The cultural turn


The cultural turn

The politicisation of lifestyle has inflamed public life.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books Long-reads

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘The logic of the Culture Wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.’ (1) So concluded historian Andrew Hartman in his magisterial study, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. When the book was published, in Spring 2015, it was not an unusual opinion. Others, too, argued that this decades-old conflict between imperiled social conservatives and emboldened progressives, between those who feared the dissolution of traditional family life, the degradation of Christian values and the undermining of the work ethic, and those who support abortion, sexual liberation and the ever-increasing panoply of so-called progressive causes, had well and truly run its course. The arguments had lost their force, the combatants their energy, the issues their pique. Who now, outside the batty fringes of evangelical Christianity and those clinging desperately to their guns, disagreed with the progressive consensus?, asked the victors. The Supreme Court decision in 2015 to legalise same-sex marriage across the US was merely the long-awaited coda to the Culture Wars, proof, if any were needed, that the progressives had vanquished their worn-out opponents.

But, today, that seems like a premature conclusion. And that’s not just because Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has gained popular traction among white working-class America, galvanising a socially conservative opposition to almost everything the Culture Wars’ supposed victors deem as progressive causes today. Nor is it a premature conclusion simply because it’s clear that culture wars are now being fought with equal zeal throughout Western society, from the working-class revolt of Brexit, rich as it was in profound cultural antagonism, to the simmering anti-establishment discontent now turning Europe into tribes of the ‘left behind’ vs their affluent, ostentatiously cosmopolitan, Brussels-leaning superiors.

No, culture wars are proliferating, entrenching, deepening, because, over the past half century, the cultural domain has been thoroughly politicised. And with culture now established as the main site of political conflict, what was once largely private is now unquestionably public. In other words, the different ways in which people live their lives, indeed express themselves – their consumption habits, their leisure pursuits, their intimate relationships, their idiolects – have become matters of public contestation, issues to be fought over and legislated on. The historical shift is marked. Political battles are no longer fought over people’s ability to buy food – they’re fought over what and how people eat; they’re no longer fought over equal rights – they’re fought over people’s ‘unwitting’ attitudes to difference; they’re no longer fought over the organisation of the economy – they’re fought over people’s economic behaviour, be it the greed of bankers or the avarice of businessmen. Political economy has been eclipsed by cultural politics.

The relativisation of culture

Why has this happened? Why is politics today so completely culturalised? Why are conflicts that might once have been fought out in terms of economics, over, say, the distribution of the social product, now fought out in terms of culture, in terms, that is, of people’s beliefs and attitudes, their sense of who they are, their identities?

The development of the idea of culture, its semantic revolution and expansion, sheds light on this shift. As Raymond Williams notes in Culture and Society (1958), prior to the Industrial Revolution, the word ‘culture’ meant little more than the ‘tending of natural growth’ and then, by analogy, human training. German Enlightenment thinkers developed a stronger version of this idea of self-cultivation, Bildung. But during the 19th century, initially in Romantic opposition to, and mainly as a legitimating complement to, emergent industrial capitalism, the meaning of culture broadened and deepened. It started to denote a body of art and literature in general, and, more importantly, it started to be treated as the repository of the humanity – the values and meaning – that the social relations and social activity in capitalist society, from Thomas Carlyle’s ‘cash nexus’ to Matthew Arnold’s ‘business concerns’, appeared to lack. As Arnold himself put it in Culture and Anarchy (1869): ‘Culture, which is the study of perfection [or, as Arnold famously puts it elsewhere, the study of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”: TB], leads us… to conceive of true human perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as a general perfection, developing all parts of our society.’ (2)

But the ability to articulate this ideal of culture, a universal process of cultivating everyone’s best self according to a common human inheritance, rests not only on the elite’s self-confidence, but on its correlate, too: a ruling consensus as to what is ‘the best which has been thought and said’ – what it is that society ought to value. It rests, in other words, on a strong sense of cultural and social authority, and its intellectual foundation in Enlightenment thought. And it’s precisely the slow, almost imperceptible, but no less profound decomposition of cultural and social authority, and the retreat from Enlightenment thought, during the latter half of the 19th century – with the spectre of socialism and communism proving all too haunting – that transforms the post-19th-century meaning of culture. Culture preserves its newly broadened sense as the process by which everyone is cultivated in a body of values, meanings and so on, but it ceases to be an idea of what is best, of what ought to give meaning to all people, a universal repository of value. Instead, it becomes descriptive, anthropological and plural, as just the set of meanings and values held by a particular group of people in a particular setting. Indeed, so value-free is ‘culture’ today that there’s little that we do that is not deemed cultural. Hence, while a few unabashed snobs still talk of ‘high culture’, many more talk of ‘black culture’, ‘trans culture’, even ‘office culture’.

