How to lose a culture war: a response to Ben Eltham

‘[T]he culture wars are unmistakably back.’

That’s New Matilda’s Ben Eltham, dumbfounded at ‘the amazing ideological nature’ of Abbott’s cuts.

Actually, nothing could have been more predictable. Abbott’s a cultural warrior, born and bred; his most enthusiastic supporters sup daily from a wingnut blogosphere that has honed baiting liberals into an art form. In any case, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the Coalition took power without either a mandate or a clear program, and so need an immediate symbolic battle to hold their fractious army together.

Most of all, though, the culture wars makes sense for Abbott because they worked for the Right in the past – and they show every sign of working again.

Eltham’s piece perfectly illustrates the problem:

Some on the left have decried the new outbreak of the culture wars, claiming that it distracts from the real issues. Writing in The Guardian, for instance, Jeff Sparrow argued last week that the storm of controversy over Abbott’s blokey cabinet choices played into conservative hands. ‘If the left doesn’t understand the logic of culture wars,’ Sparrow wrote, ‘we are doomed to be defeated in them.’

A glance at the way the right sees the coming culture wars shows how wrong Sparrow is. Quite apart from the fact that the gender make-up of the key decision-making body of the land is more than a symbolic issue, the very idea that the symbolic content of politics can somehow be divorced from the material aspects seems mistaken, almost quaint.

That’s such an egregious misrepresentation of my argument (I did not claim that symbolism was unimportant – I argued explicitly that it sometimes matters a great deal) as to suggest that Eltham didn’t actually read the article before he issued his pro forma condemnation.

This is a response not so much out of personal pique (though it’s that too) but because the Eltham piece reads less like a fighting manifesto for the Left than an extended suicide note, and those of us who were around during the depressing defeats of the Howard years have a responsibility to speak out against a repetition of those disasters.

As you would expect, the Right chooses the terrain of its cultural battles carefully, framing the debates to ensure it wins them. How does it do that? It goads the Left into isolating itself from any mass base, inviting it to a fight it will inevitably lose.

The case study I gave in the Guardian related to sexism. The Left will be anti-sexist or it will be nothing, and, as I argued, we need to oppose misogyny wherever it manifests itself and no matter whom it affects. But there’s a distinction between an anti-sexism that speaks to the bulk of the population and one that orients primarily to the political class. With the latter, we lose (especially given the depth of alienation most of the public feels from Canberra); with the former, we stand at least a chance of victory.

But the examples Eltham provides about climate change illustrate the point just as well.

As he says, the Right’s cock-a-hoop about the abolition of the Climate Commission, and itching for a fight over global warming. Why’s that? One reason is that the Left’s been losing on climate for years.

In 2007, the demand for environmental action propelled Kevin Rudd into power. But in the 2013 election, climate barely rated a mention – and every survey showed global warming dropping down the list of public priorities.

The same trend manifests throughout the developed world. Between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who believed that burning fossil fuels changed the climate dropped from 71 per cent to 44 per cent, an evolution described by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press as ‘among the largest shifts over a short period of time seen in recent public opinion history’.

You can’t look at those figures and not think that our side’s been doing something terribly wrong.

Naomi Klein recently suggested that, alongside the denialism of the Right, there’s also a denialism of the Left. Where the Right pretends that the climate’s fine changing, the mainstream Left denies the extent of the economic and social reforms necessary for a genuine response. She writes:

Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as ‘people’ under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.

The pragmatic response is to dismiss such calls as despatches from Planet Lalaland. If Gillard can’t win an election advocating a carbon tax, reforms on the scale Klein advocates have no hope whatsoever.

But the sensible centrists who have been dominating the debate entirely reverse cause and effect.

Actually, precisely because the scientific consensus paints such a grim picture of the planet’s health, the tepid response by mainstream politicians actually fosters denialism. Why? As Eddie Yuen argues in his chapter in the excellent book Catastrophism:

Popular environmental films such as An Inconvenient Truth follow compelling evidence for ecological collapse with woefully inadequate injunctions to green consumption or lobbying of political representatives. … A more common outcome, however, seems to be acute disempowerment and disengagement with environmental politics altogether.

