Culture Wars, Class, and Power

Phil Hearse argues that we cannot afford to underestimate the threat represented by the Tory right’s culture war.


Boris Johnson has joined Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is criticising the suspension by the England and Wales Cricket Board of England new player Ollie Robertson while an investigation into his racist and sexist tweets of nine years ago takes place. According to Johnson and Dowden, the suspension is ‘over the top’. Right-wing Tory MPs and The Daily Mail are gleeful at the predictable positions of Johnson and co.

While cricket authorities have being trying to join football in being seen to combat racism in sport, they are being harassed by the ultra-right culture warriors. Simultaneously, Oliver Dowden has refused to criticise English fans who booed their side at the Riverside Stadium[1] (Middlesbrough), when they took the knee in support of anti-racism at the start of the 6 June friendly with Romania.

The right-wing Tory campaign was laid out by Mail columnist Dan Wootton on 8 June. He asked whether this was the weekend (4-5 June) that Britain’s ‘cultural and sporting elite’ had reached ‘peak woke’ or whether there was ‘worse to come’.

The Tory ultra-right is in full Donald Trump mode, raging against the BBC, the Baftas, and English cricket and football all at the same time. And its key ideological weapons, as ever, are racism and sexism.

The Bafta awards came into the firing line because dance group Diversity’s Black Lives Matter routine won the Must See Moment Award – while The Crown and Call the Midwife won nothing. (You get the right-wing hypocrisy here. The Crown is rubbish because it backs Diana against Charles, but is more deserving of an award than something supporting Black Lives Matter. After all, it is about the monarchy!).

TV broadcasts of the events in Middlesbrough did not much highlight the section of the crowd that stood up and clapped when English players took the knee – a clear measure of the divisions engendered by the ultra-right’s government-backed culture war.

The war is real

This is not the time to be arguing that the ultra-right is inexorably losing the culture wars because of changing attitudes on racism, sexuality, and ‘how we live now’. Yet, coincidentally, Guardian columnist Andy Beckett has just published an article – ‘History shows conservatives cannot hold back social change’ – arguing that Tory election victories cannot prevent progressive social change, which forges ahead despite a reactionary, right-wing government in Westminster.

Beckett’s argument is seductive because it suggests that right-wing reaction, and the power it wields at governmental level, will over time be swamped by progressive social attitudes at the base of society. In particular, it suggests that Tory governments cannot prevent the onward march of anti-racism, women’s equality, and LBGTQ+ rights. According to Beckett:

[The annual British Social Attitudes Survey shows that] public attitudes to many kinds of personal behaviour ‘have steadily loosened since the 1980s’, with ‘an increasing sense of “live and let live” when it comes to our views on other people’s relationships and lifestyles’. Urbanisation, immigration, a more diverse popular culture, the growth of liberal universities, the decline of some religions, and the dwindling of what the BSA describes as the ‘socially conservative’ generations born in the first half of the 20th century – all these have gradually undermined the hopes of Tory traditionalists. We might be a conservative country politically, but increasingly that is not how we live.

And who could deny it? Instead of the 1970s Black and White Minstrel Show, we have TV adverts featuring black or mixed-race families, we have openly gay TV presenters like Graham Norton and Sandy Toksvig, and even the middle-class governing bodies of cricket want to line up behind the banner of equal opportunities.

But the weakness of Beckett’s argument is summed up in one sentence: ‘We might be a conservative country politically, but increasingly that is not how we live.’ Well, how we live is not just a matter of social tolerance, but a matter of jobs, housing, gender and racial discrimination, poverty, zero-hours contracts, public services, Covid-19 deaths, social care, neoliberalism, and the destruction of the environment by fossil-fuel capitalism – none of which gets a mention in the article. These things, which go to the heart of ‘how we live’, are deeply entwined with gender and racial oppression, and are also interlinked with another category that does not get a mention – class.

But then, the totality of these oppressions, which together make up the core of the production and reproduction of material and social life, depends on one pivotal thing – power. What power actually is, and how it how it is expressed in class exploitation, is itself involved with the issue of government and the social programmes that different governments drive forward. And in that regard, Beckett’s mention of Michel Foucault, and his postmodernist conception of power, is highly significant, as we discuss below.

Lessons of Thatcherism

One person who would never have accepted Andy Beckett’s ideas about the creation of progressive or reactionary ‘ways we live’ was Margaret Thatcher. Before she came to power in 1979, she and her very right-wing backers inside the Tory Party had a whole social programme for government, which they proceeded to implement with speed and determination.

Top of the list was smash up the militant sectors of the working class and their unions – the steelworkers, the miners, the dockers, the printers. This was done by full-scale industrial battles, which in the case of the miners involved closing down a whole industry. The Thatcherites also understood that defeating the most militant unions would be a blow to the most radical section of the labour movement – the Bennite movement in the Labour Party.

This was changing ideas not ‘one by one’, but throughout society by reactionary social change and political-industrial battles. Closely linked to that was the introduction of the anti-union laws, the most fundamental plank of the victory of Thatcher-style neoliberalism in Britain and internationally. Hobbling the unions meant hobbling working-class struggle and undermining the ideology based on that struggle – that of socialism and self-emancipation. The labour movement had to fight the industrial battles imposed on it by Thatcherism with one hand tied behind its back.

