"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
By: Matt Martin
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting...
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
In ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ (1992), Stuart Hall highlights how ‘strengthening of ‘local’ allegiances and identities’ might erode ‘‘centred’ nationalisms of the west European nation state’; this development could enable greater co-operation across national boundaries, but risks ‘re-valorisation of smaller, subordinate nationalisms’ based on these local allegiances. Hall warns against temptations ‘to produce a purified ‘folk’ and to play the highly dangerous game of ‘ethnic cleansing’. His fears are informed by genocide and forced migrations that, while he wrote, were accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia; however, his caution might also apply more widely:
“Here, the real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities of Europe, which have been made and remade across the tortured and violent history of Europe’s march to modernity, are subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity, by a surreptitious return to ‘tradition’ […] that recasts cultural identity as an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future.”
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting an essentialised, purist approach that could develop into fascism. One figure who grappled successfully with Hall’s problem is Bill Griffiths, a poet, Old English scholar, archivist, prisoners’ rights activist, classical pianist and sometime Hell’s Angel who stands out among the British avant-garde of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for his folkic methods, developing friendships with peripheral communities and letting their voices inform his writing. Even his earliest poems, written in the 1970s, incorporate idioms from prisoners, biker gangs and Roma. In 1990, Griffiths’ folk interests gained new focus when he moved from London to Seaham, a fishing and mining town in County Durham. He remained based there until he passed away in 2007.
Griffiths shares Hall’s appreciation of ‘real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ in any culture’s genealogy. This understanding of ‘folk’ is international, interracial and transcultural, remaining open to ongoing change. For Griffiths, ‘folk’ offers not a conservative force, but potential for radical resistance. This essay considers how these values impacted the folk-oriented research that Griffiths initiated in Seaham, including extensive work alongside long-term residents to celebrate North East dialect in the face of hegemonic, centralised Englishness. This all fed into his poetry, which periodically deployed dialect throughout his time in the region. The linguistic texture and poetic stakes show in the opening of the poem ‘On Vane Tempest Provisionally Shut, 23 October, in the Afternoon, 1992’:
While the bishop that tawks to the pollis that bray’d the miners woz marchin’,
wiv a thrang, weel-hair-comb’d mob, tiv address a petishun
til their Lord
whe lives mony a sunny mile frev here,
Satan, wiv a singular bat o’ his gristly neeve
tew’d Vane Tempest sarely, aal but drav it
clean belaw ti the sea. 
Vane Tempest was the last of three collieries around Seaham to shut. ‘Thrang’ means ‘busy’ or ‘crowded’; to ‘bray’ and ‘bat’ mean to ‘hit’ or ‘beat up’; to ‘tew’ is to ‘trouble’; while a ‘neeve’ is a fist.
The poem demonstrates how dialect enables closely worked sound patterns. A series of subtle, often unstressed rhymes and pararhymes runs through the passage – ‘wiv’, ‘tiv’, ‘frev’, ‘wiv’, ‘neeve’, ‘drav’ – that disappear with the standard English ‘with’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, ‘fist’, ‘drove’. Likewise, dialect pronunciation and vocabulary introduce puns that accentuate meaning. With ‘pollis’, pronunciation of ‘police’ approaches the word’s Greek root, πόλις (‘polis’) or ‘city’, aligning law enforcement with the poem’s city, either Durham (home of the local bishop, with ‘Lord’ suggesting God) or London (seat of the government whose policies led to the mine’s closure). Either way, the city represents power distanced from local concerns.
Griffiths’ engagement with North East dialect originates at his moment of arrival in Seaham. Shortly afterwards, Griffiths wrote to poet Eric Mottram: ‘I have only been here a week or so, but the difference to the tensions of the London Borough of Hillingdon is already striking, and I look forwards to making many good friends here (when I have learned the language).’ From most people, the parenthetical remark would seem a throwaway quip, but Griffiths meant it. He began researching local dialect, self-publishing books on the subject, as he had long done for his poetry; initially there was an anthology of
dialect texts, Durham and Around: A Dialect Reader (1993), and a lexicon, Durham & Around: Dialect Word List (1994).
