Just over a year ago, I wrote a lengthy article detailing all the reasons why no one should assume the far-left “Woke” ideological revolution was over, even if conservatives here in the United States were to ride what seemed a “red wave” of popular political dissatisfaction to a sweeping victory in November’s mid-term elections. Well, those elections are now over, and it turns out there wasn’t even any wave to speak of. It’s worth thinking seriously about what that result signals about where this increasingly global ideological revolution is headed.
We are now more than two years downstream from the fiery Year Zero of the Revolution, 2020, when, amid the most widespread and destructive riots in the nation’s history, nearly every public and private institution in American life (and then beyond, across nearly the whole of the broader Western world) simultaneously pledged allegiance to the same transformational illiberal ideology that had inspired the violence. The results were immediate, shocking in scope, and lasting in consequence: the primacy of racial consciousness and grievance was forcefully reintroduced into society in the name of racial “diversity” and “equity”; police departments were defunded and criminal behavior effectively decriminalized in the name of “social justice,” resulting in a deadly ongoing crime wave; elite medical and educational institutions, along with the American government, began not only to mainstream extremist concepts like the mutilating surgical “affirmation” of children’s alleged transgender identity (among other innovations) in the name of “inclusion,” but to actively seek to criminalize any opposition to these and other practices; in a coordinated effort with the state, the world’s largest technology and media giants imposed a great wave of censorship in an effort to entrench and defend the ideological hegemony of the Revolution and its values; mobbed by zealots, dissenters to the new ideological regime were summarily ousted from their positions and livelihoods; families and friendships were torn apart as the window of acceptable opinion shifted with lightning speed… This is only to scratch the surface of the traumatic upheaval that was thrust onto American society.
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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But now we know that all of this barely moved the needle in America’s tribal politics. There was either no coherent backlash to the Woke revolution at the ballot box, or its adherents proved just as numerous and motivated as its opponents. Those few tentative suggestions about how progressive policies and messaging might have gone too far, which had begun to sporadically appear as anxiety proliferated on the left ahead of the elections, will now all be swiftly forgotten. With no costs imposed for their behavior, and so no incentive to change course, the revolutionaries’ already self-confident zeal will only redouble.
Which, make no mistake, means that the Woke are now winning decisively. The reason for this is straightforward: of the key institutional high ground – from educational institutions to the media and Hollywood and the publishing houses, to the tech giants (with the recent singular exception of Elon Musk’s Twitter), to the law schools and the legal associations, to the healthcare system and medical schools, to the powerful foundations, big banks, corporate consulting giants, and stock exchanges, to even the churches, not to mention the federal government – essentially all of it is already Woke. This means that a 50-50 stalemate in the arena of democratic politics is no stalemate at all, but the continuation of a totally lopsided war of civilizational attrition.
Even a sweeping political victory in the November elections by conservatives and classical liberals would have, at best, meant merely the beginning of an exceptionally difficult and extended campaign to recapture and bring to heel nearly every elite power center in America – including, somehow, the vast unelected federal administrative state – with each kicking and screaming and throwing legal tantrums the entire way. Now nothing remotely like that is going to happen, and all direct resistance to the Woke is going to continue to be strangled at every turn.
Perhaps the best example to illustrate this reality is US civil rights law. Many of the core priorities of “Wokeness” are not simply ideological claims competing in the level playing field of some fair “battle of ideas.” Their imposition is already the law of the land and enforced by the state. The conviction that any disparity between identity groups is sufficient evidence of discrimination that must be eliminated (“disparate impact”); the necessity of racial discrimination in hiring decisions (“affirmative action”); the requirement that employers relentlessly police private speech lest it in any way be interpreted as offensive to any “protected class,” so as to prevent a “hostile work environment” – all of these are among the many legal requirements mandated by the vast scope of federal antidiscrimination statutes that grew out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Most corporate employers do not force their employees to comply with the use of radical new gender pronouns just because they’ve had some moral awakening; they do it because not doing so places them in real danger of being investigated and held liable for violation of Title IX and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by permitting discrimination on the basis of sex. They do not force their employees into lectures about their “unconscious” racial bias because they are necessarily converts to Critical Race Theory; likely they are primarily trying to protect themselves from being sued for failing to take sufficient action to prevent racial discrimination.
Or as Christopher Caldwell has painstakingly explained, the unintended legacy of the original “emergency measures” of 1964 was to create an entire permanent apparatus of “surveillance by volunteers, litigation by lawyers, and enforcement by bureaucrats.” Then “the fear of litigation privatized the suppression of disagreement, or even of speculation,” and so the phenomenon of “political correctness” emerged as simply “the cultural effect of the basic enforcement powers of civil rights law.” Wokeness is simply the most recent cultural evolution of the totalizing ideology incentivized by this progressive legal framework.
And this legal-cultural pressure doesn’t stay contained to the shores of the United States. In a globalized world, multinational companies conform to their most important markets, meaning they often bend to the long arm of US law globally. Meanwhile many European states and other members of the West have also followed (and in some cases surpassed) America’s cultural lead with similar rights-based legal frameworks. Under the combined pressure of culture and the law, the professional managerial class employed in such companies and institutions are already coming to accept the enforcement of such ideas as simply the global moral norm, while international institutions and NGOs have taken up the cause as well.
