Watching the contortions of otherwise patriotic Trump supporters as they tried to obfuscate after the Helsinki summit, I was reminded of the president’s ace card. No, not the advantages conferred by Russian interference or the electoral college, but the perception revealed in repeated studies that “political correctness” has become too restrictive; an opinion that crossed socioeconomic lines among voters and was second only to party affiliation in predicting support for him.
In response to this observation, progressives have often pointed out that many right wingers weaponize “PC panic” to destroy left-wing credibility. They are correct, but the issue isn’t going away.
Recent polling data shows Trump enjoying favorability ratings comparable to Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and Obama’s numbers at the same time in their presidencies, despite deeply unpopular actions like the separation of families. And even after the infamous Helsinki summit, fresh polls showed Trump’s disgraceful performance has not impacted his overall numbers. (Only a Gallup poll, out this week, shows Trump being knocked out of the low 40s and into the high 30s.)
Indeed, given this, and the pan-Western struggles of center-left politics generally, such culture wars bear re-examination. A crucial question should be: Just how left-wing is PC overreach, really?
In any given month, the right can take their pick from at least a dozen “crazy leftist” stories. Whether it’s no-white-people pool parties or one more musician charged with cultural appropriation, the pattern is familiar. First, woke agitators break out into hysteria; afterwards, their critics decry “the left.” Yet under the weight of this tribal scrapping lies a more complex truth — one that is less gratifying to either side. Here it is: Much “woke” politics is a lot less radical, and a lot less “left” than each side thinks.
The reference here is not to practical, structural fights such as those for a living wage and universal health care, or those that address racial carceral biases for equivalent crimes, police brutality, or the egregious policies of right-wing populists. Instead, I have in mind the kind of micropolitics that rules the internet, patrolling the borders of the personal, hunting for the politically “problematic.” The kind that aims its guns at soft — often left-wing — targets. The kind that savaged liberal novelist Laura Moriarty for writing a fable in solidarity with Muslims in the wake of Trump’s election. The kind that harangued a teenage Utahan girl on Twitter for wearing a Chinese dress. The kind of Tucker Carlson Tonight material that belongs in right-wing wet dreams, except it does exist in non-REM state. You could call it hysterical wokeness.
In a loop that shows no sign of abating, the hysterical woke shrieks, and people who will happily gut public services pass them a microphone. And in these performances what is most always allowed to go unmentioned is the role that so many capital-driven phenomena play. Tech, corporatism, the incentivization of outrage, and decades of litigation culture have helped to embed these patterns in public life. Those with an interest in resolving the cultural impasse will have to look a lot further than the machinations of contradictorily dubbed “postmodern neo-Marxists” on university campuses.
Trolling for Outrage
Recently, the U.S. Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on campus free speech challenges, in response to the infamous college culture wars that have increasingly erupted, sometimes violently.
While the hearing itself didn’t attract that much media attention, scant coverage was predictably skewed; right-wing outlets reported it sympathetically, woke publications scare-quoted free speech and implied that perhaps its martyrs — such as (Bernie Sanders supporter) Bret Weinstein — in pursuit of Patreon funding and speaking engagements, had somehow pre-empted the baseball-bat-clutching crowds that drove him from his post at the now-infamous Evergreen campus. While it is extremely unlikely that such motivations drove Weinstein’s outspokenness, as a phenomenon it of course happens.
From hard-right heroes deliberately flouting the reporting restrictions of criminal trials to satisfy their audiences, to diversity consultants accused of stirring up boycotts before swooping in to offer their services, trolling for outrage can be a cash cow on the right and the left. All along the political spectrum, hyperbole has become incentivized click by click. Everybody knows that when you run a headline such as “Why Can’t We Hate Men?,” numberless reasonable people will read simply out of anger.
When we speak of political outrage, then, we are not simply referring to cultural phenomena but economic imperatives. Those of us who complain about the hysteria that characterizes public discourse these days must contend with the fact that it is not merely a behavioral trend, but one underpinned by the mighty bottom line. There is strong neuroscientific evidence that outrage stimulates the reward centers in the brain. From the comfort of our homes, screen in hand, we can see for ourselves that the world is going to hell in a handcart. The algorithms that govern our online lives see to it that this indignance, this vigilance, is constantly validated.
Is the increasing polarization and radicalization we are witnessing at all surprising? We are, all of us, getting high off being pissed.
Identity Politics and Data Profiling
Practical left-wing politics concerns itself with bridging gaps, pooling risk, and reaping rewards in coalition — see Bernie Sanders’ truly woke slogan “Not Me, Us.”
This is anathema to the endless nit-picking and mostly impotent personal testimony we see on woke Twitter. Outrage click-baiters and busybody micropoliticians that want to legislate for clothes and hairstyles — the kind of antics which NeverTrump conservatives and frustrated liberals blame for Trump’s rise — are frequently referred to reductively as the left. This is a misnomer.
Of course, the atomization of social justice movements didn’t begin with social media. Many 19th-century battles for suffrage were characterized by competing factions (white women and black men in the U.S., for example). And political historians and aging hippies alike will attest to the fracturing of left-wing coalitions in the late 1960s, as women, sexual minorities, and people of color found their needs unmet by the brocialists of their time.
In academia, this tendency was paralleled by the increasing influence of postmodernist thinking, within which scholars like Foucault, et al, and later their descendants such as Judith Butler, championed a micropolitics of self. And of course, concepts from black feminism such as intersectionality became enormously popular as a means of attempting to understand the varying challenges different marginalized groups faced.
