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Left is Not Woke: An Interview with Susan Neiman

In undermining universalism and moral progress, "wokeism" is inherently reactionary.

· 14 min read
Left is Not Woke: An Interview with Susan Neiman
Susan Neiman in 2015. Photo by A.Savin, WikiCommons.

“This book couldn’t wait, it was too urgent and necessary,” the American-German philosopher Susan Neiman tells me in her hotel in Ghent. She is doing a tour across Europe to launch her latest book Left is Not Woke. Neiman was born and raised in Atlanta, but has spent most of her adult life in Germany, where she’s the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. She has written several books about moral responsibility, about ethics and Enlightenment, and about how Germany has tried to atone for the Nazi atrocities. Her most ambitious work to date, Evil in Modern Thought, is a new history of modern philosophy seen as a series of responses to the problem of moral evil. She was preparing another philosophical tome, Heroism in an Age of Victimhood, but the rise of woke ideology got her so worried that she decided to squeeze in this slimmer volume. “My publisher rushed the book and it’s coming out very quickly in other languages as well.” She didn’t write the book for her Fachkollegen, she admits. “This is one of the reasons why I’m committed to the Enlightenment. They were not writing for their graduate students either, but for the general audience.” And this Enlightenment—with its universalism, belief in progress and justice—is being undermined today by intellectuals and activists who falsely profess to be on the “left.” During the interview, we take a walk along the medieval canals in Ghent, to the site of the old monastery where she’s about to give her talk. Philosophizing while strolling about, that’s how the founding father of Western philosophy Aristotle—another one of those dead white males—had originally intended it.

Maarten Boudry: Many left-wing people believe that the danger of “wokeism” is just a figment of right-wing imagination. Why did you think it was necessary to attack woke ideology from an explicitly left-wing angle?

Susan Neiman: For the last two years I’ve been sitting with friends in many different countries who would bring up—but quietly and only among friends—some incidents of woke overreach or somebody being canceled for ridiculous reasons, and these people would tell me, morosely, “I guess I’m not Left anymore.” But at a certain point I begin to say: no, they are the ones who are not left anymore, the woke crowd. So I wanted to break down this binary between the so-called woke Left and the Right, untangle the confusion and reclaim certain positions for the Left, such as universalism and belief in moral progress. The shortest version of my argument is that wokeism, while fueled by all kinds of progressive emotions, such as sympathy for the underdog and indignation on the part of the marginalized, ends up with very reactionary ideas.

MB: Naturally your critics will argue that you’re giving succor to right-wingers.

SN: I get that, I was nervous at first about giving aid and comfort to the Right. Criticizing the woke seems to put you in the camp of Ron De Santis, Donald Trump, or Rishi Sunak. I’ve had friends who said: “Susan, I agree with your arguments, but please change the title. Don’t get into the ‘woke’ fashion.” I thought about it, but I couldn’t find any other title that works. We all know what we’re talking about. But I wanted to make clear from the very first page that this is a voice from the Left. I'm a leftist and a socialist and have always been. I’ve also been fairly careful in avoiding certain kind of right-wing shows that I told my publisher I wouldn’t appear on.

MB: I can imagine they’d love to have you: “Even the left-wing philosopher agrees with us now!”

SN: I’ve only had one review from a conservative who wrote something along the lines of: “You have to wade through a lot of leftist bullshit to get there, but she makes some good points.” It’s pretty clear that I’m not being instrumentalized by the Right.

Now, about the people who claim that “woke” is not a real phenomenon. I wonder if they have been living under a rock. Just look at the list of what’s getting published and about what’s not getting published. We’re now in an international situation. Things may have started on American universities, but it’s certainly fueled cultural life in Berlin, where I live. In my book I don’t give a laundry list of examples, because I want to get to the philosophical roots, but take the flak over the Dutch translation of Amanda Gorman’s poem. That’s a perfect example of why the whole ideology of “cultural appropriation” is so extraordinarily problematic. Gorman picks out a translator based on the fact that this person has written work she likes. Someone who will be able to get her words across. Then an African-Dutch or Surinamese fashion blogger writes that only a woman of color can properly translate Gorman’s work and why haven’t they found one? So the original translator, who was white although also non-binary, withdrew, and they found a black Dutch translator. Then it sort of went across Europe. The Spanish translation was redone by a person of color, and the Germans had a very German solution, with a translation committee of three people from different backgrounds.

