Hall and Massey: Interpreting the Crisis

Quotes from “Interpreting the Crisis”

What is a conjuncture?

A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape.

Different levels of society, the economy, politics, ideology, common sense, etc, come together or ‘fuse’. A conjunctural crisis is when these ‘relatively autonomous’ sites which have different origins, are driven by different contradictions, and develop according to their own temporalities - are nevertheless ‘convened’ or condensed in the same moment.

Crises are moments of potential change, but the nature of their resolution is not given. It may be that society moves on to another version of the same thing, or to a somewhat transformed version; or relations can be radically transformed.

The post-war period, with Keynesian economic policy, social welfare and wealth redistribution through taxation were commonplace, was one conjuncture; the neoliberal, market-forces era unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan was another. These are two distinct conjunctures, separated by the crisis of the 1970s.

Why engage in conjunctural analysis?

This kind of analysis gives us some purchase on understanding the range of potential outcomes. It forces you to look at many different aspects, in order to see what the balance of social forces is and how you might intervene, or have a better idea of how to intervene effectively. So is this crisis about a real shift in the balance of social forces? Or, if not, how can we push the crisis from a compromise ending to a more radical rupture, or even a revolutionary resolution? But first you have to analyse ruthlessly what sort of crisis it is.

What does it tell us about the current crisis?

What sort of crisis is this? Is it temporary? Is it going to transform things but not very deeply, followed by a return to ‘business as usual’? Is it what is called a passive revolution, when none of the social forces are able to enforce their political will and things go stumbling along in an unresolved way?

Is it primarily an economic crisis? Although we see this moment as a big economic crisis, it is also a philosophical and political crisis in some ways - or it could be, if we got hold of the narrative. So it’s really important that we don’t only ‘do the economy’, as it were. Different levels of society, the economy, politics, ideology, common sense, etc, come together or ‘fuse’.

There is a temptation - because it’s the finance sector that has collapsed, thrown us into the crisis - to say, oh well, in the end ‘it’s the economy stupid’: as if the economy determines in a simple way. But if you just look at that, and left out these other conditions which make it possible, you wouldn’t really understand how power is working in this situation, and what is coming into crisis.

For example, the ideological - the way market fundamentalism has become the economic common sense, not only of the west but globally; politically - the way political parties have been reshaped by neoliberal commonsense – the way class and other social relations have been so reconfigured under consumer capitalism that they fragment, undermining the potential social constituencies or agencies for change.

Role of hegemony in the conjunctural analysis.

Conjunctural analysis also means describing this kind of complex field
 of power and consent, and looking at its different levels of expression - political, ideological, cultural and economic. It’s about trying to see how all of that is deployed in the form of power which ‘hegemony’ describes.

Hegemony is about winning consent through the complex articulations of different social forces that do not necessarily correspond to simple class terms. Hegemony is something which has to be struggled for, which is always in process. It takes a while, and a mastery of the political field.

It is when it becomes ‘just how things are’ that it wins consent and enters common sense. And at that point the political regime or philosophy has achieved a more settled, long- term, deeper form of control.

That work has to be done so it can reach a level of unconsciousness where people aren’t aware that they’re speaking ideology at all. The ideology has become ‘naturalised’, simply part of nature.

‘Market forces’ was a brilliant linguistic substitute for ‘the capitalist system’, because it erased so much, and, since we all use the market every day, it suggests that we all somehow already have a vested interest in conceding everything to it. It conscripted us.

Constantly associating ‘the market’ with positive things like freedom, choice - and thus the necessity of a privatised economy; that’s the logic. You can see these chains of connection being forged in people’s everyday thought and language, as well as in political debate and argument, in media discussion and in theory. People have lost a sense of where the discourse came from and what it leaves out.