The Woke Grift, part two
Over the last 20 years, I’ve come to understand that there is a particular sort of person attracted to radical circles and movements. You’ve met them, I’m sure. They position themselves as a dominant voice speaking on behalf of a nebulous and constantly-shifting group of the “oppressed,” while themselves possessing many of the traits we’d otherwise consider “privileged.” They’re often middle class, or from more elite families, with parents they don’t really like but who’ve nevertheless funded their travel, their education, and their health care. They’ve got a degree from a university the lower classes could never afford, have traveled broadly, are in great health, but nevertheless see themselves as part of the oppressed classes on behalf of whom they claim to be fighting.
Whether you define yourself as a leftist or not, a particular person (or maybe several) probably appeared in your mind as you read that previous paragraph. I’m sure you’ve known them, encountered them, perhaps were friends with them, maybe even once looked up to them (and even still do).
These sorts of people always have an “oppressive behavior” to point out, and a host of articles from Everyday Feminism or Teen Vogue to send to you about the topic, or a list of academic theorists you should already have deeply studied. They’re really good at all this, and their knowledge is one of the reasons everyone respects them. Everyone, of course, but their victims.
Let me tell you about one such person. We’ll call her Karen.
Karen was a friend of mine for almost two decades. We met at a radical event, were both anarchists, and both found a natural affinity for each others’ ideas. Karen could be a lot of fun to be around, though even back then she seemed to always find a moment to bring any party to a halt with discussions about systemic oppression.
I liked Karen a lot, and it seemed like everyone else did, too. But then one friend made clear she didn’t want to have anything to do with Karen any longer.
“I don’t think you should stop being friends with Karen, but what she did to me was really shitty,” and she would say no more.
Karen, on the other hand, had lots to say about how oppressive that friend was, and how I shouldn’t talk to her anymore. Karen also made sure other people knew they shouldn’t talk to that woman any more, either. That friend eventually disappeared out of the lives of anyone who knew Karen, eventually leaving the city altogether.
This happened later to other people, people whom Karen made sure we knew were not good people. Unfortunately, I never noticed there was something else happening until much, much later.
Karen had a long series of failed relationships with activist men, each of which turned out to be horrific abusers. We were all shocked by these revelations, and though it was difficult for us at the beginning to accept how awful these men were, we soon did what we knew was “right.” We knew that to be good radicals, we needed to believe victims, and we needed to show patriarchal men that they were not welcome in our spaces or our lives.
We knew this, of course, because Karen made sure we knew this.
Karen didn’t just help us root out the bad men from our lives, but also and especially the women. Though those women were not “abusive,” we learned that they were very manipulative. They were backstabbers, or had internalized their misogyny, or were really just “not good for you to be around.” And you could tell which of these women were the “not good for you to be around” sorts, because they were the ones with the most personality, the sorts who seemed to attract the attention of everyone (especially of men).
Karen would bristle when they were around, and then talk privately to you later, asking if you had noticed certain oppressive qualities in those women. I always had to admit that I hadn’t noticed, because they seemed like fascinating and intelligent people to me. Karen would look disappointed at this, so I’d add “but maybe I missed something?”
Fortunately, Karen was always ready to educate me on what I’d not seen about them. Often I’d go along with all this, though I secretly kept up friendships with some of these women that Karen had identified as bad people. I just never told Karen that.
Karen moved away for a while to do activist work in other cities. I’d receive occasional updates from her, detailing first how incredible the community solidarity was in her new milieu (there was a time she said “milieu” a lot, because it was a super important word to use). But then would soon come the tragic stories about activists in those places who just refused to really live up to their values. So Karen was off to a new milieu, a new city, and eventually new disappointments.
She eventually returned, and we took up our friendship again. By then I had started working on some projects that she offered to help me with, help that would best use her university training. She was really proud of that training, but also deeply frustrated that the massive amounts of money she’d had to borrow had not yet resulted in the kind of income she should be earning with that degree.
The reason for her lack of work was patriarchy. Men were always being hired for the positions she wanted, and when women were hired instead of her it was also because of the patriarchy. I never really understood this part, but since I was a man (she reminded me of this all the time), I would never be able to understand this stuff. So it was better to just nod my head and offer her “emotional labor” as repayment for all the emotional labor she’d given me.
