The links between Farage, Trump and the anti-Repeal campaign are evident. But we mustn't let them set the terms of the debateby Maya Goodfellow / January 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Is Ireland’s upcoming referendum on abortion going to form part of the “culture war” that seems to be raging in the global north?
According to the Irish edition of the Times, an anti-abortion campaign group has drafted in Kanto, a consulting firm linked to the Vote Leave campaign, to help with their digital communications.
Kanto was founded by Thomas Borwick. His CV gives you an idea of what his campaigning looks like: Borwick used to work at Cambridge Analytica, the data company whose vice-present was Steve Bannon and which is owned by Robert Mercer—a withdrawn billionaire who bankrolled Trump’s campaign and a variety of far-right organisations, including Breitbart News. He was technology chief for Vote Leave in the EU referendum.
This is significant because Brexit was, in its way, moulded around an ongoing “culture war.” This term is intended to explain a political landscape shaped not just by class, earning power and education but by the conflict between “traditional” and “progressive” values.
The right figures use this framing to their advantage: they say something deeply offensive, and when there’s a reaction, they can then dismiss their opponents as little more than “snowflakes” unable to cope with the real world.
Vote Leave framed the referendum as a battle over the core values of the country. They denounced elites and experts; they spoke endlessly of wanting “our country back.”
Indeed, the split between the Remain and Leave camps can be better understood as about social attitudes rather that social class: 81 per cent of Leave voters thought multiculturalism was a force for ill and 74 per cent thought the same of feminism. In the debate over whether to repeal the 8th Amendment, Ireland could be divided along similar lines.
The right actively fosters these divides: in 2016 Milo Yiannopoulos issued a call to arms, telling the far-right that until recently, they hadn’t been fighting the “culture wars.” Donald Trump is on a self-styled crusade against political correctness. Nigel Farage jets around the world—one week addressing an Alternative for Germany (AfD) meeting, the next doing the rounds in the US to lend a hand to the president. The Conservatives briefly appointed Toby Young, a man who once said he supported “progressive eugenics,” to the Office for Students.
They are all united in pushing a socially-regressive political agenda—and hidden within this a neoliberal, economically ruinous, project—while dismissing their opponents as the hysterical, political correctness brigade.
But stirring up a “culture war” doesn’t always pan out as planned. Just ask Theresa May. Her chilling remark, “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” was subtly channelled through the Tory 2017 election campaign, which wielded far-right messaging. We all know how that turned out.
It would be a mistake for the left to buy into the terms of this debate. There is a battle to be had about social attitudes and how they play out in popular culture. But there are vital differences between the people the “culture war” lumps together in the “progressive” bracket.
Take, for instance, Remain voters who think feminism is a force for good. They will understand this in different ways: the corporate feminism of Sheryl Sandberg is vastly different from an emancipatory project that wants to transform structural inequality for all women;
The “culture wars” oversimplify a complex political landscape. Regardless of how they are presented, abortion debates are not solely cultural or value-led; they are intensely material. Look to Ireland for evidence: women can travel abroad to get a legal abortion, and thousands do annually.
But for many marginalised women and girls this is simply not an option: Migrants are shackled by their immigration status and many women and girls simply can’t afford to travel to get the treatment they need.
There are people with enormously different politics who will agree abortion should be legal in Ireland. They will be united on some level. But if this unity it understood solely through the “culture war” prism, it can obscure crucial material realities and fail to show how for the radical left, abortion rights are part of a transformative economic and social project for migrant, trans, disabled and minority ethnic women alike.
We might understand the connection between Kanto and anti-abortion campaigns, then, as another example of the right are trying to ignite, or keep aflame, a culture war in the global north. But a response to this requires more than just buying into the terms of this debate.