There are those on the left who advise us not to get distracted by the ‘culture war’, and to keep our focus on the ‘real issues’. But as the Black Lives Matter movement and this summer’s wider anti-racist uprising have shown, the distinction can often be a false one. Frequently, what happens on the cultural or symbolic terrain plays a vital role in enabling physical and concrete injustices.
There are dangers to be faced when fighting on this terrain, but also real opportunities to secure positive outcomes, provided we fight intelligently and on our own terms. Ultimately, there is no route to success for our various liberation struggles that does not pass through the cultural battlefield, amongst others. And the idea that the left is at a disadvantage in this area is a major misperception.
Systems of power tend not to rely on brute force alone. They also generate shared meanings and construct collective identities which then work to sustain their political legitimacy. White supremacy expresses itself through state violence and socio-economic inequalities. It sustains itself through the constant portrayal of racialised distinctions, in subtle and not so subtle forms, at numerous levels of the cultural and discursive sphere.
Every cop, politician and border guard, every landlord and prospective employer, has had a lifetime’s indoctrination in the natural order of things, leading right up to the moment when they pull the trigger, launch the war, or slam the door in your face. Even something as superficially innocuous as popular comedy can play a powerful role in drawing the necessary dividing lines, and contributing to a wider process of dehumanisation. Statues like those of slave trader Edward Colston and British coloniser Cecil Rhodes do not merely offend. They normalise the idea that violent white supremacists should be venerated, and that their victims don’t matter. This is bound to have consequences.
There is of course a danger of anti-racist energies being diverted into a cul-de-sac due to the facile way the political class talks about race: in terms of ‘free speech’ versus ‘offence’. But frankly, it should not be beyond our wit to have these debates while evading this trap. We should see these as teachable moments, where we take the opportunity to draw the connections between the cultural and the concrete.
The simple phrase ‘this matters because…’ is our bridge from a debate focused exclusively on the cultural to one that highlights serious injustices, explains their root causes, and exposes our opponents as out of touch. Again, this is one battlefield in a wider struggle. Ensuring it does not become a distraction emphatically does not mean evading it altogether, or treating it as an irrelevance.
Fundamentally, what’s really happening here is not a ‘culture war’, but a battle over the terms of solidarity. We have our own ideas about what the basis and parameters of collective solidarity should be, but our opponents have theirs as well. White supremacy is one. Patriotism, not unrelatedly (and inescapably in the British context), is another. Not being ‘distracted by a culture war’, in practice, means granting our opponents free rein to assert their own sense of who’s in and who’s out, and to cut across the pluralistic sense of solidarity upon which our own struggles rely.
These challenges cannot be wished away, and we can rise to them effectively. For example, explaining the link between dehumanisation in the cultural sphere and police violence on the streets allows us to draw our own dividing line between a growing majority, galvanised by the moral force of the Black Lives Matter movement and united in disgust at the persistence of racism, and an eccentric rightwing fringe who have somehow convinced themselves they are the real victims in all this. Again, these are teachable moments, and if the right want to help us with this by dying on the hill of defending blackface, then so be it. It’s their funeral.
Such moments are vital but not sufficient in terms of securing the forms of solidarity that we need. In the end, it is through the unglamorous, low-profile work of grassroots organising that truly enduring senses of shared identity can gradually be built. This is where real, human bonds can be formed, through mutual support, and as a basis of collective resilience and empowerment.
Perhaps the biggest, strategic priority for the left has to be the reformulation of the collective sense of self, both in communities and in wider society. Kojo Koram suggests a truth and reconciliation commission to confront the history and legacy of the British empire. We might imagine what forms of collective identity and mutual understanding could emerge as a result of such a process, and ask ourselves what we can do right now to lay the basis for them to emerge.
A tectonic shift in social attitudes and values is already underway, manifesting itself most notably in a significant political divide between different age groups. This is not a divide that can be simplistically reduced to one between baby boomer asset owners and precarious millennials. The economic dimension is an important one, but part of a wider picture.
Much of the current rightwing moment can be explained as a backlash against these trends. Bitterness and fear amongst mostly affluent, white voters with authoritarian attitudes is being mobilised as a short-term political fix, but at the expense of conservatism’s long-term standing among the younger generations. In other words, they have been winning some important cultural battles, but losing the wider ‘culture war’.
The British left may have been sidelined from mainstream politics for the time being, but it can do a lot in the coming years to shift the terrain on which national politics is contested, and to clear the path for its future resurgence. The past few weeks are an indication of a major underlying change that is taking place. Our task is to harness and accelerate that process.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.