A short history of wokeness

Romanticism’s rejection of reason sowed the seeds of today’s woke movement.

Kevin Baldeosingh

What does it mean to be woke? Those who consider themselves woke, even if they don’t use the label, might see wokeness as an embrace of positive virtues, such as tolerance, fairness and awareness.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines woke as meaning ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. Urban Dictionary defines it more sarcastically as ‘the act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’.

Although the term didn’t enter the popular lexicon until around 2016, particularly thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, Dictionary.com traces its origins to a 1943 article in the Atlantic. The article quotes a black United Mine Workers official from 1940, who uses woke as a metaphor for social justice: ‘Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.’

Being woke seems to be an especially modern cultural phenomenon. But the roots of it are actually more than three centuries old, reaching back to the romantic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Romanticism was a backlash against the Enlightenment – specifically against the enthronement of reason as the supreme virtue. In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, sociologist Colin Campbell argues that, rather than being a coherent philosophy, romanticism was characterised by a ‘dissatisfaction with the contemporary world, a restless anxiety in the face of life, a preference for the strange and the curious, a penchant for reverie and dreaming, a leaning towards mysticism and celebration of the irrational’.

The Bohemians of mid-19th century Paris were perhaps the archetypal romantics. These were usually the children of affluent middle-class parents. Paris was the centre of Europe’s bourgeoisie, which dominated both the professions and high culture. ‘The middle classes had to attain economic dominance before they were in a position to “afford” the “luxury” of Bohemia’, writes Campbell. He describes their ethos as like a religious faith, ‘a pan-psychic mysticism, or pantheism, with regard to nature at large, combined with a purely personal drama of salvation to be acted out within the confines of the self… giving rise to a tendency, on the one hand, for individuals to retreat into an introverted mysticism, and, on the other, for the drama of redemption to be projected on to society, if not the world at large.’

The next romantic movement came in the 20th century. The two world wars set the stage. Old barbarities prosecuted with new weapons seemed to provide irrefutable evidence of the evils of civilisation that Rousseau had warned about 200 years before. This, in turn, facilitated the rise of postmodernism within the academy. Starting in France in the 1960s, postmodernism became ensconced in North American and British universities in the two decades that followed. Political correctness then came from postmodernism. It first emerged in the 1970s and, though it was widely derided at the time, its impact was unmistakable.

Political correctness did far more than just replace words like ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’. It was instrumental in dumbing down Western education. In The Language Police, historian of education Diane Ravitch traces the deleterious effects of PC on textbook content. Publishers kowtowed to all manner of interest groups, from the religious right to feminists and advocates for multiculturalism. Publishers combined ‘left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism’, she writes, propounding the left and the right’s visions of the ideal society: ‘Censors on the right aim to restore an idealised vision of the past, an Arcadia of happy family life… Censors from the left believe in an idealised vision of the future, a utopia in which egalitarianism prevails in all social relations.’

PC was based on the postmodern, mystical belief that naming something is what gives it power. PC censors subscribed to the Orwellian notion that stopping people using certain words destroys whatever it is the word signifies. As Ravitch puts it, ‘The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words, but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts’. Wokeness is essentially PC on steroids.

It is the woke response to climate change that shares the most with the 19th-century romantics. Paris’s Bohemians and today’s woke movement share an anxiety about the world, a preference for utopias and, above all, a ‘personal drama of salvation projected on to society’. This is the psychological foundation for things like the BirthStrike movement, where adults refuse to have children for the good of the planet (recently given impetus by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to have no more than two children).

And just as the Bohemians were the privileged youth of their day, the woke individual of the 21st century is typically a twentysomething who has faced no hardship. Like their 19th-century forebears in Paris, the woke young people of today can afford to indulge their trivial traumas.

Kevin Baldeosingh is a professional writer and author. Follow him on Twitter: @SatiristVulcan.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