This bit—the bit about emotional labor—never really made sense to me, no matter how many times she explained it. I understood the concept, as least through Marxist feminism. But Karen’s version of “emotional labor” was completely different from that framework.
You see, it turns out that all the men in her life, including me, had been constantly demanding emotional labor from her, which was also why she was unsuccessful in finding the work she deserved. We were all draining her of the energy she needed to use for her own success, and it was really time for us to give it back to her.
This sounded good at first, but I was honestly a little confused because I never asked her to do any emotional labor for me. In fact, I was known for being too quiet about my personal crises, rarely even letting my closest friends or partners know when there was something I could use help talking through. Whenever Karen and I would meet for coffee or dinner, the conversations were quite one-sided. But I was a good listener and enjoyed her company, so I never complained.
Still, I read all the Everyday Feminism articles she sent to me about it, and tried my best to make sure I was never demanding such labor from her. At the same time, I became a kind of free therapist for Karen, especially when she needed to talk about how her partner was too masculine, too independent, and too afraid of commitment. He never understood what she needed, especially how she needed him to change his career choices and the friends (especially the female friends) he chose to be around.
I held my tongue. Honestly, I started to feel a bit bad for her partner. She was making some really intense demands on him and it didn’t seem fair. But Karen had also told me that men tend to always take the side of other men no matter how abusive they clearly are being, and so I kept quiet.
I left the United States after that, but we kept in touch. Things were often going poorly for her, and I did my best to listen to her when she needed to discuss these things. She was particularly frustrated that she’d been turned down for position in a radical organization that she “obviously” had deserved. Instead, a man had been chosen. She was also frustrated that her partner seemed disinclined to leave everyone he knew and loved to move to a new city for her. But then Karen was soon relieved: he finally decided to “love her more than he loved those friends” and relocate with her.
Around that time, Karen and I began to have some weird disputes that always resulted in streams of texts with links to more Everyday Feminism articles. They became political disputes, but also again about emotional labor, and about my unaddressed toxic masculinity. But I kept up the friendship as best I could, and kept keeping space for Karen’s criticisms about my life and behavior and trying to conform to her expectations.
The moment I realized this wasn’t really a friendship at all came when I finally broke down and asked her for some “emotional labor,” too. I was in an abusive relationship at the time. Karen had been in abusive relationships, and I thought maybe she could help me understand what was happening.
The man I was with had physically attacked me a few times, something which really should have made me leave. But I stuck around, thinking maybe it was all just temporary.
When I told her about this, Karen sent me some more Everyday Feminism articles and explained that my toxic masculinity was probably causing this. She related it to her current partner, how sometimes she had to lash out at him because he wasn’t doing enough work to make her feel secure, self-confident, and emotionally stable. It was his fault that she reacted like that, just like it was my fault that the man I was with acted violent.
I’m embarrassed to say that I accepted all of this and tried her advice. I tried to make that man feel more secure, emotionally stable, and self-confident. And I kept trying until he hit me again, and then I finally decided to leave.
To be clear, I don’t blame Karen for this. If there was any fault at all, it was mine for refusing ever to question the kinds of narratives which people like Karen not only propagate, but survive by.
Of course, things got even worse between us after that. She started making demands, including trying to force me to publish something she had written. When I declined, she tried to triangulate, to draw other people in to force me to accede to her demands. And of course, at that point is was all about social justice now: I was oppressive, and she needed to make sure everyone knew it.
Looking back now at everything I knew of her, of all the patterns of the accusations she made at others in radical communities, of all the people who she successfully turned into pariahs and expelled from these groups, as well as her constant flight from one city to the next to find a new radical utopia only to leave soon after, nothing of what she said to me when I was being abused is surprising. Nor was her subsequent turn from “friend” to would-be saboteur.
What is surprising, however, is how long it took me to understand how much of my political ideas were shaped by people like her.
Karen was the ideal social justice warrior, the paragon of the anti-oppression activist. They are fully middle class, from stable families, highly educated, and brilliantly adept at the use of political theory and social manipulation to justify their unending ressentiment.
Personal success seems constantly to elude them. Despite the abundance of wealth and opportunities they enjoy, it’s never enough. Someone is always oppressing them by getting something they deserved instead, and there’s always an esoteric political framework at hand to explain why that happened.
