I'm so bored with the culture wars
 
The cliche has it that if America sneezes, Britain catches cold. This is an appropriately pathological metaphor for British fascination with America's seeming glamour and confidence. That glamour has been waning, but the emulative impulse hasn't disappeared. There have been many attempts over the years, to mimic the 'culture wars' style of US politics. And perhaps it has proven more catching lately thanks to the online anglosphere.

As Stephen Bush notes, the Tories are trying to make it a force in party-political competition. Among the various Tory attempts to create a 'culture wars' mode, the most recent pathetic instalment involves claiming that Young Labour are bigoted toward straight white men because they have, for example, meetings that are just for women, or gay, or disabled members to vote for their delegate. (I was invited to talk about this on television, but even a cynical, wizened, attention-hungry hack like me has limits.)

Beyond this, there are dozens and dozens of ritualistic attacks on 'snowflake' culture, often referencing student quarrels about 'safe spaces' and 'no platforming', in the Tory press. Not to mention the constant background drumbeat of articles asserting, in so many ways, that socialists and left-liberals can be identified by bourgeois styles of consumption. Their coffee, for example. They like skinny lattes, haw haw haw. They like their croissants, haw haw haw. They like their tofu sandals, baguettes and focaccia, and other items that can be purchased with Nectar points, haw haw haw. And these middle class posers clearly demonstrate their lack of concern for the working class by failing to support policies that price them out of their homes, haw haw haw.

One could add, to these examples, many of the tactics of Labour's hard centre, and its manoeuvres against Corbynism. But here, matters are complicated by the fact that most Labour MPs want to avoid a fight on the most combustible 'culture wars' issue of the day: Brexit. But there is plenty of excitable social media discourse which cheerfully adopts this mode. And there are signs of a nebulous backlash against this style on the Left, with both Abi Wilkinson and Aaron Bastani separately expressing worries about it.

I have some sympathy with these worries but, before going any farther, it is necessary to ask what the 'culture wars' actually are. Because, in a sense, all politics involves a culture war. There is no way for political polarisation to take place without it being indexed to certain moral and cultural positions. We can't retreat to the unavailing idea of a pure 'bread and butter' politics, because that is a backward, nostalgic fantasy with no real world content. Corbynistas understand this instinctively, which is why they have started referring to middle-aged white racists as 'gammon'.

But my sense is that what is distinctive about the 'culture wars' style, and the reason why it tends to produce uselessly polarised camps of SJWs and anti-IDs on the Left, is the way it detaches these cultural and moral positions from the political struggles that they have been articulated with. These, in a Gramscian process of trasformismo, have gradually (contestedly, contingently) been deprived of their potentially troubling content and incorporated into an emerging dominant ideology of the hard-centre, linked to the consolidation of ruling class identity and imperial nationalism. It has thus become possible in various ways for abstractly egalitarian values in the domains of race, gender and sexuality, to be harnessed both to US militarism and -- to the extent that class is left out of it -- to a certain idea of bourgeois civility.

Insofar as this has been effective in producing a new bourgeois ideology, it has also been formative of the reactionary backlash among declining class sectors, especially the more provincial white middle class. This is not the same thing as saying that their backlash is caused by this moral ideology. Rather, it is driven by a range of social transformations, from the decline of 'old economy' sectors linked to traditional 'ways of life', to the slow demise of patriarchy, to their fear that there will be a white minority in decades to come. Research shows that a surprisingly large minority of white Americans shift to the Republican right when presented with that prospect, on a range of issues that you wouldn't think are related. The fantasy of #whitegenocide is ultimately a fantasy that a deficit of white babies will result in the loss of 'whiteness', as embodied in the various relative advantages that presently accrue to that status. So we can't bypass the backlash.

But this elite ideology is formative of the reaction to the extent that a weakened Left has either been involuntarily defined by it in the mediasphere, or been effectively co-opted into it, either through the various apparatuses of the Democratic Party, or through NGOs and what are now called 'social enterprises', or through a certain type of academic discourse. So that a great deal of what the paranoid alt-right identifies as 'the Left' or even 'communism' is simply the relatively progressive wing of the neoliberal hard-centre. Or worse, potentially, corporate or university management extending their power and managing risk under the rubric of defending progressive moral positions.

The 'anti-identitarian left' derives a lot of its appeal from its seeming willingness to address class. The  absence of class from the rainbow of politically detached, reified values celebrated by social justice language, is symptomatic. And the absence is not addressed when people start voicing their opposition to something called 'classism'. That very mode of 'including' class in the discourse demonstrate why it knows nothing of class -- and thus also why it is also ultimately inadequate as an answer to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. The discourse acknowledges the 'systemic' nature of many of these ills, but perforce it cannot name the system. This is one reason why it often reduces to identifying and persecuting alleged individual transgressors, with all the jouissance, drama and cruelty that can be wrapped up in that.

Class-reductionism, of course, is not a reduction to class so much as it is a reduction of class. There is no class relation that is not also sexed, raced and so on. Immigration, war, racism and rape are class issues. So, even if we doubt the integrity of the 'culture wars' style, the language of 'social justice', and the growth of reified identities surrounding it, there is no way to sidestep these issues or wish them away. Even if it was desirable to evade racism, imperialism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism and transphobia, in the interests of a putative 'universality', it isn't possible. There is no universality that doesn't address oppression. And it makes sense that people engaging with these issues will start with the dominant idioms available to them, even if these are imported from another, very different national situation. That will be all the more the case if the Left doesn't own them.

One way of handling the appearance of this register is to contest it through the deployment of a certain bolshy irony and piss-taking. As much as I am ambivalent about 'bants', which can descend into machismo or cheerful political nihilism, sometimes it can have the advantage of deflating the drama of a certain pseudo-wadicalism. I don't think that calling people 'gammon', 'centrist dads', the 'fuck-you-dad left' and so on, is going to shake up systems of oppression. But nor is solemnly demanding that certain individuals address their microaggressions, work through the harm they have caused, and admit their privilege. And at least the former is characterised by the elan and buoyancy of a confident movement in the making, a movement which could address these issues.

Beyond this, if we don't want to get trapped in an ultimately demobilising language, it's worth asking what we can learn from the cultural styles of insurgent movements beyond the US. For example, the rising anti-racist movement in France, or the ongoing indigenous struggles in Bolivia, or the Dalits in India. International solidarity doesn't have to mean the Left's own version of Atlanticism. And that's, as much as anything else, what is boring about the culture wars. It's a grotesque narrowing of the repertoire.