The conceptual groundwork for this transformation was being laid at the same time as Culture and Anarchy was making an impact. In Primitive Culture (1871), EB Tylor began to purge culture of its normative dimension. Culture was less a principle and more a catch-all for a particular society’s way of life, or, as Tylor put it, the name given to a ‘complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, moral, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. By the time of Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) – a study of three separate tribes of South American Indians – Benedict was comfortable asserting that which would have been anathema to Arnold, ‘the relativity of cultures’. Over the next few decades, the anthropologisation of culture continued apace, culminating in Clifford Geertz’s Interpretations of Cultures (1973), which defined cultures as ‘webs of significance’, ‘system[s] of symbols and meanings’, that people use to impose order on, and to give meaning to, the social world. Culture had long ceased to be a judgement on how people are in the name of how they ought to be, as it was in Arnold – it is just how people live.

In the development of the idea of culture, from a universal sphere of value to which all ought to aspire, to a particular way in which a particular community lives and interprets the world, one can clearly see the relativisation of culture, indeed cultures. It wasn’t one-way traffic, of course. Interwar poets and writers, such as TS Eliot or EM Forster, still worked with the Arnoldian ideal of culture, but this was largely a rearguard action. A sense of cultural loss, not confidence, marked the writers and, to use DH Lawrence’s pejorative, Kulturträger of the interwar years. As they saw it, the wasteland was upon them.

In a sense, many of the literary and artistic modernists of the interwar years were before their time. They were the canaries in the mine, the snobs in retreat. In their disillusionment, in their palpable sense of loss, they registered something profoundly important: the disintegration of social and cultural authority (albeit as a crisis of tradition). This is what was to explode across Western society during the Sixties, as a contest for cultural and social authority, a contest over the values and meanings that society ought to hold, a contest between the square 1950s and the counterculture, between the old politics and the New Left. And this is what is key about the relativisation of culture, its transformation into little more than anthropological shorthand for what certain people from a certain background in a certain place do and believe. Looked at as a relationship between different communities, different nations, different tribes, each with their culture, it’s possible to believe that this relativity of cultures results in live-and-let-live pluralism. But when those different cultures exist within a society, within a community, within a nation, the relativity starts to generate friction. That is, cultural relativism is in fact a cultural conflict, a conflict between, as Raymond Williams put it, whole ways of life. And it’s a conflict that has become more and more inflamed, not only in the absence of cultural and social authority, but in the subsequent battle for cultural and social authority, a battle to (re-)establish a particular way of life, a particular set of values, as dominant.

Pierre Bourdieu’s masterwork Distinction is important here. Published in 1979, it is, as he calls it, ‘a sort of ethnography of France’ based on fieldwork carried out during the mid-1960s. Its aim is to reveal not only the class bases for differences in ‘taste’, but to show how these differences in taste are part of a class-based struggle for status or ‘distinction’. Now there’s little doubt it is a brilliant work of sociological demystification. Through Immanuel Kant’s classifications of judgement – of, effectively, good and bad taste – Bourdieu is able to discern classes of people. He then broadens it out to establish the relationship between the ‘universe of economic and social conditions’ and ‘the universe of lifestyles’. He then switches the relationship around, showing how a hierarchy of taste and lifestyles legitimates a hierarchy of social classes.

The long-extant hierarchy of taste and lifestyle was, thanks to the postwar decomposition of social and political authority, becoming an open struggle at the time Bourdieu was researching and writing. And this is where Bourdieu proves particularly insightful. He is able to see the conflict seething beneath the cultural surface. He is able to glimpse what happens when social conflict is fought out in terms of lifestyle, of taste, in terms of competing ‘arts of living’. It is experienced as an attack on people themselves, on the entirety of their being, their values, their viewpoints, their beliefs. ‘In matters of taste, more than anywhere else’, writes Bourdieu, ‘all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (“sick-making”) of the tastes of others.’ He continues: ‘Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different lifestyles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between classes: class endogamy is evidence of this. The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separate… At stake in every struggle over art there is also the imposition of an art of living, that is, the transmutation of an arbitrary way of living into the legitimate way of life which casts every other way of living into arbitrariness.’

