Slavoj Žižek: Puberty blockers are woke capitalism
The Marxist philosopher talks about wokeness, the progressive cult of awareness and awakening, giving it a suggestive psychoanalytic reading. And he warns that although today it appears to be under attack we will have to deal with it for a long time to come

Share this article

In a suggestive article published by Compact, titled Wokeness is here to stay - which we translate and partially reproduce here - the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek addresses the theme of wokeness, the "awakening" movement, analyzing its critical issues but also underlining the reasons why we will have to deal with it for a long time to come.


Some argue that “wokeness” is declining. In reality, it is gradually normalized and conformed even by those who internally doubt it, and is practiced by most academic, corporate and government institutions. For this reason it deserves our criticism more than ever - together with the criticism of its opposite, the obscenity of the new populism and religious fundamentalism.

Let's start with Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon's government has pushed the cause of the "woke" and LGBT issues (almost) all the way. December 2022 hailed a “historic day for equality” after Scottish lawmakers approved plans to make it easier for people to legally change their gender by extending the new self-identification system to 16- and 17-year-olds. You basically declare what you feel you are and are recorded as what you want to be. A predictable problem emerged when Isla Bryson, a biological male convicted of rape, was locked up in a women's prison in Stirling.

Bryson only decided he was no longer a man after appearing in court on rape charges. So this was a person who identifies as a woman who had used his penis to rape two women. It's quite logical: if masculinity and femininity have nothing to do with one's body and instead have everything to do with one's subjective self-definition, then a rapist who has a penis with female prisoners should be put in prison. After the protests, Bryson was placed in a men's prison. But this is also problematic under Scottish law, as we now have a self-identified woman in a men's prison.

Sturgeon resigned because she did not consider that part of the population that is not anti-LGBT, but simply rejects such measures. The point is that there is no easy solution because sexual identity is not in itself a simple form of identity, but a complex dimension, full of inconsistencies and unconscious ratchets, something that in no way can be established by a direct reference to how we feel.

The recent one controversy over the use of so-called puberty blockers concerns another aspect of this same complexity: the clinic Tavistock of London has been ordered by higher authorities to limit the use of puberty blockers which suppress hormones and thereby suspend a child's sexual development. Tavistock administered these drugs to young people between the ages of 9 and 16 who appeared to be unable to choose their sexual identity. Tavistock doctors argued that there is a danger that young people who are unable to determine their sexual identity make a forced choice under pressure from their environment, thus repressing their true inclination (mostly being trans). Puberty blockers would have been necessary to allow such young people to delay their entry into puberty,

Puberty blockers were given to almost all children referred for assessment at Tavistock, including autistic and troubled young people who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. In other words, life-altering treatments were being administered to vulnerable children before they were old enough to know if they wanted access to medical care. As he stated one of the critics  “a child who suffers from gender distress needs time and support, so as not to be sent down a medical path that he may later regret”.

The paradox is clear: puberty blockers were given to allow young people to put maturity on hold and decide freely about their sexual identity, but these drugs can also cause numerous other physical and mental pathologies and no one asked the kids if they were willing to receive drugs with such consequences. Dr. Hilary Cass, one of the critics, he wrote : “We … have no way of knowing whether, rather than buying time to make a decision, puberty blockers may interrupt that decision-making process. Brain maturation can be disrupted temporarily or permanently.".

You should do a take this critique one step further and question the claim that arriving at sexual identity is a matter of mature free choice. There is nothing "abnormal" about sexual confusion: what we call “sexual maturation” is a long, complex and mostly unconscious process. It is full of violent tensions and reversals, not a process of discovering what one truly is deep within one's psyche.

In many gender clinics across the West, doctors feel obliged to take an “unquestionable affirmative approach,” she said. one critic noted, with little regard for other underlying mental health problems affecting children. In fact, the pressure is twofold. For one thing, doctors are intimidated by the trans lobby, which interprets skepticism about puberty blockers as a conservative attempt to make it harder for trans people to realize their sexual identities. This is compounded by financial duress: more than half of Tavistock's income, for example, came from treating young people's sexual problems. In short, what we have here is the worst combination of politically correct persecution with the brutal calculation of financial interests. The use of puberty blockers is another case of woke capitalism.

