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Susan Neiman: 'I see the woke as people with good intentions and confused theory'

'People who consider themselves traditionally on the left do not want to criticise woke because they fear they are aiding and abetting the right, and they certainly don't want that. And yet they feel that something is wrong, something that is not really left-wing about the woke discourse. That is what I am trying to untangle in this book.'

Susan Neiman is a famous left-wing thinker. The American-born philosopher holds a chair in Berlin. Last month, at the end of March 2023, her book 'Links Woke'. In it, she analyses the philosophical conceptions held by many people striving for decolonisation, equality for and emancipation of all kinds of marginalised groups. Those conceptions too often appear to be borrowed from philosophers and publicists whom anyone with a heart for justice should avoid: fascists and anti-Semitic people who wrote their works during, or leading up to, the Third Reich.

She states, "The left has always been better at fighting its brothers, sisters and cousins than at fighting the fascists.

Nazi philosophy

In this podcast is about Carl Schmitt - among many others. This philosopher is admired for his anti-colonial statements, while he made them in the Nazi Germany of 1942. We also talk about Michel Foucault, whose thoughts on power and justice influenced an entire generation.

cover of Susan Neiman's book
cover of Susan Neiman's book

Above all, Susan Neiman also makes a passionate plea for a reappraisal of the Enlightenment, whose values are universalism and solidarity.

'Fascism or neo-fascism is growing all over the world in response to all the problems that neoliberalism has caused. If leftists don't face that seriously and in unison, we are in real trouble, because the other thing the world is threatened by is the climate crisis, and the climate crisis will never be addressed if we remain in these tribalistic formations.'

'So yes, I am concerned, and I wrote this book out of that concern, out of the feeling that many people I know are either moving towards the centre or abandoning their political engagement altogether because they no longer feel politically at home'.

Listen to the conversation here:

Read the translation here:

The title of your book is Left Is Not Woke. Was the title there first, or was your book there first?

"The title was there, and the only thing I couldn't decide was whether to call it Left Is Not Woke or Woke Is Not Left, because both are true. The cover designer described both factors beautifully. The title came about because I was having the kind of conversation that many people, at least in much of the western world, apparently have: 'Have you heard that this and that has been cancelled or so and so is not allowed to speak or had to speak?' And it's all in the name of woke leftists. And I suppose if this is what the left is, I guess I am no longer a leftist!'

"I heard these kinds of conversations from many, many people who have been leftists all their lives, like me, and at some point I had to say, 'no, wait a minute, they are not leftists. You are still left, and I am still left, and I am not giving up that word'.

So let me see if I can untangle what this means, because we keep hearing that the political lines in the Western world run between right and woke left or far left or radical left, and maybe there are people who are kind of in the middle and are not happy with either alternative."

"I am not in the middle, although I am happy to agree with any decent liberal centrist who wants to uphold certain principles."

"I speak specifically for the left and as someone on the left who sees that the confusion arises because woke appeals to emotions that traditionally belong absolutely to the left. People who care about marginalised people, people who are outraged by injustices committed against certain groups, people who are concerned about historical crimes and righting historical wrongs as much as possible. These are all emotions I share. But those emotions are attributed to woke by a lot of philosophical presuppositions that are ultimately reactionary. And that, I think, is what is so confusing about the debate."

"So this is not a book about cancel culture. I use the word only once in the very first sentence to say what this book is not. We can stay up all night with a beer or all day with a cup of coffee or whatever and talk about certain incidents that irritate or in some cases even outrage us. But I didn't want to do that. There are other books on the market that do that. What I wanted to do was talk about what are really the ideas that are fuelling the behaviour of woke people and hopefully convince some people that there is an alternative."

Susan Neiman, you are a philosopher. You work in Berlin, you are of American descent. You are also Jewish. I wondered if I should go further than just introducing you as a philosopher. You're a philosopher and you've written many books on all kinds of subjects, so then defining you further as working in Berlin, being American and of Jewish descent, that has meaning, as does the fact that I'm a white man of 61. Many discussions now start with these kinds of definitions. I recently taught at, university where an introducer took about 10 minutes to warn people about triggers and things they might hear that they didn't like or didn't want to hear. Then there was the row about sensitivity readers who had edited Roald Dahl, even though these were old corrections that no one had ever looked at before. It is a problem, or should I say issue, because issue, as you rightly point out in your book, is also a euphemism for the common word problem. Let's start by defining what is left and what is woke, because there are also many misconceptions about it.

