Woke,  Zeitgeist

Wokeness : A Research Program for the Uninterested Observer


By Jurek Molnar


Not progress, but the “belief” in progress, or the “idea” of progress as a social or historical phenomenon, is a major theme for the present-day student of society.

Leo Strauss, Progress or Return?

L’aria è diventata irrespirabile

E qui regna solo l’indifferenza

(The air becomes unbreathable and only indifference reigns here.)

Adriano Celentano, L’Uomo Perfetto


1. In order to define a term, we must agree on certain presumptions. For instance we must all agree, that the term is an actual word that is commonly used and has a certain meaning. And we also have to agree  that the word refers to a real thing that exists somehow to some degree in the physical world. No discussion is needed if all observers identify a chair by a reference with the same name, but if someone calls a pipe, a map or a violin a “chair”, well then something has to be done about that. And while it is easy to be certain about physical objects, things get harder in the realm of spiritual, fictional or ideological phenomena. We may all be certain that Donald Duck is not a real person, but we may certainly agree that the name Donald Duck refers to a character situated in a comic book and that this comic book is available in a physical reality. Is Donald Duck hence real? Donald Duck is obviously very real in regard to his impact on the cultural fabric in the societies he appeared. In Jungian psychology Donald Duck represents an archetype, which covers a range of characteristics of actual human beings. Donald Duck is real in this sense, because we know people who behave sometimes like Donald Duck would do and we recognize the behavior of Donald Duck as something we have encountered before in social interactions.

But in comparison to Donald Duck, political terms are much harder to grasp. When we try to observe the term “wokeness” as Uninterested Observers, we cannot engage in the political partisanship that arises inevitably. The agreement about the term fails, because the presumptions are mutually exclusive in regard to the partisan lens. The question then is, if it is possible to take a step back and to determine a more general description of what we see? For us as Uninterested Observers, it is not a matter of being left or right, liberal or conservative, but mainly a twofold question: What are the main features of what we call “wokeness”? And how do these features impact real world communications?

In order to do this I have identified five different ideas, which are connected to “wokeness” as a phenomenon of politics and culture and will deliver a more general perspective. The list is necessarily incomplete, and others may offer new or different versions of these ideas.

These five ideas are:

1. The idea that human nature is an empty field of endless possibilities to operate on.

2. The idea that history is linear and moves on a steady path of progression.

3. The idea that all metaphysic systems are arbitrary or relative concepts.

4. The idea that political leadership should be held by philosopher kings.

5. The idea that any kind of political imperative must be global, rather than local.

None of these ideas is definitely left or right, liberal or conservative. They represent attitudes and objectives of elites, media and intellectuals, taken into a broader context. I will address each of these ideas in separate posts. As a note, none of these ideas is inherently good or bad and none is an indisputable fact, rather than a bundle of ideological motivations that are prevalent or common among influential people.

These ideas are most of all fashionable. The main trait of a fashionable idea is that it is rewarding to express it. It creates social, political and last not least financial revenue. Fashionable ideas are held by the coolest, smartest and by default most prestigious people. Prestigious people are prestigious because they hold fashionable ideas and ideas become fashionable because prestigious people propagate them. Fashionable ideas are in competition with good and bad ideas, and a fashionable idea can be good or bad in itself, but fashionable ideas usually outcompete all other ideas. Fashionable ideas are selected for their advantage to create fast and short-term rewards. Good ideas are not necessarily fashionable, which means they have a disadvantage in the selection process. Effectively, the five ideas I mentioned are fashionable, because they also advertise the idea to be the best solution to an underlying problem, but this claim is at best dubious. Fashionable ideas also create common attitudes, which advertise certain solutions as obvious answers to universal problems. But as an Uninterested Observer I personally would prefer to consider these ideas as unsolved problems of the human condition. Nobody should trust anyone who claims to have a solution to a universal problem. The best we can do is to identify the trade-offs, that the design of a specific solution offers.

In the same way there is no agreement about the meaning of the term “wokeness” by two different partisan lenses, there is also no definitive answer to these ideas. They represent problems, to which currently no viable solution exist. As a short teaser I will address each of those, before I get on.

