The False Narrative of the New British Culture War

John Gaston

John Gaston is a former politics teacher based out of Brighton, UK, interested in the history of ideas and political thought.

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29 Responses

  1. Rufus F. says:

    “What happens to an increasingly demographically sorted America where we no longer share even our basic commercial culture…how are these two completely separate peoples to jointly decide on the running of one vast country?”

    I don’t really disagree with her argument but seems a bit late to ask that question. The cultural center failed to hold and skipped town a long time back; there’s no way a shared “commercial culture” can replace it, unless we expect people to live their lives by the tenets of Pepsi and Wal-Mart. I think she’s expecting consumer culture to do as much heavy lifting as the people who want it to reform society.Report

    • greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Isn’t it that the “shared” commercial culture was ended by the internet. It really doesn’t matter who says what or ad campaigns. The internet has forever expanded our commercial options and modern companies can micro target us. None of that is wrong or bad in itself. But it’s inevitable and irreversible. If there was a shared commercial culture it’s only because there were no options.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to greginak says:

        Oh I don’t think any of it’s bad. I just doubt there ever was a shared commercial culture or ever could be.Report

        • greginak in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Yeah i agree there was far less a shared commercial then some people seem to believe. Certainly sub groups have had their own entertainment since, approximately, forever.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

          There were certainly sub-cultures ranging from very religious people to science fiction/fantasy nerds to LGBT whose cultures were outside the mainstream culture. Racial minorities and immigrant groups also had their own kind of separate to very separate sub-cultures. However, I think that when options were more limited people really did tend to share more of the same tastes in music, movies, clothing, and other entertainment.

          It’s why you had more big massively popular pop musicians playing big massively sold out concerts in the past. There were critical masses for dozens of artists or bands to have multiple gold and platinum albums. These days you have fewer really big stars at that level. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and a few others. During the 80s and 90s you had dozens at that level. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Guns N’Roses, Aerosmith, Run DMC, Whitney Houston, REM, Nirvana, etc. Likewise you had more big hit TV shows that millions of people watched like the Cosby Show or Full House rather than more shows getting audiences in the low millions.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I think the idea is that without a shared mass culture, there is little dialog because people have fewer things in common. In the past Democrats and Republicans might have disagreed politically but they generally listened to the same music and watched the same tv and movies. These days not so much. Without a shared cultural discourse, there is really nothing to unite people.Report

    • John Gaston in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Hi Rufus, I think this is a great point – it is not a new phenomenon. I guess what I would say is that with the advent of more effective data targeting methods, companies are more likely to see it as in their interests to foster cultural divisions which make it easier to group consumers.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Having some corporations be in at least of support of social liberalism is one of the biggest changes in business history. In the not so distant past business people and by extension their corporations, tended to be enthusiastic supporters of social conservatism as they were of capitalism. The slow shift to paying at least lip service to socially liberal positions like feminism, multiculturalism, and LGBT rights is astounding even if actual practice isn’t up to snuff.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Having some corporations be in at least of support of social liberalism is one of the biggest changes in business history.

      Businesses support “causes” insofar as it effects their bottom line. If playing to the patriarchy worked in 2019, they’d do it. So don’t give *any* credit to businesses change in behavior unless you’re speaking as a shareholder.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Stillwater says:

        I’m not sure about this. Plenty of business owners were willing to be really far right socially during the 1950s and 1960s despite the sheer buying power of the baby boomers. Same with past generations of business owners. There is certainly a lot of opportunism in much of their advocacy of soft liberalism but I’m not sure it is entirely self-serving either.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

          CEO’s lose their jobs if they don’t pad the bottom line, right?

          There are exceptions – CEOs who are majority share holders – but they’re few and far between. (I love that expression tho I don’t know what it means.)Report

          • InMD in reply to Stillwater says:

            I’m usually the first to echo this sentiment, and I feel odd pushing back on it, but my experience is that this isn’t quite right. In the modern American corporation the botton line is the most important thing, and when forced to make a decision between bottom line and some greater social or political good the bottom line will always prevail. However those kinds of decisions are few, far between, and rarely so stark.

            Maybe I’ve just been in corporate America too long but most people in it in a decision making capacity believe they’re doing good, at least within the constraints of running a successful business. Now I’ve seen people convince themselves that what is good lines up with their self-interest in very convenient ways, but I have yet to come accross the Hayek quoting Randian ideologue of lore. The social liberalism of corporate America is soft, squishy, and always comes with a few asterisks, but it is real.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to InMD says:

              The social liberalism of corporate America is soft, squishy, and always comes with a few asterisks, but it is real.

              Interesting. Is this one of those “reality has a liberal bias” sorta things? Or that decision-makers intentionally try to push things in a liberal direction?Report

              • North in reply to Stillwater says:

                A little of both. You have a perfect storm right now- the business managers, professionals and prominent employees are, generally, socially liberal on a personal level and also social liberalism, at least of the performative woke manner en vogue right now is both popular with the masses and is also cheap cheap cheap!Report

              • Jaybird in reply to North says:

                Make it so that you can’t get a corporate job without going to college first, and make it so that you can’t go to college without also taking a course in something like Women’s Studies or Pan-African Studies or Latina Film Theory and you’re going to find a lot of corporate drones who have a certain set of beliefs.

