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Wisdom from a Yenta

Left Is Not Woke
by Susan Neiman
Polity Press, 2023; 155 pp.

There is much to dislike in this book. Susan Neiman, a former philosophy professor who now heads the “Einstein Discussion Group” in Potsdam, is a socialist who has good things to say about Communist East Germany and parrots every anticapitalist cliché in the book. I have blasted some of her work in earlier reviews. In Left Is Not Woke, though, she makes some good points, and I’m going to concentrate on them in this week’s column.

As you would expect, she sympathizes with the grievances of blacks and other minorities and supports Black Lives Matter. But she thinks that some people in the “woke” Left have gone too far. In their eagerness to find racism everywhere, they dismiss rights and justice as ideological concepts and denounce the main figures of the Enlightenment as hypocritical racists. She says,

What’s confusing about the woke movement is that it expresses traditional left-wing emotions: empathy for the marginalized, indignation at the plight of the oppressed, determination that historical wrongs should be righted. These emotions, however, are derailed by a range of theoretical assumptions that ultimately undermine them.

Her complaint is that the woke movement reduces people to their ethnic identities, but in fact people have many different identities, and rights are universal. If we don’t recognize rights, society is reduced to a power struggle among competing groups. Only if we recognize rights can we condemn slavery as wrong, rather than just say that it benefitted certain groups at the expense of others. Further, the woke are wrong to dismiss the Enlightenment’s appeal to rights as “Eurocentric.”

The Enlightenment “introduced the very idea of humanity that its critics, like de Maistre, were unable to recognize. Enlightenment thinkers insisted that everyone, whether Christian or Confucian, Parisian or Persian, is endowed with innate dignity that demands respect” (emphasis in original). I don’t think that Neiman has taken adequate notice of Brian Tierney’s work showing that some of the medieval Scholastics had the notion of universal rights—see, e.g., his The Idea of Natural Rights—but she deserves praise for her stress on the concept.

She is also correct to emphasize that the thinkers of the Enlightenment did not endorse colonialism and the exploitation of native peoples but on the contrary condemned these practices. For example, as cited by Neiman, Immanuel Kant wrote in Toward Perpetual Peace,

Compare the inhospitable acts of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice they show to the lands and peoples they exhibit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is terrifying to behold . . . [they] oppress the natives, excite widespread wars among the various states, spread famine, rebellion, perfidy, and the whole litany of evils which afflict mankind.

Oddly, though, she takes Karl Marx to be one of the enlightened humanists, noting that he had a sense of “reverence.” She does not tell us that he criticized rights as an egoistic notion based on the separation of a human being from his community.

Why has the woke movement rejected rights, when on its face the notion would seem to have great appeal in prosecuting the struggle against discrimination? Neiman assigns much of the blame to the malign influence of Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt. Foucault, she holds, was a discerning analyst of the networks of power in society and correctly discerned that reforms often functioned as new means of oppression. But his relentless rejection of the normative dimension lacked a basis.

From the fact that the rhetoric of rights can be used to control people it does not follow that they lack rights or that the concept of “rights” is useless. She aptly says,

Reason does have the power to change reality, but to view it merely as a form of power is to ignore the difference between violence and persuasion, and between persuasion and manipulation. It is the difference between saying you should do this because I’m bigger than you and you should do this because it’s (a) right (b) good for the community (c) in your self-interest (d) choose your own form of justification. (emphasis in original)

It must be said, though, that although Neiman is correct to protest Foucault’s elision of the normative, she does not make clear her own grounding for rights; from her other work, I suspect this would take a Kantian form.

As she says, it is surprising that Carl Schmitt has influenced the woke Left, since he supported the Nazis during the Third Reich, but such is the case. Leftist writers often cite his rejection of universal appeals to rights as a case of what he called “the tyranny of values,” by which phrase he meant the wrongful effort to justify war and imperial conquest through ideological slogans. Schmitt argued that because the enemy was alleged to be violating universal human values, the limits on warfare imposed by the public law of Europe would be disregarded. He thought that Woodrow Wilson’s declaration in World War I that “the world must be made safe for democracy” was an example of this.

Neiman holds that the Left should be wary of Schmitt’s influence, as in her view he remained even after World War II a convinced Nazi who thought Germany’s policies under Adolf Hitler were correct. Neiman forthrightly rejects Schmitt’s view of values:

Universalist claims of justice meant to restrain simple assertions of power were often abused, from the American and French Revolutions that first proclaimed them to the present day. Carl Schmitt wasn’t wrong about that. He concluded that unvarnished power grabs like that of the Nazis were not only legal but legitimate. You may think that’s the best we can do. Or you may go to work to narrow the gap between ideals of justice and realities of power.

Neiman’s assault on Schmitt is forceful, but I wonder whether she has done him full justice (though if she is right about his view of justice, he could hardly complain); she herself recognizes that a more sympathetic reading of Schmitt is possible. In his postwar memoir, Ex Captivitate Salus: Experiences, 1945–47, which Neiman cites in another context, Schmitt invoked Herman Melville’s short story Benito Cereno to portray himself as in effect a prisoner forced to do the Nazis’ bidding.

Neiman makes another insightful point in the book. She deplores the uncritical acceptance of the view, derived from evolutionary psychology, that human beings, regardless of their conscious motives, always aim to advance their contribution to the gene pool. Following the primatologist Frans de Waal, she rejects what he calls the veneer theory:

The word veneer is well-chosen by de Waal to criticize a number of views that hold that all that’s natural are biologically determined drives to reproduce ourselves; culture is the transparent and thin attempt to further, while glossing over, that reality. . . .

. . . His research on a variety of apes and monkeys led him to conclude “we are moral beings to the core.” (emphasis in original)

De Waal’s assertion is to my mind of vital importance, but it is not dependent on evolutionary speculations: human beings are not controlled by instinct but can act in accord with reason.

Readers will have to wade through a great deal of leftist garbage to get the book’s valuable points, but I think the quest is worth it.

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