Wokeness as Elite Aspiration
Malcom Kyeyune is a writer, podcaster, and member of the steering council of the Swedish think tank Oikos. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the origins of woke politics and its manifestations in U.S. and Swedish politics.
There’s an effort underway in conservative circles in the U.S. to delve into the origins of woke politics. Some find them in the incentive structures in our laws and regulations; others point to ideologies incubated in the universities. You’ve argued that conservatives too often are blind to “material interests and class” as drivers of our politics. How is wokeness a class phenomenon?
It’s not necessarily the case that everything can be explained through some sort of primitive application of class analysis, but it’s also not something you should be blind to, especially when discrepancies are staring you in the face. In the case of woke politics, it’s probably meaningful that you rarely find an example of, say, a woke electrician or plumber or truck driver. Those people might exist—and we might find proof of the Loch Ness monster at some point, too—but this is not an ideology that infects people at random. It’s clearly a class phenomenon in what we can observe, in the sense that certain people, from certain classes—essentially people in the big cities, people working what some have called “email jobs”—tend to be woke, and people who work as part of the real economy tend to be not woke. To try to deny that these discrepancies exist, or that they’re not in need of investigation, is just a form of political self-harm at this point.
To lay out what wokeness does: one explanation we should take seriously is that wokeness serves as a sorting mechanism for sinecures, prestige institutions, and so on, where there’s growing competition for jobs. To take one example, Tucker Carlson had a guest on his show whose kids went to an elite private school in New York, with annual tuition about as high as the median income in the U.S., and he was angry because wokeness had infected the curriculum. Indeed, it has. Wokeness is strongest at the elite schools. The problem is that the function of these elite schools is to get your kids into Harvard. That’s why you pay all that money. So the real question is whether being woke is a good way to get into Harvard. It certainly is. In fact, it’s probably a requirement at this point, since these schools are increasingly transitioning away from standardized testing and into essays and personal statements on how it feels to be poor and marginalized. Ironically, if you want to get really good at writing an essay like that, it helps to be pretty rich and to have the right sorts of essay coaches.
What happened at Blizzard Entertainment, and what does it illustrate about American politics?
Blizzard Entertainment is a video game studio that has been around since the early 1990s and is very well known in the industry, but it has hit a rough patch lately. The company recently experienced what started out as a fairly run-of-the-mill #MeToo rebellion. But as the scandal grew, you had employees publishing open letters making salacious but unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct, sexism, racism, and so on. And then the state of California, the Securities and Exchange Commission, a bunch of NGOs, activist investor organizations, and so on joined in on a kind of feeding frenzy. Everyone seemed quickly to forget about the original sexual misconduct allegations, or they used that issue as a door-breacher and immediately switched over to treating this as a systemic problem that could only be fixed if Blizzard would hire more people from various protected groups and fast-track them to leadership positions. This attack on a private company—essentially to force it to pay a form of ideological protection money—I found very significant, because politics is often about patronage. But in this case, you had the state, activist NGOs, and the media all working together to pry open a private company and force them to hire people into sinecures.
The anthropologist Peter Turchin argues, as part of his concept of elite overproduction, that one of the biggest predictors of societal unrest is the social production of people with elite aspirations or demands for elite status. Elite here is not meant in the sense that these people are necessarily smart or capable; they just have to have some sort of proof of nobility or claim to higher status, and society has to furnish them with that status in some way. What’s going on at Blizzard resembles a destructive way of trying to deal with this elite overproduction. It doesn’t matter if all these new hires know how to make games; Blizzard just needs to pay this tax, or the activists will try to ruin them. It’s clearly a protection racket.
Sweden went through its own form of cultural revolution beginning in 2015 with immigration policy and the refugee crisis. What happened there?
Sweden was the first country to experience a woke revolution. When the refugee crisis hit, Sweden accepted the most people by far in Europe on a per capita basis. This took place under a cultural frenzy that should be familiar to Americans at this point. What you have in America right now, with people disowning family and friends over, say, vaccine mandates and categorizing the unvaccinated as a lower form of human being—all of that was going on in Sweden with people who weren’t completely on board with refugees. But now one gets the sense that none of this had that much to do with the reality of the situation, because many in Sweden have changed their position on refugees since then. So the refugee crisis wasn’t necessarily about refugees; it was about Sweden’s “deplorables.”
What does that portend for politics in the U.S.?
Developments in Sweden over the past six years aren’t a particularly optimistic sign for the U.S. We had this short explosion that lasted from 2014 to 2015, but it had quieted down by around 2018, because people realized, “You know, I’m middle class, and it’s really hard to assimilate these migrants, and there’s a lot of crime now,” so everyone just stopped being aggressively woke.
But in the U.S., once the sickness infected the body politic, it’s just gotten worse and worse. If this were just a case of ideology, you could get people to believe in other ideas. But this sort of wokeness is actually the surface phenomenon masking serious internal conflicts between what we might call the periphery and the core. The experience of Sweden teaches us that these things are like a forest fire, in that they stop if there’s not enough fuel. But the U.S. has been crazy woke for twice as long as Sweden—and it’s only getting worse. Think about what people were saying after the election in Virginia: that this was proof that white supremacy is stronger than ever, or that the country is irrevocably racist. The U.S. isn’t cooling down, and it’s not going to cool down for a good while yet because none of the political conflicts have been solved.
The Social Democrats here in Sweden have always had this attitude that the best way to defeat revolutionaries is to give them a job. Like, if you’re a radical and you want to write a paper about how we should just kill all the Social Democrats, you can fill out the form and the Social Democrats will actually subsidize you to produce a newspaper about how you’re going to kill them. There’s nothing like that in the U.S. So the fact that radicals are moving from state governments and the federal government to private companies and kicking in the door and saying, “You need to hire these commissars or we’re going to make life hell for you,” shows that, as Turchin himself predicted, the U.S. is going to become more and more unstable until it solves these political problems.
Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images
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