The Good Fight
Susan Neiman on Why Left ≠ Woke

Susan Neiman on Why Left ≠ Woke

Yascha Mounk and Susan Neiman discuss how the contemporary left can rediscover its universalist aspirations.

Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer. She is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, and the author of Left is Not Woke.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Susan Neiman discuss how liberals can uphold their universal values while maintaining a politics of empathy and compassion; how the left’s tendency to discount the progress of the past inhibits progress for the future; and whether Germany can serve as a model for how America, and other nations, should deal with the dark aspects of their own history.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Your last book has the thesis in its title, it's called Left Is Not Woke. What do you mean by that?

Susan Neiman: Well, I could also say that Woke Is Not Left. I wrote this book partly to figure out my own confusion. But it was a confusion that was reflected in conversations I have been having with friends in many different countries, all of whom, their whole lives, have stood on the side of the Left, and suddenly felt and said, “What is this? Maybe I'm not Left anymore.” And that struck me as wrong. But no one had quite teased out what the difference is and what the problems are. I didn't want to give up the word “Left.” And I wanted to write a short book setting out what I consider to be left liberal principles as two different things and distinguishing them from the work in a nutshell. The very short thesis is that woke is fueled by traditional left-wing emotions, having your empathy for people who've been marginalized, wanting to correct historical discrimination and oppression. As you know, there's a German saying that “your heart is on the left side of your body.” But the woke are undermined by what are actually very reactionary theoretical assumptions. And you do not have to have read Carl Schmitt or Michel Foucault in order to share those assumptions. Those assumptions have gotten into the water because every journalist went to college and picked up certain claims coming from these quite reactionary sources that are now often transmitted in the media as if they were self-evident truths. So, I wanted to show the gap between genuine left-wing philosophical assumptions and the premises that the woke are often acting on. 

Mounk: Explain to us a little bit where the distinction lies.

Neiman: Empathy and compassion are emotions. And they're important emotions. But they're not principles. Let me lay out what I think are three liberal left principles that are violated by the woke. The first is that, traditionally, the Left has always been on the side of universalism rather than tribalism. Tribalism has always been a conservative view, suggesting that the only people you will have real connections with and therefore real obligations to are people who belong to your tribe. And for universalists on the liberal left, your tribe could encompass the entire world. Of course, you have certain affinities to people who get your jokes or understand your allusions. But to be a universalist is to work hard to try and understand what is going on in other cultures.

The second point about left and liberal is that you believe there's a principled difference between justice and power. Again, that’s a really major achievement of the Enlightenment—of course, there were signs of it before the Enlightenment—but the idea that your claims to representation are claims about justice, that it's not simply the strongest person or group of people in the neighborhood, but that people deserve certain rights on the basis of human dignity, is a claim about justice. But what many of the woke have concluded is, because claims to justice or universal justice have been abused, that they are nothing but claims to power. And you have someone like Foucault who's made that a principle of his entire work. 

The third principle (on which liberals and leftists agree) is a belief in the possibility of progress. And this gets a little tricky because, of course, I know woke activists who do believe that they're working towards progress in ending racial, sexist, and homophobic discrimination. But if you don't actually believe that progress has taken place in the past, it's very hard to develop the will to make more. So claims like “Nothing has changed in the United States since slavery” or “We're still living under a patriarchy that hasn't fundamentally changed” are statements about, really, the futility of actual change, which undermines efforts to make more.

There's a fourth principle that probably would be accepted by most of the woke and isn't accepted by many liberals, and that's what makes me a part of the left rather than a liberal—I believe that social rights are human rights. All this was codified in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which is an aspirational doctrine. But it means that things like fair labor practices, education, health care, access to culture, are social rights. They're not benefits, they're not privileges. They're not safety nets. They’re rights in the same way that the right to travel or the right to speak are rights. And I think most people on the woke side would probably agree with that. But many liberals don't. I am happy to have as big a tent as possible. There are signs of fascism in many countries in the world, and I would be delighted if liberals and leftists would get together on that score. There are people who have been afraid that my writing this book and using woke as something of a term of abuse—it’s not, I'm not snarky about it. I'm really trying to provoke some serious thinking about what has gone wrong in the so-called woke left that I fear is actually driving some people's move to the Right or the center-right. But I think certainly there are cases among the people I know where it is leading to just resignation and a sense of despair and not being politically involved at all.

