Critically Cringe: On Susan Neiman’s “Left Is Not Woke”
By Samuel Clowes HunekeSeptember 17, 2023
Left Is Not Woke by Susan Neiman
Because the concept is so ridiculous, most serious thinkers haven’t wasted much energy on it (leaving aside the reactionary centrists who have turned complaining about “the woke revolution” into a veritable cottage industry). Until now, that is. Enter Susan Neiman, an American philosopher who directs the Einstein Forum in Berlin and has authored numerous acclaimed volumes.
While Neiman is a serious scholar, her latest book, Left Is Not Woke, is a cringe-inducing screed against a group she terms “the woke”—without ever telling us whom, exactly, she is talking about. In a series of essays that often border on parody, Neiman argues that “woke” progressives have abandoned core values of the traditional Left in favor of a mélange of pessimistic relativism that reduces everyone to their identity. Pleading with “the woke left” to change course, Neiman insists that its adherents must entertain “doubt” about their view of politics, but at the same time refuses to countenance any doubt about her own.
Sloppily written, Left Is Not Woke is chock full of ad hominem attacks and ungenerous readings. At several points, Neiman mocks other thinkers as “childish,” as lacking the “everyday wisdom we expect grownups to have.” Neiman suggests that Michel Foucault, one of the few thinkers with whom she engages substantively, was merely a “nihilist” who needed “an introductory course in logic.”
Disdain infuses her language. Commenting on the “rage” that she argues (without evidence) permeates American society, she rages about “the music that blares in every restaurant to ensure you must shout at your dinner partner in order to have what counts as conversation.” She’s frustrated too with advertising lingo, at one point sounding off on a blueberry slogan (“BERRIES DON’T CARE,” she seethes), and seems to think as a result that Americans can’t “be expected to question fake news.” And the “woke” with whom she disagrees “do not realize how heavily they are weighed down by the theoretical views they hold.” I even agree with her on some points—loud music at restaurants is annoying—but the condescension doesn’t illuminate anything. It merely grates.
From the jump, Neiman’s argument sputters, in large part because, contrary to the training of first-year philosophy students, she neglects to clearly define her key term: the whom, or what, that she identifies as “the woke.” At one point they are corporations whose “woke capitalism […] hijacks demands for diversity in order to increase profit.” At another moment, it is Hillary Clinton, whom Neiman quotes out of context in order to (incorrectly) claim that the former secretary of state praised far-right Italian premier Giorgia Meloni. At one point, “the woke” are Black Lives Matter activists, who offended Neiman by describing white progressives as mere “allies” in the fight against racism. Elsewhere, it seems to be anyone asking friends and colleagues to use their preferred pronouns. The fact of the matter is that these groups, individuals, and movements subscribe to very different political views, and often disagree with each other. But that’s remarkably unimportant to Neiman, who has no difficulty lumping them together. They’re all “woke”!
It should not be surprising, I suppose, though it certainly is more astonishing, that Neiman likewise fails to unambiguously define what she means by “left.” In the opening paragraphs, she tells us that she is not a liberal and identifies as a “socialist.” But when she defines the core ideals of “the left”—“a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress”—they sound much more like classical liberal values than those of a red-blooded Marxist. As her argument wobbles along, it becomes clear that Neiman does, in fact, mean “liberalism” when she refers to the Left.
Struggling to define her terms, Neiman also struggles to clearly articulate the (imagined) position of her (imagined) “woke” interlocutors, who become the straw men one suspects she really wants them to be. She criticizes the “vehemence of woke arguments about the importance of pronouns,” for instance, without pointing to a single example of such vehemence (nor does she note the rising violence that LGBTQ+ people face in their daily lives). She insinuates that “the woke” believe “only tribal interests are genuine” but fails to identify a source for this claim. And “[m]ost woke activists,” Neiman informs us, are unwilling “to acknowledge what some forms of progress had achieved in the past.” Here, too, I was shocked—shocked!—to find no evidence. As a rhetorical strategy, it’s too clever by half. If your reader doesn’t know who or what you’re talking about, they might not be able to call you a liar, but they can ask for a citation.
To the extent that the book has a coherent argument, though, it is this: the contemporary Left has turned away from universalism, justice, and progress, which Neiman contends originated in the European Enlightenment, in favor of a more relativistic progressivism that stems from the works of Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, and other 20th-century philosophers. Ultimately, she claims, this shift towards “woke” progressivism hampers the ability of leftists to articulate a coherent political vision and leads them into hopelessness.
