The woke ideology seeks a new kind of revolution, but already it has triggered a counter revolution. And countries like India might be wholly unprepared to handle this face-off.
Wokeism as an ideology, if it can be described as one, is less significant as a phenomenon in itself than what it says about the sources of its original provenance. Wokeism is a slightly terrifying beast, though it is not easy to pin down with any exactitude. It is comprised of a concatenation of voguish sentiments that appear to have suddenly seized discourse in the public space.
A few obvious elements it articulates include antiracism, sexual molestation of high net worth Hollywood actresses of the ME TOO movement and the nature of transgender identity. These are mostly unexceptionable legitimate issues though one finds it hard to be motivated to man the barricades with the pugnaciousness of 1968 Parisians to defend the human rights of some very privileged and wealthy women. Indubitably, their sexual exploitation, sadly not uncommon in most spheres of life, is disgusting and condemnable. It is fitting that some well-connected and powerful men have got their just desserts as perpetrations of abominable behavior against them.
Much more problematic is the militant transgender insistence that anyone can become a woman, with all its exclusive established gender-based entitlements, by merely electing to describe oneself as a woman. This is what the blessed Scottish Parliament of Britain has sought to legislate though that exercise of licensed ideological excess is likely to meets its Waterloo at the Westminster Parliament.
Of course some tricky practical problems are also arising, from transgender women easily outcompeting biological women in sport and sharing prison cells with biological women to teenage schoolgirls having to share toilets with their transgender counterparts, with predictable consequences and parental revolt.
More troubling is how a relatively small minority of dogged transgender activists have managed to insist that this patently absurd self-ascription of gender identity must prevail. Not only that, but organized boycotts of major authors and the enforced career termination of academics, who disagree, have succeeded. Their crime is to have asserted the biological basis of gender identity and being a woman.
In recent days, it has transpired that the renowned Canadian clinical psychologist and thinker, Jordan Peterson, is now being pursued in an attempt to cancel him for expressing views woke protagonists found objectionable. The idea that the earth is flat was once de rigueur, but a challenge to the Enlightenment inheritance itself is spreading across Western academia and public life.
Very disquietingly, the Indian government has recently proposed importing woke social science institutionally by inviting Anglo American universities to set up shop in India, in direct conflict with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s policy of atmanirbhar in every other realm. If this dangerous idea is implemented, a veritable nest of snakes will be spawned in India and their poison will dwarf all past attempts to destroy Indian civilisation and permanently.
In this febrile political atmosphere, it would be apposite to examine the historical and intellectual antecedents of wokeism.
It might be proposed that there is an inverse correlation between the religiosity of society and the prevalence of woke ideology in it. One suspects the more religious a milieu the lower its societal woke quotient, however measured. This is due to the fact that wokeism is a contemporary manifestation of a form of secular ‘religious’ fundamentalism, a point I have made earlier. In fact, wokeism might be regarded as a ‘fundamentalist’ revolt against the postmodernism that came to dominate Western intellectual life in the post-war period.
At the same time, wokeism is rooted in the very open-ended possibilities postmodernism itself has invoked. Yet, wokeism rejects its intrinsic espousal of unlimited freedoms that border on anarchism and questioning of the foundational legitimacy of all antecedent Enlightenment and religious values. This is what wokeism has subliminally rejected as a form of ‘apostasy’ though with an alternative ideology arising from postmodernism. Wokeism is effectively seeking to establish a new ‘politically correct’ foundational orthodoxy of its own, based on transient contingent fixations. The proposition of one author that the ideology of wokeism is rooted in Marxism is plainly erroneous.
The particular contours of foundational woke orthodoxy are purely contingent and possess no durable philosophical basis like its ancient and genuine religious counterparts. But what wokeism shares with both a religious and Enlightenment outlook is the generic notion of ‘fairness’ and the idea of a New Jerusalem though arbitrary in the specific whimsical reality it wishes to enforce. Wokeism is now attempting to impose a certain recognisable, predictable orderliness and reassuring fixity that postmodernism had effectively sought to abolish with its philosophical and intellectual assault. But all of these Western ideological movements ultimately originate in Christian theology and practice despite their apparently divergent ontologies.
In some ways, the woke phenomenon is the contemporary historical counterpart of the Counter Reformation in response to the Enlightenment that had infused the uncertainties of what Max Weber was to later describe as ‘the disenchantment of this world’. The result of individualist Enlightenment secularism had been to prompt a profound crisis. It undermined the sense of identity and personal psychological stability in a universe depicted as changeable and uncertain, offering no respite from personal responsibility. Wokeism is attempting to create a new absolutist rootedness for the self and restore a sense of well-being through somewhat bizarrely arbitrary norms. But its endeavour is doomed to fail as a frivolous reaction to a problem of enormous complexity.