The aestheticisation of politics

With the ebb of the Cold War, and, with it, the disappearance of the West’s moral and political authority, complete with feel-good sloganeering about freedom and democracy, that came with opposing the Soviet Union, the already politicised domain of culture – segregated, relativised and antagonised – became the site of an even more intense struggle. In the US, of course, the 1992 presidential election brought many of these trends to the fore, with debates focused on Hillary Clinton denigrating stay-at-home mums who ‘bake cookies’, independent candidate Ross Perot calling a black audience ‘you people’, and Bill Clinton’s evasion of Vietnam War service. Bill’s attempt to de-culturalise the debate with his infamous declamation, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, was to no avail – after all, the economic debate was over. There Is No Alternative. Instead, as Patrick Buchanan put it in the run-up to the 1992 Republican National Convention, all sides were engaged in ‘a war for the soul of America… [a war] about who we are, about what we believe… about the Judaeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built’.

In the UK, the thorough culturalisation of politics was slower to come to the boil, but, from the mid-1990s, it was there all right, bubbling away. You can hear it in then prime minister Tony Blair’s 1999 New Year’s Eve speech, attacking the ‘forces of conservatism’; it’s there in Labour MP Frank Field’s 2003 claim that Britain is moving away from the ‘politics of class to the politics of behaviour’, the opening salvo in what has since become an all-out assault on the lifestyles of vast swathes of the UK; and it’s there in the battles over the legalisation of gay marriage.

And, of course, it was all too apparent in the course of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Indeed, since Brexit, many commentators have been quick to call the division it dragged out into the open a culture war. And, in a sense, it is. But there are necessary qualifications, too. First, to the extent it was a culture war, it was one-sided. Think of the binaries the referendum generated: open-minded vs closed-minded; outward-looking vs inward-looking; pro-European vs Little Englander; multicultural vs monocultural; pro-immigrant vs racist/bigot. In all, the moral weight, the virtuous lustre, the near self-evident rightness, is on one side – the side of the Remainer. Those who voted to leave the EU have largely had their cultural character imposed on them by others.

And this captures something. It shows that they did not engage in a culture war so much as find themselves dragged into one. For years now, Britain’s indigenous working classes have long experienced the demonisation of their ‘whole way of life’, from the foods they eat to the attitudes they hold. For years they have experienced what Bourdieu described as having their ‘art of living’ cast into arbitrariness, their tastes and lifestyles mocked, criticised and rendered somehow less legitimate. In one of his last speeches as Labour leader in 2006, Blair said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but ‘open vs closed’ – openness to immigration, to diversity, and so on. And he was right. Politics has been waged as a war on those with supposedly ‘closed’ minds, those who ‘cling’ to older traditions and rituals, those who, in the case of Brexit, prefer a national democracy to a transnational oligarchy. And this year, the ‘closed’ fought back.

But there’s something else, too. Not only has culture been completely politicised, and turned into an object of public contestation; politics has also become culturalised, aestheticised. It has been turned into a way of expressing oneself, of marking one’s distinction to others, of showcasing one’s superior political taste – a question, as one Guardian journalist put it, of ‘who we are’. Being political today – whether that involves expressing one’s feminism, or proudly proclaiming ‘black lives matter’ – has become a way of saying something determinate not about the world, but about oneself, and, in the process, negating others. Conservative lettrist Joseph Epstein calls this new political type ‘the virtucrat’ – ‘the new prig… [who] will nail you for not having his opinion on Israel or the environment’. He is ‘a moral snob’, Epstein continues; ‘not only is he smug about the righteousness of his views but he imputes bad faith to anyone who doesn’t share them’ (4).

And this is a profound problem. The aestheticisation of politics, the emergence of an intense political snobbery, lends debate an intractable, compromise-defying quality. It comes to appear not just as a conflict between utterly incompatible ways of life, but also as an intensely personal conflict, where arguments take the form of personal insults, and electoral defeats are experienced as personal affronts. In the strangely emotional reaction of Remainers to the referendum result, which included vituperative columns about racists in our midst, public tears and, absurdly, post-vote marches, one can see the flipside of the polticisation of culture and lifestyle; the stylisation of politics, its mutation into a means not of winning the support of others, but of asserting their inferiority, of casting their lives into arbitrariness.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.

Picture by: Getty Images.

(1) A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, by Andrew Hartman, University of Chicago Press, 2015, p285

(2) Culture and Anarchy, by Matthew Arnold , Oxford University Press, 1977, p11

(3) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, by Pierre Bourdieu, Routledge, 1986 p43, pp48-49

(4) Snobbery: The American Version, by Joseph Epstein, Mariner Books, 2002 p158

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books Long-reads


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today