Manufacturing Culture Wars
31 Jan 2021
Manufacturing Culture Wars
The Oxford Languages definition of a culture war is “a conflict between groups with different ideals, beliefs, philosophies, etc.”. While it is true the Right and Left have fundamentally different beliefs and values, right-wing figures and mainstream media would rather not allow these differences to be discussed rationally on a level field as this may lead to a questioning of the status quo and threaten the power of the ruling class. Instead, the common strategy for the Right and Liberal Media is to largely write-off any genuine policy concerns and direct all discussions towards smaller, cultural, and what they perceive to be ‘ridiculous’, changes that have generally only been suggested by a small number of people.
This allows them to:
1. Ignore structural policy concerns and focus on symbolic change.
2. Present these changes as extreme, ridiculous, and ‘too far’.
3. Have liberal, centrist media platforms such as the BBC perpetuate these narratives, extrapolating these positions onto whole movements and reinforcing a ‘common sense’ cultural hegemony into the public that rejects any progressive change.
One example of political discourse that can be easily applied to this filter is the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests. In the UK, Black Lives Matter groups rally around 5 major demands; “end racial discrimination in criminal justice, reform the education system, end racial health disparities, implement the recommendations from race reviews and stand in solidarity with the Black community in the US”.However, other than smaller progressive sites such as Novara media, Gal-dem, and the odd opinion piece in the Guardian, mainstream reporting on the movement contains little rational discussion on implementing these demands in proportion to the amount of coverage on spectacle and cultural changes. This fuels a narrative of BLM that is constructed intentionally in opposition with a manufactured ‘common sense’ in the UK. A perfect way to gauge this would be to analyse the responses of both major party leaders. Boris Johnson predictably offered nothing but thoughts and prayers alongside an ‘anti-racism panel’ commission for whom he appointed a chair who doesn’t believe in institutional racism.He instead focused more on spectacle such as rushing to the defence of Genocidist Churchill’s statue or the song Rule Britannia arguing we should stop our ‘cringing embarrassment’ of British history. The reason this strategy is so effective is that the media landscape of the UK has already instilled a common-sense cultural hegemony into the population that is defensive of British Imperial history with 69% of the UK indifferent or proud of the Empire, and 67% positive opinions on Churchill. To question these positions would be to question this cultural hegemony- “the cultural domination of a society by a ruling class which imposes or inculcates its own ideas, values, etc., thereby ensuring acceptance of the status quo by other classes”.To show how embedded this is into UK political discourse just look at the response of Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer’s response to a question about BLM. Starmer boasted about his work with the police and his disregard of any defunding (not even abolitionism) policy ,referring to it as ‘nonsense’ without any further explanation or debate. This was merely an attempt to directly undermine, not only the work and pain of current activists, but also decades of academia surrounding black liberation.By ignoring or writing off genuine policy demands as ridiculous and instead simply reinforcing views already instilled into the population through a bourgeois ‘common-sense’, rational discussion is taken off the table and the mainstream media serves its political role in using a culture war to preserve ruling class hegemony for state and capital interests.
Ash Sarkar notes how Black Lives Matter was “reduced to mere cannon fodder for the culture wars”by the MSM to preserve ruling class hegemony, for example when the BBC took Rule Britannia off the last night of the proms, causing a ‘cultural conflict’ even the PM weighed in on, despite the lack of any anti-racist organisation asking the BBC to do so. All the media must do is invoke aspects of this cultural hegemony, position X political movement on the opposite side, and they have a ‘culture war’. This also serves to completely detract from and ignore the intrinsic intersectionality of race and class. To try and fight one of these oppressions without the other is detrimental and radical anti-racist groups recognise this through long histories of critical academic works and activism. When liberal and right-wing politicians and media outlets disregard genuine policy concerns and instead focus on statues and songs, they disrespect the legacies of anti-racist and liberational thought as a whole. This comes in many forms from the ‘white-washing’ of Martin Luther King JR from a radical anti-racist socialist to a moderate whose quotes are used by white supremacists to argue against BLM protests  or the BBC’s removal of Rule Britannia rather than tackling at least their own ethnicity pay gap or multiple reports of institutional racism. The attempt by liberal media outlets to selectively co-opt anti-racist rhetoric while ignoring policy concerns can serve to undermine perceptions of a movement across all political wings, with even some on the left unfairly crying ‘class reductionism!’ , as a reaction to elements the media chooses to highlight, rather than acknowledging work of radical anti-racist movements themselves on the racial elements of capitalism.
