It’s still the economy, stupid – capitalism is part of the culture war

BY Kristian Niemietz | tweet K_Niemietz   /  16 September 2020

In April this year, Daniel Hannan predicted a truce in the culture wars. His reasoning was perfectly logical. Culture war issues are luxury issues. We can worry about “wokeness” when we have nothing better to worry about. But in the middle of a pandemic and a severe economic downturn, surely, we’ll be more interested in the infection rate and the unemployment rate than in whether or not someone, somewhere, said something “unwoke”.

Alas, the exact opposite happened. A few weeks later, we were embroiled in a full-on culture war. As Ed West put it in early August:

“after the death of George Floyd and the general insanity that followed, (…) the new Woke religion [is] suddenly all-dominant; (we are) seeing huge crowds across the world getting down on their knees in collective rituals to protest something happening in a city 5,000 miles away.”

“The almost-complete submission of conservatism in the face of this, even with mobs violating the Cenotaph or targeting a statue of Churchill, also confirmed my previous belief that we were losing.”

If we are engaging in culture wars even at a time when the economy is shrinking by a fifth – does this mean that culture war issues are now drowning out economic issues? Have we moved to a situation where people’s political identity is primarily defined by where they stand on cultural issues, with economic issues coming second? And if so, what are the implications for those of us who are primarily interested in economics? Are we banging on about the wrong things? Do economists need to “retrain”, and become culture warriors?

My own take is this: it depends on what you mean by “economics”. It is true that socioeconomic variables have become very poor predictors of political orientation. Knowing how much somebody earns, what social class they are a part of, or their occupation no longer allows you to make a good guess about their political leanings. Knowing where they stand on issues that capture broad social values, even if they have no obvious policy implications, gives you a much better idea.

As Mark Littlewood pointed out in the latest episode of Live with Littlewood, in the United States today the best predictor of whether or not somebody voted Trump was whether they are fans of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). That may sound surprising at first: wrestling is just a spectator sport; it is not, in an obvious way, political. But if you’ve ever watched wrestling – it will make perfect sense.

It is a similar story in Britain. The way you answer questions like “Are you in favour of the death penalty?” or “Do you think sex criminals should be publicly whipped?” are surprisingly good predictors of whether or not you voted for Brexit, even though these issues are not really Brexit-related.

None of this means that James Carville’s classic line, “It’s the economy, stupid”, is no longer true. Economic question are themselves part of the culture war – not in the sense of “I support these economic policies, because I think I will personally, in a tangible way, benefit from them”, but in the sense of “I support these economic policies, because they are part of who I am.” The current culture war issues have a strong economic underpinning.

For example, Black Lives Matter UK says very clearly in its mission statement: “We’re guided by a commitment to dismantle […] capitalism”. Yes, I know: “BLM” is more of a label than an organisation, and whoever put out that statement does not speak for every BLM activist. But the whole woke BLM narrative is built around anti-capitalist mythology.

It is the mythology that the Western world grew rich by exploiting non-white people, through colonialism and slavery, and that that legacy still shapes the distribution of wealth and power in the world today. In woke mythology, capitalism was built on Original Sin, and is forever tainted by it. In that view of the world, capitalism is inextricably linked with racism, which means that you cannot truly be an anti-racist unless you are also an anti-capitalist.

None of this is true. Of course, Europe’s colonial powers committed some terrible atrocities, which nobody should deny, downplay or dismiss. But those atrocities are not the reason why the Western world is rich today, and the legacy of colonialism does not determine economic outcomes in the modern world.

It makes much more sense to think of colonies as costly “white elephant” projects, which governments used to acquire for prestige reasons rather than economic reasons. Countries do not grow rich by colonising other countries. They grow rich by having good institutions and good economic policies. But that is a story for another day…

The key point is that you cannot separate the culture war from the economics. The claim that capitalism is a “racist” system, which must be overthrown, is, fundamentally, an economic argument.

BLM are just one example. The same applies to Extinction Rebellion, which is a movement built around the narrative that “capitalism” is destroying the planet, and that the only way to save the planet is to overthrow capitalism itself.

So no, the culture war will not replace economics, because the culture war itself has a strong economic component. Culture warriors may not be hugely interested in what the rate of Capital Gains Tax should be, or on whether or not we should keep the EU’s state aid rules after the post-Brexit transition period. They may not be fascinated by the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), or in the modelling of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). But they are clearly interested in the big picture. They are clearly interested in system-level questions, above all, the question whether we should have a capitalist economy at all, and if not, what we should replace it with.

That’s economics. It’s the overall economic system, stupid.

Kristian Niemietz is head of Political Economy at the Institute for Economic Affairs. 


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