It is worth noting that, for Griffiths, issues of language (dialect or otherwise) are intensely political. As early as 1974, he distributed to friends the mimeographed pamphlet Notes on Democracy, where he ruminates on the coercive power of language and outlines a programme for abolishing government itself:
Present govts seem scared to minimize change. Paradox: instability precipitates govt, but govt is limited by its own ambitions and creation from dealing with total reality. Events, populations, resources, are non-stable. So we have no continuous govts but a series of attempts. Each time a govt’s failure or corruption is exposed, and the concept of authority comes under scrutiny, we are told the only solution is an intensification of authority. Consider this in relation to English prison policy in the 1970s.
Griffiths’ politics feel like anarchism, though he prefers the term ‘democracy’, holding that no British government has yet implemented democracy in its true sense. His principles extend to this text’s circulation, with a conversation or negotiation envisaged between writer and reader. He provides a wide margin on each page, as medieval scribes and early modern printers often did so that readers could add marginalia and initiate their own conversations with a text. The pamphlet concludes: ‘You are invited to use the space at the right of each page or any extra paper, to make your own comments and further points upon. You might like to return the annotated copy to Bill Griffiths, 107 Valley Drive, London NW9 9NT.’ Indeed, throughout his career, Griffiths leaves his texts open to continuing transformation; his editor, Alan Halsey, describes how ‘in some cases this involves revision in the commonly accepted sense, in others it is more a case of re-vision – the text reproduced verbatim but in a different page space and/or variant setting’. What would this democratic, anarchistic poetics of constant renegotiation mean when actually enacted in a community, though? A few months after arriving in Seaham, Griffiths wrote A Pocket History of the Soul (1991). This essay describes how political hierarchies derive from a pernicious theology in which the human soul, with authority over the body, is in turn policed by God. Griffiths proposes that hierarchies of religion, nationhood, landlordship, colonialism and capital should all be dismantled, replaced by systems more accountable and responsive to the people they serve. This requires cultivation of skills and heightened participation in local culture by the residents:
Without participation there can be no meaningful ‘democracy’. […] Participation is thus something quite different from token consultation at a General Election, or token opportunity to put objections to some local scheme devised elsewhere by planners at county or country level. It is the opposite of social engineering since no grand theory is involved but only local conditions are taken into account.
Griffiths actually came close to a position where he might have implemented his localism on a larger scale, and though he did not quite succeed, he nevertheless leveraged benefits for his neighbourhood. The inciting incident was an announcement of ‘grandiose plans for dockland redevelopment and new executive housing’, as his friend, historian Bill Lancaster, recollects:
This ‘wash and brush-up’ of Seaham was seen by Bill as the gentrification of his coastal village and a personal threat as the demolition of his home was part of the scheme. Although new to Seaham he organized and led the protests against the plan, which culminated in him standing as candidate for the council. Labour’s hold on Seaham was traditionally watertight and their candidates were usually elected unopposed. He came within a few votes of winning the seat, a shock to Labour who wisely revised the plan and left Bill’s area as it was.
Griffiths saw even the Labour Party, traditional ally of North Eastern mining communities, as too distant from Seaham’s local concerns. Campaigns for regional devolution have long been active in the North East: in the 1970s, poets Colin Simms and Basil Bunting were on the committee of the Campaign for the North; a successor organisation, the Campaign for a Northern Assembly, was active but unsuccessful in 2004’s referendum on devolution for the North East; and recently, Newcastle-based scholar Alex Niven has persuasively argued for regional devolution across England. None of this would satisfy Griffiths, for whom even the Durham County Council’s fiefdom is unwieldy and dehumanising. For him, the town is the level at which local democracy and culture should operate.
Griffiths’ election bid was in May 1995; the following November, Durham County Council published Turning the Tide, a report proposing removal of mining spoil from beaches between Seaham and nearby Easington. In a journal article the following year, Griffiths explained that the plan would accelerate coastal erosion, and questioned whether some spoil should be ‘tipped into Hawthorn Quarry […] making one site (the coast) pretty and another site (the abandoned, renascent quarry) ugly’. He argued that the County Council’s participation in a ‘cult of the restoration of the past is necessarily delusory, unavoidably a fantasy’, betokening a ‘myth of a return to former Aryan glory’. Evoking
white supremacist ideology, Griffiths parallels Hall’s wariness of seeing folk culture as ‘an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future’, as well as the link between this and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Griffiths, unlike the Council, shows willingness to celebrate the unexpected, notionally ‘impure’ materials that history may present.
