The Problem with the Anti-Woke Right: The Demonisation of Anti-Imperialism as ‘Woke’

I have spent a lot of time on this website criticising the modern left. However, I have not as yet written much specifically addressing the modern right. This article will focus on a very notable trend within the modern right, which can be referred to as the ‘anti-woke right’. The argument of this is article is that the framing of ‘woke vs. anti-woke’ cannot convincingly address the anti-imperialist left argument.  

What is the Anti-Woke Right?

The anti-woke right is a modern trend within right wing thought, that is generally more popular among younger people. It has emerged out of the internet age, with Youtube commentators among some of the ‘pioneers’ of the anti-woke right.

The anti-woke right are generally libertarian leaning on economics, but their defining feature is that they put very heavy emphasis upon issues such as cancel culture and free speech and opposing woke attempts to redefine language and reality. The anti-woke right can be religious or non-religious. In the UK, significant examples of this tendency are the media outlet Spiked and the actor Laurence Fox.

The anti-woke right generally focus their critiques on issues that make people on the left look ridiculous. In some cases, those on the anti-woke right focus on genuine cases of left wing nonsense, such as criticising gender identity ideology – the idea that men are women if they say they are women. In fact, certain right wing outlets will publish articles on this issue that the left will not touch. For example, Spiked regularly runs articles by the excellent Jo Bartosch on this issue. Anti-woke right wingers will also criticise the ‘performative gesture’. For example, kneeling for Black Lives Matter.

Imperialism & The Anti-Woke Right

The recent focus on Israel and Palestine in the media has exposed one of the main problems with the anti-woke right. While the anti-woke right seems like a popular option when presented as an alternative to ‘woke liberalism’, in fact the anti-woke right normalises imperialism by portraying those who are anti-imperialist as merely ‘woke’ rather than taking a principled stand against imperialist aggression. While there are other examples of this trend, such as the attempt to shield Winston Churchill from the (factually true) criticism that he was a racist, this article will focus on the Israel-Palestine ‘framing’.

Laurence Fox tweeted out this comment about two Leicester City footballers who held up a Palestinian flag after Leicester’s FA Cup success:

Or give the ball chasing woke babies an atlas and ask them to pinpoint Palestine on a map.

The framing is obvious: opposing Israeli apartheid is not about anti-racism or anti-imperialism, it is ‘woke’.

This article in Spiked by Brendan O’Neill is a bit more complex in its argument. It starts by saying:

It [the modern left] sees prejudice everywhere except where it actually exists. State a biological fact and they’ll brand you transphobic. Criticise the burqa and you’re an Islamophobe. Fail to take the knee to Black Lives Matter and its every potty political belief and you’ll be called racist. Wear a sombrero and you’re cancelled. But chanting death to Jews? No biggie. 

The article then discusses examples of hatred of Jews from Palestine protesters. Whether or not these are genuine examples, or whether they are agents provocateurs I am not qualified to say.

It then equates these examples to opposition to the state of Israel itself:

Meanwhile, the Hamas slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ – widely recognised as a hateful call to wipe Israel off the map – is being used more and more by the woke left.

There are several aspects of pro-imperialist framing in this sentence alone. Firstly, equating the call to free Palestine and pro-Palestinian chants with ‘Hamas’ – the boogeyman of pro-Israel right winger. It is not about the Palestinian people and their cry to be free from oppression, but ‘Hamas’. The idea of ‘wiping Israel off the map’ is framed as anti-Semitic. Of course, stating that states should not be ethno-nationalist and that this includes a Jewish state is simply being consistent in opposing apartheid. This argument also erases Jews that oppose Israel, a group which includes many Orthodox Jews as well as secular left wing Jews.

Crucially for this article, the word ‘woke’ is used to describe this slogan. How precisely it is ‘woke’ to oppose apartheid and imperialism is not explained. For example, the other examples of ‘wokeness’ quoted above are ones that many on the (actual anti imperialist) left criticise. For example, Marxism is an inherently gender critical ideology – as it bases itself on material reality (biological sex) over idealism (gender identity).

Black Lives Matter has also been heavily criticised by leftists, in particular for its funding sources. It received money from the Ford Foundation – hardly an organisation out to advocate the end of imperialism. This article discusses BLM’s relationship with the Democrats and the fact that the key founders are part of the non-profit industrial complex. This is without mentioning their support for transgender ideology.

These ‘woke’ ideas are lumped in with the completely different issue of imperialism. In truth, the promotion of transgenderism, support for Islam, and declaring that Black Lives Matter are really about ideological constructs, whereas imperialism is about material reality. This is also fundamental to the distinction between liberals (the identity politics people) and the left (focused on class & imperialism rather than abstract ‘identity’). This is a distinction the anti-woke right (deliberately or otherwise) refuse to make. These members of the anti-woke right do not distinguish between performative nonsense as promoted by woke liberals and actual anti-imperialist activism as promoted by the left.

‘Woke Imperialism’

A fundamental flaw in this position – framing resistance to imperialism as a ‘woke’ belief – is the promotion of ‘woke imperialism’ by groups such as the CIA, FBI and military. ‘Woke Imperialism’ can be defined as putting a layer of ‘diversity’ upon dropping bombs on the Middle East and promoting coups in Latin America – it’s all good so long as a black trans woman is the one pressing the button.

The CIA have recently released adverts called ‘Humans of CIA’ in which a diverse range of people extol its virtues. These adverts use woke words and ideology. For example, this advert features a Latina woman who talks about her race and sex and refers to herself using the trans ideology buzzword ‘cisgender’. Another advert features a gay man talking about rainbow lanyards.

As we can see from this example, woke ideology is entirely compatible with the values of the CIA, whereas freedom for Palestine is most certainly not. In fact, woke ideology – by putting all of the emphasis on ‘identity’ rather than oppression grounded in material reality – benefits the CIA, as it allows them to pretend to be ‘progressive’ while promoting coups.

Conclusion

Woke ideology and anti-imperialist action are two separate categories – one of which is pseudo-progressive and the other which is actually progressive. The anti-woke right conflates the two in the same category as ‘woke’, which reveals the limitations of this ideological position.