Wokeness is the militant wing of neoliberalism.
On Saturday, Brendan O’Neill spoke at the annual party conference of the SDP. His speech is published below.
As we gather here today, there is a great deal of shock and even grief in woke circles, and especially among LGBT campaigners. They’re in shock because the High Court has made a ruling that they find repulsive and even oppressive.
The High Court ruled last week that a woman who gave birth to a child is the mother of that child, not the father. It said that a woman who was delivered of a child in the normal way is a mum, not a dad.
The woman wanted to be called the child’s father, because she identifies as male. But the court said: Nope, sorry. In this society – in the realm of reason – if you get pregnant, carry a child to term, and then give birth to it, you are a mother, not a father.
Cue woke meltdown. In the words of the Independent, this is a ‘move that has shocked LGBT campaigners’.
This is where we are now at with woke politics, with identity politics, with the eccentric and narcissistic politics of the new so-called left. We’re in a situation in which it is tantamount to a speechcrime to call a mother a mother. Where it is shocking to say mothers give birth and fathers do not.
All that the High Court really said is that 2 + 2 = 4. But apparently you shouldn’t say that these days. If you want to be considered good and decent and woke, if you want to avoid demonisation and harassment by legions of PC warriors, you must say that sometimes 2 + 2 = 5. You must say that sometimes a mother is in fact a father.
This is the case of Freddy McConnell, a Guardian journalist who is a biological female but who identifies as male. Freddy gave birth and brought legal action against the General Register Office for the right to be recorded on the kid’s certificate as its father, not its mother.
As I followed this case, one thing really struck me – just how incredibly anti-social it all was; how staggeringly cavalier McConnell and her supporters were about social ideals, social meaning, and about the broader community itself, in which words like mother and father have real, historic importance.
If this case had been successful, it would have had some serious anti-social consequences. This would have been the first time that a child had no space for mother on its birth certificate. That would have set a precedent of erasing a central community role – that of mother – from a key social document – the birth certificate.
If the court had ruled that a biological woman who gives birth can be officially registered as a father, it would have thrown into disarray some of the core ideas that underpin family life. It would have set an incredibly relativistic precedent. Blokes could go about calling themselves mums. Perhaps kids could have themselves retrospectively erased from their birth certificates if they no longer identify as the offspring of their stupid, un-woke parents. And as for recording the sex of a child on a birth certificate – let’s stop that, too. What right does a doctor or a registrar or society more broadly have to tell a kid if they’re a boy or a girl?
This case, if successful, would have wreaked havoc on society’s basic ability to record facts. It would have seriously undermined our ability to record who is born and who they are born to, and also to maintain the meaning of words like mother and father, male and female… truth and falsehood.
And yet none of this seems to have mattered to the campaigners. That’s the striking thing. All that seemed to matter to them was the validation of an individual’s identity, of their belief that they are male, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
That therapeutic quest for official recognition of a personal whim apparently overrides everything else. It is more important than social convention, truth, meaning and reality. It’s the most important thing in the world, it seems.
I think this is where we get to the heart of woke politics.
The new, switched-on, woke approach to issues presents itself as a form of leftism. But to me it looks like a celebration of extreme individuation, of epic narcissism, to the detriment of collective ideals and collective institutions.
I don’t want to single out Freddy McConnell. I think the same can be said for woke politics across the board: it values the psychic comfort of the individual, of the self, above the health and freedom of society. It treasures the self-esteem of the individual more than the solidarity of community life and all the things that solidarity requires: common language, common meaning and common values.
The woke think nothing of trampling all over the ideas and institutions of collective life. From marriage to the family, from the community to the nation – they tend to view all of these things as oppressive institutions that are a barrier to the preservation of their own self-esteem.
Witness how LGBT activists, aided by virtually the entire establishment, have completely redefined the meaning of marriage by opening it up to same-sex couples. That this institution played a very specific, heterosexual role for centuries, that it was the glue of family life and community life, mattered little to woke activists. LGBT individuals’ need to feel socially validated mattered more than the meaning of marriage, it seems.
