In nlr 147 Jessop, Bonnett, Bromley and Ling contributed a long and important article ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations and Thatcherism’. This article took issue with ‘authoritarian populism’ (hereinafter, alas, ap) and the use of that concept in my work on Thatcherism; and proposed some wide-ranging alternative theses. I should like myself to take issue with some aspect of their argument, not so much to defend my work as, through mutual discussion and debate, to advance our understanding of the phenomenon of Thatcherism.

My view, briefly, is that in their genuine desire to produce a general and definitive account of Thatcherism as a global phenomenon, Jessop et al have been led to mistake my own, more delimited project for their own, more ambitious one. In so doing, they obscure or misread many of my arguments. They produce, in the end, a rather confused tangle of important arguments and spurious debating points. Let me say categorically that ‘authoritarian populism’ (ap) has never been intended to, could not possibly have been intended and—I would claim—has never been used in my work, to produce a general explanation of Thatcherism. It addresses, directly, the question of the forms of hegemonic politics. In doing so, it deliberately and self-consciously foregrounds the political-ideological dimension. Thatcherism, however, is a multi-faceted historical phenomenon, which it would be ludicrous to assume could be ‘explained’ along one dimension of analysis only. In that basic sense, I believe the Jessop et al critique to have been fundamentally misdirected. The misunderstanding begins, so far as I can see, with their partial and inadequate account of the genealogy of the concept.

ap first emerged, as they acknowledged, from the analysis of the political conjuncture, mid-1960s/mid 1970s, advanced by myself and others in Policing The Crisis. footnote1 That analysis accurately forecast the rise of Thatcherism, though it was researched in the mid-70s and published in 1978. It pointed, inter alia, to a shift taking place in the ‘balance of social and political forces’ (or what Gramsci calls the ‘relations of force’), pinpointed in the disintegration of the social-democratic consensus under Callaghan and the rise of the radical right under Thatcherite auspices. It argued that the corporatist consensus—the form of politics in which Labour had attempted to stabilize the crisis—was breaking up under internal and external pressures. However, the balance in the relations of force was moving—in that ‘unstable equilibrium’ between coercion and consent which characterizes all democratic class politics—decisively towards the ‘authoritarian’ pole. We were approaching, it argued, a moment of ‘closure’ in which the state played an increasingly central ‘educative’ role. We noted, however, the degree to which this shift ‘from above’ was pioneered by, harnessed to, and to some extent legitimated by a populist grounds well below. The form of this populist enlistment—we suggested—in the 1960s and 1970s often took the shape of a sequence of ‘moral panics’, around such apparently non-political issues as race, law-and-order, permissiveness and social anarchy. These served to win for the authoritarian closure the gloss of populist consent.footnote2

The actual term ‘authoritarian populism’, however, only emerged in 1978 after I read the concluding section to Nicos Poulantzas’s courageous and original book, State, Power, Socialism, which was also—tragically—his last political statement. There, Poulantzas attempted to characterize a new ‘moment’ in the conjuncture of the class democracies, formed by ‘intensive state control over every sphere of socio-economic life, combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called “formal” liberties, whose reality is being discovered now that they are going overboard’.footnote3 (I especially relished that final phrase, since it put me in mind of how often the fundamentalist left is scornful of civil liberties until they find themselves badly in need of some.) More seriously, I thought I recognized in this account, and in my brief conversations with Poulantzas at the time, many similarities between his characterization and those I had been struggling to formulate in Policing the Crisis, ‘Drifting into a Law-and-Order Society’, and so on.

Poulantzas called this the moment of ‘authoritarian statism’ (as). He added, inter alia, that it was linked with ‘the periodization of capitalism into distinct stages and phases’; that it existed ‘in the form of regimes that vary according to the conjuncture of the country concerned’; that it covered, specifically, both ‘the political crisis and the crisis of the state’; that it was intended to help us periodize ‘the relationship between the state and the political crisis’. He insisted it was neither the birth pangs of fascism nor an ‘exceptional form of the capitalist state’ nor even ‘the fulfilment of the totalitarian buds inherent in every capitalist state’. Indeed, the importance of as was that it represented a new combination of coercion/consent, tilted towards the coercive end of the spectrum, while maintaining the outer forms of democratic class rule intact. It did, he argued, relate to ‘considerable shifts in class relations’ (not, devotees of Class Politics please note, to the so-called ‘disappearance of class or the class struggle’, whatever that entirely fictional construction of theirs might mean). But also, that it coincided with the generalization of class conflict and other social struggles to ‘new fronts’. It thus represented a fundamental shift in the modalities through which ruling blocs attempt to construct hegemony in capitalist class democracies. That was its explicit field of reference. There is little need to elaborate on as further, if only because Bob Jessop must be thoroughly familiar with it since he is one of Poulantzas’s most meticulous and accomplished commentators and critics, as his forthcoming study will show.

Poulantzas’s concept seemed to me extremely useful—but weak in two major respects. It misread the emerging strategy, since one of the fundamental things which seemed to me to be shifting was precisely the abandonment of the ‘corporatist’ strategy central to Labourism, and its replacement by an ‘anti-statist’ strategy of the ‘New Right’. (An ‘anti-statist’ strategy, incidentally, is not one which refuses to operate through the state; it is one which conceives a more limited state role, and which advances through the attempt, ideologically, to represent itself as anti-statist, for the purposes of populist mobilization.) I assumed that this highly contradictory strategy—which we have in fact seen in operation under Thatcherism: simultaneously, dismantling the welfare state, ‘anti-statist’ in its ideological self-representation and highly state-centralist and dirigiste in many of its strategic operations—would inflect politics in new ways and have real political effects.

Secondly, I believed that Poulantzas had neglected the one dimension which, above all others, has defeated the left, politically, and Marxist analysis theoretically, in every advanced capitalist democracy since the First World War: namely, the ways in which popular consent can be so constructed, by a historical bloc seeking hegemony, as to harness to its support some popular discontents, neutralize the opposing forces, disaggregate the opposition and really incorporate some strategic elements of popular opinion into its own hegemonic project.