Christopher Tyson

5th August 2019 at 7:56 pm

I enjoyed the piece and wouldn’t disagree with any of it. I’d just bring in a bit of dialectics, yes romantics are reactionary but on the other hand they can be very entertaining and make the world a more colourful and interesting place. Many very talented artists are pretty flaky. More seriously I pretty much identify with the existentialist tradition, and some have argued that existentialism is bourgeois reactionary philosophy. But I would also see it as a corrective, the assertion of the subject when society has become a threat to the individual. The genius of Kierkegaard arose chiefly in opposition to the system building of Hegel in which the individual was lost. The problem with Hegel was that not only was he awesome in his ambition and achievements but also that he was wrongs, Hegelian idealism gone wrong leads to us being entrapped in someone else’s idealised world. Kierkegaard wrong is an amusing and engaging commentator. It takes the genius of Marx to draw out the progressive aspects of Hegel, to turn Hegel the right way up, to envisage a world in which we will all be free to be romantics and artists. Of course humans thrive on struggle, in a perfect world we may become lazy and decadent, we would have to be a new kind of human. To some extent we have moved beyond left and right but not yet, we still have to identify ourselves as ‘left’ because our critique of identity politics is made in the name of greater universalism and freedom. For a while spiked seemed to be free of the plague of far right commentators below the line, their opposition to identity politics is based on a hostility to various groups and minorities and a perceived threat to their own presumed authority. Some of us would like to create a universalist progressive mass movement of active subjects, some for reasons of their own want to stop us.

steve moxon

6th August 2019 at 5:10 pm

Utter nonsense. Nothing of what you or the author of this article state is anything to do with ‘identity politics’, which is the Left backlash against ‘the workers’ for not ‘rising up’, and thereby undermining Marxist theory. Women, ethnics and ‘LGBT’ are faux ‘groups’ dreamed up by the Left as the supposed replacement ‘vanguard’ of the ‘revolution ever since they lost faith that ‘the workers’ would do the job. Read up on the history. Jesus. Spiked! does not want to air the Left’s dirty linen here. Ditto The Battle of Ideas, The Institute for Ideas.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 6:55 pm

It’s actually more about the normalisation of perversion to our children, the utterly diabolical promotion and mass-implentation of infanticide, the importation of the eastern ideology, and they’ve gone and thrown the climate-hoax in good for good measure.

Equating opposition to all that as ffaaaar-rigghhhgtt is why you’ll never receive authority for your loony, destructive, and diabolical plans. Steve is right about what he said about the left having become the motliest of all motley crews.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 8:01 pm

Tower of Babel, Chris, and why levt is loaded with such utter nutters.

Hana Jinks

7th August 2019 at 1:57 pm

They actually didn’t allow two of the other things l sais to stand, Chris. Think about that. Think about the things we stand for around here, and the things we wouldn’t like criticized. You can criticize whatever you like about me.

David Margison

5th August 2019 at 4:32 pm

I’m confused! Why is Spiked being described as of the left? I find spiked almost impartial, with maybe a lean towards the right! It’s why I read it. I lean towards the right but like to have my views challenged. Also I’m of an age where to be described as a lefty was more to do with socialism, to my mind the left has been hijacked by the PC middle class and violent minority interest groups who are attempting to force their oppinions into law.
Spiked left! I don’t think so.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 6:59 pm

They’re communists.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 7:00 pm

They have some normal stories from guest writers, but otherwise, they’re all full-blown communists.

Joao Marnoto

5th August 2019 at 4:19 pm

I find a contradiction in the essay, although I agree in most of it: As with history that is made of cycles, are not concepts as well, shifting their value and significance? When I see “those young people of today can afford to indulge their trivial traumas.” in their woke prcocess as you call it, I rather see those same people (as I was to some degree in the past) completely numbed by the cultural circumstances they are swallowed. In that sense, being able to see behind the façade and hypocrisy of PC culture, its where I see the concept of woke more correctly applied today. As the popular expression goes (here in Portugal at least)… The spell always turns against the sorcerer.

Jonnie Henly

5th August 2019 at 1:52 pm

“Starting in France in the 1960s, postmodernism became ensconced in North American and British universities in the two decades that followed. Political correctness then came from postmodernism.”

Citation needed.

Political correctness existed long before postmodernism.

steve moxon

6th August 2019 at 1:17 am

Correct. ‘Political Correctness’, the totalitarian control of political ideas, is a notion (in three similar terms that all translate to ‘political correctness’) from the Soviet Union that has nothing to do with ‘post-modernism’ and well pre-dates it. ‘Postmodernism is also long preceded by the precursors and early forms of ‘identity politics’, which is usually mistakenly referred to as ‘political correctness’ — understandably, as the term ‘PC’ has been taken up by the Left in the West (initially, it seems, ironically!) to denote the control through such as speech codes, which arose through the influence of ‘post-modernism’ on developing ‘identity politics’, whereby the wholesale adoption of ‘identity politics’ is policed. The author of this article is rather clueless about the history of Leftist ideology, albeit being right that post-modernism was involved; but only later feeding what had already become a monster before it became fully fledged ‘identity politics’.

Steve Gray

5th August 2019 at 1:27 pm

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 11:13 am

Why are my comments now being ‘moderated’ after just my one post pointing out that the Left refuses to acknowledge it can’t analyse itself?! Can’t Spiked stand any criticism of the Left if it’s not it’s carefully laundered own?

