by Alex Lo
South China Morning Post
Go woke, go broke. You may have heard of this expression. It mocks the profit-destroying projects or products of large corporations in the United States as they try to be politically correct or virtue-signalling, usually on matters concerning social justice such as LGBTQ rights and women’s empowerment.
It’s most frequently, though not exclusively, applied to the film and TV industry. Why do filmmakers and TV producers in North America keep aiming for box-office destruction and viewership collapse? While I am no film critic, this question does pique my curiosity, as I was raised on a heavy diet of Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. And one thing I do know is that when a film sells, they will keep making sequels, prequels and franchises, and stealing the same formula from each other.
However, the current “go woke” commercialism seems to run counter to this simple and long-proven profit-making formula. In fact, it has gone to such extremes that it now threatens to kill off such decades-long, money-spinning franchises as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the Marvel superhero series.
One of the most provocative and challenging studies I read recently is by Christopher Mott of the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, titled “Woke Imperium: The Coming Confluence Between Social Justice and Neoconservatism”. The paper argues that “a ‘woke’ activist-driven, social justice-oriented politics – particularly among the members of academia, media, and the professional managerial class – has provided the latest ideological justification for interventionism, and it has become readily adopted by the US foreign policy establishment”.
Consider the latest fiasco with Bud Light, a signature beer line in North America that has long been associated with hyper-masculinity. When it hired Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender influencer as spokesperson, its diehard drinkers rebelled and called for its boycott. Bud Light’s sales slumped and the stocks of Anheuser-Busch, the beer’s brewer, suffered a mini-crash.
After such a frequent trail of failures, some commentators now argue companies are finally learning to give what their customers want, not try to “educate” them on unrelatable social justice themes. We are, perhaps, starting to witness the end of woke.
I doubt that. Most likely, large US corporations will learn to adjust and adapt to make such themes saleable. Woke culture is here to stay.
Woke foreign policy
One of the most provocative and challenging studies I read recently is by Christopher Mott of the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, titled “Woke Imperium: The Coming Confluence Between Social Justice and Neoconservatism”.
The paper argues that “a ‘woke’ activist-driven, social justice-oriented politics – particularly among the members of academia, media, and the professional managerial class – has provided the latest ideological justification for interventionism, and it has become readily adopted by the US foreign policy establishment”.
What does he mean by “latest” ideology? “When the older rationalisations for primacy, hegemony, and interventionism appear antiquated or are no longer persuasive,” Mott wrote, “a new rationale that better reflects the ruling class norms of the era is adopted as a substitute. This is because the new schema is useful for the maintenance of the existing system of power.”
US interventionism abroad always needs an ideology to disguise the actual national interests and dominance that lie behind it. To democracy and human rights, we can now add social justice. Washington has, for example, cited gay and transgender rights to criticise Islamic and African countries in the past year alone.
Mott predicts the rest of the world, having seen through and suffered US democracy and human-rights-based imperialism, will also resist “woke” foreign policy with its “moralism and social engineering [which] globally has immense potential to create backlash in foreign, especially non-Western, societies”.
Going beyond Mott’s analysis, let’s consider the domestic implications of woke. It may have a similarly destabilising effect.
Woke domestic politics
We should never forget that besides making money for executives and owners, a handful of US media corporations, which now dominate the industry’s landscape, also have an entrenched ideological function to manufacture consent, produce what has been called “fake” or at least sanitised and homogenised news, define and confine the parameters of acceptable public opinion and views about self, country and world.
But, you argue, America has always been about diverse viewpoints and opinions. Well, maintaining entrenched powers and interests need not be about keeping a uniform and unified public as was the case with classical 20th-century totalitarianism. In its inverted American version, diverse viewpoints and opinions are actually drowned out, bifurcated and polarised into two extremes. Today, it’s a cliche to say America is deeply divided, because it is true, if obvious. This is sometimes called “the culture war”.
Woke ideology, far from being revolutionary or reformist, may actually entrench existing powerful interests. The vicious culture war in North America must look ridiculous, trivial and incomprehensible to outsiders or foreigners. Today, youngsters, especially those in universities, are more worked up about misidentifying someone’s gender pronouns, that is, what they call transphobia, than the more traditional domestic or local politics such as which one of the candidates to vote for to be the next city mayor. Tenured professors have been known to be suspended or fired for refusing to use proper gender semantics.
Social discrimination is a real societal problem to be addressed. However, “wokeness” taken to extremes is a deliberate distraction for the public from fighting for any real social-political change or challenging the government and corporations, which, incidentally, have free rein, legally protected, to use armies of lobbyists to influence government policies and legislations.
The woke and the unwoke are ready to kill each other. The culture war may be seen as a domestic “divide and conquer” as a polarised public is so distracted fighting each other they have no idea what the government and big corporations are doing to them. The fact that social media encourage polarisation and echo chambers while their platforms are owned by a handful of the world’s biggest companies should give the game away, but sadly, does not.
The problem is, polarisation is not something that can easily be controlled. It tends towards fanaticism, and produces extremists on both sides – each with its own alternative realities and facts – who will eventually resort to violence as the only way to resolve the insolvable. We all know what that means.
Americans own half of all the guns in the world for civilians. Surveys in recent years point to a rising number of people who believe a second civil war is likely in their lifetime. The pro-Trump attack on the US Capitol in 2021, sparked by a widespread Republican belief that the last election was stolen, spooked many people in the US. Specialists in the study of civil wars see the US meeting many key indicators.
“Woke” politics encourages ethnic, religious, or racial identification as citizens divide themselves into potentially rival groups, as opposed to a universalising ideology such as communism and liberalism. That’s one key factor in the threat of civil war, according to Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Another factor is anocracy or semi-democracy.
As she explains in a Guardian newspaper interview: “This is when a government is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; it’s something in between. Civil wars almost never happen in full, healthy, strong democracies. They also seldom happen in full autocracies.
“Violence almost always breaks out in countries in the middle – those with weak and unstable pseudo-democracies. Anocracy plus factionalism is a dangerous mix.”
The US today is more “anocratic” than democratic.
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