Cultural Marxism - the ultimate post-factual dog whistle

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The good news is that "cultural Marxism" isn't real. The bad news is that people believe it is anyway.

The claim that left-wing intellectuals are trying to destroy the foundations of Western society is gaining traction in Australia.

And the worse news is this: even if the idea is factually untrue, it can still have an impact on politics.

"Cultural Marxism" is a viral falsehood used by far-right figures, conspiracy theorists, and pundits to explain many ills of the modern world.

A search of archives shows right wing columnist Andrew Bolt first mentioned it in his writing in 2002.

More recently, former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham in a column, claimed that it was a "powerful" movement "dominating" about 80 per cent of public life.

University of Melbourne international relations lecturer Daniel R McCarthy says Latham and others "are using the term rhetorically to paint opponents of their political positions in a bad light".

"They label movements for LGBT rights as 'Marxist' in the hopes that this will frighten people into voting against things like gay marriage," McCarthy says.

"This is a clever rhetorical strategy, if dishonest or, charitably, simply deeply confused."

McCarthy makes a firm distinction between Marxist theorists originating in the 20th century and today's concept of "cultural Marxism".

"There are Marxists or critical social theorists who study culture," McCarthy says. "What Latham and colleagues are talking about is entirely different."

"Their arguments, which verge onto the terrain of conspiracy theorising, understand social movements that they do not like as part of a 'cultural Marxist' political strategy to first colonise the terrain of public culture prior to taking over society as a whole," he says.

A 2003 article from the US-based Southern Poverty Law Centre described cultural Marxism as a "conspiracy theory with an anti-Semitic twist" that was then "being pushed by much of the American right".

"In a nutshell, the theory posits that a tiny group of Jewish philosophers who fled Germany in the 1930s and set up shop at Columbia University in New York City devised an unorthodox form of 'Marxism' that took aim at American society's culture, rather than its economic system," the report states.

Unfortunately, Google trends indicate a steadily rising interest in the term in Australia.

(Latham was emailed for comment on this article but did not reply.)

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Arizona State University professor Braden Allenby says the word '"Marxism' in many places is already a loaded term, so the use of 'cultural Marxism' sometimes is an effort to short circuit analysis or dialogue by implying that the individual or organisation so tagged is beyond the pale of rational discourse."

"In that sense, it becomes part of warring narratives, a dog whistle to others in your community."

With the original meaning of "cultural Marxism" lost, Allenby says, such terms "simply become higher level symbols of belonging and community".

Allenby pioneered the study of what's known as a weaponised narrative, a form of information attack using ideas, words and images to drive wedges into society, weakening it overall.

He believes the use of the term "cultural Marxism" indicates "that the dynamics of weaponised narrative might be at play."

Weaponised narratives, warring narratives, and conspiracy theories pose threats to a cohesive democratic society.

Among the alt-right, for example, partisan groups used weaponised narratives during the 2016 US election that led to confusion and added to negative noise around legitimate candidate. The widely debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory promoted by trolls in the US is another example.

In 2015, anti-European Union trolls used the same techniques to influence the public's perception of the European immigration crisis.

Weaponised narratives and conspiracy theories are effective, Allenby says, because "there is no such thing as a news cycle anymore".

And that gives them considerable power online.

If "subgroups" can be identified, pundits using those narratives can create "news cycles for them that never rise out of that community, so they're never responded to," Allenby says.

"You can't generate responses to disinformation if you don't know the disinformation is out there, and if it's properly managed, it stays within the ring-fenced community it is intended for ... and thus is never responded to in the broader sense," says Allenby.

"It isn't that the wider community couldn't respond; it's that they never find out about it in the first place," he said.

Like a conspiracy theory, cultural Marxism gains its power from its ability to be applied broadly to many aspects of modern life. The willingness of swaths of the public to accept such views also reflects unease over real-world issues like economic uncertainty, fears of terrorism, and anxiety with demographic change.

The nature of information and views shared on social media means even things that never happened can become a political issue if enough people agree they exist.

It's hard to see this as good news.

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This story Cultural Marxism - the ultimate post-factual dog whistle first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.