A SYSTEM'S DREAM
Reflections On Woke From The Left
I have little idea if this is going to help matters or worsen them. The cultural climate is toxic and its participants so fragile that it’s impossible to know how anything will be received. But it’s time I finally lay out my thoughts on the movement nearest me. I don’t see a lot of open self-reflection from the Left these days, and though many tongues are frozen, I feel many minds are racing.
Anyhow, the only real dissent is from the group to which you belong—and the time for my reluctance is over.
This week Donald Moss, a psychiatrist at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, published an already-infamous1 entry into the Journal of The American Psychoanalytic Association titled On Having Whiteness. It begins with the following sentence:
“Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility.”
Moss, who is himself “white”, did get one thing correct—the quotations around “white”. There is little genetic evidence to support biological race.
The rest of it is a fairly incendiary statement that has engendered mass appall for its “Nazi”2 overtones. But upon closer examination, the statement also embodies an aspect of Woke that has been too overlooked—an aspect that enables those overtones:
Woke has abandoned systemic analysis.
It has opted instead to divert attention away from the system and onto individual targets, thereby protecting the same exploitative system it once promised to fight. And the Left, afraid of cancellation, has refused to put its sibling in check.
It didn’t used to be this way.
ONCE UPON A SYSTEM
Critical Race Theory (CRT) used to inspire rigorous dissent from systems of power. Even the term “whiteness” made excellent sense—in the context of a systemic analysis.
In his monumental 1935 essay Black Reconstruction In America, Du Bois observes of the post-Civil War reconstruction era:
“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.”
This “psychological wage” that “compensated” poor white laborers, themselves exploited by slave-wage capitalism, was “whiteness”. Whiteness was a passport to a kind of low-grade aristocracy—better bathrooms, better treatment from police, etc. It was a consolation prize that made the capitalist grind more psychologically tolerable for the majority, which in turn protected the system from widespread protest.
Critically, “whiteness” was not a real essence, but a fabrication of essence—a trick played upon poor white people to get them to tolerate income inequality and other impositions of “The Market”.
It was this kind of systemic analysis that led to the development of Critical Race Theory in the 1970s. CRT added the analysis of thinkers like Du Bois’ to existing Critical Theory, creating a systemic analysis of economic exploitation that featured racism more prominently as a tool of oppression.
(For those of you who are still attached to the “individual contagion theory” of racism, here are some examples that corroborate the existence of systemic racism. Here is another one from my home state.)
To say that CRT has changed under the stewardship of Woke is not to say enough. Things have firmly reversed.
To illustrate how Woke has willfully abandoned systemic analysis, I will repeat Moss’ opening sentence, this time with my own emphasis:
Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which “white” people have a particular susceptibility.
A condition that “one” “acquires”. Individual agents acquiring their own malignant behavior. This sounds a lot like the anti-systemic “individual contagion theory” of racism that Woke’s supposed intellectual foundation, Critical Race Theory, has historically fought against.
CRT’s most fundamental assertion is systemic racism. And yet while racism is systemic, somehow the “whiteness” responsible for that racism is now non-systemic—a condition “one acquires”?
But this contradiction does not mean Moss made a mistake, nor does it signal an aberration from the Woke paradigm. Instead, it exposes the truth-sized hole at the heart of Woke analysis:
For Woke to admit that the parasitic condition of whiteness is systemic, it would likewise have to admit that anyone participating in that parasitic system—including people of color—are also suffering from whiteness.
To solve this dilemma, Woke has abandoned systemic analysis altogether. Suddenly, ascending the parasitic system could be celebrated—so long as you are “non-white”. As Moss lays out, people who are “non-white” are apparently more impervious to the seductions of parasitic power.
But that view is almost certainly shortsighted. While “whites” have been responsible for the majority of extractive behavior globally and historically, this is likely not due to any genetic predisposition between “races” (as mentioned, genetic evidence for the existence of race is thin). Meanwhile, the difference in extractive behaviors across groups can be easily traced to historical, cultural and technological differences—differences which are increasingly evaporating.
When Kenneth Frazier became the first African American CEO of Merck in 2011, did he instruct the company to curb its outrageous predatory price hikes on the public? No. His company kept increasing prices. Kenneth Frazier is, then, according to Moss, suffering from “whiteness”.
When “non-white” Rene Jones became CEO of M&T Bank, did he make sure it divested from the literally extractive oil and gas industry? No. M&T went right on funding the climate crisis. Should someone inform Mr. Jones that he is suffering from “whiteness”?
Who’s going to tell Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express (2001-2008)? Or Don Thompson, CEO of McDonald’s (2012-2015)? Or Richard Parsons, CEO of AOL Time-Warner (2002-2008)? Who is going to tell these black men that it was their whiteness that made their companies parasitic, not the malignant system they were born into and ascended?