Mounk: Let's start with this denial of progress. Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory, acknowledged as the most important influence on it, once wrote a very influential [book] called The Permanence of Racism, right? Even writing in the 1970s and ‘80s, he was saying that racism, really, had gotten no better in the United States even after the Civil Rights Movement; that the nature of racial injustice might permutate, it might become more invisible, but it's a historical constant.

What is your response to that kind of pessimism, whether it is racism in the United States or forms of identity-based injustice in other parts of the world?

Neiman: It’s without any empirical basis. Tell it, in particular, to anybody who grew up in the South during the age of what I don't like to call Jim Crow, but the “age of racial terror,” following Bryan Stevenson. You have this claim also by the Afro-pessimists Frank Wilderson and Saidiya Hartman. And I honestly think it flies in the face of every social science fact that we know but also every anecdotal fact. I mean, I grew up in Georgia during the Civil Rights Movement. And one of my earliest memories is that my mother was involved and was, not without some risk, working to help desegregate the school system. I remember that it was against the law for black and white children to go swimming together. I can remember the day that the schools were desegregated. But I also remember at that time that there had never been a black cabinet minister. The idea that there would be an African American intellectual sitting in the White House for eight years was just not something that anybody imagined at the time. Racism is too deep, long-lasting and, in some ways, systemic a phenomenon to be ended in one generation. But there was enormous progress.

I agree with you that it seems much more motivating to believe that some changes have been made in the past, and now it's time to make some more, than to suggest that it's all just as bad as it always was. But talking about how everything is worse makes you sound smarter. People who talk about things being gradually improved—“There has been some progress made (not enough), but this is how things proceed,” etc—are dismissed as being naive and slightly embarrassing. And there are these philosophical tropes (once again, you do not have to have read Foucault, or Adorno and Horkheimer, to make them) with the idea that what looked like progress in the past turned out to be a subtle and insidious form of repression and domination. That is a trope, that, again, you get in social science, and in some of the humanities, and then the person making it gets into the newspaper and the podcasts and whatever. And it sounds clever, sure. But you could actually deconstruct that just as well as they think they're deconstructing claims about progress. That's part of what I tried to do in the book.

Mounk: The second principle that you talk about contrasts power and principles. Of course, many societies have failed to live up to the noble values that they've written on the packaging. The United States Constitution, when it was written, was a beautiful document. But obviously, the racial reality of the United States continued to be terrible for 150 years and continued to be deeply troubled well beyond that. Now, do you try to live up to the principles or do you discard them? I take that to be the core distinction between what I would call the liberal left and the identitarian left, is that those of us on the liberal left say, look, we have to redouble our efforts to live up to these principles. But we have made historical progress and we've made historic progress in part because of the demands of people to be treated in accordance with principles that this society invokes. The civil rights movement was, among other things, Martin Luther King Jr, saying, you've made us a promissory note and we want to cash that check. 

Now, what you would call the woke left, the identitarian left rejects this, right? They say “No, these principles have always just been make-believe, they've always just been a way of pretending, and in fact, the function is precisely to perpetuate this injustice. So we have to get rid of those principles. The only thing that's left is group power.” Now, I think there's a principled objection to this, that that's not the kind of society that I want to live in; and there’s a practical objection, which is, what on earth makes you so confident that the people who've always been oppressed, have been in the minority, will suddenly be powerful enough that they can impose their group will on the others, rather than that this competition for group struggle, for group power, will once again benefit the dominant group? 