These conflicts all manifest in the poem about Vane Tempest. The piece was published posthumously; in his computer files, Griffiths grouped it with dialect poems published in 1992–93, but it must postdate these, as it portrays later events. After the description of the mine closure, the narrator receives mail:
[…] a letter cam hoy’d thru me door axin’ if we’d mebbe like
the toon-cooncil abolisht, like? Kas oor views might metter. An’ wad we like the toon-centre jis pulled doon too,
while thor at it.
This refers to the gentrification scheme, and to a referendum that preceded Griffiths’ election bid, concerning the possible abolition of Easington District Council so that its functions could be centralised at County Council level. Despite reservations about the District Council’s track record, Griffiths abhorred this attempt to appropriate power, as did many of his neighbours, to judge by referendum results which saw the District Council retained.
The poem continues; Satan reappears. An arch-Thatcherite, he urges Seaham’s miners to use their redundancy payments to buy shares in a newly privatised Hell – a post-
regeneration vision of Seaham where the Devil will ‘landskip ye aal in kak’. This alludes to the County Council’s scheme to infill nearby Hawthorn Quarry with spoil from the beach – a near-literal landscaping of the area with excrement. Griffiths reflects:
An’ Aa stud in a stiumor. For whe knaws, i’ true, What’s plann’d?
An’ leave us wi’ nowt
But dialeck for democracy.
Buying shares in privatised industries, like the parliamentary phantom of democracy, bestows merely illusory control over the world – Seaham’s future is already ‘plann’d’ and ‘sittled’ between the Council and its corporate allies. ‘Dialeck’ remains the one area where some measure of personal choice can persist in defiance of such forces. Though it, too, is under siege by a hegemonic culture industry enforcing standard English, its potential remains far from trivial. It is in the aftermath of his political and environmental campaigns of 1995 and 1996 that Griffiths’ dialect activities truly took wing. While they may seem indirect actions compared to, say, running for office, in fact it was in dialect research that he was able to bring his political poetics most completely into practice.
Through the mid-1990s, Griffiths continued his dialect research in partnership with his friends Gordon Patrickson and Trevor Charlton. By 1998, there was enough local interest to establish the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, a larger-scale project to catalogue the region’s distinctive vocabulary. This ran along collectivist lines, with Griffiths
taking the title ‘Co-ordinator’ rather than becoming leader per se. In a 2006 interview, recorded during wider research into North Eastern dialects by B.B.C. Radio Newcastle, Griffiths is interviewed alongside the Group’s Secretary Tom Richardson and colleague Nichol Hopper. The conversation gives a valuable insight into their decentred methodology and organisational structure.
The interviewer asks about the trio’s experience of using or hearing local dialect terms. What’s noticeable about Griffiths’ contribution is his diffidence. He happily supplies findings from the group’s research, or etymology from his medieval studies, but lets his friends handle all the questions about personal use of dialect. It is refreshing that, despite his accomplishments, he does not impose himself as spokesman; instead, he behaves as a specialist within a collective whose other members may have expertise more pertinent to certain questions. Even when the interviewer requests an account of the Dialect Group’s methods, Griffiths asks ‘Shall I do that?’ and waits for agreement from the others before proceeding. He then describes opening project to even wider participation by soliciting dialect words from the region’s wider population.
Griffiths: […] in 2001 we put out a questionnaire, quite a simple one, and that got a lot of responses, about 500 came in, and we built on that to build up a dictionary, which is published now. And that’s a mix of words from previous publications and all the words that were sent in. And, ah, people was very keen on it. We get words coming in every week, certainly, if not every day. There’s a lot to collect still. […] One I hadn’t heard before was ‘pagged’ for ‘tired out’.
Richardson: That one’s been in common use for as long as I remember, yeah. But you’ve just added it to the list, haven’t you?
Griffiths: That’s the first I heard it.
Richardson: Yeah, maybe you should get out more, Bill?
