Woke Is the Handmaiden of Totalitarianism
The brotherhood that forms among the oppressed and persecuted never lasts, British historian and art theorist Simon Elmer says in his new book, The Road to Fascism – For a Critique of the Global Biosecurity State (London 2022).
He goes on to quote philosopher Hannah Arendt: “The humanity of the insulted and injured has never yet survived the hour of liberation by so much as a minute. This does not mean that it is insignificant, for in fact it makes insult and injury endurable; but it does mean that in political terms it is absolutely irrelevant.”
What must replace brotherhood now, according to Elmer, as the worst oppression measures of the Covid era have subsided, at least temporarily, is friendship; but not in the modern sense though.
In The Road to Fascism, Elmer argues that Western societies are now rapidly heading towards fascist totalitarianism, powered by the fourth industrial revolution and pushed on by oligarchs and bureaucratic power.
After the fall of the Soviet Union we have become oblivious to the dangers of a totalitarianism that doesn‘t originate on the left; the naive liberalism of the past decades has blinded us to this danger.
Elmer agrees with Hayek‘s warning in The Road to Serfdom, that the most dangerous kind of fascism is the one driven by international technocracies which could “easily exercise the most tyrannical and irresponsible power imaginable … And as there is scarcely anything which could not be justified by “technical necessities“ which no outsider could effectively question – or even by humanitarian arguments about the needs of some specially ill-favoured group which could not be helped in any other way – there is little possibility of controlling that power.”
And let‘s be aware that here Hayek doesn‘t even consider the possibility of the close collaboration between the international technocracies and monopolistic oligarchs we see in our times.
Elmer claims the support of the Left for the mandates and regulations of the biosecurity state are not based on its inherent authoritarianism as many on the right believe, but rather on its “infiltration by the neoliberal ideologies of multiculturalism, political correctness, identity politics and, most recently, the orthodoxies of woke.”
Elmer rightly points out how “no-platforming, cancel culture, misogyny … policing of speech and opinion“ are not rooted in “politics of emancipation, class struggle or wealth distribution;“ there is really nothing socialist, in the traditional sense, about those symptoms of totalitarian ideology.
This seems to stand in direct opposition to the generally accepted view, at least among those on the right wing, that woke is left-wing in its essence, resulting from socialist infiltration of society in accordance with Dusche (and Gramcii‘s) “long march through the institutions.“ So, what is Elmer‘s reasoning here?
Quoting the Nazi motto of “Kraft durch Freude“ (strength through joy), in Elmer‘s view it is the “dream of a unified people, the commemoration of fallen heroes“ that lies behind the fascist salute, behind the willing submission to the leader; it is on kitsch that the aesthetics of totalitarianism are based.
Elmer is not alone here: According to art theorist Monica Kjellman-Chapin, kitsch, the mechanical, easily consumed art, arousing fake sensations, can “easily be deployed by totalitarian regimes as a mechanism of control and manipulation … infused with propaganda.“
In the words of Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.“
Woke, Elmer says, is the modern equivalent of kitsch. Taking the knee, clapping for carers, masking up, and in general obeying nonsensical orders, for “the greater good“, or as is probably more common, only for the sake of appearances, is in its essence the same as being moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.
And this solidarity, which in the end is a fake solidarity, is also the driving force when the mob turns against those who do not comply, against the unvaccinated, against those who refuse to “take the knee.“ against those who have the courage to upset and confuse the accepted narrative, for example a black man putting on a t-shirt with the slogan “White lives matter“. For in its essence, woke, just like kitsch, is about exclusion; the most cruel are often the most sentimental of all.
Elmer points to how, during the lockdowns, protests that were in accordance with woke ideology were not only tolerated but applauded, while those who protested against the lockdowns and mandates to protect their livelihood were hunted down, fined or imprisoned.
