In 2021, Frances Widdowson was summarily fired from her tenured position in the Faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University (MRU) in Calgary. The proximate cause was her criticism of Black Lives Matter and statements that residential schools had some positive value, inasmuch as many First Nation children received a formal education. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is supporting her grievance against the MRU administration and has criticized the University of Lethbridge for having cancelled an invitation to her to give a lecture. After philosophy professor Paul Viminitz invited her, vocal opposition from students and faculty members resulted in her invitation being cancelled. We invited Frances Widdowson and Mark Crawford, an Alberta colleague from Athabasca University, to participate in an email exchange with Inroads co-publisher John Richards.
I recall an interview with you, Frances, in which you said that in the early 2010s faculty colleagues and students disagreed with many of your ideas, but they accepted you as a productive faculty member and teacher at Mount Royal University. You and your colleagues disagreed agreeably. In the middle of the decade, things changed. The culture at MRU – and most universities across North America – succumbed to wokism. As a summary, I define wokism as an ideology that identifies systemic White racism, past and present, as the main explanation for social problems arising among non-White communities and nations.
I am an economist, which leads me to search for a major economic disruption as catalyst for wokism in universities and other institutions. The financial crisis in 2008 bankrupted major financial institutions in New York and London. Pre-2008, the urban elites running governments and major financial institutions in Western Europe and North America assumed the future would be a continuation of the stable markets that had prevailed since the early 1990s. The crisis obliged governments to bail out irresponsible institutions to prevent “freezing” of all major financial transactions and a repetition of black October in 1929. Despite bailouts, the recession was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The financial crisis disrupted political conventions, and enabled the rise of right-wing populism (e.g. the Tea Party and Trumpism in the United States) and left-wing populism (e.g. revival in universities of formerly marginal Marxist ideologies such as critical race theory). The fallout from the 2008 crisis should probably be part of any explanation. I admit it is not enough. What are your thoughts?
You are correct, John. I have previously noted that the 2010s were a significant time of change in universities. More specifically, in 2013 I went on sabbatical from Mount Royal University. When I returned, I sensed the institution was no longer the same. Two things made this apparent: first, the Canadian Association of University Teachers was invited by my union to hold an “Equity Seminar and Workshop”; second, our new provost, Kathy Shailer, announced in Arts Faculty Council that we would be “Indigenizing” Mount Royal University. Neither of these initiatives came with any critical analysis of what this would mean for the academic character of the university. It was just assumed that this was the “right thing to do,” and asking questions encountered hostility.
Although 2014 was my first sense that something was amiss, this politically correct totalitarianism actually has its roots in the 1960s. This was when modernist assumptions were being challenged by what has come to be known as “postmodernism” – defined by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont as “an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a ‘narration,’ a ‘myth’ or a social construction among many others.” This replacement of the search for truth with the promotion of subjectivity enabled identity politics activism to gain a foothold in the academy.
The foothold was solidified in newly created Black and women’s studies departments, which were soon followed by Indigenous, queer and disability programs. While initially marginal in their impact, they were increasingly being tied to wider “branding” exercises in universities that were rapidly becoming corporatized. This facilitated identity politics’ capacity to take over the machinery of postsecondary institutions in the 2010s. While Mount Royal University had a “diversity” office when I started in 2008, its prominence became more and more noticeable throughout the decade. With this takeover, objectivity became an aspect of “White supremacy culture.” Activists claimed that the views of the oppressed must be “reified” (i.e. “made real” or professed to be true) because this aids their empowerment.
The legitimacy given to these initiatives by universities now means that they permeate society and are pushed by corporations (“woke capital”), professional associations and the “NGO industrial complex.” Take, for example, the prominence of “2SLGBTQI+” imagery in all facets of life. While this was given oxygen by “queer studies” programs, “positive space campaigns” and “pride centres” in universities, there is now widespread promotion of same-sex marriage, drag queen story hours and declaring one’s pronouns in every context imaginable. Toleration is no longer an option. In “wokism,” identities declared to be oppressed must be affirmed; if not, one will suffer ostracism and cancellation (the legal prohibition of criticism of “gender expression” is also possibly on the horizon).
Operating within a political economy framework, I am inclined to see this as rooted in a particular stage of capitalist development. At this stage, referred to as “late capitalism” by Ernest Mandel, we are seeing some political and economic features that are tied to the saturation of markets and deindustrialization in the core capitalist countries. This has coincided with disintegration of working-class organizations, privatization of public services and a promotion of tribal forms of affiliation (Indigenization and multiculturalism, for example). In identity politics, objective class conflict is not seen as a major historical force. It is boutique intersectional identities that matter.
