“History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes”. So goes the famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain. For a British left still reeling and disoriented from the defeat of December 2019, it may be worth finding our own historical rhyming couplet: an earlier moment paired to ours, whose similarities and differences can offer a fresh perspective and help us navigate a new way forward. That rhyming moment could be the long 1980s, and our navigator could be Stuart Hall – arguably the most important left intellectual figure of the past 50 years.
Reading Hall’s 1988 book The Hard Road To Renewal, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of arguments and observations that speak directly to the challenges facing the left in 2021. Again and again, passages written over three decades ago read as though they could have been written yesterday. The period of upheaval that Hall was analysing is not the same as the one we’ve been living through over the past ten years, not least because ours has far more potential for a positive outcome over the coming decades. But there is much here for us to learn from as we emerge from lockdown, and set off on the hard road toward the political comeback we hope to achieve.
Though its roots ran deeper, the crisis Hall was living through kicked off in earnest with the 1973-74 oil shock that knocked the world economy off its axis. It ended in the 1990s with New Labour’s acceptance of the fundamentals of Thatcherism, a capitulation hailed by Margaret Thatcher herself as her single greatest achievement. Our own period of crisis begins, of course, with the financial crash of autumn 2008. We don’t yet know where it will end. But we do know, as Hall knew of his own moment, that our crisis is about far more than just economics, and our response to it must be as well.
The oil shock was imperialism’s chickens coming home to roost – payback from the Global South producer states for years of exploitation by Western multinationals. Labour and Conservative governments alike shared complicity in this, but Labour were the party in office from 1974 onwards, and Thatcher’s Tories successfully pinned the blame for the economic fallout on them.
Jim Callaghan’s government didn’t help itself, forcing the costs of the crisis onto its own socio-electoral base through eye-watering pay restraint and then through IMF mandated austerity. Andy Beckett has shown in his history of the period that Labour did not need to turn to the IMF or accept its policy prescriptions. But fatally, Callaghan accepted his opponent’s disingenuous narrative about a country ‘living beyond its means’. For many of you, some of this may be starting to rhyme already.
As an aside, for all the talk from today’s ‘sensible moderates’ of their three election victories under Blair, it is worth remembering that their wing of the party delivered three of the four seminal defeats of the long 1980s. It was the loss of 1979 that originally handed Thatcher the keys to Downing Street, and the landslide defeat of 1987 wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The despair-inducing loss of 1992, coming as it did in the wake of a major recession and the poll tax debacle, can almost be classed as an achievement, in the sense of it being a monument to utter incompetence. Suffice to say that no wing of the Labour party has a serious claim to the monopoly on electoral wisdom.
The key features of the economic project pursued by Thatcher during this period are well known. The crushing of organised labour through a mixture of deliberate political assaults and outright state violence. The radical recalibration of the state’s position in the economy to serve the interests of capital over the population. Class war is hardly too strong a term. But what Hall was able to show, drawing on the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, was how the Conservatives were able to win enough popular consent for their project so as to be able to barrel through crisis after crisis and still win elections comfortably.
The rhyming couplets continue. Thatcher was able to speak in a resonant, direct language that drew on long pre-existing ‘common sense’ values to successfully sell the notion that, no matter how painful things got, there was no alternative to her rule. The national budget, like a household budget, had to be managed sensibly, the books balanced. Respectable, decent and hard-working people had the right to defend their values and prosperity from the ranks of the irresponsible and the dangerous: the skivers, the extremists, the racialised ‘others’. Through the Falklands conflict, she was able to whip up a storm of belligerent jingoism, rallying those who had mourned the loss of the empire and longed to ‘make Britain great again’.
In other words, by moving aggressively on the terrain of values, culture and narrative, Thatcher was able to own the historical moment even as her economic policies harmed a great many, and failed to convince many more. Hall understood that all Thatcher needed to do was construct a socio-political bloc of sufficient size, commitment and self-belief to see off any challenge – a minority of voters large and resilient enough to ensure her dominance of the scene. His achievement was not only to identify (with remarkable precision and insight) the political repertoire that she employed to this end, but also to provide us, in the present day, with an analysis that can still shed significant light on our opponents’ tactics and strategy.
Hall was deeply pessimistic about the prospects of the left in his own historical moment – another judgement which has aged remarkably well. He despaired of the stultifying economic reductionism that blinded many of his comrades to the opportunities presented to them by the socio-cultural changes of the period. For Hall, there was no reason why the specific conjuncture of the 1980s could not be conducive to a revitalised socialist project that went beyond the dying post-1945 settlement. An age of increasing political decentralisation and social diversity was ripe for a new socialism driven from the bottom up rather than the top down, one which made its own aggressive moves on the terrain of culture and values and told its own compelling story.
Of course, vulgar economism still persists in parts of the left, as with the facile reading of the ‘culture war’ as a distraction from the ‘real issues’. But in general, the left of the 2020s has a richer and more sophisticated understanding of how power works than its predecessors, stemming in part from its healthier relationship with the Marxist literature. Dogma is being superseded with a degree of analytical pluralism and thoughtfulness. One that recognises the contributions of figures like Angela Davis and Cedric Robinson to our analysis of capitalism; that takes race and gender seriously; that takes LGBTQ rights seriously; and which is comfortable making the connections between the cultural and the material.
Another sense in which our moment and Hall’s palpably do not rhyme with each other is that today’s crisis is not a crisis of social democracy or socialism, but of a zombified neoliberalism, with the left as the insurgent, challenging force bringing the critique and the new ideas. That crisis is interwoven with crises of white supremacy, patriarchy and transphobia where, again, the status quo is under attack, and it is the left speaking in resonant language of common sense values: equality, dignity and human rights. Today, unlike in 1988, we can see the outlines of a new common sense coming into view.
Looming over everything, of course, is the climate crisis: a historical verdict on a doomed economic model that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like a trivial footnote.
Hall frequently pointed out that nothing is written in advance. Historical moments are filled with contradictions and divergent possibilities. There is no teleological tide moving with us or against us, only the opportunities offered by the specific ‘conjuncture’ in which we live. The question is whether we are willing to identify the specifics of the moment, see the opportunities, and make the most of them.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.