How the culture war went global

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How the culture war went global

Authoritarians the world over are weaponising wokeness.

Doug Stokes

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Topics Culture Identity Politics Long-reads Politics World

The rise of ‘woke’ identity politics in the Anglophone West is driven by deep shifts in our political economy, institutional architecture and core values. While most of today’s discussions about identity politics tend to focus on its illiberal implications for domestic politics, in a context of growing international authoritarianism, the geopolitical consequences must not be underestimated.

Many of the shifts giving rise to wokeness began in the 1970s. As the political economy of the West ‘globalised’, and as the postwar settlement was upended, a new elite class emerged – what Barbara and John Ehrenreich termed the ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC). In this new globalised era, jobs were offshored, mainly to East Asia, and economies increasingly moved focus from manufacturing to services. At the same time, mass immigration changed the demographic make-up and the cultural norms of settled communities. In short, social cohesion and nation states were increasingly superseded by new forms of ‘globalism’ and new elites emerged to manage the transitions.

More importantly, a new cultural and moral order emerged under this hyper-liberal globalism, midwifed by the PMC. Supposedly outdated and gauche ideas of nationhood, community and self-sacrifice were out. Individualism and self-discovery were in. This new moral and cultural order rewarded those who embraced this new fluidity. It also benefitted those whose education enabled geographic mobility in an increasingly borderless world – that is, the mainly credentialed elites and those who could quickly move to escape the negative effects of these sweeping changes.

In the face of these shifts, progressive politics morphed. It abandoned the ‘old’ politics of class. Instead, it sought to corral new and fluid coalitions and alliances that emphasised identity politics. As the PMC promoters of this new ‘progressive’ politics marched through the institutions, their ostentatious championing of the interests of historically oppressed groups served a useful purpose. By assuming responsibility and thus the political power for ‘fixing’ alleged burning injustices, the PMC was able to reassert the authority of the institutions it ran. PMC ‘caregivers’ effectively assumed hegemony over vast swathes of public life. The moral panics that continue to grip and restructure UK institutions, such as complaints about microaggressions, unconscious bias or structural racism, should be seen in this context – as the product of an ethical entrepreneurialism designed to shore up and sustain bureaucratic power.

This grievance politics, which often takes the form of a transnational solidarity with distant others, complements the post-national cultural order. It serves to create a hierarchy, in which the university-educated, ‘enlightened’ post-national citizen is elevated above the lumpen, non-degree-holding and ‘unenlightened’ national citizen. The worldview of (usually white) upper-middle-class professionals is seen as the only ‘correct’ one. And those challenging the common sense of the PMC are presented as in need of education.

As LSE law professor Peter Ramsay explains, the PMC’s identification with the vulnerable is key to its authority. It is continually suggesting that some group or other is threatened by oppression, bigotry, prejudice and so on. The promise to protect the supposedly vulnerable gives moral clout and political justification for PMC rule. Politics is thus reduced to a conflict between competing claims of vulnerability. Indeed, much of progressive politics is now little more than a call for various public or private bodies to police the speech, opinions and behaviour of alleged oppressor groups in the name of protecting a never-ending supply of victim groups.

In this, suffering and victimhood become both a commodity and weapon of progressive politics. Obey me and give me what I want, or you will harm vulnerable groups and I will make you a social outcast. This is the essential dynamic of cancel culture.

Deconstructing Western civilisation

The emergence of this new moral economy coincided with the ascendency of a new dominant philosophy that has now escaped the campus petri dish and infected the broader body politic.

Many are now familiar with the fashionable notions of decolonisation, transgenderism and other species of identity politics. But few perhaps realise that these ideas share a common philosophical foundation in social constructivism, which flourished in the academy during the latter part of the 20th century.

Broadly speaking, social constructivism rejects any notion of objective truth. Rather, all meaning and truth is said to be produced by human perception. As a result, all human knowledge is therefore ‘socially constructed’ by the cultural frames of reference that shape our perception of the world and others.

For instance, French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that knowledge is not innocent or simply an attempt to understand the world objectively. Rather, it is a product and an expression of power.

Demonstrators gather outside Oriel College, Oxford during a protest over a statue of Cecil Rhodes which overlooks the High Street, on 9 June, 2020.
Demonstrators gather outside Oriel College, Oxford during a protest over a statue of Cecil Rhodes which overlooks the High Street, on 9 June, 2020.

Similarly, Foucault’s postmodern contemporary, Jacques Derrida, argued that Western philosophy, and by extension Western culture, reflects certain power relations. Usually, these power relations take on a binary form, such as man / woman, civilised / primitive, Western / non-Western, and so on. In each of these binaries, the former’s supposed superiority rests on and determines the supposed inferiority of the latter. Derrida sought to ‘deconstruct’ these binaries, and usher in what amounted to a form of judgemental relativism, where what is good or true is simply a question of one’s standpoint.

