BY BEN DEBNEY
If dispassionate debate of ideas is the theoretical means by which policy is formed in liberal democracies, in these increasingly hostile and desperate conditions of late capitalism, culture war has become the reality. By culture war, we mean the polarisation of debate, the ‘Othering’ of opponents, the use of ‘wedge’ issues loaded with any number of unspoken prior assumptions to hijack debates, and the adoption of a permanent victim complex.
The latter in particular is conspicuous for its intimate ties to an associated conspiratorial mentality that sees the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and alleges ‘our’ way of life to be under siege from an endless parade of what H.L Mencken once referred to as ‘hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.’ The function of mostly imaginary hobgoblins, he noted, was to provide a means with which rulers might menace the populace, who, thus alarmed, would be ’clamorous to be led to safety.’
Historian Charles Tilly describes this kind of politics as that associated with official protection rackets. In exploring the business models of empire-builders, he noted that rulers often ‘resembled racketeers: at a price, they offered protection against evils that they themselves would otherwise inflict, or at least allow to be inflicted.’ The endless parade of imaginary hobgoblins was necessary to the proper functioning of the business model; as long as they could be found or invented, the panicked clamour for national security would override and neutralise dispassionate judgement.
In his comments to US psychologist Gustave Gilbert while awaiting trial at Nuremberg, Nazi second in command Hermann Göring admitted as much, in as close as any of them ever came to a mea culpa;
Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America nor, for that matter, in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. … [V]oice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
In reflecting on this truism of politics for the conditions of 2022, we might observe that the exact same remains true of the culture war. It certainly might be seen to be no coincidence whatsoever that his ideological progeny are its instigators—no small irony in light of their deep investment in victimhood identity politics, and general tendency to be the root cause of social and ideological conflict by virtue of habitually conflating being criticised and being attacked.
In this instance, we are being told that civilisation is under attack from ‘woke’ leftists who want to weaken toxic masculinity and the collective narcissism of elite ingroupism by allowing traditionally marginalised and oppressed groups to share in the privileges that they have always taken for granted. The old wine of xenophobia and hatred of immigrants and refugees is repackaged in new bottles of the Great Replacement Theory, as the downtrodden looking to throw the boot off their necks are said to be stealing pieces from the ‘rights pie,’ or ‘swamping the lifeboat’ as the world cooks (no mention of course as to why the world is cooking or who might be behind it).
Where might these culture war fairy tales be coming from? We know that Christian fundamentalist Patrick Buchanan gave a speech during the 1992 Republican National Convention on the ‘culture war’ with feminists, environmentalists and various other heretics associating structures of power with the rule of evil (as per John 12:31), alleging that
There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself . . . The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.
Notable in this commentary is the conflation by the Christian Taliban of America with the values of religious fundamentalists, in defiance of the doctrine of separation of powers as well as any notion that religious values might be the basis for how we as individuals choose to live our lives, and not as an excuse to police the morality of everyone else. The supreme irony of this fact is evident in the tendency of culture warriors like Pat Buchanan, and others like him, to accuse his critics of policing morality, when they make it the stated lynchpin of their entire worldview.
This, however, does not stop dark-money funded, far-right corporate think-tanks like the Heartland Institute from crowing that ‘America’s newest religion is secular, and its zealous missionaries are focusing their efforts on the country’s youth,’ in articles with titles like ‘Woke Evangelists Spread the Gospel.’ Psychological projection of this kind only ultimately feeds the impression that the Heartland Institute, and the neo-aristocratic class of transnational corporate oligarchs and kleptocrats they represent, only find single-minded fanaticism problematic when it doesn’t operate in their favour.
In everyday usage, the Woke Conspiracy feeds the demonisation of the Left as a monolithic entity of global and totalitarian proportions—much like the aforesaid transnational corporate oligarchs and kleptocrats in fact. In everyday usage, it gives rise to the whinging politics of the perpetual victim, who appear not to be able to tell the difference either between being criticised and being attacked, or between opinions and facts.
Asserting the right to an opinion in defiance and militant ignorance of facts they don’t like becomes the go-to tactic of choice of every authoritarian and defender of injustice in shutting down discussion of facts they don’t like, and don’t want to have to acknowledge. This becomes the basis for the culture war conspiracy theory surrounding Critical Race Theory—that talking about historical racism, acknowledging it exists and attempting to do something about it is divisive (in this it figures that the problematising of critical thinking should pass entirely under the radar also).
