Some years ago I was surprised to come across a person whose politics I knew to be conservative at a Greens fundraiser. When I asked him why he was there, he said he supported any gay candidate, irrespective of party.

It is this emphasis on identity against values that most annoys American philosopher and writer Susan Neiman. She could well have echoed Cate Blanchett’s character in the film Tar, an acclaimed conductor who is appalled when one of her students discards Bach’s music because he was a white, cis male.

Tribal identities, for Neiman, are undermining the traditional claims of the left for a universalist understanding of justice and progress.

Neiman’s book Left is Not Woke is strongest when querying the centrality of this tribalism. Elsewhere she has written movingly about how German guilt about the Holocaust blocks the capacity to feel empathy for Palestinians now dying in Gaza. In her book she defends Hannah Arendt’s use of the term “crimes against humanity” to describe the Holocaust, an expression journalist Michael Gawenda has found objectionable because it elides the particular experience of Jews.

Neiman’s defence of universalism is important and has been praised by Fintan O’Toole in a powerful essay in the New York Review of Books titled “Defying Tribalism”. (Despite living in Berlin, the United States is very much her focus in her book.) But nowhere does Neiman demonstrate that “woke” and “tribalism” are identical. As she claims, concern for those who are marginalised can

end by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization […] The idea of intersectionality […] [has] led to a focus on those parts of identities that are most marginalized and multiplies them into a forest of trauma.  

Her concern is that an emphasis on personal experience can easily magnify tribal grievances at the expense of universal concern for justice. Neiman’s insistence on the importance of universalism is particularly apposite in the current emotional responses to the Gaza conflict.

Some contemporary leftists are indeed so concerned with language at the expense of major inequalities that they forget the need for a politics of redistribution alongside a politics of recognition. But Neiman fails to demonstrate the contemporary American left is beholden to a cartoon version of identity politics, unable to recognise multiple oppressions.

Indeed she stresses the numbers of white Americans who rallied behind the Black Lives Matter protests of several years ago, which would seem to disprove her central assertion.

The philosophers

Neiman begins the book by positioning herself as left rather than liberal. She defines leftist politics as one as concerned with social as with political rights. One assumes she would applaud the tentative attempts of the Biden administration to modify the worst excesses of American capitalism, but while she inveighs against neo-liberalism, she ignores contemporary mainstream politics, wanting instead to seek out the philosophic roots of what she sees as the current failings of many on the left.

Her discussion of the Enlightenment and its claims to universalism is genuinely interesting, even if she is too willing to glide over the deep contradictions in America’s favourite Enlightenment figures. Yes, philosophers like Kant and Rousseau were more aware of the limitations of Eurocentric views than is often acknowledged, but there is little evidence their appeals for universalism actually had much influence on colonial expansion.

It is interesting to note Kant condemned the expropriation of land from Indigenous owners but his writings did nothing to check colonial settlers. If any of them read philosophy they were far more influenced by John Locke’s view that only through agriculture could the right to property develop. (Interestingly historian Henry Reynolds reads Locke rather differently and quotes him in defence of unceded Indigenous sovereignty.)

When Neiman moves to more recent philosophers, the book becomes both polemical and unreliable. For Neiman the philosophical forbears of “woke” are apparently Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt, who between them undermined the belief in progress and altruism necessary for a decent politics of the left.

I doubt if one in a hundred contemporary activists could identify Schmitt, who was a Nazi apologist and has been seen as an inspiration for autocrats in the postwar world. Foucault certainly was a major intellectual influence on many activists but Neiman’s dislike for him borders on the irrational.

My antennae bristled when she described him as “openly, transgressively gay”. In fact, Foucault was ambivalent about his sexuality and reluctant to be open about it. Nor was he “flamboyant, courting outrage”, except perhaps in the safety of a few backroom bars. Having condemned identity as the basis for decent politics, Neiman seems determined to link Foucault’s ideas to his sexuality.

The refusal to find anything useful in Foucault’s analysis of power – especially given the sanctification of Foucault in many academic circles – makes what could be an important critique seem more of an unjustified personal attack. A more generous reading of Foucault could have pointed to his scepticism about identity politics.

A lack of specifics

Neiman calls herself a socialist, although I suspect she would be very comfortable with the politics of the Australian Labor Party. She argues persuasively that if we do not believe that progress is possible, we cannot construct meaningful politics for the left, one that creates greater equality and fairness for all.

In subsequent chapters, other obstacles to progress are identified, particularly sociobiology and neo-liberalism. (In her reading, sociobiology suggests inequalities of class and gender are inherent in our DNA, rather than socially constructed.) This discussion of sociobiology is somewhat mystifying, as she makes no direct connection between it and “woke” politics.

Her argument that, in contrast to this view, humans are capable of acting out of more than self-interest is important but hardly radical. Even the current US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin is pressuring Israel to moderate its rampage in Gaza for both strategic and moral reasons.

As the book progresses, Neiman tends to fall back on statements of the obvious, with trite observations such as:

At a time when many ten-year-olds can give you a lecture on carbon emissions, what do the masters of the universe fail to see?  

Had she pursued this thought to consider why her privileged belief in progress might seem illusionary to people whose lands are being obliterated by climate change, there might have been some value to this observation.

Left is Not Woke is a frustrating book, rich in philosophical inquiry but with a strange lack of specifics that might clarify exactly who are the leftists she is criticising.

She ends with a conversation with the Indian activist and writer Harsh Mander, who, like her, is appalled by the rise of tribalism in the contemporary world. They share, she claims, a commitment to “universalism, a hard distinction between justice and power, and the possibility of progress”. To which Mander adds a commitment to doubt.

I, too, would like to believe in these ideals. But when I think of the people I know who share these commitments, many of them, I suspect, would be dismissed by Neiman as “too woke”.

Dennis Altman is a VC Fellow at La Trobe University.

The article first appeared on The Conversation.

Left Is Not Woke, Susan Neiman, Polity.