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What lessons can Stuart Hall and Gramsci teach us about the difficult relationship between conservatism and social liberalism? And what can that tell us about the way that political cultures have shaped British identities in recent years? 

In this blog, Mike Wayne expands upon the themes of his new book England’s Discontents, Political Cultures and National Identities, which unpacks the genealogy of British identities over the last two hundred years as they have been shaped by the main political cultures and their interactions with cultural politics.

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In England’s DiscontentsI devote a chapter to a (re)consideration of the work of Stuart Hall, his reflections on and operationalisation of Gramsci in the 1980s and the relevance of his work to us today. At a moment when the project of economic liberalism which he addressed in its moment of maximum success, has now been shipwrecked on the rocks of economic crisis and its banners look decidedly threadbare in the battle for hearts and minds.  While economic liberalism remains in power, dominant in the apparatuses that control our political economy it is very far from hegemonic. That is a considerably less secure position for the power bloc to be in than when its dominance is protected and extended by its command of the political, intellectual and moral terrain. Hall had a very good eye for exploring the contradictions between conservatism and neo-liberalism.  In his last work before his death in 2014, Hall argued that:

‘…it is a dangerous error to assume that, because both neo-liberalism and conservatism derive from and politically represent the dominant power-system, they are the same. Both have deep roots in British history and mentalities. But they are two quite different ideological repertoires.’[i]

Conservatism’s power base has always been the state that it commanded when the feudal absolutist state became a ‘constitutional’ monarchy/oligarchy with Parliamentary representation for the landowners in the first instance. Conservatism has invested in the coercive state (law and order) and the ritualistic-ideological departments of the state (monarchy, Parliament, church, Empire, etc) while its extension into civil society ran off into rural England, massively consolidated into the 1000 or so families that owned most of the land. Economic liberalism meanwhile, although it had a subaltern role to play in politics, had its heartlands in the emerging industrial economy. Richard Arkwright, alongside his partners and commercial backers, developed the water-powered cotton spinning mills that massively enhanced productivity around the same time that Adam Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations (1776). A busy commercial society that was slowly dismantling what EP Thompson called the ‘moral economy’ of the poor – all those customs that had afforded some protection from the pure exertion of economic power – was one that was atomising the very bonds of loyalty, community, trust and affection that conservatism depends on. Although political scientists such as Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson wondered why Britain, with its advanced market society could not emulate the political radicalism of revolutionary France, the answer is precisely that because of British advances in capitalist political economy, a more conservative political superstructure was absolutely required. Robert Eccleshall nailed this back in 1979 when he wrote:

‘In order to quell any unruly conduct flowing from the inequalities produced by the market, economically successful groups needed access to an adequate power structure. Yet, having made an absolute of private judgment in order to erode aristocratic privilege, the liberal doctrine was not geared to legitimating the coercion required for political actors to exercise tutelary supervision of the subordinate class. This was why propertied groups were so quick to elaborate a conservative version of the capitalist market.’[ii]

stuart hall gramsci social liberalism conservatism mike wayne england's discontents Political Cultures National Identities economic liberalism, social democracy socialism

Margaret Thatcher visiting the owners of a former council house.

The contradictions between conservatism and economic liberalism, or between ‘base and superstructure’ were only exacerbated in the 1980s when under Thatcherism, conservatism openly embraced economic liberalism and made it the normative core of the political culture. This was new. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, conservatism and liberalism existed in a tacit division of labour: the former was dominant in the state – although liberal political representatives taught conservatism when it was advantageous to embrace some small shreds of progressive change. As Thomas Macauley warned in 1831 in the debates running up to the Great Reform Bill that would widen the electoral franchise to include industrial capital and a wider pool of the middle class: ‘Reform that you may preserve’ [iii] and this may be taken as liberalism’s core dictum. Liberalism meanwhile was dominant in the market itself especially around industrial production, at least up until 1848, after which, industrial capital began to gravitate towards conservatism, frightened by the demands of the working classes. However, the establishment of the Welfare State, meant that conservatism had to rejuvenate itself with a bracing merger with liberalism if it was to blow apart social democracy in the 1980s. But this was a pact that was to prove corrosive for conservatism.

