You Lost the Culture War

Dom Rottman

12 July 2023

There is today little discourse so noisy as that of the so-called “culture war.” It’s often not clear who’s to blame: triggered conservatives clutching their pearls, or self-righteous liberals tweeting schadenfreude. Recently, however, the ultimate source has been Anheuser-Busch, who ought to be given credit for rolling out their collaboration with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in April so that people are talking about it through the end of June, where, now, the company appears to have backed off by releasing a more generic ad following its deposition as the number one beer in America.

So ends this battle of the culture war, over a… can of beer. Seems rather banal. What’s so cultural about that? Sure, beer, even crappy, mass-produced light lagers, can be said to be a part of American culture just as wine might be considered a part of Italian culture. But what does a drink have in common with pop culture–-film, television, books, etc.–-whose objects and artifacts are just as much and more obviously, cultural?

Let’s look at the problem differently. The Little Mermaid remake, starring a young black woman in the role of Ariel, has been another source of controversy concerning the meaning of representation in media. Surely this is counts as a cultural debate. Is the film a landmark in anti-racist struggle? Is it pandering, perhaps even outright revisionism? Is it a ruination of the original work of art (a term which is not used to describe cans of beer)? What’s the common denominator between the two, between a beer can and a film, such that they are objects of interest in today’s “culture war”?

The answer is, at first, simple: they’re both commodities. They are produced, bought, and sold for the sole purpose of making money. Still, that doesn’t seem to capture all of it. There’s not much cultural about, say, a toothbrush, but thousands are made every day for its manufacturers to turn a profit. There must be something which makes unique the cultural commodity–and this thing is ideology. The transmission thereof, then, is the secondary purpose of cultural commodities.

Goddamnit Dominic! Ideology? Intolerable! Is this not something the right would say? Well, maybe. But the problem isn’t corporations and government forcing “woke ideology” or whatever down our throats, it’s the fact that we’re having this discussion altogether–that beer cans and movies, two wildly dissimilar things, can be made comparable on account of their reduction to a basic, quantifiable form: the commodity. That not only has culture become commodified, but that now we risk culture being entirely composed of and only identifiable with commodities is the most disturbing consequence of the culture war, not because of any particular ideological content, but because of the mere fact that ideology is transmitted at all. Understanding this danger, and therefore recalling the distinction between beer and movies, requires tracing the historical course of culture in modernity.

The culture industry, a phenomenon to which I have referred multiple times, and for which a full explication thereof which is long overdue to my readers less familiar with it (forthcoming, I promise), is a term coined by German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment, referring to the production and commodification of a mass culture made possible by the new technologies of the 20th century, such as radio, film, and television. However, such instruments, while a necessary condition for the culture industry’s pernicious effects, are not themselves inherently responsible for them. The important thing to note, rather, is that prior to the advent of such technologies, culture, lacking means of widespread distribution and production, had neither need nor capacity to widely distribute ideological content.

But once culture could be commodified, the commodity form naturally lent itself to the transmission of ideology. Think of it this way: if the commodity is the pill, ideology is the active ingredient. Adorno and Horkheimer write that the new forms of distributing culture “mak[e] everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs,”1 where the presence of an audience as a form of participant is inconsequential. There is no way to somehow be in dialogue with or otherwise engage with a commodity; you cannot respond to a toothbrush, and you cannot respond to a film-–it will play on regardless, and you will be shushed in the theater. The commodity is a one-way form of communication for the producers of the culture industry to say whatever they like with no consequence of being exposed to response-–and the mere fact that this is the case, regardless of cultural or ideological content, is what makes the culture industry so sinister. Movies can, and often do, give very banal or sometimes even decent “messages,” but the damage has already been done. Adorno would later compare the culture industry to horoscopes, where the harm lies not in content but instead in “the stupefication which lies in the claim that advice which is valid every day and which is therefore idiotic, needs the approval of the stars.”2 In order that the production of cultural commodities-–indeed, commodities altogether–-continue, the ideological content of the products of the culture industry must be at least consistent if not synergistic with the status quo, demanding adherence to it, extolling order in abstracto, suppressing a critical, engaging, and ultimately democratic force in the aesthetic realm.

The development of the culture industry is part of the historical development which informs us on what we are facing today. The fact that culture itself can and has become commodified, not just as a commodified culture but into cultural commodities, appears to have led to a curiosity on whether or not any commodity could be “cultural,"–that is, ideological–and therefore cultural commodities in this way. In other words, whereas before only commodified culture could transmit ideology, the question becomes now if any sort of commodity is able to transmit ideology as well.

The powers that be are certainly trying to make this the case. A conservative might argue they are succeeding, pointing to the mere existence of June’s rainbow products as evidence. But there is a threefold error here. First, and most obviously, is the error that what the particular content signifies–here the celebration of LGBTQ+ life and experience–is nefarious–named pejoratives such as “gender ideology,” the “trans lobby,” the “gay agenda,” etc. The second error, however, shared with some liberals, is that this is actually consequential; that corporations actually care about sthe signified content. Committed supremely to the extraction of surplus value and profit, the commodity expresses nothing but cold indifference. Corporations are not people, they are value machines; they don’t feel, andt barely think. But if these first two suppositions are indeed errors, it’s a fair question to ask why any corporation would change a commodity’s “aesthetic” to anything at all in the first place. In truth, they probably don’t have to-–and in the case of Anheuser-Busch, they actually shouldn’t have, as far as their bottom line is concerned. This leads us to the third, most curious error: that the ideology being transmitted by a commodity is actually not what it says on the tin. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.

