We are glad that Stuart Hall regards our article in nlr 147 as a significant contribution to contemporary debates on Thatcherism. footnote 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 footnote1 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 and dismissed at the outset various fundamentalist, catastrophist and economistic analyses. We agree with Hall that the Left must take the forms of hegemonic politics more seriously. But we also believe that, if hegemony is understood too narrowly or is isolated from other dimensions of economic, political and ideological relations, then the Left could adopt mistaken strategies.

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 ap has reshaped the balance of forces in Britain. Many approaches can be taken towards hegemony, however, with very different political and strategic implications. footnote3 Accordingly we should consider what is involved in Hall’s general concern with the forms of hegemonic politics and in his specific claim that Thatcherism is dominant but not yet hegemonic. We begin with his self-confessed intellectual debt to Nicos Poulantzas, and his attempt to differentiate his own views on how the modern state restructures hegemony. Our motive here is not to swap interpretations of Poulantzas’s work but to establish how various approaches to hegemony can generate different strategic conclusions.

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

Thus Poulantzas was well aware of the ideological components of authoritarian statism and discussed both its anti-statist and populist aspects. Indeed, he noted a range of ideological and political shifts among which ‘ap’ could at best be seen as one (albeit important) element. Yet he also insisted that, whatever such anti-statist and neoliberal trends might suggest, it is far from easy for the modern state to withdraw economically or politically. For all its activities are being reorganized and subordinated to its economic functions, and the state can no longer avoid the resulting contradictions simply through disengaging in the name of anti-statism or the social market economy. Thus, if the state decreases its interventions in one area, it must increase them in other areas. In fact, the as state is constantly oscillating between the two terms of the alternative: withdraw or get further involved. footnote7 This suggests that one cannot simply choose, pace Hall, to emphasize either statism or populism as the most important feature of the modern state. For both stem from a central contradiction which can only be understood in the light of complex interrelations among various economic, political and ideological functions of the modern state. footnote8 A proper account of the contemporary nature and limits of hegemony must consider questions of political leadership in their interconnection with such structural problems.

Poulantzas was also clear on two further issues about which Hall is unsure. Firstly he distinguished among levels of analysis. Poulantzas treated authoritarian statism as a new form which characterized metropolitan and dependent capitalist states alike, and which could be associated with different forms of regime, e.g., more neo-liberal in France, more authoritarian in Germany. footnote9 In contrast, Hall sometimes appears to treat as and ap as equivalent terms (especially when he describes ap as a new form of state or as the ideological complement to a more directly disciplinary form of state); and at other times suggests, more accurately, that ap is a concept developed to analyse specific conjunctures of class struggle in a given country, and not to characterize an epoch. footnote10 Hall must decide whether ap provides an analysis of a new form of (exceptional or democratic?) state, or just a descriptive, partial and incomplete account of the current conjuncture. Very different strategic conclusions are surely implied in these apparently contradictory interpretations.