The Spirit of Contemporary Socialism: An Explanation of Woke Consciousness

Jeffery Geller received his Ph. D. from Duke University. He has taught philosophy and logic at Duke University, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, and the National University of Singapore.

Following the Cold War and the presumed defeat of socialism, the movement has recently revived, its advocates now mounting a global assault on capitalism. Nations that had once been the stalwarts of free enterprise economics are now on the front lines of the ideological struggle. The push for equity has been infused with a new vigor, bolstered by a growing sense among the youth on a global scale that capitalism is inextricably bound to systemic injustice. The avowedly Marxist BLM movement—sufficiently recognized internationally to warrant consideration for a Nobel Prize—has focused on the allegation that capitalism is systemically racist. Invigorated by a religious fervor, BLM spearheads the effort to “awaken” the general population to the evils of capitalism. At the heart of the growing conflict is a clash between two core values, one egalitarian, the other libertarian. While the historical narrative preferred by the former highlights the plight of victims, that of the latter highlights the actions freely undertaken by agents. While the former draws attention to institutional oppression, the latter focuses on personal initiative.

These rival narratives have been evident since the first theorizations of capitalism. Adam Smith argued that the actions of independently operating self-interested entrepreneurs ultimately benefit society as a whole. Marx and Engels, by contrast, argued that the vast majority of people are alienated from themselves by economic conditions and are therefore victims of oppression and virtually devoid of individual agency.

Mediating the dispute, at least to some extent, is the work of Max Weber, who theorized that capitalism is ideologically infused with what he called the Protestant ethic. As narratives of victimage go, none has been more extreme than John Calvin’s predestinarian account of the relations between God and the created world. Yet even here, Weber argued, libertarian impulses are manifest. Despite the opacity of the divine and the consequent uncertainty of each person with respect to his or her prospects for individual salvation, individuals can get at least a glimpse of their prospects for salvation in the afterlife, according to Weber’s account, by observing whether they are favored in this life. Moreover, the favors they enjoy in this life depend at least to some extent on their own effort. Though this thesis is more consistent with the Roman Catholic emphasis on the spiritual significance of good works, the spirit of capitalism is imbued with the idea that the eternal fate of the soul is revealed by the accumulation of earthly wealth, which is affected by one’s work. Weber thus observed that even against the backdrop of one of the most comprehensive narratives of victimage ever formulated, people still found a way, despite the strain it produced within their belief system, to justify the exercise of personal agency.

Obviously, those who have been awakened to the evils of capitalism—the “woke,” as they refer to themselves—would be the last people to subscribe to belief in the eternal fate of the individual soul. In fact, the original infusion of the Protestant ethic into the spirit of capitalism has been superseded by countless other influences as capitalism has become increasingly secular and global. The prima facie inconsistency between Calvinism and human agency was taken over—perhaps unwittingly—by Marx and Engels, who held that agency rises in proportion to class consciousness and revolutionary spirit. Although their commitment to scientific socialism precludes the admission that their economic theory is fundamentally informed by ethics, let alone religion, their position might nevertheless be called the egalitarian ethic and the spirit of socialism.

This analogy helps explain the religious zeal of woke consciousness. To be woke is a combination of three principal ingredients: the belief that capitalism is systemically oppressive, the fundamental concern that is definitive of religion, as Emmanuel Levinas has noted, namely, concern for the other, and the belief that one’s wokeness imparts the degree of freedom necessary to participate actively in revolutionary politics. From the perspective of the woke, the victimage in question is the victimage of the other. The only hope for deliverance is to awaken the masses. The missionary zeal of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, has been co-opted by BLM with the express intention of bringing capitalism to its knees. Whereas libertarians emphasize personal initiative and view history as the struggle of heroic individuals to exercise their freedom, egalitarians emphasize class membership and view history as a collective struggle for universal empowerment. Although Marxists are generally uncomfortable embracing the tenets of any religion, the spirit behind contemporary wokeness is decidedly religious. The author who has performed for contemporary wokeness much the same function Weber performed for capitalism is René Girard, who has argued that the defining narrative of Christianity is one of victimage and that this narrative is now alive and well in a secular context.