The Appeal of Consciousness Politics
Updated: May 12, 2021
Many progressives feel energized at the possibilities the moment appears to afford. However, among some on the left, there is a growing unease that the goals and tactics of an increasingly dominant family of ideological attitudes among self-identified leftists is at best unhelpful, and at worst inimical to achieving the classical leftist vision of a world without social domination. It is hard to characterize these loosely related attitudes -- “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” “identity politics,” “performative politics," “diversity/inclusiveness/equity politics,”---some are little more than labels of right wing caricatures, others descriptions of specific goals which in themselves are laudable. Some of these labels serve for both. Still, these terms do point to a family of tendencies—I’ll call the family “consciousness politics” – that is unnerving to many on the left. “Consciousness politics” is only intended as a name for these tendencies, (tendencies that others have labeled “the Great Awokening”) and not meant to describe them. Still, if I were to characterize a commonality in the family, very roughly, I’d say consciousness politics is more concerned with who is doing something rather than what is being done, and more concerned with feelings, beliefs, and terminology than with material social consequences.
Some leftist foes of consciousness politics fear the dogmatism, anti-rationalism, and coercive illiberalism which they see as characterizing many of its tactics. They judge that such illiberalism inclines more toward repression than to enlightenment and liberation. Others worry that consciousness politics’ typical demands misdirects attention from the core of social domination-- economic exploitation and material inequality. I am sympathetic to both of those worries, but my interest here is not in describing the worrisome trends or justifying the claim that they are, indeed, worrisome, both tasks well done elsewhere.* Nor do I want to trace the historical development of these ideas. Rather, I am interested in what sustains this ideology’s political appeal. Why is strictly policing offensive discourse more engaging to some leftists than is serious political debate and open-minded inquiry? Why is having an ethnically diverse corporate board taking priority over having employees empowered on corporate boards? I don’t claim to know the answers, but I want to throw out a few hypotheses in the hope of stimulating discussion among liberals and democratic socialists. Skeptics of consciousness politics have spent considerable time decrying its tendencies, but not enough time trying to understanding its appeal.
A primary factor is surely that the impulse behind consciousness politics is grounded in an historical truth: an enormous amount of oppression, psychic and material, has been visited on people because of their skin color, sex, gender identity, language, parentage, disabilities, or other characteristics that have constituted an historically oppressed social identity. In particular, anti-African racism has been especially central to the most pervasive, enduring, and horrific injustices in America. Ending all forms of racism, sexism, and group stigmatizations are rightly seen as crucial and urgent goals. If we are not completely cynical we must allow that a recognition of grave injustices can motivate, and so acknowledge that one motor of consciousness politics is simply the drive for justice. If you do not buy the presupposition of this blog post, that consciousness politics is problematic, a desire to do the right thing will strike you as a full explanation of its appeal.
However, even perfectly justified goals are liable to generate off target, distracting, and even counterproductive strategies, as well as spawn superficially similar, but fundamentally different goals that are only tangentially related to the original justified goals. I believe consciousness politics has done both. While some of these misguided strategies and errant goals may merely be empirical errors in the face of a complex problem, I think that these poor strategies and off-based targets are partly caused by an admirable passion for an aspect of justice that has blinded some to the best means of attaining it. The best means often cannot promise justice’s immediate realization. Moreover, passion for a goal can blind one to other values sacrificed in its single minded pursuit. Passion cannot abide strategic patience or divided concern. It wears blinders and rushes headlong toward its object.
A monomania for one dimension of social justice begins to explain the appeal of consciousness politics, even if those politics don’t in fact effectively promote even that dimension. But it is not a sufficient account. While it is cynical to think realizing justice plays no role in animating political movements, it is naïve to think that less self-interested motives are not also in play. If we want to find possible self-interested motivation, looking first at corporate behavior is a promising starting place.
Different consciousness politics activists and advocates will have different motives, but let’s begin with the motives of corporate elites who have been friendly, or at least not resistant to consciousness politics. This friendly and tolerant attitude by the most powerful institutions in American life gives consciousness politics a welcoming and compliant ally, thereby helping to sustain it. Corporations’ thirst for justice could hardly be the whole explanation for its friendly attitude toward consciousness politics.
Corporate elites understand, quite correctly, that multiple corporate interests are served by having a workforce, including the managerial strata, whose makeup reflects society. First, there is obviously talent throughout society that can be enlisted to serve corporate ends. Second, a diverse management can better manage a diverse workforce, and market effectively to a diverse population. Thirdly, a diverse management will not have to spend energy defending its racial or sexual homogeneity, a homogeneity that adds nothing to the bottom line. Fourthly, most corporate elites have an interest in social stability, and a smooth cooptation of the formerly excluded promises more stability than resisting their just demands for inclusion.
Finally, consciousness politics drains oppositional energy away from other potential challenges to corporate power and profit. Universal child and health care, good public education from pre-K through college, strong, democratic labor unions, public financing of electoral campaigns, socially guaranteed income security, widespread affordable housing, the provision of competent legal counsel regardless of wealth, and highly progressive taxation -- all involve a more just distribution of wealth and power away from corporate elites. Insofar as consciousness politics often aims at different goals (e.g., relabeling bathrooms, reducing micro-aggressions) it is the preferred reform movement of corporate interests.