The idea that you can only write about a subject if you have the ethnic and gender identity of the subject undermines the power of culture itself. I have a friend of color who did a whole series of talks under the heading: “Culture is appropriation.”

MB: Because nothing is wholly original and everything is borrowed?

SN: Let’s not think of culture as a commodity, but as a communication. What’s crazy about the current identitarianism is that it reduces us to the two aspects of identity over which we have no control. Instead of the ideas you have, the judgments you make, the crafts you take up, the skill that you learn and relationships you enter—you are reduced to the two elements of identity that you have the least control over, and which can best serve you as a victim.

MB: Let’s talk about the attack on the Enlightenment. According to woke people, the Enlightenment is the root of eurocentrism, colonialism, and racism.

SN: When I first heard those views at the beginning of this century from postcolonial theorists, I thought it was just too silly to bother with. But now you can just read on Kant’s Wikipedia page that he was a racist and colonialist. Look, the Enlightenment invented the critique of eurocentrism. All you have to do is open a book, not even a scholarly one, but something like Voltaire’s very readable and satirical novel Candide. The Enlightenment thinkers absolutely condemned colonialism and racism. When postcolonialists argue that we have to pay attention to the rest of the world, and the way Europe appears to the rest of the world, that’s the Enlightenment. The fact that Kant and Voltaire didn’t go as far as we would today, for example in condemning racism, should be something to be glad about, because it shows that there’s progress.

One thing they absolutely didn’t get was sexism. Why didn’t these people, who wrote about universality and human rights across cultures, accord the same rights to the women living right next to them? They didn’t, but it’s worth remembering that women were constrained by childbearing in the 18th century in a way we can’t even imagine. The average woman needed to have five children just to replace the human population, because of the huge mortality rates for both children and mothers. I don’t want to let them totally off the hook, but Voltaire’s lover Madame du Châtelet translated Newton and wrote books about astronomy, and he respected her as a thinker. But she died in childbirth.

MB: You make some harsh judgments about Michel Foucault, calling him at least as reactionary as Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, two key figures of the Counter-Enlightenment. How come then he’s regarded as a paragon of progressive thought?

SN: I would really want to sit down with somebody who thinks Foucault was progressive and hear one reason, other than the fact that he was openly gay at a time when that was very unusual. Whether it’s schools or mad houses or prisons or other institutions, Foucault argued that what you think is progress is actually a much more subtle form of domination and control. And so every time you try to take a step forward you wind up in spite of yourself doing something that is more devastating. The reason why he’s worse than de Maistre or Burke is that he has a much more powerful argument.

MB: A more insidious one.

SN: It’s absolutely insidious.

MB: Foucault’s defenders would argue that, unlike real reactionaries, he was fighting against oppression by exposing its mechanisms.

SN: Correct, but he’s also giving you the sense that whatever you do to fight those mechanisms of oppression they are bigger than you and you are even part of it. It’s an extraordinary call to defeatism or resignation. It was even unclear whether he was on the side of prison reform. When people talked about concrete improvements that would make the lives of prisoners better, Foucault would just say: “Ah that’s trivial.” A lot of so-called progressive academics have come think that all you need to do is to deconstruct mechanisms of power. But deconstruction by itself is not a political act.

MB: Your academic colleagues will probably complain that you totally misunderstood Foucault.

SN: A friend of mine told me that I wasn’t being fair to Foucault, and that all of his work was really about liberation. Obviously I didn’t want to make crude mistakes, so I decided to go back and give Foucault another chance. I read his last series of lectures about neoliberalism, which are pretty insightful as diagnoses, particularly because he’s writing in 1978–79 when neoliberalism had not captured the planet yet. But what’s the normative impact of his discussion?

