Book review: “Left is Not Woke”

May 18, 2023 • 11:30 am

The title of this new and short book (160 pages; click screenshot to go to the Amazon site) lured me to ask our library to buy it, for I thought it should be available to University folk.  And of course being a Leftist and generally “antiwoke,” I wanted to see what arguments were on offer about why being on the Left is incompatible with being woke.

I hadn’t heard of the author, but Wikipedia has an entry for Susan Neiman and this is part of it:

Susan Neiman (/ˈnmən/; born March 27, 1955) is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public. She currently lives in Germany, where she is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

Sadly, I was disappointed in her book.  The first problem is that she doesn’t deal much with what “wokeness” really is, nor give examples of it to buttress her thesis. And Neiman’s thesis is this: she’s a big fan of the Enlightenment, and thinks that Leftism (unlike Liberalism, which is wedded to capitalism) is the political instantiation of her admired Enlightenment values.

Wokeness, Neiman argues, violates three Enlightenment values in ways I describe below:

a. Wokeism is tribalistic.  The overweening aspect of the Enlightenment, argues Neiman (and here I agree), is its emphasis on UNIVERSALISM.  Moral stands should not be taken based on nationality, ethnicity, or any other generalizable trait of a person.  It is this universalist attitude that led to the fight against slavery, child labor, and segregation. All that’s required is the ability to put yourself into the shoes of another person, conferring a moral stand that effaces nationalism, racism, sexism, and so on.  Wokeism, as Neiman argues, and as we all know, is tribalistic. It is based on identity politics and sees one’s race, gender, or similar traits as the most important aspect of a person, and something that can validate or invalidate their views. Identity politics is the antithesis of the Enlightenment. It’s not that Neiman has no sympathy for the oppressed. She has plenty, and in fact goes overboard praising some aspects of identitarianism (she’s a huge fan of Black Lives Matter, for instance). But yes, true Leftism sees humanity as a community with common interests, and, as the saying goes, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere”. So I’m on board with her here.

b. Wokeism places power over justice.  Drawing from postmodernism, argues Neiman, Wokeism sees the conflict between groups as a battle for power, not a fight for justice. Her argument, based on the philosophy of Michel Foucault et al., is that the Woke aren’t really looking for justice, but seeking power. And a fight for power never ends, while a fight for justice can.  I think this is also true, and is in conflict with Enlightenment values, which were far more concerned with justice than power. In fact, the two “values”, as we know, are inimical to each other. One example is the fight by gender activists to allow biological males to compete in women’s sports. Justice would say no, they shouldn’t, but many gender activists favor this, and that is a drive for power. (This is my example; one of Neiman’s flaws is, as I said, her lack of examples of Wokeism to buttress her thesis.)

c.) Wokeism doesn’t really believe in progress.  Again, I agree with Neiman. The Enlightenment, as we know from Steve Pinker’s two big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), always rested on beliefs that progress was possible, even if not always achieved.  One example I can adduce is civil rights.  The U.S., for example, has made huge strides in racial equality and racial justice since 1940, but to listen to some Wokesters you’d think that racism now is as bad as—or even worse than—the days of Jim Crow.  Wokesters claim that it’s just gone underground and has a different form. This, to me, is a ludicrous belief, refuted by tons of evidence.

One issue that strongly mars Neiman’s book is that she sees evolutionary psychology as deeply inimical to Leftism and to progress. She argues that evolutionary psychology, in the end, attributes selfish motivations to everything that people do, and that not only hinders moral progress (for everyone’s out for themselves), but gets rid of progress made possible by appealing to the interests of humanity as a whole instead of just your personal well being.

But Neiman’s not a biologist, and her view of evolutionary psychology is shallow and misguided. Evolutionary psychology does not predict that people will act in their own self-interest in every case: the “selfish” gene is “selfish” simply because natural selection can be seen metaphorically as genes trying to be “selfish” by outreproducing other genes.  Dawkins, frustrated by this misunderstanding (much of it coming from Mary Midgley, whom Neiman cites often), says that if he wrote The Selfish Gene now, he may have called it The Cooperative Gene.  There is far too much ignorant dissing of evolutionary psychology in this book, and it’s a serious flaw. Social rogress has clearly been made despite the fact that we’re products of natural selection, and no evolutionary psychologist I know holds the naive view that Neiman presents as characteristic of the field. We all know, for example, that culture can override evolution, and we also understand ways that natural selection itself can favor cooperation.

So if I agree with Neiman’s thesis, why am I not a big fan of her book? As I said, one reason is her lack of examples of Wokeism, which would not only support her thesis but also liven up what is a pretty scholarly and unexciting tome. Further, she dwells far too much on the Enlightenment (her academic speciality) at the expense of Wokeism, so you learn a lot more about the Englightenment (and there’s some good stuff there) but not so much about Wokeism. In other words, the book doesn’t fulfill the promise of its title.

Finally, there’s the annoying and—there’s no other word to use—ignorant attacks on evolutionary psychology presented as setting almost complete limits on our behavior and on human progress.

