It can be easy to forget how new our political and culture-war conflicts are. Ten years ago, critical race theory was something you’d encounter only online or in academic settings, Democratic politicians were still talking about civil unions for homosexual couples, and the media and federal government were busy pointing out how far America had come in repairing the broken race relations of the past. Today, little remains of that old order. Just how fast has this transformation unfolded? Consider a simple measure of how frequently the word “racism” appears in the nation’s four largest newspapers: after staying basically constant from the 1970s to 2010, its usage explodes around 2012, with the Washington Post and the New York Times leading the charge.
Though this “Great Awokening” has scrambled political coalitions and upended widely held truths, wokeness itself remains a muddled concept. The obvious definition—that it is a belief system, what writer Wesley Yang has dubbed “the successor ideology”—has considerable merit. (See “The Identity Cult,” Winter 2022.) But as American polarization increases, it becomes clear that wokeness is also a social, economic, legal, and political phenomenon; it cannot simply be reduced to the ideas inside people’s heads. (See “The Genealogy of Woke Capital,” Autumn 2021.)
If wokeness is an institutional force, a comparative analysis can help describe it. Most Europeans can remember when America was considered stodgy and conservative, compared with progressive Western Europe. And yet, in 2022, the U.S. is experiencing deeper levels of polarization and social strife than other Western countries. Polls suggest a rapid loss of faith in public institutions. Americans identifying with either political party increasingly see the other party as a threat to democracy itself.
Why is it, then, that people in traditionally progressive countries—my native social-democratic Sweden being a prime example—can believe the same things, read the same books, and propound the same ideas as their American counterparts, without their societies experiencing the same sort of catastrophic polarization afflicting the U.S.? Why is it that capital seems to have gone woke in the U.S. more than in the rest of the West, with large companies intervening directly in political battles in a way that would be unthinkable in the Nordic countries? If this behavior were simply a product of neo-Marxist or socialist ideology, one would think that it would be more prevalent in a country like Sweden, where the ruling Social Democratic Party still sings “The Internationale” at its congresses.
The core thesis of James Burnham’s 1941 The Managerial Revolution helps explain what is happening in the West today. A former Trotskyite who later became a leading figure in postwar American conservatism, Burnham argued in that book that Western society would not see the collapse of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. Instead, he maintained, America would likely see capitalism replaced by a nonsocialist successor—one dominated not by capitalists in the classical sense but by a class of managers that would come to control the real economy, regardless of formal ownership status.