The Tories are trying to further divide the working class by fuelling culture wars, socialists must fight back on our own terms, argues John Westmoreland
The Tory right have a vision. Their vision is our nightmare. They aspire to a world in which the Conservatives and their values dominate all spheres of government, the law and the media. They want to replace the “cultural hegemony of the left” with Conservative nationalism, where all cultural values will inculcate patriotism and obedience.
Johnson has already got the Union Jack flying over every public building, and we can expect more flags, anthems, and imperialist celebrations of battles and wars in the years ahead. The Tories are confident that Labour, always fearful of being called traitors, will not put up much resistance.
The heralds of this patriotic nightmare are the Conservative culture war division – the Common Sense Group of some 50 MPs– who see themselves as crusaders against a politically correct “dictatorship of the liberal left” that has divided the country with their ‘wokery’. The Arrogant Snobs Group would be a more fitting title.
The programme of the CSG, ‘Common Sense’, is available online. The philosophical posturing of these bigots is laughable. It is argued from false premises, illogical and full of fanciful woke demons. No serious intellectual will give it house room, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t gain traction with some workers. The collapse of social democratic parties across Europe has left a political vacuum that the right will colonise given the chance. The CSG are riding on the coat-tails of populist parties like Victor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary that has set the anti-liberal agenda for other populists to follow.
The contributors to Common Sense like biblical imagery, and the CSG see themselves as Samson “pulling down the twin pillars of wokery”. Small-minded Conservative thinkers crop up throughout, in an attempt to give the thing some gravitas. Lawrence Fox, Edmund Burke, Roger Scruton and Enoch Powell are all cited favourably. However, popular cultural bigotry might not sell as well as they think.
Working class people are familiar with the real causes for our communities being in crisis; and why we work at boring, pointless jobs; and why our public services are falling apart.
Neoliberal capitalism - the real enemy of the working class
The British state, the CSG claim, in the hands of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, embraced globalisation (the root of all things woke) and surrendered British sovereignty. This, they go on to argue, is why the liberal left are to blame for abandoning the interests of the working class, and why the left indulges in endless debates about individual rights and “self-declared identity”.
It is true that New Labour proved to be a disaster for working people, but that is because they carried on with the neoliberal policies put in place by the Tories. Neoliberalism generated massive economic and social inequality and tore apart the middle class consensus on many issues. Oppressed groups were forced to defend their rights, as the obsession with markets, profits and growth eclipsed all other concerns. Therefore so-called wokery was a consequence of neoliberal capitalism. The defence of equality never caused our communities to suffer, the Tories did.
The CSG completely ignore the fact that it was Thatcher who got the neoliberal ball rolling in the first place. And dare to talk about the destruction of our communities. Thatcher denied that society even existed, and used the state to smash any workers that fought back. Ignoring this crucial reality, the CSG is happy to don the anti-capitalist garb that all right wing populists use, and denounce corporations, universities and government bodies that have “surrendered to wokery” and betrayed Britain.
It is an absolute myth that banks and corporations have “surrendered to wokery”. Most workers know the role the banks have played in forcing austerity on us, and most workers think giant corporations are too powerful as well. Corporate green-washing and banks cascading their buildings in rainbow colours are not surrendering to wokery. They are astutely addressing valid public perceptions of their overblown power.
The only reason the CSG can gain traction around the alleged evils of wokery in working class communities is because campaigns for human rights are, by their very nature, fought on behalf of separate oppressed groups. This happens at a time when a general fight over urgent economic demands has not been possible. In these circumstances the left can appear to be ignoring class-wide issues in favour of struggles that do not necessarily affect workers as a whole.
The left has to stand firm in arguing that oppression is used to divide us as a class, and we will always stand with the oppressed and against their oppressors.
The CSG want to corral socialists, liberals and human rights campaigners into one woke group that can be derided and demonised. They think a binary configuration of wokery versus common sense will work for them. It is true that the Westminster parties have let down the working class, but our class enemy remains the Conservatives that are the main capitalist party. Working class communities, and especially in the former manufacturing areas, have indeed been devastated, but let’s take a step back and look at why that is.