Griffiths also built a website with a feature that allowed contributions to be submitted internationally. Dozens of co-authors were thereby welcomed into what eventually became A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2004; second edition 2005).
By collecting input from living speakers in this way, the Dialect Group documented speech that speech that is no mere ‘essence, moving, apparently without change’, but that constantly adjusts to its environment. For example, numerous ‘dialect terms seem to have survived by a process of doubling-up, whereby the unfamiliar term is linked into a self- explanatory compound’ – for example ‘guissy-pig’, where ‘guissy’ itself means ‘pig’. Also, established dialect words have taken on new meanings:
canch (stony ridge) now used for ‘kerb’
charver (young person) now used for ‘club-goer’ duds (clothes) now used for ‘boxer shorts’
dut (bowler hat or cap) now used for ‘small woolly hat’ midden (rubbish tip) now used for ‘dustbin’
skeets (boots) now used for ‘football boots’ sneck (latch) now used for ‘catch on a yale lock’
and from earlier sources: settle (bench) used (1938) for ‘couch’.
Both the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, and North East dialect itself, hence epitomise Griffiths’ anarchistic, democratic poetics. Like one of his ‘re-visioned’ poems, or the provisional text of A Note on Democracy, dialect words’ meanings can change when introduced to new contexts, and are subject to renegotiation through conversation. The Group exemplifies democratic participation of the kind imagined in A Pocket History of the Soul, where success depends on locally specific knowledge, and on willingness to concede
the floor when one’s own knowledge is less pertinent to particular circumstances than someone else’s (as does Griffiths in the B.B.C. interview). Most notably, just as Griffiths rejects the idea that the Durham coast ever had a supposedly ‘pure’ past, the Group celebrates (in Hall’s words) the ‘dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ of their region. This manifests not only in the modern dialect’s constant flux, but in the fact that the dialect has never not been in flux. The Dictionary of North East Dialect is painstaking in cataloguing etymologies; not only are there abundant legacies of the Anglian and Norse languages (which Griffiths suspects of having creolised together to a degree during the early medieval period), but loan-words are borrowed from throughout nearby regions and nations, as well as from peripatetic communities like the Roma (the abovementioned ‘charver’ has Romani origins). Griffiths also rejects the racist trope that ‘dialect signals ethnic descent.’ It is impossible to read the Dialect Group’s research and come away, as Hall puts it, ‘subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity’ for the North East. A good dictionary may be the best antidote to fascism.
Griffiths’ cultural activism in Seaham, particularly around dialect research, remains a testament to the possibility of local resistance against the totalising influence of the nation – either the existing nation-state, or the ‘new nationalisms’ of locality. Likewise, in Griffiths’ poetry, dialect is how a marginalised community voices opposition to the individuals in power, highlighting the latter’s actual helplessness to grant freedom from the structures that bestow this power. In contrast, proposing one’s own structures, as Griffiths and his allies attempted through political, environmental activism, and via linguistic research, may well distribute power more equitably. The poem on Vane Tempest concludes:
Aa had me environmentalist badge alang wi’ me, and howk’d it oot, and confronted him wi’it,
an’ Satan bowked oot an awefu’ pump, and lowped inti the hole
the pit wiz yance,
an’ the sun cam spanglin’ oot, an’ someone somewhere
gov the bishop a thanks
as tho’ any wun man can de owt thru power
ti release ye.
- Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, ed. by Sally Davison et al. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017), p.276.
- Hall, p.278.
- Hall, p.278.
- Bill Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96), ed. by Alan Halsey (Hastings: Reality Street, 2016), p.144.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (Second Edition) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria University Press, 2005), p.173, p.19, p.9, p.170–171, p.122.
- Griffiths, Letter to Eric Mottram, 9 June 1990; London, King’s College, MOTTRAM 5/100/1–36.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy (London: Pirate Press, 1974), n.p. Typographical errors corrected.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy, n.p. Griffiths’ italics.
- Alan Halsey, ‘Pirate Press: A Bibliographical Excursion’, in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, ed. by Will Rowe (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), pp.55–71: p.55.
- Bill Griffiths, A Pocket History of the Soul, n.p.; section 40.
- Lancaster, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Lancaster, Bill, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Journal of British and Irish Poetry, 6.1 (March 2014), 13–26: 16.