But who could have foreseen social media, which would afford an explosive social atomization that is at once category-affirming and narcissistic. Which is to say that it positively coerces us all into increasingly differentiated group profiles, the sum of which is our own personal barcode; white, cis, het, depression sufferer, vegan, and on and on. In daily data-mining transactions, in return for “free” digital services, we are bracketed by age, income, ethnicity, political affiliation, sexuality, etc., not for the purposes of politics but profit. In such a world, is it any wonder that increasingly sub-dividing category politics has become so popular?
When we all have our own little avatar in pursuit of likes and retweets, is it surprising that politics is so performative and self-expressive? In such an environment it is entirely fitting that, as the historian of ideas Mark Lilla has it, for many self-proclaimed lefties, speaking truth to power has become more important than “seizing power to defend the truth.” We are indeed witnessing what Lilla terms “Reaganism for lefties”: a cultural outgrowth of millennial capitalism.
Fittingly, then, this micropolitics often has very little to say about economic issues, except to bemoan “classist” prejudice and to fetishize the working class as one more identity to be performed. Note the woke identity purist attacks that writers like British journalist James Bloodworth have faced after going undercover to expose the scandalous working conditions of corporate giants like Amazon. He is no longer a low-wage worker himself; ergo, he is not sufficiently “authentic.” This is aesthetic fetishism in place of class politics. And it poses no threat whatsoever to wage depreciation or deunionization.
Indeed, we know that for all the visible ascendency of some left-wing cultural politics, when the cash is counted, the left is not winning the fight. In fact, paradoxically, it is the precarity created by Reaganite policies in recent decades that in large part drives the “epidemic of cowardice” we see in response to the witch hunts associated with the hysterical woke. Both precarious economics and performative politics feed each other symbiotically; one needn’t be a Marxist to see that. When losing your job means losing your health care, the price for voicing an insufficiently woke opinion is often too high to pay.
In the panoptical world we live in, where every word, deed, and cup of coffee can be up for digital display, the self-referential, language-obsessed micropolitics touted by many academic postmodernists has gone mainstream.
This micropolitics is all but impotent in the face of powerful right-wing populism and economic precarity. It is a politics in which power is to be wrestled with everywhere, speech is violence, and call-outs are a call of duty; a politics which declares, as Michael Ian Black recently did: “Theater is political. Sports are political. Everything is political. Be political.” In an exchange that in microcosm symbolizes the dance we’ve been doing for the last few years, Black’s statement left the perfect opening for famous left-decrier Dave Rubin to retort:
Progressives want everything to be political, because they want to control every facet of your life. … If we had a slim, trim government that couldn’t affect our lives other than protect our lives and property, there would be no desire for everything to be political.
Within this “everything is political” atmosphere, corporations eagerly scramble to display their woke credentials, and frequently, left and right forget what primarily drives them. A recent row over Penguin Random House is a case in point. The publishing giant issued a diversity memo setting the target for “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect U.K. society by 2025…taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility, and disability.” Add to that the announcement that college degree requirements for almost all jobs were to be scrapped, and the heads of many un-wokes were set to collectively explode.
Self-proclaimed iconoclast and award-winning author Lionel Shriver wrote an irreverent piece decrying the move as a subjugation of the publisher’s primary purpose, declaring PRH “drunk on virtue.” In turn, many on Twitter denounced her, and she was dropped as the judge of a women’s fiction competition.
Does PRH genuinely want to increase inclusion, and is such an instinct noble? For certain. But I’d also wager that a significant facet of what drives policies like these is the bottom line, particularly in an industry like books which relies ever more on social media. Booksellers increasingly believe that to market their products they must find authors who are willing to talk about themselves and their issues — a lot. They must find people who are willing to hashtag threads pertaining to hot takes du jour while testifying to their own experience. They must be seen to be woke. Penguin Random House has first and foremost made a business decision.
It is an inconvenient truth for the super-woke and many of their detractors that the trend towards identity quotas and speech puritanism is not simply driven by an increasingly right-on cohort of professionals, but by marketing models ever more reliant on social media. Not to mention decades of profit-driven litigation culture which has made universities and companies alike more censorious. Since winning damages necessitates the demonstration of harm, litigation culture has also helped to encourage hyperbole in public discourse. In other words, those oft-decried safe spaces and pitchfork-driven firings are as much to do with corporate risk management and branding as they are to do with the utopian fantasies of busybody micropoliticians that people call left wing.
Crucially, then, right-wing critics like Peter Hitchens have it wrong when they say that speech codes and their ilk are simply stealth Marxism. They are, in today’s West, capital’s incorporation of the language of egalitarianism. Much of “woke” leftism emerges out of the tentacular reach of millennial markets, rather than as a credible challenge to their excesses.
What many imagine to be a radical reshifting of voices is also the inevitable progeny of selfie culture, in which it isn’t winning that matters, but demonstrating that you have taken part. This is tragic, at a time in which so many truly disadvantaged people have never needed practical left-of-center politics more. And yet in enormous swathes of the West, the left is in retreat at the polls.
Yes, activism is now firmly near the top of many big-brand marketing agendas, whether supermarkets or soda companies. Of course, barely any of these causes ever have a thing to say about economics and labor. It is a lot simpler to appropriate images of protest to sell soda than to ensure there are no exploitative practices in your supply chain. How much easier it is for a speech infraction shaming to take hold than a tax evasion boycott. How much simpler to burn one person’s life to the ground for thought-crime than organize to reform electoral finance laws.
People call these movements collectivist but they are often anything but. A social media driven world — personalization, testimony, I, Me, My — is a perfect fit for the micropolitics of self. We call this “the left” but any political impulse that demands constant self-preoccupation is decidedly un-left. Sincere NeverTrump conservatives, frustrated liberals, and above all left-wingers themselves, all have a vested interest in resisting pan-Anglosphere micropolitical nit-picking, while recognizing it for what it is — bound up within the mutations, and the profit-seeking preoccupations, of contemporary markets.