Reviewed by Clare W. Brook
Given the current examples of national leadership bordering on the bizarre it is arguably time for us all to attempt a deeper analysis of the political, and hopeful, earn the politicians we deserve. In this Stuart Hall can be recommended as a guide. Although his study is specific to British politics, given the similarities of politics in the western world, his analysis remains relevant.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2012 Stuart Hall is quoted as saying: “I’m not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure.”
‘Failure’ does not seem to fit any aspect of Stuart Hall. In 1951 he gained a prestigious Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, later served as the director of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and has featured widely on British media. He is the author of Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands and Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. From 1997 to 2000 he was part of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Hall was active, until his death in 2014. Selected Political Writings – The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, is a collection of Hall’s analysis of British politics and culture from 1957 to 2011.
Hall’s own background informed his theories on the relevance of ‘difference’, which is central to his political analysis. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in1932 into a middle class family; his Jamaican father held a senior position of chief accountant with a colonial company, his mother an enthusiastic anglophile. Hall noted in one interview that it was drawn to his attention that, within the family, he had the darkest skin; this experience had a profound effect on him. As such he wrote from an insider perspective of difference, enabling him to more readily identify the political and social implications of being the ‘other’, so producing meaningful theories that are now considered the backbone of multiculturalism.
The introduction (Davison, Featherstone and Schwarz) outlines Hall’s theoretical approach, which refers to Althusser and Gramsci and conjectural analysis expanding the parameters of political theory in an attempt to identify emerging social forces; Hall framed his work as ‘interventions’. He drew on a wide range of disciplines beyond political science, encompassing objective and subjective expressions of human passions. Agreeing with Marx that it was a person’s ‘social being that determines their consciousness’. He argued against the prevailing view of politics as the sensible set-in-concrete work of Westminster, a ‘leave it to us’ mentality, a ballot box of limited choice. Hall envisioned a society exhibiting a political consciousness, willing to work for democratic change that could be negotiated between state and citizen to fit emerging circumstances.
The crucial issue is that any site in the social formation in any particular moment, can become the condensation of political antagonisms; the site of evolving, potential political forces; and the terrain on which political allegiances are made or unmade. …
The beginning of the New Left in 1956 and the Nuclear Disarmament illustrated this. The New Left was, he said, a conjuncture born of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by the Soviets and by British and French reverting to imperialist attitudes and invading the Suez Canal zone. The New Left in response to these events rejected both Russian and English models of government and attempted to define a third way. This is detailed in Part One: The New Left and after – ‘The ‘first’ New Left: life and times’ (1990). This section has six essays from 1957 to 1970, which were ground breaking in their time for seeking wider perspectives to analyze the political. In ‘A world at one with itself’ (1970) Hall shows how, although espousing open-mindedness, discourse was closely controlled, keeping it within certain boundaries to conceal real objectives.
Part 2: Thatcherism – consists of eleven essays commenting on Thatcher’s project from 1978-1992. ‘Racism and Reaction’ (1978), gives a historical and analytic view of racism. He links the wealth of England to imperial practices, which, at the time of writing, had been conveniently forgotten. During times of economic growth in the 1940s and 1950s immigration policy took a ‘laissez-faire’ approach. The ‘open door’ policy solved a British labour shortage, however, the downturn of the late 1950s and 1960s produced another attitude. Instead of confronting the conditions suffered by the working class, unemployed youth and immigrants in the economic slump, politicians diverted attention to issues of racism as if it was disassociated from its lived experience within British society. ‘Birth of the law and order society’ (1978) continues to follow the theme of deflecting responsibility for the ills of society onto specific groups, detailing the rhetoric of Enoch Powell and Lord Hailsham, the media poster men for traditional values. Hooliganism of the unions, striking for better conditions, political activism by students and teenagers demonstrating against the Vietnam war, all parceled up in a new world of violence. Followed by ‘The great moving right show’ (1979) and the move to authoritarian populism, the dogma of law and order. The propaganda campaign that Thatcher launched was an attempt to alter fundamental ideas of fairness and empathy, whereby equality was trumped by false ideas of freedom. Hall identified the Thatcher era as a profound rift in British political history and the beginning of a new era; hotly contested at the time, is now seen as brilliantly perceptive.
Part 3 details three essays, from 1998 to 2011, dealing specifically with neo-liberalism. Hall’s attitude to the new era of Labour politics following Thatcher was not enthusiastic. ‘The great moving nowhere show’ (1998) and ‘New Labour’s double shuffle’ (2003), criticized Prime Minister Blair for his lack of vision; political strategies were still moving along the same lines as the Thatcher ideology with emphasis on individual responsibility while nothing new was expected of the business world. The last essay, ‘The Neo-Liberal Revolution’ deserves a close reading given that it sums up the life and times of neo-liberalism and its hegemonic project.
‘..in ambition depth, degree of break with the past, variety of sites being colonized, impact on common sense and shift in the social architecture, neoliberalism does constitute a hegemonic project.
In the face of such ground breaking essays it seems trifling to mention a typo on page 324 where in the first paragraph, ‘to’ is omitted from the sentence ‘It is able (to) do its dis-articulating …’
It is hoped that the above, although inadequately brief, tempts readers to engage with Stuart Hall’s incisive mind in this time of disaffection from all that is political.
By Stuart Hall
Duke University Press
ISBN 978 0 8223 6906 6