world must conform to the will, rather than the will to the world. In this, transgenderism is the ultimate expression of a centering of the individual will to power – and, arguably, of “identitarianism” in a larger sense: of making one’s inner “identity” the cornerstone of reality. But, again, this identitarianism is radically individualist, not collectivist.
Obviously this is all in direct contradiction with the narrative of the racialist camp: their position is that fundamental identity is determined by the biological (skin color and ethnicity), and that identity is immutable and unchangeable precisely for this reason. Those who have tried to import the trans paradigm to the racial sphere – e.g. all those white people who pretend to be black or indigenous while claiming that this is who they “truly are on the inside” – have so far been met only with acute hostility. These two tribes of the Woke are united only through the doctrine of intersectionality (co-identification of the “white cis-heteronormative” as shared oppressor and enemy to be overthrown).
If I had to pick one of these two positions as the more likely to “win” and come to dominate the direction of Wokeism moving forward (though this is unnecessary), I might actually pick trans over race. Racialism is ultimately a cynical grift, an attempt to redistribute resources, power, and status; trans is a religion. Minority racialism is at least somewhat limited in potential scale by the presence, size, and resentment of minority populations (though these have been sufficient to nonetheless make it terribly destructive); in comparison, the offer the trans cult holds out is universal: “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
The core feature of Wokeism is really the narcissism of “the self without limit,” made possible by complete faith in Progress, the malleability of both Nature and Man, and ultimately man’s ability to fully control, organize, and manage reality as if he were a god (thus producing equity and social justice, i.e. heaven on earth). In other words it encapsulates all the most defining characteristics of our modern age. I believe this should raise some uncomfortable questions for what might be called the “liberal theory of Woke.” For what is the true origin of Woke? Was it some outside anti-liberal force? Or was it really Enlightenment liberalism itself that gave birth to its own successor ideology? I am inclined to see it as the latter. The progressive liberation of the individual self from limits is after all that which puts the lib in liberalism.
So while I wouldn’t disagree that Woke often functions practically as a collectivist ideology, I would point out that this is a reactive instinct. Woke is a product of the world liberalism made: a world of atomized hyper-individuals, liberated from every authority but the inner self and its will to power; for whom every higher authority outside the self has been torn down, and every social norm, duty, responsibility, or unchosen bond to a community beyond the individual destroyed. But in such a wasteland, individuals (still being human) crave nothing more than community and connection, and meaning, and so they seek it – with no authority or inherited guidance or structure (for such things are considered illiberal) – and increasingly find it in toxic, moralistic, pseudo-religious collectives like the Woke movement.
Note well that the cries for “justice” and “sustainability” that you rightly identify as the magic invocations wielded by the Woke both reflect a deep (even existential) sense of alienation; this is no coincidence, for today increasingly we are all alienated from anything beyond ourselves. Meanwhile there is only one entity, one Potemkin community still standing and ready (and very happy) to gather together and embrace all these atomized and alienated individuals, and to flatter, affirm, protect, and provide for all their anxieties and desires: the managerial state. Its growth and that of the atomized modern self proceed hand-in-hand, for there is no other form of authoritative community remaining. And who created this wasteland of deracinated alienation, narcissistic self-worship, and wrecked authority that has led to the Woke total state? Perhaps here Hayek and the libertarians deserve to be put in the hot seat to sweat a while.
What is the way out of Woke? Would a radical reassertion of the individual over the collective do the trick? No, I think clearly not. This can only drive us deeper into the abyss. For the libertarian approach simply cannot provide the kind of robust community, meaning, and direction that people are increasingly lacking and desperate for, and for which they are drawn to totalitarian ideological movements like the Woke. Nor can libertarianism provide strong communities capable of serving as an intermediary force between people and state, counter-balancing the managerial state’s authority and limiting centralization and eventually totalization. Instead libertarianism can only accelerate social breakdown and atomization. This has always been its most fatal, self-destructive flaw.
It is easy to assume that the solution to mass group-think is to champion the individual, but unfortunately it’s not that straightforward. Only an individual buffered and fortified by robust communities, social frameworks, and authorities like inherited tradition and religious faith will be strong enough to truly function as what we think of as a self-governing individual. Otherwise, exposed in the open and under bombardment, he will rush for the safety of the collective herd, and the state.
So, if we want to defeat it, we’d be much better off if we accept the truth: Woke is individualist.
Charles Pincourt: Trans is Woke, but Woke Isn’t Just Trans
My understanding of your response is as follows: Racial Identitarianism could perhaps be considered collectivist, although tribal would be a better label. Environmental Collectivism predates Woke so cannot be Woke itself. Woke is best typified in “Trans” (which you identify as an omission from my analysis). Trans is the logical endpoint of individualist liberalism/libertarianism. Woke is therefore individualist. I will use this as my jumping-off point.
First, I mostly agree with your analysis of the origins of Trans. I agree for example that it is an almost natural or necessary evolution from liberalism. At the same time, I would say it’s an evolution from a particular form of liberalism – a morally unhinged liberalism, or extreme (heretical?) libertarianism. The distinction is important and reflects the difference between Classical Liberalism and libertarianism. Classical Liberalism is a less extreme form of libertarianism that is also characterized by a Christian moral underpinning. This Christian moral underpinning is often dismissed or ignored but remains at its center through axioms such as natural rights. Siedentop is excellent on this, and, to paraphrase Yoram Hazony, even Jefferson, in order for his declaration to make sense, had to include that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” He had to hold them to be self-evident because in fact, outside of (Judeo-) Christendom, they were not self-evident at all. Framers of the constitution like John Adams recognized a (Christian) morality was necessary for the constitution to be successful. Even Hayek’s Classical Liberalism explicitly emphasized the importance of traditions and cultural norms.
