Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET on September 26, 2023
In universities and newspapers, nonprofit organizations and even corporations, a new set of ideas about race, gender, and sexual orientation has gained huge influence. Attitudes to these ideas—which are commonly called “woke,” though I prefer a more neutral term, the “identity synthesis”—have split into two camps: those who blame them for all of America’s ills and those who defend them, largely uncritically.
Right-wing polemicists deride these ideas as a form of “cultural Marxism,” which has substituted identity categories such as race for the economic category of class but still aims at the same old goal of communist revolution. They invoke wokeness to oppose anything they dislike, such as sex ed and insufficiently patriotic versions of American history.
On the other side, many people in media and politics claim that wokeness is simply a matter of justice and decency: a willingness to acknowledge the cruelties of America’s past and a recognition of the ways they still shape the country. “Being woke,” Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who became a vocal critic of Donald Trump, has said, “just means being empathetic.”
Each position mischaracterizes these ideas, obscuring their true nature. Over recent decades, writers, activists, and scholars have melded a diverse set of ideas inspired by postmodernism, postcolonialism, and critical race theory into a new worldview that animates today’s progressive movements. It now constitutes a genuinely novel ideology, which has radically transformed what it means to be left-wing.
Amid all the contention, this ideology deserves assessment in a more evenhanded manner, one that weighs what is interesting or potentially useful about its tenets against the ways in which it undercuts the very values it claims to advance. And the key to a more sophisticated understanding and critique of these ideas lies in the story of where they came from.
At the beginning, there was Michel Foucault.
In his early years, the French philosopher was shaped by the fashionable “grand narratives” of his time. When he studied with the Hegelian philosopher Jean Hyppolite, Foucault imbibed the idea that history should be understood as the gradual realization of freedom in the world. When, a few years later, he went on to study with the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser, a passionate defender of the Soviet Union, Foucault embraced the idea that liberation would come in the form of the proletariat staging a worldwide revolution. In 1950, Foucault joined the French Communist Party, which was unquestioningly loyal to Joseph Stalin.
Yet Foucault soon chafed at the Marxist orthodoxy demanded by his comrades, leaving the party by 1953. “Over anyone who pretended to be on the left,” he would later complain, the party “laid down the law. One was either for or against; an ally or an adversary.” He became an adversary.
This combination of a commitment to left-wing ideals and a mistrust of grand narratives that justify coercion, including Marxism, constitutes the core of Foucault’s published work. In book after book, he argued against modern societies’ complacent assumption that they had made progress in the way they punish criminals or treat the mentally ill. Doubting claims to objective truth, Foucault believed that societies had become not more humane but merely more effective at controlling their subjects.
This paved the way for Foucault’s most influential argument, about the true nature of power. Power, he argued, is much more indirect than the top-down model traditionally taught in civics classes. Because real power lies in the normative assumptions embedded in the discourses that structure our society and the identity labels we use to make sense of the world, it is “produced from one moment to the next, at every point.”
This belief made Foucault deeply skeptical about the perfectibility of our social world. People would always chafe against the form that power takes at any given moment in history: “Where there is power, there is resistance,” he wrote. But this resistance, if successful, would itself come to exercise a power of its own. Even the most noble struggle, Foucault warned his readers, would contain within itself the seed of new forms of oppression.
Foucault left his devotees with a complicated legacy. On the one hand, they recognized that his philosophy allowed them to question the prevailing assumptions and institutions of their age, including claims to objective truth or universal validity. On the other hand, Foucault’s pessimism about the possibility of creating a less oppressive world disappointed them. As Noam Chomsky told me 50 years after a famous encounter with Foucault for a televised debate at a Dutch university, he had “never seen such an amoral—not immoral, amoral—person in my life.”
In the late 1970s and ’80s, a series of postcolonial thinkers, such as Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, set out to resolve this tension. Simultaneously influenced by Foucault and uncomfortable with his fatalistic conclusions, their ambition was to infuse the prospect for political agency back into his ideas.
Edward Said, a Palestinian American literary theorist who taught at Columbia University, shot to fame by arguing that the way Western writers had imagined the “Orient” helped them wield power over it, causing real-world harm. Explicitly acknowledging his debt to “Michel Foucault’s notion of a discourse,” he claimed that analyzing the discourse of “Orientalism” was crucial to understanding “the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively.”
This “discipline” of Oriental Studies cloaked itself as a scholarly tradition that claimed to be politically neutral, even objective. In reality, argued Said, “political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination, and scholarly institutions.” Historically, Western representations of the East justified colonial rule. Since then, Said argued, a newer set of ideas about the “Arab mind” had helped motivate U.S. interventions in the Middle East. Said’s goal was to free his readers from the pernicious power Orientalist assumptions still held.
This critique prepared the ground for a more politically engaged adaptation of postmodernism. For many of Orientalism’s readers, it seemed clear that the goal of cultural analysis should be to help those who have the least power. They sought to change the dominant discourse to help the oppressed resist the oppressor.
