Susan Neiman: The Dangers of Tribalism

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d recently read two works in the same style, and the second one is the one I’ll write about here.

Susan Neiman’s book, Woke is Not Left, is a critique of “woke” ideas from a philosopher and academic who is unabashedly a lifelong leftist.  Neiman writes about how she and others she knows feel alienated from modern far-left progressive ideals, and in this book, she explains why.  The problem that alarms her is the way that the progressive left of this era has “abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any left-wing standpoint” (2).  She identifies and structures her book around three of these ideas:  a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.  All three characteristics represent key differences between the woke movement – which she says has rejected “the epistemological frameworks and political assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment” – and the traditional left, which embraces the Enlightenment ideals of universalism, justice, and progress.  “Contemporary rejections of the Enlightenment usually go hand in hand without much knowledge of it” (9).

The first distinction between the left and the woke is a commitment, on the “true” left’s part, to universalism over tribalism.  Universalism – a belief in the universal – Neiman reminds us, is an Enlightenment idea – and it is what allows the left to be empathetic toward all other similar movements on behalf of justice: a belief in the innate humanity of everyone, including those who look very different from us.  In Neiman’s view, the left abandoned universalism in favor of tribalism in the form of “identity politics” – a moniker Neiman reminds us is misleading, because it tends to reduce us down to just two identities that matter: race and gender.  The insight of intersectionality – that all of us see and experience the world differently, depending on our different identities, got swallowed up in the notion that only a few identities are considered important.  

But tribalism, Neiman reminds us, is a dangerous game.  If your group tribes up, what is to stop your opponents from doing so as well?  “Without universalism there is no argument against racism, merely a bunch of tribes jockeying for power” (108), she writes.

But one of the main reasons that the woke have rejected universalism is because they believe it is an Enlightenment idea, a “sham that was invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism” (31).  Neiman is shocked by such claims, which she “thought were so flimsy” – fifteen years ago – that “they’d soon disappear” (32).  She reminds us that Enlightenment thinkers “invented the critique of Eurocentrism and were the first to attack colonialism, on the basis of universalist ideas” (32).  To conflate the Enlightenment of the 18th Century with the European colonialism of the 19th is not only a temporal mistake, but a philosophical one; it was the Enlightenment that *questioned* imperialism and colonization – something that had been taken for granted (might makes right) as the way of the world in much of history before that.  It was the Enlightenment, says Neiman, that gave colonization a bad conscience, and made it search for increasing self-justifications.  In fact, she suggests, later colonizers used Enlightenment ideals of freedom and justice as justifications for colonization – they had to, in a sense, because the Enlightenment philosophers had given them such a sense of guilt.

Neiman also makes a brief aside in this section to offer a related critique of the would-be intersectional framework of the woke left.  She has criticized both the tribalism as well as the reduction of all life into just two identities; she also questions the valorization of victimhood.  She quotes one writer, saying that “Feminists have taken from Marxism the intuitive idea that a life led at the sharp end of any given set of power relations provides for critical understanding . . .  where a life cushioned by the possession of power does not.” But, asks Neiman, does critical understanding always arise from being powerless?  And can we “allow the experience of powerlessness to be elevated to an inevitable source of political authority?” (19).   


In the second critique, Neiman combats the notion among the woke that the concept of justice is just a cover for power.  This critique is old, says Neiman – tracing it all the way back to the Stoics in ancient Greece, particularly to the character of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, who cynically claims that justice is only a cover for the will of the strong.  The modern spokesman for this position, for Neiman, is the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, whose striking quotes on the omnipresence of power Neiman quotes from often.  In the third critique, Neiman describes the belief, again using Foucault as an example, of how the woke no longer believe that progress is really possible.  Neiman cites Foucault’s writings characterizing modern, reformed prisons as being just as bad as medieval torturing to point out the cynicism at the heart of this perspective, which, again, she believes is held by the woke but not by the traditional left.  

One of the themes that Neiman stresses is that much of the woke worldview is born of disappointment.  “Because universalism has been abused to disguise particular interests, will you give up on universalism?” she asks.  “Because claims of justice were sometimes veils for claims of power, will you abandon the search for justice?” (140).  In her view “theory” – by which she means Criticality, in my phrasing – too often “reads” these disappointments “into the structure of the universe, creating a symphony of suspicion that forms the background music of contemporary Western culture” (141).  


Overall, as I write this blog post right now, I find Neiman’s book less compelling than I did when I was first reading it.  I think that’s because going back through the book, as I did, to try to find its core arguments has a way of revealing when a book is thin on claims and evidence.  Unfortunately, that’s how I felt about Neiman’s book on review.  It’s vague about specific examples of the woke’s modern manifestations that really differ from the left’s, and I thought the arguments drifted around too much.  There are a lot of tangents about the ills of the political right – almost as much of this as there were critiques of the woke – and sometimes it seemed like Neiman got sidetracked on these from her core goal, which was the differentiation between the left and the woke.  She’s surprisingly unclear about what the woke really are like and what they think – again, there are few specific examples.

That said, I thought her points about the dangers of tribalism and the promise of universalism were fairly sound, especially her points about the reductiveness of identity politics, and her raising the question of to what extent victimhood confers wisdom or authority.  Her points about the cynicism of the woke movement – the belief that reality is – in her words – “power all the way down” – seem fair enough, too.  Her core argument about the Enlightenment representing the birth of universalism – the one philosophical key for unlocking empathy – was illuminating.

In the end, like the Alan Sokal article that I wrote about recently, I just appreciated seeing someone academic and learned drawing the ideas of postmodernism and critical theory under the microscope of traditional liberal inquiry.  And if it’s done self-consciously from the political left, as Neiman’s was, even better.  So while I didn’t find it as compelling in retrospect as I did when I first read it last week, it’s still an important effort and an important sign, I hope, of future critiques.