The war on historical knowledge and consciousness implicit in the conspiricism surrounding the paranoid suspiciousness and hostility towards Critical Race Theory is useful as any other facet of culture war wedge politics in shifting blame for social conflict, oppression and injustice to the victims and sweeping the divisive nature of racism as a matter of definition under the rug—along with the class hierarchies they help to uphold through age-old ‘divide and conquer the vassals’ strategies of imperial overlordship.
Meanwhile the burgeoning corporate theocracy makes no effort to challenge the divisiveness of white supremacist Great Replacement conspiracism; insurgent fundamentalism and totalitarianism benefits from this kind of woke, virtue-signalling evangelism, in all its vacant, pretentious moralism and double standards. It likewise benefits from the reversal of the democratic onus on power to justify itself to the individual, which is a threat to corporate power—which has never had to justify its own existence democratically, and is clearly threatened by the potential of political democracy to present challenges to, and limit the haughty power of, economic autocracy.
As Noam Chomsky has noted in the past, corporations are internally totalitarian power structures that replicate the absolutist hierarchies abolished in the political sphere by democratic revolutions hundreds of years ago. As the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker presciently observed, liberal democracy was ‘shipwrecked’ on the rocks of class hierarchy; so long as one class monopolised wealth, resources and control over the means of production, democracy ended as soon as one stepped over the threshold at work.
And so it has always been; indeed, no less than the ‘Father of the Constitution,’ James Madison, argued during the 1787 Constitutional Convention that the proper role of governments out to be to ‘protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.’ In this was borne out the truth of the graffiti of the French rebels of May 1968, to the effect that ‘those who make half a revolution dig their own graves.’
The point here was that, in not addressing underlying economic autocracy, or instituting economy democracy at the same time, the door was left open for growing economic monopoly power to consume political democracy from within. Such fears are being borne out in the emergence of culture wars as a way of shoving the kind of ideological conformity necessary to the protection of the minority of the opulent from the majority down the throats of the population in the name of preventing it; the imaginary hobgoblins aid the construction of new empires and new fascist protection rackets.
Corporate dark money-funded think tanks with millions of dollars exist to innovate on conspiracy theories necessary for explaining why transnational corporatism, the enslavement and destruction of the planet, and protecting ‘the minority of the opulent against the majority’ is the fault of anyone who notices. In demonstrating the great value of conspiricism to the project of defending ‘the minority of the opulent from the majority,’ we come back full circle to Mencken’s observations about ‘the whole aim of practical politics’ being ‘to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary,’ and Tilly’s observations about empire-builders operating on a standover racket business model.
The difference here is that the biggest ones have a coat of arms and their own marching band—and, thanks to corporate capture of governments, a trademark in being wholly owned subsidiaries of Wall St titans like Goldman Sachs and Blackrock. Under the late capitalist culture-war driven protection racket, we can enjoy Democracy™ and Civilisation™ freed from the totalitarian yoke of critical thinking, historical consciousness and political dissent. The protection of the minority of the opulent against the majority is at least complete—in the name of the defence of the majority from a minority, no less.
Such was a characteristic feature of the dark days of global moral panic during the so-called War on Terrorism, the dark decades of moral panic over communism during the Cold War, and the dark centuries of moral panic over Brides of Satan during the European Witch-hunts. Each of these periods of ideologically-induced hysteria was based on a conspiracy theory that fed into a standover racket business model of political and class control; each aided empire-building, the smashing of resistance, rebellion and dissent, and the protection of the minority of the opulent from the majority, as per the prescription of the author of the US Constitution.
This latest iteration of the oldest trick in the book is absolutely nothing new. While claiming to defend democracy, the totalitarian corporate insurgency habitually conflates, as we have seen, individual freedom and privilege. It reverses the democratic burden of proof, such that critics of totalitarianism from the left, in both its corporate and religiously fundamentalist forms, are made out to be attacking individual rights—while a culture-war powered corporate and theocratic totalitarian insurgency attacks them in fact.
As the memory of any vestige of democratic culture is increasingly relegated to the Orwellian memory hole in the name of a bastardised interpretation of freedom identified with corporate totalitarianism and racial, gender and class supremacy (‘Libertarianism’), it merits reflecting on what democracy actually means. If democracy places burden of proof in power to justify itself to the individual, this also means that our individual freedoms end where other people’s begin, and that individual freedom means doing what you want as long as you respect the equal rights of others. Defending class and social privilege on the other hand—protecting the minority of the opulent from the majority—mean doing what you want irrespective of the consequences for anyone else.