If you accept what climate experts say, then the palliatives currently on offer from the political mainstream propel you either to a leaden despair or, just as likely, to overt scepticism (on the basis that, if things were really as bad as the scientists said, surely someone would be doing something).

Indeed, the environmental responses from the major parties aren’t simply inadequate – they are predicated on a neoliberalism that most people quite rightly despise.

Almost every mainstream climate advocate argues for a market response to global warming. That’s not because there’s any logical reason to see the market as an appropriate mechanism to alleviate environmental damage. On the contrary, the schemes being touted rely on bizarre conceptual contortions in order to transform the natural world into marketable commodities – the kind of ideas that, until a few decades ago, was accepted only by the extreme fringe of the free market Right.

No, these notions are not on the table because they are likely to succeed. Rather, they are the only solutions being discussed because, in the wake of the neoliberal turn of the last decades, any policy conceived outside a market framework seems politically unimaginable.

Markets are inherently and innately opposed to the collective nature of political activism (you consume as an individual, not as a group). It’s not surprising, then, that the adaption to neoliberalism coincided with a collapse of the once vibrant environmental movement, as Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys document so well in their chapter for Left Turn (the 2012 book that Antony Loewenstein and I edited). Klein makes a similar argument in the US context, writing:

I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results. I think if we look at the track record of Kyoto, of the UN Clean Development Mechanism, the European Union’s emissions trading scheme – we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it’s disastrous. Not only are emissions up, but you have no end of scams to point to, which gives fodder to the right. The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it’s going to bankrupt us, it’s handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it’s not going to work. And they were right on all counts. Not in the bankrupting part, but they were right that this was a massive corporate giveaway, and they were right that it wasn’t going to bring us anywhere near what scientists were saying we needed to do lower emissions.

The popular disengagement from climate politics is not, in other words, a mystery but the result of a strategic choice taken by the Left. Neoliberal policies have, by definition, no room for public participation (since neoliberalism rejects the whole notion of a public). In any case, most people struggled to become enthusiastic about a program so philosophically similar to the market reforms that gutted Australia’s public utilities – and that was even before the GFC rendered almost obscene the notion of environmental commodities constructed along the lines of the complex mortgage-based financial derivatives that spurred the collapse of the US economy.

What’s the alternative? Look again at Klein’s proposals. Her point is that we know what to do to save the planet. We do not need the market’s invisible hand – on the contrary, it would be infinitely simpler and more straightforward to construct a low-carbon economy directly.

Furthermore, Klein’s suggestions – a strengthened public sphere; a reversal of privatisation; an embrace of planning; the imposition of taxes and regulations on corporations – are scarcely radical in historical terms. They amount to little more than the bog-standard program of social democracy, the kinds of notions that were orthodoxy merely a few decades back.

It’s true that a plan along such lines would send the business world and sections of the media in hysterics. Putting it in place would therefore depend on a popular mobilisation, one that pitted ordinary people against politicians and denialist pundits.

Now, a climate New Deal might sound utopian. But, actually, a program of public spending and nationalisation has far more chance of inspiring ordinary people (as indeed the original New Deal did) than more of the same neoliberal dross – certainly, every survey of the public reveals a visceral hatred for privatisation and widespread support for tax hikes aimed at big corporations.

Again, there’s nothing fantastical about such proposals, which a previous generation would have seen as entirely unexceptional.

How does this relate to Abbott’s current provocations?

Eltham writes:

Indeed, the next three years are likely to see a much wider and more effective mobilisation of progressive sentiment than Tony Abbott and the tacticians at Crosby Textor may have bargained for.

