The revolution is the point.
The Deification of the Woke Self
We call them Marxists, but they have rejected collectivism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago did not precipitate the destruction of Marxist energies; rather, it caused them to adopt new survival strategies in accordance with changes in the environment. What took place was not an “end of history” but simply another step in the dialectical process: a thesis and an antithesis collided, producing a synthesis. The thesis was Western Christianity and individual autonomy, and the antithesis was materialist, collectivist Marxism. Their synthesis is the Wokeism that bedevils us today.
That this new ideology is quasi-religious in nature has already been widely observed. Wokeism is sometimes described as Christianity, except without forgiveness or redemption. As Robert Nisbet observed, socialist Bertrand Russell summed up Marxism “as follows: dialectical materialism is God; Marx the Messiah; Lenin and Stalin the apostles; the proletariat the elect; the Communist Party the Church; Moscow the seat of the Church; the Revolution the Second Coming; the punishment of capitalists Hell; Trotsky the Devil; and the communist commonwealth Kingdom Come.”
But if religion is the opiate of the masses, then Wokeism is their methamphetamine—a new, cheap, and highly addictive form of Marxism. What, then, about the dichotomy of individualism and collectivism? On the right, we dismiss the Woke Left’s economics as “Bolshevik” or “socialist.” But Wokeists are more focused on racial, sexual, and gender identity groups than they are on economic classes and their eternal struggle. The Woke seek to redistribute wealth, but only enough to repair the historical injustice of racist oppression—it’s not clear that they would mind having a rich overclass lording it over dispossessed whites. This shift from class to racial consciousness has been accounted for as a mere rearrangement of the furniture that does not alter the underlying ideology. But this assumption is mistaken.
In swapping identity groups for economic groups, the modern Left substituted individualism for collectivism. Of course, collectivist, group-oriented rhetoric remains in vogue. But what determines membership in this era’s protected groups? Is it the actual fact of having this or that immutable characteristic or “lived experience”; or is it the individual’s act of self-identification? For gender and sexual orientation, it is undeniably the latter: in the minds of the Woke, thinking makes it so. Identifying (“I identify as”) takes precedence over simply being (“I am”). The latter formulation subordinates the individual to the group category. This is collectivism. The former is preferable because through it, the group category becomes a valuable accessory to the individual who can wield it, a potent weapon in the ongoing war for social and political power that supposedly undergirds all human interaction. This is Wokeism. Understood another way, what was once “I am a part of this group” has become “this group is a part of me.”
The use of identity language serves as a kind of self-deification. Like the God of Genesis, whose creative instrument is the Logos, the Woke speak things into being (at least in their own imaginations). “God said x; therefore, x was” is readily analogized to “I identify as x; therefore, I am x.” Whereas Christianity arose in opposition to the pagan decadence of one man’s self-deification (“a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”), we now have millions of self-anointed woke deities to contend with. In this light, the explosion in transgenderism among today’s teenage girls, cited by Abigail Shrier and others, is no wonder. Who would refuse all the praise, sacrifice, genuflection, and moral license that Olympus once received?
How does this play out in the real world? Look no further than Canadian Bill C-16, by which “gender nonconforming people” are invited to deputize the power of the State in order to compel the speech of others. The same dynamic is at play with regard to the push for cash reparations for slavery, the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Supreme Court battles, and many other examples. As Spencer Klavan has recently pointed out, the goal of the Left is to align the might of the State with its own spiritual aims. But the religion in question is not merely that of social justice. Beneath the surface, it is the worship of the Self, each individual her own little deity, demanding penance and contrition.
This has proven difficult for the Right to recognize because, with all our libertarianism, we thought we had exclusive rights to individualist doctrine. But whereas the Right’s economic individualism has been, for the most part, tempered by Judeo-Christian morality structures that limit the self, the Left’s new spirituality is characterized by its removal of limitations on the individual. Whereas the West’s idea of individual sovereignty grants each individual rule over the kingdom of his person and property, Wokeism encourages the transgression of these and many other natural borders, celebrating the annexation of neighboring territories, provided, of course, that the aggressors belong to a protected identity group. Invasion can be averted by accepting the terms of this theocracy.
What to do? How to win? Know the Woke aren’t Marxists. They are no longer materialists or collectivists. The incessant Marxist epithet seems to mostly serve our impulse of self-satisfaction, because it connotes a failed ideological system. But, having won virtually no significant cultural battles for at least a half century, the Right is no position to be satisfied by its impulses or satisfied with itself. Perhaps that recognition will help reveal that the Woke, having abandoned all but the trappings of collectivism, have hijacked individualism and driven it to its logical conclusion: the self is a god. Any political culture that depends on an individualism of degrees will prove unpersuasive by comparison.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.