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IIn the United States, battles rage over cultural issues: constant coverage of “cancel culture”, pitched battles over teaching “critical race theory” (CRT) in classrooms or the definition of the term ” woman “. For years, many on the left have argued that such battles are “distractions” from the real fight over class and economic issues. They are only half right.

These so-called fictional battles are just the most recent moments of a loosely organized right-wing cultural insurgency. The Federalist Society has been incubating right-wing legal careers since the 1980s. The fight against critical race theory continues a long-standing right-wing offensive against public education, whose roots go back as far as the schooling backlash. racially integrated.

It is fair to note, as critics of the “culture wars” have done, that there is something dishonest about these battles. The details have always been spongy in the details: defending the constitutional analysis of the “original intent” of the slave owners of yesteryear has long been difficult to take seriously on intellectual merit. The standard bearers of opposition to critical race theory have struggled to say what they oppose, and Florida textbook reviewers tasked with eliminating CRT from math textbooks have not. much more successful.

But this vagueness on the side of justification goes hand in hand with a frightening clarity of tactical purpose on the side of action. Florida lawmakers may have trouble articulating the reasons for banning the books, but they banned 40% of math books anyway.

Meanwhile, Alabama and Texas have criminalized caring for trans youth. Perhaps most dramatically, the recent Supreme Court leak suggests the court could strike down Roe v Wade, a critical strike against the bodily autonomy of women, trans men, and non-binary people with wombs (even more than legislation to simplify this phrase will surely be forthcoming).

So it couldn’t be clearer that the view of “culture wars” as mere distractions from the “real” political struggle is gravely flawed. The idea that concrete, “material” issues should mean a narrow focus on jobs and the economy – and not, say, wombs – seems hard to justify.

Even the most intransigent materialist should notice that decisions about school curricula determine which values ​​are listened to and which are not. In other words, even in the most realpolitik terms, the struggle waged has concrete effects on the redistribution of social and political power. And this redistribution shifts power to the less honest, more bigoted and more authoritarian social forces on the political right.

In a sense, reducing politics to “culture wars” has never made less sense. The material challenge of the climate crisis is that it threatens regular heat waves like the one from which South Asia is still in shock. Meanwhile, the conflict of states takes an ominous turn: Russia and Ukraine are fighting a great power war between states, Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are navigating an uneasy ceasefire. in a civil war, and Mozambique is grappling with a wave of Islamic State militants. These are not problems that can be solved by clarifying the contents of math textbooks or by making it clear who uses which toilets.

But from another point of view, focusing on “culture” makes sense. After all, it’s not just that the global ruling class lacks answers in the United States and elsewhere. The situation is even more serious: the ruling class lacks questions.

The radical change in the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic after mass vaccination proves that the elites believe their interests are so far removed from living conditions for the rest of us that they are simply losing. any interest as soon as they feel that their own safety is assured. It also gives meaning to the lukewarm action of policymakers in the face of the climate crisis, the national and global housing crisis, and the selective empathy for refugees and immigrants in general. You are cordially invited to vigorously participate in the scheme to harass school board officials, but leave the great war and climate affairs to the idle pundits.

Responding to these crises would involve redistributing political and economic power away from current powers and offering people concrete solutions rather than outlets for rage and self-expression. The answer from above is clear: no redistribution, just a struggle for culture and “vibrations”.

That’s why an entire cottage industry from YouTube to outrageous radio to legacy media has sprung up to play our most legitimate grievances with others, our smallest jealousies and fanaticisms, and everything in between. Many of them are oddly well-resourced and funded, and few of them pose a serious challenge to the profit, ownership, and social position of the people who actually hold most of the cards in our political contests. These astroturfed political battles are just the last page of the oldest playbook, where the 1% tries to divide the rest in the pursuit of private profit and social dominance.

We shouldn’t give up on culture wars, but neither should we take the bait.

Instead, we should build a political culture built around mutual goals that tackle real issues head-on – constructive politics organized around what we want to build for ourselves and our children rather than against whom. we want it. Many of these campaigns are alive and well. Across the country, groups are fighting to ensure reproductive justice. Tenant organizations in Kansas City and Los Angeles are making their presence and power felt at eviction hearings and state legislatures, and activists for reparations for African-American descendants of slaves have moved millions of dollars in Evanston. And a wave of unionization at Starbucks and Amazon could signal a resurgence of organized labor.

As unions in Illinois, West Virginia and Minnesota have demonstrated, these organizations have the power to advance not only the wages and working conditions of their members, but also the common good of entire communities. . And, unlike the vibes offered in the culture war, these are things you can eat.

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