Or see how family life, and especially the complementary differences between the sexes, is increasingly being erased by the cult of genderfluidity. That’s why I think the Muslim protests outside Birmingham schools are so interesting. I see this as a parental pushback against woke state intervention into family life; a positive parental protest against woke officials indoctrinating children to believe that there is no real difference between gay and straight relationships and to see sex as something you can change if you want to.
That it has fallen to Muslims to lead this charge is very interesting. Perhaps their attachment to traditional beliefs, to the kind of beliefs so many other people have been dragged away from, makes them strong allies in the collective stand against the creep of woke politics and hyper-individuation.
Democratic solidarity is under assault, too, not only by the woke but by virtually all sections of the political elite. The war on Brexit – and of course woke people loathe Brexit with a passion – is another effort to undermine people’s search for solidarity, their preference for the collectivity of democratic decision-making over the dog-eat-dog atomisation promised to us under the technocratic and neoliberal rule of the EU.
And then there’s the nation. How the woke dislike the nation! They see it as the key unit of oppression; as the starting point of all racism and hatred and fear. If you ever go on a protest these days, you will notice that the most woke attendees will be carrying banners saying ‘Borders = Death’. This is more than a plea for a liberal immigration policy – it is a demand for the erasure of borders and nations. It’s the infantile, nihilistic John Lennon approach: imagine no countries.
And they despise national flags. It is now a risky business to wave a Union flag or an English flag in this country. Emily Thornberry will sneer at you on Twitter; people will call you a fascist.
All of this is an assault on the most important building block of collectivity and solidarity: the nation. Leftists used to understand how important the nation was. They supported national-liberation struggles. They opposed foreign meddling in self-determining countries. They knew that democracy was only really possible within national borders.
But they’ve abandoned all of that for the cult of self-esteem, for the validation of the existential psychic needs of me over the broader question of what benefits the people. In their world, anything that stands in the way of self-esteem, including the nation, must be removed.
I’ve been thinking recently: who else behaves like this? Who else behaves so cavalierly towards social institutions and community life? Who else is this contemptuous of community integrity and of the nation itself?
Then it struck me: the capitalist class. And in particular it’s the neoliberal elites. They also have a tendency to behave like this.
These elites also tend to view community life as subordinate to their own economic needs. They will sometimes abandon communities, by removing their factories or their businesses, often with devastating consequences. If their narrow interests are better served elsewhere, then the community no longer matters very much to them.
And they loathe the nation state, too. This is why the business class is so hostile to Brexit. They love the free flow of finance and labour facilitated by the European Union.
These days it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a woke manifesto and an HSBC advert. Look at all those HSBC ads on billboards saying that Britain is not actually an island and celebrating all the multicultural contributions to life in this country. This is really just a business version of the hostility to nationhood, to the idea of national identity, that you find among woke people and the liberal elite.
It seems pretty clear to me that far from being a new kind of leftism, the woke ideology is really the militant wing of neoliberalism. It is a campaigning arm of the neoliberal outlook.
This is why woke activists and big business make such comfortable bedfellows. Banks and hedge funds and other capitalist outfits love to adorn their buildings in the Pride flag. They’re always putting lesbians in their adverts. The FT’s list of the Top 100 women in business recently included a bloke called Phil. Well, he’s Phil on some days and Pippa on other days. I’m not making this up. He works for Credit Suisse. The business world loves him and his genderfluidity. Of course it does.
These days there are really only two places where you see woke nonsense in action: among the trendy, supposedly leftish political class and in the capitalist class. Among the woke-ing class, as Julie Bindel calls them, and the ruling class. These people profess to hate each other, but in truth they have a shared outlook.
You don’t see this woke idiocy on building sites or in factories. You don’t see it in old people’s homes or among our friends in the Muslim community. You don’t hear about it from black-cab drivers or busy mums in Merthyr Tydfil. You really only see it in the noisy woke liberal elite and in the self-consciously PC business world.
