Monday, 10 February 2014

Obituary: Stuart Hall

I was very sorry to hear about Stuart Hall this afternoon. A figure who tends not to get much coverage in academe or the left these days, his impact on the social sciences and socialist politics in Britain was deep and influential. When I started studying sociology in the early-mid 1990s, Hall's work cast a benign shadow over the British intellectual scene. His was an attempt to come to grips with how politics and culture worked together for the benefit of prevailing configurations of class and power. In 1978's Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and the Law Hall and his colleagues took up the idea of the moral panic.
When the official reaction to a person, groups of persons or series of events is out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when ‘experts’, in the form of police chiefs, the judiciary, politicians, and editors perceive the threat in all but identical terms, and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty’, above and beyond that which a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of the beginnings of a moral panic.
- Hall et al. 1978, p.16
Building on famous work done by Stanley Cohen on media portrayals of Mods and Rockers, these panics are a contrived sense of crisis hyped up as threats to the moral fabric and social order. The threats posed decent, hard-working people - unruly youth subcultures then, an objective alliance between Jihadists and paedophiles today - demands "action", usually in the forms of more intensive policing and a return to a disciplinarian life that never really existed. As far as Hall and his comrades were concerned, there was more to panics than press hyperbole. There were an ideological symptom, a cultural convulsion of a society founded upon irreconcilable class interests. As such moral panics spoke to a deep objectless anxiety permeating ways of being in advanced capitalist societies. A panic worked to scoop up as many (not all - no one is "brainwashed") people as possible to direct their unease at groups that might act as attractors for inchoate anger. Abstract processes of surplus extraction and capital accumulation are out, pinning the blame on "people like them" is in. Hall and co. also noted how threats, as defined by the great and the good, can be associated with harmless but supposedly related behaviours. A moral panic can therefore also involve a 'signification spiral', where other groups, subcultures or modes of conduct can be coded as troubling. Persistent panics around delinquent youth has seen the gathering of all teenagers in public places (especially at night) branded as problematic. High school shootings over the water were occasions for hand-wringing about Marilyn Manson and violent video games. And so it goes. The loser is social life as a whole - it becomes ever more miserable, anxious and paranoid. But the winner is social order which, for the most part, carries on.

Perhaps Hall's greatest contribution, politically speaking, was his approach to Thatcherism. As a good Gramscian well aware of the political crisis of the 1970s, Hall quickly realised that, while she was still in opposition, there was more to Thatcherism than the usual soundbitery. Thatcher was more than an office-seeking politician, she had a project for remoulding British society. In the context of a crisis in the state's political economy, her 'authoritarian populism' combined a hard law and order pose with tough anti-immigration and borderline racist rhetoric (the National Front collapsed in 1979 because voters swayed by their outright racism had somewhere to go). It's us vs them-ism, a virtuous 'we' against a non-white, semi-communist, semi-totalitarian Other. Can you spy analogous logics at work betwixt populism and moral panics? Hall was worried, and later proven right that Thatcher's Tories might create an alliance between sections of different classes. The populist rhetoric went with the promise of a popular capitalism - a shareholder, home-owning democracy. Freedom to buy one's council house, freedom from strikes and union bullies, freedom to be successful, this was Thatcher's promise as she waged class war against the labour movement and, by extension, the interests of all working class people including her own supporters. Closing state-owned industries, creating vast private monopolies out of tax payer-owned assets, and using North Sea oil revenues to fund tax cuts for the rich; what Thatcher was about was the greater subordination of Britain to the blind whims of capital. Ironically, her authoritarian populism - founded on popular anxiety - created the conditions for its retrenchment.

Hall clearly understood what Thatcher was about, and you can see echoes of her authoritarian populism in Conservative Party electoral strategy still. But when it came to alternatives, Hall was associated with the so-called Eurocommunists of the old, official Communist Party and their house journal, Marxism Today. His Gramscian appreciation of Thatcher implied that the left, the CPGB, Labour - mark your preference, needed to be in the business of forging alliances of its own. Unsurprisingly, the disintegrating communists and the feud-wracked Labour Party were in no position to do so. Hall and others' 'New Times' work did attempt to come to grips with the crisis of the labour movement and try and chart a way forward, but there were few takers beyond the commentariat and the vanishing communist party. That is until Blair came along who, in the early years, attempted to create a Blairite populism of his own.

