Towards a Class Analysis of the Woke Movement

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Michel Bauwens:

Here are some preliminary notes about the meaning of the emergence of the woke movement in the US and elsewhere.

I define the woke movement as a social movement that:

  • Claims to want to end unequal power dynamics and the end of oppression and privilege by majority groups towards minority groups, with the main privileged groups believed to be white males, who prop the unjust domination of the West
  • Claims that to obtain this equality, we must practice equity, i.e. a form of systematic reverse discrimination of resources so that the oppressed groups can appropriate their right share of resources, principally through antiracist activity. Resources must be unequally divided with a preference for the oppressed groups.
  • Claims that the primary determinant of human life and one’s position in the social order, depends on group membership, which largely determine individual identity and the course of life.
  • Claims the moral high ground and practices moral outrage as one of its principal activist tactics; calls for censorship and denunciations/cancellations are the most common tactic to obtain ideological hegemony.

The movement originated as one of the outcomes of postmodern teachings in academia, through the mediation of Critical Race Theory, and its social origination is in the youth strata of the elite universities, i.e. the children of the most privileged strata of the population, allied with the professional strata of minority groups. It is also supported by the cognitive urban strata of the population, especially the post-millennial generational cohort.

The aims of the movement are massively supported by the 1) ‘diversity and inclusion’ bureaucracy’ and administrations of US universities, corporations and federal institutions (particularly HR sectors but extended to all forms of administrative leadership); 2) massive funding by philanthro-capitalism and corporate leaderships (‘woke capitalism’); 3) the political leadership of ‘progressive neoliberalism’; 4) the mainstream mass media.

The above sociological orientation does not suggest that it has any characteristic of traditional emancipatory movements, which are generally supported by working class populations. Moreover, its political demands have immediate and obvious effects that are hugely detrimental to the poorer populations of all genders and races. Their demands favour the elite and upwardly mobile sections of minority populations. Many of its tactics are hugely reminiscent of the reactionary social movements of the 1930s (deplatforming and cancellation of political dissent, desire for caste-based allocation and organization of society, racial scapegoating), although there are obvious differences in its sociological basis. What is common is a conjucture of societal 'descent', creating populations that fear social regress, which generally does not create 'progressive' aims and outcomes. Historically, progressivism is mostly associated with populations that can believe in betterment, while reactionary movements emerge from population groups that have experienced or fear loss.

So here is my attempt to explain its emergence at this particular historical conjuncture.

Global capitalism has entered a downward spiral of systemic crises that has hampered its ability to satisfy the desire of populations for material betterment; this is especially so in the Western countries, which have since the 1980s sacrificed their own working classes to enable globalization.

Originally, the neoliberal compact of the 80s, which replaced the social welfare compact after WWII, was based on an alliance of the ruling classes with the new identity politics, i.e the cultural changes demanded by the youth cohorts that fought the 1968 revolutions, and the subsequent demands for egalitarian civil rights by racial minorities, women, sexual practice minorities, etc …, while simultaneous de-industrialising the West to eliminate working class power and demands. This led to huge advances in civil rights, to systemic anti-discrimination practices in institutions, and to the growth of a upwardly mobile middle class emerging from these minorities, though at the detriment of the stagnation or decline of working class wages.

But as of 2003, resource prices stopped their downward trend and started augmenting, and in 2008, the global financial crisis occurred, seriously affecting the redistributional capacity of the state, which is actually bankrupting itself to keep the financial and corporate institutions afloat. Neoliberal leaderships such as those of Obama, resulted in such quite systematic choices in favour of the saving the financial elite, at the cost of minorities and working classes (see the housing policies of Obama, which particularly affected the housing stock of the African-American population).

In particular, upward educational mobility was seriously affected, creating a generation riddled with student debt, and with very precarious prospects. This is particularly the case for minority students which saw their upward mobility endangered.

In such a conjuncture, social and economic prospects become not only negative, but can be seen as a zero sum game; psychological and sociological uncertainty leads to identity issues and a search for protective communities that can take various forms:

1) traditional left-wing urban populism, as represented by Sanders

2) ethno-nationalistic re-identification with the nation state, as represented by Trump

3) identitarian politics, as represented by the woke movement.

  • Option 1 is the most hated by the elites, since it requires substantial distribution of resources towards the working (and non-working) poor;
  • option 2 has become attractive to rural populations, small business holders and the native working class and this movement gave us Trump; but to a substantial degree, Trump represents giving up Empire to save the Nation, which is contrary to the neoliberal choice of giving up the Nation for the sake of Empire. Trump represents a rival alliance than the current neoliberal compact.
  • And this is what makes option 3 so attractive to the elite. Option 3 represents a new compact of the elites, to make hard a new redistribution of the spoils with the upwardly mobile minorities, but at the cost of sacrificing the working poor of all genders and colours.

It is the cheapest option, that allows the ruling elites

1) to maintain what they can of the Empire by expanding its social base with new middle class representation;

2) to avoid more massive egalitarian redistribution.

Giving the alliance of minority elites a stake in the system creates a new sociological compact, and expands elite buy-in, creating a bulwark against majority demands that are much more dangerous and costly.

This explanation reconciles both the elite-origination of the movement, and its substantial support by the ruling elites.

It creates the question: what is the right emancipatory response to this challenge ?

Answering this requires a follow-up article, and it involves adding commons-centric strategies, as the old labor-centric strategies are no longer working to obtain political majorities.

More information

For more details, see our analysis of Woke Ideology.