The book thus sets out to defend the Enlightenment against “standard contemporary readings,” which are more accurately just called critical readings. For much of the last century, the Enlightenment—a loose movement of European intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries who emphasized individual reason over tradition and religion—occupied a privileged place in the origin stories of liberalism. It was the moment when human rights and democracy became thinkable to Europeans as organizing political principles.
But in recent decades, historians have begun taking a second, more critical look. While Enlightenment philosophers made grandiose claims about rights, justice, and reason, scholars asked if it was possible to reconcile those vaunted ideals with the fact that the period witnessed a rapid expansion in European colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and discourses of “scientific” racism. The Declaration of Independence, penned by the one of greatest American Enlightenment philosophers, may have held out the promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but at the time of its signing, hundreds of thousands of humans were held in bondage in our country. Was this an unfortunate coincidence or did something deeper connect the Enlightenment’s universalist rhetoric and human slavery?
Many have concluded that it was not simply coincidence, but rather that “the Enlightenment created modern race thinking.” As evidence, scholars needed to look no further than the writings of Enlightenment philosophers. Immanuel Kant, for instance, one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers, contended in 1775 that “the Negro […] is lazy, soft and trifling.” John Locke, undoubtedly one of the most influential political philosophers in European history, owned shares in slave-trading companies and leveraged Enlightenment “reason” to defend the practice.
Making sense of this seeming paradox, scholars like Uday Singh Mehta have helped us to see that the Enlightenment’s understanding of reason was a particularly European one that viewed the rest of the world as “a vacant field, already weeded, where history has been brought to a nullity,” a dark morass receptive to being enlightened. In so doing, Enlightenment thought often relied on modern science to argue that white Europeans were constitutionally superior to people in other parts of the world. They were thus the privileged vessels of reason, a precious commodity that needed to be brought to the rest of the world, by force if necessary. That version of Enlightenment reason was not a value-neutral heuristic, but rather an imposition of European power on a global scale. After all, Mozart’s famous opera The Magic Flute, which historian Paul Robinson has described as “fully explicit in its Enlightenment values,” stakes a claim that only white men can access reason.
If the point of these critiques—as I read them—is not that Enlightenment thought is entirely without value, but rather that it can be (and has been) used to justify terrible things when unquestioningly accepted, Neiman will hear none of it. By criticizing the Enlightenment, she insists, such scholars have created a reality in which “reason itself is now identified with oppression.” That this same “reason” has been used to defend slavery, imperialism, war, and ethnic cleansing is waved aside. “It’s now an article of faith,” Neiman writes—without telling us for whom—“that universalism, like other Enlightenment ideas, is a sham that was invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism.” By turning its back on the Enlightenment, Neiman insists, the modern Left has fallen into “tribalism,” defending political claims on grounds of identity rather than universal rights or aspirations.
But because Neiman does not bother engaging with the substance of these critiques of Enlightenment, her counterarguments ring hollow. Instead, we get a litany of cherry-picked quotes from a few of her favorite philosophers (Kant foremost among them), which purport to prove that “the Enlightenment was pathbreaking in rejecting Eurocentrism” and questioning imperialism. The upshot, according to Neiman? The Enlightenment “succeeded in giving [colonialism] a bad conscience.” What a relief that must be to the tens of millions of victims of European imperialism! Thomas Jefferson may have enslaved some 600 human beings, but at least he did it with a guilty conscience.
Neiman sets her sights on Foucault as an exemplar of this turn away from Enlightenment reason, arguing that he pioneered a worldview held today by “the woke left.” The French philosopher, who still looms large over academic discourse, did indeed question the principles of the Enlightenment. In dozens of books, lectures, and essays, he contended that while Enlightenment ideas may have made the world more humane, they also substituted naked and obvious domination for far more insidious forms of power that work through norms and institutions to shape our very existence.
Foucault contended that, starting around the 18th century, modern societies began to insert themselves into every nook and cranny of life. Education, health, leisure, and even sex—they all came under the purview of new scientific discourses and government policies, which set up distinctions between what was normal or acceptable and what was not. And because these norms were enforced not only through edicts backed up with the threat of violence but also through subtler means, these more insidious forms of power and control were able to hide in plain sight. We may believe we have agency over our lives, Foucault argued, but so many of the decisions we make each day are no decisions at all. Rather, they are predetermined actions produced by a web of norms and assumptions baked into the very fabric of society.
