12 January 2022

For the Woke warriors, culture and economics are two sides of the same coin – just ask Mollie-Mae

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Last month, Instagram influencer and fashion entrepreneur Molly-Mae Hague appeared on a podcast about business-related issues. She made a fairly anodyne comment about career success and its causes:

‘You’re given one life and it’s down to you what you do with it, like, you can literally go in any direction. 

‘Obviously we all have different backgrounds and we’re all raised in different ways and we do have different financial situations, but I think if you want something enough you can achieve it. It just depends to what lengths you wanna go to get to where you wanna be in the future. I’ll go to any length. I’ve worked my a*** off to get to where I am now.’

At first, nothing much happened. Then last week, Twitter got wind of it, and worked itself up into the usual frenzy that the platform does so well. Since Twitter has become an agenda-setter for the national print and broadcast media, Sky News soon ran a story entitled ‘Love Island’s Molly-Mae Hague blasted after ‘Thatcherite’ comments on poverty and hard work’. The Daily Mail went with ‘Molly-Mae Hague is labelled ‘Margaret Thatcher with a fake tan’ after sparking outrage for ‘tone deaf’ comments’, while Metro plumped for ‘Molly-Mae Hague issues apology after controversial ‘privileged’ podcast interview’. The Independent, in particular, could not get enough of it, publishing about a dozen articles on this crucially important story (one of them with the almost parodic title ‘Molly-Mae, your classist views reek of privilege’).

Of course, outrage waves come and go, and this one will probably be short-lived. There is a good chance that by the time you read this, the outrage circus will already have moved on. But it is a noteworthy episode nonetheless.

At first sight, it looks very much like your run-of-the-mill witch-hunt by the woke mob. Outwardly, it follows the same format. There is the performative outrage, there is the perceived need to pile in and make the same point again and again even if thousands of people have already made it, and there are the usual cancellation attempts. All of this would look familiar to, for example, J K Rowling or Kathleen Stock. However, the Molly Mae episode differs from others in its content. Ms Hague has not commented on transgender issues, race, Islam, or any of the hot button issues that usually get the Cancel Culture police all excited. Her comment was, in the very broadest sense, about economics.

Whether Ms Hague is right or not is neither here nor there. (I will not bore you with my views on social mobility and meritocracy.) The point is that even if you think she is totally wrong, it would not justify a fraction of the outrage. Last time I checked, Ms Hague was neither a government advisor on welfare policy, nor a member of the Social Mobility Commission. Nor is she a regular media commentator on economics.

Yes, her comments could, in principle, lend themselves to a proto-Thatcherite view of economic life. But Ms Hague herself did not spell out such a view. If the title of the podcast had been ‘My Instagram success proves that Thatcherism is really great, which is why we should privatise more stuff, slash tax rates, and deregulate the economy’, that would have been one thing. But it was not.

The episode refutes the widespread perception that ‘Culture War’ issues have replaced economics as the major ideological fault line in society. It is a commonly held view that ‘socialism vs capitalism’ was yesteryear’s divide, while ‘woke vs unwoke’ is where the action is now: pronouns are the new tax rates, and cancellation is the new nationalisation.

The problem with this argument is that it is only true on one side of that divide, namely, the ‘un-woke’ or ‘anti-woke’ side. The opponents of Wokeness do indeed tend to get far more animated about the latest Culture War shenanigans than by the latest economic policy announcements. They also find it easy to form loose coalitions over a shared cultural outlook with people with whom they disagree on economic issues. (For example, a left-wing critic of Cancel Culture can easily get a piece published in a centre-right publication.)

But it would be a huge mistake to assume that something similar must be true on the other side of that divide, i.e. that on the progressive Left, woke identity politics has somehow crowded out socialist economics. Quite the opposite is true. It is hard to think of a prominent woke culture warrior who is not also a committed anti-capitalist.

Take the Socialist Campaign Group, the group of ‘Continuity-Corbynista’ MPs who also tend to be social media celebrities. These people are reliably on the ‘woke’ side of every Culture War argument; for example, last week, they lined up to cheer the  acquittal of the ‘Colston Four‘ (and not on narrowly legal grounds). But on most days, you can find them banging on about the evils of capitalism, and the need for a socialist alternative of some sort. Moreover, they are not simply socialists who also happen to be woke, or ‘Wokies’ who also happen to be socialists. They have merged those two outlooks into a coherent (well, sort of) whole, in which capitalism is not just a bad economic system, but also the ‘structural cause’ of every social phenomenon modern progressives dislike (see e.g. here and here).

The Great Awokening has not crowded out Millennial Socialism. It has absorbed it. (Or maybe it was the other way around – I am not quite sure, and it makes little difference.) This new Woke Socialism uses the methods of the Culture War, and applies them to economic discourse. Being branded a ‘Thatcherite’ now seems to be almost on a par with being branded a ‘transphobe’, a ‘racist’, or an ‘Islamophobe’.

Thus, the Culture War is by no means ‘beyond economics’. Instead, economics has become a major front in the Culture War.

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

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.