I bring this up for two reasons. The first is that while I do juxtapose Wokeism with liberalism, I mean to juxtapose it to Classical Liberalism and not libertarianism, which I think are different, and different in a meaningful way. That is, I think you can have individuals and individual rights and freedoms while at the same time being harnessed and guided by a Christian morality. In fact, I think this has been demonstrably successful. The second reason I bring it up, is that the inspiration for the essay wasn’t Hayek’s view of liberalism – it was his view of collectivism. Reading the Road to Serfdom, his description of collectivism feels so contemporary – like it could have been written today instead of eighty years ago – that I think it can be used to describe and analyze Wokeism.
This brings me to your interpretation of my having omitted a discussion of Trans in my essay while concentrating on racial identitarianism. I actually never use the term racial identitarianism, and in fact intended Woke identitarianism to include Trans (as well sex- and sexual identirianisms). Clearly, Trans is rooted in an unhinged individualism (even in Existentialism, where “existence precedes essence”). That said, while Trans is only possible through an Existential and individualistic assertion, it is typically done as a means to create, and be associated with, a Trans identity – an identity placed almost by definition onto the continuum of oppression, and typically as one of the most oppressed. So, while one’s sex is said to be determined by individual fiat, the important point is that it allows entry into an identity. Even more importantly is that once that identity has been adopted, and if that identity is oppressed, its metaphysical status is taken under the wing of Identitarian Collectivism. Freedom of expression or conscience can be taken away from anyone questioning whether it is right to hire someone because of the sex they claim to be, the color of their skin, or what is between their legs. As a result, Trans fits relatively neatly (albeit not quite as neatly as race) into an identitarian analysis. A final point to draw from this is that Identitarian Collectivism is a (“rainbow”) coalition of identities that includes Trans, so that while Trans is Woke, Woke is not just Trans.
The last point relates to Environmental Collectivism. I don’t agree that it predates Wokeism, this is because I’ve become increasingly aware of the long historical roots of Wokeism. What we call Wokeism was predated by its previous iteration “political correctness” in the 1990s and political correctness itself was predated a generation before by the New Left. The New Left was composed of both an identitarian vein and an environmental vein and the two veins have been operating symbiotically since. (Think of hippies reading Silent Spring on their way to Montgomery.) I used to think of Woke as primarily identitarian, but the correlation of beliefs between identitarians and environmentalists seems so high that the movements for some reason appear to see themselves as compatible and symbiotic. One way to think about this connection is to ask yourself what you thought someone would think about climate change if you knew they supported affirmative action. The example par excellence of this is Alexandra Occasio-Cortez (D-NY) with her identitarian fanaticism and support for the Green New Deal.
To summarize, I agree with your diagnosis of Trans. Where I diverge from your perspective is that while Trans is rooted in a hyper-individualism, this hyper-individualism is ironically absorbed into an identitarianism and then protected by Identitarian Collectivism. As a result, I think that while hyper-individualism can explain the rise of Trans (and non-binariness, sexual-fluidity, etc.) I don’t think the entirety of Wokeism can be. Moreover, Identitarian Collectivism has been travelling hand-in-hand with Environmental Collectivism since the hippies, thereby creating the pillars of contemporary Wokeism. Both pillars are willing to use almost any means necessary to impose their “definite goals” at the expense of the freedoms argued for through Classical Liberalism. So I’m afraid I still think Woke is collectivist.
N.S. Lyons: Radical Individualism Produced a Radical Reaction
I would certainly agree that an assumed universal Christian moral foundation seems to have been what allowed classical liberalism to function as a workable system for the centuries that it lasted. I’d therefore suggest that the logical conclusion about what is happening now is that this foundation has been so completely eroded that, in its absence, liberalism is now collapsing in on itself. But I would point out that it was liberalism itself that eroded away – “liberated” us from – that pre-liberal foundation in the first place.
I’d also note that I am quite sceptical of the argument that, by virtue of its moderation, classical liberalism is somehow the “true liberalism,” while “libertarianism” is deformed by its comparative extremism into something different from liberalism. As far as I’m concerned, if something becomes more purely and completely itself (that is, more “extreme”), it cannot be said to have changed its nature into something different. Rather the original compound – in this case what we call “classical liberalism” – was in itself a product of its character as a mixed or diluted thing. Originally it contained and was moderated by non-liberal elements. It then became more and more liberal precisely as it became less and less classical.
But I suppose this is getting a bit off topic. I think your identification of trans, sexual, and other minority identities as groups that people “join” in order to gain membership in a quasi-tribal collective to be insightful and quite clearly correct. Though I would say that this only occurs because of the state of atomization such people find themselves in as individuals. Those people most adrift, alone, and exposed, are the ones most primed to run to these toxic identity groups for shelter, protection, and some kind of organizing structure for the psyche. And this state of atomization is, again, created by radical individualism – this is a reaction by liberal individuals to the reality of liberal individualism.
I would suggest, however, that we have managed to arrive at a productive conclusion here from slightly different directions: perhaps we can agree that if such identitarian collectives are dangerous – which obviously I think we can – and that we want people to avoid joining these collectives en masse, then we’re probably going to have to try, one way or another, to reconstruct at least some of the moral and psychological foundations that once successfully undergirded classical liberalism for so long.