We Need a Progressive Popular Culture

The far-right narrative of cultural Marxism is deplorable, but nevertheless does contain elements of truth that the left should utilise for constructing a better cultural vision.

One thing that has become evident following the rise of various far-right parties in the Western world and beyond is the importance of cultural visions. For even though it is true that the left should avoid getting caught in the rhetoric of culture wars utilised by the far right – especially at the cost of addressing issues related to class – the centrality of culture to a progressive political project should nevertheless not be forgotten. Partly as a counterweight to the nationalist-conservative visions of the far right – whose entire cultural-political agenda in many ways can be seen as a response to the multiculturalism and globalism that they so despise – but also in terms of the left constructing singular cultural visions of its own, which overlap with its progressive political ambitions. But what should these visions look like? For my own part, I will approach this issue here through the concept of ‘cultural Marxism’ – the term that proponents on the far right by now routinely use as a word of abuse against their progressive critics. Although not primarily because I happen to see myself as a Marxist cultural theorist, but rather because of the historical context that the concept of cultural Marxism both has its roots in and aims to distort: the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and the impact it had (at least through the work of Herbert Marcuse) on the counterculture of the 1960s. For it is here that important resources for a contemporary, progressive cultural and social vision may be found.

The Origins of Cultural Marxism

Cultural Marxism is, as is well known by now, an essentially antisemitic conspiracy theory that was popularised by the American alt-right movement by the end of the 2000s and later became influential within the broader far right (among people from Jordan B. Peterson and Anders Behring Breivik to various far-right politicians). It is based on an extremely vulgar take on the Frankfurt School – the group of left-wing intellectual Jews (most well-known today are perhaps Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer) who published a number of influential critical studies of fields such as science, art, psychoanalysis and popular culture around the mid-20th century, and who were forced to flee from their native Germany during World War II due to the rise of Nazism.

What the American alt-right (wrongly) found in the work of the Frankfurt School are the roots of what they consider have gone wrong in the Western world in the time since: an ambition to remake Western society and its most central Christian values in favour of multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQI+ rights, and other progressive values that became particularly influential following the student protests and counterculture of the 1960s – to such a degree that they continue to permeate Western society to this day, for example in the media, at universities and in popular culture. This has led to a widespread conservative frustration that has come to play a central role within the far right. For example, when the leader of the Swedish far-right party the Sweden Democrats was guest at the major Nordic talk show Skavlan, he argued that there has been an ongoing culture war at least since the 1968-movements, which another of the Sweden Democrats’ top people earlier had characterised as an existential battle that only will end in victory or death. This certainly shows why culture wars have become so central to the far right – because they see the ubiquity of progressive cultural values as an existential threat against the conservative society they dream of.

But the idea that everything in the Western world that is most hated by the far right can be traced back to a small group of intellectual Jews is obviously as ridiculous as it is blatantly false. For, as the researcher Morgan Finnsiö of the anti-racist journal Expo has pointed out, the emergence of progressive values on a broad social scale is obviously more complex than that. The idea of cultural Marxism is rather an example of the many conspiracy theories that circulate in the ecosystem of the far right and, like many others, identify Jews as the foremost architects of evil. All of this should obviously be rejected, but I nevertheless want to remain at the Frankfurt School here, since I believe that the far-right hatred against them and the following 60s movements should be understood as a sort of inverted indication of their sociocultural and political potential. For even though the ambition to radically reshape Western society hardly can be reduced to a small circle of Jewish intellectuals, it is certainly true that these ambitions were very much alive in the counterculture of the 1960s, through the influence of Marcuse among others. And it is these ambitions that the left needs to take up again today.

The Emancipatory Potentials of the Counterculture

They have, in a striking way, been identified by the British theorist Mark Fisher, who, by the time of his tragic passing at the beginning of 2017, had begun a project whose post-capitalist ambition took the political and cultural potentials of the 60s movements as its starting point. The book was unfortunately never finished, but in a posthumously published draft of the introduction, Fisher identifies in Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilisation (1955) what according to him later became the key driving force of the counterculture: the vision of a world that could be free. According to Fisher, neoliberalism should be understood as a counterreaction to this vision, in the form of a project whose purpose was to erase the socialist and collective experiments that took place during the 60s and 70s. The focus of the left should according to him thus not be on how we may overcome capitalism, but rather on what capitalism constantly must block to maintain its hegemony: a world free from pointless labour, where technology emancipates rather than controls, and that is organised around collective as opposed to individual wealth, as well as on the idea of an essentially malleable human (what the theorist Michael Hardt has referred to as ‘the autonomous production of mankind’).