They are particularly good at triangulating, at drawing in unrelated people to personal conflicts and turning those people against someone. They’re masters of the “call out,” deftly directly social pressure against someone who has personally offended them, with the ultimate goal not of righting some wrong but exiling that person completely.
I’ve met countless versions of them, of all identities. Whatever that identity is, they’ll find a way to weaponize it, and have a particular fondness of going after people of the exact same identity as theirs. They are the trans activists who seem particularly fond of silencing other trans people, women who go out of their way to isolate and smear other women, and the black social justice activist who never seems to be able to keep friendships with other black activists for very long.
That’s because they need to position themselves as the representative of their identity group. If you are going to call out someone’s oppressive behavior towards your identity group, the worst thing that could possibly happen is another person of that same identity saying, ‘no, that wasn’t oppressive.’
Another thing you’ll notice about such people is they don’t actually start organizations or projects, they just join them. They’ll tell you that they have great ideas, but of course some sort of systemic injustice or barrier always gets in the way. So instead, they devote their radical energy to existing movements and organizations to help make them better, less oppressive, and more radical.
Once they join, however, the organization often starts to implode, especially if the group has no clear leadership structure. “Non-hierarchical” organizations are where they thrive best, because when there are no clear leaders or power structure, there are no processes for confronting their destructive behavior. If the group does have leaders, however, you can be assured there will soon be some leadership crisis after this person has joined.
While these people exist in every sort of community, leftist and radical communities seem especially ideal ecosystems for them. That’s because most people who are drawn to these movements have a deep desire to do good, to address suffering and exploitation. That means, unfortunately, that we tend to be much more naive about human nature than right-aligned groups are.
As one of my favorite writers, Slippery Elm, wrote in his recent essay, “A Ring Around Utopia:”
The understandings of hierarchy as something desirable or abhorrent exhibited by theorists on the left and right are abstractions. Failures to understand power on its own terms can lead to it becoming twisted and perverted. Coercion, in effect, is the perversion of power.
For the right, the sought after ideal is a rigid hierarchical model with a fixed top and a fixed bottom, in which every rung of the ladder for the most part is static, with power flowing, if at all, from the top down. For the left, hierarchy is something that needs to be made more level, if not to be abolished entirely.
However, right wing rhetoric is erroneous in believing power on an energetic level can be held at all, that “hierarchical” power dynamics could ever have fixed tops or bottoms, and that points on the continuum are static and immovable.
On the other hand, a common error in the left wing understanding of hierarchy is the unspoken assumption that when we abolish hierarchy, we are abolishing power itself.
Hierarchy is an abstraction, so can be abolished. Power, on the other hand, is real, and power dynamics will not just disappear even if you believe you have abolished them. A reluctance to address this issue unfortunately gives clout to the oft heard right wing critique of the left that “if you try to abolish hierarchy, it will only result in a new one forming in its stead.”
Power dynamics are ever present and power itself cannot be “abolished”, but that does not mean the dynamic has to be oppressive or twisted into one of coercion. It is arguably healthier to calmly and patiently observe the way power flows rather than attempt to pretend—under the guise of “abolishing hierarchy”—that it does not exist.
The right has always understood something that the left continuously fails to grasp: people enjoy power, and will try to accumulate it whether they are conscious of it or not. Thus, instead of pretending it is possible to eradicate power, the right insists it is best to formalize those power structures, to have clear lines and hierarchies through which power runs. Leftist groups, instead, deny that the “oppressed” also accumulate power, and thus become victims to people like Karen.
This is part of the “woke grift,” and also why the American left has accomplished absolutely nothing for decades. Groups that might otherwise have been able to organize people into general strikes or other labor actions implode the moment these woke grifters accumulate enough power in the group. Suddenly, the leaders are all oppressive, a strike will harm minority or disabled people, and what is really needed is not collective action but more self-reflection.
I’ve heard many suggest these woke grifters are government saboteurs, but this is a useless fantasy. While a very small few might indeed be on someone else’s payroll, the sabotage is coming from something much more human and therefore much more difficult to fight: ressentiment.
The writer Peter Turchin introduced the idea of “elite overproduction” as a cyclical feature of civilizational collapse. Briefly stated, societies always train a certain group of youth as potential elites. Those elites are not only highly-educated, but also told throughout their entire childhood that they are destined for an elite role in society, whether that is politics, government, upper management, or just intellectual or creative importance.