- Colin Simms, ‘A Glimpse of the “Inly-Working North”: A Meeting of the Campaign for the North’, in Northern Review, 6, Spring 1998, 69–70; Alex Niven, New Model England: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the Idea of England (London: Repeater Books, 2019).
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham: Turning the Tide or Losing the Beaches?’, in Northern Review, 4, Winter 1996, 100–104: 103.
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham’, p.103, p.101.
- Alan Halsey, notes to Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, pp.512–513.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.145.
- Griffiths, A Century of Self-Service?: Aspects of Local Government in the North East with Special Reference to Seaham (Seaham: Amra Imprint, 1995), n.p. (section 1).
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.146.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group: 2005-03-22T12:00:00 (archived website): London, British Library.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group.
- ‘‘Conversation in Seaham about Accent, Dialect and Attitudes to Language’, B.B.C. ‘Voices’ Recordings, 2005: London, British Library, 00:01:07.
- ‘Conversation in Seaham…’, 00:01:09.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, Northern Review, 11, 2002, 41– 51: 49.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.49. Griffiths’ underlining.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.xiii; p.30.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.44.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147. A ‘pump’ is a fart – Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.136.
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
15th May 2017 / Article
The Crisis of Cosmopolitanism
By: Professor Jeremy Gilbert
The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s election mark the crisis of?
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
‘The Crisis of Cosmopolitanism’, an essay by Professor Jeremy Gilbert unearths the roots of the Brexit-Trump crisis in the neoliberal politics of the Third Way, and reflects on the continuing relevance of Hall’s ideas. The essay began life as a talk given at the launch of the book Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings at the University of East London’s Stratford campus in March 2017.
For Stuart Hall.
The Crisis of What?
‘Crisis’ is a word that gets overused, not least by the likes of me. But if any year in recent memory marked some kind of crisis for both British and American politics and culture, it was 2016. And nobody taught us how to think through crises in general, or gave us the tools with which to understand this one in particular, more surely than Stuart Hall.
The question is – what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s election mark the crisis of? There are several ways of answering this. Clearly, on one level, they mark the termination of a certain professional political class’ capacity to manage the sphere of formal politics. Cameron and Clinton, like Renzi in Italy, represent a technocratic elite committed to neoliberalism, globalisation, social liberalism and aspirational culture. They also share a commitment to a specific form of cosmopolitanism, that tends to favour open borders, multiculturalism and global mobility, provided they take forms which are always compatible with aspirational individualism. What we might call ‘neoliberal cosmopolitanism’ is happy for individuals to travel the world in search of work or profit – in fact it insists that they should. What it does not want is for those individuals to develop strong bonds of solidarity with others, either at home or far away, which might encourage them to think or organise in any way that could inhibit the smooth accumulation of capital. Because above all, this faltering professional political class is dedicated to serving the interests of it masters on Wall Street and in the City of London.
It is this professional political class first and foremost which, in the second half of 2016, appeared to completely lose control of the situation. This was true at least at the level of the nation state and of government’s capacity to manage and derive legitimacy from a general sense of national community, purpose and preferences (what Gramsci calls the ‘national-popular’). It is notable that at the level of the supra-national – the EU, the IMF, etc – the technocratic class has not shown any signs of wavering in its commitment to unadulterated neoliberalism, or its capacity to go on implementing it (although there have been disagreements about the scale and intensity of its implementation). This latter point might explain why, at present, the corporate masters whom these technocrats serve do not seem to be particularly alarmed by the failures of their viceroys in Washington and Westminster. Whoever or whatever this is a crisis for – it isn’t a crisis for the major corporations, the hedge funds or the banks. Or at least not yet.
But it is also not a crisis for the national political classes alone. Because the election of Trump and the Brexit vote have clearly been experienced as traumatic defeats not only for the specific members of those elite cadres (represented in the UK by the anguished Tony Blair), but also for many members of the liberal middle classes and of the radical metropolitan left. And the latter – the members of the radical metropolitan left – define themselves against the neoliberal political class as much as against anything else. So what is it that they have in common with that political class which renders this a shared crisis for all of them?