Postcolonial scholars took Said’s work as a model for how to apply discourse analysis to explicitly political ends. A new wave of researchers concerned with such topics as gender, the media, and the experiences of migrants and ethnic minorities quickly embraced their toolkit. In time, the idea that a lot of political activism might revolve around critiquing dominant discourses or labeling certain cultural artifacts as “problematic” went mainstream, finding currency on social-media platforms and in traditional newspapers.
Foucault’s legacy left postcolonial scholars with a second obstacle. In rejecting grand narratives, he had not only turned against the idea of universal values or objective truth; he was also arguing that identity labels such as “women,” “proletarians,” and the “masses of the Third World” were reductive. Such generalizations, he claimed, create the illusion that a hugely varied group of people share some essential set of characteristics; this misperception could even help perpetuate injustices. The oppressed, Foucault observed, do not need intellectuals to speak on their behalf.
Spivak, an Indian literary scholar, strongly disagreed. Parisian philosophes, she argued, could take their social standing for granted. But the people with whom she was most concerned had none of their resources and enjoyed no such recognition. In countries such as India, she concluded in her most celebrated article, the “subaltern” cannot speak.
This presented Spivak, who had made her name as an interpreter of postmodernist philosophers, with a dilemma. How could she stay true to her distrust of dominant discourses, including identity categories, while speaking on behalf of the marginalized groups for which she felt a deep kinship? The key to doing better, she argued, was to embrace identity markers that could prove useful in practice even if they might be suspect in theory. “I think we have to choose again strategically,” she suggested, “not universal discourse but essentialist discourse … I must say I am an essentialist from time to time.”
These cryptic remarks took on a life of their own. Faced with the problem of how to speak for the oppressed, scholars from numerous disciplines followed Spivak’s example. They continued in the spirit of postmodernism to cast doubt on claims of scientific objectivity or universal principles. At the same time, they insisted on using broad identity categories and speaking for the downtrodden by embracing what they came to call “strategic essentialism.”
Over time, Spivak’s paradoxical compromise became a political rallying cry. Today, activists who carefully acknowledge that race or gender or ability status “is a social construct” nevertheless go on to make surprisingly essentializing claims about what, say, brown people or women or the disabled believe and demand.
The embrace of strategic essentialism also helps explain the logic behind the rise of new social customs, such as the establishment of racially separate “affinity groups” in many progressive spaces. Spivak came to believe that a commitment to identity categories such as race was strategically useful. Many progressives took this to mean that activists—and even grade-school students—should be encouraged to conceive of themselves first and foremost in racial terms.
Slowly but surely, these ideas gained traction in different parts of academia, including law schools. A new generation of legal scholars set out to question long-held beliefs about the judiciary, such as the idea that judges made decisions based on fine points of legal doctrine rather than on their own worldview or self-interest. But one member of this emerging tradition who proved especially influential argued that it had a crucial blindspot of its own: race.
Derrick Bell was a Black lawyer who spent the 1960s doing heroic work in the fight for desegregation. As an attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, his mission was to win compliance with the major judicial victories of the civil-rights era, such as Brown v. Board of Education. In total, he helped oversee some 300 cases involving the desegregation of schools and businesses.
At first, Bell found his work exhilarating. But the longer he stayed in the job, the more dispirited he became. His lawsuits took so long to wind their way through the courts that many of the boys and girls he represented were adults by the time the school they’d hoped to attend was integrated.
Even then, progress could prove illusory. As Black schools were dissolved, many good Black teachers lost their jobs. And as white schools were integrated, many parents chose to send their kids to private schools, or moved out of the neighborhood altogether. In the end, some of the newly “integrated” schools were still predominantly Black and still suffered from a lack of resources.
These disappointments transformed Bell’s thinking. By the time his first major scholarly article appeared, in 1976, Bell had come to reject basic assumptions that had underpinned his earlier work as a litigator. Expanding on an argument that—as Bell himself acknowledged—had originally been advanced by segregationists, he warned that civil-rights lawyers, caught between their clients’ wishes and their own ideals, were trying to “serve two masters.”
“Having convinced themselves that Brown stands for desegregation and not education,” Bell complained, “the established civil rights organizations steadfastly refuse to recognize reverses in the school desegregation campaign—reverses which, to some extent, have been precipitated by their rigidity.” Civil-rights lawyers needed instead to listen to their Black clients, Bell said. According to him, that meant becoming more open to creating schools that were (to reappropriate the disingenuous segregationist mantra) more truly “separate but equal.”
Bell’s skepticism about the civil-rights movement also made him distrust the idea that the racial attitudes of most Americans were improving. “Racism,” he contended, is not “a holdover from slavery that the nation both wants to cure and is capable of curing”; rather, it is “an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.” The civil-rights movement might have succeeded in making discrimination “less visible,” but, he wrote in the early 1990s, racism had become “neither less real nor less oppressive.”
According to Bell, the legal remedies implemented during the civil-rights era, such as school desegregation, would never suffice to overcome the legacy of slavery. It was high time, he wrote in a 1992 paper, for a “review and replacement of the now defunct racial equality ideology.” To win lasting progress, Bell proposed, would require more than nominal equality; it would take explicit group rights that compensated the marginalized. He and his followers called for policies that openly distinguished among citizens on the basis of skin color, so that those who had historically been oppressed would henceforth receive preferential treatment.
