We are glad that Stuart Hall regards our article in nlr 147 as a significant contribution to contemporary debates on Thatcherism.
In that article we examined his work on authoritarian populism (hereafter ‘AP’), sketched an alternative approach to Thatcherism in terms of its two-nations effects, and outlined some guidelines for future research. Here we consider Hall’s response
and try to clarify our disagreements with his approach. We feel sure that he understands the respect for his work which prompted our detailed and lengthy critique, and which now prompts us to elaborate it in these pages. Indeed, we have the highest regard for his prescient and timely analyses of current conjunctures and tendencies, as well as for his more general contributions to a critical social science. We are all the more sorry, therefore, that our motives should be portrayed as academic point-scoring and polemical contestation. For we had actually hoped to intervene in the debate over socialist strategy in the face of Thatcherism. It is a measure of our respect for Hall’s work that we discussed its implications in our article
It must be said that Hall’s conjunctural analyses are neither theoretically nor strategically innocent. They have attracted considerable interest inside and outside the Left largely because they have deliberately emphasized the hegemonic project of Thatcherism and the hegemonic dimension of left strategy at a time when both have been neglected by the mainstream of the labour movement. However, whatever his own stated intentions in underlining the wider implications of hegemonic politics, others have certainly read his conjunctural analyses and strategic conclusions as more narrowly ideological in focus. We argue that Hall’s continual emphasis on the successes of Thatcherism has encouraged such readings. He has frequently ascribed two interrelated forms of success to Thatcherism—the articulation of a new common sense, and the shifting of the balance of forces decisively to the right. Yet he never really establishes whether the first of these successes is limited to the articulation of many different elements into a novel populist discourse, or whether it extends to deployment of this discourse in mobilizing effective popular support within and beyond the electoral field. Moreover, since he does not really explore other factors which might have contributed to this change in the balance of forces, Hall implies that it has occurred because the new common sense is ascendant. Even if he has never claimed that Thatcherism is actually hegemonic, such achievements play a crucial role in the struggle for hegemony as Hall defines it. footnote2
In stressing the discursive successes of Thatcherism and its capacity to shift the balance of forces on many different fronts, Hall provides the basis for an ideologistic reading of his work. In particular, it could be invoked to justify a strategy largely restricted to a long, slow campaign to reconstruct popular common-sense at the expense of other strategic initiatives. It is quite legitimate to counsel against such simplistic responses and to identify the risks entailed in Hall’s approach. We still maintain that, whatever his own intentions, Hall’s analyses are inherently liable to such misuse, and his reply has done little to allay our doubts.
Stuart Hall confirms our general account of how the ap approach developed and adds some fresh elements. What emerges most clearly is his concern with the politics of hegemony and with the way in which
Hall records how he was struck by the similarities between his own arguments in Policing the Crisis footnote4 (hereafter pc) and Poulantzas’s accounts of authoritarian statism (hereafter as). But while he criticized the latter for paying insufficient attention to the ideological aspects of the modern state, Poulantzas considered that the authors of pc ‘did not seriously discuss the new form of the state’. footnote5 Both charges were justified when first made. But whereas Hall has not significantly remedied this gap in his work, Poulantzas did subsequently analyse the ideological reorganization of the state and relate it to the generic crisis of hegemony in modern capitalism. Poulantzas argued that this hegemonic crisis stimulates the role of the mass media in political legitimation and mobilization. For the rise of authoritarian statism involves a significant restructuring of the dominant ideology as well as new forms of open and/or symbolic violence. Poulantzas noted how the right actually disguises the growth of repression by adopting certain liberal and libertarian themes dating from the sixties. In addition, the instrumental rationality and technocratic logic of experts displace notions such as the general will and legality; neo-liberal, anti-statist themes are deployed against the social functions of the Keynesian welfare state; there is an emphasis on authoritarian themes such as ‘law and order’; and racism is inspired by the pseudo-scientific theses of ‘biological inequality’. Poulantzas also argued that the channels which elaborate and diffuse the dominant ideology have been restructured. The mass media have taken over from the school, university and publishing house; and, within the state system itself, the administration has assumed the legitimation functions traditionally performed by political parties. Furthermore, the mass media typically draw both their agenda and their symbolism from the administration, falling under its growing and multiform control. Finally, Poulantzas noted that new plebiscitary and populist forms of consent have developed alongside the new technocratic and/or neo-liberal forms of legitimation. footnote6