What’s Woke?

From progressive liberalism to post-liberal progressivism

By Carol Horton

Soon after I launched Liberal Confessions, a few readers challenged me to be more specific about what I meant when talking about “wokeism.” Like me, they’d long identified with the progressive liberal side of the American political spectrum. Unlike me, they didn’t perceive woke politics as inimical to those commitments. On the contrary, they saw them as a salutary extension.

Sure, they acknowledged: Overly zealous woke activists sometimes push things too far. There are, at times, “excesses.” But, they pointed out, that’s only to be expected. It’s an unavoidable part of any meaningful process of social change. You’ve got to break a few eggs and so on. In the bigger picture, it’s all for the greater good.

I didn’t agree with that sanguine perspective then and don’t now. Nonetheless, they had a point: I hadn’t defined my terms with sufficient precision. At the time, I couldn’t because I was still trying to figure out what I thought about “wokeism” and why. But I’m now ready to float a more coherent analysis (which, since it’s a lot to read, will be broken up into a series of several posts).

One conclusion I’ve come to is that a more accurate (if much less catchy) name for “wokeism” is “post-liberal progressivism” (PLP).1 This term signals that what seems like the wholly new ideology of “wokeism” has, in fact, been incubating within the increasingly hollow shell of post-WW2 progressive liberalism (PL) for decades. PLP (a.k.a. wokeism) is neither a sharp break with progressive liberalism nor an organic extension of it. The two are distinct, yet overlapping and interpolated paradigms. But the former has been growing stronger while the latter has been breaking down and moving into crisis.

Progressive Confusion

Admittedly, it’s difficult to keep the acronyms “PLP” versus “PL” straight because they’re so similar. Consequently, I’ll continue to use the colloquial “wokeism” for clarity much of the time. Still, I like the PLP/PL framework in part because the very confusion it generates is emblematic of the social realities it references. The fact that these acronyms only differ by one letter, yet have fundamentally different meanings is intended to make a point. One is “liberal,” the other “post-liberal.” And yet at first glance, the boundary between them is so blurry, they’re difficult to keep straight.

This confusion is perfectly in keeping with what many people, particularly on the center-left, have been experiencing for years now as they try to make sense of the political/cultural developments going on around them. (Since those on the right tend to be happy to castigate everything on the left as one big undifferentiated disaster, they’re not similarly afflicted.) And there are good reasons for that: When it comes to contemporary left politics, such perplexity is, as they say, a feature, not a bug.

The roller coaster graphic at the top of this post is meant to evoke the dizzying sense of disorientation that countless people have felt in recent years as they’ve tried to parse the relationship between new-school woke progressivism and old-school progressive liberalism. As advocates of the former have seized control of more and more of the powerful institutions and cultural messaging that used to be the provenance of the latter, the pace of societal change has speeded up exponentially. By and large, this has sowed confusion among progressive liberals, stoked reaction among conservatives, and increased cynicism, alienation, and mistrust among the vast ranks of the politically alienated and disengaged.

From what I’ve been, the vast majority of left-of-center liberals seem to think that they “should” unquestioningly support each and every woke campaign that comes down the pike (#metoo, “defund the police,” “trans women are women,” hyper-cautious Covid everything, etc.). This reflexive support holds true even though in most cases they’re not truly enthusiastic or even knowledgeable about the cause. Still, there’s a strong tendency to at least tacitly support it nonetheless. Being openly critical of woke politics in left-liberal circles makes people extremely uncomfortable. It’s a conversation most simply do not want to have.

Why is this happening? Obviously, each individual and every situation varies. That said, in most cases, it’s most likely some combination of:

  1. sincere confusion about whether one’s progressive political priors (for those who’ve long held them) are truly in need of “updating” whether you genuinely understand why or not;
  2. legitimate fears about the personal and professional repercussions of questioning woke shibboleths (which, of course, very much depends on your social networks, family dynamics, and employment situation);
  3. the natural human tendency to want to fit in with one’s peer group — which, if you travel in progressive liberal circles, has almost certainly become heavily wokeified or at least woke-adjacent;
  4. the natural human tendency to not want to experience a serious disruption of core patterns of identity and belief that are deeply rooted in your personal experience and psyche; and
  5. a sense that something fundamental is indeed wrong with contemporary society, that old-school progressive liberalism hasn’t delivered on its promises, that something more radical is needed — and that post-liberal progressivism, or wokeism, represents the new force needed to make positive social change.

In my view, the sense that something fundamental is off — not only with old-school progressive liberalism, but American society in general — and that a new political movement is needed is 100% correct. (Right-of-center politics, it should be noted, are absolutely not off the hook. I’m simply not focusing on them here.) The default left-of-center presumption that whether we can explain why or not, it must somehow be true that wokeism emerged as a needed response to this crisis and is therefore capable of constructively addressing it, however, is 100% wrong.