"I'm glad you bring up my own complicated national identity, because one of the points in the book is that we all have many identities that are of different importance in our lives. And one of the things that bothers me about the current 'Woke' discourse is the reduction of all these very different identities to two, and in particular to the two over which we have the least control. So that's a problem."

"I am someone with complicated national identities, complicated geographical identities and a lot of others that we don't need to talk about today either. But let's go back to the question of what the left is, because I am starting to define it. And of course, the word is a fully contingent fact of the distribution of seats in the Paris parliament of 1789. So there is no particular reason why we should use the word left. It is an accident, but it has come to mean a certain set of beliefs over the last 250 years."

"The first of these is that leftists adhere to universalism rather than tribalism. That is, we believe that, among all the differences between people of different nationalities and histories and cultures, the things we have in common are most important politically. In particular, the claim to human dignity.

This was a new idea during the Enlightenment. It is not something that was taken for granted. People were identified in terms of religion or in terms of nationality or both. So it was a new and revolutionary idea to say: no, you can form bonds, you can form deep bonds with people across tribes, and you have real obligations to people of other tribes."

"That is a left-wing idea that traditionally, until about 10 minutes ago, I mean, let's say 15 years ago, was a fundamentally left-wing idea, where you were on the right when said that your basic identity is defined by your tribe, and that you have no real connections or obligations to anyone from another tribe. Woke reversed that, so that the most fundamental characteristics of us are not our beliefs or what we believe, but our coincidences of birth and heritage."

"The left is universalist rather than tribalist. And unfortunately, Woke has become tribalist instead of universalist."

"The second crucial commitment of the left is to believe that there is a hard distinction between justice and power. Now the two often get mixed up, and often people make claims of justice that are a smokescreen for claims of power. But being on the left means contradicting someone like Michel Foucault."

"The point is to strive for justice. The point is to try to justify your claims to power. And the way to understand this is to think about the situation in which claims to human rights and justice arose."

"Take a feudal world where, if the prince took the farmer's daughter, there was nothing you could do about it. He was the strongest person around, and it was called 'the law of the first night'. There is some historical doubt about how often it actually happened, but it certainly happened. Obviously, it is not a right, it is just: I am greater than you. I am more powerful than you. I have more land and more soldiers than you, and I will do what I damn well please."

"If a peasant took the prince's stag, he could be hanged. And there are all kinds of stories and ballads about that."

"The idea that you have one law that applies to peasants as well as princes and that you demand justification for exercising power was a revolutionary idea. Of course it has been abused. By people like Foucault or like Carl Schmitt, who is another underground influence for many of the woke."

I read about Schmitt in your book. To be honest, I am not a philosopher. I had never heard of Schmitt.

"You are lucky."

Yes, but when I read it, I suddenly recognised all sorts of things that are happening now in Dutch politics and the Dutch right-wing movement. People have become Catholics because the political philosophy of modern times is too much for them. They want to go back to the old ways of cardinals and popes and things like that.

"Schmitt was not just a Catholic, he was a reactionary."

And anti-Semite.

"He was also an anti-Semite, but he was also against the Vatican. I am actually very sympathetic to the current pope. I think Pope Francis is great. He is better than a nice guy. He is very smart, and he pushes a lot of policies, not as fast as some people would like, but he is very much doing the right thing. So it's right-wing Catholics who hate not only Francis but also the Vatican. Schmitt was one of them."

"I think the interesting thing about all these theories is that they 'get into the water supply'. You don't need to have read Carl Schmitt or Michel Foucault to be subject to their philosophical assumptions, which have just become standard in the media."

One criticism of your book was that modern young people in the US who call themselves woke really haven't all read Foucault. But you now argue that they don't need to because it's "in the drinking water".

"Yes, absolutely. I use quotes from things like The New York Times, which we can call the media watering hole. I always find it funny to hear journalist friends in Berlin say that something doesn't count unless it gets into The New York Times. And it does. The New York Times has played a big role in German politics and the German media, so let's use that as a starting point. And I use quotes that show these are assumptions. And it is quite possible that the journalist who wrote them never read Schmitt or Foucault himself. But the person he went to university with, the teacher, may have passed it on at some point."

Yes, he is on the curriculum of Leiden University. He is taught there with approval.

"You don't even have to go to Leiden University to get Schmitt in. You just have to believe that the fundamental political distinction is between friend and foe and that there is no idea that people can have in common, that this will always be so, that your tribe is your friends and the other tribes are your enemies."

"Liberals can pretend to invoke big ideas, but really those are things to disguise what is really going on, which is just two tribes, friends and foes, competing for power."

