This Radicalism of fools has consistently argued that identity politics and Islamism are two important influences on contemporary anti-Semitism. Having considered Islamism at relative length last week I want to return to the woke worldview.
Susan Neiman’s Left is not Woke (Polity 2003) is a good place to return to the topic. As well as developing a critique of woke ideas she provides some insights into anti-Semitism along the way.
In the book’s first paragraph she says she is happy to be called a leftist and a socialist. Yet, as the book’s title suggests, she does not see woke as either of those things. On the contrary, she argues that, despite its radical style, it is typically deeply conservative in content.
Her concerns are the philosophical ideas that are central to a leftist viewpoint. Economic debates or discussions or inequality are not within its purview.
Neiman, an American moral philosopher based in Germany, identifies three ways in which the woke movement is not genuinely leftist. First, authentic leftism is committed to universalism rather than what she calls tribalism but others might refer to as identity politics. Second, she argues that genuine leftists are committed to a firm distinction between just and power. Finally, the genuine left, as opposed to the woke, believes in the possibility of progress.
I should point out here that Brendan O’Neill covered these areas in a podcast interview with Neiman that is well worth listening to. However, the treatment here is substantially different. That is mainly because there is a more of a focus on her treatment of topics related to anti-Semitism and Israel. These are themes she refers to several times in her book.
Neiman defines woke in the following terms. She says it begins with concern for marginalised persons and ends by reducing each to their prism of marginalisation. Although she does not put it in this way it could be framed as looking at the world from the perspective of victimhood.
She then goes on to argued it encourages people to focus on those part of their identities that are most traumatised. It emphasises the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice. It also demands that nations and peoples face up to what it sees as their criminal histories.
In relation to universalism she defines is as the conviction that, despite our differences, humans are deeply connected in numerous ways. She argues that today’s left often opposes it because it conflates it with fake universalism. For example, the claim that the Enlightenment is Eurocentric or that it sanctioned colonialism. Neiman argues that both charges are untrue.
She goes on to criticise the left’s support for tribalism over universalism. For instance, she opposes the race theories of Ibram X Kendi and the like.
Neiman then goes on to counter the argument that talk of justice is just a smokescreen for what moves the real world of power. She attacks thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault (who see describes as “the godfather of the woke left") Martin Heidegger and Max Horkheimer along these lines. In her view they see Enlightenment reason as a monster dedicated to subjugating nature and indigenous people. ( Adorno and Horkeimer, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, also drew a close link between the Enlightenment and the Holocaust).
Finally, she goes on to argue that the notion of progress is the deepest difference between left and right. She emphasises here that she does not mean technological progress. For the woke the attempt at a drive towards progress only leads to more sinister forms of oppression.
Neiman should be commended for trying to distinguish what historically counted as left from contemporary progressivism. Concepts such as universalism and progress should certainly be promoted and identity politics challenged.
Nevertheless there are several problems with her arguments. These are largely to do with her not sufficiently distancing herself from the woke world view.
The discussion of progress provides a clear example. Historically economic growth and technological progress were generally central to left wing thinking. Marx provides a clear example of this. Yet, Neiman, like the woke left, considers this unimportant or more likely harmful.
She also seems to endorse the apocalyptic way in which the discussion of climate change is typically discussed in woke circles. However, this is a key way in which ideas of progress are attacked nowadays. Progress is typically disparaged nowadays on the dubious grounds that it had caused a climate crisis.
Less straightforward is the discussion about what she calls anti-democratic nationalist movements. It seems to me that the principle of national sovereignty does not necessarily contradict the idea of universalism. It is possible to accept that the world is best organised around independent nation-states. In contrast, Neiman could argue, on reasonable grounds, the emphasis on nations is not a classical left wing view. She seems more comfortable with supranational organisations such as the European Union.
However this view is classified it has important consequences. Neiman, for example, is vehemently anti-Brexit whereas it seems to me to be an expression of national self-determination.
In relation to Israel her stance makes it easy to cast it as a chauvinist expression of identity politics. In contrast it seems to me to be an expression of self-determination, albeit one that takes a highly unusual form.
It is worth noting that from her starting point it would be easy to view the Palestinians are viewed as a cluster of individual victims. That is rather than as potential agents of their own national self-determination.
There are several other passages in which Neiman touches on the Jewish question. Her discussion of its relationship to Germany’s culture of remembrance (Erinnerungskultur) is particularly interesting. The debate revolves around how contemporary Germany should relate to its Nazi past.
However, here I want to focus on what I see as the most important point. She identifies the rabid anti-Semitism of two of the most sophisticated arch-conservative thinkers who are now often favoured by the woke: Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt. The latter even suggested that universalist concepts such as humanity were Jewish inventions designed to disguise particular Jewish interests.
Some aspects of the works of Heidegger and Schmitt do help give an insight into contemporary anti-Semitism. For them Jews were emblems of everything they hated in the world. In that they join many other thinkers in hating Jews not just as Jews but as symbols of what they considered evil.
Anyone who wants to challenge anti-Semitism needs to appreciate this point. In its fully developed form it is not a mere prejudice or a conspiracy theory. It is an outlook that sees Jews as symbolic of what it regards as broader evils. For Heidegger and Schmitt these included modernity and universalism.
It is also notable that Schmitt evidently considered assimilated Jews worst of all. For him they were the true enemy. That shows that modern anti-Semitism is about far more than the hostility to the Jewish religion. Even atheists of Jewish origin are evil in the anti-Semitic worldview.
Despite some questionable takes Left is not Woke is a key reading for anyone who wants to understand contemporary politics. It also gives some important insights into anti-Semitism.
· For a contrasting approach to woke, more political than philosophical, I recommend Joanna Williams’ How Woke Won (2022). Her 2023 lecture on “freedom in the age of identity politics” is also well worth listening to.