As an aside, it might be persuasively argued that Sanatan Dharma, or the eternal law of the universe as envisaged by the sages of ancient India, alone has always understood the uncertainties of the existential reality of the universe and offered a viable response to it. Oddly enough, it is something that the earliest Muslim chroniclers of Hindu perspectives recorded. These perceptive chroniclers recognised the Hindu acceptance of the primacy of human reason and opposition to prophethood. What Hindu sages proposed for personal preparedness to subsist in an uncertain and ever-changing universe is the discipline of yoga. Thus the broader convictions of the seventeenth century Enlightenment, promoting empiricism, reason and human equanimity, had been anticipated and pragmatic responses to it formulated by Dharmic Vedic sages several thousand years before the Enlightenment challenged religious dogma in Europe. The most interesting facet of the woke ideological movement is not its intrinsic significance as a fount for ideas but how it is, ultimately, the product of liberal university arts faculties, particularly, gender, race, art studies and literary criticism programmes. Their graduates become carriers of the perverse woke virus into a wide spectrum of liberal professions and recruits to the vast army of white collar employees everywhere, from administrative functionaries in the bureaucracy and the media, to a vast cohort of school teachers.
The increasingly corrosive influence of this perennially discontented social segment should not be underestimated. As a consequence of the multiplicity of their communicative social roles their impact is disproportionately harmful and durably so. In addition, modern communications, personal engagement through travel and exposure to educational opportunities beyond national borders have ensured that wokeism became a global phenomenon with the same rapidity as the Covid-19 virus. It has also become a malady of comparably malignant dimensions though it is mostly asymptomatic.
It would be useful to situate the contemporary ideology of wokeism in a broader context of dominant political influences and realities.
This globalized ideology that has conquered universities and the media in the Western world is a background variable for policymakers to some degree because public prejudices do have some impact on public policy choices. But these are concessions made at the margins and policymakers in the West are indeed acquiescing to aspects of growing woke consciousness in policy measures being adopted.
It has now begun to happen on aspects of transgender issues, which is the most recent addition to contemporary ideology because race and gender politics were already influencing public policy. Most alarmingly, young schoolchildren are being allowed to assert alternative gender identities and often without parental knowledge or consent. Some transgender activists are also demanding young children should be able to opt for surgery to change gender without parental knowledge.
Yet, free floating ideological impulses like the phenomenon of wokeism do not ultimately dictate serious policy choices of the state, however, intrusive and unsettling the ideologues might seem in the personal behavioural domain. The state and the purposes of dominant actors in society and the economy invariably have the final say on how old and new ideologies influence foreign policy in particular. Such dominant state agents possess potent institutional instruments and associated inducements to mould ideological movements. However, western governments have found in wokeism and the growing public support it enjoys a useful additional instrument in their foreign policy arsenal. Accusing recalcitrant states of human rights abuses, on the basis of woke freshly minted prejudices, through arms-length quasi-governmental agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is becoming routine. A venomous critique on palpably fabricated human rights failures has recently been unleashed against India for refusing to kowtow to US dictates on the Ukraine war. States allied to the US have always escaped such hostile attention regardless of their human rights record.
More unsurprisingly, the unashamed conformism of the carriers of woke ideology is dramatically illustrated by their quiescence on Islam, much like Western feminism which yielded and came to terms with the brutality of Islam towards women of subaltern and especially Muslim societies. In some instances, Western feminists even collaborate actively with the Islamic clergy and effectively justify the grotesque oppression of women over the hijab, an egregious symbol of female degradation.
But any genuine critique of Islam and the role of regimes, which supposedly espouse it, is off limits for Western governments. They have long nurtured violent Islamic radicalism as a weapon in their arsenal to control oil resources, fight communism, to which both are bitterly opposed. But Western governments and the malicious ideologues they sponsor and deploy seem to find Hinduism and Hindus an appropriate and soft target to demonise. What is used in this effort are discredited gruesome tropes first fabricated by missionaries who had reached India in the seventeenth century.
The support of Western governments for Islamic regimes is also intended to curb the threat of democratic self- assertion and nationalism within Muslim societies and others with significant Muslim populations, like India, that do not comply with Western diktats. With great alacrity, mainstream feminism took on board this foreign policy imperative of Western governments like Britain and the United States. It is a line in the sand they dared not cross, which the otherwise truculent woke movement has also desisted from doing. At the same time, as already noted, perverse woke ideological obsessions are an additional novel instrument for yet another basis for embarking on human rights denunciation of other societies that do not comply with the demands of the Anglosphere.
These Western governments are also slyly sponsoring a pernicious native woke cadre in countries like India, trained in subversive academic programmes of institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Oxbridge and London University’s SOAS.
These repugnant local foot soldiers, sponsored by foreign intelligence agencies, have infiltrated Indian society and find only grounds for derision of any manifestation of indigeneity. Such is the reach of this foreign state-sponsored burgeoning woke ideological onslaught that the highest judiciary of India has evidently fallen victim to preposterous associations between caste and US race politics among other fabricated ideological constructs being promoted to destabilise India in order to achieve regime change.
The author taught political economy at the London School of Economics for more than two decades.