It’s summer in London in 2021 and I’m dressed to impress: silver skirt, lacy bralette and gold shawl. One hoop earring swinging as I strut down the street, my eyes lined with thick kohl, stubble on my chin and long hair flowing in the breeze. A car slows down as it passes, a few young lads catcalling “Alright darling? Where you going?” before their faces drop in horror at their mistake, speeding off and hooting “What the fuck, it’s a MAN!” Before I get home, a stranger with clenched fists will follow me demanding “Are you a man or what?”; another will simply scream “faggot” from across the street. A group of school kids waiting for the bus will cackle, asking for my number and calling out “My friend thinks you’re really fit.” A City boy in a tailored suit will mutter to his friends in Panjabi “Here comes the eunuch”. I’ll be challenged for using the men’s toilets at a pub. Overall, by the end of the year, the number of days I leave the house without getting abused will total 16.
The term “culture war” was popularised by American sociologist James Davison Hunter over 30 years ago. He used it to describe a “cultural conflict that took place primarily within the white middle class” centred around competing approaches to secularism and morality—both a political battle over “cultural” issues and the cultural dispositions that were underpinning politics. Hunter himself would acknowledge that a culture war is really about politics; it’s just that he was interested in how the struggle over the meaning of, say, motherhood, individual liberty and American civilisation manifested in the battle over reproductive rights or gay marriage, for example. Several decades later and an ocean away, “culture war” is routinely used in Britain as a shorthand for everything from the morality of detention camps to the existence of trans people, the honouring of slavers to the picketing of drag shows—including, curiously, by the left.
The reproduction of this framing in Britain appears primarily related to the idea that certain topics of debate are distractions from “real” social issues. While linked to Hunter’s understanding of cultural conflict as social hostility rooted in competing moralities, it’s also divorced from a more materialist analysis, and its contemporary usage by the left is functionally reductive as a result. In other words, while most people on the left do not see culture as divorced from politics or apolitical, it’s become common for almost anything not immediately recognisable as class struggle to be designated a new frontier in the culture war. In this framing, my experience of street abuse is just another frontier.
The function of my abuse is simple: to correct my deviance from cisgender norms leading either to my exit from public life or my return to normative gender presentation. The abuse does not arise in a vacuum. It is created, relentlessly, both by the continuous social process of gendering, and by the government and media’s creation of a moral panic that casts trans people as rapists and groomers. This moral panic suits politicians who wish to be perceived as defenders of women and children. It also reflects an anxiety about the stability of gendered roles and the family in a post-imperial nation experiencing a historic decline in living standards. Its effects range from the rise in queerphobic attacks to the functional removal of trans-inclusive healthcare in Britain.
A lesser struggle?
What does it mean to refer to these dynamics as part of a culture war? Undeniably, it is not divorced from culture. But is the institutional neglect, legalised discrimination and physical violence faced by trans people categorically distinct from attacks on disabled and poor people, for example? What is it about trans people and transphobia that is reducible to culture? If the expressions of this war are particular and material, rather than simply rhetorical, then what is the purpose of relegating the struggles of a community that is disproportionately working-class solely to the realm of culture?
We might ask similar questions about the use of “culture war” to refer to border violence. Legislation attempting to criminalise asylum, establish prison ships and remove people to Rwanda—all, we are told, are part of the culture war, a distraction from the Tories’ impoverishment of millions of people in Britain, a divide-and-rule tactic, a dead cat. Yet by noting the political utility of scapegoating minorities, the left has sometimes abdicated both meaningful solidarity and serious analysis. This “distraction” is a reality for thousands of undocumented humans. What comfort is it to the friends of Frank Ospina, who died in Colnbrook Detention Centre last month; to the families of the hundreds of children under Home Office care who have “gone missing”; or to the Syrian refugees too scared to leave their temporary accommodation for fear of far-right mobs, to tell them these are classic divide and rule tactics?
When we frame border violence as part of a culture war, we obscure its ideological roots: white supremacy, which is the dominant ideology of the political class precisely because it serves capital. The escalation of such violence is part of an internally coherent strategy to maintain the production of a migrant underclass and discipline citizens by manufacturing consent for “law and order” (as explored compellingly in the recent book Empire’s Endgame). It also provides a logic for expanding the market for detention centres, camps and prisons by ensuring they are continually oversubscribed; conglomerates like Serco, G4S and Mitie have a lot to gain for “stopping the boats”. The overreliance on lenses that centre appeals to the British electorate when discussing state violence—as if we live in anything like a functioning liberal democracy—leads to the reproduction of only the most shallow analysis and a decentring of those experiencing state violence.
It is striking that the culture war framing is rarely applied to what we might most easily recognise as class struggle—such as industrial strikes or campaigns like Don’t Pay—and mostly applied to the struggles of minoritised communities. While there are exceptions—Frances O’Grady accusing Boris Johnson of “stoking a culture war” against unions last summer, for example—this division between class and culture war reflects a failure of parts of the left to recognise liberation struggles as integral to and constitutive of class struggle. That division is cemented both by a liberal identitarianism divorced from class analysis and class reductionism on the left. Its result is to drive those organising for their own liberation towards the same identitarianism that the labour movement is so fond of critiquing. It is an insult to minoritised communities to consign liberation struggles solely to the realm of the “culture war” when what is most urgently needed is to locate them as mutually constitutive of class struggle.
The left has been too quick to adopt the culture war framing, which obscures the material effects of rightwing policies on minoritised communities; dismisses white supremacy as a distraction from economic decline, rather than an ideology that serves capital in concrete ways; and fails to distinguish between material struggle and media outrage over how such a struggle is discussed. If we’re going to fight the forces that oppress us, we at least ought to name them.
Amardeep Singh Dhillon is a freelance journalist, co-editor at Red Pepper magazine and member of South Asia Solidarity Group.