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Beyond the culture war

Peter Thiel rightly diagnoses wokeness as a dangerous distraction from decline

Artillery Row

When Peter Thiel describes the atmosphere at Stanford in the late eighties, the impression given is one familiar to anyone who follows university politics today. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” was the chant to be heard on Palm Drive in 1987, as Rev. Jesse Jackson and his allies marched with the impossible conviction of protesting students. Their specific grievance was the mandatory participation of first-year undergraduates in a Western Culture programme—a survey of canonical texts, predictably decried as engines of Eurocentric and sexist ideology. But, as Thiel emphasises, it was easy enough to hear “repudiation of the entire civilisation” in their chanting. Against this now-ubiquitous backdrop, the entrepreneur was to experience his political coming-of-age.

Poor economic prospects breed ideological radicalism

This was the anecdote with which Thiel opened his October lecture to the packed stalls of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, the fourth and final address in 2023’s series of Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures. Over the last few years, the talks have become something of an institution in the city, a forum for the working out of tensions in conservative thought and for the critique of modern culture. That a Silicon Valley heavyweight—the co-founder of PayPal and first outside investor in Facebook—should be speaking at such an event, is on one level surprising. But Thiel’s interest in culture war issues predates his entrepreneurial success. In his 1995 book “The Diversity Myth”, co-authored with David O. Sacks, he anticipated many of the battles that would be exported in ensuing years to academic institutions across the West. Almost three decades on, Thiel now strikes a note of scepticism about the culture war as a whole. Namely, he poses the question: What are the debates over woke ideology distracting us from? And how can conservatives re-focus on themes of more fundamental importance?

Thiel first turns his attention to the economy. By looking at woke culture through this lens, he believes its beneficiaries—and potentially its benefactors—become clearer. Thiel deploys what he confesses is a Marxist critique, suggesting that the accelerating of ‘social justice’ discourse coincided with economic stagnation in the 1970s as a means to distract from the material underpinnings of inequality. Wokeness is the superstructure, economy the base.

His argumentation struck a particularly resonant chord when dealing with the UK’s housing market, as he decried rocketing property prices as a “regressive tax on the half of the population that doesn’t own houses” and a “formula for left-wing radicalisation.” Understanding housing as the central node in a nexus of modern problems for the right—collapsing conservative values, birth rates and national solidarity—relegates woke culture to the status of a mere symptom. It is an idea with traction among young conservatives, who cite the so-called ‘housing theory of everything’ as fundamental to Britain’s stagnation. For Thiel, this is a classic case where poor economic prospects breed ideological radicalism.

When you start to consider ‘wokeness’ as a fig leaf over the uncomfortable fact of stagnation, new interpretative opportunities open up. Thiel contends that this technique is used in science and technology departments as much as in the humanities. You’d be hard-pressed to find a conservative who reacted with anything but disdain to much of the social-critical ‘research’ pumped out by our faculties of English, Politics and Sociology. But Thiel contends that science departments find themselves in a similar rut. While technological progress has accelerated in some limited fields—most obviously the digital revolution—this distracts us from a more widespread atrophy that has seen little progress in, for example, the fundamentals of physics. Indeed, digital progress can obscure the presence of a rut. Your iPhone distracts you from the fact you are standing in a Victorian metro system.

Thiel’s lecture, then, should be read as both a warning and advertisement for the next-generation politician

Facing stagnation, economic and scientific, where should the conservative turn? At this stage Thiel’s talk shifts radically to the realm of the theological—for him, the most significant theme that petty culture war issues obscure. To some extent, this is a more well-worn approach to woke culture: the often quite superficial ‘woke-ism as religion’ idea has been floating around for years, enjoying especial popularity in the boomer community. But without further development it lacks any useful depth.

Adapting the wokeness-as-religion theme, Thiel instead considers another, more troubling possibility in a Nietzschean vein: wokeness-as-religion, yes, but crucially, as a development of the Christian religion. This is a judgement influenced by seeing the Christian ethic as a ‘slave morality’, where the elevation of victimhood in modern society can be directly linked to Christian teachings of meekness and humility. It is a judgement which has been taken up by the more extreme fringes of the online right, who favour a neo-pagan regression to the ‘right of the strong’. But for Thiel, a Christian himself, this is unsatisfactory. It must be possible to hold in balance the idea that ‘woke ideology’ may be predicated on Christian bases, while maintaining that Christian civilization (and Western Culture writ large) are of value.

What, then, is the solution? Thiel’s recalls Sir Larry Siedentop’s thesis in his superlative Inventing the Individual: if Westerners reject or disfigure the fundamentally Christian ideas and ideals upon which their societies, rights and comforts depend, then Western culture will most certainly ‘go’. Thiel’s call is for directional change, “a map of the things we’ve been distracted from by focusing too much on wokeness, anti-wokeness”. His packaging of the material and metaphysical concerns of modern life within a comprehensive religious narrative may well disconcert British audiences who “don’t do God”. And so it should: the inability of British political leadership to articulate a compelling, unifying narrative has triggered a vicious cycle of failure, instability and apathy – and not just on the right. Thiel’s lecture, then, should be read as both a warning and advertisement for the next-generation politician – any leader capable of combining a similar degree of vision and learning into their bid for power may well ensure that Western culture will go on, rather than under.

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