All of this makes me ask the question of the relationship between “wokism” – that is, totalitarian identity politics or “reified postmodernism” – and this stage of capitalist development. To this end, there appear to be three important aspects of wokism that feed into the logic of late capitalism. The first is capitalism’s imperative to create the conditions for profit maximization, and how the encouragement of subjective identities assists this endeavour. New identities, after all, increase consumption. To express your identity and pursue fantastical desires in late capitalism is to buy goods that enable a remaking of the self. Whether it is surgery in the hope of sexual transformation or celebrating “orange shirt day” to virtue signal, new products and services must be purchased.
Second, it is important to realize that capitalist imperatives are threatened by the development of class consciousness, and wokism’s obsession with an ever-expanding number of subjective identities weakens a focus on economic exploitation. Instead of working to unite the alienated and impoverished, we are being encouraged to politically support activists who argue that “women with penises” should be housed in female prisons, that poor working-class Canadians should pay reparations to “racialized minorities” for the sins of their ancestors, and that oppressive religious identities require celebration, never criticism, under the guise of “diversity.”
Finally, the subjectivity encouraged by postmodernism acts to undermine any attempts to analyze objectively the problems that we are facing. This deprives society of a necessary brake on autocratic tendencies. One of the reasons why wokism is so popular in corporatized universities, and late capitalist enterprises more generally, is that the plight of oppressed groups can be used to justify totalitarian thought control. People who would not normally accept limitations on democracy agree to it as they are told that this will bring about “social justice” for those marginalized. Dismantling the protections for dissent – proposing, for example, to criminalize questioning the “genocidal” character of the residential schools – will also weaken the societal capacity to challenge oppressive economic conditions.
One of the major problems facing any analysis of wokism is the assumption that it is a “left-wing” position. Wokism is nothing of the sort. It is a reactionary impulse that attacks the values of the Enlightenment. Instead of being able to improve our understanding of the serious problems facing humanity today, we are being forced to accept the one “true” position spearheaded by the beneficiaries of late capitalism.
Economic crises can often trigger or condition ideological developments both inside and outside of academe, as John suggests. The classic example was when Marxism took root in the mid-19th century in the wake of the European potato famine of 1845–46, the Chartist revolt in England and the tumult of 1848 revolutions in continental Europe. After Marx connected his synthesis of classical economics, German philosophy and French revolutionary politics to the struggles of the emergent working class, labour leaders felt intellectually validated, while intellectuals liked the prospect of a vanguard role. Of course, economic instability and insecurity have also fuelled various forms of populist and counterrevolutionary movements as well.
In the past decade, on campuses (and also in other parts of society), generational change has weakened the memory of Marxism and labour struggles, while the growth of ethnic pluralism and Indigenous rights has increased the salience of race and colonialism as an issue. The irony is that, for over a century, the leading critics of colonialism and imperialism (whether in the classroom, in the streets or on the battlefield) were Marxists like Frances Widdowson. The 20th century doesn’t weigh heavily on those under age 50, especially when there are academic jobs and programs at stake. In colleges and universities postcolonial and critical race theorists managed to connect the intellectual ground prepared by postmodernism to the growing strength of racial and sexual identity politics. (One might say they are “standing Foucault on his head,” to use a loose analogy to Marx’s transformation of Hegel.) Postmodern approaches to knowledge view all empirical claims to truth as value-laden constructs of culture. They reject the dichotomy between the objectively true and universal and the subjective/individual in favour of “multiple valid knowledges and truths … constructed by groups of people with shared markers of identity,” as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay put it (p. 29).
From the 1980s through the early 2000s, postmodernism was increasingly applied to queer, Indigenous, postcolonial, critical race and feminist theories. Since about 2010 these ideological currents have coalesced under the banners of “intersectionality” and “social activist” or “social justice” scholarship. They exhibit a joint preference for identity politics and hostility toward traditional disciplines and Enlightenment values. Implicit in philosophical liberalism is sceptical rationality and scientific method. Replacing the individual and society with the intersectionality of group identities as the primary objects of study has boosted the academic prominence of identity-based programs and disciplines, has attracted many students from various self-identified minorities and has provided a common focus for a new generation of scholars who collectively wield great influence in university administration and policy and hiring committees.