For Fisher, the 60s should thus not be reduced to some kind of stereotypical left cultural history – to a distant time that we only can look back on nostalgically – but should rather be seen as the beginning of a cultural and political project that still awaits to be realised, in the form of a synthesis between class consciousness, new social movements (including the progressive forces that the far right detests), and a progressive aestheticization of everyday life. This radical take on the cultural and political significance of the 1960s, via Marcuse, obviously stands in sharp contrast to the infantile culture war narrative of the far right – which, as always, gets hung up by its obsession to oppose various minorities and multiculturalism, and in that way completely disregards the broader anti-capitalist visions of freedom that fuelled the 60s movements. As Fisher remarks, it is precisely visions of this kind that the left now needs to reactivate – to construct a progressive image of society that breaks with both neoliberalism and capitalism, as well as with revolutionary conservatism and nationalism.

Popular Experimental Multiculturalism

This then leads us to popular culture. As Fisher notes: Marcuse does, like Adorno, attribute much value to the alterity of experimental art – in the form of a sort of positive alienation that stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing reality. But what fascinates Fisher with Marcuse is that he, unlike Adorno, sees a radically transformed world as a nearby possibility (which undoubtedly was an important reason as to why he became influential within the counterculture). What we have here is thus something different than the deep schism between authentic culture and culture industry (i.e., between high art and popular culture) that Adorno has come to be associated with. Culture rather becomes a medium for providing initial form to this radically transformed world as a forthcoming upheaval of the prevailing society and its social norms and structures, as well as its limited view of mankind. Similar thoughts are articulated by the feminist music critic Ellen Willis (1941-2006) in various texts where she reflects on the political and cultural impact of the counterculture (texts that also influenced Fisher). Like Fisher, she sees an enormous oppositional potential in popular culture – which, according to her, was embodied by the rock music of the counterculture – and also critiques the kind of left that she argues puts too much focus on economical issues at the cost of culture. Ironically, she writes, it was rather the right that later recognised the cultural ambitions of the counterculture, which also may be applied to the far right of today. For even though the narrative of cultural Marxism is nothing other than a banal conspiracy theory, it does contain elements of truth in the broad and radical role it attributes to the counterculture – which also is reflected in the importance that political parties like the Sweden Democrats puts on the cultural, as a sort of reaction to this. It is precisely this (counter)cultural potential and its broad cultural ambitions that the left needs to reconnect to, in the conflict against both far-right extremism and neoliberalism.

Willis’ perspective certainly resonates with Fisher’s, whose own youth years in post-war Britain were characterised by broad cultural movements (like post-punk, rave and brutalism) that hardly fit within the framework of the standardisation of the culture industry, but rather should be seen as concrete examples of the radical popular culture they both are looking for. Here is thus the first of two basic premises of the sort of progressive popular culture that I am trying to sketch out here: popular experimentalism, which breaks with the still prevailing understanding of culture as divided between high art and popular culture. Because the issue with this division is that it, as in Adorno’s texts, is incapable of seeing radical culture as an instrument of broad social transformation. But this is something that must be a central part of a progressive cultural vision: that challenging and broad not necessarily must stand in opposition, but rather may act in unison. The other basic premise is multiculturalism, which refers to how a progressive popular culture also must go beyond the male, white and heterosexual. In other words, in contrast to those who strive towards a homogenous nationalist culture, a multicultural, progressive popular culture should be built on the premise that cultural exchanges between different groups are and always will be central to cultural development – for example through how novel aesthetic forms emerge through encounters between different cultures and subcultures.

A popular experimental multiculturalism thus stands in sharp contrast not just to the far-right vision of a broad national-conservative culture, but also to the massive dominance of the neoliberal culture industry. It is indeed the combination of these two premises that is important here, and which of course also must be supplemented by many other elements, but which nevertheless work as important foundational components for an ambitious, progressive cultural vision of the kind that the left needs today. This vision must certainly also be supplemented by other progressive ones – for example, by the kinds that also fuelled the counterculture of the 1960s, such as the critique of the status of the nuclear family and of wage labour – which all play important roles in providing people with images of a world beyond the neoliberal and national-conservative dystopias.

Featured Image: Painted portrait of Herbert Marcuse. (thierry ehrmann/flickr)