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 3:21 pm

Hahahaha…so glad you’re back.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 3:27 pm

I’ve had one particular post modded out five separate times, now. This is interesting because it helped me to understand a few important things about this site.

I’ve made a special point now to them that l fully intend to have this post publicized. I’m gonna show you the post, and comment on it. Comment on how such a thing could be modded out five separate times.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 3:34 pm

It was about marx. I said something completely innocuous about marx, and even compared them favourably to him, and they’ve modded it five times, so far.

They must think that l won’t be able to get the comment thru. It’s getting like some kinda bad 50s war movie.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 4:34 pm

Up to 7 times now.

Michael Lynch

5th August 2019 at 10:52 am

It’s estimated that some 5000 kids in the third world will die today from drinking dirty water. Some of them having to walk miles to get to this filth. Yet the ‘woke’ generation in the West believe they can be hurt from reading mere words in certain books! How did we arrive a this absurd contradiction? It’s symptomatic of a society in decline with no where else to go. I always thought that the height of post modernist madness was when we put Concorde into a museum. Little did I know then that the insanity had a long way yet to travel.

In Negative

5th August 2019 at 10:17 am

It doesn’t seem to me to be completely fair to give the new Romanticism (for which I have extremely high hopes) to Wokeness. I’d like to think that Wokeness was a soon-to-be obselete manifestation of a spirit of romanticism combined with a degenerating PC in crisis.

With the royals adopting Wokeness, I always think, “are they serious? Do they really think this is the future? Aren’t they about 20 years too late?” Feels like a sign of its death that the aristocracy have even noticed it. The tropes of the PC are precisely what a new romanticism should try to challenge.

So, for instance, “Grab their pussy” did Trump no harm. In fact, I’d argue it did him a great deal of good. There was something liberating in that utterance to man and woman alike. And take XR – they look good, there are strong themes of mysticism and romanticism in their aesthetic, but their committment couldn’t be more deeply rooted in “the Real”. They literally believe that it is true there is an external world and that man can do harm to that world. They believe in a fairly common sense notion of science, that there is a world, that there are observable facts and that these facts are independent of consciousness and can be verified by other observers. This is entirely at odds with the sorts of thing quantum mechanics is currently showing and I’m putting my money on a future humanity treating ‘the real’ with the same incredulity as we treat Dionysus and Selene.

So no, I don’t think we can give the new Romanticism to Wokeness. There is a new Romanticism coming, for sure, but it is far far bigger than Wokeness in its opportunities for new modes of thought, action and creativity.

Pru C

5th August 2019 at 7:02 pm

An interesting comment. There is a New Romanticism being coined in art currently. I’m observing developments with interest. And I agree: “The tropes of the PC are precisely what a new romanticism should try to challenge”. I’m hoping it does. Compared to the Romanticism of history, I’m hoping the New has a decidedly unmystical, unsentimental – elemental – shape to it and that it is apolitical (Is anything allowed to be apolitical?).

Claire D

5th August 2019 at 9:37 am

There is a much darker aspect to ‘ wokeness ‘ which is not addressed in the article. It is also a collective expression of passive/aggressive neurotic behaviour. The woke ones are apparently compassionate, open and alive to bias wherever it may lurk; whereas everyone else, especially those who have different points of view are . . . . .well the usual litany of insults. It is in reality the old, atavistic hatred (including the will to hate) of one human towards another hiding under the pretence of superior virtue.

Claire D

5th August 2019 at 9:59 am

To a greater or lesser extent obviously, depending on the person.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 8:33 am

FALSE. ‘PC’ — ‘identity politics’ — did NOT arise out of ‘post-modernism’. It began as far back as circa 1930 when European Marxist intellectuals attempted to salve their ‘cognitive dissonance’; over the failure of Marxist theory in predicting a revolution in advanced capitalist nations, when what actually happened was no revolution in the West but one in backward Russia. They came up with the nonsense that ‘capitalism’ ‘repressed’ ‘the workers’, taking up form Engels; bizarre notion that ‘capitalism’ had created the family. This is the birth of the notion that men oppress women. As (it was dreamed up), ‘capitalism’ ‘oppresses’ the male worker; as head of the household he in turn ‘oppresses’ his wife. This idiocy took root in the USA as intellectuals migrated there and set up at Columbia University. It was then that it melded with ‘postmodernism’, and hence begat the ‘New Left’, which pragmatically co-opted the civil rights and Stonewall movements as seemingly proto-Marxist revolutionary movements, and thereby added to women the supposed victim classes of ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’, that by no logical but understandable extension became ethnic minorities and non-heterosexuals. So it was that circa 1970 the term ‘identity politics’ emerged, which subsequently was confused with ‘political correctness’, a term from the Soviet Union, concerning control of political opinion, not a politics in itself. ‘PC’ has stuck as the usual vernacular for ‘identity politics’. Of course, ‘post-modernist’ idiocy has continued to further drive ‘identity politics’ to ever more ridiculous excess.

