No Respect

Susan Neiman’s Left Is Not Woke

It’s a clickbait title, but don’t let that put you off. Susan Neiman’s Left Is Not Woke is an essential book.

The multicultural union. Piazza Schuman, Brussels.

The philosopher sets out her stall against the identity politics that has taken hold on both the left and the right, arguing for defending human dignity instead.

This is an unapologetic Kampfschrift, and Neiman makes her case in forceful, sometimes strident terms appropriate to the gravity of current circumstances.

Although her underlying point is sound, the book’s pugilistic style often detracts from its force.

I was disinclined to read this book for two closely related reasons, relating to the term “woke”.  The first is simply that it appears at all.

I don’t spend much time around university campuses but am reasonably active in culture and politics. I haven’t heard the term used non-ironically in at least a decade.

Older whites have fixated on it without regard for its actual currency. Hearing some antediluvian WASP banging on about “wokeness” is like having your grandmother tell you your “kicks” are “dope”.

Second, critiquing “wokeness” concedes too much to the Maga drones. At a certain point, one has to ask, “Who are you trying to convince?”

Younger people have moved on from that way of talking about things, if not from the particularist obsessions at one point associated with woke.

Older people, for whom wokeness and its manifold conspiracies are a going concern, generally aren’t interested in reasoned debate, either.

For them, woke is a moral panic tied to fear of trans and illegal immigration.

Neiman, who is currently the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, is the author of several substantial studies, including The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant (1994) and Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002), in addition to a number of less academic offerings.

Her engagement with the philosophy of the Enlightenment is long-running and extensive and forms the central pillar of the argument presented in Left Is Not Woke.

Neiman starts out with a concise and forceful framing of the problem.

The “woke” left, having abandoned the universalistic project of the Enlightenment, evinces a tribalism grounded on narratives of trauma, victimisation, and the incommensurability of culturally based standpoints.

The result is a left that is unable to inspire solidarity.

The solution to this problem, Neiman argues, is a revival of humanism grounded in the traditions of Enlightenment rationalism.

Her humanism is moderate, rationalist, and universalist like prior humanisms. The fundamental premise is respect for the dignity of others and a commitment to an empathetic engagement with otherness.

Neiman’s left is progressive, sharing many of the trappings of liberalism, but socialist.

The philosopher stakes out the opposition, opting to blunt scepticism of the Enlightenment rather than to cross swords directly with the partisans of wokeness.

Susan Neiman’s subjects are Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, to the extent that the Dialectic of Enlightenment is under discussion.

Once again, much of the argument here is well-taken. Neiman faults attempts to appropriate the work of avowedly right-wing thinkers like Schmitt and Heidegger (both of whom were members of the Nazi party and unapologetic Antisemites) by reading them against the grain of their thought.

The same point could be made about Foucault. Recent scholarship has painted a convincing picture of the French philosopher as a neoliberal in the last decades of his life.

Even in 1981, the prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas described him as a “young conservative”.

While Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Rousseau espoused ideas about race and gender that grate on modern sensibilities, these views run against the broader thrust of their respective projects.

In the case of Kant, Pauline Kleingeld and others have argued that he adjusted his understanding of race to cohere with his universalist ethical project in the 1780s.

Neiman argues that although Enlightenment thinkers sometimes (perhaps often) failed to reconcile views on race and gender with broader universalism, the latter is a means to rectify the former.

It is jarring, after all, to see Adorno’s name in a list of critics of the Enlightenment with Heidegger and Foucault.

Horkheimer and Adorno’s abstruse Dialectic of Enlightenment raised questions about how Enlightenment rationality shaped modern European history.

In defence of the philosophers, one might point out that the world might look “radiant in the sign of triumphant catastrophe”, as they wrote, because of how the Nazis carried out mass murder.

The extermination of European Jewry was carried out in a highly ritualistic way, disguised by techniques that looked like a Ford production line in a Detroit automotive plant.

The fact that both philosophers were Jewish, of course, underlines such bitter statements. They’d escaped the Holocaust for the United States and never forgot how precarious their lives were.

Neiman’s failure to view such sensitive thinkers in their historical contexts is a notable characteristic of her book.

But there’s a long tradition of blaming the Dialectic of Enlightenment for proto-woke antimodernism.

For instance, Neiman’s dismissal of Hobbes’ negative views of human society implies that he was deluded rather than living in a Britain teetering on the brink of social collapse.

Perhaps being forced to flee from the English Civil War might have given Hobbes the impression that man was, in fact, a wolf to man.

It is also worth noting that it is somewhat unjust to take professional philosophers (or whatever Foucault was) to task for what was later made of their work.

Adorno was undoubtedly aware of this.

In the late 1960s, when the student movement took up a version of his ideas (primarily drawn from Minima Moralia rather than from the Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno complained, “I came up with a theoretical model. How was I to know that people would try to realise it with molotovs?”

These are minor flaws. They are more presentation issues than substance, and, to be fair to Neiman, her book comprises a relatively brief, compact presentation of some rather complex ideas and histories.

Still, the question remains as to who the target audience for Left Is Not Woke is.

After appositely quoting Jean Amery’s devastating review of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Neiman writes, “Améry reflects the sort of everyday wisdom we expect grownups to have.”

That’s fair enough. However, the implication is that disagreeable people are childish, which is not the first time Susan Neiman has charged this.

In addition to a number of other remarks in the text, we might also note the title of her 2008 book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists.

This might seem trivial, and perhaps it is, but it does make one wonder, once again, at whom this book is aimed.

Implying that one’s opponents are immature seems like the ad hominem attacks Neiman decries elsewhere in the book.

But such paternalism reduces the chances that disagreeable people will change their minds.

More worryingly, Neiman is dismissive of scepticism of Enlightenment values that have always been more aspirational than real.

While European and North American states claimed to be following Enlightenment ideals, they engaged in brutal colonialist projects, rising to the level of genocide.

Progressives now argue that these were deviations from the true politics of Enlightenment reason.

However valid this is, it seems unfair to blame those who doubt the Enlightenment project for the failure of supposedly enlightened governments to live up to its promises for quite a long time.

Regardless, Left Is Not Woke is an important book. We live in a time when various forms of right-wing wokeness have colonised modern politics.

Nationalism, for example, especially the more rabid varieties, has taken on proportions not seen since the 1930s. And nationalism is an identity politics never disparaged as woke.

Left Is Not Woke will cause arguments and is meant to. It is not the last word on this topic, and there is much to disagree with Susan Neiman’s points.

It’s also a book about building solidarity, one of the most pressing priorities in socialist politics. This makes Left Is Not Woke hard to like.

Perhaps that is the point.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.