Soon after the CIA was created in 1947, it set up the Propaganda Assets Inventory (PAI), which was tasked with waging a war of ideas against the Soviets. The first ideological battleground of the Cold War was the arts.
Stalin believed the purpose of art should be to glorify Communist values, and therefore “encouraged” the portrayal of Soviet life. This style became known as Socialist realism. Stalin hoped that those outside the USSR would see these utopic scenes and be enraptured by his vision.
To compete with Socialist realism, the CIA needed an art form that represented American values of freedom and individuality. It eventually settled on a fledgling movement known as abstract expressionism.
This movement dispensed with describing reality, focusing instead on expressing raw feeling. Its revolt against the lines & forms of nature, and its emphasis on the experience of the individual, made it the perfect foil to Stalinist values of control & collectivism.
Abstract expressionism had the advantage of having low “attack surface”. Since it was abstract, it had no stable interpretation, and therefore no stable avenue of attack. It couldn’t be easily refuted through argument or subverted through satire.
The CIA sought out promising abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, and promoted them by forming partnerships with institutions like the @MuseumModernArt, funding arts magazines and exhibitions, and even infiltrating national newspapers.
Due in part to the CIA’s efforts, abstract expressionism became the first American art movement to spread internationally. The works of abstract expressionists like Pollock now sell for many millions of dollars, and can be found on the walls of elite institutions everywhere.
Now, my theory is that the CIA didn’t just push abstract expressionism during the Cold War. It also played a role in turning postmodernism (PoMo) and its problem-child, wokeness, into the institutional forces they are today. My theory goes something like this:
In 1950 the CIA founded the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organization tasked with dissuading leftist intellectuals from Communism. The CCF had to overcome a problem: leftist intellectuals were inherently resistant to US values, and therefore US propaganda.
The CCF knew that overtly promoting liberalism or capitalism would make it obvious the US govt was behind it, so it instead opted for a “multi-vector” front; it would favor no single ideology, but instead promote a diversity of leftist intellectuals critical of Soviet Marxism.
This strategy had two advantages. Firstly it was an attack on Communism from the left, so would be less suspect than an attack from the right. Secondly, it was decentralized and therefore hard to counterattack. It’s easier to shoot a tiger than a swarm of bees.
Though the CCF didn’t favor any single movement, it did have a guiding philosophy: end-of-ideology theory. This held that no ideology was eternal, and rapid industrialization had rendered ideologies formed during material scarcity (i.e. Marxism) obsolete.
The CCF was soon overseeing the largest propaganda operation in history, promoting ideas broadly aligned with end-of-ideology theory across 35 countries on six continents. It put particular effort into Paris, as this was then considered the heart of Western intellectual life.
Around this time, Paris was teeming with young intellectuals such as Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. To what extent they were influenced by the CCF’s operations in the city is unclear, but what is clear is that within a few years many of them were espousing similar ideas.
End-of-ideology theory was echoed in Lyotard’s idea of the “end of grand narratives”, which asserted that modernity couldn’t be defined by any single metanarrative (worldview). From this idea French PoMo was born, defined by Lyotard as “a skepticism toward metanarratives”.
The CCF facilitated the spread of PoMo mostly unwittingly. For instance, through the Ford Foundation it sponsored a 1966 lecture by Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, which is widely credited with introducing poststructuralism to the US.
One poststructuralist soon stood out—Michel Foucault—because he was the most political. He asserted that objectivity is an illusion; what’s true is determined purely by power. Dominant worldviews—including Marxism—force ideas & objects into categorizations, and are thus prisons.
As a former member of the French Communist Party, Foucault would not ordinarily have been admitted into the US. But for him special exemptions were made throughout the 1970s, allowing him to freely attend conferences and give lectures throughout the US.
Foucault’s views offered many compelling critiques of power, and were more relevant than Marxism to the age of abundance. As a result they quickly became fashionable among leftist intellectuals disenchanted by Marxism, and Foucault soon became the most cited figure in academia.
The CIA seem to have viewed Foucault as a weapon against Marxism. This declassified 1985 Agency report acknowledges that Foucault, whom it calls “France’s most profound and influential thinker”, was instrumental in the deMarxification of academia.
PoMo proved an effective foil to Marxism, because, like abstract expressionism, it had low attack surface. It lacked a stable interpretation and was essentially an anti-ideology, focused more on criticizing other worldviews than offering one of its own. It had no heart to be hit.
But the lack of heart was also a weakness: it made PoMo a poor substitute for Marxism, From the beginning the CIA understood that serenading leftist intellectuals away from Marx required more than critiques of Marx; it required new progressive values to fill the Marx-shaped hole.
Fortunately for the Agency, there was such a cause: civil rights. The CIA saw in this movement an opportunity to draw leftist intellectuals away from the working class, toward women and minorities, who collectively constituted less of a revolutionary threat.
A strong case for the shift away from “class consciousness” to civil rights was offered by the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, who was known to the CIA through his work for the OSS and later the State Department, where he’d formulated a lengthy critique of Soviet Marxism.
Marcuse had little regard for the working class, believing that with rapid industrialization and the birth of mass media the masses had adopted the culture of their oppressors, and thus economic oppression was now less of an issue than cultural oppression (like racism & sexism).
Marcuse’s ideas formed the basis of a new leftist movement, imaginatively called the New Left, which shifted focus from liberating the masses to liberating the marginalized. The CIA saw in the New Left a new heart for the leftists hollowed out by “the end of ideology”.