Neiman: I agree with you entirely. And it's a dispute that goes back to the dispute between Socrates and the sophists, the claim that every discussion of justice amounts to an assertion of power and an attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes. I am on the side of people like Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth. And interestingly enough, African Americans have been in the forefront of those who pushed America to live up to the ideals that it proclaimed and didn't realize. There's also an interesting debate right now about colonialism and postcolonial theory, which I find extraordinarily problematic, because it depends mostly on those arguments. And you see Narendra Modi saying that human rights are a Western imposition, and besides, you colonized us, and there are no universal principles of justice. That's just simply not true. And fortunately, there are some writers from formerly colonized countries who are speaking up against that sort of abuse now, and I quote some of them in my book, but it's a rather nefarious sort of move. Again, it's an old move. It's 2500 years old. And Socrates had a hard time refuting it then. But we have to keep refuting it in every generation.

I actually think that is a huge reason for the development of woke, because it seemed to people that large-scale, universalist political projects had been proved hopeless, if not wrong, and the thing to focus on was individual and group identities. I don't like the word identity politics, because it reduces all the identities we have down to two, and also down to the two that we actually have the least form of agency over. 

Mounk: On a side note about identity politics, I agree with you that that's not a helpful term and in part because there are certain forms of identity politics that are a perfectly natural part of democracy. You always are going to have some forms of group interest. The American Association of Retired Persons is a very normal kind of form of democratic politics. You might think that sometimes AARP has a positive impact on the world and sometimes perhaps has a negative impact in overprioritizing the interests of a particular demographic group, but it's a perfectly legitimate form of politics. And the same I would say is true of associations representing Armenian immigrants in the United States and perhaps putting pressure on Congress to recognize by name what happened in Armenia after 1918 and so on. So there are forms of interest group politics that have an identity base that are legitimate, but where it becomes illegitimate is when you want to make it the very basis of the principles of a society.

Neiman: I think there's a fundamental difference between interest and principles. I look forward to a time when the interests are not tribal. And I don't consider myself an ally. The reason why I would support, say, Black Lives Matter in certain phases is not because it's in my interest in any way, shape or form; it's because shooting unarmed people of color is a violation of human rights. And interestingly enough, Arendt picked this up in Eichmann in Jerusalem and did not emphasize it enough at the time. And I don't think she realized how important it was. She said Eichmann should have been indicted for crimes against humanity, not for crimes against the Jewish people. Because what he did was a crime against humanity. So allies are people who have shared interests for a while, like the United States and Soviet Union. And then suddenly, they didn't anymore. But you can principally support a struggle out of solidarity because you believe that human rights are being violated.

Mounk: I think we do absolutely agree on that. It becomes particularly relevant when it comes to questions surrounding both standpoint theory and political allyship. So there's a kind of left-identitarian view, which, roughly speaking, says, “If we're from different identity groups, then you're never going to be able to fully understand me and my experience, especially if I'm more oppressed or disadvantaged than you in some kind of way. And so rather than understanding my experience, you should simply defer to me. And when it comes to political action, you shouldn't think for yourself what the right thing to do is, you should say, ‘I'm an ally to that group. And that group demands this.’” I think that is wrong epistemologically. 

A much more realistic model of political agency is to say, “No, actually, I believe that a black man in the United States should be able to walk down the street without fear of the police. And I believe that a woman should be able to be on the subway without being fearful of being harassed. And I believe that gays and lesbians should be able to go to a bar without fearing that they’re going to be beaten up. And it's because I have my own ideas about the kind of society I want to live in, that I think we should all collectively want to live in. And I want to make the world more just and that's the reason why I'm standing up.” 

Neiman: We agree on that as well. If you carry the “You can't possibly understand my experience” bit far enough then none of us can understand anyone. This is, for me, the point of great literature, great music, great film, which is why I'm extremely annoyed by the claims about cultural appropriation—precisely the function of great art is to help us better understand both ourselves but also a culture that is not ours. And there are the other arguments against the cultural appropriation claim, which is that most cultural products are the products of appropriation. Appropriation is, of course, not the same thing as exploitation. But if you pay some attention to other people's cultures and learn at least another language or two, you will never be able to do it for the plurality of different cultures in the world. But I always argue that making an attempt to walk around into other cultures besides your own, just to realize that there are many different perspectives on the world gives you, first of all, a perspective on yourself, and, secondly, a sense of some others. 

