For the left, culture war logics are individually exhilarating and collectively damaging. But efforts to understand the problem are not helped by superficial polemics about cancel culture. Here, Marxist legal theorist Gregor Clunie examines how a layer of professionals captured ideas of popular power and civilisational ‘progress’ in service of state power, making it harder than ever to build a collectivist leftist response to the crisis of capitalism.
As the efficacy of the neoliberal ‘fix’ for Britain’s ailing economy has waned, concessions have become increasingly symbolic. The very idea of civilisational advance, of ‘progress’, is both the mode of consensual integration and of coercive disaggregation. ‘Progressiveness’ in politics comes to serve the status quo and has been drawn tightly to the reproduction of the neoliberal state.
Discursively, the politics of representation have not only displaced those of redistribution – the former have come to be mobilised against the latter. Struggles against oppression have been re-cast as struggles against oppressive individuals, while the logic of individual responsibility and accountability has displaced that of structural transformation through collective organisation. Complex social phenomena are being recoded into reductive categories of progressive virtue and reactionary vice, which are projected upon worthy and unworthy social actors.
Navigating these categorisations has become a competitive-performative game which undermines authentic discourse and precludes organisation across the red lines of an increasingly fraught moral universe. Further, the proffered ‘solutions’ to systemic oppressions both conceal their true causes and become allied to their material reproduction.
Are these new problems, or specific reflections of our era? Certainly, contemporary media technologies are part of the problem, if only in creating the illusion of a horizontal diffusion of power and influence. Social media campaigns often feel organic, popular and even insurrectionary.
In truth, this mesmerising sense of popular agency is the trap. Rarefied online spaces reproduce broader social power asymmetries. They are invariably dominated by the professional managerial class and animated by its liberal idealist imaginary. The underlying vision is one of social transformation as a progress of sentiments – if only we can topple each and every powerful reactionary actor, we may cleanse the social totality. Consequently, constituencies who are politically active in this way tendentially fall in behind increasingly perverse arrogations of disciplinary power in the hope of holding powerful reactionaries accountable.
Campaigns to ‘cancel’ given individuals are rarely successful in proportion to their alleged crimes. Even the most successful takedowns, as with Harvey Weinstein, were largely blows at the gestural level, rather than precursors to a wider assault on systemic violence. More often, the cancellation game tends to be most cruelly effective against junior and mid-ranking academics, journalists, authors and artists, who occupy employed positions subject to intense labour market competition. There are certainly perverse incentives for those (would-be) members of the professional managerial class who typically orchestrate such efforts.
One of the most appalling projects in contemporary British politics is the monstering of Jeremy Corbyn. The fact that Corbyn was targeted, after a lifetime of unfashionable anti-racist campaigning, illustrates the underlying perversity. It revealed a practiced deference to a coterie of state-aligned commentators, whose individualised social media platforms conceal their corporatist organisation. There was a deafening silence even among those who kept their wits yet feared being trampled underfoot by the gathering stampede.
The left’s confused or fearful responses to these accusations illustrates how, in recent years, British culture and politics has been a veritable graveyard of popular autonomy. Across a swathe of key socio-political issues – from Brexit to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine – the left has been largely unable to establish an independent position which achieves any purchase upon popular consciousness. Ostensibly ‘progressive’ voices are only heard when they resonate with the imperatives of the state or elite politics.
Thus, in Brexit discourse, Leave voters are constructed as irremediably racist, and thus afflicted by individual moral failings, similar to Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’. Meanwhile, the dream of international cooperation is projected upon a constitutively anti-democratic supranational project which has immiserated the European South and drowned tens of thousands in the Mediterranean.
On Ukraine, from among the rank of self-proclaimed socialists has emerged a brave clerisy who have sought to sanction all commentary which is deemed to be insufficiently critical of Putin’s Russia. In such an atmosphere, any effort to meaningfully interrogate the deeper causes of the war in Ukraine appears as heretical.
At such a troubled impasse, the struggle is to remember who we are. Just as precarity in sectors tasked with ideological reproduction (higher education, media and the arts) has conditioned the competitive venom of the professional class, the demise of popular political organisation has left socialists underdeveloped and underconfident.
Fundamentally, socialists don’t believe that structural oppressions are resolvable through mechanisms of individual accountability, nor do we typically delight in the crucifixion of the sinner. Dreams of civilisational progress as expressed in the cultivation of an interpersonally virtuous public life – a court of perfected etiquette – are not our own. Society can be transformed only through the entry of democracy, with all its messiness, contradiction and imperfection. Our tradition is not one of requiring the cleansing of all prejudice and renouncing of all privilege as a precondition of participation – we say, ‘come as you are’.
While it is tempting to rush into the embrace of the state-national consensus, the sacrifice of oppositional autonomy is a huge and unjustifiable price to pay. The same state power which dangles the tantalising possibility of civilisational advance – through atomised assimilation of the worthy and erasure of the deplorable – daily reproduces the material contradictions which power reactionary sentiments. The salvation the state offers with one hand is overwhelmed one thousand-fold by the damnation it metes out with the other.
Only concrete political organisation and meaningful, authentic debate can break the stranglehold of the professional ticket inspectors of public opinion. In this context of degraded discourse, it becomes essential to rebuild organisation in which it’s possible to debate, to disagree, to speculate, to explore, to make mistakes and – above all – to change your mind. To act together, despite and indeed because of difference. Such a dynamic would ultimately need to be reproduced in workplace, community, regional and national organisations if we’re to stand a chance of recovering what’s been lost.
The critical groundwork necessary to establish ideological autonomy cannot be dispensed with in the ‘good times’ only to be recovered in the bad. There are certainly many difficulties in reimagining organisational forms capable of binding together in mutual interest and common purpose the zealously individualist competitively-consuming subjects generated by 21st century capitalism. However, practically there is no alternative.