Personally, I’d love to see a new political movement that preserves the positive changes that old-school progressive liberalism did, at least in my opinion, achieve (establishing a social safety net, securing anti-discrimination protections, normalizing more flexible gender roles, legalizing gay marriage, etc.) while identifying and addressing its most problematic lacunas and externalities (e.g., escalating inequality, anti-democratic elitism, cultural malaise). Instead, with post-liberal/woke progressivism, we have a phenomenon that does precisely the opposite: It discounts and undermines the positive achievements of the progressive liberalism that preceded it while doubling down on its worst blind spots, unintended consequences, and unrecognized pathologies.

Common Commitments, Contradictory Theories

The fact that the relationship between PL and PLP is so confusing makes it difficult to see these dynamics. To a significant extent, such opacity is an inevitable result of the fact that progressive liberalism and post-liberal progressivism have been overlapping and intertwining for decades, both in theory and practice.

This post examines this relationship in terms of political theory; subsequent ones will examine how it has played out in practical realms such as law, policy, business, and education. Before getting more into theory, however, it’s worth briefly noting that PL and PLP are, of course, conceptual abstractions. People don’t think and act in accordance with well-defined political paradigms in real life. Nonetheless, such “ideal types” are always needed to make sense out of what are inevitably much more complex realities.

That said, one reason it can be hard to distinguish between PL and PLP is that they share certain core political commitments. The precise language used varies. And the underlying theories of self and society that undergird them are different. Nonetheless, both evidence a strong allegiance to some of the same broadly defined political ideals. Most notably, these include:

  • EQUALITY. At least in terms of their own self-understanding, both PL and PLP are uncompromisingly committed to achieving equality for historically oppressed, marginalized, and/or stigmatized social groups. In both cases, the primary emphasis in this regard is on those that have been defined in terms of race, gender, and sexuality (Blacks, women, gays, etc.).
  • LIBERATION. Both PL and PLP posit that meaningful equality can’t be achieved without liberating people from the artificial constraints imposed by oppressive social structures and cultural norms. Both see such liberation as simultaneously individual and collective projects, believing that the two are necessarily entwined. In practice, this means that there is always a cultural dimension to politics that extends beyond the realm of law and policy per se.

What’s confusing is that PL and PLP understand the underlying bases of these shared commitments to equality and liberation in ways that are not simply different, but antithetical. Unless these deeper foundations are explicitly acknowledged, however, they’re usually not seen. Consequently, if it’s more politically convenient and/or psychologically comfortable to obscure them, it’s easy to do so — and often done.

Specifically, progressive liberalism is part of a much larger liberal tradition, which (as discussed in a previous post) has also historically contained its conservative counterpart. Both the more left/progressive or right/conservative varieties of liberalism share a common commitment to principles including individual rights, limited government, a market-based economy, the public/private distinction, and the rule of law. In the U.S. context, this translates into an allegiance to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which together form the cultural and structural bedrock of the American liberal tradition. Consequently, when progressive liberals in the U.S. champion ideals of “equality” and “liberation,” they’re either explicitly or (more often) implicitly assumed to be compatible with this overarching liberal framework.

In contrast, “post-liberal progressivism” is rooted in a much more recently developed body of political thought that, while it has no widely agreed-upon name, can be fairly called “critical social justice” (CSJ). The liberal tradition dates back to the 17th century. CSJ, in contrast, is rooted in the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s-70s, particularly the “new social movements” for racial, sexual, and gender-based equality and liberation. Beginning in the 1970s, a loose network of complementary yet distinct political/intellectual projects grew out of these movements, including radical feminism, critical race theory, and queer theory.

The concept of “intersectionality,” which was coined by critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, provides the overarching framework needed to coalesce these various fields under one broadly defined Critical Social Justice umbrella. Of course, there are many differences among them. They tend to share, however, a common grounding in post-modernism and post-structuralism, as well as an allegiance to cultural radicalism and “strategically essentialist” identities rooted in race, gender, and sexuality. As such, they correspondingly share a rejection of modern “metanarratives,” Enlightenment values, and — most crucially for this discussion — liberalism.

The fact that CSJ is foundationally opposed to liberalism is stated over and over again in the various scholarly literatures that comprise it. Nonetheless, many progressive liberals remain genuinely confused about whether CSJ-infused woke politics represent a needed extension of their own, fundamentally liberal commitments or not. Considering the explicit hostility to liberalism evidenced in CSJ-aligned political theory, this is an odd situation. How can it best be explained?