I came up with a metaphor that I find compelling in the book, about flesh and bones. And I look at cultural differences as being like flesh. And of course, I’m not in favor of doing away with flesh. Flesh is interesting; it's in different colors, sizes, and shapes, and all of that. But the bones are the things that tie us together. And the bones are also the things that remain of us after we're gone. So cultural pluralism is a wonderful thing. But political universalism is the thing that holds us together.

Mounk: If you believe that the world remains unjust in many important ways, but we have actually been able to make progress, and if you reject the idea that universal principles are always hypocritical, if you think that, actually, part of how we've made this progress is by living up more fully to to these principles, then you’re left with number three—perhaps we need to reevaluate universalism, which has really become a dirty word in big parts of the political discourse and particularly on the Left. 

Give us your most passionate case for capital-u Universalism.

Neiman: Well, I started with this metaphor of flesh and bones: committing yourself to universalism hardly commits you to the idea that everybody is just alike. And it also doesn't commit you to the move that tends to be made on the Left, and particularly in postcolonial circles, of saying “All this talk about universal values is just cover for a white, European, patriarchal scam that was trying to make everyone else like them.” In fact, you find principles of universalism in many, many cultures. And what particularly annoys me about this postcolonial critique of the Enlightenment is that it actually comes from the Enlightenment itself. It's usually not made by people who I think read more than 10 words in a Wikipedia article of the Enlightenment, but the idea that Europeans should look at the world from other than European perspectives comes straight out of the Enlightenment, as I'm sure you know. The Enlightenment took this trope, starting with Montesquieu, of criticizing Europe from the perspective of fictionalized Persians, Chinese, indigenous South American priests, Tahitians, and so on. The entire reproach about Eurocentrism was invented by the Enlightenment.

Thinkers of the Enlightenment were incredibly interested in reports and ideas coming from non-European places, specifically about things like the patriarchy, like patriarchal marriage laws and property relations, and treatment of women that was different in other cultures. What's strange about this is that those thinkers actually risked something, in some cases, their lives. The philosopher, Christian Wolff, who was a big influence on Immanuel Kant, even if very few people have heard of him, studied some Confucius and Mencius, and gave a lecture arguing that the Chinese had a perfectly good system of morals, even though they weren't Christians. And for this, he was ordered to leave not just his university position, but the entire state of Prussia, in 48 hours, or to face execution. This is not a Twitter storm, ok, these people were standing up for a genuine universalism. And it's all over Enlightenment texts, if anybody actually bothers to read them. 

Mounk: One worry I have about this conversation is that we've agreed about too much. I want to hone in on something where we might disagree.

We're both Jewish, and we've both spent different parts of our lives in Germany. I grew up in Germany and then I moved away, and you grew up in America and then moved to Germany. But you have argued in the past that there are many things that other countries can learn from how Germany has dealt with its dark past. And I broadly agree that Germany has done much better on that count than Japan, for example. 

As somebody who's grown up in Germany as a Jew, I have to say that I'm rather more skeptical than you about how some of that has played out, and whether an over-obsession with it, which I think did mark the German public (at least for a period in the ‘90s and 2000s), was ultimately helpful to building a better society. Growing up there, I often experienced the extent to which Germans thought about their national identity as sort of channeled through how we are going to think about the past and, therefore, how we are going to treat the few Jews who are still around today. And it was a real obstacle to friendship and to contact with people. I often found that precisely the most noble Germans, those who were most keen to grapple with the lessons of the past and to prove that they had moved beyond it and were not guilty of any other sins of their ancestors, were the ones who ended up treating me, when I was growing up, in a kind of creepy and overly friendly manner.

Neiman: I did read your first book. And I'll tell you what my thought was: here's somebody who grows up in a small town in Bavaria, and he comes to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he suddenly feels free. I get that entirely. But you see, I grew up as a Jew in the American South, which was extremely different from moving to Cambridge, which I also did at the age of 19, and to New York at the age of 17. And just to make sure that I have a window on what it's still like in the South, I spent more than half a year in Mississippi researching that book. And, boy, being a Jew is still just as problematic in Mississippi, less so in Atlanta. But I still celebrated the fact that a Jew and a black man were elected to the Senate from Georgia. I am a hopeful person, not an optimistic person, but I didn’t think that was going to happen. Believe me, people are as icky and uncomfortable about Jews, in certain ways and in other parts of the US, as they are in parts of Germany. 

