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The Woke Future
Imagine a West where liberal ideals have shriveled away. Could the "Successor Ideology" be taking over?
Authoritarian tendencies among certain parts of the left have spread in recent years. But what does it amount to, from charges of “microaggressions” to denunciations of “whiteness”? Wesley Yang, among the most perceptive observers of American culture today, has been watching closely, and he has a theory. Yang spoke with the Persuasion founder, Yascha Mounk.
MOUNK: You’ve coined a new term, “Successor Ideology.” What are its elements?
YANG: It conceives of white supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchy as a unitary system of domination that must be attacked on every front. A series of different movements address each of those aspects, but there’s an overall sense of conceptual unity, such that the attack on the one is the attack on all of the others. Look at, for instance, one of the paradigmatic documents of Successor Ideology, a manifesto posted online by the institutional anchorage of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is distinct from the movement in the street; there’s an actual organization that purports to speak on behalf of the movement, and to give it ideological direction and aims. It takes up policing and police brutality—but it also says, We are [for] dismantling the nuclear family; it says that no one is free unless the black trans person is free. When you think of the people who are marching on behalf of this, in what sense is this their ideology?
MOUNK: I think there’s homophobia in society, racism in society—but what this is saying is that it’s all one huge interlocking scheme of domination. If the microaggression is an emanation of this vast system of domination, it’s incredibly important to defeat and to punish the person who perpetrated this.
YANG: Right. It comes from a transition, or succession, from a liberal account that emphasizes laws and rights but is fundamentally grounded in individual agency, to a more Foucauldian account of the operation of power. There’s this conflation made between the marchers in Charlottesville, between the Christchurch killer—all of whom can be fairly termed “white supremacist” under a previous definition—and moving down the scale to, “Why are the shades of makeup at the counter normed to non-white hues?” to “Why are the Oscars so white?”
And there’s something true about this account of reality. But in the attempt to operationalize it, you produce a series of different interventions, some of which make sense, many of which don’t.
MOUNK: Liberalism formulates a set of standards and ideals for what a decent and just society would look like. Of course, no society ever lives up to them. The liberal response is to say, “We should think about how to remedy that to get closer to our ideals,” whereas the standard reaction from within the Successor Ideology is to say: “Ah-ha! The hypocrisy of this society! Proclaiming those ideals without fully living up to them shows that those ideals are A) just a smokescreen to allow the operation of the system of oppression and injustice; and B) the right response is not trying to live up to the ideal, but to get rid of this ideal entirely.”
YANG: The system of white supremacy as it was understood in 1963 was, in fact, dismantled [with the Civil Rights Act of 1964]. Yet disparities continued on, and there were a couple of different accounts of why. One of them culminated in this kind of new Jim Crow-style of history and critique, which is core to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of it had to do with new scholarship into the ways the government—through redlining and so forth—encouraged segregation, even in the North. So there are these structural accounts of the continuation of racism and racial disadvantage. But there’s also this psychological dimension that speaks to an overall change in our understanding of the human personality as one that is susceptible to trauma, and that is definable by the oppression and the domination that it experiences. The interlocking of this kind of racial discourse and an idea that institutions, universities, and increasingly our governments, H.R. departments, and corporations have to take a new kind of responsibility for the psychic well-being of those within its midst is very politically powerful. It allows for the articulation of new forms of regulation that a particular class has an interest in elaborating because they are the administrators, lawyers who derive their incomes and their sinecures through it—but who also take as axiomatic this account of the operations of power and the nature of the world that I’ve described. It’s becoming a new baseline for people’s self-understanding, and generative of people’s subjective experiences of the world.
MOUNK: Why should we not embrace Successor Ideology?
YANG: Because the interventions end up being so heavy-handed that they end up threatening values that are at the core of our ability to exist with one another. But there is an ambivalence that I feel because it is about building power on behalf of certain categories of people, and there is no question that those who have engaged in this kind of activism have built power on their behalf. And they’ve made it so that people have to be silent, and they’ve made it so that people have to repeat loyalty oaths, and they’ve made it so people have to scourge themselves in public. That is the kind of power that you have over other people. But it’s not ultimately the power that I think one wants to have, or win by virtue of, because too much ends up being sacrificed in the process.
MOUNK: What is sacrificed?
YANG: You must end up talking about dismantling reason, about dismantling individualism, about turning appreciation or understanding of art and literature into a series of political litmus-tests. All of these things are anathema to other values that I hold. I’m not simply a power-seeking individual that wants to make other people love me because they had been coerced into it by a powerful social movement that I stand at the head of. Indeed, that kind of coerced love is not actually love. It can also be bad for the person. It can be psychologically disinhibiting or dysfunctional for the individual to go through life always assuming the worst of everyone at all times. Because, A) it’s not often true; B) it can actually summon up the very thing that one assumes to be the case because, if you’re constantly on edge about everything all the time, this is something that other people recognize, that they feel, that they respond to. You help to create your own realities. Many of the people committed to the ideology [followed] this cascade that I described, where they came to be obsessed with these things to the exclusion of all other values. They were able to consistently exploit the basic asymmetry that is at work behind the ideological succession, which is that some people care a lot more about this than other people. Those who are more heavily invested tend to be able to prevail against those who are not as heavily invested. And that is the basic engine that drives all of this.
MOUNK: The term Successor Ideology implies that this will win and succeed. Are you as pessimistic as the name implies? What do you think are some of the likely scenarios?
YANG: I’ve always said that cancel culture represents an as-yet unconsummated will to power. What they ultimately seek is law reform. The universities live under that regime, and for the most part, it’s fairly easy to operate within those spaces and not fall afoul of them. But there is a chilling effect in the mind. The kind of law reform that we’re talking about would move us in that direction, where that is a pervasive force in society. There will be false positives, but most people will be able to go about their day in the way that people were able to go about their day even in the former Soviet Union.
But things would be worse in ways, [so] I think it’s worth moderating and holding off that system. I don’t see it as a total victory of the system. But I do see it as they’re going to have a good run; they’re going to have a good 10 to 15 years. Goldman Sachs is going to have a diversity score for the people they do business with. There’s talk of the ratings agencies doing the same thing. Yelp is going to be putting information about businesses accused of racism. They haven’t said what the due process [will be], or if there is going to be any. So there is this inner logic of “Believe the accuser; the accused is presumptively wrong,” that is being institutionalized, and in my view will make things demonstrably worse. It’s not going to be a necessarily radical, shattering departure from life as most of us know it. [But] it will be very, very hard for people to push back against it because there is this kryptonite of the racism accusation.
Maybe we’ll live with it for a while and we’ll accommodate to it. Then, some of the air can come out of it once it has done its work, once people feel a greater sense of inclusion or belonging. But if the contrary is true, that it actually instills and inculcates at the base of people’s subjectivity a sense of their vulnerability and their marginalization which ends up being the locus of their power, then it will only grow. At that point, we will see whether or not right-thinking intellectuals are willing in large numbers to articulate the kind of criticisms that I’m speaking about today. When it becomes increasingly unmistakable, and when the apparatus of enforcement and policing of contrary opinions remains in place, will people be willing to speak up under those conditions? Maybe they will, but perhaps they will not. I’m going to do my own very small part to keep these contrary ideas in circulation, and perhaps at some point, others will be willing to join.
[Interview edited and condensed for clarity.]