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Culture in the Culture War: New Socialist at TWT21

by The Editors
September 25, 2021

Looking ahead to our panel discussion at The World Transformed 2021. 1150 words / 5 min read

Culture in the Culture War at The World Transformed
Brighthelm Centre, Brighton.
15.00-16:30 // 27th September, 2021.
Speakers: Zahra Bei, Dawn Butler MP, Owen Hatherley, and Juliet Jacques.
Chair: Tom Williams.

Both New Socialist and TWT have often made the point that culture is, at least partly, where socialism happens. The culture war isn’t a distraction from bread and butter economism, but a key theatre in our resistance against the forces of reaction. As Tom Gann said, in his introduction to Bad New Times: “there is a culture war, and we’re prepared to fight it.” But what forms can this resistance take? This coming Monday, New Socialist is collaborating with TWT to present a panel discussion that will engage with this question.

So, what are we going to be discussing? There is a claim from some socialists and from some liberals that ‘the culture war’ is a mirage, a diversionary tactic on the part of the right intended to direct our attention away from the ‘real issues’ of economic inequality. This is, however, a liberal understanding of what is, in reality, a struggle against the apparatuses and logics of the state and capitalist society. Some parts of the left have quietly acquiesced to this framing; others have seized upon it with an opportunistic glee, precisely because it brings with it an implication that the effects of political economy are not racialised, gendered, or indeed structured by any characteristic beyond class defined solely as an immediate relationship to production. This suits a certain economistic socialism which, being charitable, might think it is being pragmatic. Our contention, though, is that this ‘class first’ or class reductionist approach is both politically and strategically wrong.

For New Socialist, cultural struggle has never been a distraction. We see it as (at the very least) enmeshed with the material, and as something that is linked intrinsically to capitalism: expanding it, sustaining it, intensifying its processes. The assertion that oppression via race or gender is not materially determining is tendentious in the extreme, if not outright false. It is simply inaccurate to describe, for example, anti-GRT rhetoric as ‘merely’ cultural when there is a legislative assault on GRT communities and their basic rights. It is incorrect to think of defences of stop and search as ‘merely cultural’ when that policy is part of a heavily racialised criminal justice system that kills Black people. Equally—as several chapters in the landmark collection Transgender Marxism (edited by NS editor Elle O’Rourke and regular contributor Jules Joanne Gleeson) make plain—being trans shapes what work is available, how likely one is to progress at work, and how vulnerable to harassment or losing a job one is. What then can it mean to say that struggles for trans liberation are distinct from “bread and butter” questions of pay and conditions?

In short, what is often dismissed as ‘cultural’ or ‘identity politics’ can, in fact, have very real economic consequences. The dismissal of culture (and, yes, ‘identity’) as a real terrain of struggle represents nothing more than a capitulation to the hegemonic order. What we need, then, is a counter-hegemonic project—something that Corbynism only ever gestured towards, and that Starmerism outright rejects.

To what extent was the Greater London Council in the 1980s an example of a nascent (and all too short-lived) counter-hegemonic politics? What can we learn from the GLC about forming and maintaining the sort of coalition of social forces that will surely be necessary in the coming years? How can we manage the internal tensions between figures associated with the New Left, and those representing a more traditional Labourism? These tensions surfaced again, at times on a national scale, between 2015 and 2019; the question of how to negotiate them remains open.

Finally, it’s perhaps worth making the point, to those who see the culture war as a distraction, that it would be less distracting if we were actually winning it. After all, pulling down barriers structured by culture within our own movement would surely widen participation, and strengthen all of us.

Speakers

This session was originally slated to feature New Socialist Reader’s Editor Jude Wanga. Unfortunately, Jude is currently on an extended period of compassionate leave, and is unable to attend. While no one is a like-for-like replacement for Jude, we are absolutely delighted to say that Zahra Bei from No More Exclusions will be joining us.

Zahra Bei is the co-founder of No More Exclusions, a Black-led, abolitionist grassroots movement of educators, which seeks to bring about a more inclusive education system and address the heavily racialised disparity in school exclusions. Zahra is a teacher with two decades of experience in both mainstream and alternative provision, a trade unionist, and a community campaigner. She also recently completed a Masters in Social Justice.

Dawn Butler MP needs no introuction. We are all very excited to welcome Dawn to the session, and not simply because possesses so many qualities that are vanishingly rare amongst Parliamentary politicians: charisma, integrity, her ability to give a compelling speech… we could go on. Dawn’s political commitments are not unambiguously aligned with those of New Socialist, but we admire and respect her immensely, due to her openness, her loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn’s project, her willingness to show solidarity with the marginalised even when it’s hard, and her preparedness not only to adjust her thinking on various issues, but to do so publicly.

Owen Hatherley has long been a friend to New Socialist, and has consistently championed and supported our work. He is, of course, a very fine author and journalist; he is also an important and intriguing cultural figure. Even in our depressingly anti-intellectual public sphere, Owen commands respect as a intellectual and cultural critic. This is remarkable, partly because he is unashamedly of the left, and partly because he is working class. Both of these characteristics are becoming increasingly rare within British arts, culture, and criticism. His book Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London was published last year by Repeater Books.

Juliet Jacques is another much-loved friend and comrade. She is known widely for her work on trans issues—including her incredibly patient and courageous attempts to reason with the appalling transphobes of the supposedly ‘liberal’ British media—and was part of Culture for Labour, a group of artists, musicians and writers organising around the 2019 election. As well as a journalist, she is also a writer of fiction, a filmmaker and critic, an educator, and the creator and host of the excellent and culturally enriching Suite 212 podcast. Her collection of short stories, Variations, was published this year by Influx Press.

The panel will be chaired by Tom Williams, New Socialist editor, organiser, and educator. We really hope to see you there!

The event will be recorded by TWT—we will update this page with the link as soon as the recording goes live. We are also aiming to publish a write-up of the discussion.


Author:

The Editors (@newsocialistuk)

The New Socialist editorial collective.