Idea number four, that political leadership should be held by philosopher kings, refers to an idea of the Greek philosopher Plato, who recommended in his political philosophy that the best educated and most talented people should run the state. It is a brilliant idea, but it stops becoming one as soon as one recognizes that Plato had himself or people like himself in mind. Political leadership can never be diverse. In order to function as leadership, it must be bound to a special class of people, who share a certain narrative, which represents a set of values that provide guidance and direction. Philosopher kings can emerge only from current elites. For Plato this was a no-brainer. New elites have to establish their own tradition and they have to create the values their leadership depends on. During the course of the Russian Revolution, the old elites were murdered and exiled and the new elites, inexperienced in the use of state power ruined brutally the remains of the old system, but were unable to create the new order. The pattern that current elites are nevertheless always convinced to be the best people to run the state (and the economy of course) is not unknown in the succeeding history since Plato. So, the problem of politics then is not so much the difficulty to put the best people in charge, but how to determine who the best are. As I mentioned earlier, this is by all standards an unsolved problem.

Idea number one on the other hand, that human nature is an empty field of endless possibilities to operate on, is only a few hundred years old and it does not refer to an unsolved problem of ancient times, but a new one, which states that technology is an integrationist solution to social discomfort. Technology and technological development appear in this point of view as the main carrier of progress itself. The more society relies on technological innovation the more enlightened, just, wealthy, equal and peaceful it will become. A telling example is Aaron Bastani’s book Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which presents something as the solution, which is actually the problem. The summary explains: “Automation, rather than undermining an economy built on full employment, is instead the path to a world of liberty, luxury and happiness.” This sentence alone makes no sense, because automation does undermine economies built on full employment. There is no “rather” or “instead” here. The opinion that technology is the most effective way to overcome the pathologies of human nature was not held by a majority of intellectuals until recently, but right now it has become a mainstream point of view, which may or may not be shared by a majority of the population, but certainly by a majority of intellectuals and academia.

Idea number three, that all metaphysic systems are arbitrary or relative concepts, tackles an unsolved problem of ancient times that was first formulated by Christian theology as a reaction to a Platonic concept about the nature of ideas and is known as the “Problem of Universals”. The question asked was basically: Do ideas in the same way exist as physical objects exist? The strain of philosophy that is called postmodernism puts the question differently, while attacking the same problem: Is the reality we perceive a creation of language? In many ways the themes and motifs of postmodernism are reflections of the revolution in physics that happened from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century. Terms like “Quantum non-locality” have recently made rounds and serve as a supportive argument for the postmodernist view that all reality is subjective, although the exact physical and mathematical formulations of Quantum non-locality don’t express the relationship between observers and observed that clearly. A more common term is “relativity”, which has become synonymous with a principle of uncertainty. Postmodern philosophers were fascinated by the imagination that nothing that exists is stable and hence the result of language based construction operations. What is “gravity” to physicists, is “language” to postmodernists. They were philosophers after all and developed an epistemological frame work to produce something that nowadays calls itself “Critical Race Theory”, “Intersectional Feminism” and “Queer Theory”. They are all refutations and objections to the simple question of metaphysics: Does truth as a non-relative concept exist? While the postmodernists are by no means the first ones to answer no, the majority of philosophical thinking throughout all of history said yes. It is new ground for any society to have a majority of intellectuals, artists and scientists who are convinced that metaphysical concepts of truth are irrelevant.

Idea number two, that history is linear and moves on a steady path of progression, is known in the Anglo-Saxon world as “whig history” and is actually a very modern idea, only a few hundreds of years old. The political struggle between “Whigs” and “Tories”, which dates back to the 17th century, has some resemblance with the contemporary distinction between “progressives” and “reactionaries”. “Whigs” and “Tories” are tightly connected to a diverse strain of protestant churches, which were influenced by or attributed to the historical era we call “Enlightenment”. “Whig history” represents the expectation that historic progress has a predetermined trajectory towards a teleological goal, which is another version of the “belief in progress”, as Leo Strauss has put it. The variants in which this idea had appeared in history are very different. There may be imaginations about the end of times and coming apocalypses involved, but not necessarily so. Some version can be found in Francis Fukuyama’s famous book The End of History and The Last Man. But there are others, which predict the line of progress as an endless linear growth, without any references to an end. Marxism is certainly one of these, but also libertarian writers like Ayn Rand come to mind. A majority of historic civilizations did not perceive time as a linear progression, rather than a succession of circular repetitive development. Many cultures think of seasons as the most important time frames.

