Digital culture wars

Understanding the far right’s online powerbase

Millions of people are consuming, repeating and disseminating far-right ‘culture war’ material online, but if you do not seek out that content and are not served it by algorithms, you may never know it was there.

Ben Little: People have used the term ‘culture wars’ for a long time, especially since the 1990s, and it’s often met with some scepticism. Today, as digital means of communication and expression have become dominant, what use is the concept of ‘culture wars’, and if it is useful how have these wars changed?

Alan Finlayson: We should start by making a distinction between two kinds of culture war, and then think about how they relate to each other. On the one hand there is the idea that there is some kind of significant political contestation taking place in or through the world of culture – that media and cultural practices such as subcultures (which may or may not be seen as political) are a battleground for larger ideological and political questions. Cultural Studies, and the work of people inspired by Stuart Hall, has made us familiar with this, with the fact that culture is an arena of hegemonic struggle. 

But culture war can also mean something like a deep-level clash or contradiction between social groups on the basis of culture in a more anthropological sense – values beliefs, outlooks, ways of looking at and being in the world. That might include religious beliefs, or attitudes towards the kinds of things that religious beliefs often shape – such as gender, behaviour, or fundamental kinds of understanding of what the world or the universe is like. And that touches on dimensions not always fully captured by a term like ideology. Weber, for example, writes of ‘world images’, and of how these shape our fundamental ‘stand’ or ‘orientation’ towards the cosmos. 

Left politics has sometimes displaced both these understandings of culture, failing to see the politically complex things going on in and through formally non-political culture, or ignoring the ways in which deep cultural orientations are a source of conflict on the grounds that they are ‘mere’ ideology….