Claire D

5th August 2019 at 9:19 am

Thanks for that summary, that’s very interesting.

Jerry Owen

5th August 2019 at 9:40 am

Steve Moxon
Having read your take and the take of Kevin Bladeosingh, I have to agree with you. It is a relatively modern term for modern politics, not historical politics that are not related in any meaningful way to the modern era.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 11:10 am

Indeed. As ever, the Left tries to cover its tracks instead of owning its own sh*t. Spiked, The Institute for Ideas, The Battle of Ideas … they are all Left apologists for the Left, and remain so despite my repeated challenges. They fail to acknowledge that their failure of analysis undermines their own criticisms. Those of the Left who willfully refuse to understand the very basis of what they criticise are part of the problem, not the solution. The root of all this is that the essence of Leftism is an attempt to gain status without being seen to be striving to do so. Leftists deny the will to status within themselves and ‘project’ it on to others. The Left’s egalitarianism in it’s political religion of ‘identity politics’ enforced in ‘PC’ totalitarianism is not only not even remotely egalitarianism: it’s hatred towards the masses for not buying Leftism. Leftism is destined for the oblivion it so thoroughly deserves, being the greatest intellectual dishonesty if all time.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 11:14 am

Indeed. As ever, the Left tries to cover its tracks instead of owning its own extrement. Spiked, The Institute for Ideas, The Battle of Ideas … they are all Left apologists for the Left, and remain so despite my repeated challenges. They fail to acknowledge that their failure of analysis undermines their own criticisms. Those of the Left who willfully refuse to understand the very basis of what they criticise are part of the problem, not the solution. The root of all this is that the essence of Leftism is an attempt to gain status without being seen to be striving to do so. Leftists deny the will to status within themselves and ‘project’ it on to others. The Left’s egalitarianism in it’s political religion of ‘identity politics’ enforced in ‘PC’ totalitarianism is not only not even remotely egalitarianism: it’s hatred towards the masses for not buying Leftism. Leftism is destined for the oblivion it so thoroughly deserves, being the greatest intellectual dishonesty if all time.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 3:40 pm

Really top stuff, Steve. Very incisive. So good to hear you again.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 9:56 am

Really good to see you, Steve.

Very interesting post.

In Negative

5th August 2019 at 11:18 am

I would describe this differently.

“…attempted to salve their ‘cognitive dissonance’; over the failure of Marxist theory in predicting a revolution in advanced capitalist nations, when what actually happened was no revolution in the West but one in backward Russia. ”

In the first place, it is not correct to say there were no revolutions in the West. The most obvious Western revolutions were fascist (Is that a backward West?)

Almost certainly, that whole era in which Marxism was seductive, so too was ‘revolution’. It was ‘in the air’. It was part of the collective consciousness and built into the system of interactive socio-international game-play.

As it happened, the revolution that finally took hold appears to have been that of liberal social democracy manifested in institutions like the EU. A managed capitalism. And it was this that neutralised the Marxist critique, managing to bring the “proletariat” into the system of privilege in many of the ways Marx thought Communism would. Many of the dreams of Marx or Trotsky for the proles now seem to me to have been realised by the managed Capitalism of social democracies. And in this, ‘the seduction of revolution’ was destroyed, at least in the consciousness of the mass population. It created a new mass consciousness, a new system of interactive socio-political games with entirely new seductions intermingled with the ghosts of the old ones. It’s in this context that Wokeness and PC appear and aye, a deterritorialised Left set adrift are part of that story.

And many of the Marxist critiques do still hold. Alienation for one. Plus, the analysis of superstructure and the formation of consciousness is pretty good. Furthermore, you’d be a fool to think that capitalism was a persistent state. Nothing in the history of man suggests that anything is a persistent state. It is perfectly reasonable to say that Capitalism will end, it’s just difficult to predict how it will end or when.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 7:15 pm

?! There was no Marxist ‘revolution of any kind anywhere in the West circa 1930 when Marxist intellectuals came up with the nonsense that is the core of what became ‘identity politics’.
Marxist internationalism was what was specifically rejected in the ‘fascism’ of Mussolini and in Nazism that developed in the 1930s: nationalist Marxism, indeed. These were not revolutions but gradual takeovers that anyway were very short-lived. There have been no revolutions of any kind since. I won’t bother addressing the Marxist or quasi-Marxist political psychobabble. Marxism is the most ignorant anti-scientific nonsense with no contribution of merit to analysis of social or political phenomena. The conception of modern inter-related trading as some sort of agentic entity of ‘capitalism’ is ridiculous. The idea that trading somehow is self-defeating is hilarious idiocy. Of course trading conditions change, but trading never stops. Trade is not some political or economic system: it’s trade. It’s no different than exchanging a surplus of hand axes for a surplus of arrow heads.