In that respect, this morning’s announcement of the rebirth of the Climate Commission as the crowd-funded and independent Climate Council is a straw in the wind. Only days after its abolition, Flannery and his colleagues at the Commission have reconstituted themselves with the help of a groundswell of community support. As independent analysts, they loom as far more effective critics of Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott’s risible Direct Action policy than they would have been while still formally part of the government.

The rebirth of the Climate Council could not have occurred with anything like this speed and flexibility in the Howard years. It is a sign that the tools for community opposition to Tony Abbott’s agenda are effective and potentially highly disruptive. Like many a general before him, Abbott may soon realise that getting into a culture war is much easier than getting out.

It’s certainly good news that so many people were outraged at the contempt the Liberals show about the scientific consensus. But where’s the evidence that a crowd-funded Climate Council poses any threat to Abbott? Greg Hunt certainly didn’t seem at all discomforted. On the contrary, he immediately hailed the new body as proof that the private sector could provide all the sciencey-type stuff that anyone might desire.

The support for the relaunched council indicates how desperately many of us want a renewed fight for climate action. But that means a political campaign – which is explicitly what Tim Flannery says the reborn council won’t provide. Instead, he says the new body will continue to ‘explain the complex issues in an absolutely independent, apolitical, easy to understand but authoritative way’.

But if the Climate Council couldn’t sway the public when it enjoyed the support of the government and the backing of the state, how will it do so now?

Scientific education is, without question, an excellent thing. But it’s not going to win this fight. Indeed, a recent study from the US shows that the more people are educated about the science of climate change, the less they feel like doing anything about it, since (as I’ve argued above) the dire state of the planet contrasts so starkly with the political choices on the table.

What’s more, while Flannery might not be interested in politics, politics is most definitely going to be interested in him. Abbott has made it clear that he views the Climate Council as an advocacy group. The Liberals and much of the media will treat the new council as a partisan organisation; Bolt and his ilk will continue to smear and abuse Flannery and his associates without mercy.

The Right is launching a political struggle – even as the Left puts its trust in an organisation that won’t engage in politics. As a strategy, it’s akin to taking out the enemy’s bayonet by impaling yourself in the chest.

Of course, we need science education and we need science educators. But, more than anything else, we need a new political direction, a grassroots orientation that rejects the technocratic, neoliberal politics of the past.

A big ask? Well, it shouldn’t be. Climate’s the quintessential example of an issue in which the profits of a few are dramatically contrasted with the interests of the many – fertile ground for a mobilisation that exposes the phoney, idiotic populism of the culture warriors as the fraud that it is. Simon Copland’s interesting article in Inside Story offers some suggestions as to how this might be done.

In The Untouchables, there’s a scene in which Malone explains how to take down a gangster. ‘You wanna know how to get Capone?’ he says. ‘They pull a knife, you pull a gun. That’s the Chicago way.’

Culture wars work the same fashion, except the gun the Left possesses is the possibility for mass action. We can save the climate only if we turn the environment into an issue in which everyday Australian feel they have a stake. That’s the escalation we need – and if we can manage it, the culture war rhetoric will become risible.

By all means, let’s fight. But let’s not do so on the terrain of our opponents.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I hope you appreciate the irony of you and Ben continuing to fight over who’s right about the culture wars. FWIW I found your argument more persuasive but tit-for-tat op-eds are not helping anything. I look forward to essay-length jousting from both warriors in the days and weeks to come.

  2. Very disappointing to see this kind of retreat from carbon pricing and other forms of economic thinking around climate change. The author’s suggestion that the left’s embrace of carbon pricing involved a kind of corrosive neo-liberal ontology which has created compromised policy is risible and supremely unhelpful.

    Carbon pricing stems from the accepted economic principle that negative externalities are distortionary and involve moral hazard. In the area of climate change, these distortions are fundamental to the problem as GHG emitters have no incentive to change unless you internalise these costs.

    It’s a fundamental sound principle and it isn’t inherently that should be ideologically tagged, like conservative or liberal.

  3. Jeff you are so right, we have to go to the barricades yet again to fight the good fight (against ignorance and selfishness and all the other unsavoury characteristics of these vile people). Every time I look at Pynes smug face I want to scream…..