Both of these controversies led to an at least partial victory for the "anti-awakening" forces: Sturgeon resigned and the Tavistock clinic was closed. But the forces at work have momentum that far exceeds the opinions of individual politicians and the dynamics of particular institutions. If anything, individuals and institutions are constantly trying to adapt to restrictions from elsewhere, rather than imposing them from the top down. It is therefore certain that similar scandals will continue to multiply.

As if the agitation of interest groups and the constraints of capital were not enough, awakening can also draw on reserves of religious strength. In our official ideological space, awakening and religious fundamentalism appear as incompatible opposites, but are they really so?

Almost a decade ago, former Muslim activist Maryam Namazie was invited by Goldsmiths College in London to give a lecture on “Apostasy, blasphemy and freedom of expression in the age of ISIS”. His speech, which focused on Islamic oppression of women, was repeatedly and abruptly interrupted by Muslim students. Has Namazie found allies in the college's feminist society? No. The feminists sided with the Goldsmiths Islamic Society.

This unexpected solidarity is ultimately based on similarity in form of the two speeches: wokeness operates as a secularized religious dogma, with all the contradictions that this entails (...)

Wokes are a relatively privileged minority of a minority allowed to attend a high-quality seminar at an elite university (…)

Psychoanalysis has a clear answer to this paradox: the notion of Superego. Superego is a cruel and insatiable agency that bombards me with impossible demands and mocks my failed attempts to meet them. It is the agency in whose eyes I am all the more guilty the more I try to suppress my “sinful” efforts. The old cynical Stalinist motto about those accused in show trials who professed their innocence – “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot” – is pure superego (…)

As Freud noted, the more we obey the commandment of the superego, the more guilty we feel. The paradox also applies in the Lacanian reading of the superego as an injunction to enjoy: enjoyment is a real-impossibility, we can never fully achieve it, and this failure makes us feel guilty (...)

“Wokeness”, awakening, actually stands for its exact opposite. In its Dreams interpretation Freud reports a dream dreamed by a father who falls asleep while keeping vigil before his son's coffin. In this dream his dead son appears to him, uttering the terrible appeal: “Father, can't you see that I am burning?” When the father wakes up, he discovers that the cloth on his son's coffin has caught fire from a fallen candle. Why did the father wake up? Maybe because the smell of smoke had become too strong, so much so that it was no longer possible to prolong sleep by including it in the improvised dream? Lacan proposes a much more interesting reading: if the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream can ultimately come so close to the reality that causes it, can't we say that it can correspond to this reality without leaving sleep? After all, there is such a thing as sleepwalking. The question that arises and that all of Freud's previous indications allow us to produce is: What is it that wakes the sleeper? It is not, In the dream, another reality? — the reality that Freud describes thus — Dass das Kind an seinem Bette steht , that the child is near his bed, ihn am Arme fasst , takes him by the arm and whispers reproachfully, and ihm vorwurfsvoll zuraunt: Vater, siehst du denn nicht , Father don't you see dass ich verbrenne, what am I burning? Is there no more reality in this message than in the noise with which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the next room? Isn't the missed reality that caused the child's death expressed in these words?

It was therefore not the intrusion of the signal coming from external reality that awakened the unfortunate father, but the unbearably traumatic nature of what he encountered in the dream. To the extent that "dreaming" means fantasizing to avoid confronting the Real, the father literally woke up so he could continue dreaming. The scene was as follows: when his sleep was disturbed by smoke, the father quickly constructed a dream that incorporated the disturbing element (smoke-fire) to prolong his sleep; however what he faced in the dream was a trauma (of his responsibility for the death of his son) much stronger than reality, therefore he awakened in reality to avoid the Real….

And it's exactly the same for much of the ongoing “woke” movement: wokeness awakens us – to racism and sexism – precisely so that we can continue to sleep. It shows us certain realities so that we can continue to ignore the true roots and depth of our racial and sexual traumas.

original article here, translated by Marina Terragni

Share this article
Scroll to Top