What is wokeness? It is the advocacy culture, or the tendency to advocate and promote this or that cause. The apparent intention of ‘wokeness’ or the advocacy culture is to deliver greater justice and equity to the citizenry or members of the social body. It seeks to do so by making constant demands upon society and the state so that they are transformed as per a ‘progressive’ agenda. However, irrespective of what it might ostensibly intend to achieve, we see that ‘wokeness’, as an attitude or approach towards the world, is generally characterized by eccentricity and, might I say, a lack of logic and reason. ‘Wokeness’ is, as I see, indiscriminate in finding ‘causes’ to fight for and relentless in nagging the state and undermining traditional social mores, all for the sake of a golden tomorrow. The temptation, thus, to dismiss ‘wokeness’ as so much tomfoolery unworthy of serious intellectual consideration might be strong. That will be an error though. As I shall try to establish in this piece, the assumptions that drive ‘wokeness’ are to be traced to the evolutionary course of liberal thought and its mutation, Marxism. I shall, as a result, term ‘wokeness’ a decayed and decadent version of the two.
I am not a political theorist by training. Looking at the origins of liberal thought as a lay person I feel that they lie in a paradigmatic re-imagination of sovereignty. In this sense, I shall contend that, as the liberal point of view emerged and evolved, it sought to recreate the state as per an agenda. What we today identify as the liberal outlook looked to ensure that the state ceases to be an agent of brute untrammeled force alone but, instead, becomes an instrument of social utility.
John Locke, arguably the earliest liberal prophet, for instance, delivered a detailed argument against royal absolutism in the seventeenth century. The gist of his position was that royal authority was not divinely ordained. As I understand, Locke reimagined the state, or the ‘commonwealth’ as he termed it, as an instrument of social utility, or an expedient creation. He argued that the commonwealth emerges when individuals merge their liberty and property in the social body. They do this, Locke thought, so that their rights to both are guaranteed.
Then again, Thomas Hobbes reimagined the state as an instrument of social utility. The implication of his argument too was that the commonwealth or the state originated as an expedient measure. Hobbes thought that the dominant human appetite is for power. He interpreted power as the liberty to do oneself good. Liberty, in turn, he explained as freedom from external interference. As famously put by him, since the struggle for power was constant in the state of nature, life was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. So, as imagined by him, people alienated some liberty to the state and created the commonwealth so that everyone enjoyed the same amount of liberty.
Coming after Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham argued that human life is dominated by two driving forces – pleasure and pain. He then went on to propound his doctrine of ‘utility’ or greater happiness on the premise that it is best promoted by acts which bring about pleasure. Hence, he thought that the purpose of legislation was to punish acts which cause pain. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Rousseau sought to find the grounds from which sovereignty could be contested. Civil society, he thought, comes into existence through the general consent of people or a ‘social contract’. Sovereignty, in his imagination, was an expression of the social contract, also interpretable (if I have understood him right) as the general will of the people. Rousseau, it seems, was implying that the sovereign could be legitimately opposed if he did not heed the general will.
Though not authored by an individual, ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens’ ought to be regarded a pivotally significant episode in the historical development of the liberal point of view. Issued by the National Constituent Assembly of France in the wake of the revolution in 1789, it, among other things, laid down that no one may be arbitrarily arrested and detained, harried (‘disquited’) for his opinions, and deprived of the right to private property (termed ‘inviolable and sacred’). Very likely hearkening to Rousseau, ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens’ also vested sovereignty in the nation.
Inspired by the instance of the French Revolution, Thomas Paine gave a nearly insurgent inflection to liberal thought in the next century and argued that hereditary royal succession is not necessarily legitimate and a revolutionary transformation of the political order could be fair. He also propounded a very radical theory of rights. He imagined two varieties of them – first, natural rights which he argued are to be extended to every human being by the sheer virtue of being a human being, for example, the right to the pursuit of happiness. The second set of rights he imagined were civil rights, these were to be extended to human beings on account of their membership of a social body, for example, the right to express their opinions.
Then, J.S. Mill came by and developed what we may term the classical liberal worldview. He thought that liberty means guarantees against the authority of the state, that no ideas should be sacrosanct and people ought to have the right to freely argue and express their opinions, and that there should be limits to the rights of the social body upon the human individual, that is, society should not exercise authority over the individual as long as an individual’s actions were not inimical to it. He also developed the doctrine of individuality – he thought that human personality best develops through individual freedom. And, finally, he was a votary of democracy which he considered the best form of government and most suited to the doctrine of general utility or greater happiness since it was the best means to train and develop human character. Mill also critiqued the most intimate of human domains, the institution of marriage, comparing it to bond slavery. He thought that the Christian marriage vows tie a woman to a man as the institution of slavery tied a slave to a master since they require her to unquestioningly obey her husband.
I think, we can at this point identify five aspects to liberal thought over the course of its evolution till the mid nineteenth century. First, it imagined the state as an instrument of utility, a guarantor of liberty and private property and not an institution that came into existence through a divine writ. Secondly, liberal thought made the state responsible for general societal wellbeing or happiness. Thirdly, I would say that liberal thought identified state and society as potential grounds for activist interventions – human beings, liberal thought assumed, could legitimately change governments through revolutionary action, or demand liberty, freedom of speech and opinion, individual freedom and representative government from their states and societies. Fourthly, liberal thought assumed that it is an unavoidable responsibility for the state or the ruler to listen to the citizenry since it is the true wielder of sovereignty. Finally, and fifthly, liberal thought displayed the tendency to critique the traditional ‘social affections’ – think of Mill’s critique of traditional Christian conjugality.
