Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Lost up the Kilburn High Road

Last week I received an invitation to a showing of the new film about Stuart Hall (not that one – this one) – you can watch a trailer here - which has prompted me to dust off a half-written post that I started earlier this year.

Stuart Hall was one of my heroes. I discovered him in the early 1980s via his classic articles about Thatcherism in Marxism Today and, as I wrote in my last post, went on from there to explore his work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. I also have him to thank for introducing me to the writings of Antonio Gramsci. Back then Hall carved out an original and sophisticated political position, clearly critical of Thatcherism and its ‘authoritarian populism’, but attempting to understand its popularity (in Gramscian terms, the ‘good sense’ in its ‘common sense’) and to develop a contemporary progressive response that embraced ‘New Times’. It was a world away from the shrill sloganeering of the old revolutionary left, whether Trotskyite or ‘tankie’, and showed a much clearer understanding of how Britain, and its working class, had changed, than the ‘one-more-push’ oppositionalism of the Bennites. At a personal level, too, I found it easy to identify with Stuart. Like him, I had begun as a student of literature, had worked in adult education, and my politics were also grounded in an attempt to understand the intersection of class and culture. Hall soon joined William Morris, Raymond Williams and E P Thompson in the pantheon of my political and cultural heroes.

Some time later, I found myself on a postgraduate adult education course at Nottingham, supposedly run along ‘dialogic’ Freirean lines, but in fact an induction into a distinctly old-school Marxism, from which dissent was difficult. The tutors were particularly hostile to Hall and to ‘New Times’ analysis, regarding it as a betrayal of the true Marxist gospel, and I found myself regularly forced into defending him – which only strengthened my attachment to his ideas. It wasn’t long after this that I came to work at The Open University, where Hall himself had migrated from Birmingham. In fact, my first piece of course writing – on ‘culture’, as it happened - was sent to him for critical reading. Stuart was characteristically generous and helpful in his response to this piece of callow apprentice work. It was a few years before I actually plucked up the courage to speak to him – or rather, before a mutual colleague introduced us. I shyly muttered a few words about how his Marxism Today articles had kept me going through the Thatcher years, and Hall said something self-effacing about how ‘a few of us’ were hoping to get a similar venture going again soon. That venture turned out to be Soundings, the journal of culture and politics that has now produced its own political programme – the Kilburn Manifesto – which prompted the writing of this post.

I think my unadulterated admiration of Stuart Hall’s work began to diminish some time in the late 1990s, for both political and academic reasons. Marxism Today, which had collapsed along with its Communist Party sponsors after the events of 1989, revived itself for a special edition to mark Labour’s landslide victory of 1997. As someone who had rejoined the Labour Party shortly after Tony Blair was elected leader, in part because the New Labour project seemed to embody much of what Hall’s ‘New Times’ thinking was pointing towards (modernisation of the progressive message, new kinds of alliances, an understanding of the changing identities and aspirations of post-Thatcher Britain), I was deeply disappointed by the analysis that Hall and his fellow contributors now offered. Not that I was completely uncritical of Blair, but the simple negativity of that response seemed indistinguishable from the knee-jerk oppositionalism of the ‘old’ left, whether parliamentary or otherwise, from which Hall’s writings had once offered such a refreshing change.

Academically, too, but over a much longer period, I had gradually became disillusioned with the direction that cultural studies, the discipline that Stuart Hall had founded virtually singlehandedly, and of which he was still the key theoretical luminary, had begun to take. In my view it had become increasingly obsessed with high-theoretical hairsplitting, riddled with obfuscating jargon, and divorced from any engagement with practical politics. Theoretically, cultural studies seemed lost in a post-structuralist fog that I came to see not just as aloof from politics but dangerously apolitical and morally relativist, exemplified (to cite two of the most egregious examples) by Michel Foucault’s endorsement of the ayatollahs and Judith Butler’s claim that the racist, misogynist Hamas was part of the ‘global left’.

Of course, I should acknowledge that I too had changed in the interim. No longer describing myself as any kind of Marxist, like many others in the aftermath of 1989 I had come to accept that any form of progressive change worth having must be rooted in individual liberty, representative democracy and – yes, free markets.  As I explained in my last post, I had moved away from both the Bennite Labourism of my youth and the Gramscian Eurocommunism of later years and was now an unashamed social democrat. Then, in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of the new global threat of militant fundamentalism, I began to find myself in sympathy with the anti-totalitarian democratic leftism of the Euston Manifesto.

There’s a definite nod to that document, of course, in the name of the Soundings team’s latest intervention, which I suppose Eustonites should take as some kind of compliment. Given my earlier engagement with Stuart Hall’s work, it was with mixed feelings that I read his introduction to the Kilburn Manifesto in The Guardian back in April, and then the first instalment of the programme itself that has been published online (more instalments have since been published, but I have to confess that I haven't read them thoroughly yet). There’s much in the document and the article that resonates, particularly the delineation of our current ills. Who on the Left could take issue with this description of where we are currently:
The breakdown of old forms of social solidarity is accompanied by the dramatic growth of inequality and a widening gap between those who run the system or are well paid as its agents, and the working poor, unemployed, under-employed or unwell. 
But while the diagnosis may be (partly) sound, the prognosis often feels like a blast from the past, as if nothing has really changed since those heady days of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The language and style of argument used, the forms of address, all seem to be resonant of that earlier era in our political history – and in my personal political journey.

