Wokism in the developing world
Tyler Cowen was recently interviewed by Brian Chau. Tyler was somewhat critical of woke excesses in the US, particularly in universities. Chau was much more critical of wokism.
The most interesting part of the interview came during a period (of roughly 20 minutes) after the 44-minute mark in the podcast. Tyler suggested that many developing countries could use more wokeness, and cited India as an example. Chau seemed somewhat confused by this claim, and pushed back a bit.
My own views are closer to Tyler’s, but I’d like to frame this question in a way that tries to make sense of Chau’s view as well. I’ll use a simple two-dimensional model of politics. You can say it’s wildly simplistic, but in my defense I see lots of people using one-dimensional models (e.g., wokism is good, non-wokism is bad, or vice versa.)
Think about a model where the extreme right represents political regimes where the powerful oppress the disadvantaged and/or minority groups. On the extreme left, the powerful oppress the advantaged. Of course that raises an interesting question—if they are advantaged, how can they be oppressed? One example might be the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where people that came from upper class families were persecuted. (Again, I understand that this model only addresses a few aspects of politics, and leaves much out.)
From this perspective, the “moderate” position between the extreme left and the extreme right is not really moderate at all; it represents a sort of extreme liberation. People are not oppressed by anyone. The following pyramid might make it easier to see my point:
Let’s say we start from a position on the extreme right, where the powerful people repress weaker groups like women, racial minorities, religious minorities, gays, etc. Over time, weaker groups are gradually liberated. At some point this movement gains so much power and prestige that society begins discriminating in favor of the traditionally weaker groups, and begins oppressing the strong (say Protestant, white, heterosexual men.) Now instead of moving up and to the left from Nazism to liberation, society begins moving down and to the left, toward Maoism. (BTW, I’m certainly not suggesting that white males in America are strongly oppressed, but this is the sort of issue that right-wingers worry about.)
Tyler uses India as an example of a place where more wokism is needed. Indeed by 21st century American standards, much of the world is still on the right side of the pyramid. (Africa, South Asia, Russia, the Middle East, etc.) But note that when making this claim, Tyler is implicitly defining wokism along a sort of left-right access. The woke are the people pushing us to the left, toward (what they perceive as) greater help for the disadvantaged. In many countries, that means pushing toward greater liberation.
In the interview, it’s pretty clear that Chau hadn’t given much thought to woke issues in developing countries. He clearly saw the phenomenon from a “freedom-oppression” perspective. He’s implicitly assuming that we are on the left side of the pyramid. Because the most controversial aspects of wokism in America lead to a reduction in freedom, he found it hard to understand how India could possibly benefit from more wokism. On the other hand, even many American conservatives would probably agree that India could benefit from a bit more enlightened attitudes on issues like gender, caste and religion. But perhaps they don’t see that as wokism.
To leftists in the US, more wokism means better treatment of the disadvantaged. To rightists in the US, more wokism means more oppression of non-favored groups. Cowen and Chau both agreed that recent trends in wokism in US universities are doing more harm than good. But when you remove wokism from that specific context, and look at it from a global perspective, one’s perspective depends on whether you see wokism as a left-right issue, or along the freedom-oppression axis.
Tyler’s point is that in India there’s a lot of oppression of women, Muslims, Christians and lower caste people in general, and in that sense India needs more leftism. Here I mean leftism in a social sense, not in terms of economic policy. India’s current (populist right wing) government is making things worse. And (in my favorite part of the interview), Tyler points out that this is a blind spot for American right-wingers when they look around the world:
Maybe completely is too strong a word but look in India there’s plenty of groups I spoke to some people who were involved with them to give women who are raped the chance to bring actual suits against their violators in a way that doesn’t take 20 years or involve extreme humiliation. Make them unacceptable on the marriage market and so on and I don’t doubt the motives of those people are mixed. There’s a lot of hypocrisy and (???) reasoning might apply. It just seems to me those are largely highly beneficial movements and I’m rooting for them to succeed and I view that as a pretty big and essential part of the emancipatory perspective of libertarianism and classical liberalism and I don’t quite get why what you might call the North American right isn’t just fully on board with that as part of a belief in human liberty.
Chau responded “I don’t think they aren’t.” And yet I see the same thing as Tyler when I read many right wing pundits.
All of this has echoes of a period that I recall from my youth. Broadly speaking, socialism was the major global political movement of the mid-20th century, just as right wing authoritarian nationalism is the major political movement of the 21st century. In the post-war decades, most American progressives thought the communists went too far, just as today most American conservatives presumably think that people like Putin, Xi, Orban, Modi, Bolsonaro and Erdogan are too authoritarian. At the same time, while America progressives were not communist, they were not sufficiently anti-communist. Similarly, I now see American conservatives intrigued by extreme right wing foreign leaders who parrot “anti-woke” rhetoric. Believe me, the major problem on this planet is not that “me too” has gone too far. It’s not that gay rights have gone too far.
Right wingers used to call progressives “communist.” A more accurate charge was “soft on communism.” That was a real thing when I was young. Today I see right-wingers who are soft on misogynist authoritarian nationalism.
PS. I’m aware that India has lots of affirmative action. As I said, politics is complicated. It’s quite possible for some aspects of a society to be on the right side of the pyramid while other aspects of the same society are on the left side. Nonetheless, India is mostly on the right side.
PPS. Oddly, the American right is much tougher on Xi Jinping than it is on other right-wing authoritarian leaders, even though Xi is most definitely a right-wing authoritarian. Today’s China is clearly fascist, and the continued use of the term “Chinese Communist Party” is just a fig leaf to cover up that embarrassing fact.