The answer lies, I think, in their shared commitment to certain forms of cosmopolitan culture and ethics. In fact, I would suggest that this shared commitment has been crucial in persuading sections of the population, especially in the major cities, who might otherwise have proven more resistant to neoliberal hegemony, to acquiesce to it more-or-less passively during long periods, especially under the Blair, Clinton and Obama regimes. The fact that such governments have at least been hostile to explicit racism and xenophobia – which have never been fully absent from popular news media or from the politics of the populist right – has played a significant role in diffusing popular resistance from some of those communities most historically inclined to organise against systematic exploitation. Despite all their other differences, these groups have shared with the neoliberal elite – and with sections of the suburban middle classes – an uneasy consensus in favour of open borders, liberal feminism, sexual liberalism and multiculturalism. It is specifically this cosmopolitan consensus which collapsed – or at least lost its power to define the political mainstream – in 2016. Despite coming from the heart of the political class herself, it is May’s rejection of neoliberal cosmopolitanism, in her embrace of Brexit, that has enabled her to distance herself from that failing technocratic elite while entirely marginalising the metropolitan left, thereby claiming ownership of the British political sphere.
I think this is a crucial situation to understand, and one that requires careful analysis. As Stuart Hall showed in some of his most acute and important political writing, issues relating to ‘race’ and immigration, while having been factors of British political discourse since the sixteenth century, emerged in a specific form in the post-war period to become crucial to objects of social contestation in the 70s and 80s . As he showed more clearly than anyone, Thatcherism specifically connected the economics of neoliberalism with an authoritarian populism, depending for its legitimacy on appeals to racism and to anti-immigrant, anti-welfare rhetorics that were deliberately amplified and circulated by the popular press. Anti-feminism and homophobia, normally coded in terms of appeals to ‘traditional’ ‘family values’, were also crucial elements of this assemblage. This obviously provoked violent reactions from certain sections of the left, and from the broader social groups whose interests they most closely represented.
The Rise of Neoliberal Cosmopolitanism
What marked the distinctive politics of the ‘Third Way’ – the name given in the 1990s to the programmes of Clinton, Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – was its disconnection of neoliberal economics from social conservatism. Instead of authoritarian populism, the Third Way embraced neoliberal cosmopolitanism. I always remember Stuart remarking, some time in the early 2000s, how disconcerting this had initially been. He said that Tony Blair had seemed like he might be a welcome change from previous Labour leaders because ‘he looked like someone who might have a gay person to dinner’. That feeling of slight disorientation, and that certain sense of relief, which even Stuart admitted to, I think explains a great deal about the subsequent reactions of key sections of the Left to the Blair, Clinton, and later Obama regimes. It’s not that all of the problems with them were not on full display. It’s not that we didn’t oppose, complain, resist and protest where we could. But those of us doing so were often very isolated and completely unable to effectuate significant change, in part because the broader social groups who had once been mobilised against Thatcherism were largely passive in the face of generally rising living standards and the absence of a clearly authoritarian cultural agenda from government.
These constituencies are mostly based in our multicultural cities, and are made of groups of people historically influenced by the politics of the New Left and by the radicalisation of trade unionism and municipal socialism in the 70s and early 80s. They include public sector workers and members of the more militant trade unions, as well as low paid and precarious workers in many sectors who are influenced by the culture of the urban milieu in which they live. Altogether they add up to a far more considerable section of the population than was widely believed prior to the emergence of Corbynism, which has made this ‘metropolitan left’ distinctively visible for the first time in many years.
Historically, of course, these social and political groups have not been bound together by any commitment to neoliberal individualism, and have tended to look for far more democratic, egalitarian and collectivist answers to the question of how to live together in a globalised, liberalised world. The original use of the term ‘multiculturalism’ was never supposed to designate, as Blairites like Trevor Phillips would later claim, a policy of encouraging communities to live parallel but separate lives. When deployed by progressive local government bodies in the 70s and 80s, the term was generally taken to imply a policy which assumed that interaction and intermixing between different cultural and ethnic groups, in order to build general cross-community solidarity, was the ultimately desired objective. It was a cosmopolitan acknowledgement of the inevitably hybrid nature of all identities, of what Stuart would call, quoting Salman Rushdie, ‘our mongrel selves’. This was an idea directly influenced by forms of ant-racist, anti-imperialist and Black Power politics, which always understood cosmopolitanism not simply as an end in itself, but as a necessary feature of any real culture of working class solidarity in a multi-ethnic society and an internationalised economy. The idea was never simply to give everyone an equal chance to become a successful liberal subject of advanced consumer capitalism.
