Culture Wars

Dave – the editor

A culture war is a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices.[1] It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values is seen.

The term is commonly used to describe contemporary politics in the United States,[2] with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, transgender rights, pornography, multiculturalism, racial viewpoints and other cultural conflicts based on values, morality, and lifestyle being described as the major political cleavage.[2]

Culture war

When I hear the term ‘culture wars’, part of me wants to switch off from the conversation there and then. This is not because I think the issues listed in the definition above are not important – for those suffering from prejudice and discrimination on top of precarity and poverty, they are only too all consuming and traumatic. The reason I want to switch off is the way the discussion about these issues is increasingly divorced from the issue of class and the material oppression that’s a feature of capitalism. Elements right across the political spectrum are guilty of making this separation.

‘Culture wars’ is one of those amorphous terms that means different things to different people, depending on what their political agenda is. When a political term becomes as loaded yet difficult to pin down as ‘culture wars’ has, it’s time to question its usage. Obviously, the range of issues it covers do need to be addressed but using more precise, less loaded and manipulatable terms.

According to some commentators, the latest round of culture wars here in the UK was sparked by the toppling of the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, after a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol on 7 June 2020: BLM protesters topple statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston. This is a bit of a superficial assumption to say the least. Colston’s statue was most definitely a divisive issue in Bristol, a city I’ve visited on a fair few occasions and one that from my assessment, still has some pretty serious issues regarding racial cohesion. Other issues that informed the motives of the crowd that pulled down the statue is the behind the scenes influence of the likes of the Society of Merchant Venturers among others on the way Bristol is run. For a detailed examination of this, we recommend this piece from the Bristol Radical History Society: Myths within myths…

Essentially, the actions on 7 June were about calling truth to power and anyone who tries to separate the elements of anti-racism and class consciousness that manifested themselves on that day is being more than a bit disingenuous to be honest. It should be pointed out that taking to the streets and general tumult is a noble, centuries old Bristolian tradition to be celebrated by anyone with a shred of class consciousness!

The distraction from the real grievances which informed the actions of those who gave Colston’s statue the mudpack treatment in the harbour started pretty soon afterwards with an artist erecting a ‘statue’ that was a crude stereotype of a white working class man. It was intended as a dig at those elements in Bristol who objected to the pulling down of the statue. Suffice to say, it was made by someone who patently has had little meaningful contact with working class people. It was a crude stereotype beloved of the liberal chattering classes who make no effort to find out what the realities of working class life are before passing divisive judgements upon us. This is dealt with in the second part of this piece from the now archived South Essex Heckler blog: Classist crap.

If the liberal chattering classes in London want to find out what the realities of working class life are, we suggest they take a look at the grassroots protests against the city wide imposition of ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTNs). These LTNs may well benefit the residents of the gentrified terraces but they disproportionately impact the lives of working class Londoners trying to go about their daily business. The protests involve Londoners of all colours, creeds and faiths and are the most heartening display of class solidarity I’ve seen in a fair while. A whole range of cultures are represented in these protests but what unites them is dealing with the real, material consequences of the arrogance and ineptitude of Transport for London, the office of the Mayor of London and local authorities right across the capital. Culture wars no – class war, yes!

The likes of Spiked! and small time actor, Lawrence Fox, are complicit in making sure the term ‘culture wars’ is frequently featuring in the headlines and forming a growing part of what passes for political discussion. The opportunist contrarians at Spiked! can sometimes hit the nail on the head in the same way that a stopped clock is right two times a day. However, incessantly banging on about their interpretation of culture wars is just point scoring for the sake of it without a real, material political objective to aim for. Point scoring may be fine for both sides of the culture wars debate, but for those of us trying to deal with the shite of everyday life in a failing system, it’s a distraction we can do without.

This may just be my personal and possibly imperfect take, but I get the distinct impression that it’s elements towards the right of the political spectrum who tend to use the term culture wars the most. Could this be because they’re trying to alter the terms of debate on class conflict, racism and how the two are more often than not, inextricably intertwined? Namely that they’re studiously trying to ignore the class divisions they’re exacerbating while sticking the blame for rising social tensions on different groups unable to ‘get on’ with each other because of ‘clashing cultural values’. Classic divide and rule tactics.

Lawrence Fox has launched a new political party, provisionally called Reclaim, to “reclaim” British values from politicians, who he says have “lost touch with the people”: Laurence Fox launching political party to ‘reclaim’ British values. Fox burst into the debate with his assertion that there were no more barriers for BAME people getting into the arts than there were for Oxbridge educated white people. The assertion was wilfully ignorant in that it totally ignored the working class background of a fair few BAME people and the structural disadvantages that brings about for them in any ambitions to break into the arts. It certainly glossed over the fact that there’s less opportunities for working class people of any background, white or BAME, to get a foothold in the arts compared to the 1960s when it felt like a lot of doors were starting to open. Fox pretty much ignored the class issue which understandably suits the agenda of someone seeking to preserve their privileged status, even if they seem to be oblivious to it.

