This technique for discovering the reality allegedly concealed by unjust institutions, and their false narratives justifying their power, can be found in the 19th century. Freudian psychology, for example, asserts that beliefs in religion, or myths, fantasies, and dreams are “illusions,” psychic artefacts that compensate for the neuroses created by psychological trauma inflicted usually by parents in early childhood. Mental health can be achieved only by talk-therapy that exposes the true causes of neuroses and removes the defense mechanisms that hide them.
Similarly, Marxism posits a “false consciousness” that obscures the oppressive reality of industrial capitalism with its institutions like the “opiate” of religion, “a mistaken attitude to the world,” as Marx put it. True justice and equality will come only with the revolution once the proletariat’s consciousness is raised and awakened, and they rebel against the owners and bosses, abolish private property, and collectivize the means of production.
“Wokeness” is the latest version of this old idea. Uncovering the hidden oppressors is the first step in recognizing the unjust, racist reality in which certain “marginalized” peoples, especially “of color,” have to live. Only those “awakened” to that hidden truth will come to understand that, as Williams writes, the “idea that patriarchy, white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other ills inexorably saturate our lived realities and that the highest good is to uncover and oppose them is” the essence of wokism. Of course, claiming that all those “ills saturate our lived realities” including our whole society and culture, is yet another begged question.
The problem is very little empirical evidence supports these claims. For example, the idea of “systemic racism” built into our political order from our country’s beginning, must ignore or rationalize the very real progress black Americans have made even before the Civil Rights legislation dismantled legal segregation. Similarly, allegations that because of this “systemic racism” police wantonly murder black men have been repeatedly exploded by statistical data.
Ignored too are the malign effects on the underclass of all races created by redistributionist welfare policies that erode character and compromise the family, not to mention the widespread commercialization of hedonism and sexual license. Yet the smearing of law enforcement remains a potent tool for “woke” activists and politicians seeking political leverage, no matter how many black lives are damaged when police protection is reduced in their neighborhoods.
Finally, the resistance of the “woke” to empirical data and coherent arguments raises the question of what attracts people to such dubious, and decrepit, political ideals. Gaining political power and financial rewards, of course, have been the perennial motives for endorsing destructive ideas since the demagogues of ancient Athens. The mostly unaccounted for millions of dollars raised by the anti-police outfit Black Lives Matter are a case in point.
But there is something more going on than just greed and grifting. Much of “woke” behavior is redolent of political religions and cults, bespeaking its origins in Marxism. As historian Michael Burleigh has written, from the start Marxism “was a religiously inspired mythopoetic drama carefully camouflaged within various scientific-sounding accretions.” The term “woke” itself echoes the experience of religious converts. Indeed, the memoirs of former Marxists in the classic The God That Failed often explicitly describe their embrace of Marxism in terms of an awakening typical of religious conversion.