The same can be said of radical forms of feminism and sexual politics. For example in the early 70s the British Gay Liberation Front famously rejected the terms of the Wolfenden report (the government report recommending the decriminalising of homosexual acts between consenting adults) because it was predicated on the classical liberal claim that sex was a private matter. Heavily influenced by the feminist assertion that ‘the personal is political’, the GLF argued for sexuality as a feature of human life that should be politicised and democratised – subject to open discussion, negotiation, experimentation and evaluation – not simply confined to the de-politicised sphere of the private. The women’s movement was always predicated on a set of similar claims that issues as intimate as sex itself must be up for discussion and debate, if it is to be possible to address the most basic and intense forms of oppression. At the same time, the movement made a set of claims and demands which, in countries like the US And the UK, have been achieved or not almost precisely to the extent that they can be contained within a neoliberal policy regime. Equal access to the labour market for qualified professional women without children? Pretty much. Socialised free 24-hour childcare? Forget it.
Despite the obvious gaps between these democratic aspirations and what neoliberal cosmopolitanism was prepared to offer, the voices still calling for the former became very weak and isolated in the 1990s and 2000s. Even in relatively protected areas such as universities, forms of personalised identity politics often substituted for any kind of movement-oriented radicalism. There were many reasons for this and the main one was the sheer weakness of the global Left after the massive defeats that it suffered in the mid 1980s. My purpose here is not blame anyone for this situation, but to understand its effects.
One such consequence was that there was no collectivist alternative offered to those other social constituencies who increasingly found themselves losing out from the implementation of Third-Way cosmopolitan neoliberalism. Working class citizens in impoverished post-industrial regions not only did not see any serious attempts to rebuild their local economies, but experienced rising levels of immigration, especially from countries joining the EU from the former Soviet bloc, as an uninvited imposition. As such, and with much encouragement from the popular press, it easily became an explanation and a metonym for all of their grievances and sense of disenfranchisement.
I think it is essential to be very careful and clear in our analysis of what takes place in such situations. There are clearly important strands of genuine racism and genuine xenophobia (though I’m not sure that the two are always the same thing) informing British political culture, as Stuart showed us with such extraordinary acuity. But I think that these strands are often quite latent and are often activated by other, more immediate grievances. And in this case I think the grievance is one which is simply barely registered by a broader political culture within which the very idea of democracy has suffered a degree of degradation, as liberal individualist norms have become so hegemonic as to be almost invisible. That grievance is simply this: nobody asked them. Nobody asked these people if they wanted a significant cultural recomposition of their communities and nobody talked to them about why it might be happening and why it might be beneficial or necessary and on what terms it might be managed so as to make it feel like less of an immediate threat.
Community, Democracy, Liberalism
I know that many people reading me say this will already be feeling uncomfortable, even slightly shocked, and I would ask you to reflect for a moment on why that might be the case. If I were talking about the members of a housing co-op, then the idea that they might be consulted before new members join their community would not be seen as shocking by anyone. So why is it shocking to consider the possibility that members of an ordinary local community might be given some such say? We might tell ourselves that it is because of our fear that such communities might make decisions informed by racism or xenophobia. I have several responses to make to this.
The first is that I’m not sure that is the reason for a certain basic, intuitive rejection of this idea from many middle-class British people, including those who might think of themselves as left-wing. I would suggest that in fact the first reason for such a response is that many of our assumptions – too many – are shaped by a tradition of liberal individualism which has a very impoverished idea of the public, while regarding the domain of the private as sacrosanct and inviolable. From this perspective, it is simply a vulgar idea to have any opinion at all about who your neighbours are. One is supposed to be supremely indifferent to the question of whether one has any cultural commonality with them, because to have any feeling at all about the matter is to break the cardinal rule of minding one’s own business. Of course, minding one’s own business is much easier for a homeowner with a private garden than a council-flat occupant whose only outdoor spaces is a park shared with all of their neighbours. But that is precisely why both traditional liberalism and neoliberal individualism tend to the view that, among other things, nobody can really be a successful human being if they are not a homeowner with a private garden.