In sum, meeting the demands of consciousness politics is good for business. With minor variations, all of the above observations also make consciousness politics good for university administrators -- not very surprising, since university administrators are nowadays essentially corporate managers.
An Occupational Constituency
As a social movement, consciousness politics has given rise to a growing middle-class job category—diversity trainers, inclusion consultants, expert anti-bias lecturers, and the like. As in any other occupation, its practitioners have an interest in broadening career opportunities, deepening job security, and valorizing their work. All of this hardly constitutes a diversity/industrial complex, but it does create a self-interested constituency for promoting consciousness politics.
The Political Classes
Consciousness politics is also useful to both Democratic and Republican political elites. For corporate friendly Democrats and socialistic Democrats, it can serve as a basis of unity. They may disagree on free college tuition and a decent national minimum wage, but they can, as of course they should, all agree that transgender people deserve full rights and indigenous peoples support in preserving indigenous cultures.
In a different way Republicans are also unified by consciousness politics; highlighting that consciousness politics is THE core of the progressive agenda unites the Republican base around fears of cultural marginalization and further economic displacement. Republicans too may disagree about free college tuition and a decent national minimum wage, but they can unite around defaming Muslims, fearing immigration, and despising consciousness politics’ well-educated, financially secure, bi-coastal advocates. The occasional overreach into absurdity that consciousness politics is prone to makes it ideal for right wing demonization. Although they claim to oppose consciousness politics, Republicans and their media organs have a deeply vested interest in maintaining its prominence. And, ironically, in their very opposition to consciousness politics, Republican pols and flacks play a form of consciousness politics themselves --“white identity” politics—in the hope of stirring racial resentment. Of course Republicans would try to demonize any form of progressive politics, but the political limitations of consciousness politics make it a beloved target of the Right. One might think that this would reduce its appeal to leftists, but just as “owning the libs” is appealing to the Right, agitating the Right will have an appeal to some on the Left, especially media types looking for clicks. And although consciousness politics tends to energize and potentially empower right-wing pols, it appears as if it is upsetting them.
Low Cost Psychic/”Spiritual” Rewards for the Middle Classes
Most of those drawn to consciousness politics are neither part of the corporate elite, nor human resource apparatchiks, nor Democratic or Republican politicians. Rather, they are educated middle-classes of all races. While the basic moral correctness of its goals accounts for some of their support for it, consciousness politics advances no obvious material self-interests of white men who are members of this group, and relatively few of white women. However, there are psychic dividends.
Seeking self-justification as a psychic state is an enduring human motive, but with ambiguous goals. On the one hand it simply means wanting to believe one is doing the right thing. But it can also mean that regardless of what you have done, you believe that you, as a person, are acceptable to others. In standard Christianity, this sort of justification only comes from God, the ultimate other, who forgives your intrinsic sinfulness-- sins that are against Him. His forgiveness cleanses your soul, and makes you “acceptable in His sight.” The only thing required for this justification is repentance, an admission of guilt, and a sincere promise to sin no more. The rest of the work is God’s—His suffering achieves your absolution. As a means to salvation it is thorough, quick, and demands little in the way of significant changes in practical social relations. It requires no doubt-inducing critical thinking, just faith. Your justification is affirmed by your inclusion of the community of the faithful. The prospect of such justification has proven its appeal for millennia.
Consciousness politics is this-worldly, and cannot promise heaven, but it does make justification—acceptance in the eyes of others— especially the others who have been sinned against -- a function of one’s admission of guilt and repentance. (Others, including conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat only yesterday, have noticed these religious qualities in consciousness politics’ appeal). A sense of righteousness achieved by a mea culpa, without significantly altering material relations, has considerable attraction. Acknowledgement that others have suffered for your benefit is the key to absolution. The increasing illiberal attitude of its advocates to those who question the shibboleths of consciousness politics is itself a dogma commanding uncritical faith, and with that faith one wins membership in the community of the faithful, and the solace of belonging. And of course there is the satisfying sense of being among the elect who have had their eyes opened to the true faith.
The material rewards of consciousness politics for educated, middle-class non-whites, while real, are probably less motivating than the psychic rewards. Having long suffered white society’s racist disdain and contempt, historically enacted in oppression and terrorizing violence, non-whites, especially African and Native Americans, in addition to the protection of the law and equal opportunity, seek the acknowledgment of their historical suffering, explicit displays of respect, and apologetic gestures. Although valuable to all non-whites, for those who are educated and middle-class, these psychic satisfactions will loom larger than they will for working class and indigent non-whites, who still acutely suffer the concrete injuries of racist induced poverty, and for whom an apology and another person of color in a corporate law firm is less valuable than decent affordable housing and safe drinking water.
