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The Harsh Discipline of Democracy

by | August 13, 2022

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 12: A Ceaseless Storm. It was published alongside this essay by Stuart Hall. Issue 12 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. Or you can support our work with a digital subscription, and get instant access to all published issues, including issue 12. 



We live in a strangely febrile era, politically. Popular subjectivities – the gilets jaunes, the Chilean social explosion, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, QAnon, the Nuit debout, anti-vaxx, Querdenken – are constructed in intensely fragile ways. They are composed at different levels of the tech ‘stack’, usually precipitated by the momentum of aggregated particles of sentiment on the social industry, in some cases orchestrated by rightist grifters. Their life-cycle, relative to traditional social movements, is hyper-accelerated. Their identifications, generally not consolidated in resilient class or civil institutions, are smeared out across social networks. The trade union movement remains a mass movement, if a quiescent one, political parties have experienced renewed growth lately, and there are even signs of class struggles successfully using the affordances of the social industry. But there are few ‘big battalions’ through which social struggle is sustained.

The complexity and volatility of contemporary social formations belies any historical guarantee one might claim for a particular strategy or form of organisation. We face a terrain in which almost every left strategy, ideology and form of organisation – revolutionary socialism, left-reformism, left-nationalism, horizontalism, workerism – has recently failed on its own terms. The commodification of social life and everyday culture by the social industry has further problematised the hardy base-superstructure metaphor by which Marxists have classically understood the determining role of economic class struggle. And the ecological crisis has forced an epistemological reckoning with the blind-spots of historical materialism as classically conceived. 

In a recent, important intervention in this difficult terrain, Jacobin published a report on what it called ‘common sense solidarity’. Based on surveys of voters conducted in collaboration with YouGov, the report argues for a class-based electoral strategy that eschews ‘woke messaging’ and ‘group based appeals’ in favour of a ‘universal’ language. The findings of the study are interesting and suggestive: it confirms that working-class voters, a core target of any left-wing electoral campaign, are not inherently progressive, and that non-voters aren’t just waiting to be motivated by the right progressive sermon. It also identifies some key messages that have broad appeal, especially to ‘blue collar’ workers concerned with ‘bread-and-butter economic issues’. According to Jacobin’s report, it is still possible to raise issues like ‘ending systemic racism’, but the message supposedly only resonates within a ‘populist framework’.

Grant the authors their predicates: they are explicitly designing a strategy for electoral change, not social movements, labour militancy, or revolution. And it is not stupid to connect with a popular ‘common sense’ that is often well to the right of where socialists are. Many of their critics have faulted them for adopting a shoddy, Weberian class analysis, and thus for misrepresenting the American working class. This is an understandable reaction, given how often psephologists use dodgy ‘class’ analyses, based on education status or consumer lifestyle, to produce wildly misleading claims. But it isn’t right: the report is clear that a variety of approaches were used, including Wrightian class analysis, with ‘few statistically significant differences’ resulting. In any case, it is hardly surprising that the American working class – atomised, disorganised and pulverised for decades – is not particularly radical.

But the electoral focus of the survey has one major drawback: in elections, one tends to follow opinion rather than lead it. One is left wondering: how can socialists lead? Or, to put it in the poli-sci idiom, how might we engage in preference-shaping? In Jacobin’s analysis, the importance of non-electoral campaigning is acknowledged when they find that ‘candidates who included ending systemic racism among their key issues were viewed favourably, or at least not unfavourably, across virtually all demographic groups we compared, including across race’. The reason for this, they say, is that ‘struggles for racial justice over the past decade have had such a profound effect on contemporary liberal political thinking that discussions of race and racism on the campaign trail are no longer political liabilities among working-class voters’. That is to say, non-electoral campaigning of a sort that risks being alienating on the doorstep – building from militant protests in support of Black Lives Matter – had a decisive, formative effect on what was electorally possible. It is not always possible to fight for radical ideas in a way that doesn’t risk alienating ‘an economically progressive but culturally moderate working-class constituency’, much less arousing the countersubversive passions of the Right as in the furores over ‘Antifa’ and Critical Race Theory.

