The Origins of the Great Awokening

Boasian antiracism is riding high. Support has never been higher for BLM than as of writing. Biden seems to have such a tremendous lead over Trump in the polls that Democrats are salivating over longstanding red states. It looks like November is in the bag. More importantly, antiracism enjoys more prestige at the present conjuncture than it has since its birth. Statues are being toppled, racists are being canceled, and the streets are owned by antiracists. What is underway is the coming of age party of antiracism as the hegemonic ideology of the professional middle-class.

The recent ascendancy of Boasian antiracism has been called the Great Awokening by scholars. What are the origins of this phenomenon?

In the inner history of the professional class, we identify the synthesis that obtained in the 1990s between two ‘scripts of the self’ that emerged from threads unleashed when professionals’ kids broke the midcentury modern in response to Vietnam. My thesis modifies and builds on the thesis of Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self and many others — if Lilla was right, then an idea due originally to Paul Bremen. That, as Lilla put it, the cultural revolution, a revolution in attitudes towards sex, drugs, family life and personal relations; social liberalism for short; on the one hand — and the great turn inward that Lilla called the Reagan revolution and gave us Curtis’s title on the other, come together in the 1980s.

Roger Kimball too framed the Sixties intellectual revolution along Marx and Freud. Specifically, Kimball argued that the hegemonic ideology of the Sixties left was a marriage of sorts between Marxian class politics and “Freudian” liberal attitudes towards sex, drugs, and life scripts. I don’t know if social liberalism emerged from Freud. But it is clear that social liberalism followed as a corollary of the revolution of the self. What one was supposed to do with one’s life was self-author, self-regulate, self-care, self-govern and self-actualize.

The second thread comes together not in the 1980s, but amidst much self-congratulation in the 1990s. The opening was created by the fact that there was a problem after the revolution of the self. The newly centered self was consistent with the colorblind meritocracy. But a moral order could not be grounded in the script of the self. Meritocracy was a weak frame on which to hang the legitimacy of the new order. What happens in the 1990s is that a new script of the self grounds a new moral order anchored on antiracism. The antiracist sees herself as not just striving to self-actualize but caring about a moral order in society. Antiracism involves boundary work that reproduces the moral order: that’s where the cancel culture comes from. Operationally, the deal that was stuck with race and gender oppositional politics was that professional middle-class fortifications were to be inclusive meritocracies. Instead of colorblind, we will have the United Colors of Benetton. The meritocracy would not just be meritocratic but racially inclusive.

This is the great synthesis that they were celebrating in the 1990s, not just the New [Hourglass] Economy. The synthesis was achieved at a great cost. The Reagan-Thatcher revolution was consummated when social democracy capitulated upwards and abandoned custody of the working class interest. Within the professional class, despite soundbites that suggested solidarity, there was a parting of ways between the left concerned with oppositional class politics and those interested in purely identity politics. This is when elite-mass relations begin to deteriorate. The professional-class increasingly began to consider the white working class racist. The white working class — with a different history and culture from the professional class — increasingly began to perceive class work behind the professional antiracist scold. The class-partisan discourse around race began to acquire its present contours after the synthesis was achieved. It is in this historical context that we must frame the origins of the Great Awokening.

In order to understand the origins we need to understand the structure that mechanically propelled antiracism to its present hegemony. Boasian antiracism was marginal before the Sixties, when it emerged onto the national stage. The Sixties radicals may have left the streets. But they didn’t disappear. An advanced band of them mounted a bid for the Ivory Tower. More precisely, they mounted a bid for the prestige schools. Beginning with Schermerhorn Hall — Columbia anthropology — antiracism began to conquer the prestige professoriate. Antiracism outposts within academia — Black studies, ethic studies and gender studies — mushroomed. Beginning with anthropology, cognate discipline by cognate discipline, all of Humanities was conquered. (The sciences fell more recently.) The tenured radicals eventually became dominant within the Ivy League and the elite cultural discourse.