To this end, the CIA funded civil rights proponents throughout the 50s & 60s, most notably Gloria Steinem, who headed the CIA-funded Independent (lol) Research Service. It also funded programs at the National Student Union in a bid to influence new generations of intellectuals.
By the late 1960s, Steinem had come to be known as “the world’s most famous feminist”, and Marcuse was among the most widely read philosophers on college campuses. The CIA was not solely responsible for their success, but it’d require willful ignorance to think it played no part.
The 2 philosophies facilitated by the CIA—identity politics and PoMo—together succeeded in drawing leftist intellectuals away from Marx. But the intercourse between these two newly dominant ideas would soon birth a screaming, foot-stomping, toy-chucking infant called wokeness.
Following Foucault’s assertion that there was no objective reality and all categorizations were prisons, some among the New Left saw an opportunity to fight racism and sexism by “deconstructing” race and sex as shackles imposed on us all by straight white men.
The founders of wokeism, like Judith Butler & Kimberle Crenshaw, cherry-picked what was real and what was socially constructed based on what helped their arguments. When reason itself became an obstacle, it too was deconstructed, becoming another slave collar around our necks.
As such, even politely disagreeing with the woke was viewed by them as an act of violence, a product not of mere difference but of hatred, bigotry, and domination. This made any good faith critique of them impossible.
The founders of wokeism had little interest in being understood by the masses or even by the minorities they claimed to champion, since they wrote in abstract jargon. Their essays were philosophical Pollock paintings.
Like PoMo & abstract expressionism, academic wokeism wasn’t completely abstract—beneath the mess there was some meaning—but it was particularly attractive to intellectuals because it was abstract enough that understanding it, or pretending to, made one look & feel sophisticated.
The esoteric nature of early wokeism allowed it to spread among cultural elites while remaining invisible (and invulnerable) to everyone else. Some intellectuals, like Camille Paglia & @CHSommers, were quick to spot the danger, and pushed back, but wokeness still became hip.
In the early 2010s social media made wokeness go viral, partly by making acts of bigotry more visible, but mostly by facilitating virtue-signaling. From cultural elites, woke ideas spread to the image conscious: politicians, influencers, businesses.
As a result, mainstream political discourse quickly became dominated by issues of race & gender, and leftist elites began adopting more extreme views on such things than the women and minorities they claimed to speak for. https://bit.ly/3FMkgxW
With the woke now mainstream, they were emboldened to write in simpler language. Today’s wokeists don’t rely on esoteric jargon, preferring clear and direct challenges to common sense like “all white people are racist” and “sex is a spectrum”.
But though these wokeists often use simple language, their definitions remain far from simple. “Gender” can refer to biological sex, gender identity, and everything in between. The lack of stable interpretation allows the woke to speak plainly while maintaining low attack surface.
The fluidity of woke language enables motte-and-bailey tactics. The woke can publicly claim that “systemic racism” refers to the long-term consequences of historical oppression (motte) while telling the more gullible that systemic racism is a conspiracy by whites (bailey).
Like any conspiracy theory, wokeness neutralizes criticism by accusing critics of being part of the conspiracy (i.e. bigots). The constant othering of people as sexist or racist has created the impression we’re in a bigotry pandemic, sowing paranoia and more wokeness.
But though wokeness causes people to invent injustices, it also distracts them from real injustices. The Old Left focused its ire on elites. The new, woke left *is* elite, and focuses on criticizing the white working class, often ignoring those with real power.
For instance, rather than question Peter Daszak’s and Anthony Fauci’s dubious assertion that Covid had a natural origin, wokeists instead attacked ordinary people as racists for questioning the claim. They instinctively acted as enforcers of the establishment.
Further, while the Old Left was anticapitalist, the woke left is consumerist, The man who compared his life to slavery is sponsored by Nike, star of a Netflix show, and now has his own ice cream flavor. Buy it if you like chocolate cookie swirls with your critical consciousness.
t would seem, then, that the “end of grand narratives” merely amounted to the continuation of brand narratives. Revolution now means buying your pumpkin spice latte from a black-owned cafe.
And since the woke left are very much a part of the elite system that they claim to fight against, they are content to fight for “social justice” through token gestures like capitalizing the word “Black” but not the word “White”.
In the end, the CIA’s dream of a left alienated from the masses came true. The woke left may dominate the West’s cultural institutions, but it’s too lost in status games & language games to threaten the powerful. “What’s the matter? The CIA got you pushing too many pencils?”
But the CIA has learned that wokeness is more than a mere sedative. It offers a powerful suite of virtue-signaling tools, with inbuilt demonizing & scapegoating capabilities, and a low attack surface. And so, the CIA is now woke
And this brings us full circle. The CIA promoted philosophies intended to domesticate and pacify leftist intellectuals, and these philosophies fused together into a chimera that dominated the cultural mainstream and returned to consume the CIA.
The CIA is now firmly committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It believes that all people, regardless of race, gender, or gender identity, should have the opportunity to waterboard strangers.
And the woke left will continue to turn a blind eye to the CIA, to governments, to big tech and big pharma, because it’s too busy trying to cancel Karen.
If, as Marx said, religion is the opiate of the masses, then surely wokeness is the opiate of the elites. Wokeists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains! I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I hated writing it.