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The Futility of Culture Wars Mark II

November 6, 2013

This follow up to my previous post on smugness has similarly taken its time to move from my draft folder to published posts. It may now seem that the culture wars that marked the start of the Coalition government have spluttered and stalled behind a veil of controlled silence. Yet we can expect the culture wars to return on many fronts: in the tussle for the accepted version of history on Remembrance Days; the overhaul of school curricula to replace it with Christopher Pyne’s values; questions of ‘taste’ in art; women’s bodies etc. Largely, I suspect the soldiers readying for these battles will be supporters outside of government, egging on the government to implement a far more militant agenda.

But before hastily sending more troops over the trenches and into battle, the Left need to ask some questions: Why are the Culture Wars back? How do they work? How, if at all, should the Left respond?


Welcome to the futile battleground of the Culture Wars.

Only days old and this government has already acquired a ‘here we go again’ quality. Those who recall how it played out under Howard are sounding the warnings, calling on the Left to disengage from combat immediately. Others are anticipating attack on every front from an outwardly confident Right. Instead they are dusting off their talking points from the last round as they prepare again to defend history against brazen attacks from a resurrected Keith Windschuttle or whoever will stand in as his equivalent. This time around we have established that there will be much fighting about Anzac biscuits.

Why are the Culture Wars back?

It is precisely because Abbott has no clearly stated agenda, no clear mandate on which to govern and real divisions within his ranks that he will spend this term waging an attack on ‘cultural elites’. Such squabbles do not endear the Left to the so called ‘aspirational’ class, instead revealing us to be uninterested in what matters to them and making it all too easy to be dismissed as out of touch with the rest of the population. In the rough and tumble of the cultural battleground where the likes of Miranda Devine and Paul Sheehan line up to defend the ‘Aussie Battler’ and the ‘Aspirational Voter’, it is becoming harder to tell just who the elites really are. But by being drawn into seemingly trivial debates that place faith in the political class, the Left only widen the gulf between them and a cynical and disengaged populace, the very people they hope to win over. It is equally frustrating and lonely for those of us who are more interested in formulating strategy. Ultimately, it takes up precious oxygen and the Left lose.

While the Left has more in common with the people it wants to win over than Murdoch, Reinhart or the IPA pundits, in the topsy-turvy cultural battleground it has become difficult to decipher the ordinary Aussie battler from the cultural elite. In the futile battleground of the Culture Wars the disconnect between the Aspirational voters and ‘them’ (the now stale characterisation of a latte sipping, ivory tower cultural elite) is amplified. It has worked to prevent the Left from significantly connecting beyond its inner city enclaves. It divides the Left from the rest of the population by branding us as ‘cultural elites’. It does not endear us to the so called ‘aspirational class’, and in fact it hardens some of the fixed assumptions the Left have about the very people we need to be winning over.

No doubt the daily assaults from a government and their emboldened supporters will induce despair in even the most battle hardened. The attacks already made on senior public servants, scientists, academics, artists and the National Broadband Network are ideological in nature. Culture Wars are never entirely devoid of meaning. Abbott is not simply replaying the battles from the Howard era. Nor is it primarily about point scoring. The other important difference is the Left is not as timid or weak as Nick Cater in his departing shot in The Australian suggests. So it becomes a question, not of whether the Left should fight, but how?

The Culture Wars are effective for the Right only if the Left fail to understand their logic and uncritically step into their pre-determined frames. If twitter, the forum where we take our outrage in the digital age, is any reliable barometer the Left have taken the bait every time. At each gaffe or policy announcement from a Prime Minister seemingly trolling the Left, the chattering classes have predictably erupted into an echo chamber tweeting anti-Abbott memes at each other. Social media fortunately will not be the ground on which the decisive battle is fought.

In examining how progressives might respond differently, Jeff Sparrow suggests it might be useful to find where the material and the symbolic meet and “to fill symbolic reforms with real content – to turn, say, the enthusiasm for marriage reform into a broader campaign against homophobia in all its forms.” The symbolic and material, I would add, are never completely disconnected or in binary opposition.

If the responses to Abbott’s Cabinet announcement are any indication, strategy remains a challenge for progressives. Before the Left gets drawn in to further debate about quotas for women in government, here is a question for feminists still dismayed that Julie Bishop is the only woman on the Coalition front bench: Would it make it any better knowing there were more women sitting alongside her when Abbott’s government implement even further cruelty to asylum seekers, roll back environmental protections, cut the public sector and the scapegoat the most vulnerable? Interestingly much of the criticism about the representation of women in government came from within Abbott’s own party. Perhaps we should carefully pick our battles and our terms, leaving this particular one over gender balance of an ostensibly conservative and punitive government to the Coalition party room.

It is not that such things are not worth commenting on — about the stuck-in-the-past and hollow nature of Abbott’s government — but to get into endless point-scoring shows that the Left is itself stuck, pining for an aesthetically prettier state machine.