In Negative

5th August 2019 at 8:04 pm

@Stevie M
My point about the nazis were that they happened in an atmosphere of revolution and occurred in reaction to the communist threat. It was as much a part of the psychology of the time as Communism was. For Trotsky, Fascism was the response to communism of the petit bourgeois class defending its own interests – it was an alternative. And so much of Nazism focused on harnessing the imagination of the workers. Marx was one intellectual manifestation of the soul of the era. It’s bizarre that given the interconnected complexity of everything that was happening back then that you can so easily write it off as an idiotic wrong turn. I would suggest in that regard, you are wilfully scuppering your own capacity for meaningful intellectual contributions.

As for trade being ‘just trade,’ I thought Marx was more about changing the ‘conditions of trade’ than abolishing trade itself? The idea was that workers would be better connected to the profits of their labour and the results of trade. He didn’t say that trade was bad. He said that in a system where production (and therefore trade) were devoted to the inrichment of an ever diminishing class of masters, then such a system would naturally destroy itsself – just like Feudalism. He extended that thought to the soul of his era and saw about him all the forces of revolution. He did not invent it from thin air. And nor did the communists of the era – at the time of writing, it was a perfectly plausible analysis of the historical circumstances.

As it happens, social democracy won out and destroyed the revolutionary consciousness in all but a minority. And this is the fundamental difference between the identitarian and the revolutionary: the identitarian is a symptom of modern capitalism. Identity is a performance – it has no revolutionary potential because it is more of the order of self-branding than political change. Marx wrote about revolution and revolutionaries; identitarians are mostly alienated aestheticians with little to no sincere revolutionary potential.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 9:48 pm

FALSE, ‘In Negative’. Fascism / Nazism WAS Marxism: a pragmatic development of Marxism jettisoning the internationalism, that was seen as completely impractical, indeed counter-productive in the light of war. Mussolini was the editor of the Italian socialist party’s newspaper, and saw how ridiculous it was to invoke ‘the international proletariat’ when Italy was faced with the proletariat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, threatening subsuming Italy within it. Nazism — national socialism — was the same bastardisation of Marxism, though more nationalistic given Germany’s history, especially in the light of in WWI.

Jonnie Henly

5th August 2019 at 1:51 pm

And here we see the old Nazi conspiracy theory of cultural Marxism alive and well in the 21st century.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 7:23 pm

Wha hey! Whicky or what?! The origin, development of ‘identity politics’ is the very opposite of ‘conspiracy’. It is lowest common-denominator gut level uncoordinated human nastiness. ‘Identity politics’ required nothing remotely like conspiracy. Just nastiness, gullibility, ignorance, wild over-estimation of own abilities at even the most basic understanding of anything, and the desperate imperative of wanting to salve ‘cognitive dissonance’. The Left needs to own its own excrement. Chucking it at other folk will see it returned to land back on the Left’s own face.

Jonnie Henly

5th August 2019 at 9:08 pm

None of what you said is true. All of what you said is conspiracy.

Trying to chuck your own excrement at the left won’t work. No matter how hard you try, it won’t stick.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 9:41 pm

Absolutely NONE of the very well-documented history of the origin and development of ‘identity politics’ is “conspiracy”. You can bleat on ad nauseum as you do, John Hen, but this excrement of the Left WILL end up plastered over the Left’s own face, no matter how much it tries to disown its own present and past obscenity. Indeed, it will fuel the Left’s implosion.

Jonnie Henly

7th August 2019 at 12:48 pm

It’s such a “well documented” history that you’ve got absolutely no evidence for it. Zilch.

You can scream and make up your own fake history all you want, but it won’t change anything.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t just make up history for people you don’t like. Pretending they were evil in the past doesn’t make you virtuous now.

Claire D

5th August 2019 at 7:25 am

Perhaps, indulge their trivial dramas as well.
Otherwise I agree with Hana.

Hana Jinks

5th August 2019 at 7:16 am

Excellent, and a very interesting and informative take.

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