Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Stuart Hall on Englishness

(Photo by Annie Paul / Flickr)

Stuart Hall, prelate of British cultural studies, has intervened in the Labour Party’s current debates about “Englishness.”  He is brief, but nonetheless interesting: “I talked to Cruddas about this . . . I think I understand his preoccupations rather more than Maurice Glasman’s. In a constituency like Cruddas’s, where you’re fighting the far right, you have to think about those things [English identity, immigration]. But you have to be careful about how you recruit them. He came to talk to me about the New Left, which, of course, was interested in the popular language of the nation.  But I had the feeling he was raiding the past, out of context, in a way.  I do think Englishness is something we need to talk about, but it’s contested terrain that is structured powerfully against a contemporary radical appropriation.”

This is perhaps a more pointed intervention than the tone of guarded scepticism would lead one to believe, since Hall was a serious critic of “old Labour” and his intellectual milieu in Marxism Today was seen as an important tributary of New Labour thinking.  Hall, though he is contemptuous now, was even temporarily a supporter of Tony Blair, until it became clear that Blairism was actually consolidating Thatcherism, assuring its hegemonic status.  As he says in this interview, “New Labour come closer to institutionalising neoliberalism as a social and political form than Thatcher did. . . . With Blair, the language became more adaptive; it found ways of presenting itself to Labour supporters as well.”

Part of Hall’s critique of old Labour, and particularly of its hard left, was that it tended toward a certain type of economic reductionism, the belief that the class struggle understood in the narrow sense of the capital-labour antagonism was the ultimate historical guarantee of socialism.  The cultural and ideological vapours may smell of reaction, but sooner or later the real class struggle would assert itself, and the socialist offensive would resume in earnest.  Combining the strongest elements of Althusserian Marxism with a sharp reading of Gramsci, he submitted this reasoning to a strong critique in “The Great Moving Right Show.”  He understood Thatcherism as not just a type of politics or statecraft, but a popular cultural phenomenon, a moral idiom, a common sense touching on the lived experience of polyglot social layers — somehow, Thatcherism was not just a doctrine of reaction but a hegemonic project, which managed to bind the abstruse dogma of neoliberalism to concrete, deeply felt experience.  And the ground work for this cultural advance had, as he and numerous coauthors at the Centre for Cultural Studies had shown in Policing the Crisis, been conducted since the late 1960s by a “New Right” personated first in Powell then in Thatcher.  It had worked through a series of racial moral panics about crime, to connotatively link the experience of unemployment and depression to a wider narrative of British decline, the breakdown of law and order, the loss of imperial omnipotence, and so on.  The role of nationalism, and “Britishness” in particular, was central to the Right’s appeal.

Hall was always rather circumspect about approaching nationalism.  Other Marxism Today stalwarts such as Eric Hobsbawm argued, in the afterglow of the Falklands frenzy, for some type of left appropriation of British nationalism.  The end of this logic was New Labour smothering itself in the Union Jack.  From a very different perspective Tom Nairn championed Scottish nationalism as a progressive alternative to a Britishness pinioned to and under the domination of a class-bound imperial Englishness.  Hall, whatever his sympathies in these debates, would stretch only as far as saying that the left need to articulate a “national-popular” agenda pivoted on the defense of public services, the NHS and so on.  But unlike many who took over this language from Gramsci at the time, he does not seem to have interpreted the “national-popular” as a nationalist or patriotic terrain.  On the contrary, his emphasis was on the popular, conceived as a particular alliance of classes and social forces which, while obviously organized around certain class antagonisms, didn’t simply correspond to the working class or any other class.  The national element, in this sense, was merely a particular given cultural space.

That space, though given, was contested.  In “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Hall emphasized that the field of the “national-popular” was a field of battle.  If, as Volosinov said, a sign community does not correspond to a class, it follows that within a (usually national) sign community, there will be fundamental social antagonisms that leave their mark on the materials of ideological communication: “differently oriented accents” will “intersect in every ideological sign.”  Thus, none of the elements of popular culture had a stable meaning, and no arrangement of those elements was immutable.  The valence of certain signs in popular culture at the time, then, depended more on the balance of forces between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League than on semantic “traditions.”  If that is the case, then, couldn’t one say that the nation, “Englishness,” “Britishness,” whatever, could be appropriated for the Left in some way?  Could not the labour movement and its intellectuals and its political leaders find a way to capture Britishness, so that when people say “proud to be British,” that nationalist affect is bound to a progressive ideology?  What could the structural impediments to this, which Hall refers to in the New Statesman interview, consist of?

The first part of the answer is obvious.  Capitalist nation-states are loaded by the dominance of the ruling class over not just the means of national reproduction but also the means of national signification; nationalism in any inflection sits uneasily alongside internationalism, which is an elementary and unavoidable commitment of the left — all attempts at discovering a viable cosmopolitan nationalism have hitherto failed; nationalism in any imperialist society is bound up with chauvinism, and Britain is an imperialist society, with England its historical core, which has always been defined by its status in the imperialist hierarchy, whatever William Hague says to the contrary.  Orwell’s efforts to situate the basis for socialism on the terrain of culture and “Englishness,” which admittedly had a certain proto-Gramscian quality in its approach to popular culture as a strategic factor in political struggles, surely represent the last serious attempt to articulate something like a left-wing “Englishness.”  It was certainly light years ahead of the mawkish, demagogic detritus that passes for the same attempt these days.  Yet it failed rather badly, for two reasons.  First, because it misjudged the class basis for any post-war socialism, estimating that the perpetual growth of a functionary and technician class would be the basis for a rational yet national post-capitalist system.  This isn’t how things worked out at all.  Second, because the elements of “Englishness” as he saw it, which he seemed to regard as being in some way given and thus not to be resisted or bargained against, don’t stand up very well today.  One could go on.

But another part of the answer would begin where Hall leaves off.  The problem isn’t just the way that “Englishness” is structured against radical appropriation.  It is with the nature of the “progressive” agenda being articulated by Blue Labour architects.  This agenda is itself deeply reactionary.  Just as Blair and his coterie helped commute the language of Thatcherite economic liberalism into something acceptable to working class Labour voters, so Cruddas, Glasman and Rutherford are enabling the spread of Thatcherite social conservatism.  Accepting wholesale the mythemes of reactionary resentment — “the culture of entitlement,” and so on — they add new thematics, such as demagogic immigrant-bashing.  And why should Labour intellectuals, people who call themselves leftists, be interested in such a project?  Because it has nothing to do with the Left.  It is an attempt to culturalize social questions about the distribution of the social product in a particularly authoritarian, xenophobic and patriarchal manner.  “Blue Labour” is a condensation of the most backward-moving, reactionary elements in New Labour thinking, with the emphasis heavily on its communitarian strand (as is natural in an age of austerity and collective belt-tightening, where the figure of the acquisitive individual is no longer adequate to summon popular loyalty). It is a hegemonic movement within Labourism to outflank the Left in a circumstance in which the Blairite Right in its old form is likely to be out of power for a time. It exists for the purpose of anchoring Labour’s response to austerity firmly to the Right.

And that is the strategic fulcrum from which discussions about “Englishness” and the Labour Party must begin today.  Any account that circumnavigates this vital point is seriously deficient.