The Dialectic of Wokeness

The particular injunction to stay woke comes from recent #BlackLivesMatter-era activism, but the rhetoric of the “socially conscious” person waking up from some kind of sleep or stupor has a long history, longer than Rage Against the Machine fans of the 1990s telling the “sheeple” to wake up. Indeed, the rhetorical framework is embedded in the decades-old language of social “consciousness” – to be conscious is to be awake and aware, not lost in the phantasms of the unconscious.

When people talk about waking up, about getting and staying woke, what, exactly is the sleep, or dream, in this figure of speech, and what does it mean to awaken from it? At its most basic, this rhetoric portrays the great unwoke as simply not paying attention, unaware, blithely slumped in ignorance and apathy. To get woke just means to pay attention, to look for the facts, rather than swallow propaganda, distraction, and the “official line” (of, say, a Police Department after one of its officers shoots a black teenager).

Such uses seem to be groping for a fundamental Marxian concept that has long fallen out of common parlance, or is grossly misused as a mere synonym for "principles" or "ideas:" ideology.

Now, the precise meaning of ideology itself has been heavily contested, and the way we talk about it reveals a lot about how we conceive of it. Ideology can certainly be seen to encompass crude tactics like propaganda, distraction, and “official lines,” but it’s more than that: it’s the world according to capital. By way of a kind of provisional negative definition, it’s certainly what those enjoining us to get and stay woke would want us to wake up from.

So this rhetoric figures ideology as sleep, or perhaps more precisely, the illusory dreams that consume one’s attention whilst sleeping, and calls upon us to wake up, to see, understand, and act upon the real conditions of the world, not the phantasmic appearances of ideology’s dream-world.

The rhetoric of ideology-as-dream goes back at least as far as Walter Benjamin, who used psychoanalytically-informed language of dream to address the question of our socio-economic order’s ideological/cultural superstructure and material/economic base. Against the simplistic view that ideology simply reflected the material conditions of the base, he posited that ideology expressed those conditions, but in the overdetermined manner of a dream: ideology could be figured as the dream of the base’s real material conditions.

Benjamin, as a communist revolutionary, wanted to change those real conditions, so he often emphasized the need to awaken from the dream of ideology – to get woke. This is the sort of move characteristic of 18th Century Enlightenment rationality, which lives on in today’s calls to wokeness: if one can simply awaken from the dark, shadowy realm of fantasies, distortions, superstitions, lies, and dreams, and step out into the daylight of waking consciousness, there one will find the real facts, previously veiled by illusion, lying out in the sun.

But Benjamin was at other times suspicious of whether one could ever really get outside of the phantasmic realm of ideology, to find a position of sufficient critical distance from which one could, in a state of luminous wokeness, take account of the real facts. It’s a valid concern – if ideology is the dream-expression of the base, how could any given individual, their own material conditions bound up with that base, wake up from ideology? Couldn’t society as a whole only wake up when the economic conditions of capital (that are “dreaming” our collective dream, ideology) are abolished? If so, then how could that society-wide awakening ever happen if no one can as yet see through the ideological illusions to the facts in order to change them? Picking up these concerns, Louis Althusser built an entire complex system extrapolating from a psychoanalytic model of superstructure as the base’s overdetermined dream. In Althusser’s model, we reproduce ideological “subjection” in the very way we speak, the way we hail one another – it’s all around us, between us. For Althusser, you can’t ever get woke.

This all points to a significant problem with awakening rhetoric – after all, getting woke isn’t quite as simple as taking the red pill, as once-and-for-all putting on the sunglasses in They Live, and suddenly being able to see beneath all ideological distortions and masks (dollar bills candidly emblazoned “this is your god”). This is why we’re always being warned to stay woke: there’s the ever-present danger of falling back into the deceived sleep of ideology. Wakefulness itself is ultimately a fairly neutral condition, merely the condition of not sleeping. Using such rhetoric makes the facts of real, material conditions seem able to be neutrally apprehended in wakeful daylight, so long as one hasn’t fallen back asleep.

But as anyone who’s tried to stay awake for long periods of time knows, you get pretty spun out, and start having weird distortions and delusions of a different kind. You might have to resort to drinking hand-trembling amounts of coffee or popping uppers. Could it be that the factual reality the woke have awoken to is merely a new veil of illusion, a different ideology, the amphetamine psychosis of manic activists gobbling too many truth pills, trying to keep their weary eyes fixed on their version of the facts?

We don’t have to accept Althusser’s fatalistic and paralyzing view to suggest that ideology is not something you can get outside, much less counter, just by the ultimately passive, contemplative act of waking up to the raw facts, self-evident in well-lit “consciousness.” What if the whole model’s seriously flawed – Benjamin’s dream, the Enlightenment’s awakening, Althusser’s inability to awaken? What if there are no facts, because the world isn’t a fixed, frozen landscape you’ve just got to get a good, clear, wide-awake look at? Or rather, what if what people call facts are just what moments of the process that is reality seem like when you rip them out of historically-determined context and freeze them?

