On woke anti-capitalism

A common interpretation of the “Great Awokening” is that for the radical Left, identity politics has replaced economics. The story, popular among “anti-woke” culture warriors, goes something like this:

Once upon a time, people on the Left cared about raising the material living standards of working-class people. They may have chosen the wrong means to achieve that end, namely, industry nationalisations, state-directed investment, price-fixing, money-printing and trade union militancy. But however much we may disagree with their favoured policies, surely, we can at least sympathise with their aims.

Yet at some point, according to this interpretation, the Left got bored with economics. They lost interest in trying to raise the material living standards of working-class people, and decided to lecture, berate and “wokescold” them instead. “What was that – you want higher wages? Job security? Paid holidays? Sick pay? Sorry, that’s not my department anymore – but here’s a Black Lives Matter pin button and a pronoun badge. I’ll also book you in for an Unconscious Bias Training class, and a lecture on White Fragility.”

I can see why this interpretation has taken hold: it enables people to criticise the excesses of “wokery” without coming across as rabid right-wingers: “Oh no, I’m not anti-left – I actually admire the Old Left! You know, the Left from back in the day, when they still cared about the working class, rather than “taking the knee”, “decolonising the curriculum” and all that woke nonsense!”

But to see wokery as a substitute for economics is a profound misdiagnosis. For its proponents, it is nothing of the sort. On the contrary: woke progressivism blends in very nicely with a particular brand of left-wing economics.

To see why, we first need to clarify what we mean when we say that somebody is “interested in economics”. “Economics”, in this context, can refer to at least three different things:

  1. Day-to-day economic policy decisions. This refers to questions such as: Was Rishi Sunak right to freeze income tax thresholds? Was ex-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng right when he tried to abolish the additional rate of income tax?

  2. Socio-economic models. Is Anglo-Saxon capitalism more dynamic than Nordic social democracy, and/or the Rhineland model of capitalism? Was Singapore-on-Thames ever a realistic vision for Britain? Was Thatcherism, on the whole, good or bad for Britain? Was Tony Blair’s “Third Way” meaningfully different from Thatcherism, or was it a continuation of Thatcherism by other means?

  3. Overall economic systems. Capitalism vs. other economic systems, most commonly socialism.

Organisations like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation focus on the first of these three layers. Publications like the Guardian, the New Statesman or the Economist mostly do too, but they also regularly combine this with longer think pieces on the second layer, and occasionally the third one as well. The IEA covers all three layers, with differences in timing and format. On the day of a Budget or an Autumn Statement, we would probably not want to restart Ludwig von Mises’s “Socialist Calculation Debate”. But we also publish educational content where we completely ignore contemporary politics, and focus on things which will still be just as relevant in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time.

Woke progressives usually show little interest in “economics” if, by that, we mean the first layer, or even the second one. You would not expect a press release from Black Lives Matter commenting on changes to the personal allowance, or the top rate of income tax.

However, if you use “economics” only in the sense of “day-to-day economic policy decisions”, you would also have to conclude that, for example, Noam Chomsky is “not interested in economics”. Which would be absurd, because he self-evidently is – just at a much higher and more abstract level.

The same is true of woke progressives. Read any longer article with a typical woke buzzword – “white fragility”, “white privilege”, “microaggression”, “systemic racism”, “cultural appropriation”, “intersectionality”, “toxic masculinity” etc – in the title, and I guarantee you that the word “capitalism” will sooner or later also make an appearance. (I’m tempted to call this “Niemietz’s Law”, in allusion to Godwin’s Law, but if I did, it would almost certainly turn out that dozens of people have already made this point before me.)

When the word “capitalism” pops up, it will, of course, not be used in a merely descriptive way (let alone a positive one). Rather, capitalism is always portrayed as intimately linked with whatever “structural oppression” the authors claim to have identified. That’s “economics”, in the broadest sense. It’s not the kind of economics you would need if you wanted to apply for a job at the Bank of England or the Office for Budget Responsibility, and it’s certainly not good economics. But if you define your political identity by your opposition to an economic system, you are clearly not indifferent to economics, or an agnostic on economic issues.

Identity politics has not “replaced” the traditional Marxist focus on social class. It complements it. In the woke view of the world, the capitalist ruling class deliberately creates divisions among the working class, along ethnic, religious, gender and other lines, because a divided working class will not revolt. From this perspective, “wokery” is not a substitute for class struggle, but an indispensable element of it. Woke progressives do not see themselves as engaged in a dozen unrelated struggles against racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia etc. They believe that they are engaged in one single struggle against all of those, in which capitalism is the final enemy.

We can (and should) laugh at this as the obvious nonsense that it is. But we should nonetheless take woke progressives by their own word when they tell us what they believe. Wokery is joined at the hip with anti-capitalism. If you want to oppose it effectively, you have to fight the Culture War on the woke progressives’ own terms – and that means coupling anti-wokery with a robust defence of capitalism.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

4 thoughts on “On woke anti-capitalism”

  1. Posted 25/01/2023 at 08:55 | Permalink

    In this analysis how do you account for the ‘woke’ right?

    It is self-evident for example that some particularly neoliberal commentators, but also Conservative MPs, care passionately about trans-rights, climate change, anti-racism etc.

    But are also pro-market or at the very least ordo-liberal in economic outlook. I.e. not anti-capitalist.

  2. Posted 25/01/2023 at 11:42 | Permalink

    Depends on who exactly we’re talking about.
    Re the commentators, I’d count those as very socially liberal rather than woke. Liberals can, of course, care about all sorts of issues, and hold all sorts of values. There’s no such thing as “the liberal view on gender identity”; a liberal can hold socially conservative or socially progressive views on such issues, or something else entirely. But where socially progressive liberals part company with actual Wokies is that the former don’t want to force those values on everyone else. They wouldn’t want to shut anyone down for expressing a dissenting view: certainly not through government power, and they’d be at least uncomfortable with conformist social pressure (Cancel Culture, pile-on culture) too.
    Re politicians, I suspect that a lot of this is just opportunism. They believe that the zeitgeist is progressive, and they don’t want to be “on the wrong side of history”.

  3. Posted 25/01/2023 at 12:37 | Permalink

    And, of course: Unlike Wokies, socially progressive liberals would *not* argue that the issue they’re concerned with is caused by powerful, hidden social structures that need to be dismantled. They’d say that there’s a much simpler explanation for it: some people are just bigoted. So it’s not about “restructuring society”, but about challenging individual attitudes they consider backwards and unenlightened.

  4. Posted 21/02/2023 at 20:52 | Permalink

    The right doesn’t do enough to counter those on their own side who use criticism of the left for things the right also does as a label for being left and/ or woke i.e. ssm trans (no one campaigns for the CIS female conservative commentators replaced by a growing number of trans ) the right often turns a blind eye to so called liberal things done by their own whilst using that same issue to gain votes amongst their more extreme members

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