This development proved to be more significant that it appeared at first sight because prestige schools are the central sites of reproduction of the professional class. These schools can now be described as mass manufacturing elite antiracists. But it is not simply a question of indoctrination. Even though it is a professional class ideology, we can say that Boasian antiracism has been shaped from below. Indeed, it has been radicalized from below — the secret origins of the Great Awokening lay deeper. The kids themselves gravitated towards woke professors and courses. They are the ones who were more interested in race and gender than class. Even though it was confined to the professional middle-class, the Great Awokening was a bottom-up process.

So why are professionals’ kids so much woker than their parents who achieved the 1990s synthesis? The proximate answer is that woke became a signal of status — the Great Awokening is the result on an arms race. But why did woke become a signal of status? Woke became a signal of status in the context of the hypercompetition ultimately unleashed by the turn inward. The neoliberal meritocratic order that followed as a corollary of the inward turn, greatly intensified status competition; especially at the central site of professional class reproduction.

The detail that matters is that there was and remains a prestige gap between the humanities on the one hand and the sciences and professional disciplines on the other. The association between class and woke emerged from a struggle to close this gap. In the context of neoliberal hypercompetition, woke became entangled with class because of the equilibrium that emerged in the struggle for prestige within the Ivory Tower. Once it became firmly entangled with class, what was turbocharged by neoliberal hypercompetition of the professional class was competitive wokedum. A relentless competition to out-woke and thereby signal higher status to potential mates and rivals. Whence the proliferation of the acronyms — the latest is BIPOC. This is the process that brought about the Great Awokening.

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6 thoughts on “The Origins of the Great Awokening

  1. you seem to go to great lengths to avoid the fact that most people protesting in the street were young people of color, not well educated white liberals who have read Chomsky, Freud or Marx. Why?

    1. That’s not true. “Unlike with past Black Lives Matter protests, nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white. … The age group with the largest share of protesters was people under 35 and the income group with the largest share of protesters was those earning more than $150,000.” Other reports indicated that more than two-thirds of protestors are whites with college degrees.

  2. Just to satisfy readers who might want a more detailed explanation, and also to avoid provoking the wrath of others who may be quick to judge – It would be nice to periodically spell out the reasons for your objection to what you call “Boasian anti-racism”. (seems like a good term for alienating anthropologists btw).

    I take it to mean, the style in which the proffessional class expresses/affirms its anti-racism, but it sounds like there are deeper criticisms, or else you wouldn’t have gone into such depth.

    1. I am following Proctor (2003)’s usage of Boasian antiracism. It is not something that alienates cultural anthropologists. Indeed, if you declare in a cultural theory seminar that ‘we are all Boasian antiracists’, you will only find nods and murmurs of agreement. I know because I have tried it — in multiple seminars at Columbia University.

      I don’t have a blanket objection to Boasian antiracism. To the contrary, I am a convinced Boasian antiracist myself. What I am opposed to is cancel culture, witch hunts, intellectual intolerance, unthinking self-congratulation, and above all, class work. As it has become hegemonic in the professional class, Boasian antiracism has been repurposed to do class work. Specifically, in convincing themselves that they are good people (because they are antiracist) professionals, especially elite professionals, regard ordinary working-class Americans as racist bigots. “Why do you think they voted for him? These people are obviously deplorable [because they are racists].” This is the underlying reason for the impasse of elite-mass relations.

  3. “The detail that matters is that there was and remains a prestige gap between the humanities on the one hand and the sciences and professional disciplines on the other. The association between class and woke emerged from a struggle to close this gap.”

    Intuitively I find it credible that this is one factor (among many) that has led to the woke phenomenon. Maybe I missed it, but do you have any evidence that feelings of inferiority and resentment in the humanities are significant part of the story?

    1. Hi Geof! Not data. But having spent years each in both of the two cultures, I know there’s a definite inferiority complex in the humanities — a status anxiety about the sciences, if not the elite professions. There’s also the feedback from society at large. Graduates from the humanities make less money than the ones from the sciences; not to speak of elite professionals who make more than any elite scholar. Prestige jobs that pay the big bucks — particularly in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street — don’t hire history or literature majors unless they’re at Harvard or Princeton. The last observation is literal if Rivera’s account in Pedigree is to be believed (she’s only talking about finance though).

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