Bell died in 2011. A decade later, his ideas are enjoying a second life as an avowedly anti-racist left is embracing his call for race-sensitive public policy. The determination to put “racial equity” before old-fashioned forms of “racial equality” is evident today in many public policies, such as when, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Small Business Administration prioritized nonwhite restaurant owners for emergency relief funds.
Much of today’s progressive politics is a popularized version of what I call the “identity synthesis.” To a remarkable extent, the ideas, norms, and practices that have become so prevalent on social media and in corporate diversity trainings owe a debt to these four thinkers in particular. They are rooted in a deep skepticism about objective truth inspired by Foucault, the use of discourse analysis for explicitly political ends taken from Said, an embrace of essentialist categories of identity derived from Spivak, and a preference for public policies that explicitly tie the treatment a person receives to their group identity, as advocated by Bell. (Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Black feminist legal scholar who coined the idea of “intersectionality,” which has since taken on a life of its own, might be considered another key member of this progressive pantheon.)
The mainstream influence of these ideas makes all the more interesting the fact that several of these thinkers came to have misgivings about the uses to which they were put. Foucault, who died in 1984, would, I suspect, have been quick to remind his devotees that the impulse to reshape discourses for political ends can, despite the liberatory aim, readily morph into new forms of repression.
Said, who died in 2003, addressed the problem explicitly. “Identity,” he wrote shortly before his death, is “as boring a subject as one can imagine.” For that reason, he admonished, “marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end, so that more, and not fewer, people can enjoy the benefits of what has for centuries been denied the victims of race, class, or gender.”
Spivak, too, was forthright about her dismay at how the idea of strategic essentialism had helped forge a new ideology. Praising the “political use of humor” by African Americans, she lamented its absence among today’s “university identity wallahs.”
The identity-synthesis advocates are driven by a noble ambition: to remedy the historic injustices that scar every country, including America. These injustices are and remain real. Although social movements and legislative reforms can help address them, the practice of politics, as the sociologist Max Weber famously wrote, is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” It rarely provides remedies as quickly or as comprehensively as hoped—leading some to conclude that a more radical break with the status quo is needed.
The appeal of the synthesis stems from promising just that. It claims to lay the conceptual groundwork necessary to remake the world by overcoming the reverence for long-standing principles that supposedly constrain our ability to achieve true equality. Advocates of the identity synthesis reject universal values like free speech as distractions that conceal and perpetuate the marginalization of minority groups. Trying to make progress toward a more just society by redoubling efforts to realize such ideals, its advocates claim, is a fool’s errand.
But these ideas will fail to deliver on their promises. For all their good intentions, they undermine progress toward genuine equality among members of different groups. Despite its allure, the identity synthesis turns out to be a trap.
As the identity synthesis has gained in influence, its flaws have become harder to ignore. A striking number of progressive advocacy groups, for example, have been consumed by internal meltdowns in recent years. “We used to want to make the world a better place,” a leader of one progressive organization complained recently. “Now we just make our organizations more miserable to work at.” As institutions such as the Sierra Club and the ACLU have implemented the norms inspired by the identity synthesis, they have had more difficulty serving their primary missions.
The identity synthesis is also starting to remake public policy in ways that are more likely to create a society of warring tribes. In the early months of the pandemic, for example, a key advisory committee to the CDC recommended that states prioritize essential workers in the rollout of scarce vaccines rather than the elderly, in part because “racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented” among seniors. Not only did this policy, according to the CDC’s own models, have the probable outcome of increasing the overall number of Americans who would perish in the pandemic; it also placed different ethnic groups in competition with one another for lifesaving medications.
When decision makers appear out of touch with the values and priorities of most citizens, demagogues thrive. The well-founded fears roused by the election of Trump accelerated the ascendancy of the identity synthesis in many elite institutions. Conversely, the newfound hold that these ideas now have over such institutions makes it more likely that he might win back the White House in 2024. The identity synthesis and far-right populism may at first glance appear to be polar opposites; in political practice, one is the yin to the other’s yang.
Many attacks on so-called wokeness are motivated by bad faith. They fundamentally misrepresent its nature. But that is no reason to deny how a new ideology has acquired such power in our society. In fact, it’s imperative to recognize that its founders explicitly saw themselves as rejecting widely held values, such as the core tenets of the civil-rights movement.
The lure of the identity synthesis to so many people is a desire to overcome persistent injustices and create a society of genuine equals. But the likely outcome of uncritically accepting this ideology is a society that places an unremitting emphasis on our differences. The effect is to pit rigidly defined identity groups against one another in a zero-sum battle for resources and recognition.
Critics of the identity trap commonly claim that progressive activists are “going too far.” But what is at issue is not having too much of a good thing. The real problem is that, even at its best, this ideology violates the ardent aspirations for a better future to which all of us should remain committed.
This essay is adapted from The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, which is out today.
By Yascha Mounk
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