The term ‘woke’ is used figuratively to refer to someone who is ‘aware’ or ‘well informed’ in a political or cultural sense. They know and understand the world in ways few others could imagine, and it is their awareness of the truth that has led to an awakening. Like they’ve had a lightbulb moment and everything starts to make sense. Social media has become the perfect platform for all these lightbulbs to communicate with one another. And yet, the thing about this term is that the work generation represents something far more powerful than some tribe of awoken individuals.
The woke generation represents a shift in peoples values. An increasing number of people have become disillusioned with capitalism. In a twist of fate, free-market capitalism has created the platform for disillusionment to flourish.
Free market capitalism has always centred around materialism. Modernism or modern society is a product of consumption. As countries have become wealthier, more and more people have joined the middle class in society. An effect of this is that they no longer need to worry about meeting their basic needs. With needs met, the middle class can use disposable income to focus more on lifestyle choices.
This dynamic has become increasingly prevalent since the end of the second world war. And has become particularly true of millennials and the generations preceding them. They have been brought up in a world where their material needs have been easily met, to the point they’ve always taken them for granted.
A result of this is that with material needs met, a growing proportion of society has a ‘postmodern’ outlook. They strive for purpose and focus on lifestyle — they aspire for more than to meet their material well being. They are idealistic; and want to pursue their dreams and enjoy life to the maximum, rather than focus on the materials they can buy working a 9–5 job.
A Silent Revolution
What we are seeing is a shift away from a modernist outlook to a postmodernist outlook. The woke generation is a manifestation of this shift.
Ronald Inglehart referred to this process as a Silent Revolution.
The intergenerational shift means a far larger proportion of younger generations have a postmodern outlook.
All the while, this generation has grown up aware that the rules of the game that form the social construct undermine the environment we depend on for life. It’s difficult not to question the ideology of our time when it is leading us to a terrible future.
And so the ‘woke’ postmodern generation sees a system that abuses the planet, and they quite rightly don’t like it. They see social inequalities increasing as the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. They hear politicians talk the talk about moving towards a low carbon economy but see carbon emissions increasing.
Lots of people argue that dealing with the challenges we face requires a paradigm shift. In essence, we need to redesign society around a different ideology that doesn’t abuse the environment but works in harmony with it. A common saying of our time is ‘we need systems change, not climate change’. Many within the woke postmodern generation agree with these sentiments.
In short, in calling for a paradigm shift, what they are arguing for is a revolution, as it is only through a revolution that the redesign of society can happen.
The ‘enlightened’ thinkers
The French Revolution reveals why paradigm shifts can only come about when a social system breaks down.
The Old Order in France was a system structured around the church. In the same way that today society is structured around free-market capitalism. Before the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on French society. The Enlightenment was a reformist movement that questioned the irrationality that dominated in France.
The ‘enlightened’ thinkers had new ideas of how to structure society. They believed in a rational, scientific approach and had a desire to create social progress. These ideas were in sharp contrast with the tradition, irrationalism and superstition that underpinned the social order.
The Enlightenment was an ideology that questioned a social order arranged around a system of privilege. Essentially different groups in society, such as the Nobility and the church, enjoyed specific laws that separated them from the rest of society. For instance, privileged groups had tax exemptions the rest of society was lumbered with.
At the heart of the Old Order was an unjust system designed to create inequality and unequal opportunity.
The Old Order did embrace the new ideas and rationalised certain aspects of French society. Yet, the social order constrained how Enlightenment thinking was interpreted. For example, the Old Order could hardly agree to end a system of privilege because to do so would have been to undermine itself and voluntarily give up power. Agreeing to end a system of privilege would have necessitated nothing short of a redesign of society around Enlightenment ideology.
Clearly, that was not going to happen. What made it all the less likely is that the Enlightenment thinkers were not revolutionary. Their ideas may well have been as they contradicted the old order, but they were driven to adapt and improve the old order, not replace it.
The moment we are living through is remarkably similar to France under the Old Order leading up to the French Revolution.
The current ideology of our time is embracing elements of environmentalism. But how it does is constrained within the limits of the social construct we live within.
Environmentalism or sustainable development is, in essence, an ideology that seeks to adapt free-market capitalism. It is a reformist movement demanding governments and companies make radical changes.
It is not a revolutionary movement that seeks to replace the ideology of our day but to change it.
Yet, it does contradict free-market capitalism in that certain elements of the ideology call for transformative change. An example is that many question the viability of growth on a finite planet. Economic growth is the goal that underpins everything. To question it is to question the foundation of the social system.
The issue is that continuous growth means the natural world is seen as something to exploit for human gain. If we gave up growth, capitalism would be giving up a central foundation that everything else is built on. It would be to undermine itself just like the Old Order in France before the French Revolution.
Environmentalists are having to deal with the same challenges today as the enlightened thinkers had to deal with leading up to the French Revolution.
While it is widely acknowledged that the system at present has design flaws, the changes that are being made are constrained by the dominant ideology. Change is being made, but these are incremental and do not impact the integrity of the social construct.
The thing about an ideology that forms the foundations of society is that it is incredibly resilient to change. That’s why social breakdown and revolutions happen rarely.
Today, free-market capitalism is such a dominant ideology that even though the numbers of those who disagree with it are growing, this trend alone will not help to trigger a social revolution. Particularly as so many are not calling for revolution.
Breakdown brings renewal
As a social system is so resilient to change, the only thing that can create conditions allowing for a paradigm shift is a social breakdown. Historically this has been the case, without precedent. And there is no reason to believe today’s situation will be any different.
In the case of France leading up to 1789, it was not the ideology of the Enlightenment that led to social breakdown. The breakdown came about due to multiple layers of society breaking down due to the system being rigid and unable to adapt to a changing landscape. This inability to adapt led to an alignment of the stars, where breakdown across layers of society left the ideology supporting the Old Order weak and exposed.
It was only when the Old Order broke down that the Enlightenment thinkers were provided with a window of opportunity to redesign society in its own image.
As we progress into the twenty-first century, the woke generation is going to become larger and larger. As their numbers grow, it will place a pressure point on free-market capitalism to adapt from a focus on materialism.
The woke generation may create a rigidity, but this dynamic in and of itself will not trigger the paradigm shift we require.
It does represent a growing proportion of society that acknowledges this system no longer works. That is a critical weakness in the social structure. What we are witnessing is a movement of disillusioned people who want change. And that movement of people is growing as younger generations are far more likely to be postmodern in their outlook.
When the time comes, this movement could be awoken (no pun intended) and create a key point of vulnerability that helps create the social breakdown needed for transformative change to occur. It is only through a paradigm shift that we will create the necessary changes needed to deal with the challenges we face. The disillusioned woke generation represents an army of people who want that change to happen.