More problematically, the Right has turned out to be capable of addressing ‘material interests’ in its own culturalist idiom. We have seen, for example, far-right campaigns like Marine Le Pen’s appeal to the idea of national preferences to benefit French workers over migrant workers. This raises the question: bread-and-butter for whom? For those affected by Le Pen’s proposed policy, nothing is more bread-and-butter than racism. It need not pass through the lens of class for it to be accurately experienced in that way, even if class is an indispensable optic for any socialist analysis. Similarly, for those workers interpellated as ‘national’, Le Pen’s proposals appeal to direct ‘material interests’.

Reaction has other ways of dealing with the potential universality of the Left’s ‘economic’ appeals. Albert O. Hirschman’s study, The Rhetoric of Reaction, identifies three of the Right’s classic responses: the Left’s ideas can’t work (the futility thesis); they will produce the opposite of their intended effect (the perversity thesis); and they will threaten the good things we already have (the jeopardy thesis). In all, they say, the masses have a direct material interest in maintaining the status quo. And this claim has been convincing enough for millions of working-class people to support conservatism, reaction and, at times, even dictatorships, against the Left. 

It evidently isn’t sufficient to summon an arithmetic majority of popular opinion on core issues; one has to have an answer to the Right’s ideological claims that shape the strategic horizon within which ‘material interests’ are decided. The Jacobin-style approach may at times be a contingently, contextually sensible way to fight. But the trouble is that if we work within such a closed theoretical terrain, a version of class politics – narrowed down to core ‘bread-and-butter’ issues founded on basic biological need – is always going to emerge triumphant. A distorted, flattened idea of class is here invoked as an historic guarantee, as the infallible answer to strategic challenges.

This is why it is fitting to return to Stuart Hall and his prescient warnings to the Left. Though Hall had been a leading intellectual of the British Left since his involvement with the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in the 1950s, it was through his interventions in the crisis period of the late seventies and eighties that he made his distinctive mark. In his work with fellow Birmingham School cultural theorists on resistant youth subcultures (Resistance Through Rituals, 1975), and later on the racist moral panic about ‘mugging’ (Policing the Crisis, 1978), Hall had developed a remarkably sophisticated theoretical idiom – a unique cultural materialism incorporating Gramsci and Althusser – for reading the conjuncture as it was lived by diverse classes and social layers. And based on this, he had bad news for the Left. 

The opening salvo was his monumental essay, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, written in January 1979, five months before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide. In it, Hall warned that the Left had failed to persuasively analyse the powerful precipitation to the Right that was taking place as post-war social democracy collapsed. Thatcherism was no will-o’-the-wisp, but a novel form of reactionary politics that had secured ‘active popular consent’. It was strengthened, not weakened, by the fact that it had emerged from crisis. By occupying the contradictions of a failing social democracy – the ‘lame duck’ enterprises arising from expansionist state investment, the increasingly oppressive aspects of the welfare state, the de facto rationing in the provision of public services – and offering ideological solutions that resonated with aspects of common sense, the New Right was winning over social layers, including trade unionists, who had hitherto resisted conservatism.

Though Hall’s claims about the resilient popular appeal of Thatcherism may now seem obvious, there was reason at the time to be sceptical of Thatcher’s chances. In the previous decade, there had been years of upturn: several union leaderships had turned left, the shop steward movement numbered hundreds of thousands, and the last Conservative government had been broken in policy and then in the polls by building workers and miners. Despite the demoralisation that had taken hold of workers after the Labour government’s imposition of de facto wage cuts on unions through the Social Contract, and its embrace of austerity and sado-monetarism, union membership was at a historic high. And so was talk of militancy: days lost to strike action were higher than they had been in 1972. Labour looked weaker than ever, but the class struggle looked strong. 