By blaming our parasitic behavior on the abstraction of “whiteness”, Woke is unwittingly attempting to give parasitic systems everywhere the cloak of invisibility.
It must be understood that the “malignant, parasitic-like condition” that Woke calls “whiteness” is the same parasitic condition that plain old Critical Theory calls “The Market” or “Consumer Fetishism” or “Neoliberalism”.
Imagine if something as obviously systemic as capitalism were said to be “a condition one first acquires and then one has”. What a weak analysis of “systems” that would be—all the extractive forces of consumerism blamed on “one’s” “susceptibility”.
How conspicuously such pseudo-analyses let the system off the hook.
It is this lack of analytical integrity that allows Woke to fawn over actually parasitic companies—like Coca-Cola.
Yet Coca-Cola is in the running for most parasitic company on the planet.
Coca-Cola, who took a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook and secretly funded “scientific” papers declaring that diet is not responsible for health! Why? Because Coke was catching heat for peddling obesity and type 2 diabetes.
And who does obesity and type 2 diabetes disproportionately affect? People of color and low-income families. The same people Woke is supposed to be protecting.
Oh, and Coca-Cola is the number one polluter of plastics in the whole entire world. Parasite central.
And yet Coke is literally being thanked by my compatriots, the anti-parasitic champion of the downtrodden, Woke.
How relieving it must be to systemic powers everywhere that their parasitic behavior can be so easily obscured by a few “inclusive” commercials and the promise of a multicultural billionaire class.
WARS OF ESSENCE
Woke’s move to give racism primacy over economics should have tipped anyone off—but especially those of us on the Left.
Without a proper Critical Theory underneath it, the term “whiteness” naturally transforms from a systemic designation to a personal denigration.
This is where fascism begins.
I am not one to care about whether or not the word “white” means “wonderful” or “parasitic”. You can find a picture of me in a DIY shirt from 2004 on which I scrawled “White People Don’t Exist” after having read The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the suffix “ness” is ubiquitously used to denote an essence of being. Cruelness, largeness, slowness, saltiness. The essence of such things. Rhetorically speaking, to add the suffix “ness” onto “white” is to refer to the essence of being “white”. To then define that essence as “malignant” is to define any such person as malignant not merely in their actions but malignant in their essence of being. Malignant with “no cure”, no hope for redemption.
This is not simply my interpretation. Here is the same Donald Moss, who goes on to write of whiteness:
“There is not yet a permanent cure.”
It should go without saying:
By designating the essence of any human as “incurable”, the human in question becomes subhuman. By discounting fellow humans as subhuman, we court oppression, fascism, and war. By transferring our fight against systems into fights against essences, we do the system’s bidding for it.
History has sufficiently proven that institutionalizing rhetorical denigrations of a people’s essence is disastrous for humanity.
THE LARGER SELF
If the Left does want to help Woke crawl out of the beast’s jowls, we should take less liberty interpreting bell hooks. There exists no intellectual more giant amongst modern critical theorists, black feminism, and leftist thinkers, and yet this is also bell hooks:
"How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
For hooks (who refuses capitalization of her name), the question seems to be rhetorical. It seems she already knows the answer:
Whenever we—especially we on the Left—have abandoned a systemic analysis of struggles, we tend to scapegoat or demonize others in our search for justice—and let the system of degradation continue unimpeded.
Although some of hooks’ rhetoric has lent itself to Woke misinterpretations, she has managed to remain committed to systemic analysis. Just how committed? Here is hooks commenting on Beyoncé:
“You are not going to destroy this imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it.”
While this seems harsh, it is actually extraordinarily kind. The path to “remaining in touch” with our collective humanity—and retaining the ability to believe in one’s capacity to transform—is found in the systemic analysis.
Systemic analysis not only enables us to find compassion for others—it helps us find compassion for ourselves.
From psychoanalytic revelations about our own errant behaviors and their connections to our childhood, to the interrelated nature of the entire universe, both our problems and our successes are part of a larger tapestry of relationships—a larger system.
Remaining system-conscious not only enables us to have compassion for ourselves and others, it gives us our only shot at consciously addressing the systems that threaten our existence—from extractive and racist systems to the systems of existential risk and exponential tech.
Give away our systemic analysis, and we go back to the sleepwalk, become grist for the nearest mill—our dreams of a better world trapped in hollowed mines.
The question is, do we really want to see a better world.
The prestigious Journal of The American Psychoanalytic Association, which is “one of the world's most respected publications in psychoanalysis” and a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics, was apparently so eager to make a Woke-sized splash with the paper that it did not take the time to proof read—and erroneously added the honorific “Dr.” in front of “Donald Moss”, causing much confusion and consternation from an actual Dr. Donald Moss. The error has since been corrected, but it may speak to the epistemic dangers of competitive virtue signaling.