Idea number five, that any kind of political imperative must be global rather than local, is a very simple generalization of a very complicated problem: governance. The process we call globalization is in full effect and it creates a gravitational pull on nation states and local communities politically, culturally and economically. The imperative to create global agendas is hence the question who is or should be in charge to install the solutions of these global agendas. And this creates a strong incentive to establish world governance by a system of global institutions which do not operate on the traditional basis of democratically elected officials inside nation states. The preference for such a global imperative means practically a top-down global management structure, but will create effectively an absolute monarchy. Who the benevolent monarch(s) will be, is a different question. The reason why I think this is a very probable part of our future is the simple suggestion that catastrophism and cataclysmic imagery have become paradigmatic in our popular culture. Climate change, meteor strikes, nuclear war, viral pandemics, AI Risks, overpopulation or even population collapse are symbolic representations of a “The end is nigh” atmosphere, which haunts the generations who belongs to the church of belief in progress. In the minds of “woke” contemporaries utopia is always one step ahead, but at the same time everything is doomed to complete destruction by one or more catastrophic events. It will be the fear and the looming Angst in regard to actual or alleged catastrophic events, which will bring a world government into power.


2. Most readers will already have noticed that I avoided terms like “Identity politics”, “LGBTQ+”, “Third Wave Feminism” or “Anti-Racism” to describe woke ideas. The reason is very simple: if we are observing a certain phenomenon, we will easier understand the concept by maneuvering between the terms that already have settled themselves in partisan territory. It may not be possible to be purely objective, but we can determine objective facts and widen the lens to put these facts in context. “Facts” will refer mostly to things that are observable in the real world, settled by historical data and self-evident logical conclusions. Elisabeth Anscombe may not agree.

In political conflict the struggle about terms is nothing less than existential. When we struggle about political issues, the real conflict boils down to who can say what about reality and in which way this reality has to be perceived. It is a question of faith if Trump colluded with Russia. In wars of faith the partisan points of view are mutually exclusive, hence the moral framework of either side is determined to deny any common ground. In other words: the perception of the individual is shaped by a distinct set of values and hyper focused moral lenses. These moral concepts always refer to something that is called “metaphysics”, realities that are not identified by a determinable cause. Moral behavior is not given by any standard, there has to be a society wide agreement on their objective nature. They have to be declared, repeated, followed and represented in the cultural fabric to come into existence. On the grounds of particular moral assumptions political power hence is the ability to declare this particular thing is real or this is not. Politics has to be understood as a source of energy, which fuels all social interactions, but is always on the brink of self-destruction. The struggle remains an inevitable fact, because political power is very rarely total and no political agent in power stays there forever. But some stay longer than others and some can stay there for a very long time. All political forces of known history depend on their ability to shape the sense of reality, so that everybody under their rule accept the most important assumptions, which guarantee and justify their existence as a necessary component of the reality all people have to live in.

For an Uninterested Observer, the term “wokeness” is a hard nut to crack. People, who are woke, don’t use it anymore and deny that it refers to something real, while the people who reject it consider it an existential threat. So, the political struggle that involves “wokeness” as a reference term is mostly a struggle about the presumed reality of the phenomena. The struggle is mainly the process to determine that “wokeness” is a reality that has measurable impact on human matters. “Woke” people will always refer to all the phenomena in question as “normal”. The impact is either no big deal or it just refers to self-evident conclusions. Transgender people have existed for thousands of years, there is nothing new or strange about them. People of Color have always been oppressed by straight white men, and this has not changed either.