My own experience has been that of a mainstream professor with moderate liberal / social democratic political views. I have generally appreciated the various postmodern critiques that interrogate mainstream social science and philosophy, and have supported Indigenous rights and various initiatives for diversity in hiring, “inclusive excellence” and so on. The expectation was that, once a roughly equitable representation of women and minorities had been achieved, we could get back to our regular business of truth-seeking and merit hiring. Postmodern critiques would provide a richer variety of ideological, theoretical, methodological and empirical approaches to choose from.
In the past several years, however, those expectations have been increasingly thwarted. Just as Pluckrose and Lindsay and John McWhorter predicted, third-wave antiracism and anticolonialism are hostile to the ideals of “colour blindness” or “objective truth,” goals now perceived as masking systemic White supremacy. My calls for the hiring of a security studies expert and a political behaviour / research methods specialist and even the creation of an economics program at my university have all been ignored. Instead, a new equity studies program and recent hires in queer and transgender studies, postcolonialism and Indigenous politics have taken priority. On a theoretical and ideological level, diversity has been shrinking, not growing. Usually, only feminist or minority scholars well versed in postcolonialism or identity theory are deemed to have met “the highest standards” of cultural sensitivity and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Merely questioning either evidentiary or theoretical opinions held dear by Indigenous activists is a risky business.
As the comedian Bill Maher has put it, “political correctness is the elevation of sensitivity over truth.”
After World War II, McCarthyism exploited legitimate misgivings over Stalin’s totalitarianism. Led by the eponymous senator, McCarthyism destroyed the careers of many radical journalists, actors, writers, union leaders and academics. Within a decade, McCarthyism collapsed under the weight of its indiscriminate violation of human rights to free speech and due process. Is McCarthyism a probable precedent for undoing the ideological excesses of wokism?
Alternatively, is a better precedent the survival of Soviet-style Marxism, especially in developing countries? Despite its being the source of many political abuses and failed economic policies, in South Asia, Africa and Latin America many journalists are implicitly arguing that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In the past, European colonial powers exploited and colonized us. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is providing you, Europeans and Americans, with some of what we have experienced. What do you predict to be the medium-term fate of wokism – positive and negative? And what do you think is its durability as a major ideological approach to academic and political activity?
John has raised three areas of discussion: (1) the possible similarities of wokism with other authoritarian ideologies in history, (2) the medium-term extent of wokism and (3) wokism’s durability as a major ideological approach in intellectual and political matters.
With respect to the first area, there are some similarities between wokism and other autocratic moments in history. McCarthyism was especially relevant in the university context, but it differs in that the pressure for censorship came from outside while the threat today is internal (from professors, faculty associations, student organizations and administrators). Studying the development of Stalinism and Nazism can inform our understanding because they both tried to assert control over the ideas discussed in universities. Examining developments in German capitalism in the 1930s is particularly instructive; local Nazi organizations and student activists were instrumental in transforming scientifically advanced universities into fascist propaganda centres. Wokism’s uniqueness is its capacity to combine subjectivity with sympathy for the plight of the oppressed.
The development of wokism as a force today needs careful study and it is likely that many variables are involved. The philosopher Susan Neiman has pointed out that wokism was to some extent a response to the failure of liberalism’s promise of equality of opportunity. Although equality under the law and due process overcome the oppressive characteristics of feudal and tribal systems (what Max Weber called “traditional authority”), liberalism does not address the unfairness and indignity of being subjected to exploitative economic relations – something George Orwell was acutely aware of in The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. Liberalism is also silent on the deprivation facing those denied access to the means of subsistence. As Anatole France poignantly declared over a hundred years ago, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
Because it denies the fundamental importance of economic factors, wokism has no response to the contradictions found when liberalism is paired with democracy. Instead, advocates of wokism opportunistically demand legal and bureaucratic privileges for intersectional and boutique identities such as “Two-Spirit”, “women of colour” or “Black fat queer femmes.” This opportunism needs to be challenged, but the totalitarian tendencies of wokism suppress dissent and prevent greater understanding.
The medium-term extent of wokism will depend upon the forces that respond to it. If its control continues at the present rate, we will experience more and more speech being criminalized, and the legal system will be completely undermined by woke assumptions. We have already seen a decline in due process rights. Oppressed identities should be “believed” / “affirmed” / “respected”; any critical analysis can be decried as “gaslighting” or even “epistemicide.” Equality under the law is also under threat because wokism implies that oppressed groups need greater legal protection to overcome their marginalized position in society.