The ethical-religious strand of conservatism (especially its taboos around the body and sexuality) comes into conflict with the prioritisation of profit and accumulation that is essential to economic liberalism. The nationalist strand of conservatism comes into conflict with the international reach and scale of capital (the whole ‘problem’ of Europe in the conservative imaginary), while the investment in institutions and customs whose origins appear to reach back into the mists of time comes into conflict with the perpetual revolutionary changes that capitalism brings about. Historically, the dominant symbolic-cultural order of conservatism has been made up of the ethico-religious, the nationalist and the evolutionary/deep history strands. Together they attempt to create a moral framework for an economic system that does not have one; a point of national identification for a mode of production whose expansionary logic cannot be contained within the nation-state and a slowing down of historical change for a revolutionary change-obsessed mode of production. Of course the contradictory coupling of conservatism and economic liberalism is manageable much of the time and conservatism has perfected the art of politically displacing these contradictions onto other groups (the working class, immigrants, foreign powers, etc). As Hall noted in 1987:

‘We are all perplexed by the contradictory nature of Thatcherism. In our intellectual way, we think that the world will collapse as the result of a logical contradiction: this is the illusion of the intellectual – that ideology must be coherent, every bit of it fitting together, like a philosophical investigation. When in fact, the whole purpose of what Gramsci called an organic (i.e., historically-effective) ideology is that it articulates into a configuration, different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations. It does not reflect, it constructs a ‘unity’ out of difference.’[iv]

This was an important point to make, and yet, those contradictions, over time, have been working their way into the body politic of conservatism, playing havoc with its resilience, discombobulating its strategic canniness, fragmenting its ability to weave together ‘logically’ disparate or potentially conflicting interests into an organic unity. Until finally we arrive at that most sorry and bedraggled of political figures: Theresa May.

Conservatism’s embrace of liberalism has meant, for example, an embrace of some version of meritocracy. Yet any vision of social mobility, any sense that the market unleashes all the talents irrespective of class, colour, creed – all the identities which the market is indifferent to – comes crashing into conservatism’s long held investment in hierarchy, privilege, status, birthrights, hereditary wealth and so forth.  This was a remarked upon tension within Thatcherism in the 1980s. For example the City of London, unleashed from its regulatory ‘burdens’, was a place where generations of wealth stretching back centuries to the landed gentry rubbed shoulders with the likes of Nick Leeson, the state school comprehensive boy who would bring down Britain’s oldest merchant bank, Barings in the mid-1990s. Thatcherism was able to manage this tension because it meant it could graft a significant strata of the skilled working class to its electoral dominance and underpin that with some real prospect of material advancement. But it was finally an increasing sense that conservatism’s base was narrowing back to its old traditional bases as the Thatcherite boom turned to dust, that it could no longer distribute wealth beyond the already powerful, that privatisation was not the road to the promised popular capitalism of Thatcher’s imagination.

Here though we must note the importance of the battle for hearts and minds, of commanding the political and moral scene. The exhaustion of Thatcherism, the economic failures of her model, did not see a return to social democracy.  It turned out that Thatcherism was only one repertoire that economic liberalism had at its disposal. This repertoire, which had smashed its way through much of the opposition to the dismantling of the post-war social democratic consensus, laid the ground for social liberalism to take up the task of further institutionalising economic liberalism into society. Its vehicle would be New Labour and the cadres of MPs around Tony Blair. Blair appropriated the language of meritocracy and inflected it more persuasively than the conservatives could now manage. The old vested interests would be swept away and the knowledge economy, the cultural industries, the new engines of economic liberalism, would let a thousand talents bloom, according to Blair. We know how that ended up: with ever deepening inequalities in education and the cultural sector, the latter now dominated by the forces of gentrification and the sons and daughters of the privately educated.[v] The City of London meanwhile could quietly carry on because, we were told, New Labour’s technocratic politics had solved the boom-bust business cycle which Marx had erroneously taught us was built into the system. We re-learned that painful lesson when a good chunk of the capitalist economy slid off the cliff in 2008.