This type of thinking, Hall insisted, was subtended by spectral ‘Marxist guarantees’. Surely, the rise of the radical Right was ‘mere ideology’, and the ‘real economic forces’ would soon ‘exert their absolute determinacy’. And surely, ‘all this ideological vapour’ would be ‘blown away’ by the exigencies of class struggle. As Hall would put it in a later essay (on ‘Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’, 1985), the Left was hamstrung by a propensity to ‘read off’ ‘political and ideological developments from their economic determinations’. At best, they applied to specific situations concepts that were designed for a higher level of abstraction, viz. the ‘mode of production’. At worst, such ‘reading off’ could be a form of theoretical ‘infallibility’: with sufficient abstraction, it could never be falsified. One could, for example, interpret Thatcher simply as a ‘fighter for her class’ and never be wrong. As Gramsci put it in The Prison Notebooks, such infallibility ‘comes very cheap’, and ‘produces nothing but moralistic sermons, and interminable questions of personality.’

However tenuous Thatcher’s grip may have appeared during her first three years in office, the Left had plenty of experience of crises propelling public opinion to the Right. And such crises had at times been settled in favour of popular dictatorships against the Left. Given this, the ‘sharpening of contradictions’ and the intensification of class struggle could not be relied upon to guide the Left to safety. After all, as Poulantzas had pointed out, crises of capitalism were also typically crises of the Left, and its habitual methods of analysis and organisation. Was this not also the era of the ‘Crisis of Marxism’?

For Hall, much depended on situating one’s analysis on the correct level of abstraction. The ‘mode of production’ with its subsidiary categories of ‘productive forces’ and ‘relations of production’ supplied the tendencies and constraints within which a society developed, but what Althusser called the ‘social formation’ was the real scene of action. In real situations one confronted, not so much the inexorable ‘laws of development’ of the capitalist mode of production, but the Gramscian ‘conjuncture’. In any social formation, ideology was an actively formative element, placing people in the battlefield. In Policing the Crisis, their analysis of Thatcherism before it took office, Hall and his colleagues had analysed the ‘exhaustion of consent’ in a society characterised by a profound crisis of authority. Ideology – and they paid particular attention to the material institutions, above all the newspapers, police, courts and parliament – catalysed this crisis into a ‘mugging’ panic, stigmatising the black proletariat, galvanising a broad public constituency in favour of the ‘law and order society’, and producing an ‘exceptional’ type of state which Hall characterised as ‘authoritarian populism’. Thus, the passage from structure to superstructure.

In his estimation of Thatcherism, Hall drew attention not only to its ‘rich’, complex brew of traditionalism, modernising zeal, nationalism, market cosmopolitanism, statism and anti-collectivist individualism, but to the ways in which ‘these discourses operated directly on popular elements in the traditional philosophies and practical ideologies of the dominated classes’. Its populism leveraged the contradictions between ‘the people’, their needs and aspirations, and the reality of the interventionist state as manifested in incomes policies and the Social Contract. In place of collective bargaining and incomes policies, in which growing numbers of workers had little confidence, it proposed to let ‘freedom’ reign and allow people to discover their fate in ‘the market’. In place of class struggle, it proposed: ‘You survive as the company survives’. In place of progressive education, then also in crisis, it proposed a return to ‘standards’ as the means to working-class uplift. As an  answer to social liberalism, to which millions had acquiesced without enthusiasm, it mobilised ‘the great syntax of “good” versus “evil” … of the choice between anarchy and order’, with race giving form to those polarities.

In his call for a ‘Marxism without guarantees’, Hall was attuned not only to the open-endedness of struggle, and the resources of the enemy on these diverse terrains, but also the possibilities for a new Left. Diagnosing what they tendentiously called ‘New Times’, he and his colleagues at the Communist Party’s journal, Marxism Today, argued that Thatcherism was in part the product of a shift in the entire edifice of capitalist civilisation. The characteristics of this era were marked by a new glossary of ‘posts’: post-industrialism and the decline of the skilled male working class, post-Fordism and the decline of organised capitalism, and post-modernism, which Fredric Jameson diagnosed as the ‘cultural logic of capital’, ‘the purest form of capital yet to have emerged’. But if the proletarian subject was fragmenting as identities became increasingly pluralised and economies became globalised in ways that allowed capital to outflank the nation-state’s inherited controls, such new politicisations also afforded new opportunities: the feminisation and ethnicisation of the labour force, the politicisation of sexuality, health and social reproduction, and the opening up of a new frontline over the environmental crisis – which it was patently ‘absurd’ to think could be resolved by ‘the market’ – pointed to the lineaments of a new Left. As Hall argued in New Times (1989), this afforded the ‘expanded cultural and subjective ground on which any socialism of the twenty-first century must stand’. And a Marxism adequate to this new terrain had to abandon its fundamentalism, and particularly the congealed sense that industrial struggle was the master-key which would unlock the political terrain for socialists. 

