There Are No Real Winners in the Culture War
In this battle of left vs right, millennials vs boomers, everyone's a winner – and that's a problem.
Photo: Jake Lewis
The concept of a culture war seems like a cliche until you're in one. The meaning of the term has been eroded by overuse and hyperbole, assigned to countless minor movements and non-events. Nobody really knows what it means anymore, if they ever did. It's just something to say when things are looking a bit rough, when old men shake their heads at young men – an easy peg for journalists and historians to hang the crises of the day on.
But finally, it seems like there's one worth signing up for. The United Kingdom, so long the home of formalised debate and near-feudal hegemony, has become the killing field for a huge power struggle between groups that barely know what they're fighting for; a crude, hysterical and occasionally terrifying ideo-clash that kicked into action just after that big red rented battle bus took the handbrake off, but feeds off roots that go much deeper.
The 2016 EU referendum might be the defining event of the last decade in this country, but even Brexit wasn't absurd or apolitical enough to constitute a real culture war. It might have been the first shot, the bullet in the Archduke's oesophagus – but at its heart it was always about backstops and borders and fishermen. Even with the buses, the billboards and Bob Geldof's baby-boomer Armada, it would be greatly eclipsed by The Great British Culture War to follow. Just a little skirmish before the full offensive.
Despite all the fear and fury, Brexit was, in essence, real. It had definite goals, actual-world impact. The culture war does not. The culture war takes Brexit, ties its arms and legs to a pair of shire horses and tells them to run for the hills. It is wild, facile, immature, groundless, fake. It means nothing but encompasses everything. If Brexit is about politics, then the culture war is about the rest.
It isn't a war fought through armies or parliament or politicians in any real sense. It's a tribalised tear-up between arbitrary groups of idealists, reformers, patriots, defectors, deserters and neo-nihilists – a never-ending heavy artillery siege of comment, campaign, outrage and stunt. A lurid Punch 'n' Judy show where vegan sausage rolls and hi-vis vests become strange emblems for whatever the fuck you want. Its only motivations are the nightmares, delusions or house prices of its foot soldiers.
The violence of the culture war is like no other; it's abstract, amorphous, manifesting itself in myriad ways, some of which don't look like violence at all, some which definitely do. You'll find the fight in the headlines of the digital black-tops and in the Lad Bible comments section, in livestreamed battles on the streets of Westminster, on LBC phone-ins, chain restaurant menus and Hampstead Heath ponds. You can read about it in prestige think-pieces, open letters, celebrity interviews and racist toilet graffiti. It is inherently unreal, yet you can reach out and grab it – in the form of the freshly ironed EU flags hanging out of Canonbury townhouse windows or St George's cross car accessories flying long after Mandžukić's finish.
The culture war is enacted in ways we never thought possible. Our most banal media sources can be militarised, our social media accounts fashioned into shivs to fight the war with. Much in the same way Ballard recreated the deaths of Kennedy and Monroe on dilapidated runways and overpasses in The Atrocity Exhibition, the Britain of 2019 recreates Agincourt and Dunkirk on daytime television.
Conscription is mandatory. From Penzance to Paisley, Braintree to Barrow, sides have been taken, ranks have been defined. Entire families have been drawn and quartered by the war; sons and daughters cut down on Parliament Square and in Red Scare subreddits, mothers and aunts cancelled on Facebook, while fathers quietly pine for the return of St Anthony Blair.
The culture war has transformed large parts of the media into official channels for their respective forces. Newspapers have become partisan communiques and journos have become commandants. Previously benign commentators like Owen Jones and Julia Hartley-Brewer – who, until 2015, never got much more of a mouthpiece than reviewing tomorrow's papers on Sky News – are now spokespeople for their assembled masses. The stars of Would I Lie To You? and Match of the Day issue national addresses on social media, while Countdown's Rachel Riley has martyred herself for the middle-ground.
