‘Wake up!’ – the myth of sleeping populism

Michael Gove and the Conservative party’s ‘Far Right’ – AKA English people
Photo by Thiago Rocha on Unsplash


We often see an idea being expressed by those on the right that the people will eventually ‘wake up’. Or, we are told that there are clear signs that people are already ‘waking up’ and this is an exciting development.

In this essay I want to critique the concept of  ‘waking up’ and convince you that it is not an accurate or helpful way of thinking about political change. Moreover, I would go further and argue that it is an example of a  ‘political formula’, or way of understanding how society works, that is designed to control and limit how people think. Belief in the waking up concept is actively encouraged by the power structure in order to stop change from happening. Widespread belief in the ‘waking up’ concept also means that a huge amount of dissident energy is spent trying to wake the public up, which is largely a wasted effort.

What do we mean by the “waking up” concept?

As a metaphor, the phrase ‘waking up’ uses comparison to notions of sleep and waking to illustrate figuratively how political change can happen. In order to ‘strong man’ the metaphor to start with, I’d describe the process of ‘waking up’ more fully as follows:

Under representative democracy we vote for politicians to act in our interests. However, our leaders are corrupt and act against us. Perceptive people notice this and start raising the alarm. But, most people are asleep to the harm being done. Eventually, however, things get so bad that a tipping point is reached and people start waking up to reality. Faced with this undeniable populism, eventually the weight of public opinion forces those in power to listen to the people.

I think this is a fair summary of how most people see political change as working. It asserts that people ‘waking up’ is the key to unlocking political change. And that within any political cycle, you can have periods of a sleeping populism which eventually awakens given the right circumstances.

(Incidentally, the phrase ‘waking up’ appears to originate from left wing discourse, giving rise to the term ‘woke’. It seems to have originated in the US from the civil rights movement and is also reflected in Marxist notions of class consciousness. The right is therefore adopting a mostly leftwing dialectic when it talks of waking up.)

Argument 1: Taking the red pill is not for the masses

A similar phrase to ‘waking up’ is ‘taking the red pill’. This is a reference to the film The Matrix where the character Neo chooses to leave the false computer generated world of the Matrix and return to the harsher real world. This phrase was popularised on the right by the blogger Mencius Moldbug. I’m sure many readers, including myself, would consider themselves red pilled, and I do think this is a good metaphor for the epiphany of thinking that many in the ‘dissident’ sphere have experienced. It implies an intellectual rejection of the existing political hierarchy, its core political narratives /political formulas and a reaction against the direction these are taking us. I think it is a better way of describing the phenomenon of ‘waking up’ because, as Moldbug made clear at the time, being red pilled is not a mass event. It is elitist in this respect. Neo is special and not part of the masses trapped inside the Matrix. He begins to notice problems with the Matrix that others could not see. In contrast, I firmly believe that outside of a relatively small percentage, the masses or the people as a broad group can never truly be woken up as they lack the individual attributes required to be red pilled.

Most people need the approved narratives of their time to interpret the world. This is because they want to fit in and live a life of comfort. Even if things start getting harder they are more likely to respond as frogs do to slowly boiling water. To go up against the dominant power regime is too costly at a psychological level and so they subconsciously post-rationalise its truthfulness to themselves. Covid compliance was a prime example of this. Whilst it was understandable that almost everybody physically complied with the restrictions given the fact these were actively enforced, what I think shocked many of us was just how convinced most people appeared to be by the narratives churned out by authorities. Even when these narratives did an about-turn overnight, most people immediately re-aligned their beliefs accordingly.

To be less charitable, we could say that most people are sheep and don’t want to wake up. They need to be part of a flock and require herding by shepherds. A good indicator of this can be seen when someone goes against the narrative on a particular topic but then completely aligns to the approved positions on nearly all other topics.

It takes a particular set of psychological characteristics to be a true dissident, and these always seem to be found in a minority of the overall population.

Argument 2: Dissent requires pre-defined alternative ideologies.

The suggestion that people can simply ‘wake up’ by their own volition is also problematic because reality is not something that can be discovered by most people by themselves. The waking up metaphor assumes a concrete and observable reality to which one can revert to with a sudden change in consciousness. But our ways of understanding the world have been created for us through certain philosophical beliefs becoming ingrained within our western culture. In the modern world the resulting beliefs are then disseminated through propaganda, which varies from crude to highly sophisticated.

As such, our understanding of the world is always mediated through prior ideas and ideologies. At a certain level everything is ideological. Even rejecting ideology is itself an idea that someone else came up with. So there isn’t an objective reality that can be discovered simply by waking up and seeing it, as the metaphor implies. Now it could be that the select few who are red pilled don’t have the same need for such ideological certitude – that they are more comfortable setting out onto an open sea without seeing the next landfall. But generally speaking, most people must be exposed to alternative ideas of sufficient force to overcome the prior ones.

But what about good old-fashioned common sense?

In counter to this, the right often points to the concept of ‘common sense’ as a primordial level of understanding that can always be reverted to. Waking up is seen as simply applying this common sense forthrightly and not succumbing to the latest nonsense. This simplification is highly appealing as it seems to cut the feet from under the focus on ideology. But having thought about this, an appeal to common sense is usually more a case of having a negative view of newer and more radical ideologies and holding on to the immediately prior modes of thinking or behaviour. I’m sure that common sense would look different in the 2020s compared to the 1620s. This reversion response happens more by default from those not motivated for various reasons into jumping on board the ‘latest thing’. Now, I think this response is certainly better than nothing as the world is progressively getting worse, so any push-back to an earlier way of thinking is preferable. But as liberalism becomes more and more ingrained that reversion goes back to a more and more liberal way of thinking. It is not truly reactionary.  As the Jolly Heretic has pointed out in his study of left-wing and liberal people, it is usually the case that those who don’t sign-up to the latest thing are typically less intelligent and less self-promoting. It requires a certain intelligence and motivation – a certain level of Machiavellianism – to work out what the dominant ideas are and how to benefit personally from them. In not doing this, such people are not waking up, they are more like the stragglers to the dominating ideology. Moreover, we usually see such groups avoiding rocking the boat and paying lip service when they have to. We mustn’t confuse the appeal to common sense with the red pill.