Recall that the great ill of the culture industry is not its ideological content but that it demands adherence to the present order in which it is situated, adherence to order in abstracto. A feel-good movie might have an uplifting message and promote good values, but the sin is that it pretends to be a reflection of existing reality, as if we are already living the good life. “Rainbow capitalism,” as it is so called, operates in like fashion. The commodity peddled by the corporation which claims to celebrate whichever minority is celebrated as the flavor of the month claims that the present order can accommodate and even support the lives and material conditions of its individuals and communities. That June was not a month chosen arbitrarily, but chosen in memory of the Stonewall Riots, an event all too infrequently overlooked, an event that would be met with even harsher repression if it happened today, and an event that might very well happen again if certain oppressive conditions which are very much compatible with the present order come to pass, shows that such a message could not be farther from the truth.

Pause, now. In discussing rainbow capitalism, have we not come a bit distant from “culture”? The objects of concern aren’t films, music, literature, or other forms of art, but items of basic consumption like food and drink. I shouldn’t have to tell you the difference between The Little Mermaid and a can of Bud Light. But the fact that both have become embroiled in this ideological “culture war” means that, strictly speaking, both can be referred to identically and interchangeably as “cultural objects.” That this equivocation has come to pass is what I mean when I say that you–-we-–are losing the culture war, as culture’s powerful critical force is now defanged.

The difference between a movie and a can of beer may seem intuitively obvious, but at this point it’s worth stating explicitly since that very intuition is now under attack. A film, music, a great–-or any kind, really–-work of art can deeply move us in heart and mind. Alcohol is literal poison to both. A drink is destroyed at the point of consumption and only appears again as waste, while a work of art can last centuries. Food and drink do not themselves make any or stimulate any meaningful statement of “dialogue.” Even the most ideological film commodity can at least spark me to outrage and conversation to my friends and peers (if much to their chagrin). The essence of culture is its place in the world which instantiates and provokes critical engagement, and therefore its ability to do the opposite of what the products of the culture industry, and now any product whatsoever, do today: question, upend, critique the present order. Culture, inasmuch as it is a product of social relations, “always simultaneously raised a protest against the petrified relations under which they lived, thereby honoring them.”3 In a truly democratic society, or in a society that we wish to be democratic, there is no better way to honor its spirit than a culture which critically appraises relations and social formations which we take to be “permanent,” especially those which we consider oppressive.

In contemporary bourgeois society, culture is drained of its critical capacity and is refilled with ideology. The cultural commodity has been successful in both extracting surplus value and transmitting ideology as a bonus. As it became clear that the commodity form could successfully engage in both of these functions, those things which had been ordinary commodities have been tested for their potential to transmit ideology as well. Success could not have been greater. Not only has culture taken the form of commodities, the concept of the commodity itself has become identified with culture.

There is perhaps no entity more complacent in this crisis than the news media. The right, in vilifying both minority representation in a film and a rainbowified logos or corporate statements appended with #BLM–-forbidden magics of the infamous spectre of “woke”–-as the same cultural phenomenon, equivocates commodities and cultural objects. This harmful equivocation is recapitulated whenever the “other side” is taken to accept this “wokeness” in order to frame the culture war as “news,” neglecting the important distinction between commodities and culture. In so doing the erroneous foundation of this equivocation, which makes the right’s attack on culture possible at all-–is glossed over and made the grounds if the entire debate, making culture as such all the worse for it, taken as commodities through and through. As long as this is the case, the “culture war” is one which is never entirely won or at all, since the prizes are only pure ideology and the losses righteous indignation.

But the success of a new identification of culture with commodities does not seem to be a complete one. Consumption is always met with a degree of skepticism. Like film and television, endorsement is always taken “with reservation, and not quite believed in.”4 The fact that everyone will enjoy the food and drink at summer cookouts regardless of the images on the bags, boxes, bottles or cans-–but only after a moment of looking at them with squinted eyes–-that every campy commercial or advertisement for the most banal product is met with an eyeroll, that anti-capitalist memes see a spike during pride month, makes one wonder if commodities actually can completely succeed at transmitting ideology. Try as the corporate world might, as how thick the rainbow paint is and how deep it would drench the whole world, the facade is continually seen through, and the sea never actually rises. Insofar as consciousness still is, and perhaps even grows more, resilient against its total integration into the status quo of bourgeois society and its perverse ideals, and against the insincere and sinister mode of persuasion commodities operate in, if the spoonful of ideological sugar is meant to make us swallow the poison, it’s not clear that it is enough to paralyze us, but is now a mithridatic dose against which we become more rather than less immune each time it is administered. Each June, it seems that rainbow capitalism is met with ever-increasing skepticism if not outright derision, and this trend cannot continue strongly enough. Therefore it becomes more important to remind people how different beer is from movies, in order to cultivate this skepticism into a critical spirit which is in desperate need of revival. The unhinging of a cultural space from a consumption space becomes not just the calling of culture today but of consciousness today. The motivation to extricate culture from the culture war is of the same force against which the commodity form itself and the status quo altogether can be called into question. The culture war must therefore be taken very seriously.

  1. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlgihtenment ↩︎

  2. Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” ↩︎

  3. Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” ↩︎

  4. Theodor Adorno, “How to Look at Television” ↩︎