Is society defined by a culture war? Or is that just what those in power are telling us? Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson said in February that his party should put a “mix of culture wars and trans debate” at the heart of its election campaign.
The “culture wars” phrase that fills right wing newspapers and Tory speeches is mainly used to describe a clash between reactionary and, for example, anti-racist ideas. With the election fast approaching, whipping up scapegoating and division is real, and one of the only options the Tories have to try to convince people to vote for them.
They hope that by pumping out anti-refugee hate and signing off on fossil fuel licences, they can distract from their failure to deal with the crises hitting people in Britain. Crucially, the idea behind the phrase culture war is to obscure real racism, hatred and bigotry.
The term “culture war” was introduced to modern political reporting by the US academic James Davidson Hunter in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Much of what the Tories are hunting for now comes from the US, too—the modern British equivalents of the views of some evangelical Christians, the Deep South, and pro-gun fanatics.
The term suggests a debate between two legitimate sides. And it further tries to set up a group of “ordinary people” oppressed by the elite of “woke” commentators, lefties and politicians. It’s not racism and transphobia and climate destruction, says the right. It’s culture wars.
Yet this is also an idea that the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has bought into. Starmer is busily trying to signal to all the transphobes, racists and climate sceptics that he’s the guy for them. But the culture war games obscure that working class people, especially, hold a wide range of sometimes contradictory ideas.
Most don’t fit into the neat boxes the Tories and Labour would put them in. In a poll taken last year 46 percent of people said they thought immigration had a positive effect in Britain only 29 percent said it had a negative effect. And 38 percent of people said they were very concerned about climate change, and 44 percent were fairly concerned.
So buying into the idea that sections of working people don’t care about fighting racism or climate change is not only untrue, it’s dangerous. At its root, the culture war is about trying to stunt the growing class consciousness among working class people.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in 2020 the idea that racism and other forms of oppression result from the system has taken a much deeper root. The Tories don’t want working people to come to these conclusions. And they certainly don’t want trans rights activists linking with anti-racists and climate activists and pointing upwards to the real problem.
The culture war adopted in Britain is about a way to respond to the growing strength of ideas that challenge the system among working class people. Right wingers know that they are losing not just on the cost of living crisis or who’s to blame for the housing shortage.
Their racist views also cut them off from a large number of people. The left shouldn’t respond to a torrent of right wing and transphobic ideas by a retreat into the idea that only “bread and butter issues” matter and oppression is a distraction.
Instead socialists should fight against racism, imperialism, warmongering, sexism, homophobia, nationalism and transphobia, as part of the wider class struggle. This is the real war we have to fight.