Manufacturing culture wars has a long tradition among right wing and fascist political camps, the Nazi’s played on western fears of Communism by using the concept of ‘Cultural’ or ‘Judeo’ Bolshevism to equate all Jewish people as communist agitators in order to demonise both groups during the horrors of the holocaust. This conspiracy theory did not just stay in Nazi Germany however, during the holocaust many members of the Frankfurt School of, largely Jewish, socialist philosophers fled Nazism and headed for the USA. ‘Cultural/Judeo Bolshevism’ soon morphed into ‘cultural Marxism’- the belief that Jewish scholars in the US then set about infiltrating American cultural institutions with Marxist values in the form of ‘political correctness’.This antisemitic conspiracy theory is by no means confined to the USA or the fringes of the far right, in fact, last November a group of 28 Tory MP’s and Peers who call themselves the ‘Common Sense Group’ wrote and signed a letter in the Telegraph accusing “cultural Marxist dogma” as attacking British values, in response to the National Trust’s acknowledgement of historic links between some of its properties and slavery.Perhaps the most worrying part was the lack of accountability these members faced for employing such an antisemitic trope, especially since the lead signatory has since doubled down and defended the use of the term. This is not the first time in recent years Tory MP’s have invoked such a dangerous term and will certainly not be the last.
This ‘culture war’ has been more recently rebranded as the ‘War on Woke’ by right wing rags and senior Tory figures and has been taking the spotlight so far in 2021, for example there have been recent discussions on naming new roads after recipients of the Victoria Cross “in the latest salvo of the Conservatives' 'war on woke'” (how the left will ever recover from such a devastating blow remains to be seen), which also perfectly serves the other purpose of the ‘Culture War’, distraction. Highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe (as of January 17th)?Let’s instead focus on street names and get offended by Birmingham City Council naming a street ‘diversity road’ as if that was step 1 on the communist manifesto. On the 15th January the Telegraph writes of the launch of a new “anti-woke Citizens Advice Service” to “support workers threatened by culture wars” and “woke critical social justice ideology in the workplace”.
The bourgeois establishment from media moguls to corporation owners dominate and control almost every aspect of our culture from the news we watch, entertainment we consume, and even our education. The idea that there is some secret, Marxist plot to infiltrate state institutions has no bearing in reality and, as discussed earlier, has its roots in anti-Semitic, far right propaganda that has been normalised into mainstream political discourse. This ‘culture war’ is instead the reaction by the billionaire ‘establishment’ to the ‘threat’ of genuine grassroots progressive, socialist, anti-racist movements, and this establishment has the political and economic capital to set debate on its own terms, choosing to present these movements in any way they want, largely in accordance with the 3-stage formula mentioned earlier.
Ultimately, whether its liberal news sites focusing on spectacle rather than policy, right-wing MPs perpetuating anti-Semitic propaganda, Faux outrage over Biden’s removal of Churchill’s bust (which was an empty gesture in itself considering Bidens history on race), disregarding the demands of anti-racist movements and demonising them, or accusing ‘woke do-good’ lawyers of *checks notes* applying the law, the role of the ‘Culture wars’ is simply to maintain the status quo and keep the balance of power in the hands of the few.
Keir Starmer’s current strategy in ‘disarming’ the ‘Culture war’ has appeared so far to be one of appeasement. He believes the Right won’t have any ‘cultural ammo’ against him if he doesn’t call out white supremacist narratives on LBC, if he refers to BLM demands as ‘nonsense’, if he ignores blatant transphobia in the Labour party, if he hardly acknowledges the Muslim Labour Networks Islamophobia report, if he abstains on Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill (giving undercover operatives legal impunity to break any law including murder, rape, torture etc.) or the Overseas operations, ‘torture’ bill. This strategy is based on throwing anyone affected by these actions under the bus in the hopes of appeasing the right-wing media so that they’ll go easy on him. In moral terms, this obviously has caused immeasurable damage to already marginalised groups who once felt the labour party could represent them, but even from a purely electoral approach, no matter how many unions jacks you stand in front of, the labour party will never outflank the Tories on ‘patriotism’. Starmer’s approach involves trying to fight the Tories on their own playing field, one that is constantly shifted further in favour of the Conservative party by the billionaire media barons that support them. This amount of people on the left of the party who have been alienated will be in no way matched by the handful of voters that might come to Labour because he ignored islamophobia, anyone who’s voting behaviour will be influenced by such factors will never vote labour, nor would we ever want anyone with those views to feel an affiliation with the Labour Party. The alternative approach needed to combat this ‘Culture War’ is to disarm it, not by following the Tories to the right, but by rejecting the very paradigms it is based upon. Questioning why this journalist is discussing rule Britannia rather than discussing de-colonising the curriculum, questioning the UK’s rose-tinted view on its dark past, fighting to rebuild union membership that still hasn’t recovered from Thatcher, using genuine grassroots movements to question the status quo and fight for positive change to alter this ‘cultural hegemony’. This won’t be easy, the very nature of the UK’s media landscape has anti-socialism coded into it, but it’s a fight the Labour party will have to take built on solidarity. This is solidarity with unions, workers, marginalised groups, oppressed people domestically and worldwide, not solidarity with Billionaire donors and racists.