Greenfield: Can Wokeness Survive a Recession?
It’s no coincidence that the backlash against political correctness coincided with a recession in the early 90s. Or that cancel culture is starting to take a beating during an economic crisis.
In political ecology, elite leftist cultural gatekeeping movements take off during times of relative prosperity and economic security. Political correctness in its various contemporary forms is a response to an overproduction of elites with too many kids headed for the same elite institutions and then into careers with a limited pathway of upper tiers. Catch a few of them in an unguarded viral video moment at a park or in a chat screenshot, and watch the leftist political terror spread.
Enforcing conformity rewards mediocrity. Beyond the usual leftist agendas, political correctness and cancel culture are the ideal weapons of elites who feel threatened by the social mobility of others. Unable to compete on merit, they embrace leftist politics, recruit BLM patsies, and demand that the system become less academically rigorous and objectively competitive.
Recessions interrupt these shenanigans by disrupting the intellectual supply chains. Obsessing over microaggressions is fine in a rising economy. People who don’t have real problems have to invent them. And the invention of artificial problems and moral panics becomes a spectator sport. In a prosperous time, audiences will tune in to see which member of the elite was canceled this week, accused of #MeToo crimes or charged with speaking ineptly about an issue.
But when belts are tightening, the public loses patience with imaginary problems. And elite overproduction ceases to require artificial gatekeeping when natural restrictions kick in.
Going forward, that means fewer suburban lunches and book clubs with BLM activists or Ibram X. Kendi tracts. Leonard Bernstein hosted the infamous evening with the Black Panthers in 1970. Even though inflation was rising, the economy still seemed solid. Nixon ran for reelection powered by what even most in the media were describing as an economic boom.
Before long the decade came to be defined by horrifying inflation, leftist violence, and social collapse. Authentic radicalism replaced radical chic and bombs displaced virtue signaling. The conservative and leftist movements that had already been rising began their takeover of the Republican and Democrat parties. Rattled elites re-consolidated as moderates with a Democrat establishment and GOP RINOs fighting to control and protect their political fiefdoms.
The elites are once again reconsolidating and the backlash against wokeness is starting to go mainstream. There’s a lot less room for woke cultural diversions at Netflix when its stock craters. Virtue signaling stops when the party does and then the scramble for survival takes over.
Companies that recently scolded and threatened states over everything from transgender bathroom laws to voting regulations have suddenly decided to shut up about Roe v. Wade. Gov. DeSantis drawing blood from Disney helped, but boardrooms are also getting less woke and more serious as they face the instability of the economy and the fragility of their positions.
Much as is the seventies, frivolous wokeness is likely to make way for real violence.
The woke era split the American Left between the so-called neo-liberals, cultural lefties who used identity politics and environmentalism to rebrand capitalism as progressive, and hard lefties who championed class warfare and a socialist revolution. Some conservatives chose to ally with hard lefties over mutual opposition to wokeness and cancel culture, but they are about to discover that it was a matter of allying with Communists against Social Democrats.
Political correctness, under various names and forms, thrives in a prosperous society, while class warfare and outright terrorism make a comeback in periods of real economic pain. If wokeness goes down with the economy, what replaces it, Marxist revolutionaries, terrorists, and cult leaders, will be even worse. What follows depends on the economy and the nation.
The two faces of the Left are both ugly and they both specialize in political terror. They co-exist, but they are rarely both in ascendance at the same time. The rise of one usually foreshadows the fall of the other. The scale of the Black Lives Matter race riots foreshadowed a sea change. The growing backlash against wokeness built around an alliance that unites conservatives, liberals, apoliticals and hard lefties suddenly has the wind at its back, winning support from a range of Big Tech billionaires from Elon Musk to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Change is coming.
But mostly instability.
The public is increasingly burned out by the era of non-stop causes. Virtue signaling, a defining identity marker during a time of prosperity, looks like a hollow answer to suspicions of insincerity. The massive institutional distrust is not just a failure of credibility, but function. The people who were once satisfied to tweet things are angry and embittered over the lack of results. And they are becoming more willing to explore possibilities that may have once been unthinkable.
Performative politics, the world’s second oldest profession, isn’t going away, but it will seek authenticity by embracing more active measures. The crybullying of cancel culture, a mean girls bloodsport fed by hashtags and victimhood videos, is unlikely to feed that appetite. Hashtags, like bumper stickers, have long been dismissed as performative, and the attempt to revive their relevance with astroturf groups and social media influencers is on track to hit a brick wall.
Spreading awareness is an unsatisfying strategy. The rounds of doxxing and canceling, alternate reality games that turn online gaming into political warfare, marketed by memes and bots, graphed by exposure analytics, is a style unlikely to outlive the forced maturing of the generation of rich kids insulated from reality by their online environments that spawned it.
The chaos of Web3 will upend both platform dominance and elite control over discourse. The wildness of the era likely to follow from the upheaval of the Big Tech companies that have defined the permitted boundaries of the culture may well prove as explosive as the seventies. Cryptocurrency is nothing compared to the shock of a generation that defined itself by exploiting loopholes in a gated internet suddenly discovering that the gates don’t matter anymore.
A new medium is about to become the cultural message.
Web 2.0 has become a stale Eastern European Soviet bloc nation where Big Brother is watching, nothing really works under the hood and everything looks the same. Big Tech companies all have their utopian visions, much as the Communists did, but all they really have to offer is a broken internet defined by algorithmic conformity and the illusion of dissent.
Wokeness was the perfect cultural complement to social technological totalitarianism. It crowdsourced the policing of narratives in a fashion perfectly aligned with the technocratic mission of the massive platforms that both lived off and suppressed user generated content. The dominance of the big platforms, like Facebook, fueled by cash-rich optimistic investors, is likely to go down as the economy takes down the decadent technocracy that they spawned.
The imminent future is likely to be ugly, but much less woke. Elites, corporate and individual, facing economic misery, rising violence in the streets, and societal breakdowns will retreat from the devastation that they helped cause while glibly championing a renewed liberal consensus.
Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, white allies groups and white privilege questionnaires, will go the way of Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panther dinner, mocked for the naivete and decadence of elites unwilling to either embrace or abandon its privileges.
If the economy suffers, both politics and culture will run downstream of economics.
The Left, aggressively reinvigorated and freed of its institutional chains, will double down on political terrorism. At least until the economy shifts again and the former terrorists once again pick up jobs at universities and within corporations who will turn woke all over again.
Except that next time around, we’ll call wokeness something else.