I bought a whole volume of essays by Foucault scholars who couldn’t even decide whether he was for or against neoliberalism. Sorry, but then I don’t care anymore. I don’t think that wading into the weeds of scholarly debate is what we need right now. When we talk about the woke, we’re not talking about an army of Foucault or Schmitt or Heidegger scholars. Many woke people may never even have heard of those names, but some reactionary assumptions of theirs have gotten into the general water stream, as it were.

MB: Originally the Enlightenment was also about destroying old certainties, dogmas, traditions, and faith. But then, after all the old idols had been smashed, what else was there to destroy? Well, say the postmodernists, the very foundations of Enlightenment itself! Rationality, truth, progress. Could one see postmodernism as a child of the Enlightenment, but a wayward and rebellious child?

SN: I think you’re right and that’s the same problem with Adorno and Horkheimer. I recently talked to a scholar of their famous Dialectic of Enlightenment, who argued that their whole project was to deconstruct the foundations of the Enlightenment in order to construct a new enlightenment on better foundations. And then I said: can you show me where? The answer was: “Well, they never wrote the second part!” (laughs)

MB: Let me channel your opponents one more time. Eurocentrism was not invented by the Enlightenment, but isn’t it true that Westerners want to impose their values and norms on the rest of the world? For instance, don’t we want the whole world to embrace democracy? Such universalism is quite alien to, say, Chinese civilization. Today China is also accused of colonialism with their Belt and Road Initiative, but one difference is that they have no intention at all of imposing their own political system on African countries. But we do. We claim to possess certain “universal” values and we don’t think that they are up for negotiation. How would you respond to that charge?

SN: The problem is that you can make the same relativist claim about “indigenous” customs and traditions that are even worse, like Female Genital Mutilation. Someone like Narendra Modi is a perfect example of the misuse of such post-colonial rhetoric and claims about indigeneity. Yes, human rights were originally formalized as a concept in Europe, though versions of them exist in other cultures. But for all of the very real harms of British colonialism in South Asia, do we really want to say it was wrong for them to protest and to forbid suttee (the burning of widows)?

MB: Perhaps deep down even the people who pay lip service to cultural relativism are closet universalists, because when it comes to extreme examples like female genital mutilation and suttee they back down?

SN: That’s exactly right. All you have to do is to descend from the abstract to particular cases and you find way more international agreements.

MB: Talking about universalism, you connect the left-wing tribalism of today with the rise of evolutionary psychology. But that seems strange to me. One of the cornerstones of evolutionary psychology is the notion of universalism and a shared human nature, despite all our cultural differences. If you’d compare the mind of a hunter gather from two million years ago with the mind of a modern human being, it would be almost exactly the same, because evolution is too slow and genetic differences between human populations are superficial. It seems to me that not only is evolutionary psychology not exactly fertile ground for tribalism, but perhaps it can even be a bulwark against belief in unbridgeable ethnic and cultural barriers.

SN: I see how you could use it that way. But first of all let me ask the question. When you say “Take the mind of a hunter-gatherer two million years ago,” how have you taken that mind? How has anybody? I have to admit that this was the part of my book that I was the least certain of, so I asked my friend Philip Kitcher, who has written at least two books on evolutionary psychology, to read it and please tell me where I got things wrong. He made a couple of minor suggestions, but he thought that I got the heart of the thing right. Evolutionary psychology is the biggest example of a pseudoscience that ever became so respectable. But they have zero sources to go on. Yes, evolution works slowly, but we don’t have access to the mind of a hunter gatherer. We can look at their bones and various archaeological relics, but talk about their minds is sheer speculation. And even if we knew what our ancestors were thinking two million years ago, we have absolutely no reason to believe that we have the same drives and motivations as they do, because in the intervening two million years cultures have also evolved.

MB: Even the existence of “human universals” (like in Donald Brown’s list) which show that many cultures evolving independently from each other have things in common, things like moral intuitions, emotions, cognitive skills? Isn’t the most parsimonious explanation that we have at least some innate dispositions?