So-called postcolonial theorists – forerunners of today’s decolonisation movement – took these ideas and argued that the discourse of Western knowledge and culture are the products of Western power. These theorists’ political goal was and is to establish that knowledge is contingent and to deconstruct Western cultural hegemony. By doing this, Western civilisation’s ‘Eurocentric’ self-belief and confidence would be undermined, and by extension so would Western political power.

These kinds of theoretical ideas are no longer confined to American or British campuses. PMC technocrats are now promoting them throughout the institutional architecture of the Anglophone West.

This has had deleterious effects across broader culture. For example, social-constructivism stresses the importance of language in ordering the world, which ends up elevating what is felt or perceived over what is real. Advocates of gender self-identification, for example, explicitly rely upon this theory. As they see it, gender is a social construct with no basis in objective, biological reality.

Similarly, those who promote the importance of ‘indigenous’ knowledge, and castigate white, ‘Eurocentric’ curricula in universities, also draw upon social constructivism and postmodern relativism. The collective sum of the West’s cultural wisdom and knowledge is reduced to little more than a means for the powerful to dominate the less powerful.

Through this embrace of social constructivism and judgemental relativism, the PMC ultimately undermines the institutional architecture its members now dominate. From museums to scientific organisations, our institutions now reject the claims to knowledge and truth on which their authority once rested. The result is an almost total institutional capitulation to wokeness.

The culture war goes global

In the Anglosphere, this anti-Western outlook has even come to dominate governmental institutions. The implications of this are significant. Indeed, the future of the Western-led ‘liberal international order’ is itself at stake.

Before any nation can act, it needs to know what it is. The cultural stories that make up a nation’s identity enable and constrain its actions just as powerfully as its military or financial capabilities. They describe our place in the world, help order social relationships between citizens and the state, and give purpose and meaning to our actions. A nation is not just a place but a collective story that binds, unifies and links the past with the present to map out a future. This is one of the key reasons the culture war is so important. These are struggles over meaning, identity and social purpose.

Given that one of the driving forces behind the rise of challengers to the West, such as Russia and China, is a degree of confidence and civilisational ‘mojo’, where does that leave the UK? What does the West now offer to counter these highly illiberal and often authoritarian states and social forces? What unites free and open countries in a common defence of their shared institutional order, upon which their rights and freedoms rest?

Authoritarian states have now started to notice the West’s ostentatious self-repudiation. They have seen how it might be possible to exploit the PMC worldview. And this has resulted in them weaponising wokery against the West. For example, in 2021, in his first high-level summit with Chinese leaders, President Biden was admonished by Yang Jiechi, then director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP. Yang argued that Biden should not criticise China’s human-rights abuses, as ‘the fact is that there are many problems within the United States regarding human rights, which is admitted by the United States itself as well’ (my italics). Yang continued: ‘The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated. They did not just emerge over the past four years, such as Black Lives Matter.’ In its editorial on the summit, China’s Global Times followed up with a statement that could have been penned by a Black Lives Matter activist: ‘Everything Washington talks about is centred on the US, and on white supremacy.’

American and Chinese representatives at the United States-China summit meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, 18 March, 2021.
American and Chinese representatives at the United States-China summit meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, 18 March, 2021.

Putin’s Russia has also recognised the strategic value of the West’s embrace of wokery, and now seeks to position itself as a champion of decolonisation on behalf of a diverse world. In August 2022, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Russia categorically rejects ‘the neocolonial “rules-based order” being imposed by the US-led West’. ‘This order’, Lavrov said, ‘provides for a racist division of the world into a privileged group of countries which a priori have the right of any action, and the rest of the world is obliged to follow the tracks of this “golden billion” and service their interests.’

Russian policymakers have attempted to portray Moscow’s desire to revise the Western-led rules based order as a part of its championing of global diversity against American imperialism. On an official visit to Ethiopia in July 2022, Lavrov stated: ‘Our African colleagues perfectly understand the root cause of what is happening, which is the collective West’s attempt to slow down the objective historical process, the formation of a just, democratic order, and cling to the elusive prospect of the so-called unipolar world.’

China and Russia are clearly playing on the West’s self-loathing, and using it as a source of their own moral authority. And these powerful, authoritarian ‘civilisational states’ are doing so while freighting millions of souls into ‘re-education’ camps or conducting ‘special military operations’.

Human freedom is a precious thing. It is to our great shame that those in positions of immense power across British and Western institutions have not recognised their responsibility to preserve it. Instead, they repudiate the achievements, traditions and values of Western civilisation in the spurious name of protecting the supposedly vulnerable and defenceless. And in doing so, they give succour to authoritarian states the world over.

As the world returns to a state of great-power competition, the West appears to be heading further down a path of self-deconstruction. Failure to grasp what is happening means that the precious flame of freedom could soon be extinguished. It remains to be seen whether we still have the will to blow the almost extinguished embers alight again.

Doug Stokes is a professor of politics at the University of Exeter. His new book, Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West, will be published by Polity in September.

Pictures by Getty and by US Department of State, published under a creative-commons licence.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics Long-reads Politics World

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