                (This isn’t intended to be a criticism.)Report

              • North in reply to Jaybird says:

                I suppose, though that doesn’t include the standard (and previously primary) model of getting a corporate job which was and still is raw nepotism/networking.Report

              • Jesse in reply to Stillwater says:

                What’s basically happening is that while politics might still be slightly biased to the right due to things like the Senate, the Electoral College, sizes of various generations, and turnout percentages, commerce is tilted slightly to the left based on well, there’s a giant group of people under 40 who they want to sell things too and the vast majority of those people have pretty much zero issues with the “crazy left-wing” ideas the corporations are embracing and more importantly, the people who do oppose them don’t have financial or cultural cachet.

                Nike figured this out – not being loud about social justice issues costs them more in sales than whatever right-wing boycott will hurt them.

                Plus, as @north said, the vast majority of employees will be social liberals, again, especially by the standards of whatever Rod Dreher is complaining about this week.Report

              • InMD in reply to Stillwater says:

                I think it comes from a number of places. One, as North says below, is the marketing aspect but I think that aspect is probably going to be short lived, and could actually come back to bite the broader left over time.

                More important is that big companies tend to be based in blue areas, have college educated leadership, and a whole bunch of people in legal, HR, and compliance departments doing their damndest to keep Saul from getting rich. I also think that there’s somewhat of a cultural sanity dividend enjoyed by center left social liberalism, though I also think that’s very fragile, and where the marketing thing and absurd performative wokeness could erode that advantage.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to InMD says:

                A little late getting back to this, but I’m wondering if what you’re talking about explains why Schultz is being fluffed so hard in mainstream news orgs. Eg., that he embodies the type of soft-liberalism you’re talking about*, one which dominates in corporate culture but, given his approvals, not outside of it.

                *Not only you, but Lee, Saul, North….Report

            • Saul Degraw in reply to InMD says:

              I think you would do a massive study and break it down by industry.

              When it comes to public facing companies selling consumer goods, they are tending more towards small-l social liberalism and this could largely be because they did studies on changing demographics. Conservative, white guys are dying out and younger cohorts are more diverse and socially liberal. It just makes business sense to cater to their views.

              Another factor I think is the hardcore social-conservatism and craziness of the GOP is turning away a lot of people who would probably have center-right politics in any other country. Most of these people are educated professionals. A while ago, Paul Campos did a study showing how lawyer donations to the GOP in 2012 were pretty decent and a good number of lawyers (especially at big firms) voted for Romney. These numbers plummeted in 2016 and beyond.

              Lots of professionals take pride in their craftsmenship and Trump is just seen as a boor and this offends them. This includes very conservative lawyers like George Conoway.

              Now what is strange is that plaintiff’s lawyer me and big corporate defense lawyer are both liberal Democrats.Report

              • InMD in reply to Saul Degraw says:

                I think you’re dead on and I would be interested in the industry breakdown. I’m in healthcare and more recently health care technology which obviously attracts people whose interests and perspectives could broadly be considered liberal. I’ve heard other industries, banking for example, can be different.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Stillwater says:

        To a large degree, socialism comes from big company bosses. The early Marxists were swayed by industrialist Robert Owen and his experiments in improving workers living conditions, along with his experiments at setting up socialist utopias in the US. Those reports were completely false (all the experiments were predictable epic disasters) but enough to have Engels overcome his doubts about the whole enterprise.

        Henry Ford was another example of a far-left corporate boss whose ego envisioned his workers as a society for him to mold and shape. He had a huge influence on German national socialists and of course the Soviets, leaping on a Dearborn Soviet pact in 1929 to produce cars on the Volga and to recreate River Rouge in Gorky. US engineers from big corporations like Ford built their tractor plant in Karkhov, their dams, etc. Stalin said Ford was one of the world’s great industrialists and asked “May God preserve him.” Stalin also said “The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.”

        When a company operates on a grand scale, trying to manage the lives of its workers, including providing housing and meals for them, what you have is a socialist collective operating in a larger market. And of course like regular socialism, all the money piles up at the CEO level. (A Russian jet has arrived in Venezuela to fly all the central bank’s gold out, since that belongs to Maduro and his top tier socialists, who are going to keep their loot.)

        Facebook, Google, and Twitter are similar, trying to create a political culture in their workforce, policing thoughts, providing free employee meals, etc. It’s an impulse that occurs to socialists who build business empires.Report

  3. Stillwater says:

    Hmmmm. My first thought in reading this post is “the problem is when culture and economics collide”.