Straightforward Morality Tales
The moralistic nature of consciousness politics is also alluring in its simplicity. Justice only requires good will born of pure hearts, which is achieved primarily by being respectful of and deferring to self-ascribed individual and group narratives. However social-psychologically important such deference may be, acknowledging alternate narratives entails no changes in practical relations, and requires no complex policies that restructure those practical relations. Justice is simplified: the world is easily divided into the friends and enemies of justice—those who celebrate the plurality of narratives and those who don’t. The equality of narratives, demonstrated by the proportionate presence of each narratives’ representatives in society’s institutions, is the measure of social justice, and it is an easily applied yardstick.
Moreover, unlike a class based materialistic politics which focuses on concrete social relations, consciousness politics attends to who is filling the roles in social relations. The justice of those relationships themselves (apart from who is playing which part) requires a complicated, ever evolving, empirical and theoretical inquiry. Tales of character are more compelling and digestible than economic, political, and ethical analyses.
The basic goals of consciousness politics are appealing to all leftists who hold on to a vision of a world free of social domination, which by definition must eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other hostility and discrimination based on group identity. There are injustices that have nothing to do with material inequality and they must be fought with that understanding. Nonetheless, the growing prominence among progressives of consciousness politics as a set of goals that is distinct from the wider movement to ensure social and material equality regardless of social identity, is worrisome and needs to be understood. Without such an understanding we will not easily get on with the hard, complex work of creating broad solidarities to build institutions fostering true, universal equality. This post is an attempt to understand the pull of consciousness politics, but the vulnerabilities of its hypotheses convince me there is a long way to go before achieving an adequate comprehension of what’s going on.
*For an example of the liberal critique see the “Harper’s Magazine Letter,” https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/. Hadass Silver’s unpublished dissertation “Utopian Anti-Racism,” an abstract of which is at https://amc.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/Silver_Essay.pdf exemplifies the democratic socialist critique. These are only two examples of many descriptions and critiques of what I am calling “consciousness politics,” and the large, multidisciplinary, academic literature on “Recognition” is also highly relevant.
Brent’s Comment, Received May 10
Let me point to this remark from your conclusion:
“ …racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other hostility and discrimination based on group identity … are injustices that have nothing to do with material inequality and they must be fought with that understanding.”
This is a central piece of your argument, I think, but I have my doubts. Material inequality and attitudinal or ideological injustice are different problems, but not as unrelated as you think. One only has to consider how concepts of white supremacy have dogged the African American experience, justifying forced labor, discriminatory wages, exclusion from decent housing and dignified labor, and so on. Material inequality is interwoven with defamatory consciousness, and that consciousness is one of material inequality’s most reliable justifications.
The reverse is also true. Even in instances where material inequality is overcome—think of the Black professional class, DuBois’s ‘talented tenth,’ or of large pockets of affluence in certain LGBTQ communities. Despite their material affluence, such communities, victimized by false consciousness that withholds recognition, risk being alienated and undermined despite their material successes. In short material inequality and degraded consciousness are interrelated, two sides of a dialectic.
These conjunctions of material and spiritual experiences of oppression are fairly commonplace. But to take the problem to a more interesting level, consider the messianic instance in Benjamin’s Theses on the philosophy of history. If I understand him correctly—a doubtful proposition but never mind—the spiritual, messianic instance defines the revolutionary moment when all material inequalities will be gathered up and transcended. I believe the Theses were written in 1940 at a moment of absolute spiritual collapse and radical material suffering. We aren’t there yet, but it might be worth keeping Benjamin’s messianic move in mind—much more useful than the Christian salvation you sketch in—as widening material I say joins with utterly false consciousness to weave the fabric of our dystopia.
Reply to Brent, May 12th
I presupposed in the blog that "consciousness politics" is problematic, and was primarily trying to figure out its appeal. Still, it is fair enough to question the presupposition, and indeed the remark you quote, is a sort of qualification of the unargued for claim that consciousness politics is problematic. But I think it is a qualification that strengthens the blog’s implicit recommendation that understanding C.P.’s appeal is a first step toward reducing its appeal, which is to the good.
To say that some injustices are separable from material inequality (which is all I assert) is hardly to deny that most are not. I agree that psychic injuries and material ones, especially on a collective level, are mostly (although not completely) inseparable. I take you to be arguing that if they are inseparable, then somehow to fight one is ipso facto to fight the other. But the inseparability of psychic and material injustice, does not tell us of their structural/causal relations, and so does not endorse equally all political strategies aiming to rectify either kind of injustice. If anything, I think the “inseparability” thesis supports the idea that our focus should be on the material. In general, I think it is far more likely that prosperity and equal education will lead to respect than the other way around. Moreover, material equality is more achievable through public policy. Hard to enforce respect. And respect can easily be empty, condescending, formal, performative rites. In contrast it is difficult to fake a good wage, uncrowded schools, low public defender caseloads, etc., and just because the inseparability thesis is largely true, these changed material relations are the most effective means to equality of status and respect.
The old man got some very important stuff wrong, but I think he was right that “being determines consciousness,” [as long as we don’t take it in a crudely reductionist way]. And sure, as your interpretation of Benjamin implies, a certain level of consciousness may be a necessary prelude to deep social reformation, but it is a moment that itself must emerge from material conditions, and more to the point, loses significance unless it causes material change. Like other religious phenomena, consciousness politics can change hearts and minds and create a theater of equality, without moving us to a world of real equality.