This is the kind of unrelenting edifice that would-be anti-Woke counter-revolutionaries face, not an immature gaggle of “snowflake” college radicals. The Revolution, it turns out, has already been victorious in seizing control of the technocratic regime. Without attaining sufficiently overwhelming political power to uproot or at least circumscribe such deeply entrenched structural forces as civil rights law (itself practically holy writ in American society) – or the stranglehold of the higher-education cartel, or the accreditation and licensing bodies, or the philanthropy-industrial complex that distributes tides of oligarchic money through activist NGOs, or the perverse influence of social media technologies, among much else – the advance of Woke ideas cannot be halted in a decisive engagement, no matter how disastrous and unpopular those ideas’ practical manifestations may be with a beleaguered general public.
Nor, frankly, is there much time left to spare if anti-Woke forces hope to turn back the Revolution with a democratic frontal assault. The generational divide in fundamental values is exceptionally stark. Survey research indicates that while a solid majority of Americans over forty still hold broadly classical liberal beliefs, opposing Woke values like the desirability of surveillance and censorship, a growing majority of younger Americans hold nearly opposite views. And the younger they are the more extreme their convictions.
Of the 67 million-strong cohort of “Gen Z” Americans (those born after 1996), 51 per cent report that America is “inextricably linked to white supremacy,” 52 per cent support racial reparations, 60 per cent believe systemic racism is “widespread” in general society, and 64 per cent say “rioting and looting is justified to some degree” by the need to address systemic racism “by whatever means necessary.” 51 per cent believe the “gender binary” is “outdated,” and up to as many as 40 per cent self-identify as LGBTQ+ in some way. Some 41 per cent support censorship of “hate speech,” 66 per cent support shouting down speakers they consider offensive, and 23 per cent support using violence to silence such speakers. 61 per cent have positive views of socialism, and 70 per cent think “government should do more to solve problems.” Notably, survey results of youth in Britain are nearly identical, providing further evidence this ideology is going global regardless of national conditions.
And their influence is growing exceptionally rapidly. In America, Gen Z and the slightly older but similarly-minded Millennials now together account for 31 per cent of voters, up from 23 per cent in 2016. In the recent mid-term elections, the total number of Gen Z-ers casting votes increased by 289 per cent. They broke for the left-wing party of the Democrats by an average of 28 points, while in comparison Democrats lost every age group 45 years and older by at least 7 points, including a 12-point loss among those age 65 and older.
But even this electoral picture understates the encroaching societal sea change. The reality is that what (tepid) societal resistance there has been to the advance of the Revolution so far has come largely from a generation of older people who hold key senior positions of power within our institutions (think judges, for example), but who are now quickly passing retirement age. In just a decade many of them will be dead, and the Wokest generations will almost completely occupy controlling positions of power across the institutional landscape.
The point is this: those who hope to see an end to the Woke revolution need to come to terms with the fact that their strategic approach is failing. The widespread assumption that Wokeness and its many contradictions would collapse as soon as it collided with reality (whether in the workplace or the White House) – and that therefore only some opportunistic political rhetoric and internet mockery were necessary as a response – has proven to be horribly wrongheaded. As should have been amply evident from history, self-reinforcing totalitarian ideologies almost wholly divorced from reality can and have triumphed and sustained themselves for many decades before approaching any sort of collapse – while producing generations of human suffering along the way.
While they certainly should not give up on the political fight, at this point those who oppose Wokeness had best begin also looking for lessons in the experience of those who have confronted such totalitarian ideologies in the past and survived, such as those in Central and Eastern Europe who prevailed against Communism.
This might, for example, include seriously adopting the successful strategy of Czech dissident Václav Benda, who advised anti-Communists to prioritize building a “parallel polis” within, yet separate from, the prevailing regime. Parallel information and education networks; parallel communities of cultural and spiritual preservation; parallel economies and mutual assistance societies; even parallel transnational ties and latent parallel political structures: this was the means by which dissidents were able to “live in truth” together (as Benda’s comrade Václav Havel put it) despite the torrent of lies and social atomization forced on them by their totalitarian regime. And ultimately it was the means by which they overthrew and replaced that regime.
More broadly, those who oppose the Woke tide must recognize that the revolution they face is a many-headed hydra, driven and enabled by a multitude of factors beyond the political. Ultimately its deepest roots are in the social atomization, cultural breakdown, and void of spiritual meaninglessness produced by the nihilism of Western modernity. Unless these wounds can begin to be healed, young people seeking salvation from their growing dislocation and suffering will continue to be driven into the arms of utopian totalitarian ideologies like the Woke cult.
Contesting this hydra only in the political domain will thus inevitably prove insufficient to meet the current crisis. What is needed is instead a wholescale counter-cultural movement, willing and able to fight on every front at once, not only through intelligent power politics, but through a long march of cultural and aesthetic out-competition, spiritual and philosophical revival, systemic economic and technological reform, and institutional recapture and replacement that can ultimately win new generations of support and forge a genuine Counter-Revolution. And this movement needs to come together now – there is little time left to waste.
N.S. Lyons is the author of The Upheaval on Substack.