Foucault’s critique of modernity, while it has long been criticized for robbing individuals of agency and leading to cynicism or even despair, was not merely an academic one. The philosopher was himself a committed political activist deeply involved in the French prison-reform movement. And his conception of normative power has had a profound influence on generations of activists on both sides of the Atlantic, for whom his analysis provides a language and a strategy for confronting those in power, those who might tell you that your demands are unreasonable and dismiss your actions as irrational.
Take, for example, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which did not succeed in putting AIDS on the national agenda simply through measured debate, as Neiman might have preferred. ACT UP made change by engaging in direct protest—like throwing ashes of the AIDS dead on the White House lawn or storming the National Institutes of Health—that not only confronted mendacious politicians and doctors but also aimed to change the very language with which Americans discussed HIV, homosexuality, and the realm of political possibility. Those activists may have been seen as “unreasonable,” but no one can deny they were effective. And those tactics were grounded in the first volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1978), which queer theorist David Halperin found was ACT UP members’ “single most important intellectual source of political inspiration.”
If Neiman were serious about her desire to understand Foucault’s “influence on contemporary culture,” she would have sought to explain why so many progressives, the very activists with whom she claims to empathize, have found Foucault to be such an inspiring and productive thinker. Instead, she wants to convince us that he was actually a conservative. “[H]is message was as reactionary as anything Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre ever wrote,” she insists.
It is not an unfamiliar role for Foucault, whom Jürgen Habermas once denounced as one of the “young conservatives” of postmodern thought. By rejecting the Enlightenment’s universalizing claims, the argument goes, his work robs us of our ability to better the world. Neiman declares that, by showing how “claims to justice are developed to disguise power-driven interests,” Foucault drags us back “to a world in which might—call it power—makes right, which amounts to no concept of right at all.” And by unearthing how progress has often been accompanied by new forms of violence and control, he supposedly rejects the very notion of progress, leading the modern Left into hopelessness. But in characterizing Foucault—and the contemporary Left—in this way, she confuses diagnosis for prescription. Foucault was not advocating for a world in which justice was a proxy for power. He was pointing out that this is the world we live in, whether we like it or not.
In her aspiration to smear Foucault, Neiman goes so far as to tie him and “the woke left” to Nazism. Comparing him with Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who, according to Neiman, shared with Foucault “a deep skepticism toward any idea of progress,” she suggests that by rejecting the Enlightenment, the contemporary Left has embraced the intellectual tenets of fascism. The “woke insistence on a tribal understanding of culture,” Neiman tells us, “is not far enough from a Nazi insistence that German music should only be played by Aryans.” If you equate those fighting for queer rights and those fighting against police brutality with the Nazis, you have lost the plot. It’s a cheap shot and shoddy argument, unworthy of a scholar of Neiman’s standing.
Left Is Not Woke, at its occasional best, is a plea for hope in progress. At times, Neiman does express sympathy for contemporary progressives, recognizing their “best of intentions” and acknowledging shared goals. But if her aim is to convince those on “the woke left” to take a second look at the universal ideals of justice and progress, why does she frame the book in such ungenerous, polemical terms?
I do not have an answer. But Left Is Not Woke makes clear that Neiman has missed the point of the contemporary Left—a messy grouping of activist movements facing off against the intersectional crises of the present: climate change, gun violence, war, famine, fascism, police violence, carceral violence, transphobia—the list goes on. In fact, by lumping these groups into a monolithic whole, Neiman has imposed order, hierarchy, and coherence where there are, in fact, often little more than complex and overlapping sympathies among an inherently fractured political Left.
What these groups do share is the certainty that if we have any hope of confronting the future—of even surviving into the future—we need new ways of thinking. We need doubt about the structures and ideas that brought us to this point. If we are living in a world that the Enlightenment made, a world that in the centuries since Kant’s first editions has suffered imperialism, genocide, climate change, and more—much of it imposed by “enlightened” Europeans—it is worth asking if the Enlightenment is all its advocates purport it to be.
At its best, Enlightenment thought teaches us to be skeptical of received wisdom, to question sources of power and structures of domination. This is precisely what the Foucauldian inheritance teaches too. It is, in large part, the project of the contemporary Left. The challenges we face are daunting, made all the more so by entrenched norms and powerful interests with a stake in maintaining the status quo. But, as Foucault writes, “[w]here there is power, there is resistance.” And there’s nothing more hopeful than that.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, focusing on modern Germany and the history of sexuality, and the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men Between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (2022). His essays have appeared in The Point, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
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