This is a really important thing to point out. Because we really should stop seeing wokeness or PC or any other aspect of the so-called new left as being left-wing at all. We should stop seeing it as a wrongheaded left that we need to counter with our better version of what it means to be left.
Instead, we should view these new elites, these woke elites, as being a fairly key part of the neoliberal drive against social solidarity.
They share the same outlook even if they express it in different ways. Both prefer the divisive dynamic of identity politics and racial politics over the powerful, post-racial solidarity of working-class communities. Both prefer the technocratic expertise of the EU bureaucracy over the wisdom of the throng, of the masses, of the democratic crowd. Both are obsessed with re-educating the plebs. The capitalists do it with advertising; the woke do it via the education system and the political sphere.
And both despise borders. And they do so not because they truly believe in freedom of movement, but because they see borders as a restriction of their own narrow and eccentric needs. The woke loathe borders because they restrict the movement of people who might one day be their students or their au pairs or their cleaners; capitalists loathe borders because they restrict the movement of people who could be their underpaid, exploited workers.
I think this is the best way to view the woke so-called left. Wokeness makes a virtue of the atomisation that is a key feature of life in capitalist society. Wokeness doesn’t challenge the individuation and corrosion of social solidarity that neoliberal society brings about. It simply repackages it as PC and celebrates it. It commodifies our atomisation and sells it back to us as right-on politics.
These weirdly conflated groups, this unified woke-ing class and ruling class, all salute their new flag – not the national flag, but the Pride flag. That omnipresent rainbow flag, seen everywhere from schoolgates to bank offices, from lefty bars to government buildings, is the flag of the new elites. It fundamentally symbolises the success of the capitalist elite and the woke elite in replacing the collective aspirations of old with the divided, regimented and heavily policed identitarian organisation of society today.
How do we respond to all of this? To me it is quite simple.
First, we point out that none of this is really about struggling for individual freedom, which explains why the woke are so hostile to freedom of speech, the most important freedom of all. Rather, it is about celebrating the hyper-individuation and racial division of life that takes place under the technocratic rule of an aloof capitalist and political class. There is nothing remotely positive in that.
And secondly we make the case for the thing that people are longing for, which people crying out for – solidarity.
That’s what the vote for Brexit was about. It’s also what much of the vote for Trump was about, even though Trump is a far more complicated idea than Brexit! These 2016 populist revolts were about ordinary people looking beyond themselves, looking for something bigger than themselves, looking for connection and commonality and solidarity.
It was a revolt against the relentlessly individuating and divisive dynamic of the new woke elites as much as it was a rebellion against the staid old Clintonite establishment, in the case of the US, and the technocratic tyranny in the EU, in the case of the UK.
People want to connect. They want to feel part of a collective. They want their families and their communities and their votes to matter. They want respect and power. The bravest and most ambitious political party today will speak to these people. It will completely oppose the anti-community, anti-democratic, anti-solidarity, anti-freedom outlook of the woke elites and the business elites and seek to provide people with that sense of collective belonging and collective influence that they are crying out for. A free and democratic and connected society – that is what we need now.
Picture by: Getty.
Rod Liddle and Brendan O'Neill
– live in London
Podcast Live, Friends House, London, NW1 2BJ – 5 October 2019, 2.30pm-3.30pm
To get tickets, click the button below, then scroll down to The Brendan O'Neill Show logo on the Podcast Live page.
Let’s cancel cancel culture
Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful, prevailing fear of being outed as a heretic online, in the workplace, or even among friends, for uttering a dissenting thought. This is why we at spiked are stepping up our fight for speech, expanding our output and remaking the case for this most foundational liberty. But to do that we need your help. spiked – unlike so many things these days – is free. We rely on our loyal readers to fund our journalism. So if you want to support us, please do consider becoming a regular donor. Even £5 per month can be a huge help. You can find out more and sign up here. Thank you! And keep speaking freely.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.