I say ‘partly’ sound because I think the Kilburnites also get some things wrong about the current state of things. Of Margaret Thatcher, who died shortly before his article was written, Hall writes that her funeral ‘was designed to install her as the emblem of a unified nation, and set the seal on three decades of work by three political regimes – Thatcherism, New Labour and the coalition – to fundamentally reshape Britain.’ Leaving aside the way this skates over very real differences between three democratically elected governments, the model of political change assumed here is of a unified exercise of power by a dominant elite. We’re back in the mechanistic, top-down world of Louis Althusser, and a world away from the multiple sites of power identified by Foucault, one of Hall’s key influences, never mind the unending struggle for hegemony described by Gramsci. It’s not far removed, in fact, from conspiratorial thinking about a hidden hand pulling the strings behind the scenes, with democratic ‘choice’ being little more than an illusion.

A similar one-way model of the exercise of power is evidenced in these words about popular culture:
Market forces have begun to model institutional life and press deeply into our private lives, as well as dominating political discourse. They have shaped a popular culture that extols celebrity and success and promotes values of private gain and possessive individualism. 
There’s a grain of truth in this, of course, as there is in much of what Hall and the Kilburnites have to say – the good sense in their common sense, one might cheekily say. But one gets the feeling that, in this political worldview, it’s only external forces – of which market forces are one example – that have any agency and are able to ‘shape…extol…promote’. Reading this, you’d think that people never voluntarily watched a television programme or freely voted for measures that encouraged individualism. The same forces are said to have ‘thoroughly undermined the redistributive egalitarian consensus that underpinned the welfare state’. But what if that consensus failed because it lost credibility and popular support? Where now the complex ‘New Times’ understanding of Thatcherism, the past failures of the Left, and new class formations?

Moreover, Hall’s use here of the word ‘regime’ for the elected British government, as if this were the Soviet Union or some tin-pot dictatorship, rather grates. It’s the sign of a worrying inability to distinguish between western democracies, however fallible, and truly oppressive systems. In fact, you’ll search in vain in this article, or in the online extract from the Kilburn Manifesto, for any acknowledgement that every radical social experiment of the kind advocated here has ended in some form of tyranny.

I found it telling, too, that the only footnote in the first online extract is a reference to Althusser, the anti-humanist Marxist theorist whom E P Thompson so memorably excoriated in The Poverty of Theory, and whose mechanistic, top-down systematizing of culture and society were robustly criticised in Hall’s earlier writings. And then, while it’s only a footnote, there’s surely something awry when your sole secondary reference is to a theorist whose name will mean nothing beyond the social scientific academy.

The writers of the manifesto still seem, after all this time, to be seeking new social movements to unite with the traditional working class (whatever that might be, these days), to form a majority for their progressive project. This leads to an unwarranted excitement about entirely marginal, unrepresentative and sometimes worryingly illiberal insurgencies like the Occupy movement. Behind this chimeric search for an extra-parliamentary alliance is a tacit admission that the existing electoral system has, time and again, failed to provide a majority in favour of radical socialist change. This comes across as fundamentally elitist, as if the British public were wrong to vote repeatedly for New Labour, and more recently to reject all forms of Labourism and elect a coalition of Conservatives and the Liberals. To quote Brecht, it sounds like a call to dissolve the people and elect another.

Where do the Kilburnites look for templates for their political programme? Two get a mention in Hall’s piece: ‘the short era of Ken Livingstone's GLC and the radical experiments under way in Latin America’, and indeed our Ken’s image adorns the head of the article. But you’ll find no reference here to critiques of Livingstone’s communalism or to his more dubious alliances in the interests of civic multiculturalism. And which Latin American ‘radical experiments’ are signified here, or is it left deliberately vague? One hopes it doesn’t mean Hugo Chavez’ dictatorial regime: now there’s ‘authoritarian populism’ for you. Once again, there’s little sense of the failures and shortcomings in these socialist experiments, whether at the local or national level, nor of the risks of history repeating itself if the same formula is followed.

So while I shall watch the new film about Stuart Hall with interest (not least for its cool jazz soundtrack), and continue to value his huge contribution to our understanding of the intersection of politics and culture, and of course to my own intellectual development, I shan’t be signing the Kilburn Manifesto. My politics will remain firmly rooted in NW1, rather than NW6.


TNC said...

Great to read your writing again, Martin. Take it easy. See you on fb.

Martin Robb said...

Thank you, Mr TNC. It feels good to be back too. This recent flurry of writing was prompted partly by the get-together in memory of Norm - I felt I ought to justify my self-description as a blogger! I finally got to meet Bob from Brockley there - he told me about meeting up with you here and in NYC. Next time you're over here, I'll try my best to join the bloggy drink thing. In the meantime - can I tempt you back into posting on your blog? I've missed your writing too...

Martin Robb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TNC said...

That would be great. Either here or there. Your words of encouragement mean a lot to me.