But I traveled to other parts of Germany for work and other things, and there's no other place that I would live in Germany than Berlin. Berlin has become an extraordinarily mixed place. And it's not just a few Jews anymore. It's the largest, the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe, including some estimated 20,000 Israelis. It is the one place that I would feel comfortable living in, in Germany. But things have gotten significantly worse in the past three years, where an over-focus on the German crimes of the past has led to two things that are incredibly problematic. One is it leaves Germany absolutely unable to talk about what's going on in the present, particularly in the state of Israel. But secondly, it winds up in thinking that the only Jewish voices that count are the voices that talk about Jewish victimhood. They have completely forgotten about Jewish universalists. 

Mounk: One small point about my upbringing. I grew up in a small town in Swabia—it's a permissible mistake. But to me, dealing with some of the sort of unreconstructed ignorance and anti-Semitism at the time in a small town in Swabia (which, itself, has changed since, I think), was easier to do when dealing with some of the philo-Semitism and creepier forms of special treatment that I felt I received in a pretty cosmopolitan, bourgeois milieu in Munich, and perhaps it leads us to assessments that are subtly different. 

I agree with much of what you said about Germany today. But I feel freer as a German today than I did 15 or 20 years ago. And perhaps that's in part because that first book of mine was a form of exorcism as well. But it is, I think, also because Germany has changed. And one of the ways in which Germany I think has changed in a good way is that, in my mind, it's become less much less obsessed with its past; that to think about what it is like to be a good German today, and what German identity is, and how we should think about the nation now depends, in part, on your opinion about what we did or should have done in 2016 and 2017 during the refugee crisis, and about all kinds of other policies. And I think that's actually been incredibly positive. One of the reasons why I've been constitutionally allergic to certain forms of left identitarian discourse in practice in the United States is that I sometimes felt I was being asked to treat people who belong to minority groups in the United States in the way that I was treated, and I knew how that made me feel, and that that was not a path towards a genuine form of equality. And that's why I wasn't able and willing to go along with it.

Neiman: No, I agree with you entirely. But I should say, first of all, I came to Germany in 1982. I experienced both at that time pretty problematic, straightforward anti-Semitism but also the absolute weirdness and unpleasantness of philo-Semitism. So I've been through all that. And I left Berlin at the end of 1988, having had my first child and thinking that I did not want to bring up a child in that kind of weird environment. I decided to come back in 1998 because I was convinced that Germany had changed. In ‘98, we finally got rid of the CDU, and we had a Social Democrat/Green Government, and they put in a lot of changes, also a lot of symbolic changes. And one could see that there was a genuinely different attitude not just to Jews but to people from different cultures altogether. So I really did think that Germany was going in very much the right direction until exactly three years ago. I know you've been doing lots of other things, so if you haven't been following what I call our local philo-Semitic McCarthyism, that's fine. But it's problematic. 

Read more: “How to Be Left Without Being Woke” by Susan Neiman

Mounk: Very briefly, if people agree with you on the main thesis of what you've been talking about, and they think of themselves as left-wing, and they’re in a milieu that is very left-wing, and they’re worried about making the points you just made to the friends and colleagues and so on, do you have any advice for how to speak up for those ideas without ceasing to be in good standing with your leftist social circle?

Neiman: First of all, speak up. You will find that many more people agree with you and will say things like “I was going to say that but I was afraid.” That’s happened to me many, many times. The second question that everybody should ask themselves and ask their friends and colleagues is to list ten identities that are crucial to your being. And I think everybody will find, first of all, that it's hard to restrict yourself to ten. But you certainly will not restrict yourself to two, which is race and gender. And to rethink essentializing people on the basis of these two categories over which they have quite little agency, and to think about what it means to you to be a person who makes decisions, who acts in the world. Raise those questions with your friends and colleagues, and you'll be surprised at the positive reactions that you get.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.