Against the Prospect of Thermidorian Relief: A Less-hopeful counterpoint
Three core questions — each existential and unanswerable — in the Church of Woke are these: Why is the New American Religion so invested among a small minority of Americans (~20%)? Why does the power of this minority also just happen to be vested in the wealthiest and most privileged group in society (the top 10%)? Why is the overriding Mission of the church the achievement of intersectional equity (race, sex, gender) — when the overriding issue in American life is that the privileged (Woke) share of national wealth and income gets bigger every year, and while society's other 90% just gets poorer?
Eric Kaufman sees the Church of Woke simply as the latest manifestation of an embedded phenomenon in American religiosity. Kaufman uses the multi-tool term-of-art, “Liberalism,” in place of “Civil Religion” (the more apropos term created by Robert Bellah) to posit a metaphor of “Liberal Fundamentalism.”
This metaphor positions the Church of Woke squarely in the ebb and flow of American sectarianism, indeed, going back to the Reformation itself. Hence, Woke theology simply represents another in a long line of fundamentalist renovatio (or restauratio), restoring a corrupted Church through purification and a return to true, first principles.
Kaufman identifies the power dynamic of today’s Woke fundamentalism in “minoritarian liberal identity,” or “leftism that seeks to weaken the strong and strengthen the weak.” The movement is elite-based and elite-serving, and yet is nonetheless limited by its lack of strategic depth. The “commanding heights” are elevated, but also represent thin and rarefied positions in a vast society, from which to exercise authority and sustain fervency.
Kaufman’s hopeful proposition that such periods of fundamentalist dominance are historically fleeting. The iron authority of religious law can be broken (“moral defenestration”). Hence, he holds out the promise: “Might wokeness be desacralized?”
This yet-to-be historical “happy end” is much like the signs of imminent August relief — an American Thermidorian Reaction. In some ways this hopeful path paces the argument of Angela Nagle: “… the libs have the magical powers to change the rules at any time and I suspect they’d quite like to go back to brunch without an anarchist with fleas spitting in their food and trying to burn the place down.”
So take your pick: “Woke fundamentalism” naturally “desacralized, or “a fanatical vigilante force” called off and put back in their cage, no that they have served their purpose.
Yet there is a darker path too, that promises a generations’ long fundamentalist yoke.
Michael Lind, in “The New Class War,” draws a dark portrait of a now-stratified America, in which a wealthy and privileged elite class has hardened into full control of national wealth, ruling institutions, and the “commanding heights of the economy” — and culture.
Moreover, this ruling class, like an old aristocratic order, is not merely legitimated by ancient social conventions, but by the nation’s constitutional compact, which all citizens have acclaimed as their own since the beginning. Hence, there is no footing for the overthrow of so embedded a ruling elite: One that ostensibly represents and defends the very rights of the whole (“Our Democracy”).
Hints of a dark path are embedded in Kaufman’s own essay. His hopeful thesis emphasizes how it is elites, historically, that appropriate rising fundamentalist doctrine, and turn it into electric fashion. The latest craze of the ruling class is surely how hypnotic fervency takes over the spirit of the age.
What if such a fundamentalist movement not only captures the elite, but also, seamlessly dovetails with their inmost group agendas? What if appeal is more than fashion, or fervency, or the raw excitement of channeling virtue itself?
Specifically, I am thinking of another vision’s rise to full power and glory in society: The tide of Christianity, as it became a flood, and took over the Greco-Roman world. As it took over, Christianity itself was taken over by Roman Optimates — the Greek and Latin ruling elites.
Roman elites discovered that persecuting Christians was less satisfying — and less profitable! — than ruling them. Caesar did lose to Christ, but he became Christ’s sole agent and vicar on earth instead.
Hence, the historical counterpoint to Kaufman is in fundamentalist movements that 1) stay elite, and 2) become majoritarian. I mean majoritarian at least in the sense that elites often co-opt control of popular culture and that such an elite overcomes its original minoritarian roots as it creates a “united front” and holds sway over society as a whole.
Throughout history, Woke movements have been a favored pathway for elites to cement their control of society. When they long ago have ceased to go Woke, elites nonetheless retain full control. This was certainly true in the High Middle Ages. It took centuries of corruption before a new fundamentalism, the Reformation, could topple the Northern European power centers of the Roman Church.
We also can see the dynamic opportunism of Woke fundamentalism, even in Nazi Germany. After all, Hitler was able to leverage working class Wokeism to capture and co-opt old elites, and the super-rapid transformation of Germany in the 1930s was due as much as anything to an Elite Club buy-in (think, Hitler exchanging rough-cut Ernst Röhm for genteel Albert Speer).
Hence, the Church of Woke is by definition, "fundamentalist," in the sense that it must establish and maintain absolute authority over society, in order to protect its social and economic privilege. Yet it is also deeply evangelical. We, the vast majority of Americans, face an elite “United Front” (figuratively, with roots in the original Cominterm, and literally as in this Woke website).
These are true believers, fired by the crusading spirit. They are on a mission. Moreover, the mission fully obscures the base and selfish strategy of elite consolidation and enrichment, so that piety and penitence makes this fully occult. The purity of faith among its disciples is authentic and precious — and a practical necessity.
Furthermore, in its very fervency, this religiosity is double-edged. The burning brand of a Woke Faith serves to divide and keep down the Sea of Deplorables, while also firing up its own (especially the young) with waves of virtue and commissar-like fervor (among its stormtrooper cohorts).
This dynamic is still unfolding, and if it roots too deep in American elites, it will become the new order, our discussion last time of a backlash — or Thermidorian Reaction — notwithstanding.