For a brief moment in 2015 it looked as if The Labour Party was going to ride the burgeoning chaos to power, but confusion and fall-out in their ranks has handed soft-power to a commentariat street team led by the aforementioned Jones, General Bastani, his lieutenants Sarkar and Walker, Clean Bandit, Neville Southall, the Stansted 15 and a reserve unit of GoFundMe guerrillas. They attempt to assume control of the discourse by publicly scalping newsreaders and pub barons in highly consumable digital content, and they're not doing too badly at it. Just the other day I saw the words "Seamus Milne" written in joined-up handwriting above a pub urinal in Kennington. What was it Simon and Garfunkel said about the words of the prophets?
Across the ocean, the alt-right have become the unpopular front for a malicious and inept government, mass-mobilising and occasionally murdering people who disagree or don't fit in with their world-domination view. Of course, over here things are much more pedestrian. Aside from the real-violent horrors of Jo Cox and Finsbury Park, our dark-shirts exist primarily in the dead zones of Facebook. Despite the best efforts of "The Football Lads Alliance" or whatever coach trip Tommy Robinson is failing to organise this week, the bulk of the British right mostly don't have enough angina medication to make it to the street battles.
Instead, they wage a dial-up cyber war of meme-generator slogans: Free Tommy, elect Mogg, save Bacon, send Diane Abbott to the Tower and get the weirdos out of my bogs. They whoop and holler at the mention of a No Deal, shed crocodile tears for right-to-live campaigns and doff their caps to the officer class clowns coming to save them. In some ways they are barely the right, just a generation and demographic still enamoured with the icons of a decomposing empire; Queen and country, red meat and the RAF. Maybe the right was always the norm here.
In such a total-war situation, even the centrists – the people who just want things to be as they were in the 90s – have been forced into forming a paramilitary wing, a sort of homeowner's Home Front. In a way, they are the strangest tribe of all, encompassing a disparate band of broadsheet journalists, nearly-man MPs, character actors, QI panellists, Gary Lineker and the concerned middle class. Like German aristocrats during WWII, they are the exiled establishment – a monied, embittered group of ex-winners who simply cannot believe they're no longer pissing out of the tent.
Although they don't half try, none of these groups has had any real victories since June of 2016. The new Battle of Britain is really nothing more than a public relations brouhaha that benefits nobody other than those trying to stir the pot for their own gain, and nothing illuminates that more than the vegan sausage roll debate of early 2019.
As soon as cult bakers Greggs launched a now-notorious soy-based pastry (while ordering the deaths of more cows in a week than a Minister for Agriculture during a foot-and-mouth outbreak), the seemingly innocuous pastries became captured flags in the culture war, selling out across the country and being lauded by many as a great leap forwards for millennials and a spit in the eye for the flesh-fiends and gammon grunts.
Because they were marketed as being part of a huge cultural shift – rather than just another veggie item on a high street menu – fear-fluencers such as Piers Morgan took it upon themselves to defend their worried audiences. Which, in a culture war situation, resulted in the macabre sight of the big man himself fake-puking into a bucket on breakfast telly, like a scene from a Bunuel film. Piers was subsequently cheered and cancelled every which way but loose, and the culture war had a new Wikipedia entry. No ground gained, but plenty of shots fired.
The same pattern is repeated ad infinitum: the Gillette #Metoo advert, Stormzy at Glastonbury, Netflix's Insatiable, the reevaluation of Winston Churchill, some bullshit involving Phillip Schofield. The game starts, everyone picks a fighter and we duke it out until someone embarrasses themselves.
Yet there are no real winners to be counted, because everyone's a winner in the culture war, baby. The media is now so atomised, so attuned to its own masses, that the results of these battles are told to you exactly as you'd like to hear them. Like a pair of punch-drunk boxers declaring themselves winners of the same fight, all sides in the culture war believe they're on the brink of victory.
Looking in on our growing obsession with these politicised disputes, it feels as if left vs right, old vs young "debates" have replaced the celebrity scandal of yore in our media landscape. When the stars of reality TV are so temporary, so transparent that they barely make the distance of their own series, stirring up arguments between different factions of the culture war has become the new easy-win for the papers.
