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    Identity politics thwarts real social change by dividing people

    The word ‘woke’ is usually flung around as an accusation by right-wingers and centrists. But Left is Not Woke, by the philosopher Susan Neiman, comes from a self-styled socialist, who also takes aim at the dead-ends of identity politics. Being a leftist and being woke are not the same thing, the book warns. In fact, wokism undermines the traditional tenets of the left: it pushes tribal dogma over universal commitments, it punctures the hope of progress itself.

    Wokeness begins with concern for marginalised persons, but it ends up reducing each person to the prism of her marginalisation, says the book. The idea of intersectionality was once a useful reminder that all of us have more than one identity. But now, it leads to a narrow focus on the parts that are most marginalised and multiplies them into a ‘forest of trauma’. Wokes are so caught up in inequalities of power and culture wars that they have forgotten how to struggle together for justice.

    Wokism reduces our complex identities to the narrow axes of race, gender (or caste or sexual orientation) alone, and fixates on the idea that only those exactly like us can be our comrades. It’s assumed that our social position determines our claim to knowledge – only a woman can know this, only a person with disabilities understands this, and so on. But victimhood alone confers no virtue, says the book. Valorisation of one’s trauma leads to self-expression, but not social change. One must fight the social fictions of race and gender with common ideals, not identities.

    How does political change happen? When we build coalitions, when people rally together, across gender and race and other identities, for the sake of their convictions. Even the white people who marched for Black Lives Matter were doing it out of a commitment to universal justice. Tribal thinking reduces everything to self-interest and frustrates the possibility of egalitarian movements. It mirrors the identity politics of conservatives.

    Woke movements tend to tear down Enlightenment ideas of universal liberal ideals, reason, progress and so on, pointing out that it was the Eurocentric ideology that justified colonial predations by the West. They point out (rightly) that ‘universal’ is usually coded white rather than brown, male rather than female, straight rather than gay. But this book argues that the Enlightenment thinkers gave colonialism a guilty conscience, something that older ‘might is right’ empires never had.
    Those who once called themselves as being on the left, now call themselves progressives, but they undermine any hope for progress. To be on the left is to stand behind the idea that people can work together to make a real change in their own lives and those of others. Woke theories have an implacable doomsday logic that makes reform seem futile. They miss how things have got better on the racial front, on gender, on confronting our pasts. Sexual harassment was once like the weather, now it is at least condemned and actionable even if it remains pervasive.

    Wokeness is largely confined to squabbling on social media over what discrimination is worse, rather than building solidarity across our differences. The personal is the political, certainly, but when the political is only the personal, then we lose hope, the book says.


    This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.




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