Stuart Hall: The Predictive Power of Good Theory

With his passing on Feb 10, we at the Grassroots Policy Project were reminded of the great debt we owe to Stuart Hall, co-founder of cultural studies and great interpreter of Antonio Gramsci. Hall’s thinking has heavily influenced our approaches to worldview, narrative and strategy development for social movement organizations. He also was very adept and bridging the activist/academic divide, by demonstrating how theory has bearing on social movement strategy and practice. As Hall put it in The Toad in the Garden:

“The purpose of theorizing is not to enhance one’s intellectual reputation but to engage us to grasp, understand and explain­­ –– to produce a more adequate knowledge of –– the historical world and it’s processes, and thereby to inform our practice so that we may transform it.”

Stuart Hall demonstrated this, time and again, with his uncanny ability to use political and cultural analysis to make sense of, and give us a heads-up about, the contours of the ideological struggle over worldview and commonsense during periods of crisis (conjunctures).

It was Hall’s recognition of Britain’s crisis of identities after the loss of Empire that prompted him to join forces with colleagues to create the field of cultural studies.

For Hall, culture was a 'critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled'.  Hall and his colleagues recognized the implications for politics in the shifting identities of “post-Imperial” Britain.

"Cultural identities come from somewhere. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power."

In Policing the Crisis, Hall recognized the rise of the carceral state, and the commonsense that justified it, before most of us were paying attention.

In the mid 1970s, at the start of the neoliberal phase, the breakdown of the welfare state required a new commonsense to work out the relationship between social control and consent. The war on crime, on drugs, played a key role in resolving the conjunctural crisis and establishing a new neoliberal logic. This formula needs an ‘other.’ Immigrants from the former colonies were ‘othered’ as threats to the British way of life.

Law and order became fertile ground upon which to swing British society to the right. It prefigured Thatcherism.

On Thatcher’s seemingly contradictory invocation of freedom and strong police state in same breath, Hall reminded us that ideology is always contradictory. There is no single, integrated ‘ruling ideology’ - a mistake we repeat again now in failing to distinguish between conservative
and neoliberal repertoires. “Ideology works best by suturing together contradictory lines of argument and emotional investments. The ‘free market/strong state’ formula may not seem logical. But few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves 
in the contradictory elements of common sense, popular life and consciousness. “Even today, the market/free enterprise/private property discourse persists cheek by jowl with older conservative attachments to nation, racial homogeneity, Empire, tradition. ‘Market forces’ is good for restoring the power of capital and destroying the redistributivist illusion. But in moments of difficulty one can trust ‘the Empire’ to strike back. ‘The people’ will turn out to cheer the fleet returning to Plymouth from some South Atlantic speck of land; they will line the streets of Wootton Bassett to honour the returning dead from ‘a war without end’ in Afghanistan.

Here’s what Hall told us about Thatcherism in The Great Moving-Right Show.

Written in 1979, this prescient essay engaged with the nascent New Right project, seeking to understand its popular appeal, the bloc of interests it drew together, and why Labour’s social-democratic forces were incapable of answering the challenges it posed. Hall’s analysis predicted the power of Thatcherism’s efforts to reframe the trade unions, education, the welfare state and law and order as problems to which it had radical, popular solutions.

Thatcherism represented the ruling elite’s efforts to force a new historic settlement. Distinct contradictions in economic, political and cultural discourses and practices condensed in the mid to late 1970s in ways that opened up space for new political configurations and philosophies, and restructuring of the state --- a new historic ‘settlement.’ The settlement did not merely emerge, it was constructed and is constantly reconstructed.

Keynesianism was the lynch-pin of social democratic governance. By the late 70s, Keynsianism was knocked off its perch, replaced with Hayek and  Friedman. But Hayekianism has to be translated into popular philosophy: this was done with images of the welfare cheat, the heavy hand of the state harming small business, the over-taxed citizen. Interwoven with these, the fears of ‘dilution of ‘British stock’ by black elements, by immigrants. The destruction of our way of life. Fear of crime, the threat to ordinary people going about their private business. Civilized and uncivilized. Invoke authoritarian populism. Point toward changes that will address real-life concerns.

Thatcherism gave us a glimpse of how ideological transformation and political restructuring happens:

“It works on the ground of already-constituted social practices and lived ideologies. It wins space there by constantly drawing in these elements which have secured over time a traditional resonance. At the same time, it changes the field of struggle by changing the place and weight of condensations within discourses, constructing them according to an alternative logic.”

Together with Reagan, Thatcher helped neutralize the contradictions between popular interests and the power bloc.


The rise of neoliberalism:

When Margaret Thatcher famously said “there is no society,” she was expressing a new political and economic logic, often referred to as ‘neoliberalism,’ which represented the triumph of market fundamentalism over social welfare and Keynesian economic thinking.

The logic of neoliberalism is described by Stuart Hall in this way:

“Neoliberalism is grounded in the ‘free, possessive individual', with the State cast as tyrannical and oppressive. The welfare state, in particular, is the arch-enemy of freedom. The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth."

Neoliberal logic associates ‘the market’ with all things positive --- freedom, choice, individuality --- while rendering public life and government as antithetical to freedom and liberty. This didn’t just happen; it came about as part of long-term strategy, through public debate, through popular culture, and by connecting ideas to people’s lived experiences. By now we have forgotten or can no longer quite see how this happened. Like the economy, the accompanying logic has been naturalized.

The current phase of corporate rule took root in the mid 1970s and got a big boost from Reagan in the 1980s. It is a phase that many social movement scholars call “neoliberalism.” Reagan and Thatcher made it politically acceptable to deregulate markets, eviscerate the public sector, slash social spending, privatize everything and treat corporations as people.

About the current crisis:

A major crisis is a moment of potential change, but the nature of that change is not a given. It may be that we move onto another variation of the same themes (that seems to be what has happened in terms of power relations, so far). The financial meltdown revealed more than a housing crisis. We’ve seen a growing trend toward low-wage jobs and the spread of long-term unemployment, as well as mass incarceration, mass deportations, Gilded-Age levels of inequality, the decimation of rural economies and the failure to address environmental concerns.


From Interpreting the Crisis, Hall says: My argument is that the present situation is a crisis, another unresolved rupture of that conjuncture which we can define as ‘the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution’.

"The left is in trouble. It has not got any ideas, it has not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it has got no vision. It just takes the temperature: 'Whoa, that's no good, let's move to the right.' It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things."

He offered trenchant critiques of New Labour, which tried to refashion itself to fit within neoliberal framework, and thereby contributed to the current crisis:

“(New Labour) re-articulated social reform,
free enterprise and the market. This conflation was the real source of New Labour ‘spin’ - not an irritating habit but a serious political strategy, a ‘double shuffle’. It moralized and expanded the carceral state.”

“New Labour thus embraced ‘managerial marketisation’. The economy was actively ‘liberalised’ (with disastrous consequence for the coming crisis), while society was boxed in by legislation, regulation, monitoring, surveillance and the ambiguous ‘target’ and ‘control’ cultures. It adopted ‘light-touch’ regulation. But its ‘regulators’ lacked teeth, political courage, leverage or an alternative social philosophy, and were often playing on both sides of the street. Harnessing social purposes to a free-wheeling private economy proved to be an exercise much like Tawney’s ‘trying to skin a tiger stripe by stripe’.”

And now, with the return of neoliberal tories, in coalition with liberal party, we seem to be in the midst of a permanent revolution. Can society be permanently reconstructed along these neoliberal lines?