"The reason why Schmitt is getting a hearing in leftist or postcolonial circles is that he criticised British and American colonialism. He said, "The British fought this war and claimed to be fighting for democracy, but look at the British Empire, and the Americans also claim to be beacons of democracy. But look at the Monroe Doctrine, which basically says the United States can do whatever it wants in the rest of the continent of America. Schmitt is right in his de criticism, but people should look at the date of that book. It was written in the Germany of 1942. He supports a war in which Germany is fighting England and the US, and he simply says: they are no better than us, so we can go ahead and establish colonies as far as Vladivostok. So this is not someone who is anti-colonialist. He is simply saying: everyone is doing it. There are no rules of justice. There is only power."

"You don't have to study Schmitt to soak up that idea. It is part of the way we live. It's an idea that gets amplified a lot in the media."

I was very interested in reading your book, which is largely about Michel Foucault. And I had always thought that Michel Foucault, a philosopher, was a real left-wing thinker, but he is the founder of neoliberalism, defining it as a struggle that is only about winning and not about justice.

To clarify this debate, the entire conversation between Foucault and Chomsky can be read via this link.

"I wouldn't really call him the founder of neoliberalism when I wrote this book, which is not mainly about Foucault, but he does appear in important places, because he is the most cited theorist in postcolonial theory."

"I've had a lot of followers. A friend of mine said I was too harsh about Foucault, so I should go back and think about that. And I went back and read some of his latest lectures, which were about neoliberalism. The interesting thing is that they are very prescient, especially when you consider that they were written in 1980 or 81 to describe neoliberalism. It is uncanny how well he diagnoses it, but he never actually says whether he was for or against it. Even his own followers are undecided about whether he was for or against it. And I think a lot of his work looks like it only offers theoretical support for neoliberalism."

Yes, that's the funny thing. That's what your book, I think, is central to. That the woke movement, which the right defines as left-wing, adopts right-wing ideas.

"Half-conscious. That's the problem. That's why I think the discussion has got both left and right so confused. That is, people who are traditionally on the left don't want to criticise woke because they are afraid they are aiding and abetting the right, which they certainly don't want to do. And yet they feel that there is something wrong, something that is not really left wing about woke discourse. That's what I'm trying to untangle in this book."

Yes, which you manage quite well, I think. But I also think it's a risky business, of course. I see people on the right from Tucker Carlson to anyone even more extreme types who see anyone who considers themselves to be on the left and says something against woke being the great enemy of the right, suddenly embracing the right wing as a friend. People on the woke side also tend to put people who criticise on the wrong side of history. So how do you manage to stay on this tightrope?

"I had friends who thought I should take the word woke out of the title. They said: Susan, I agree with your arguments, but you join the right when you write against Woke. And I thought about it, but woke really describes something. We all know what it is about, and there is no other title. And you can't assume that the enemy of my enemy is necessarily my friend."

"That is why I did a few things in preparing this book. First, I say on the very first page that I am not a liberal, although I like to agree with most liberals. I am a leftist and a socialist, and this is what that means. Which makes it hard for the right to support you in this day and age. I don't even say social democrat. I suppose I am a social democrat, but sometimes people say that to avoid using the word socialist. I support the word socialist. That is one thing I have done. Another thing I've done in the US is refuse to go to certain kinds of podcasts or shows that are known as right-wing, because I don't want to be instrumentalised by them."

"The third thing I do is ask people to read my book. It may well be that I will be attacked by people who consider themselves both woke and left-wing. I have taken that into account. It may still be because the book is very new. It has only been published for a month in the US. And Canada and the Netherlands, and it hasn't appeared anywhere else yet. So it is quite possible that it will happen, and then I have to face it."

You also cite Olufemi Taiwo. A very bright thinker.

"I should point out that there are actually two philosophers named Olufemi Taiwo. And I thought they were related, but they are not. The older Olufemi Taiwo was born in Nigeria, and he has written a very good book called Against Decolonisation, and the younger one was born in America of Nigerian parents. His book is called Elite Capture. They are both worth reading."

Taiwo says: "We need to recognise that we are different. Solidarity recognises our mutual interests in shared humanity and identifies our shared adversaries. It is about accepting that our fates are intertwined rather than allowing those in power to exploit our differences to divide us.'

This is almost what you could have written in your book.