The entire neoliberal project had the aim of smashing, not just the identity of the working class, but our collective strength and innate solidarity. The Tories are the ones obsessed with putting individual rights over the collective. The CSG only consider the working class as a positive force if it is dutifully rallying with the ruling class against foreigners and traitors (socialists).
Anyone who remembers the miners’ strike of 1984/5 must know this. The National Union of Miners, the strongest union in the country, was ‘the enemy within’ according to the Tories. Scabs who put the individual before the collective were depicted as martyrs and heroes who had the ‘right to work’ in the media. And they got state protection and encouragement too. Who exactly destroyed our mining communities? These were real communities where people stood together, and were prepared to come out in support of other workers, as they did for the nurses in 1982. The Tories shut their pits and left them without a future, abandoned and despised.
In the destruction of working class solidarity (or identity) Thatcher, to use another biblical metaphor, committed the original sin. Privatisation continued to undermine collective bargaining and atomised whole sectors of unionised workers from the steel industry to education. And if the CSG wants to liberate workers why do they propose attacking human rights and concentrating power in their own hands? For example, the CSG want to ‘liberate’ workers by breaking up the BBC and ending the duty of impartiality in broadcasting, so that the workers can benefit from a “British Fox News”. The Tories’ freedom is for the bigots that would support a reactionary party like theirs. Thus, they propose binning laws against hate speech, to promote the free flow of reactionary bile.
There is a chapter in Common Sense dedicated to “The Judicial Activists Threatening our Democracy” that embraces the common sense approach to legal decisions that go against the government. Their answer? Simply give the government power to overrule the judges. Some lefty lawyers think this is a road to parliamentary dictatorship believe it or not.
But guess who encouraged ‘legal activism’ in the first place. A primary aim of neoliberal policy was to move industrial relations and rights at work issues into the courts. Legally binding contracts of employment forced unions to seek legal rulings. This is what comes of running the country and its institutions as corporations in a neoliberal business-model. The government - Tory and Labour – encouraged this move to ‘legal activism’ through anti-trade union laws that inhibited collective decision making and strike action, and forced unions to seek legal redress.
Neoliberalism was always a cruel, sociopathic dogma. But if the Tories were the originators, Labour politicians were soon running to keep up. Blair’s neoliberal war for oil and western domination in the Middle East was sugared by the pretence that war was for democracy and human rights. Labour kept anti-union laws and encouraged privatisation. Labour helped lead the working class into neoliberal hell. Identity politics is the result of a Labour movement that, at the official level, caved in. We now have a grey knight timidly leading the Labour Party, while the TUC peer nervously out from behind the curtains.
This is why it would be an absolute mistake to engage in a culture war that has been invented by right wing sociopaths. We live and fight in the real world.
Not Her Majesty’s loyal opposition
To many commentators the lack of a parliamentary opposition, a slavish right wing media and the weakness of trade unions is allowing Britain to become a parliamentary dictatorship. This is something that the CSG aspire to.
The immediate goal of the CSG is to destroy the Labour Party as an electoral choice for the working class. Common Sense has a chapter on: “Social Conservatism – Turning the Red Wall Blue for Years to Come”. They want to use the Conservative parliamentary majority to enact legislation that will prevent any future challenge to their power, such as electoral boundary changes, and photo id for voters, which they believe will disadvantage Labour. Their ideas and aims are exactly like those of the far right in the USA and Europe.
There is a so-called ‘illiberal wave’ sweeping Europe. Populist parties of the right, in Hungary and Poland in particular, are using working class hatred of EU neoliberalism to bolster their own nationalism.
