Society and Culture

How “woke” progressives won the Culture War, and how to fight back


Bankruptcy, for individuals and nations, happens gradually… and then suddenly. The same is true for cultural change, as I explain in my paper for the IEA, A Silent Revolution. A new cultural consensus can develop beneath the surface, incubating in elite institutions, especially universities, before emerging fully-formed in an apparent overnight success. Such a process of hidden development explains the irruption of today’s new “wokeist” culture, in which free speech is increasingly repressed in the name of tolerance and diversity.

To those used to the older, liberal dispensation, so swift a reversal feels at first like a joke. As the new reality endures, it becomes tempting to blame the change on some sort of conspiracy. We must certainly look back decades if we want to understand the intellectual roots of today’s cultural shift. The answer lies in the 1960s and 1970s, and the theories of the New Left. Leading lights of that movement, notably Herbert Marcuse, did indeed seek to tear down Western economic and social norms through a “long march” to capture key cultural institutions.

Yet while the new “Control-Left” culture of enforced silence developed out of the ideas of the New Left, its current dominance is more a product of flawed regulation and historical accident than cultural conspiracy. Unintended consequences followed both the rapid expansion of US higher education and the development of regulatory regimes to police equality of outcome. Matters were made worse because the repression of open public debate helped this new illiberal culture to take root and become unassailable.

Understanding the deeper origins of today’s cultural shift reveals three key lessons:

1.   Silence is violence

Suppressing debate is toxic. It creates the conditions in which policy errors can take root and persist for generations.

2.   Regulation shapes culture

Regulatory over-reach is an important driver of today’s illiberal shift in the culture. Targeting counter-productive rules and stopping more ill-advised regulation (like the Online Safety Bill, for example) is a practical way to fight back in the short term.

3.   Culture wars are long wars

A shift that has been so long in development will not be reversed overnight. However, the IEA itself was founded to fight the long war of cultural renewal. Friedrich Hayek saw that inspiring even a few intellectuals with the power of free market capitalism would, in time, change the world. In the face of a new culture of illiberalism, Hayek’s vision is still the best long-term answer.

 

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