Wokism has become influential because it fits well with the logic of late capitalism, which requires dismantling of the gains made under the Enlightenment and liberal democratic regimes. This has been facilitated by the subjectivity embraced in the postmodern turn in the 1960s. As capitalism is a fundamentally unsustainable system – because of its need to constantly grow and lower labour costs to maximize profitability – wokism is necessary to disguise our increasing incapacity to deal with the existential problems we are facing. We will soon be descending into fascism unless we reject wokism’s reactionary thrust and reassert the need to use reason to create a more cooperative and sustainable economic and political system.
I hope that the McCarthyite analogy turns out to be the right one, that we are experiencing a temporary fever of enforced conformity and cultural authoritarianism produced by fleeting political or economic conditions. But I think the Soviet/Marxist analogy is probably more accurate, for two reasons. First, the seeds of wokism contain some pretty fundamental assumptions about liberal culture and epistemology that have been developing over several decades; they are attractive to antiracist and anticolonialist theorists and will not melt away quickly. The critiques of universalism, objective truth and colour blindness are empowering to identitarian social activists. Second, tenured woke professors and social activist scholars are institutionally entrenched, and are by their very nature predisposed to being the most politically active in university and college committees, departments and administrations. An entire class of people now exists whose jobs depend on DEI. For both of these reasons, I think we are likely in for a long generational struggle to restore common sense and the primacy of liberal and rationalist ideals in the university.
Because of guilt about the historical kernel of truth in the woke critique of postsecondary institutions as engines of social reproduction, universities are currently more afraid of accusations of racism than of erosion of universal and rationalist ideals. The constituencies for racial identity and equality are concentrated, whereas society’s interest in freedom of thought and expression is diffuse, essentially a public good. That is why we sometimes “forget what our organizations are for,” as Lionel Shriver has put it.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for medium- to long-term optimism. An increasing number of top-rate scholars recognize what is at stake. They are beginning to remind us that truth cannot be subordinated to sensitivity and identity if universities are to be anything other than an ideological silo. Steven Pinker, for example, defends the Enlightenment Project in his recent books, and also serves on the editorial board of a new book publishing company (Heresy Press) that welcomes non-woke perspectives. Jonathan Haidt is a prominent social psychologist whose books The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind have explored the reasons behind the recent political polarization and its implications for higher education. He is also a founder of the Heterodox Academy, which is dedicated to “improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” I have already mentioned John McWhorter, a prominent linguistics scholar and journalist who has dissected wokism quite well.
I am probably more sanguine than Frances about there being a market solution to the ideological excesses of DEI: students may come to recognize that courses and programs that reinforce their sense of victimhood may seem empowering in the short run, but are actually not valuable to them in the long run. On the supply side, philosophy departments now often see postmodernism as passé, and may be able to offer some needed correction. (Susan Neiman is a philosopher who has lucidly analyzed the differences between real progressivism and woke activism in terms that are easy to understand.) Government funding and private-sector innovations may yet serve to promote real diversity that can reinvigorate the Enlightenment Project while correcting its deficiencies. The “public good” nature of academic freedom has meant that these responses have been slow to materialize; they will require both publicity and policy to bear fruit.
I recognize that your final paragraph, Frances, is fundamental to your thinking. I agree somewhat with you. In high-income countries, corporate entrepreneurs seek constantly to find new dimensions of consumption. Walmart is an invitation to working-class people to buy lots of cheap “stuff” made in China, with no thought paid to the destruction of working-class communities in the United States. If Schumpeter was alive, he would refer to the benefits of creative destruction. If Ricardo was alive, he would refer to China’s comparative advantage in making “stuff.” In the United States, Trump and J.D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy and now Ohio senator) are the most persuasive populist critics of free trade – albeit Biden fears global free trade and, as president, has prioritized “onshoring.” Furthermore, I agree with you inasmuch as unions have been unduly weakened, starting with Reagan in the early 1980s. In many European and North American countries, earnings below the median stagnated from 1980 to 2020. The disruptive dynamic of the COVID pandemic has, in the short run, increased below-median earnings relative to those above.
However, Frances, I agree only somewhat. It is a bit much to blame “late capitalism” for postmodernism and the present woke obsession with conflict between exploitative and victimized identities. Surely, the most important problem facing late capitalism this century is creating coalitions to tackle climate warming and habitat destruction. Wokism complicates the problem: countries of the “racialized” global South are assuming little or no responsibility for climate warming and are blaming all on the White global North, which industrialized earlier and is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas increases over the last two centuries. Does the left have any good climate change strategies?
