When Karl Marx famously declared religion as the “opium of the people“, he was addressing how organised religion placated the masses by providing false illusions and remedies:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Following Marx’s materialist analysis, the religious impulse is born of real world struggle. But organised religion obfuscates the root causes of suffering and prevents meaningful structural changes in society. And, in case you worry that Marx was unfairly singling out organised religion, he extends this line of thinking to his writings on ideology and false consciousness.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the radical structural changes Marx advocated, one can recognise a kernel of wisdom in his criticism of how the religion of his day, like a flawed ideology, provided simplistic answers to complex questions. But what is perhaps even more alarming is how moralistic movements can be co-opted and used to justify regressive policies that aid and obfuscate the interests of those in power. History is fraught with examples of churches stirring up moral panics, as well as bloody conquests where religion was used to justify everything from witch hunts to colonialism.
Flash forward to 2021, and I would argue that this same dynamic is at work in the world under a different guise – the guise of “wokeness”.
As it is commonly understood, being woke simply means that you are aware of various systems of oppression and wish to dismantle them. Typically, these systems are connected to dominant groups and normative phenomenon such as whiteness, hetero-patriarchy and cis-normativty, which are then problematised through the lenses of third wave feminism, critical race theory or intersectionality. What is often lacking in these woke frameworks are a recognition of class dynamics, human nature and biology, as well as references to empirical findings that might contradict their postmodern narratives about power.
Contrary to Marx’s materialism, woke narratives operate primarily in the realm of ontological idealism, where everything is socially constructed and determined by discourse and power. For this reason, they often speak about vague “structures” or “systems” of oppression, but rarely ever point to a specific example that currently exists today. In their secular religious framework, the “structural” and “systemic” are akin to an invisible spirit or demon; you can only infer their presence through the existence of disparate outcomes between identity groups. And just like a religion, the solutions to perceived systemic inequities come from the revealed knowledge of oracles citing their “lived experience”, or through struggle sessions led by anti-racism gurus.
What this ultimately leads to is sanctimonious virtue signalling and self flagellation among those at the top, infighting between minorities jockeying for greater victimhood status, overt pandering on the part of corporations and establishment politicians, and an entire industry of anti-racism and diversity entrepreneurs. Combined with the influences of social media, society has gradually transformed into a spectacle worthy of Guy Debord. As the social justice movement has grown online and spilled out to the rest of the world, we are now arguing with avatars and searching for evidence of mere spectres and dog-whistles.
Meanwhile, there are good faith arguments to be heard about the lingering effects of historically racist practices and systems such as redlining and Jim Crow, but these difficult conversations get pushed aside as the language police shame people online and cancel figures from the past. Consequently, we live in a political climate where symbolism matters more than actions; where politicians are more concerned with appearing “morally right” than being “factually correct“.
The woke person’s emphasis on symbolic gestures, moralism, public shaming, and controlling the public discourse are all symptoms of a politics rooted in idealism. This is why they value politically charged slogans and are obsessed with policing the naughty language of dissidents.
Today’s left seems perfectly fine with Twitter and Facebook enclosing the commons and regulating speech, but what happens when their hegemony is no longer profitable to corporate interests? What will become of their movement if Jack Dorsey was to suddenly get red-pilled, or if anti-wokeness were to become an even more lucrative venture?
Wokeness’s faux revolution has been fully embraced by major corporations, media giants, establishment politicians and big-tech monopolies. When Disney, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble, Nancy Pelosi and Jeff Bezos are all embracing a movement, this might be an indication that it’s not as revolutionary as it seems.
‘Social justice warriors’ may believe they are the tail wagging the dog, but the true irony is how big companies, corporate news outlets and social media algorithms have been exacerbating and exploiting woke outrage to generate clicks and profits. A growing body of evidence shows how social media drives polarisation by creating echo chambers, and even incentivises the moralistic virtue signalling associated with woke internet culture. The regressive left’s obsession with racism and identity politics also appears to have been heavily exacerbated by clickbait journalism and social media, both of which seem to create more racial unrest than they actually discover.
And this brings me to what is perhaps the most sad and ironic feature of wokeness; how it just aids and abets wealthy elites while distracting the proletariat from addressing material issues that impact their everyday lives.
If you really fancy yourself as a revolutionary and have fallen for this new opium of the people, I beg you to heed the words of Marx and ask yourself a simple question: If wokeness is so punk rock and revolutionary, why the hell are most establishment politicians and major corporations pandering and censoring on behalf of it?
W. Alexander Bell is an American academic living in Sweden.