    My second thought is that it’s very interesting that Spain is among the lowest antagonists towards immigration yet by most accounts it’s one of the best places to live in the world. So I can only guess that Spain is already corrupted.Report

  4. PD Shaw says:

    The last link goes to a gated, prize-winning article entitled Inevitability and contingency: The political economy of Brexit, which concludes

    the political economy of Britain generated by Britain’s position as non-euro member of the EU while possessing the offshore financial centre of the euro-zone and Britain’s eschewal in 2004 of transition arrangements on freedom of movement for that year’s accession states made Brexit an eventual inevitability, saving a prior collapse of the euro-zone.

    Wish I could find an ungated copy to read, but from bits quoted elsewhere it sounds like, the friction of electoral democracy necessitates political leaders committing to improve the lives of voters. “Only if Cameron could have released himself from the desire to win the 2015 election, an act of self-restraint almost always beyond politicians, could he have escaped from the diminution of decision-making options at work and, consequently, bought British membership of the EU significantly more time.” Part of the inevitability is evidenced by Labour Party’s own previous commitment to undertake a referendum for any EU Constitution, a commitment skuttled temporarily by France’s rejection of the EU Constitution, which was resumed in piecemeal fashion.

    I take it the contingencies are various political moves taking place in the context of the vortex of EU skepticism from various fronts. “The 2008 financial crash and the euro-zone crisis put a time-bomb under the sustainability of Britain’s membership of the EU.” The immigration component was that as a non-Euro country, the UK served as employer of last resort, unable to constrain or credibly promise to constrain low-skilled migration, but this was just a piece of it.Report

  5. Chip Daniels says:

    John, I would be curious to get your reaction to this essay by Maria Farrell over at Crooked Timber.

    • John Gaston in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Hi Chip

      It’s a very strong piece, but I feel it sort of vindicates the point of my article. There are very strong personal feelings about Brexit, but the connection of euroscepticism with widespread racism and xenophobia is simply not borne out by the evidence. However, because people have strong feelings the cultural narrative – open vs closed – is very strong. I don’t think the evidence can necessarily hold back this narrative, but I think it’s worth putting forward a counter-narrative which fights the polarisation.Report

  6. Deep Water says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on Brexit, and I’ve read a lot of them. It provokes a number of responses for me. (Incidentally, the book How to Lose a Referendum by Farrell and Goldsmith also lists a number of contingent mistakes the Remain camp made.) I quite like the recent article by Jeremy Cliffe that roots a lot of it in our separate political and legal traditions. Although he did not mention the US founding father James Wilson (previously a Scot), it seems to me that Cliffe’s article points towards Wilson’s observation about “the accommodating spirit of the common law”. The European civil law tradition seems rather more rigid, as we have seen. What on earth is ‘Ever closer union’ about anyway? If the first aim in the Treaty of Rome had been working towards material prosperity and general amity, the English would probably have got behind it.

    In the Unherd discussion with Matthew Goodwin and David Aaronovitch that you link to, Goodwin mentions the historians Linda Colley and Robert Tombs on the historic precursors of Britain’s EUroscepticism. Linda Colley here uses Lawrence Stone’s book Origins of the English Civil War to help us understand the vote. Specifically that there are short term triggers, medium term precipitants, long term preconditions. This model helps explain the UK’s decision beyond the short term triggers (which Stone called ‘elite inefficiencies’ – Will Straw as executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe anyone???). Specifically the British experience of war has shaped its attitudes to Europe and the EU. The world wars did not leave the UK feeling European integration was necessary. The UK’s 150 years of military and material success (1789-1941) left the country feeling that Parliament is a successful body (and Europe a mess). Tombs makes some good points, especially that radical change in England tends to come from below, not from an elite vanguard as in most European countries.

    I would say that one of the key differences between the UK (or really England) and the rest of the EU are that the lessons the UK drew from WW2 is that democracy saved us, while the Europeans (at least the Germans) feel that it was democracy (of the Weimar kind) that got them into that mess and thus it should be limited. Two diametrically opposed myths of history. Which takes us to an alternate binary opposition. Rather than Open/Closed, how about Democratic/Technocratic?

    Of course, you could just ask how EUrophilic the UK is by asking whether people whether they would want to join the Euro. I’d hazard a guess it would be much more than 52/48 against. The Oxford development economist Paul Collier asks a similar question about our membership of the EU through the lens of the Euro here.

    Here by the way is another article you can add to your list of comparative anglo-xenophilia list.

    Perhaps critics are conflating concern with immigration with xenophobia. I can think of a number of reasons that one might want to limit immigration that are not xenophobic. Anyway, the main point is that immigration should be a democratic decision, and disruption occurs when it (when any major political decision) is removed from discussion. That’s the problem with technocracy. As Helen Thompson said in her most recent article “Its [the EU’s] default modus operandi pushes back against serious problems by rigidly asserting its own internal doctrines and hierarchies, and by expressing its commitment to a rules-based international order.” Which ironically sounds rather like Jeremy Cliffe on the more flexible British approach. It’s no coincidence that the UK has no written constitution.

    Incidentally, the new Coke ad is a much more successful, less hectoring version of ‘we’re all in it together’ message: showing multi-ethnic football fans united by a love of the game, but without some silly geopolitical lecture. Nice.Report