In both Mark’s second response and John’s initiation of the “third round,” there is an implicit assumption that the problems plaguing the world today can be addressed through capitalist imperatives. John implies that environmental problems can be solved by building a coalition of elements in advanced and newly industrializing capitalist countries, without any consideration for how the pursuit of profit will impede the need to cooperatively control production and consumption. Mark, on the other hand, points to the possibility of market solutions helping to rectify some of the educational contamination wrought by wokism. Private-sector innovations, however, will constrain those aspects of truth-seeking that challenge their profitability.
If there had been no postmodern reaction to the Enlightenment, we would have seen lively debates among conservatives, liberals and socialists on the questions that John and Mark raise. Although there would be significant disagreement, no one would have argued against the use of reason, evidence and logic to try to grapple with these issues. With the postmodern turn in the 1960s, however, subjectivity began to replace objectivity; intellectual progress on such questions was stalled.
As an academic uncomfortable with activism, I find it difficult to discuss solutions when we have yet to clearly identify the nature of the problems. Is it possible to solve an environmental crisis that has been brought about by capitalism with the continued pursuit of profit? Will a capitalist educational system facilitate the pursuit of truth, which is so necessary for human progress? We might be able to have some areas effectively shielded from powerful private interests, but in the end it will be the ideas of the market, not a marketplace of ideas, that prevail in capitalist societies.
Perhaps common ownership and democratically controlled production and distribution will always face insurmountable challenges. This, however, does not mean that capitalism is a sustainable system that satisfies human needs. Protecting the environment requires living within the Earth’s carrying capacity. Capitalism dooms environmental protection, because capitalist entrepreneurs constantly seek to expand as a result of declining profitability. Market saturation and the depletion of resources will also thwart solutions, because workers cannot afford to buy what they produce.
I would love to resume debates with liberals and conservatives about whether the labour theory of value is true, and how increasing cooperation and the tendency for productive forces to develop are related to human progress. Wokism, however, must first be defeated to make these debates possible. Intellectuals with different ideological persuasions who value the intellectual gains made by the Enlightenment must put aside differences for now and join forces to fight for open inquiry, freedom of expression and critical thinking in universities and the wider society.
I concur with Frances’s last paragraph. But if we have to solve “can’t live with it / can’t live without it” capitalism before we solve the problem of climate change or before we can overcome the obstacles created by wokism’s attack upon truth, universalism, justice and belief in progress, my mid-term optimism disappears and my long-term optimism begins to fade. Yes, the rapid emergence of wokism as a dominant ideology on campuses is rooted in, among other things, the after-effects of the most recent financial crisis, as well as longer-term contradictions of capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s analysis of the return of chronic and growing inequality is germane here: the rising tide is no longer lifting all boats and ethnic minorities are determined not to be left behind once again, while the threatened White working class is easily directed toward its own identity politics of the right-wing authoritarian kind. All of which is amplified by news silos of digital capitalism.
Yet, as Susan Neiman points out, wokism’s roots are not just in disillusionment with liberalism’s failure to deliver equal opportunity; the roots are also with traditional state socialism. The post-1991 ennui on the left was not cured by the “Third Way” or by a new emphasis upon “civil society,” to quote two of the more important buzz phrases of that decade. A lot of left thinking therefore gravitated toward postmodernism and identity politics, and/or environmental politics. Which brings us back to climate change. Are greens and environmental activists proud of the scientific basis of their beliefs? If so, they need to join liberals and socialists in affirming a belief in science, along with the belief that both scientific and social progress is possible.
On campus, that suggests at least two short-term strategies. First, the supposed harmony of scholarly and political virtue in social activist scholarship needs to be challenged. Activist scholars wear two hats, but seldom acknowledge that fact: for example, every time they point to the UN Genocide Convention while conveniently ignoring how the International Court of Justice has interpreted it; or the cultural/power matrix of how certain legal and scientific standards of evidence came into being without asking whether the standard is an objectively higher one or not. Second, rationalists need to seek out interdisciplinary alliances wherever political imperatives clash with scientific ones.
In the wider society, I suggest public policies taxing financial transactions, pollution, land speculation and unearned wealth more heavily, and correspondingly taxing working-class earnings less heavily. Somehow, we need better incentives for ecological stewardship in the global South, and an emphasis upon public spaces and well-funded public institutions in which notions of reason and the common good can be incubated.