The reason for this, he says, is that woke presents no threat to the authorities; it is about a puritanical adherence to orthodoxies and rituals, it is anti-revolutionary, but “sees the market as the only framework for change,” and most importantly it provides an opportunity to enforce and further develop restrictions on free speech and personal freedom, a fundamental step on the road to fascism. … In short, by its facilitation of capitalism‘s construction of the totalitarianism of the Global Biosecurity State – woke is not liberal, and it certainly isn‘t socialist: woke is fascist.“
One of the key characteristics of woke ideology is its utter disregard for reason; for rational thinking, and we see this perhaps most explicitly in the absurdities in the narrative around Covid-19. To the woke, all that matters is their own personal perception, subjective experience.
But in a world where all meaning is private, there can be no meaning; a private language is impossible, Wittgenstein says, for its originator cannot understand it himself. In a more general sense, we may consider Hannah Arendt‘s definition of common sense as our common perception of the world and how this common perception is dependent on a common language, on common stories and on a common way of thinking; without those society really exists no more.
As Elmer points out, and as others, including Arendt, have done before him, atomization is one of the key prerequisites for the sustenance of a totalitarian society. This is what Stalin understood when he proceeded to dissolve all free societies and clubs, even chess clubs weren‘t spared; to truly exert totalitarian power you must isolate people from each other, remove their ability to form social bonds.
This way woke is an immensely important cornerstone of the new fascist society Elmer fears is around the corner, not only its visible signs, such as mass compliance with mask mandates and lockdowns, but no less in the atomization based on the denial of our common rationality, a direct consequence of the radical relativism that accepts nothing as valid except individual subjective experience.
And, as societal change driven by the people, revolutionary or not, is based on the ability to come together, to discuss ideas and to plan actions, we see how destructive it is to any such endeavours, whether left-wing or right-wing; it is an antithesis to true political activity. And it goes without saying, that in a society governed by the radical relativity of woke ideology – if we can even call such a thing a society – there can be no law, and thus no human rights.
Elmer‘s discussion of woke ideology is only a part, though a central one, of his wide-ranging analysis of fascism and its foundations, and the signs of its imminent resurgence. He draws on Umberto Eco‘s characteristics of “eternal“ fascism, provides a critical analysis of Hayek‘s definition of fascism, explains and clarifies Agamben‘s complex conceptual framework underpinning his view of the state of modern man as homo sacer – excluded, yet subject to absolute power – within the biosecurity state, dives into the technological development allowing constant surveillance by the authorities and concludes that, if nothing is done, we are headed towards a new type of fascist totalitarianism, from which there may be no escape.
The fact that his analysis is based on a socialist, rather than a right-wing perspective should truly enhance the importance of this book; it may provide a much-needed foundation for critical discussion of recent events among left-wing intellectuals, at least those who still have an open mind.
Towards the end of his book, Elmer discusses the ancient Greek concept of friendship as a possible way out. To the ancient Greeks, he says, friendship among the citizens (philia) was fundamental to the well-being of the city-state (polis), and it is precisely on this that the idea of Western democracy is based.
This concept of friendship is different from what we usually mean when we talk about friendship today. We see friendship as the intimacy we seek to avoid the alienation caused by the constant revelation of our private lives, Elmer says.
Friendship is thus only present in private life and not in our public life as members of society and participants in political debate. But with the ancient Greeks, the citizens were only united within the city-state through constant conversation and debate. The essence of friendship lay in coming together and discussing the issues of society, not in personal communication and conversation about ourselves with those closest to us, but in a dialogue based on our common interests as citizens and participants in society.
According to Elmer, it is this kind of friendship, the bond that forms between responsible active citizens, that can and should replace the brotherhood of those attacked by silencing, censorship, confinement, and other methods of oppression.
In short, Elmer urges us to take seriously our responsibility as citizens, instead of being consumers only, caring nothing for politics and society; that we come together again in the public square, in the agora, to debate ideas, to develop our views through rational dialogue, but always on the basis of friendship, in the ancient Greek sense.