An Anti-Liberal Elite

The core fact needed to make sense of this situation is that while CSJ is fundamentally anti-liberal in theory, it’s also managed to become deeply entrenched in foundational liberal institutions in practice. In order to execute this manoeuver, CSJ’s inherent anti-liberalism has been modified as necessary to succeed within such presumptively liberal enclaves as academia, journalism, business, and law. In the process, the boundaries between post-liberal progressivism and progressive liberalism have often been deliberately blurred.

In their seminal text, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press, 2001), for example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain that:

Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law (p.3).

In the 2017 updated edition of the same book, they ask: “What is the situation of critical race theory today?” Instructively, they note that:

Critical race theory is taught at many law schools and has spread to other disciplines and countries. Some judges incorporate its ideas into opinions, often without labeling them as such. Lawyers use critical race theory techniques to advocate on behalf of clients and to expose bias within the system . . . critical race theory remains a dynamic force on the American legal and cultural scene (pp. 77, 91).

The fact that critical race theory is incorporated into judicial opinions “often without labeling” it as such is emblematic of the confusing interpolation of post-liberal progressivism and progressive liberalism. The “rule of law” is, after all, a bedrock principle of liberalism. If judges entrusted to manage it are incorporating anti-liberal theories into their decisions that aren’t flagged as such, it’s very hard for ordinary people who support liberal values but aren’t legal experts to decipher what’s going on.

Anti-liberal feminist theory has had a particularly powerful impact on policy and law. (Of course, not all feminism is anti-liberal. Liberal feminism, however, is definitely not part of the CSJ paradigm.) Radical feminist and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, for example, argues forcefully against liberalism in her enormously influential book, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (Harvard University Press, 1989):

Liberal legalism (is) a medium for making male dominance both invisible and legitimate by adopting the male point of view at the same time as it enforces that view on society . . . In the liberal state, the rule of law — neutral, abstract, elevated, pervasive — both institutionalizes the power of men over women and institionalizes power in its male form (pp. 237-238).

Liberalism, in other words, only pretends to be committed to equal rights for all. In reality, it’s a perniciously powerful way of constructing, legitimating, and enforcing men’s oppression of women.

If MacKinnon has been uncompromising in her denunciation of the liberal legal order, however, she’s also had enormous professional success within it. A chaired professor at Harvard Law School, her extraordinary scope of accomplishment is summarized on her faculty web page:

She conceived sexual abuse as a violation of equality rights, pioneering the legal claim for sexual harassment as sex discrimination in employment and education; with Andrea Dworkin, she recognized the harms of pornography as civil rights violations and proposed the Swedish Model to abolish prostitution. Her approach to equality has been largely accepted in Canada and elsewhere.

Liberalism as Totalizing Oppression

To be sure, MacKinnon is an exceptional figure. But her ability to combine sweeping denunciations of liberalism with significant professional success within its core institutions is representative of a much larger phenomenon. While there are numerous camps within feminism, critical race theory, and other CSJ fields of theory/practice, such takedowns of liberalism are emblematic of the entire terrain. And liberalism is not simply rejected because the reforms it has leveraged have been too partial or slow. Although that critique is certainly present, the CSJ rejection of liberalism runs much deeper than that.

From the critical post-modernist perspective that informs CSJ, liberalism is a totalizing system of power/knowledge that incorporates the “intersecting” substructures of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, “cis” privilege, capitalism, colonialism, and other related forms of oppression within it. Liberal principles such as free speech and even individualism are seen as inextricable from this matrix of domination. From this perspective, it’s impossible to parse the positive aspects of liberalism from the negative ones. Everything is woven together in one all-enveloping, blinding and suffocating web.

The question of how CSJ-informed activists nonetheless manage to punch openings through this otherwise all-encompassing matrix of oppression and lead us towards the promised land of equality and liberation has never been adequately addressed — because it can’t be. As Charles Taylor laid out in his brilliant critique of Michel Foucault back in the mid-80s, the underlying political theory, which simultaneously posits all-encompassing domination and guiding lodestars of freedom and truth, is incoherent. But no matter: Such critiques can, after all, be easily ignored as yet another instance of rationalist liberal oppression.

Still, some CSJ theorists recognize that there is a logical contradiction between theory and practice that needs to be explained: How can you simultaneously insist that liberalism is a totalistically oppressive system and yet work successfully within its core institutions as part of the struggle for equality and liberation?