Luckily, psychoanalytic dream-language was not the only model Benjamin used when talking about ideology. Benjamin said he aspired to be a “philosophical Fortinbras” wielding the weapon of dialectical critique. It’s a characteristically weird and dense allusion: in Shakespeare, Fortinbras is the hotheaded crown prince of Norway, a mighty warrior impatient go into battle seeking justice for his slain father, a foil for the contemplative, philosophical Hamlet. Benjamin’s philosophical Fortinbras seems like a contradictory figure at first (Fortinbras was not philosophical), but it’s one that points to the Marxian view of philosophical praxis, the philosophy that must be realized in the self-abolition of the proletariat; philosophy that’s not contemplative, like Hamlet, but active, militant, like Fortinbras. And this Fortinbras’s weapon is the dialectic.

If we can’t just roll over, rub our eyes, and wake up to a clear picture of the facts beneath the ideological illusions, what can we do? We’ve got to do some critical work. Ideology is not a dream, not just an illusory expression of the real base. Ideology is immaterial but objective. That means that you’ll never be able to just find it and smash it, nor will you be able to just lift it like a mask, but it has objective effects – real, material things happen because of it; they happen because we all act according to the fictions of capital, which makes them function as real and necessary, in terms of the total social process, but, as Georg Lukács put it, “not less illusory for being seen to be necessary.”

But capital is always changing its story, because it’s inherently riven with crises, and when crises occur, it’s got to adapt, attempt to institute fixes – spatial, temporal, technological, political, changes in the labor process, in where it invests and what commodities are produced, in everyday life, in social mores, in people’s wants, needs, desires, and “identity” categories. These changes, many of which we experience at the level of culture, politics, mores, ideas, ideology, allow capital to keep circulating and temporarily counteract its secular tendency to, through every competing firm's pursuit of relative surplus-value, undermine its own foundation and raison d'être: value, the substance of which is the abstract labor-time of workers. So the whole base-superstructure distinction is misleading: to the extent that the two can be logically separated, they form a dialectic, a contradictory unity, one that’s always shifting unevenly, always in motion, always reconfiguring itself to keep capital churning.

The second we think we’ve woken up and seen the facts, they’ve whirled off into this process, which, of course, takes place in time. We can’t just stay woke, because we’ll always remain looking at the trace of what we saw the moment we woke up, but capital doesn’t work like that, history doesn’t work like that, and neither can we: to isolate and naturalize a facet of the total process in this manner is precisely the root of an ideological conception, one that "mistakenly attributes an autonomous character to a partial phenomenon of social life," in the words of Karl Korsch. We’ve got to think with an historical process driven lurching and staggering by competition, conflict, contradiction, weird overcomings and sublations that retain aspects of old forms even as they’re abolished, and that means thinking dialectically.

We’ll never be able to get quite enough critical distance, we’ll never be able to get a clear picture, the way a snapshot of passing traffic isn’t going to tell you where all the cars are now. But we don’t have to be like Althusser, meticulously studying and systematizing his snapshot, laboriously explaining how little it will actually help us to do anything. We can be like Benjamin’s philosophical Fortinbras, take up our double-edged dialectical sword, and jump in the fray.

That means we’re going to have to keep changing positions, defensive, offensive, finding our footing, all the while slicing away at the ideological phantoms around us, because they’re not going to dutifiully stand still for us to peer through their ectoplasm to what lies beneath. We can’t just look, and think we know what we see; we’ve got to critique, to actively cut away to reveal what lies beneath, and in doing so, we’re intervening in the whole process too, though maybe not tremendously, not decisively, and definitely not once and for all.

We’re surrounded by the spectral soldiers of ideology, and they keep changing positions, changing tactics, changing personnel; we have to as well. We have to keep critiquing, keep asking – what’re the relevant contradictions here? What are the forces at play? How do they fit into the social process seen as a totality? Capital seen as a totality? How do they appear not to? How might they anyway? How might this-or-that help mediate or move around capital’s contradictions? How does this fit into the historical process? How did we get here? What fictions are capital's character masks pushing now? What kind of intervention could get us closer to overcoming capitalist social relations in toto — the proletarian condition, generalized commodity production, the value-form, money, the state? And how would capital try to adapt then, and under what ideological guises (including "socialist" ones)? How would that adaptation affect the totality? To quote Lukács, that philosophical Fortinbras who, when searched for weapons, surrendered his pen: “the objective forms of all social phenomena change constantly in the course of their ceaseless dialectical interactions with each other. The intelligibility of objects develops in proportion as we grasp their function in the totality to which they belong. This is why only the dialectical conception of totality can enable us to understand reality as a social process.”

We can’t just stay woke, because we’ll end up fighting yesterday’s battles, or even, bleary-eyed, simply the wrong ones. We’ll only fight the right fights by ceaselessly attempting an ever-evolving critical understanding of where and how everything fits into the capitalist totality in motion.

We’ve got to sharpen our dialectics.

A New Institute for Social Research