What we can determine nevertheless is the tendency to make the debates about “wokeness” a discussion about morals and more importantly about norms, in which the contemporary norms are always superior to the norms of the past. The term “justice” appears quite often. If “woke” people claim to act in the name of justice, then justice appears as a self-evident good that needs no further explanation. Justice has in this context always a temporal axis. Justice is always directed into the past, where justice was violated and has to be repaired now and in the future. The current moral frame work is always an improvement to the imperfect or even abhorrent character of past historical realities. And so “woke” people will always refer to a set of self-evident behaviors, which rely on that linear moral trajectory of past injustice to current justice. The main point of critique we will have to make as Uninterested Observers is to question the confidence that these norms and moral obligations are actually that self-evident. In a Kantian way they are a-priori assumptions, which are treated as undisputable. The problem that arises here is a paradox. When all ethical and moral assumptions are “social constructs” and represent unstable human interventions into society, then this must be true for all norms and values that have been passed throughout humanity. Ideas are never real or given, they only represent power structures. So, “woke” people do what all people in power do: they impose their norms and values. But most historic examples imposed their norms and values on their own behalf. This is not what “woke” people do. They establish their norms and values by the imagination to speak for the oppressed and downtrodden and claim to shift the power structures in favor of the oppressed and downtrodden, which is of course a lie. What they actually do is to shift powers from old elites to new elites, who become nobles and royalty in the name of abstractions like “representation” or “equity”. The power structures of money have been shifted to the digital economy, where guys like MIT graduate Sam Bankman-Fried had been given immense credit and trust to invest large sums of money, just because of his prestigious university degree and his promising upbringing. The FTX scandal revealed that a bunch of 20 year olds from rich and successful families used their carte blanche to create a scam that blew up, because every one of these individuals were neither good at trading nor good at being a criminal. The propagation of “effective altruism” was the symptom of an underlying pathology, which weaponized power as an end in itself. People who want to “change the world” or claim to have the objective to distribute all wealth equally, end up by neither having changed the world to the better nor having created any wealth at all that can be distributed. The “woke” paradox is simply that the successful effort to strive for power has at all times to be disguised as virtuous philanthropy. The meaning of social media is to perform an image, which displays what kind of fantasies narcissists have of themselves. In the end power always wins, and Sam Bankman-Fried annihilated the savings of his customers, who delivered him their future. It was clearly bad luck.

“Woke” intellectuals are solving the problem by ignoring the contradiction or worse they establish a negative ontology. Formerly positive ontological anchors like god, country, mother tongue and fatherland have been switched into negative patterns like “Whiteness” or “heteronormative cis patriarchy”. The matter is their function inside linguistic operations. Everything that is relative and unstable has to behave towards an absolute, which in “woke” speech has completely different names than before, but are in the same way reliably absolute. We are speaking of people who consider themselves as relativists radically rejecting wholeheartedly absolute statements, except when it is about their own absolute statements. The suggestion here is that the claim of “wokeness” to represent something new and unprecedented is simply false. Fashionable is not the same as new. Changing the position of the significands that make the power structure does not solve the inherent flaws of power structures. Claiming that biological sex is a matter of self-chosen fluid gender definitions does not change the structural nature of the binary constraints male and female. The most surprising fact about “wokeness” is, that it claims to solve a problem, it doesn’t even understand and to declare by means of political power that relative concepts are also absolute. “Wokeness” does not solve anything, nor does it create anything new and original. “Woke” people just hope that they do and they invest a lot of energy into the belief that it someday will. But again: at the end of the day all they want is power and everything else gets lost on the way.