Argument 3: The current conformity dominates

In the present time, the current conformity, or the dominating narratives, have several natural advantages over their alternatives, making alternative ideas much harder for people to adopt on a widespread scale.

The current conformity has been curated to appear clear and understandable. If you look at one part of it in isolation, in the form it is presented, it also appears sufficiently logical to be socially acceptable.  In contrast, alternative visions are usually vague and less defined. The right is also more prone to internal debates whereas the left appears to be able to create consensus even in unlikely circumstances. So the level of clarity is actually an inversion of the dream/waking up metaphor in terms of resolution between the two states. By way of example, let’s take the fundamental question “who controls the western world?” The conformist answer is that the people do under representative democracy and through elections, with a fuller answer perhaps being the waking up cycle I described at the start which takes into consideration the flaws in this system. If you have a less conformist view, answering this question is much harder, and open to considerable debate.

The current conformity is also continuously re-enforced by the media and the general culture as being correct. Those who show signs of going against it are quickly demonised. There is a constant moral imperative to accept the current approved ideas. The hurdles set up by the system don’t even need to be very high because of the psychological character of the masses I described earlier. As such, we live in what has been described as a ‘soft managerial’ regime. Dissent does not need to be crushed because the population can be sufficiently controlled with persuasion techniques and a bit of bullying where necessary. Through the concept of political correctness, people have even started policing themselves. All of us have an acute sense of what would be considered incorrect speech under the current hegemony.

Argument 4: The fracturing of society into self-interest groups.

Perhaps an even more intractable challenge is the fracturing of society into different self-interest groups. Underlying the waking up myth is the deeper myth that we still live under a collective identity – that ultimately the people are one body whose interests can be expressed and met. As we become more multicultural and globalist though, different groups assert different demands which are not mutually compatible. This plays into the hands of the elites as they can create complex alliances with disparate self-interest groups. This problem grows bigger day by day, and yet is considered solvable by the mainstream right if only a majority can wake up to the same shared interests. The idea of ‘one nation conservatism’. This is a liberal delusion as we are increasingly seeing.

Argument 5: Waking up as containment

Having started this essay with the red pill, it’s time to bring up a black pill. In practice, much of what we might consider waking up is actually containment – people are allowed to start expressing certain dissident beliefs as a pressure release. These beliefs may well be true and representative of an awakened state, but the regime is nevertheless controlling the allowable form that this takes. In Orwell’s 1984, Winston was allowed to read Goldstein’s dissident book and undertake certain acts of rebellion. He was being watched throughout. By the end of the novel we discover that the dissident book he read, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, whilst accurately diagnosing the totalitarian system of Big brother, was in fact produced by the regime itself. The regime created its own dissent in order to control it. It is no coincidence that Piers Morgan’s recent book is called ‘Wake Up!’ and calls for a return to common sense politics.

Examples given of the public waking up are actually containment, or the regime retreating slightly following a particularly audacious manoeuvre. For example, I have heard it said that the public woke up to the covid sham of masks, social distancing and vaccines. But is that really what happened, or did the regime say that these things were no longer necessary and the public simply agreed? And has the public woken up to the clownworld that is ‘woke’ or have corporations merely dialled it back because it started getting ridiculous?

Argument 6: Power is always exercised by an organised minority

Let’s assume for a moment that the waking up of the masses is actually possible in a direction we would favour. Once this is achieved supporters of the wake up myth then assume their work is done. Somehow according to their understanding this awakened state automatically and magically triggers a corresponding political change. The image people have to justify this leap-frog is the pitchforked mob, the storming of the Bastille, and a fast-moving revolt of some kind. The sheer weight of numbers overwhelms the authorities who must capitulate to avoid destruction. Again, I would argue that this is another political formula andt myth purposely promoted by those in power. Plenty of historical examples are used to try to prove that such revolutions from below are possible. But this is simply not how political change has occurred when you look at how events unfolded. Power is always held by elites and revolutions are actually the result of organised counter elites and a transfer of power from one elite to another. The masses may play a role in this, but they are not in the driving seat. And their role is typically overstated when the victors write the history.

A good example of the gap between myth and reality is the January 6th ‘insurrection’. Democrats would have you believe that a large group of unorganised and unarmed citizens entering a particular building could somehow change the entire government of the country. As though you just need to capture the flag and the entire system is yours. Just a moment’s thought reveals how ludicrous this idea is.

If you could hypothetically achieve a public who had suddenly woken up to your political ideas, nearly all of your work would still be in front of you if the elites in power still held onto different ideas. How would public support compel the elites to dramatically change course? In particular, we now have a globalised system of institutions who hold power and so you’d have to somehow achieve this at more than just a national level or risk international punishment against your country.


This essay is not going to propose a solution to overcome these many issues. ‘What can be done?’ is a much more complex and subjective topic that requires its own treatment. I know that everyone wants to jump to this question in a desire to act. But, the important starting point must be to first understand the rules of the game in which we find ourselves.  And to not delude oneself into playing the game they have created for you because of an impatient desire for action. The political formula of representative democracy, a sleeping populism, and the panacea of the people waking up, are all encouraged because they protect the current system – such ideas fix the game in favour of the status quo. Any chance of overcoming this first requires an honest understanding of how power really works in order to come up with effective strategies.

© JimmySP 2024