As a bit of an aside, Fox really ought to be paying attention to the impact of the restricted ‘new normal’ which is screwing cinemas, theatres and other live venues to the point where many of them will simply disappear. If he doesn’t start paying attention to that, he’ll find that many of his fellow middle class luvvies will be obliged to ‘retrain’ because the boards they used to tread simply won’t be there!

Having said this, genuine grassroots working class culture will always find a way regardless of what’s thrown at us. It has done for centuries and it has always been suppressed in one way or another because of the challenge it presented to the ruling elite. A couple of centuries ago it was finding its voice in folk music and seditious pamphlets, now it’s finding its voice with kids on the estates developing their own forms of music, prose and writing on wall from tags through to street art. The kind of street art you’ll see on the sea wall at Grays, not the fake hipster version you’ll see in Shoreditch!

As hinted at earlier, I have a number of problems with the term ‘culture wars’. Namely that it implies differences between groups in society are based on their culture with no consideration of class conflict, let alone the material conditions applying to competing groups. Could it be the case that those using the term don’t really want to discuss the issue of class?

That would explain why the right seem to love using the term ‘culture wars’ and stoking up differences based on perceptions of different cultures clashing while downplaying or ignoring the class war they’re waging on all of us. It would also explain why the more liberal elements of the left who gave up on class struggle decades ago also seem to like using the term. Having given up on any involvement in struggles to advance the interests of the working class as a whole, they prefer to police our behaviour, disciplining and admonishing us with finger wagging self righteousness. In doing so, they are alienating an increasing number of working class people who are now to all intents and purposes, politically homeless. That is creating a potentially dangerous political vacuum.

I’m beginning to think that like ‘identity politics’, ‘culture wars’ is one of those definitions that mean different things to different people: Just what do we mean by ‘identity politics’? On the one hand, terms such as intersectionality and privilege theory describe fairly well defined concepts and analytical tools. When we use those terms, there’s little doubt about what’s being discussed. Granted I wouldn’t use those terms when writing for the Heckler – I would be looking to use more accessible forms of language. However, for the purposes of theoretical discussion, they definitely have a place.

On the other hand, as ‘identity politics’ and ‘culture wars’ are so amorphous with their meaning very much depending on who is using those terms, in my view, they are not useful terms to use. Should we as anarchists even be using the term ‘culture wars’? Are we not better off asking those using it, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, exactly what they mean when they use the term and pull them up for taking class conflict right out of the equation?

As the left have long abandoned the working class leaving a political vacuum behind them, it would be naïve of us to not acknowledge that there are some elements of our class who happen to be white who may be interested in what Lawrence Fox and his putative Reclaim party have to offer. For the middle class voters in the villages who have become disillusioned with the Tories, we definitely expect a bit of a surge of interest in Reclaim. We will be watching what Reclaim intend to do in our part of Essex and will interrogate their agenda. We suspect their Achilles’ heel will be coming up with any meaningful, practical solutions to the issues we face on a day to day basis. These are issues of system failure as a result of draconian lockdown policies, incompetent local councils screwing up infrastructure projects and corrupt councils with overly close relationships to property developers. Basically, the day to day real world shite that’s screwing up our lives.

Here’s a brief overview of what we have to deal with… We have a megalomaniac council leader in Basildon who wants to tear down the town centre and hand it over to the developers to shove up a hellscape of high rise apartment blocks: ‘Regeneration’ – the only way is up. In Thurrock, we have a local authority that’s trying to cover up why it has botched two infrastructure projects they’re in charge of while at the same time, forcing through the vanity project of extending their offices in New Road, Grays: Accountability? The extension of the council offices being a project which has already seen the destruction of a number of businesses owned by people of migrant origin whose premises were on the footprint of the proposed new building. In the east of Thurrock, we have the threat of a massive sand and gravel quarry which with the attendant lorry movements and environmental destruction would wreck our quality of life, hanging over our heads: There’s still time to stop the quarry. Then there’s all of the disruption and stress that lockdown and the ‘new normal’ has dumped on our lives: Gaslighting.

If anyone thinks residents in the south of Essex have the time and energy to get swept up by the likes of Reclaim, I would like to suggest they are very much mistaken. We already have more than enough real life issues to deal with. Which is why I tend to want to switch off when I hear or read the likes of Lawrence Fox and Spiked bang on about their interpretation of culture wars when around me, the signs of system and infrastructure decay and failure are becoming more apparent day by day.

Should the discussion around ‘culture wars’ intensify, then despite what I’ve written above, I will feel obliged to engage with it again. However, I sincerely hope that isn’t going to be the case. To conclude, as ever, constructive criticism and comradely debate around the issues raised in this piece are always welcomed. Abuse and snarky comments are not welcome.

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