Academically, Hall was indispensable as the head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Cultural Studies is now largely absent from faculties across the land now, but in its heroic early phase in Britain, under Hall it produced a great deal of politically-charged work grappling with problems of culture, social order and power. Hall's own Marxism, which he never repudiated, set the tone for intellectually exciting and radical work throughout the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, Cultural Studies' will-to-truth was replaced by a glossy, verbose will-to-shop by the early 00s. Perhaps reflecting the different times, at times the discipline had more-or-less become 'philosophy-goes-to-the-mall'. I am sure Hall would not have approved.

With the loss of Stuart Hall, the left loses another of its good men. I therefore hope his passing encourages a wider reflection on and engagement with his politically-charged writings. You would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting tribute.

NB You can read another of Hall's famous articles here: The Great Moving Right Show.


Vinyl Miner said...

As an OU Social Sciences and Sociology graduate the effect hehad a major effect on the way I think. A road to Damascus event in my life was driving along listening to a cassette on the Circuit of culture an the whole concept clicked in my mind. Nothing earth shattering, but personally, major.

Speedy said...

Yes, and the Left's response? Having lost the indigenous working class, mainly to "rub the right's nose in diversity" by promoting Hall's multiculturalism.

To what end?

David Walsh said...

Good lengthy obits in today's Independent and Guardian, but the most prescient is - oddly enough - in the Telegraph which picks up his thoughts on multi-culturelism post 9/11 and the recognition that the west and the left had failed to engage properly with many strands of Islamic thought beforehand.

Anonymous said...

The left didn't create 'multi-culturalism', it created itself.

Smart business people, usually on the right, use that to sell products. Think of those adverts promoting diversity.

There are some on the left and right, and indeed in the working class, who imagine a world where everyone has the same skin colour, has the same taste in clothes, holds the same personal values, believes in the same institutions. But that world only exists in dreams..or nightmares!

Speedy said...

Yes anonymous, that is the attitude that prevails among the dominant strand of policy makers - ie, wot is culture anyway (despite talking about multi-culture).

It's the result of an abuse of immanent criticism taught at unis - a useful tool to understand phenomema in the academic "laboratory" and a gift for sophists everywhere but absolutely useless when applied people's experience of their real life identity.

The sad thing is that it has been used to pull the cultural carpet under the feet of critics of, say, unplanned mass immigration - because what is British culture anyway, haw haw - while fiercely defending the right of every other culture to assert itself.

Ken said...

Speaking of the political commitments of left intellectuals, I read that Tristram Hunt walked through a UCU picket line yesterday. His historical understanding of one of the giants of the working class movement does not seem to have transferred itself to an understanding of contemporary oppressions, or the effort it takes to oppose them. Does not bode well for the future practice of a Labour government.

Phil said...

Expect some humble pie over the coming days.

Speedy said...

"Does not bode well for the future practice of a Labour government."

Ha ha. "Labour" gov since 1997. What do you expect by a party dominated by the bourgeois? The sons and daughters of the professional classes?

Ralph Musgrave said...

Anonymous claims “left didn't create 'multi-culturalism', it created itself.” Complete nonsense. Immigration is what gives rise to multiculturalism, and the left favours immigration, whereas the right (particularly the so called far right) tends to oppose it.

As for Anon’s hypothetical scenario where “everyone has the same taste in clothes, holds the same personal values..” that scenario has never existed. It’s pure fantasy. So why erect the fantasy other than to portray oneself as a heroic destroyer of a straw man?

Vinyl Miner said...

I am sure multiculturalism emerged as part of a Post Imperial settlement. An old favourite of we coffin dodgers is that Powell greatly encouraged immigration with the specific aim of flooding London with unorganised non union cheap labour to work in London Transport. That worked out well. What we must remember the maltreatment of Windies soldiers in the war radicalised the populace and the Windrush generation were well versed in the politics of class.