The intellectual merits of postmodernism are by no means unsubstantial. We can say that the philosophy is great, but it shares with other great philosophies the inconvenient feature that it doesn’t work as a primary source of political stability. We may assume that disruptive innovation in the historical past has been beneficial in the long term, but we can also assume based on what we see that the “woke” are very likely disruptive, but there is no innovation at all to conclude a positive outcome from the disruption. For instance, the realm of popular culture has completely stopped to be innovative. It has become stale, boring and repetitive artistically, basically copying old formulas again and again. The artistic forms of popular music have not changed since 1991. The last innovative musical development was the introduction of voice decoders in the artistic process a decade ago. There is also the strange global attraction to HipHop and Rapmusic that is dominating the popular culture worldwide. While the global periphery has found some interesting voices, the music and the entertainment industries of the global center have turned themselves into a semiotic washing machine of outworn clothes, and is generating immensely large revenue streams by very modest artistic efforts. The unbelievably successful implementation of African-American cultural industries as a market leader in all forms of advertisement and sale strategies including basketball players, fashion icons, Hollywood celebrities and Oscar winning movies, has not been fully recognized yet, but poses all sorts of interesting questions, nobody ever asks.

The moral lens that is focused by “wokeness” is not very sharp. There is too much business and far too less cultural self-confidence to actually improve anything. non c’e piu amor! the great Adriano Celentano declared 1985. There is no love any more. All hope has wandered into the belief in progress, which is a belief in technology. Technology will create all the innovation that our “woke” age lacks in basic logic, philosophically substantial questions, informed literacy and the knowledge of historical data. Chat GPT is not just a prototypical AI, but a promise that a technological application will substitute our own lack of creative energy. Chat GPT is a tool, which has great potentials to improve workplace effectivity, but it also serves as a seduction to put all your eggs in one basket, which is the belief in technological progress as an end in itself.



3. I would like to close this piece with a short reference to the conversation between Eutyphro and Socrates. In Plato’s dialogue Eutyphro, Socrates debates a version of the problem what makes piety and moral conscience evident values. Eutyphro claims to act virtuous. And he takes his virtue as given and non-disputable. Socrates takes a lot of interest in his argument and asks him: “Why is this particular behaviour a virtue?” And Eutyphro answers: “Because the gods like it.” A virtue, Eutyphro argues is something that has been blessed by divine approval. Socrates explores this statement carefully and asks another question: “Is it a virtue because the gods cherish it, or do the gods just cherish something that is intrinsically virtuous?”

While this is usually taken as a solid win for the Socratic Method, I would like to point out that Eutyphro’s view of virtue is the main position of mostly all human beings throughout history. People consider something as virtue because it is approved by a higher instance. The name of this instance is irrelevant to its function, be it god, Pharaoh, nature or social justice. The problem is called Eutyphro’s dilemma, because Eutyphro cannot answer the question and neither can’t Socrates himself. There is no obvious or evident basis for moral values outside strict religious or ideological imperatives, which are ignoring Eutyphro’s dilemma. In the case of “wokeness” the validation of an omnipotent god has just shifted to an omnipotent abstraction of another kind, hence “Whiteness” or “Patriarchy” have been transformed into negative ontological categories. Socrates is not the winner of this debate, because he can only put doubt into our hearts by destabilizing the validity of the question itself and introducing the implication that it is unsolvable. Ethics is a business of tricky questions. Definitive answers will always tend to be extreme. The inconvenience an unsolvable question provides, leads to inconvenient outcomes. A questions of ethics is necessarily metaphysical in nature. This means that an answer depends on a-priori assumptions which either appear as given and undisputable or are unknown. The beliefs that slavery is wrong or that racism is harmful are transient, when the idea of truth becomes a relative concept. But the statement that truth has to be the relative viewpoint of a conscious mind, lays at the heart of all philosophical foundations, which we nowadays call postmodernism and which has been swallowed up entirely by the people we call “woke”. Most people, who get asked will answer that there is no objective truth, only subjective consciousness. The answer that the intellectuals among “woke” people give is to ignore the problem and consider its discussion as meaningless. Progress does not care about logic. But the result of ignorance and lack of logic is inevitably political violence, but this is another unsolvable problem we won’t discuss here.

I will publish in the next weeks and months single ATLs about each one of the five ideas I mentioned above. It is an ongoing research program, which invites all interested parties to discuss some of these topics on their own behalf and express critique, make detailed arguments or point to interesting new conclusions. (The emphasis is on “interesting”).

Let the games begin.