By zeroing in on Raheem Sterling during the World Cup, while lauding Harry Kane like he was the unknown soldier, the tabloids effectively drew another line in the sand between races and generations in this country, somehow creating an ideological demarcation within the England front two. In stoking fears of a left-born bacon ban, they have the perfect cultural scare story for those who believe that carcinogens and pig slaughter are part of an unwritten British constitution. In the Drill scene, they have a brand new decline of western civilisation, and in over-keen young middle class lefties like Emily Dawes – the Southampton University union president who vowed to remove a mural commemorating WWI victims because of its lack of diversity – they have some very useful idiots.
Meanwhile, the younger, progressive, digital realm can pretty much guarantee a lowly Tory MP saying something weird on Twitter, or some nuke-thirsty loon in the Question Time audience to meme the shit out of. Just more POWs in the culture war's Colditz.
It's notable that Owen Jones has become a visible target for the British wing of the yellow vests, recently resulting in a weird heavily-videoed, heavily-policed Wacky Races-style chase around Westminster, where James Goddard kept saying he "just wanted to talk", like some wild small-town bus stop bully. Regardless of OJ's intentions, it's hard to imagine that his olden days equivalent – say, Eric Hobsbawm – would even be recognised by a right wing mob. The stars of the culture war are household faces, and when surrounded by police and cameras on the streets of Westminster they have a perfect stage to carry out these wild proxy battles.
How this all plays out at family dinner tables, in offices, in pubs, remains the great unknown. The showbiz side of the culture war is amusing, highly addictive and thoroughly digestible. But the effect it all has on the national psyche is much less understandable. Beyond what you see on both traditional and social media, there seems to be a palpable tension across the country that reveals itself privately, horribly. In an everyday setting the grandiose chest-beating of the culture war becomes merely arguments, conflict, silence, tears. Friends and family with different politics to ourselves appear unknowable, contemptible, part of the fucking problem. And why shouldn't they?
In a time of flux, it's only natural to take a side. We gained nothing in peacetime – that decade-long centrist ceasefire between the poll tax riots and the Baghdad shock 'n' awe offensive. The rich got richer, the poor became the underclass and we got a few Norman Foster buildings. But now, for the first time in a long time, it feels like your side might actually win – and maybe that's worth a few frosty Christmas Dinners and a depleted share of the will.
These are unprecedented times. The empire we grew up with is up for grabs, there to be either saved or destroyed, the Empress Britannia herself resembling a crumbling stately home in a redevelopment battle. It is a dizzying, depressing, degrading and sometimes astonishing time to be alive in this country. Yet the discourse around this battle can also feel quite alienating to anyone with a cynical or critical disposition, fuelling the temptation to sit back and watch the bullshit fly.
The question remains: if you don't fully subscribe to the culture war, where do you stand? If, like me, you'd say you were "of the left", but you cringe at "I'm literally a communist" T-shirts, are you some kind of yellow belly objector? Is your embarrassment complex holding you back from the revolution? Are you actually just a coward, eating fondue in neutral Zurich while your brothers and sisters in the cause put their earthly differences behind them and fight the good fight? Maybe it is just better to swallow your post-2K aloofness and run with what you believe in; they probably had their superficial differences at the Battle of Santa Clara too. But do you really have the stomach for it? Has the post-modern detachment spread to your bones?
At times it feels as if this could all go on forever, that this is just how it is now – an ideological ice age. Yet there is an end of sorts in sight: No Deal – the culture war's Enola Gay. Such an event would likely be a moment of total defeat for at least one of the sides in the war, an event extreme enough to send an entire generation into either retreat or pure, real rage. Their dreams of intersectional socialism replaced by the strangest version of kamikaze patriotism in the country's history, while the winners get to live out the Blitz they always wanted.
Looking at the real-world potentialities, the culture war already feels fairly quaint. Maybe it's really just an amateur-dramatics second referendum – a chance to fight our corners and air our grievances before it all becomes very, very real. Before "food shortages" stops being a headline and starts being something you see written in the windows at Morrisons, before student union reps stop talking about organised resistance and start really doing it. Before they start selling body armour in Argos. Perhaps we should just try to enjoy it while it's still only a "culture" war.