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A tribute to Stuart Hall

Stuart HallI 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 ange

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.

8 Comments

  1. terry sullivan says:

    the enemy within

  2. malcolm fisher says:

    interesting article, must say id never heard of the man till yesterday. im not a Marxist myself, but can appreciate the mans thoughts especially the real danger that was and is thatcher/ism. we are still suffering from its evils this day.

  3. swatantra says:

    Hall was a giant in academia and the ordinary world. He was right to ask if the Media can influence people’s views, particularly when in tha hands of politically motivated men and women. And the answer obviously was YES. I think he would be disappointed that Leveson has been kicked into the long grass. We need more and better regulation of all the Media.

  4. John reid says:

    Terry -eh?

  5. Dave Roberts says:

    Don’t quite get the quote from Terry Sullivan about the enemy within. I know of Hall from when I was a mature student in the seventies and I thought he was a charlatan then. Nothing that I’ve seen or heard of him since has made me revise my opinion.

    I saw him at an OU weekend school in the late seventies and he prattled on about god knows what and everyone except me and a couple of other working class students hung on his every word.

    As far as I can see he was what I call a Kings New Clothes case. A really good con man. What exactly was his contribution to the common good? I’m serious, I really would like to know.

  6. Jim Denham says:

    I presume Terry’s remark (“enemy within”) is a reference to the fact that Hall was a prominent contributor to ‘Marxism Today’, the euro-communist journal that in the 1980’s gave intellectual succour to Kinnock, attacked the Bennite “hard-left” and, indirectly, laid the grounds for the rise of Blair and New Labour. In fairness to Hall, he was much more critical of New Labour than many of the other ‘MT’ people.

  7. Mickhall says:

    As a man Hall was a decent chap, his failures as a political activist was that of the whole MT crowd, they asked the right questions but gave the wrong answers. But worse than that they were cock sure they were right, but right about what?

    On Thatcher, the one thing this woman did not hide was the political direction she was going in. Yet when rank and file trade unionists came under attack not only were some of the MT crowd not in the same trench, they were in Thatcher’s chorus line. That is what the comrade meant by the enemy within.

    To disperse the lefts energies within protest movements, no matter how correct their aims might have been, proved disastrous for the working classes as it played into Thatchers hands. Why? because at the end of the day they had no hope of implementing real power or even influencing those who did. Look at CND if the energies people put into that were put into a political direction, who knows where we might be.

    Having said all this Stuart stayed the course and it can be said his was a life well lived.

  8. Dave Roberts says:

    Several things. Terry Sullivan. Are you the former Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets? If so I have come across you back in the seventies and eighties.

    To the other contributors. Assessing Hall is like assessing any other of his academic like. They were all failures and essentially had a good life moving from one academic appointment to another.

    None of them ever had a proper job and when their lives are assessed in terms of what they achieved in relation to their stated aims they achieved nothing.

    The problem is that they are weighed up at the end of their lives by people similar to themselves who also think they are important. Once again, The King’s New Clothes, a confidence trick.

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