Let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about the so-called ‘culture war’. It’s not a technique employed by the right to manage the news cycle by ‘distracting’ us from the ‘real issues’. Nor is it being waged by the right from a position of proactive strength.
As it pertains to anti-racism at least, the ‘culture war’ is western conservatism’s defensive fight against a tectonic shift in political values which threatens to sweep it away in the medium and longer term. Anti-racism strikes at the heart of the dominant myths that have defined western conservatism for as long as it has been in existence. If a genuine, substantive anti-racist politics went truly mainstream and became the common sense of the age, conservatism as we know it would be rendered unviable.
Conservatism is about more than the pursuit of profit for the economic elite. It wouldn’t have lasted very long as an electoral force if it was. More fundamentally, conservatism is about the preservation of a specific social order, one which guarantees not only unhindered profit-making but a variety of interlocking forms of hierarchical power and exploitation. Conservatives ensure the preservation of that social order by working to maintain its legitimacy among a sufficiently wide section of the population.
Inherent to that project is the propagation of the myth that the status quo is the best of all possible worlds. Change is only permitted when it deepens and extends the dominant forms of power. And central to the myth of the holy natural order is the narrative of national greatness. By encouraging people to bind their personal self-esteem to a sense of national pride, conservatives create a popular constituency with a passionately held stake in their project.
The sheer power of this mythology should not be underestimated. In Britain, the Conservative party animated the forces of patriotic chauvinism to devastating effect in 1982-3 and in 2017-19, using the Falklands war and the Brexit crisis to secure the Thatcherite settlement on the two occasions over the past 40 years when it was most seriously imperilled. At a more mundane and day-to-day level, the dominant narrative is always there to set the limits of acceptable thought, speech and policy.
In practice, these myths of national or civilisational greatness have been indivisible from racism and xenophobia. ‘Our’ greatness has been defined – through the formative centuries of colonialism right up to the present day – by drawing contrasts with ‘their’ inferiority, be ‘they’ black people, south Asians, Arabs, Muslims, or whoever else needed to be denigrated in a specific historical moment or political-economic context.
But no hegemonic narrative is without its tensions and contradictions. Thanks to various forms of emancipatory struggle, the fundamental principle of human equality has also become a hegemonic value. The moral and political force of anti-racism derives from its roots in that near-universally accepted principle, making it extremely difficult for those who oppose it to contradict it in explicit terms.
We caught a glimpse during last year’s Black Lives Matter uprisings of what happens when this contradiction is brought into sharpened focus. For a few weeks, conservatism was caught cold and struck dumb as a real conversation about the reality and history of racism was forced into the mainstream. That conversation burst through into daytime television, sports coverage and talk radio, as producers and presenters allowed a far more thoroughgoing and critical discussion of these issues than regular guests like myself had previously been used to.
What we saw in that moment was a sense of what an anti-racist hegemony might look like. Not only a widespread recognition of past and present racial injustice, but an active curiosity about the crimes and structural violences on which the state’s power and the elite’s prosperity were built. Naturally, this conversation scared the shit out of the political right, and they’ve been scrambling to stamp it out ever since.
The Financial Times reported last week that while the short-term benefits to the Tories of firing up the anti-‘woke’ backlash are real and considerable, British conservatives are explicit in their fears about the strategic threat anti-racism poses. Of particular concern is the responsiveness of cultural institutions and universities to anti-racist narratives and demands. The Tories are determined to sever this link between the streets and the mainstream.
As such, the National Trust has been attacked for examining the links between slavery and Britain’s national heritage. The culture secretary has blocked a series of appointments to senior managerial positions in cultural institutions in an effort to purge the sector of anti-racism. And, of course, schools and universities have become a primary strategic target for the so-called ‘war on woke’.
Across the West, those who previously invoked – with utmost cynicism – the principle of ‘free speech’ to attack critical scholarship on race have now removed their masks and dived head-first into full-blown McCarthyism, denouncing such scholarship as treasonous and demanding it be banned by the state.
In the US, more than 20 states with Republican legislatures, including Michigan, Texas and South Carolina have introduced laws restricting teaching about race. More than six dozen leading scholarly and educational groups have signed a statement in protest, noting that “the clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States”.
In Australia, the conservative-controlled Senate recently voted to exclude ‘critical race theory’ (the neo-McCarthyites’ bogeyman du jour) from the national curriculum. The real concern was that Australian schoolchildren were learning more about the oppression and struggles of Indigenous Australians. Again, national pride was being undermined by treacherous educators with the temerity to teach their pupils about social injustices and the factual record.
Such sensitivities are bound to be especially acute in societies built on the unique violence of settler colonialism and genocide. But they are also to be found in Europe, expressed both by the reactionary right and the conservatives of the ‘moderate’ centre.
In France earlier this year, President Emmanuel Macron’s minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, demanded an official investigation into academic research on race and class, which she denounced as “Islamo-Leftism” – a “gangrene” that “corrupts all of society”. In the French context, the politics of whitelash dovetails with the Islamophobia that is rampant across the French political spectrum, providing echoes of the folk demon of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ invoked by mid-twentieth century European fascists. In both cases, the national body is undermined and infected by a shadowy alliance of racialised others and the radical left.
The real danger of these moves should not be downplayed, but nor should we fail to note the palpable air of panic amongst those making them. Coercion is being resorted to precisely because consent is breaking down. That is a sign of underlying weakness, not strength.
Because the fundamental problem conservatives have is this: the anti-racist critique of the West is correct. Morally and factually. Morally, because human beings really are equal, contrary to how conservatives would like to treat us. And factually, because western power and prosperity really was built, to a significant degree, on racist structures and racist violence. As Cedric Robinson shows us, racism was inherent to the development of capitalism itself.
The sense of conservative panic, and the resort to playing dirty, speak to an underlying understanding that what they are dealing with here are uncomfortable and dangerous truths. Truths with widespread and growing appeal, and the potential to shatter the chauvinistic narratives that define conservative politics. Our response, obviously, should not be to treat this conversation as a ‘distraction’, but to continue to tell those truths to as wide an audience as possible.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.