According to Turchin, societies eventually hit a point where the number of elites they have produced is much higher than the number of elite positions for them. People who were raised with the belief that their ideas or work are more important than others, that they are somehow unique and set apart from the masses, then find in such situations a deep abyss between that belief and the reality of the world.
Having too many elites and not enough positions to distract them with is much like a society having too many men and not enough work to employ them with. At best, they turn to reckless adventurism or self-destruction through drugs; at worst, they amass power for themselves and enlist others in crusades to get what is “rightly theirs.”
Consider Karen again. Karen truly believed that her degree was a kind of recognition for her elite status, though she would never have put it this way. Thus, every position she failed to get, every recognition she felt she deserved but had stolen from her, every moment where others failed to see her importance, drove Karen deeper and deeper into a state of ressentiment.
In ressentiment, a sense of hurt (“the trace”) begins to define the person such that everything reminds them of that hurt. This can be real physical abuse or just a sense of disappointment, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person then begins to resent others who seem to not experience this sense of hurt. They also feel that the success, joy, contentment, popularity, beauty, or other positive traits of others represent a direct insult to them.
People caught in ressentiment start to look for external causes for their internal sense of hurt, and then develop worldviews that help sustain them. The “incel,” for example, is a man in ressentiment who soon begins to believe that women themselves are the cause of his internal sense of hurt. These explanations then become sustaining fantasies which allow him to continue in this state and see himself as a righteous victim, rather than just some guy who hasn’t gotten laid.
Social justice identity politics, feminism, critical race theory, and even Marxism to some degree are all easily re-tooled as sustaining fantasies for an “elite” in a state of ressentiment. That’s because they all provide a framework in which there is an other who is oppressing people.
Of course, we can truthfully state that none of these frameworks have ressentiment at their core. In the hands of a disappointed, disinherited, frustrated elite, however, they are the perfect readily-made explanations for their ressentiment. All they need to do is study them, learn all the right words and phrases, and apply their “elite” understanding of how to manipulate human social relationships within established groups and movements to accumulate some semblance of the power they believe they deserve.
That was Karen. But that’s many other people I’ve encountered, and many people you have, too. If you’ve been “called out” or “canceled” on social media, it was probably by one of them. That mutual aid group or anti-racist organization that just had a massive internal crisis? A few woke grifters were probably behind it. Those big-name educators making lots of money telling people they are oppressive? Grifters. The person who just shut down a mass action or derailed a community meeting because people needed to “check their privilege?” That’s a would-be elite, trapped in ressentiment, who has accumulated an incredible amount of social power.
For people like Karen, and others like her, the only solution I’ve found is just to keep doing your work. Their demands can never be met, their conditions never satisfied. As I wrote in The Vampiric Gaze, ressentiment is what ancients called the “evil eye,” and the myriad of protections indigenous peoples came up with against it work just as well in the modern age as they did in the past.
For the left in general, only a mass recognition of this problem would work to undo the damage they constantly cause. Group and organizational processes that offer the presumption of innocence to those accused of oppressive behavior would go a long way towards this, especially formal frameworks that allow people a chance to defend themselves.
But again, the primary defense against woke grifters is just to continue to doing your work. If your group’s goal is feeding the homeless, that’s the work, not group reflection about internalized misogyny. If it’s a labor organization, then gaining power and protections for workers is your work, not arguing about whether it is oppressive to use binary pronouns. If it’s stopping a fracking operation or a new pipeline, do that instead of trying to root out cis-hetero-monogamy in your organizing meetings.
The woke grifter’s primary power is in derailment, in turning everyone’s attention away from a goal and instead towards their peculiar and unending complaints. Grounding ourselves back into the real, into physical actions to improve material conditions, is probably the only way to stop them.
I lost a lot of really good people in my life because Karen told me they were oppressive. It was shitty of me to ever have listened to her, to not have seen what she was doing to others. But I also feel a bit grateful for Karen, because I now understand much more about how the entire woke grift works.
The essay I mention by Slippery Elm, “A Ring Around Utopia,” is available on Another World, the Gods&Radicals Press supporters’ journal. It requires a subscription. However, it will be made available publicly in August.