They only recognise a nativist working class that excludes immigrants, gypsies and LGBT groups. The populist right, including the CSG, use a perverse depiction of national victimhood at the hands of the EU and counterpose ‘national rights’ to human rights. Thus, Orban claims to be fighting ‘EU colonialism’ because of EU objections to his attacks on LGBT rights. This cynical perversion of language that gives rights to the oppressor and demonises the oppressed is used to divide workers, and cloaks Orban’s populism in the language of liberation.
But however much the Tory right might fantasise about it, the Tories are a long way from enjoying hegemony, cultural or political.
The Tories have just lost two by-elections. The opinion polls show massive majorities for progressive policies on almost every front. The lockdown was marked by huge demonstrations against racism, attacks on women and authoritarian legislation. The end of lockdown was marked with the biggest ever demonstration for Palestinian rights. As Laura Pidcock said at least week’s People's Assembly demonstration “We, are the opposition to the Tory government.”
We know the Tory-cheering media that hates anything progressive and laps up populist drivel always caves in when the numbers on the streets reflect public anger. England players taking the knee is a visible Europe-wide statement that the working class is not going to fall into the clutches of populist gob-shites such as the CSG. The Tories are only in place and making some limited ideological headway because the parliamentary opposition barely exists. Passivity is the real enemy of the working class, not wokery.
Common sense or nonsense?
The CSG’s culture war is nothing more than a manifesto for right wing prejudice.
There are three chapters on immigration that are openly racist. There are too many immigrants; it is not racist to blame immigrants for destroying our communities; our levelling up agenda has to include a patriotic immigration policy, and so on. These ideas should be easy to take on, and it is the job of the left to take them on – with letters to MPs and newspapers, and protests outside the surgeries of all CSG MPs. We have to alert our communities to the poison these people are spreading.
And we need to offer the benefits of solid Marxist analysis to workers who might feel that common sense is a useful way to approach the problems they face.
Trotsky noted how common sense was a first choice political concept for the British ruling class. Common sense means doing things the way they have always been done. So, we have to have bosses, and of course businesses have to make a profit – that’s common sense. And if human rights get in the way of profits, of course they will have to be abandoned, because that is common sense. And if our towns and communities are falling apart, as the number of immigrants goes up, common sense says immigrants are to blame.
The problem with common sense is that appearance is not reality, and things aren’t always what they seem. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If we are not aware of the earth rotating on its axis, then the sun must obviously be going round the earth, that’s common sense.
This is why it is a mistake to make the fight against the Tories a fight over right wing symbols. If we stand back and look at the capitalist system as a whole and judge it on what it is doing to the people and the planet, Tory common sense is nonsense. Will a war on wokery end climate destruction? Will it prevent nuclear war? Is wokery preventing access to social housing, or the redistribution of wealth?
Last week’s National People’s Assembly demonstration shows how the left can take on the Tories. It brought together campaigning organisations, trade unions and leading socialists. The working class is a million miles from the servile and racist mass that the Tories want us to be. And we do not live in communities divided into natives and immigrants. We also have wider political concerns about the threats of climate destruction and war. When these elements come together to fight the Tories the transformative potential of our class is self-evident.
However, we have to have a sense of urgency. The Tories are changing the rules as they go. If they can use their obvious political advantages to win over a sizeable section of the working class through a mixture of fear, hate and patronage they will. There is a further danger in that a Conservative culture war will encourage more populism and fascism.
Whether the working class is moving to the left or the right depends on whether we are fighting, and in this culture war, whether we are fighting real enemies or thrusting at cultural phantoms. We can be confident that we can reassert our hegemony over working class politics if we act decisively. The crisis of capitalism and its dangers to our existence are not going away, and this is the terrain on which we have to fight.
As Marx said, our class is a class born to fight. For us nothing is better than a fight because that is how we feel our collective power, and in struggle we shake off the ideas, the common sense ideas, that enslave us. And in an unjust world nothing is worse than submission. Submission destroys our hope and encourages us to hate each other. The fighting leadership that workers need has to come from our own ranks, no knights or lords thank you. And that’s Marxist common sense.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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