The Woke-Industrial Complex

The battle for the military-industrial complex ends poorly for all Americans

The major revelation of the Trump years was the true identity of his primary foe. Whatever Americans’ partisan leanings, all even remotely engaged saw clearly that the president’s main and ultimate adversary was what Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. 

Today, due to the slowly-then-all-at-once eclipse of militarized hardware by militarized software, the infamous complex is known better as the national security state, the surveillance state, or, also infamously, the deep state. 

What is not as well known, primarily because of the exhaustive efforts by the main players to obscure their arrangement through a labyrinth of nested “private sector” entities, is how internationalized the complex has become, especially within the “intelligence community” of the Five Eyes member states (particularly the UK). 

But although this situation carries heavy implications about what has become of America’s regime, its central aspect—the effective control of the US state by the complex—has now moved so far out of the shadows that it has become what America’s ruling factions hoped it would not: an inescapable subject of “the discourse” requiring a progressively greater commitment of resources, including human resources, to incorporate the public relations problem that surrounds it into the broader informational and spiritual conflict prosecuted by the regime. 

Like clockwork, the matter has become a topic of anxiety-ridden discussion among top pundits at the New York Times. Jane Coaston, host of the paper’s “The Argument” podcast, recently derided “populists deciding that ‘the left’ loves corporate diversity programs, like they’re super jazzed Raytheon has a surface to air missile constructed entirely by black women.” The instantaneous leap from corporations generically to the complex specifically reveals that the true context of her comments—that “of course” corporate DEI programs “produce nonsensical nonsense”—is not really what it is presented to be. 

As Americans now broadly know, corporations, despite their massive power, are largely either satrapies or spinoffs of the federal government, whereas the complex, with its many conjoined administrative and corporate arms, wields sovereign power—fully insulated from public account—in a way even the most powerful corporations outside the complex cannot. What this means is simply that the jockeying for power and authority between the “humanities” institutionalism of the woke faction and the “science” institutionalism of the corporatist faction can only be resolved at the level of the complex, a process that now must be managed in the realm of “the discourse,” as it has now begun to be. 

In this process, the woke faction must pivot abruptly away from celebrating its triumph over corporate America toward dismissing corporate wokeness as an inherently flawed system that can only be redeemed or perfected by elevating woke doctrine to a higher regime tier: true wokeness means moving past anti-whiteness powerpoint presentations, even past reaper drones emblazoned with the rainbow flag, to a fundamental “reimagining” of the complex, one that perfects and completes the refounding conceptualized by “reimagining” policing. The complex can only be purified and legitimized in a digital age, woke doctrine must conclude, by transforming it, away from a capitalist-patriarchal system rooted in instrumentalized violence and toward a social credit system perfecting the nonviolent establishment and maintenance of social justice. 

Simultaneously, the other ruling faction is making its own pivot. Elsewhere at the Times, David Brooks recently intervened with a column insisting that, with regard to wokeness, “as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down.” Two main elements of thought define woke doctrine according to Brooks: one, “concrete benefits for the disadvantaged—reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies”—and, the other, “savage word wars among the highly advantaged.” For Brooks, the same dynamic that absorbed “a genuinely bohemian counterculture” into the (implicitly bourgeois) “primary ideology” of American “success” will work its magic on woke doctrine, ensuring, to America’s benefit, that its established corporate superstructure is not spiritually and scientifically reengineered for a digital age. “Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously,” Brooks enthuses, “taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it” and turning it “into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like ‘privilege’ are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.” That barrage of ads coming out of the complex about how mentally unwell woke millennials are prized candidates for careers in the complex? The Brooks position must conclude that this heralds the ultimate neutralization of the woke faction, not its imminent revolutionary transformation of the American regime. 

And indeed, Brooks is explicit that “corporations and other organizations [emphasis added] are eager to hire top performers, and one sign of elite credentials is the ability to do the discourse. That’s why the C.I.A. made that widely mocked recruiting video that was like a woke word salad: cisgender, intersectional, patriarchal.” What the Brooks position does not disclose, however, is that those “other organizations” such as the Agency which make up the complex are, unlike “the meritocracy” and its “establishment” corporate superstructure, a sovereign faction, which means that their success or failure at assimilating the woke faction down to a mere aesthetic-semiotic performance is decisive to the question of whether America will experience a wholesale transformation of its regime away from one ruled by the complex and toward one ruled by the woke. 

Still more importantly, however, is exactly what is going unsaid by either ruling faction. More likely than the woke dream of beating America’s universal sword into a utopian plowshare, or the complex’s dream of reducing woke doctrine to one more “hearts and minds” campaign to be weaponized toward planetary control, is the third possibility: the birth of a woke complex on the basis of the ultimate principle perhaps not-so-secretly shared by both ruling factions: that the only real solution to the problem of imperfect human politics is the abolition of politics by way of technological posthumanization. 

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.