Mark Perryman reviews Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea’s unpicking of how opinions are made and unmade
As the Party Conference season draws to a close the disconnect between the politics of the Westminster bubble and the rest of us couldn’t be more obvious. Persons in suits, mostly men, addressing other persons in suits, mostly men, given huge chunks of airtime while their party membership figures plummet and the great unsayable for the political class, that fewer and fewer can be bothered to vote for one, other or any of this lot scarcely gets a mention.
Stuart Hall was one of the founders of the 1950s British New Left. Decades later he looked back in an autobiographical essay to explain why the New Left took popular culture seriously.
“First, because it was in the cultural and ideological domain that social change appeared to be making itself most dramatically visible. Second, because the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society. Third, because the discourse of culture seemed to us fundamentally necessary to any language in which socialism could be redescribed.”
This position represented a fundamental challenge to how politics was traditionally defined, by Left and Right alike:
“In these different ways the New Left launched an assault on the narrow definition of ‘politics’ and tried to project in its place an ‘expanded definition of the political.” The logic implied by our position was that these ‘hidden dimensions’ had to be represented within the discourses of ‘the political’ and that ordinary people could and should organise where they were, around issues of immediate experience; and build an agitation from that point.”
Thirty years ago in the mid 1980s, following Labour’s 1983 General Election defeat, Stuart Hall came to prominence as one of the Left’s most influential political analysts. There was at the time some kind of sense that the understanding of, and immersion in, popular culture, by the political Left was an important part of any kind of progressive renewal. We could read about it in the pages of Marxism Today and the Labour Party’s New Socialist. Experience it in practice as Ken Livingstone’s GLC launched a programme of free festivals and all manner of other cultural initiatives . Or dance to it with the launch of the Red Wedge pop and politics coalition. None of this amounted to establish anything resembling the beginning of a progressive common sense but there was at least some sort of a loosely defined left culture that connected to, or at least related to, the popular.
In 2013 much of this has disappeared. 14 years of neoliberal Labour did its best to dismantle much of the hope and belief that the alternative to Thatcherism would be something fundamentally different. In the closing remarks to his brilliant book on Martin Luther King, The Speech author Gary Younge makes an essential point :
“While it is true that we cannot live on dreams alone, the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral centre and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible in any given moment.”
Gary Younge is describing precisely the predicament that neoliberal Labour has lumbered us with. The Blairist and Brownite versions combining to achieve the ultimate on privatisation, of idealism. This is what Stuart Hall , and his co-writer Alan O’Shea , set out to unpick in their chapter Common-Sense Neoliberalism, the latest addition to the After Neoliberalism Manifesto. The authors place an understanding of the meaning of the ‘commonsensical’ at the centre of the remaking of a progressive politics. Describing common-sense as:
“It is a form of ‘everyday-thinking which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of the ‘common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”
This suggests a very different kind of politics to one the Left is used to. We might imagine Nigel Farage and UKiP as the past and present masters of the ‘commonsensical’ in politics and not what anything to do with any such project. But this is incredibly defeatist, not to say dangerous. Take a fondly remembered victory, the Poll Tax, or the beginnings perhaps of a new win, the Bedroom Tax. A common-sense argument against the unworkable injustice of these taxes linked to their hugely effective renaming for what they are by their opponents. Or tax avoidance. ‘Pay your taxes, just like the rest of us, we don’t have the choice of offshore accounts or cosy deals with HMRC so why should you?’ Again the beginnings of a progressive common-sense.
Hall and O’Shea, drawing on the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, call this ‘good sense’. And they make the case that “Good sense provides a basis on which the Left could develop a popular strategy for radical change – if it takes on board that common sense is a site of political struggle.”
Mike Marqusee in a typically excellent article A Party To Dream Of describes the prospects for an Outside Left as a ‘long haul’. In or out of Labour, part of one part of the Left, or another, or none, there is perhaps no better place to begin that journey of hope with the ambition of a new common sense.
Common-Sense Neoliberalism is available as a free download from here