In the end, you might want to read this book to learn about the Enlightenment, and if you do you will. If you’ve heard the criticisms that the Enlightenment was a “Western” project, Neiman shows you how Enlightenment thinkers deliberately adopted the viewpoint of people from other cultures as a way of criticizing the problems with their own cultures without getting into trouble. But you won’t get a lot of buttressing if, like me,  you’re a Leftist seeking to understand why Wokeism is incompatible with your politics.

8 thoughts on “Book review: “Left is Not Woke”

  1. I bought and read her book, ‘Moral Clarity’, when it came out a while ago. Right now I’m in Amsterdam for the Vermeer exhibition, so I can’t pull this older book down from my shelves. However, it sounds like this new work is a modest rewrite of the older longer one, slapping on ‘woke’ to appeal to her agent and editor as making her rehash both hip and sales worthy.

    I don’t recall much of ‘Moral Clarity’, except she stressed that moral ideals are an ongoing evolving process. She critiqued EP in Moral Clarity as well, but my memory dimly recalls that her point was that EP says little or nothing about what contemporary ideals can or should become. She is an anti-conservative in that ‘ideals’ that the right believes are worth conserving, whether religious fundamentalism, ‘traditional’ views of women’s social position etc, are not worth preserving intact.

  2. I liked this book which I read a couple of weeks ago but have not re-read it for deeper understanding. I do not disagree with what Jerry said in general about its content, but that content was interesting and informative to me. After a short introductory chapter, the author provides three chapters, each one addressing one of the three Enlightenment areas Jerry listed: universalism vs tribalism; power vs justice; and the idea of progress in society. I appreciated her breaking these areas out of liberalism vs wokeism in her appraisal. Her background is that she was raised in a Jewish household in the South during the 1960’s and became very active in the civil rights fights. She dropped out of high school to engage in this activism, returning to school and earning a phd. She was a student of John Rawls at Harvard and I saw some of Rawls’ theory of justice behind her writing. My sense was that she did not like Foucult’s theories, but I may have misunderstood. It is a short read and there are numerous you tube videos of her lectures on this subject to university and general academic audiences on line. Oh yes and I had confusion over her view of evolutionary psychology but I pulled down some recent Pinker off the shelf to help me out. So I agree with Jerry on that.

  3. For very detailed examples and analysis of wokeism, one cannot do better than Pluckrose and Lindsay’s “Cynical Theories”. That book also has the virtue of tracing the links from the present woke epidemic to the post-modernist mannerisms we used to laugh at when David Lodge used them as comic material for his novels.

  4. She was a guest on the April 21st edition of the Dishcast. Free if you want to hear her. I’m sure on other podcasts too – as she’s on a book tour. I vaguely remember yelling at the speakers at a couple of points, but I do that in general whenever Sullivan or his guests stray too near to anything biological and say things that are blatantly wrong (“no individual produces testosterone and estrogen” was a Sullivan line on one occasion, revealing a fundamental ignorance of steroid biosynthesis and causing me to foam at the mouth). I don’t know enough evolutionary psychology to have many opinions that might cause me to verbalize disagreement.

  5. ‘The first problem is that she doesn’t deal much with what “wokeness” really is, nor give examples of it to buttress her thesis.’

    The challenge in these discussions is finding a definition of ‘woke’ .Woke is a fuzzy concept that, like ‘fascist,’ often means nothing more than ‘something the speaker disagrees with. As the left leaning Australia Institute noted;

    “When critics accuse everyone from the Wiggles, the Queen, the Pope, and the Australian cricket team of all being woke, Australians will unsurprisingly wonder what is so bad about being woke, or indeed what actually constitutes ‘wokeness’.”

    Interestingly the report found that;

    Most people either didn’t know what woke meant (43%) or described themselves as woke (26%);

    More Australians assign a positive definition to the term woke than a negative one (48% vs 30%).

    A rather fascinating finding is that ‘One in five One Nation voters (22%) would describe themselves as woke.’ One Nation is a right wing party known for advocating low immigration and opposing Aboriginal self determination.


  6. Some time ago, I read the bitter online lament of a liberal/eftist. He said we would hear a lot more about Trans rights in the coming year, than raising the minimum wage. This was definitely not meant as praise on the part of the author. Of course, he was right. To use an extreme example, the NYT launched an advertising campaign based on attacking J.K. Rowling. How crazy is that? To the ‘woke’, not crazy at all. To everyone else? Very crazy.

  7. In Amazon blurb, “ruthless ideas of neoliberalism ”
    What rot.
    “neoliberalism” now has a life of its own as a favorite Marxist euphemism for all they loathe about the modern “Western” world.
    With ne’er a care at what replaces the “mixed economy”, govt supervising the apparatus of democracy and a private market sector, overseeing, providing security, health, education, welfare.
    Because the ONLY alternative is full govt.: PRC, E Germany, N Korea, Cuba etc etc.

  8. Jerry, when considering the claims (hypotheses) of evolutionary psychology, how do you distinguish what’s properly argued from Gouldian ‘just-so stories’, particularly in books written for a lay audience that touch on human behavior? (I’m asking seriously, not dismissing EP.)

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