stuart hall gramsci social liberalism conservatism mike wayne england's discontents Political Cultures National Identities economic liberalism, social democracy socialism

Iain Duncan Smith visiting Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow where he was moved to tears by the conditions.

The damage that conservatism had done to the unity of the British nation-states, could meanwhile, Blairism reasoned, be solved with a touch of devolution that kept the  assemblies firmly within the ambit of economic liberalism. We know where that finally led to: the Scottish Referendum of 2014 and the still realistic prospect of an independent Scotland. Conservatism’s nationalist resentments against the economically liberal project developing across Europe and co-ordinated by the EU, could also, thought New Labour, be ameliorated with a more rational discourse of intergovernmental co-operation and a policy agenda that thought deepening social inequalities, a correlated and calculated distanciation from its former base in the working classes, and substantial increases in inward migration from the expanded EU would not hold hostages to fortune. We know too how that ended: with the 2016 Referendum to leave the EU.

It turns out that just as conservatism is in substantial contradiction with economic liberalism, so too is social liberalism. [vi] This is a dynamic between political repertoires that Hall was rather less perspicacious about unfortunately. The upshot is that the crisis at the top is a three-way fight as the alliances between conservatism, economic liberalism and social liberalism, are now deeply fissured. A right-wing of conservatism has broken away from the consensus which has dominated politics in Europe, the UK and the US in that time. The rising far-right in Europe, Trump in the US and the reactionary conservative coalition around Brexit are now in a pitched battle with the social neo-liberals. Yet both conservatism and social liberalism remain committed to economic liberalism – the very philosophy that is causing them such convulsions.

The situation is characterised by very complex cross-cutting fissures, combinations and alliances, that make going forward treacherously difficult for the left, as the problem of how to respond to Brexit indicates. There are a great many ‘morbid symptoms’ as Gramsci said, when the moral, intellectual and political leadership of the dominant power blocs begins to disintegrate. That is why understanding our history of political cultures and cultural politics is so very important if we are to navigate our way through the difficult times that we are immediately confronted with. If there was one thing that Hall insisted upon, it was that the way forward had to be politically constructed in an offensive mode, on the front foot rather than reactive.  And it had to be popularised in a democratic way. His critique of Labourism and right-wing social democracy, of the State elites and his affirmation of the public (goods, services, spaces) and the need to win popular support to offset the power of the dominant classes, remains an important resource for us today.

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England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities by Mike Wayne is available to buy from Pluto Press.

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Mike Wayne is Professor of Film and Television Studies at Brunel University, London. He is the author of Understanding Film (Pluto, 2005), Marxism and Media Studies (Pluto, 2003).

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[i] Stuart Hall, ‘The Neo-Liberal Revolution’ in Cultural Studies, 25 (6), 2011, p.711

[ii] Robert Eccleshall, ‘The Identity of English Liberalism’ Politics and Society, 9 (1) 1979,p.9

[iii] Thomas Macauley, ‘Speech in the House of Commons’ The Liberal Tradition, From Fox to Keynes op.cit.,  1956, p.23

[iv] Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci and Us’, Marxism Today, June 1987, p.19

[v] See for example the documentary The Acting Class, (Deirdre O’Neill/Mike Wayne, 2017) at www.theactingclass.info

[vi] See Mike Wayne ‘It is liberalism that has helped sow the seeds of illiberalism’ https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/mike-wayne/it-is-liberalism-that-has-helped-sow-seeds-of-illiberalism