In the face of these normative truisms of democracy, the project of corporate supremacism and fascist totalitarianism must habitually conflate defence of individual freedom and the project of defending the minority of the opulent from the majority, under pain of taking any responsibility for the abuses of capitalism historically, the great crimes against humanity associated with its origins in history, and the injustice and oppressiveness and class and other hierarchies. For the same reasons, it must habitually conflate being criticised and being attacked.
This accounts for why the willing executioners of the New Order of Liberty™ in God’s Country™ are as intolerant of points of view they don’t like as everything they claim to oppose (but use as a pretext to justify their own cultishness, toxicity and totalitarianism). The Woke Conspiracy is not about being heard, it is about shutting down critical thinking, heterodoxy and dissent. It is about silencing history and keeping the traditionally marginalised and oppressed. It enables a tantrum, now raised to the level of ideology, that the wheels are falling off the bandwagon of capitalist individualism.
To those who have traditionally benefitted from class hierarchy and institutional structures of exploitation, oppression and extractivism, the clamour of the downtrodden for an equal share or rights must be as daunting as the innumerable signs of impending social, economic and ecological collapse. In the face of this great dilemma, the Woke Conspiracy myth provides a mechanism for ideological acting out, and for ‘cruelty theatre’ supremely evident in the toxic scaremongering and hate-targeting of major news outlets like Fox News.
With demagogues like Tucker Carlson at the forefront, cruelty theatre turns sadistic victimisation of anyone in the way of the bandwagon of accumulation into righteous vengeance for defiance of the money cult and its standover racket business model of class domination and tribute-extortion. Cruelty theatre makes attacking witnesses to the criminality of the mob bosses of institutional standover rackets a righteous exercise in defence of the tribal ingroup—even if the tribe drinks from the poisoned chalice of collusion with corporate totalitarianism, the proverbial deal with the devil.
Making a deal with the devil does, however, always guarantees betrayal—in this instance, not least of which being used as an enabler for the big accumulation party for the minority of the opulent while they try to make an endless-growth economy work on a finite planet. As the vanguard of the class warfare of the minority of the opulent, collectively narcissistic culture warriors neither know nor care about the consequences of their tyranny for the majority. Their whole worldview is, and always has been, devoted to naturalising slavery, while denaturalising the slaves.
As billionaire Warren Buffett quite openly admits, ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ While they perpetrate class warfare, cooking the planet in the process, the minority of the opulent making class war and winning remain very deeply invested in victimhood identity—so deeply as to distinguish neither between criticism and attack, individual rights and class privilege, nor personal spirituality and ethics and the policing of morality while claiming to oppose it.
This perpetual victimhood feeds the conspiracist mentality that ‘the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’ (Charles Baudelaire). In contrast to this mentality, the demonstrable fact of culture war conspiracism, as a means for protecting the minority of the opulent from the majority is that ‘the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he was a God, and questioning his authority was giving aid to the Devil.’ The Woke Conspiracy™ does, after all, presume to defy God’s Country™.
It is almost as through the most dangerous minority looking to replace democracy with the tyranny of spongers and freeloaders looking to be kept, while they pull the will over the eyes of the populace, is the opulent. It is the minority of the opulent who have motive, means and opportunity to perpetrate class control through an ideological standover racket, parading an endless succession of hobgoblins in front of the public and make everyone clamorous to be lead to safety, trading freedom for security.
The root claim of culture war conspiracism over the Woke Left holds that all opinions are equally valid on the one hand, and that opinions and facts carry the same weight on the other. This functions ultimately to silence debate, suppress history and protect the minority of the opulent by preferencing opinions defiant of debate, history and a distinction between facts and opinions, criticism and attack, and social and class privilege and individual freedom.
Similarly, valuing individual voices means valuing ones we don’t like, and having the capacity to be contradicted. Every ideology across the spectrum has the capacity to silence dissent in the name of protecting society from external threats. The logic of ‘if you think for yourself, the communists win,’ works just as well as ‘if you think for yourself, the enemies of communism win.’ Both logics work equally well again recast as ‘if you think for yourself, the terrorists win,’ ‘if you think for yourself, the satan-worshippers win,’ and ‘if you think for yourself, the critical race theorists win.’
Strong, self-contained individuals know that freedom means survival, not victimhood; that our troubles and traumas don’t define who we are. Capture-bonded slaves within class structures of inherited, perpetual class privilege, on the other hand, and slaves to the property they have invested their identities in, need to define themselves by their alleged troubles and traumas in order to justify their victimisation of others. As in the case of culture warriors like Pat Buchanan accusing their critics of policing morality, when they make it the centrepiece of their entire purpose in life, the great irony of this project of perpetrating culture war in defence of the minority of the opulent from the majority is that they embody everything they claim to oppose.