"Yes. And solidarity is a very different word from the one used by woke, at least in English. I don't know if you have exactly the same discussion in Dutch. For example, the word used for people who want to support Black Lives Matter, who are not black, is: you can be an ally. And I often say, including in the book: I am not an ally. An ally is someone whose interests match those of another, usually temporarily."

"The United States and the Soviet Union were allies for a while, and we know how that ended. But talking about allies undermines the solidarity Taiwo was talking about, which is much more important. And of course it is a traditional left-wing word."

Yes, because we are now really at the definition of what you call the left. But I also think the book is a very strong defence of enlightenment.

"I spend a lot of time defending the Enlightenment in the book. And the funny thing is that I have been defending the Enlightenment against certain forms of criticism for a long time. One of my books, Moral Clarity, is dedicated to that."

"I did not think I would have to defend the Enlightenment against the claim that the Enlightenment was Eurocentric and colonialist, because the first time I heard that, I thought it was so foolish and so baseless that it would disappear. It didn't. It's the first thing you hear when you say the word Enlightenment."

"Now, let's recognise that the Enlightenment, almost like everything else in the world, whether it's religion or you name it, can be abused and instrumentalised. And there are certainly people who applied colonial practices in the 19th century in the name of the Enlightenment with bringing so-called civilisation to the rest of the world. There are people who did that, but they were emphatically not the thinkers of the original Enlightenment in the 18th and early 19th centuries."

"They were the people who invented the idea of Eurocentrism as a problem. They were the people who insisted that we look at Europe from the perspective of other cultures and criticise Europe in the name of other cultures. Some of them risked a lot, risked exile or even their lives in some cases, because they said the Chinese may not be Christians, but they had as deep and serious a moral compass as anyone else."

"They listened to indigenous voices to the extent possible. Some people who complain about stereotypical enlightenment descriptions of other cultures seem to have forgotten that you couldn't get on a plane. It was really hard to get serious information about other cultures."

"All Enlightenment thinkers were fascinated and quite openly opposed to postcolonial caricatures, very keen on learning from and improving Europe from the perspective of non-European cultures."

"So that's the first point. The second point is that they were very critical of colonialism. Immanuel Kant wrote very strong condemnations of colonialism.

These claims that are going around everywhere these days are based on no evidence whatsoever. Sometimes people find a racist quote from this or that person, often some kind of early text or a throwaway text, and from that you have to say that this racist comment is completely contrary to this thinker's own views on the universal dignity of man."

"So he couldn't actually go as far as he felt he needed to go. He was stuck in local prejudices. Isn't it good that we have made some progress since the 18th century, that we have become more aware of systemic racism, that we understand how, even against our own intentions, we sometimes make racist or sexist remarks? That's called progress in history. It is my firm belief that the Enlightenment thinkers would have been happy that we were making progress."

Yes. You also mentioned a book, The Dawn of Everything, which came out last year, which also makes your point in a slightly different way, but also says: The Enlightenment thinkers who wrote dialogues with people from the colonies in America, Native Americans, actually shared real knowledge from the New World, and didn't make anything up themselves.

"That is a good book and I recommend it. That particular claim has been questioned by some scholars. I mean, the first point is that even if the Enlightenment invented figures from the Persians, the Tahitians, the indigenous South Americans, the Chinese emperor, it is still an interesting point that they put their own arguments, their own criticisms in the mouths of non-Europeans. Wengrow and Graber (the authors) claim that one particular Indian is the source of many things that were thought to be made up. This is debatable, and the sources are difficult to prove, but what is certain is that they had dialogues with this indigenous thinker and with others."

The last chapter of your book, called Conclusion, goes far beyond a conclusion. It is a whole new world in itself. I loved reading that part because you suddenly came out of the thicket of philosophical argumentation. You have to go through that to get to this point. You say you are afraid of things going wrong in society, there is a threat of civil war in the US.

We are on the brink of World War III in Europe, and this is a passionate cry to keep our eyes on our goal, to keep seeing what progress is, what universalism is.

"Absolutely. I conclude by reminding people that although the Nazis came to power through democratic elections, they only got a majority when they were already in power. They had banned other political parties and destroyed many democratic mechanisms and the media."

"The left has always been better at fighting its brothers, sisters and cousins than at fighting the fascists. And I use that word with caution, but I use it very consciously."

"There are ministers in the current Israeli government who call themselves fascists. I know it doesn't always come across in the media. Most Indians I know who look at contemporary politics in India, now the largest country in the world, do not hesitate to say that the paramilitary organisation supporting Modi is the oldest fascist organisation in the world and that they are worried about a genocide of Muslims within India. We dodged a bullet when Lula took on Bolsonaro, but Bolsonaro was clearly heading in the same direction. And let's call the governments of Poland and Hungary in our own Europe 'soft fascism'."

