by Gerardo Papalia (PhD) for the Saker blog
What and who is “woke”?
“Woke” has become the latest scourge-term used by many right-leaning commentators with which to verbally flagellate progressives. In the Webster Dictionary, the term is defined as: “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. In practice, these “important societal facts and issues” generally refer to concepts such as gender and racial identities, environmentalism, and anti-colonial histories, as in the case of slave narratives. As a counter to “woke”, right-leaning commentators espouse traditional values, gender roles, environmental policies and histories. We thus witness the creation of a binary where one can either be “woke” or anti-woke”.
I argue here that this dichotomy ends up concealing those underlying economic processes and realities that are actually purposing devising and fostering those very same issues the term “woke” refers to. These processes are deeply rooted in the neo-liberal world order which is the expression of contemporary financial capitalism. A good example of this is the” global network of influence” created by the billionaire stock-market speculator George Soros, who is currently funding an entire panoply of media and activist organisations, such as the Open Society Foundation. One could argue that the causes that Soros is funding align exactly with many “woke” agendas. But is Soros supporting “wokeness” which is awareness of societal problems, or is he instead engendering “wokeism”, which is the policing of differing viewpoints? And why would a finance capitalist do this? The answer lies in the nature of advanced financial capitalism itself.
In order to sell goods, the capitalist mode of production must define the buyer. In the earlier years of capitalism, identifying the buyer was easy: it was obvious to the producer what the needs of buyers were. The requirement to have shoes, bread, chairs, for example,after all, is self evident. The style of shoe, the type of bread and the quality of the chair were secondary considerations. As time progressed, and the productive system became more efficient and competitive, it became important to differentiate the style of shoe, the type of bread and the quality of the furniture, to attract buyers. But to attract buyers meant being able to differentiate among them and to target them with advertising. For example, what type of buyer would be interested in this style of shoe and how can I advertise this product? This meant examining and dividing the buyers into market segments. Hence, the birth of targeted advertising and the consumer.
Initially, this segmentation involved determining the broad social classes of consumers: whether they were white or blue collar workers, whether they lived in cities or on farms, whether they were educated or not. As time went on, and the system of production became more sophisticated, consumers were increasingly differentiated into ever smaller and more specific groups. Advertising began to penetrate ever more precisely defined subjectivities: demographic groups whether single, coupled or extended; age groups whether teenager, middle aged or elderly; gender identities whether male, female, fluid; interest groups whether in sport, politics, the arts or other areas; cultural identities whether autochthonous, native or diasporic, and so forth.
Instead of reflecting already existing groups, the advertising industry then began to actually fashion or create purpose built subjectivities in order to be able to sell pre-conceived products to them. The media industry became the chief vehicle in this process with distinctions between advertising and artistic output largely disappearing. This process is reflected in the dictum: capitalism will eventually create artificial needs so that it can satisfy them.
With the coming of the digital age, algorithms have made it possible to reduce societal groups almost to the category of the single individual. As a result society has been split into ever more specific niches, corresponding to an entire panoply of identities and orientations in an ever strengthening centrifugal dynamic. As consumers, human beings are continually being into ever more fragmented subjectivities, on the assumption that the nature of their existence is ultimately entirely ‘monadic’ and isolated, a condition where they would be vulnerable to each and every external force or influence, unable almost to conceive of positive social change.
The ideal human from the capitalist standpoint is a being who is entirely dependent on the products and services that its system can deliver, and whose only contribution consists in their atomised labour. The weak and the vulnerable are always the best consumers. This includes sexual and gender identities, assumed to operate as essentialised quanta within an economy of equally discrete and hollow bodies, separable from broader concerns or desires except insofar as they can be captured and filled by the same system of production.
Accordingly, under capitalism, human relationships have been moving away from historically consensual or collaborative paradigms to transactional ones. Collective activities that once enabled societies to function, such as political activism, trade union participation, social interest groups, are now increasingly being peopled with individuals asking what direct material benefit they can expect in exchange for their contribution. Even in charitable endeavours, the giving of money has largely replaced actual physical or intellectual commitment. This is the only type of exchange of interest to capitalism: all other relationships are but illusory ‘maya’ in comparison to the productive power of the system itself. A productive capacity has now become sufficiently articulated and flexible to be able to satisfy even single desires.
For the oligarchs of this world, the human exists only as a fetish, or a zombie; an entirely knowable, predictable and manipulable creature, much like the way slaves were viewed by their masters, and subjugated people the world over are by the neo-colonial powers that be.
Advertisers continue to hope that they can direct human exchange into ways that make money, and yet people always seek to escape from this conditioning. Advertisers call this process ‘Cool Hunting’.
Beati pauperes spiritu
This is where capitalism comes undone. For humans are not static creatures that can be precisely defined into discrete entities. People exist in a diachronic dimension: they change in unforeseen ways and are much more complex than capitalism will allow. It is always possible that they will evolve and develop in ways that the advertising industry cannot capture or even envisage.
Humans know the difference between true generosity and self-interested benevolence. They will act in ways that are not transactional and make no economic sense, such as being generous and kind and, horror of horrors, actually love others for what they are. They will act in solidarity and not just by giving money. They will show kindness, be generous without want of return, contribute each and severally to the common good. They will also continue to work with and care for others in non transactional ways. In other words, people will practice selflessness, which contravenes every classical economic principle.
All of these behaviours constitute an enormous blind spot in classical economic theory: its inability to accommodate so called “unpaid” labour. It is not surprising that work in the domestic sphere is largely excluded from economic output calculations, particularly the contribution of women. Marx, who was very attentive to the contribution of labour to the economy, expressed this vital effort as the faculty of proletarian “reproduction.” Unpaid labour has been the minimum common denominator, and I daresay the prerequisite, of any economic system from the beginning of time.
Humans create meaning for themselves by living for each other, which is perhaps what Margaret Thatcher actually meant when she stated: “There is no such thing as society.” Hence they will commit to work to the best of their abilities, not principally for material gain, but for the sake of their own dignity as individuals and for the benefit of the greater whole. For the same reasons they will also embrace difference, not simply tolerate it, in recognition of the dignity that is the abiding quality and the due of each and very human being. Such an approach can be termed “wokeness”. We need only look around us to see this in families, among friends, and even in nation states.
Today the social battleground is not only, as Marx envisaged, a struggle for the control over the means of production, it has become a social, even a spiritual struggle between capitalism and humanity. Any form of division, of separation of people into distinct groups premised on essentialised identities, an expression of wokeism, as opposed to “wokeness”, will promote capitalism and ultimately destroy human solidarity.
We should be mindful of the origin of the word ‘devil’: it derives from the Ancient Greek ‘daimōn’, which means ‘he who divides’. By focusing on what separates us from our fellow human beings, we are ultimately doing the work of the devil.