It is easy to discern what was prescient in these lines of analysis. Much of what Hall defined as the agenda of the coming Left in the 1980s is critical today. However, this agenda is also in part the product of major, catastrophic defeats. And Hall’s rethinking of Marxist shibboleths took him far to the right of his old affiliations, particularly after the defeat of the 1984–5 miners’ strike. Hall moved closer to the Kinnockite soft-left, calling openly for a strategy of realignment to marginalise the hard-left whose conventional habits of thinking, forms of analysis and organisational methods he considered outmoded. Indeed, though he later denounced New Labour as a reactionary project for mainstreaming Thatcherite sensibilities in the working-class, it is well to remember that he briefly welcomed Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party, and the purging, from Clause IV of the Party’s constitution, of the commitment to common ownership of the means of production. And if Hall did foresee the potential for Blairism to offer a reheated version of the radical Right’s agenda, this was in part because of his own barely concealed admiration for its dynamism, and for the celerity of the ‘New Times’ of which it was an expression.

Yet, even in this era of momentary compromise with the Blairite ‘Third Way’, Hall continued to be prescient. As a theorist of race, he had long argued that racism, far from being eternal, is continuously reconstructed out of contemporary contradictions of capitalist life. As a corollary, the experience of racism as a modality of class life engendered the construction of ethnicities and identities. But intellectual trends in the 1990s Left tended to result in the reification of identity, and a version of multiculturalism that corralled ‘difference within a communally segmented social order’ (‘The Multicultural Question’, 2000). The absolutisation of identity elided the fact that it is a ‘structured representation’ which, because it ‘achieves its positive only through the eye of the negative’ – it must ‘go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can construct itself’ – was always in danger of producing a Manichaean logic (‘The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity’, 1997). Critically, he was concerned by the tendency of small groups of militants, particularly in academia, to embrace the ‘authoritarian’ cultural tactics and ‘moral self-righteousness’ of the Right, in policing politically correct mores. Such tactics permitted minorities to overestimate their influence, but ‘policing language’ was not the same as changing how anyone thought. There was no route to success in a capitalist democracy that did not pass through consent. ‘A war of position,’ he wrote, ‘cannot afford for a moment … to free itself of the harsh discipline of democracy’ (‘Some “Politically Incorrect” Pathways Through PC’, 1994). In his way, precisely because he took ideology seriously as a material force, Hall was ahead of the game in the critique of the identitarian turn that Jacobin glosses as ‘woke messaging’.

There is a real dilemma here. Hall’s theoretical pragmatism, his strictures against the intellectual closure which conferred a dreary sense of inevitability on the conclusions of all analysis, and his disdain for moralism certainly helped him rationalise drifting to the right of his traditional positions. But did this imply that one could ‘keep Left’ only by ‘battening down the hatches’ and shoring up dogma at the expense of effective intervention? It would also be a mistake to treat Hall as some sort of prescient authority for our present age. Hall was extremely attentive to the Gramscian problematic of hegemony, but the mechanisms of control are often sub-hegemonic, bypassing the issue of consent or coercion by establishing infrastructures and relations that limit and incentivise behaviour. The chief virtue of Hall’s position, I think, is that it might help immunise a critical reader against the compensatory pleasures of being ineffectually correct, of moral superiority, and of ‘winning the argument’ while losing the battle.



Richard Seymour is a writer and a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of The Disenchanted Earth (Indigo Press, 2022), The Twittering Machine (Indigo Press, 2019), and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2016) among other books. His writing can be found in the Guardian, the New York Times, the New Statesman and his own Patreon.