"The last polls I saw for France showed Le Pan would win tomorrow if there was an election. And it doesn't look good in the United States of America, where the person who provoked an uprising to overcome a democratic election, I don't know what else counts as fascism if he doesn't. But he is also a violent racist. That person has a good chance of becoming president of the United States in '24, and did I mention Vladimir Putin?"

"I mean, we have fascism or neofascism growing all over the world in response to all the problems of global neoliberalism. And if leftists don't face that seriously and in unison, we're really in trouble, because the other thing the world is threatened by is the climate crisis, and the climate crisis will never be addressed if we stay in these tribalistic formations."

"So yes, I am concerned, and I wrote this book out of that concern, out of the feeling that many people I know are either moving towards the centre or abandoning their political engagement altogether because they no longer feel politically at home. If the left is what the woke says it is, they don't feel they have a way to be engaged."

"Some friends I asked to read the manuscript said I wasn't tough enough on woke, that I should actually be tougher. I said, I don't see these people as my enemies. I see the fascists as my enemies. I see woke as people with good intentions and confused theory. And, you know, I like to convince people and we won't agree on everything, I'm sure. But I want to convince people that the common enemy is much bigger and more dangerous than the disagreements progressives have among themselves."

Meanwhile, while you were giving a talk on your book in Nijmegen yesterday, here in Rotterdam Jordan Peterson was giving a speech. I have a quote of his ready, but I don't think I can actually listen to it. It's something about lobsters. At the same time, Obama was giving a speech in Amsterdam. Obama did not sell out. Jordan Peterson was, though Obama had a bigger venue and higher prices.

To me, Obama represents what was really the beauty of the left in America. Someone, a black man, finally becoming president just a few decades after someone got on the bus and sat down in a place where she was not allowed to sit.

That's also what you say in the book. We have achieved enormous things, and yet the fascist is selling out a room about lobsters and real men. Doesn't this make you hopeless?

"There is a lot to say about Obama, much more than about Jordan Peterson. I don't find him that interesting. I think a lot of people are disappointed in Obama. So am I. I campaigned for him. I support him very much. Not, or let me be honest, either, because he was an African-American. That's an achievement that people who grew up with eight years of Obama just don't appreciate, okay? They can't understand that, when I was a kid, we couldn't imagine a black cabinet member. So in one generation, we've come a long way. But it wasn't because of that. It was the beginning of identitarianism."

"I remember people thinking that because I was a middle-aged white woman, I would naturally vote for Hillary Clinton, which I never did."

"I supported Obama because I thought he was a great, intelligent new voice in American politics, who, it seemed, in 2008 and even 2012, was able, because he firmly believed in it, to bring Americans together around a common ideal.

I think the biggest mistake, which he made during his term, was listening to neoliberal economists during the financial crisis and not introducing the kind of programmes he could have introduced in his first two years in office when many people were celebrating."

"But those who criticise Obama must realise that he received more hate, and also literally something like 10 times the number of death threats than any other president had ever received, before the Republicans began obstructionism. Simply because there was a current of 'white supremacy' running through parts of American politics that couldn't stand it, that for eight years there was a black family sitting there that was smarter, better looking, better behaved, cooler and more decent than any other family that had ever sat in the White House. And I think pure resentment drove Trump's voters."

"So there is a lot of disappointment, and I think it is important to remember that the anger is partly fuelled by the disappointment that eight years of Barack Obama did not lead to Bernie Sanders. Imagine what history would have looked like if Bernie Sanders had won in 2016, which was not entirely impossible. It would have looked like if, after that first step in the right direction, we had taken another. Instead, it led to a massive backlash and the most disgusting display of the ugliest American we've ever had in national office."

"I think we shouldn't underestimate how powerful that disappointment has been, not just for Americans, especially young Americans, who, after all, grew up with a black family in the White House, but for people around the world. America is still the hegemon. And I bet that if Obama had been succeeded by Bernie Sanders instead of Trump, the world would look very different now, and not just in the United States."

Is there hope for young Americans, who risk falling into the hands of the far right via woke?

"This is not a generational war. It may have started in American universities, but it strikes me, for example in the Berlin cultural world, and elsewhere, the New York cultural world, how many of the gatekeepers who are in their 50s and 60s are overcome by the need to be woke."

Susan Neiman: Links≠Woke. Publisher Lemniscaat.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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