Feminist law professor Ann Scales tackles this question in the pioneering compendium, Feminist and Queer Legal Theory (Ashgate, 2009). “Queer theory,” she writes, “is poststructuralist, insisting on contingency around every corner, and denying that “metanarratives” of epistemology and psychology and social theory can ever be discovered or reliably deployed. On the other hand,” she points out, “law is, by definition, structuralist.” To resolve this conundrum, Scales argues that:

Law in daily struggle can’t follow a poststructuralist logic to the conclusion that all law, even that which purports to liberate, inevitably coerces and reinscribes oppression . . . We need some legal categories, however temporary or imperfect (pp. 396, 400).

Notably, the fact that the “poststructuralist logic” she espouses directly contradicts both the foundational liberal commitments of her chosen profession and the concrete structures of law within which her queer activist work occurs doesn’t cause her to doubt, let alone abandon it. This makes sense on its own terms: If you’re committed to the proposition that rationality and logic are part the totalizing web of oppression that must be dismantled, then you’re entitled to disregard such contradictions whenever convenient.

Post-Liberal, Inside & Out

The core tenets of critical race theory, MacKinnonite feminism, queer theory, and other schools of Critical Social Justice have established significant beachheads in every major profession, including not only law, but also K-12 education, academia, journalism, medicine, business, tech, psychology, philanthropy, the nonprofit world, and, of course, politics. This makes for an odd situation: On the one hand, the foundational theories of CSJ uncompromisingly attack the entire liberal order. On the other hand, professional advocates of CSJ have achieved enormous success within many if not most of its core institutions.

Logically, this suggests that either the professional proponents of CSJ aren’t nearly as radical as they like to think — or that liberal institutions aren’t nearly as liberal as they like to claim. Personally, I believe both are true. That’s why I’ve come to think that this new CSJ-fueled paradigm is better described as “post-liberal progressivism” than “anti-liberal radicalism.”

Here, it should be underscored that the “post-liberalism” is coming from both sides. If CSJ-driven lawyers and others were really as radical as they claim, there’s no way they’d be so successful in so many highly competitive professions. And if the institutions that educate and employ them were as firmly committed to liberal values as many progressive liberals assume they must be, then it’s unlikely that they’d champion CSJ-driven precepts, policies, and procedures to the extent that they do.

The logical conclusion is that neither group is actually all that invested in liberalism either way. Its declared enemies aren’t consistently battling it. Its presumed guardians aren’t seriously defending it. Instead, both seem happy enough to live with the apparent contradiction of anti-liberal politics flourishing within the heart of institutional liberalism.

No wonder so many people whose professional lives and personal politics don’t clue them into these dynamics don’t understand them. From the outside, they don’t make sense. Yet they’re undeniably powerful — not only in theory, but also in practice.

If progressive liberals and post-liberal progressives share certain ideals of equality and liberation, the ways in which they understand them are fundamentally different. And it’s not simply an academic quibble or thought experiment: These differences really do matter in consequential ways in the “real world.” CSJ-driven feminist activists, for example, really do want to trash the liberal commitment to due process when women accuse men of sexual misconduct — and in many instances, both legal and extra-legal, they have.

Such post-liberal ideas and practices have been operational within presumptively liberal institutions for decades. But recently, the balance has tipped. Post-liberal progressivism suddenly seems like a more powerful force than the progressive liberalism that used to be left-liberalism’s taken-for-granted default setting. Many if not most old-school progressive liberals have consequently felt disoriented and confused. Given that the interpolations of PL and PLP are increasingly complex yet still remain hard to see, this isn’t at all surprising. Retrieving some of the still-valuable aspects of liberalism from what is now revealed to be its ongoing wreckage, however, will require thinking more incisively into how its own internal problems have precipitated and even rewarded such infiltrating attacks.

Notes:

  1. This analysis has been heavily influenced by Wesley Yang’s work on “the successor ideology” and Nancy Fraser’s on “progressive neoliberalism.” If you’re interested in these issues, I highly recommend checking out both. Some good links for Yang are here and here; for Fraser, here and here.
Comments
  • Fred Clarke
    Reply

    I appreciate your summary of the intellectual, scholarly background of the critical social justice “wokeism” movement, while highlighting its fundamental internal contradictions.

    One contradiction is using the term “progressive” to label themselves. The term “progressive” is a misnomer to describe the present CSJ left. A progressive view has to appreciate the social progress that our ancestors have created, not wholesale reject it.

    The end result of critical social justice won’t be equality and liberty, but elite CSJ warrior command control over all of society. The best historical model is Lenin’s elaboration and practical implementation of Marx’s idea of the dictatorship of the prolitariat. Most Bolsheviks honestly and sincerely believed that party control over society would usher in an eventual utopia of equality and freedom. Of course, the actual result in all communist societies has been exactly the opposite: Domination by party members and subordination of all others.

    The people who pilot and support liberal institutions must push back against CSJ, not capitulate to it.

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