The second aspect of Thatcher’s counter-revolution was of course privatisation. The legal framework of privatisation was the obligation on public authorities to outsource their contracts. Once again, privatisation was all about an understanding that institutional victories helped changed social practices and thus ideas. In the trade unions, the Labour Party, and elsewhere a process of accommodation to Thatcherism took the form first of being resigned (‘we have to accept it’) and then of agreement (‘much of what Thatcher has done is right’). The latter position was encapsulated in Blairism and the practices of the Blair/Brown Labour governments.

At each stage, Thatcher and her followers moved heaven and earth to stay in government – at the 1983, 1987, and 1992 elections – but also to close down or defeat all centres of resistance, including abolishing the Greater London Council, defeating the ‘loony Left’ in local authorities,[2] and privatising the nationalised industries. It was not just a matter of winning people to reactionary ideas, but of consolidating reactionary ideas in institutional victories at the level of government and the state.

Social tolerance

Let us look at the issue of social tolerance in contemporary Britain, in the working class and beyond. This turns out to be the site of counter-currents and paradoxes, in both the working class and the affluent middle class. Can we say today that the working class is uniformly socially progressive and affluent Tory-voting middle class people uniformly socially reactionary? Nobody believes that, at least put that starkly. Of course, the upper and middle classes globally are reactionary because they defend their own privileged position within the capitalist system. But among them are many people – despised as ‘lovies’ and ‘the woke elite’ by The Daily Mail – who defend, partially and inconsistently, multiculturalism, feminism, and LBGTQ+ rights.

Inside the working class, the voting patterns of the 2019 general election contain important clues about progressive and reactionary trends. What sealed the defeat of Labour and the Jeremy Corbyn leadership was the defection of key Red Wall seats in the Midlands and North – poor towns and cities where a disproportionately middle-aged and white electorate turned against Labour. These voters, in many places exactly the same people who ensured the victory of the Brexit side in the EU Referendum, are, according to all the opinion polls, socially conservative – on women’s rights, racism, immigration, and LBGTQ+ rights.

The working class ‘Leave’ side in the EU Referendum joined a de facto bloc with the huge reactionary section of the middle class. Adhesion to socially progressive attitudes stalled in the Red Wall areas, especially as young people left the former industrial economic disaster zones and headed for the big cities. This shift was underpinned by the defeat of working-class struggles in the 1980s and the subsequent decline of the trade unions – which have always been, in some sense, the universities of working-class consciousness.

Social reaction certainly helped ensure the Conservative election victory in 2019. And today, the anti-‘woke’ culture warriors are not giving up. The fight is ongoing and waged every day by The Mail, The Telegraph, The Sun, and The Express, day-in, day-out. Having a reactionary Tory government is a huge aid in the battle against social progress, because governments have massive resources to set the news agenda and implement reactionary programmes – for example, in relation to democratic rights and immigration – not to mention the Tories’ farrago of reactionary decisions over the pandemic.

Progressive social attitudes, in the sense of accepting multiculturalism and LBGTQ+ lifestyles, for example, is not automatically the same as supporting social equality in general. The picture is much more mixed. It is quite possible to be for LBGTQ+ rights and against more money for the NHS, and vice-versa. Or to be in favour of multiculturalism and also in favour of harsher anti-migrant laws. Culture wars depend not just on changing the attitudes of individuals, but also on institutional changes consolidated in laws, and on the positions adopted by unions, parties, and movements. So long as there are right-wing neoliberal or semi-fascist governments, any form of Panglossian complacency on the victory of social progress is politically disastrous.

Foucault and power

And Beckett gives away his theoretical inspiration:

The realisation that social liberation can occur despite electoral defeat first began to preoccupy parts of the left during its years of retreat in the 70s and 80s. French political theorists such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari argued that new ways of living and forms of identity could transform society, individual by individual, at least as radically as a reforming government.

The most influential of this list of postmodernist theorists is Michel Foucault, and his conception of power has been very widely taken up in the left and feminist movements. For example, John Holloway’s book Change the World without Taking Power[3] is largely based on Foucault’s ideas and the relationship between Foucault’s ideas and the writings of feminists like Judith Butler widely commented on.

Foucault claims that Marxists are wrong in seeing power as being in the form of a top-down pyramid, with the ruling class and its state the top and the working class and the oppressed at the bottom. On the contrary, power is everywhere. Governments, states, institutions, and individuals, according to Foucault, do not ‘have’ power. It is negotiated and contested every day. It is contested through ‘discourse’, which creates ‘regimes of truth’. At the centre of discourse is the ‘text’, which itself is highly dependent on the meaning of the words used.

At one level, ‘regimes of truth’ might overlap with Marxist concepts of ideology – the false consciousness produced by the repetition of reactionary, pro-capitalist ideas. But in the Marxist concept of ideology, false and reactionary ideas are fundamentally the consequence not just of ‘discourse’ and ‘text’, but of the practices of production and social reproduction, like work and family life, themselves determined by major structural pillars like class and gender.

The consequence of this Marxist concept of power is that progressive ideas and practices cannot transform society ‘individual by individual’, but depend on being able to bring down the anchors of reactionary power and ideology, which are located in the capitalist class and the governments and states that defend it. It follows that the crux of the struggle for power is not interpersonal relationships, however much they reflect the basic structures of class and power. The centre of the struggle for power is political, the struggle for a society where ordinary women and men take over state and governmental power, and through that and sustained ideological campaigns, transform all social relationships.

[1] Watch the Channel 4 News Report at

[2] See on the destruction of local authority provision, Tom Crewe, The Strange Death of Municipal England,

[3] See also Phil Hearse (ed) Take the Power to Change the World,

Phil Hearse is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and joint author of both Creeping Fascism and System Crash.

Join the discussion