SN: I think we have a lot of innate dispositions, but the bottom line of leading evolutionary psychologists is that we have this one disposition to want to increase our own gene pool and that is the basis of our every action. From that perspective, evolutionary psychologists have what they call the “problem of altruism.” Quite interesting that they see this as a problem! In fact, altruism is quite common in the living world, as you can read in Frans de Waal’s books. And to explain altruism they say things like: you will sacrifice your own interests if and only if you’re increasing the gene pool of any near relatives, so either two children, or four nieces or nephews, etc. This is where it looks like satire.

It’s not a coincidence that evolutionary psychology was reinvented and repackaged around the time when everyone started repeating Margaret Thatcher’s claim that there is no alternative to global neoliberalism. People have speculated about human nature for thousands of years, but as Rousseau pointed out, we are always reading our own preconceptions into human nature. But then something comes along and calls itself science and if you don’t agree with them you’re one of these crazy creationists…

MB: But let’s assume you’re right that evolutionary psychology is a pseudoscience. Still, the biggest opponents of evolutionary psychology are the woke crowd. They absolutely hate it.

SN: But what’s the woke attack on evolutionary psychology then? Because I haven’t read one.

MB: Well, that it’s sexist and essentializes the differences between men and women.

SN: Well, it does! In any case, even the woke often presume it. You can’t grow up in this culture without absorbing it. I once got talking about evolutionary psychology with my son, who’s a documentary filmmaker and very woke but a sophisticated thinker. And he told me: “Well, that’s just science!”

MB: How about a different intellectual source of wokeism, namely Marxism? Some have argued that wokeism is basically the application of Marxist schemes of thought in the non-economic sphere, so to sexuality, gender, and ethnicity. You divide society in two groups, the oppressors and the victims, and there’s a zero-sum game going on between the two of them, with a no man’s land in between. Both groups have their own collective consciousness, but the victim class is epistemically privileged because of its victimhood. And if you don’t agree then you suffer from “false consciousness.”

SN: That’s a reductionary view of Marxism, though I should say that I’m a socialist but not a Marxist. For a few reasons, but mainly because Marx was a class reductionist, at least in his later writings. In the 19th century that sort of made sense, but it’s a ridiculous way to divide people up in the 21st century. People don’t only do things based on their class interest, to put it mildly. Marx was proven wrong from two sides: by the millions of middle-class people who supported socialism, not because of their class interest but because of a sense of justice; and by the millions of working-class people who continued to vote for reactionary interests.

MB: In a similar way, non-white people who don’t toe to the party line, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or John McWhorter, are being dismissed as “race traitors” or “Uncle Toms.”

SN: That kind of thinking is very much in vogue. A friend of mine, an eminent historian who’s very recognizably Indian, is working on the fascist roots of postcolonialism, and he has been blackballed by a lot of institutions. It’s really a problem. If you want to represent a particular group, the only authentic voices are considered to be those who insist on maximum victimhood. I’ve been called antisemitic by a number of German newspapers and a “race traitor” by some conservative Jews, because I have this odd idea that Palestinians deserve the same rights that Israelis do, and because I don’t hold the fundamental fact about being Jewish to be our victimization.

Of course anybody who’s woke will now be on the side of the Palestinians at this point in history because the Palestinians are the bigger victim. But I’m supporting civil rights for Palestinians because I’m a universalist, not because I immediately side with the brown people.

MB: Would you agree that the rise of the alt-Right is partly driven by wokeism? Are both factions driving each other crazy?

SN: There’s something to that. I’ve met people who are so put off by woke ideas that they say they’re moving towards the center or the center-Right. But what’s more common is that people who would be on the Left are getting out of political engagement, because they feel that the Left has been captured. I end the book by reminding people how the fascists came to power in 1933: if leftists had formed a united front against fascism, the world would’ve been spared a terrible war. The problem is that the Left always eats its own children and misses the real danger. Donald Trump really could become president again. Le Pen could beat Macron if elections were held today. The president of the biggest country in the world is a fascist according to my Indian friends. The dangers of our time are very real, and we need to strengthen our own ranks.

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