Liberalism, thus, laid the moral premises upon which human beings could make demands upon their states and societies. In other words, we might say that the foundations of ‘wokeness’ were built by liberal thought by the nineteenth century. Come to think of it, inherent to the attitude that we term ‘wokeness’ is the belief that the state has a mandatory welfare function in relation to the society it governs and must heed its concerns. ‘Wokeness’ also spontaneously assumes that state and society are sites requiring activist intervention and that human beings have some morally valid reasons to make demands upon them. Further, wokeness, like classical liberalism, displays the tendency to critique the traditional social affections, namely, the institutions of marriage and family.
By the end of the nineteenth century, liberal thought was assuming a more radical pitch – for example, Thomas Hill Green, a political thinker, argued that it is the duty of the state to remove obstacles in the path of the moral development of human beings and create opportunity. The traditional ‘modus vivendi’ liberalism was now developing into ‘progressive’ liberalism. More or less in tandem, there appeared this modulation or mutation of liberalism, a fresh system of thought, just when Thomas Hill Green was propounding his radical liberal ideas – we call it Marxism.
Marxism creatively worked with some of the core assumptions of liberalism. While liberalism thought that one of the chief functions of the state is to be a guarantor of the right to private property, Marxism argued that the state is actually a manifestation of a property form, namely, the bourgeois institution of private property. Karl Marx thought that a large portion of western societies, namely the working class, would be liberated only when the traditional property form and the state based on it are abolished. Like classical liberalism, Marxism identified the state as a potential site requiring activist intervention, but of course much more explicitly and radically.
Like liberalism, the Marxian system too critiqued the intimate domains of human life. Engels, Karl Marx’s intellectual companion, for instance, critiqued the institution of monogamous marriage but on a different ground. While Mill had done what we might term an ‘ideal’ critique of the institution of marriage (with reference to the Christian ethos), Engels did a materialist critique of the same terming it an outcome of private property – he thought that monogamous marriage was the result of the need to establish paternity since men wanted to bequeath their possessions to their children. Earlier, Marx and Engels had identified the abolition of the bourgeois family as a revolutionary agenda item in their Communist Manifesto.
The Marxian outlook was a far more radical modulation of liberalism since it posited an activist transformation of state, society, and production relations as not matters of choice but a necessity in the light of its ostensibly materialist and ‘scientific’ interpretation of history. The foundations of what we today term ‘wokeness’ were thus further strengthened, more concrete, so to speak, was poured into them.
In the next century, by the 1930s, the ‘woke’ or activist attitude had begun to permeate academia as Marxism assumed a new inflection. The very first votary of activist academics was perhaps Max Horkheimer, the director of the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt, Germany. In a pamphlet he wrote in 1937, ‘Traditional and Critical Theory’, he proposed a form of knowledge production, or ‘theory’, that would be distrustful of the societal rules of conduct and expose societal contradictions to engineer change. In simple language, in his view, the academic was now meant to be an agent of activist interventions in the societal realm. Here it must be mentioned that Horkheimer and his colleagues at the Frankfurt School (as it came to be called) were all Marxists. They produced considerable critiques of western cultural production terming it a manifestation of the requirements of the capitalist market economy. They were some of the pioneers of ‘cultural Marxism’.
As though presaging ‘wokeness’, the cultural Marxist tendency was rather relentless as it discovered ever newer sites requiring activist interventions or remedial correction. For example, Horkheimer co-authored a pamphlet with his colleague Theodor Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, in 1938 wherein the two argued that music had come to be an instrument to promote the consumption of goods and that listening had turned ‘regressive’, presumably on account of its commercialization; people expected to be served the same type of music they had heard before and were comfortable with.
In little more than a generation, towards the end of the 1960s, this tendency for advocacy or discovering occasions for advocacy became a relatively mass phenomenon. It was due to the emergence of the ‘new left’, it comprised people who were disillusioned with conventional Marxism that required party affiliation. The chief reason behind it were the moral failures of Soviet communism. First the crimes of Stalin came to light at the twentieth party congress in 1956 and then the USSR crushed pro-reform governments in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
The crowd that comprised the ‘new left’ was overwhelmingly young and university going. These people combined a loose commitment to Marxism with a proclivity for various kinds of cultural and social advocacy. For instance, they critiqued the traditional nuclear family and the gender roles it created, or they campaigned for the acceptance of sexual minorities. ‘Wokeness’ had acquired the features that we identify it with today. It had also begun to enter the behavior of substantial numbers in the academic system. Later, as outlooks such as postmodernism and postcolonialism caught on in the academic crowd, its ‘woke’ tendencies were further aggravated. This is since, firstly, postmodernism valorizes subjectivities and promotes an extremely fragmented or fractured view of the world. This allows the ‘woke’ mindset to go berserk since it finds an occasion for activism in every subjective claim to or ‘experience’ of victimhood or injustice. For instance, irrespective of your hormonal and physical reality, if you subjectively feel that you are this or that gender (I hear, there are sixty-five of them currently) and imagine yourself being victimized on account of that, the ‘wokes’ shall come to your aid. Postcolonialism, on the other hand, among other things, celebrates marginalities, or cultural ways of being which are unlike those of the once imperial, globally dominant West. ‘Wokeness’, thus, displays great alacrity in promoting and buttressing every identity that it considers ‘marginal’.
The author is professor of history at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University, Sonipat, Haryana.