The uses of “Cultural Marxism”: Safe Schools, Cory Bernardi, Conspiracy Theory

Whenever I write about right-wing movements and ideologies, I can almost guarantee that someone — usually a political liberal — will dismiss what I’ve said on the basis that we’re not in danger of a “fascist takeover”. It happened again yesterday after The Guardian published my piece on how ABC Political Editor Chris Uhlmann was retailing the the theory of “Cultural Marxism”, a staple of conspiracy thinking on the right.

This time it was Australian political blogger, Don Arthur. I don’t mean to single Don out — I enjoy conversing with him, and like I said it happens all the time. But his comments are one of the immediate stimuli for this post, and I want to show that I’m not making things up.

I pointed out that the Cultural Marxism story that Uhlmann and other mainstream conservatives have been repeating is a staple of the far right. He responded with the doubt that we would be “overcome” by right wing extremists.

I always find this aspect of the liberal political imagination curious. The thought underpinning it seems to be: in the absence of a fascist revolution, democracy and liberalism cannot be significantly degraded.

There’s an easy confidence here in the persistence of liberal democracy as an institutionally robust fact that can only be undone by the decisive triumph of extremists. There’s a sense that politics is a binary — an on-off switch between democracy and tyranny — and not a complex, moving, historical system.

I don’t share these sentiments. I would even go so far as to say that they are complacent and potentially dangerous.

My own view is closer to that of Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, who in their classic “Right-Wing Populism in America”, point out that the idea of a “fascist takeover” is something of a red herring.

As they put it

The danger associated with right-wing populism comes not from its real or potential bids for power, or even from its day-to-day violence and bigotry, but from its interactions with other political forces and the government. (17)

To see that danger, you need to ditch the “centrist/extremist” political model that is still common sense among liberals, and which arises from pessimistic liberal accounts of populism from the likes of Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset.

This model errs by taking it for granted that the existing political order delivers on its promises by embodying reason and democracy. It errs further by erasing the legitimate grievances that “fringe” groups co-opt, and by hiding “the fact that right-wing bigotry and scapegoating are rooted in the mainstream social and political order”. (14)

It does not “allow us to recognise the frequent direct linkages — ideological, organisational and economic — between right wing and mainstream political forces.” It ignores the way in which a formal liberal democracy can be pushed and prodded into scapegoating particular groups, into illiberalism, and into reversing progressive gains.

Unfortunately, Australian politics has just provided us with a perfect example to support these arguments, showing how far right ideology can warp outcomes at the heart of the liberal-democratic system.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister, to review the Safe Schools Program, after coming under pressure from six right-wing Liberal parliamentarians, including Cory Bernardi.

The program, implemented by the former Labor government, seeks to combat the bullying of LGBTI students in Australian schools. Anyone who ever attended an Australian school will be aware of how frequently this happens. But that’s of no real concern to ultraconservative Liberals like Bernardi or Andrew Hastie, who are doing their best to make the whole thing appear sinister.

The decision to review the program came after a party room meeting in which Bernardi reportedly said that Safe Schools “indoctrinates kids with Marxist cultural relativism”. In the mind, a bell rings. Once again, we encounter the distinctive conspiratorial vocabulary of the theory of “Cultural Marxism”.

The link between “Cultural Marxism”, “cultural relativism”, and institutional or educational “indoctrination” is an obsession for a wide range of actors far to the right of Bernardi. Unlike him, they frequently give the story an explicitly racist cast.

You can find it in the work of radical Islamophobes (like Anders Breivik), and antisemites, religious conservatives, and plain old fascists. It’s also amply ventilated on the Australian far right. I have, of course made these points before.

Antisemtic image explaining the indoctrination of “Cultural Marxism”

The numbers of people on the hardcore, racist, ultranationalist right is realtively small. We can say for the moment that the likelihood of them taking power in an organised political revolution in Australia any time soon is remote.

And needless to say, however objectionable we might find his ultraconservative politics, Cory Bernardi is certainly not a Nazi. But this is rather the point. What counts is the interaction between, and amplification of different political forces.

Bernardi used political concepts which actors on the “fringe” and the “mainstream” increasingly hold in common, in Australia and around the world. He did this as he successfully argued that a major Federal educational initiative should be reconsidered. And his success came in a meeting of Australia’s governing political party. (In part because a weakening Prime Minister feels constrained to make concessions to the right, whose champion he displaced.)

All this means that the theory of Cultural Marxism — and its ties with relativism and indoctrination — have been sufficiently legitimated so that it not only be spoken of at a meeting of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, but fed into government decision-making about education and the rights of LGBTI people.

Similarly, far right paranoia about Halal food has been allowed to register at the heart of Australian politics by a Senate Inquiry on the topic, also driven by Bernardi. The Inquiry invited public submissions, and received a “torrent of hate” in the form of staggeringly ill-informed and intolerant screeds about Islam.

Apart from those direct political effects — inquiries and reviews — these events send a heartening signal to the far right: that their efforts have not been in vain, and that any decision they make to support certain mainstream political actors may well be rewarded with agreeable policy outcomes.

As we’ve seen over the last year in Australia, when they’re felling their oats, far right groups are wont to stage intimidating street protests.

But they can also act on the more banal level of canvassing, proselytising, internet commenting, and voting. The far right are a minority, we have ample evidence of how small numbers of voters can affect Senate elections.

There’s a kind of reciprocity here, a steady amplification, that doesn’t require a fascist takeover. All it requires is a politician and a constituency, whether they’re brought together by conviction or opportunism.

The rise of Donald Trump — and the ardent support for his candidacy from white nationalists in the USA — provides an international example of the way in which the interaction between the far right and the mainstream can change political discourse for the worse.

The danger when influential figures —like journalists— unthinkingly mobilise and legitimate conspiracy theories like Cultural Marxism is not that the brownshirts will storm Capital Hill. It’s that they entrench these ideas as part of the store of political common sense, and thus affect what Berlet and Lyons call the “dynamic tension” between the far right and the mainstream political process.

Incorporating these concepts into major party deliberations moves the whole political conversation to the right. In this case, it helped to bring the logic of conspiracy thinking, scapegoating, and moralism against policies that have bettered, and perhaps saved young lives.

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