Yet many of us have remained stunned in the headlights at the audacity of Abbott appointing himself Minister for Women. Ridicule is arguably one response. More effective would be to tie these announcements to the effects of Abbott’s conservative agenda. It would reveal, for example, that Abbott cares little for women’s working conditions, abandoning a key union win of a $1.5 billion wage increase for up to 350,000 workers in aged and child care. Or questioning the role Abbott expects women to play when he champions a Paid Parental Leave Scheme encouraging women to have babies while on the other hand pursuing industrial relations policies that would make re-entry into paid and child-friendly employment more difficult than it already is. Such an approach would connect with the experiences of those who have been feeling the hardest edges of neoliberalism – the very people the Left end up alienating when defensively fighting on the Right’s terms.

Similarly the disappearance of the Ministry of Science and abolition of the Climate Commission have seen the Coalition branded a bunch of idiotic buffoons rejecting all rational and evidence-based thinking. But name-calling loses sight of the green light Abbott is signalling to the confident climate deniers within his ranks and his base. It also misses the more elaborate long term political project of the privatisation of science. Along with other forms of knowledge, science will shrink from the public sphere to increasingly reside in the private sphere. Climate scientists delivering knowledge and evidence inconvenient to the interests of mining will be replaced with entrepreneurial scientists more willing to bend to the market imperative and offer up ‘solutions’ to engineer our way out of climate crises. Given the savage cuts and reshaping of the environment and science bodies to come, the Left will need to rethink how we debate this and what meaningful action on global warming might look like. The abolished Climate Commission reforming within days as the ‘crowdfunded’ Climate Council should not be cause for excitement. Nor is it in my opinion the best use of our money. Fighting with ‘science on our side’ has only entangled us in needless debates with more lavishly funded denialists. Moving outside of the state apparatus will not make Tim Flannery and other climate scientists any more of a thorn in the side of government than they were before.

Perhaps our reluctance to articulate an alternative is derived from many on the Left  swallowing the myth that we are a conservative, backward people. (Well, since writing this post and in case you were in a cave without a secure wifi connection, last month Russell Brand brilliantly questioned our misplaced faith in tinkering with a capitalist system to somehow deliver the fairer, more ecologically balanced society we want.  The people, or to be precise the people not so invested in the system as it is, loved it).

The challenges before us are immense, but it is clear that Abbott’s election has jolted the Left into reviving a mass based political movement against him. Oscillating between states of outrage and smugness for the next three years is not going to cut it as a political response. Especially with a government and their many well-funded allies in the media ready to entangle us in daily squabbles. The collective shrill of outrage and despair this elicits can drown out the more sober analysis required to unpack class, power and understand the political terrain in which we now operate. Such an analysis can inform strategy, help us articulate what we want and offer reasons for hope.

Abbott’s government could be voted out of office after one term and replaced with a more progressive vision for this country if the Left are able to take advantage of the impending political ruptures or crises not of their making. Crucially, however, it does not mean the Left can rely on Abbott stuffing this up and the tide of public opinion turning against him. It will not be as simple as calling for mass protests and building leftist organisations. It will be involve strengthening the Left’s purpose and preparing for how we undo the damage Abbott will deliver over the next three years.

Rejecting the logic of the Culture Wars requires an analysis based in an understanding of class and power and something that progressives tend to neglect: strategy. We will need to drop some of our fixed assumptions about the ‘aspirational’ classes. We will need to step back from smugness and outrage.  Outrage, smugness and ultimately despair are not our only options. Instead, the Left can and must articulate a political alternative.

You can read Part I on this post, Why so smug? here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2014 8:48 am

    Hi Antoinetteabboud,

    Great that you’re writing about the Culture Wars. Here’s an article I wrote to locate what I call systemic apathy:
    A Poorly Understood ‘Bargain’: How Democracy and the 60s Movements became Orphans in the ‘Free Market’ Era

    And since you mention Russell Brand’s shot at capitalism, you might like to read my article: “Combat Paxman’s propaganda revealed: How Russell Brand inadvertently provoked a confession from the combative vicar-like BBC broadcaster”.

    Thanks for liking/following the articles on Snoopman News. We have had 1,113,000 visits to our WordPress site since we published “Clipping Queen Bee’s Wings: Lorde’s real Grammy speech suppressed” on February 6. The story and ‘Full Transcript’ went viral via Facebook.

    You might like to read, laugh, get mad, ‘Like’ and RE-POST this PDF – “Lorde Censored: The Queen Bee’s Suppressed Grammy Speech”

    The “Lorde Censored” PDF contains:
    – Grammy Speech Censored: Front-page news in New Zealand
    – Lorde’s censored handwritten Grammy speech
    – Full Transcript (with citations) of Lorde’s speech.

    And see also the feature story:
    “Royal Pencil in Print: Lorde’s suppressed Grammy speech makes front-page news in far-flung New Zealand”

    Many thanks and enjoy,

    P.S. We also have a website.

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