Costly Signaling, Nietzsche, and the Apocalypse of the Woke
Many thinkers have profitably compared wokism to a religion. Here, I want to drill into this comparison by looking at the way wokism resembles a certain strand of apocalyptic thinking and then examine now Nietzsche’s analysis of the triumph of Christianity in “The Genealogy of Morals” might explain the popularity of such an ideology, concluding by noting that Nietzsche’s explanation is only partial and that signaling and justificatory functions are also important to consider.
In simplest form, apocalypticism is the view that the end of the familiar world is imminent. Often, apocalyptic believers assumed this end would be accompanied by terrible revelations and cataclysmic interventions from god, which would terminate in the judgment of humanity. Importantly, many strands of apocalypticism, especially in the Jewish and Christian traditions, viewed the contemporary world as fundamentally and irredeemably corrupt. Evil prevailed. And goodness was subdued. Therefore, those in power were full of sin, while the pure at heart were oppressed and exploited. When the apocalypse came, according to these thinkers, it would reverse this dynamic, and the good would rule once again, blessed by god for their faith, and the evil would suffer.
It’s hard not to see a similarity to wokism, which contends that society is grotesquely unjust and, in fact, white supremacist. Those with power are privileged and perpetuate systemic racism, while those who are indigent and/or without social status are noble victims of the oppressive order. In the woke narrative, though, god has been replaced by the secular justice of the anti-racist crusader. Their efforts, not the intervention of a deity, is what will usher in an era of justice, overturning the corrupt world now inhabit.
Although the puzzle Nietzsche sought to solve in “Genealogy of Morals” was not, of course, the origin and rise of wokism, his analysis of the triumph of Christianity is illuminating and quite useful. According to Nietzsche, the weak were bitterly envious of the powerful, but incapable of actually conquering them physically. Therefore, they created the conception of a deferred justice, one in which the wrongs of the world would be righted and turned the concept of “bad” into “evil.” They were not actually weak and impotent, but noble and oppressed. And the powerful were not righteous and aristocratic, but brutal, evil, and exploitative.
We see here the basic narrative of apocalypticism and the basic outline of a psychological explanation for its appeal. People who have low status, whatever the cause, are generally reluctant to confess that they deserve their lowly position in society. And they will be attracted to narratives that claim that, in fact, they are not lowly because of they deserve to be, but rather because of some fundamental corruption in the universe, some deviation from the “right.” Wokism, like other apocalyptic narratives (e.g., some strands of Judaism and Christianity, communism), thus attracts people who are or were low in status because it explains that they would/should be more elevated.
But, Wokism, like early Christianity, is also an elite phenomenon. And this is where Nietzsche’s analysis, I think, sputters. Many hyper-educated people are also attracted to and ardently articulate and defend the doctrines of wokism. Surely, they aren’t bitter about their lack of status? Instead, I think they are attracted to wokism for two reasons: One, because it functions as as a status system to distinguish educated elites from hoi polloi and two, because, like other religions, is provides a powerful justification for distinctions in status. I’ve discussed the signaling component in detail elsewhere, so I’ll conclude by focusing on the justificatory function.
Status disparities cause tension in society. This, in fact, is the chief observation behind the appeal of apocalypticism for those low in prestige: It satisfies their grievances by suggesting that they will, in a just world, be elevated over the corrupt who now have status. Therefore, those who have status need to justify it to others and perhaps especially if they are egalitarians to themselves. Wokism serves this function by suggesting that their status is cosmically just because it is congruent with their righteousness. This happy thought also likely soothes their own vexatious reflections on the massive disparities between hoi polloi and themselves. No reason to feel guilty if status is earned through spiritual purity.
Like any good ideology, wokism appeals to multiple factions in society at the same time. It appeals to those who have low status because it contends that the poor, the lowly, the “last” are actually noble victims of an intolerable evil. And when the just world of the future arrives, those who are now last will indeed be first. And it appeals to educated elites because it provides a rich signaling vocabulary that they can use to distinguish themselves from relatively uneducated whites while also justifying their status to others and to themselves. Wokism, therefore, is both a philosophy of ressentiment and an elitist apologetic. No wonder it has proliferated so rapidly.