  4. The Coalition’s strongest critique of their opponents is that they don’t understand why they lost, and that they’ll keep losing. The reason why you engage the enemy on their ground is to show that’s a lie, and leave them nowhere to retreat to other than your turf, which you have to be able to defend.

    I suggest that the ALP will become more technocratic rather than less; given that ALP policy (NDIS, NBN, schools) was so popular, but that backbiting and incompetence wasn’t, why not offer policy goodness combined with goodwill to all?

  5. Yes, good points. Simon Copland’s article is a worthwhile read.

    This discussion makes me compare our current state of affairs with campaign against tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline. I think this is an interesting campaign to watch partly because it seems to fulfil lots of the criteria Copland is talking about. That is, it is simple, achievable: the pipeline has been dubbed ‘the fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet’ – so stopping it is clearly important but its construction is also the vulnerability or lynch pin of the project. What’s also clear is that the political class is uninterested in stopping it (though it has been forced to delay) so direct action is necessary. Lastly, it highlights the anarchy and failure of the market – that extracting oil from tar sands is now economically viable, but also that the oil needs to be exported to get a better price (hence the need for the pipeline).

    It’s hard to imagine something similar in Australia at this point, but not for the lack of a decent opportunity. Given the reliance of our economy on exporting resources it would seem we are in a good position to replicate it. The campaign against the James Price Point gas hub gives us something of a glimpse of what this might be like but it would be good to transform this into a tradition.

  6. “the Right chooses the terrain of its cultural battles carefully, framing the debates to ensure it wins them. How does it do that? It goads the Left into isolating itself from any mass base, inviting it to a fight it will inevitably lose.”
    Every certified lefty in the country should be forced to write that out 100 times over.
    To which I’d add the right hardly ever needs to goad, as the left will nine times of ten instinctively select that position as a default.
    Refugees is the other crucial example. The left has spent over ten years pretending it’s pushing back a tide of marauding racism, and has consequently failed to shift the fulcrum of the debate one jot.
    I completely disagree with the survey of neoliberalism, and in fact I think that word itself is a pretty distracting straw man for the left to have in front of it. It’s like above there seems a pre-laid trap that as soon as you’re addressing “neoliberalism” you’re in theory-land. And you’ve abstracted the whole thing. “Neoliberal policies have, by definition, no room for public participation (since neoliberalism rejects the whole notion of a public).” – but that leaves you with the awkward bind that therefore either our present systems are not in fact neoliberal or otherwise there must be no present level of public participation in the process at all. The real-world effects of these concepts are so multifaceted, I have a vision of the left trundling predictably down the path of creating a new, arbitrary straw man by way of the need to have something defined to bash at. No revolution without prior order.
    I don’t find “opposing neoliberalism” much of a banner for the broader community to march behind.

    Also, I have no idea what New Matilda is even for anymore. There’s hardly a piece of properly researched journalism on the site.

  7. I did read your article Jeff, so I apologise if you feel I’ve misrepresented you 😉

    Look, I don’t want to contribute to what I think is in most ways a furious agreement, except to say that my point was not that the left should somehow engage the right on its own terrain (and by the way, because ideas are not armies, there is not battleground in any terrestrial sense) but exactly the opposite: that the left should move to defend its own — something it has proved spectacularly incapable of, by the way, in recent times.

    The very fact that the Klein manifesto — which I agree is no more than Beveridge/Bevin style social democracy — seems utterly radical and unachievable in the current climate tells you what happens when ideological battles about the role of government and the structure of the economy are lost. As they have been since the early 1970s.

    What this amounts to in my view is something quite similar to what you suggest: to slowly and methodically, to organise political, social and ideological opposition to the Abbott government’s agenda. I would have thought that moving quickly to resource an influential agency in the public debate about climate change was a step in the right direction, not some kind of quixotic suicide note.

