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THERE is much talk in the media these days about culture wars, being “woke” and the dangers of “cancel culture” — but they are concepts few people really understand.
In a Times Radio poll in February, respondents were asked what they think “culture war” means. Only 7 per cent came up with a relevant answer, 15 per cent got it wrong, and a whopping 76 per cent said they didn’t know. However, just because people don’t know what a culture war is doesn’t mean they’re not in one.
As long as you have a class system there will be culture wars: a conflict between the hegemonic culture of the elite and that of the oppressed classes. These simply reflect the conflict between class economic interests.
Today, with the sharpening of the class struggle and an increasing awareness of the bankruptcy of capitalism, the global ideological struggle also becomes more acute.
Faced as we are by existential problems, the struggle for ideological and cultural hegemony becomes increasingly significant — but also more acrimonious.
We have seen a highly effective protest by women around the Me Too movement, alongside Black Lives Matter and the global campaign demanding radical action on climate change. Such grass-roots movements are challenging widely held belief systems and traditional hierarchies.
At the same time these are being challenged and dismissed by the ruling elite. Instead, minor issues are being blown up out of all proportion in order to sideline real protest. When the Queen’s photo was removed from the common room at Magdalen College, there was outrage in the media — and the uproar over England’s football team taking the knee or the debate over the removal of the Rhodes statue in Oxford, are all only symptoms of a wider and deeper shift in attitudes.
A report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, based on a major research project about culture wars, found that while there are many important differences between Britain and the US, there are “clear echoes” of the US experience, where we could be at the early stages of a trend seen in the US already in the 1980s and 1990s.
The report says that many people’s views on cultural issues have become tied up with the Brexit debate, while people’s party-political identities, although not as strong, show similar alignments. This provides the “conditions for more all-encompassing division,” as compromise across these divides becomes harder when cultural perspectives become a core part of how we see ourselves.
Old-style political parties are struggling to articulate what needs to be done. This has presented an opportunity for right-wing populist politicians and narratives to fill the void.
The present battles within the Labour Party under Keir Starmer are also symptomatic of these culture wars, with claims of anti-semitism being instrumentalised by the establishment to bash the left. The divisions that have opened up within the Labour Party are to an increasing extent grounded in differences in cultural politics between its middle-class metropolitan supporters and its traditional working-class base.
The politics of culture wars, particularly as being waged by the present government, also have the potential to inspire fundamental bigotries leading to ever greater and more damaging divisions.
The attempts by the Tory government to get Paul Dacre appointed chair of media regulator Ofcom and the similar manipulation of key appointments in the public sphere are all part of a more extreme politicisation of culture by the elite. If the ruling class manages to successfully shift public focus towards more symbolic and emotive issues, it’s a change that can be more easily exploited and directed by the cynical.
The journalist Matthew d’Ancona says, “What’s interesting now is the speed with which cabinet ministers or indeed No 10 respond. That to me signals we’re into a different kind of political game. One where a strategy is at work.” (Quoted in an Observer report by Andrew Anthony, June 13, 2021.)
“The culture wars suit the Johnson way of doing things,” he says. “He’s good at things that involve short, memorable slogans and showmanship.”
Certainly if we look at the US, where the modern incarnation of the culture wars was first identified, the conflicts over abortion rights, gay marriage and the climate catastrophe have been fought, at least by one side, from an explicitly religious perspective.
The US sociologist James Davison Hunter gave popular currency to the term in his seminal 1991 book Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America. He argues that they were about the orthodox versus the progressive. That division fits the situation in Britain, too, but without the religious element.
The left sees issues of identity — those concerning race, gender and sexuality — as battlegrounds of progress versus stagnation. They are struggles about liberating oppressed minorities from under the dominance of white male power. But as the battles have become more complex, particularly around transgender issues, there is a danger of identity politics getting in the way of solidarity and joint action. The ruling class is all too ready to exploit such divisions in order to maintain control.
On the left, we need to be constantly aware of how culture is key in the battle of ideas. If we wish to challenge and defeat ruling-class hegemony, we have to expose the inhumanity and banality of its culture industry, particularly in films, social media and television. The left has to challenge ruling class ideology in all its forms, not just in the workplace and on the streets.
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