    I’ll have more to say about this in the near future, including an attempt to inject a bit if rigour into the idea of ideological power, but for now my point is pretty simple: the left can turn up and contest the current battle for ideas, in which case it may or may not prevail. Or it can stay home and wait for the right time and right opportunity, it which case it will certainly lose.

  8. Adam, the left doesn’t view the persecution of refugees as a battle it can elect to engage with or not for strategic advantage: they are compelled to side with refugees because of the very values that make them ‘left’. Asking people to turn a blind eye to injustice because of political expedience may be a winning strategy but it is an unpalatable one that would render the party’s moral compass useless. A party without values is a party that will race to the bottom to grab whatever votes it can for power alone.

  9. Good thinking. It’s not the name (neoliberal, left etc) it’s what the name stands for that’s the important thing. I believe in tactics more than strategies, as strategies are akin to wars fought blind by armies, wars that often can’t be won because never officially declared, which is the political nexus at the moment, and why the tactic of mobilising oppositional support around climate change does seem a good one, and winnable, particularly with tide levels continually rising, so something for the left to point to, something to stand for, something to contest on both political and empirical grounds. I’d be happy to take that one on.

  10. I may be naive, but I’m not understanding why the government abolishment and crowd-sourced recreation of the Climate Commission counts as ‘Culture War’. It’s not as symbolic as burning the flag. It’s one section of the bureaucracy – albeit in a purely information provision capability about a concrete issue – that has now found outside the government. It’s a political war, and an information war too. However, I’m really finding it a stretch to say it’s part of a cultural war as well. Perhaps it measures a couple of microAtwaters on the cultural warfare stakes, but that’s all.

  11. Chris – that’s your ridiculous dialectic, not mine. It’s not about “do we engage on refugees or not”?It’s about “as we clearly need to engage, perhaps we ought to do so from a position that starts with something other than assuming the very people we need to engage with in the debate are racists and morons. Surprisingly all the non-racist, non-moron people (ie 98% of participants) who have concerns over boat arrivals just assumed we weren’t talking to them and continued on the same.

    Close quotes there somewhere. Whatever.

  12. Thank you both (Eltham and Sparrow) for a much-needed debate and discussion about the culture wars. Personally, I’m fed up with the outrage and lack of clarity and strategy for mass activism that isn’t tit for tat bs.

  13. “the Right chooses the terrain of its cultural battles carefully, framing the debates to ensure it wins them. How does it do that? It goads the Left into isolating itself from any mass base, inviting it to a fight it will inevitably lose.”
    True. And the left isolates itself from any mass base because it too often plays the scripted role of shouty subordinates to the Labor Opposition. We may not intend that, but it’s easy to be painted that way.
    Take Gillard’s misogyny speech. I’m not a woman so I haven’t experienced the daily sexism and put downs. But I think I understand why it genuinely struck a chord with so many women. Yet championing this speech (and many liberal lefties were really gushing overtime on it) doesn’t get us anywhere much with all those people who switched off from politics ages ago – a majority of the electorate, I’d guess. They don’t care. Gillard may be right, good on her, but she’s the PM, a successful lawyer, famous and powerful for all the sexism she faces. she doesn’t need our sympathy. And besides, we voted for Kevin not her. Or something like that, it goes.
    Yet if the left championed the single parents stripped of benefits on the day of that speech, as only a few managed to do, and too few in the media discussion — who could paint us as the Labor cheer squad or anything but those who stand up for the battler? I don’t think getting the culture wars are that hard. They just require we abandon what’s left of the Labor party – and a party that can do such things to single parents, or refugees, no longer is part of the left.

  14. A general comment on the limpid left would be that many people who write about social issues and human rights may not be experiencing the powerlessness and lack of opportunity faced by those in real disadvantage. They are effectively the ‘desktop left’. For example, it would have been very helpful if the left had taken more of an interest in the privatisation of public housing that commenced in Victoria over a decade ago and has now had dire consequences nationwide. Ditto for the appalling Newstart rates.

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