Of course for most people reading to this, there will be something much more complicated going on. Most of us live in highly multi-cultural and international urban environments and we positively welcome it. We are not just indifferent to having neighbours who might be different from ourselves. We actively welcome it as an enriching, educational and entertaining aspect of our lives. The lack of any direct input into the question of how our communities are composed is not experienced by us as directly disempowering, because we have the resources – educational, social, cultural and material – which enable us to benefit directly from a culture of free movement and to constitute robust networks of friendship and support which are not dependent on locality. We don’t need strong local ties but where we are able to form them, we get a special and real sense of empowerment from our ability to do so despite and across differences of culture, ethnicity, age and ideology.
The problem is that people who don’t have those resources, outside of the metropolitan centres, do not experience the situation in the same way, and they generally do not get much sympathy from us when they express that. What they have experienced, at least until recently, is a culture in which various agents – from government and corporations to whatever representatives of the metropolitan left they might happen to encounter – are basically just telling them that they ought to be more like them, and more like us; and that if they were, then everything would be all right. And I think that we, the metropolitan left, have been largely complicit with this. We have been complicit with a situation in which neoliberal cosmopolitanism has been imposed on communities both as an ideology and as the lived reality of immigration appearing to lead to increased competition for access to resources. We have been complicit mainly because we have been too weak and disorganised to be anything else, but partly because we didn’t really have a problem with cosmopolitanism being imposed on people – even if it was neoliberal cosmopolitanism – because we believe very sincerely that cosmopolitanism as such is a good thing.
Well, with the Brexit vote, as with Trump’s election in the US, we have come up against the limit of this complicity. At the same time, the metropolitan Left, in the form of Corbynism in the UK, the Sanders campaign in the US, and the new left in various parts of Europe has already withdrawn its consent for the broad cosmopolitan-neoliberal consensus. So it is no surprise at all that, with the power of the right-wing press behind it, it is the anti-cosmopolitanism of the Brexit agenda which has made the most headway amongst those disenfranchised voters. The question is – what can we do about it?
For Democratic Cosmopolitanism
The answer, I think, is to return to the animating spirit of the New Left. This spirit will always insist on politicising and democratising issues which conservatism, liberalism, neoliberalism and Labourism (to name, I think, all four of Stuart’s key objects of opposition throughout his career) would like to keep locked in a discursive space which is de-politicised and not democratic. Because let’s be clear about this. When the Right ‘plays the race card’ (to use an appropriately vintage term for such an antiquated manoeuvre), they do not, as some liberals like to object, ‘politicise’ race or immigration in any real sense. They do not open these issues up for interrogation and examination – they merely seek to use them to close down any proper discussion of the issues at stake. Our response should not be merely a liberal depoliticisation of the issues to counter a conservative depoliticisation – it should be a proper politicisation of them. Most importantly this would mean we, the metropolitan Left, developing, or recovering a robust democratic politics which is cosmopolitan, but without predicating that cosmopolitanism on any commitment to liberalism.
What this would mean in practice would be something complex, uncertain, possibly frightening, something, to misuse another famous phrase of Stuart’s, ‘without guarantees’. In short it would mean demanding and initiating processes whereby communities around the country could actually be engaged in meaningful discussion about issues such as globalisation, the EU, international conflict, etc, and empowered to take some ownership over the policies affecting the composition of their own communities, while being given access to information about these issues through channels not controlled by Murdoch, Dacre et al. It would mean opening ourselves up to the risk that there might be genuine racism and xenophobia out there, as Stuart always said there was, but also having enough confidence in our own convictions to believe that we could actually win support for our positions if we articulated them explicitly, rather than having some distorted neoliberal version of them imposed on unwilling communities on our behalf.
The importance of recognising this as a distinctive position has never been greater than it is today. We can see this if we consider the problems inherent in most of the available responses to the political and social changes to which I have referred. There have effectively been two such types of response prevalent on the political Left in Britain in recent times. The first is simply to insist that Blair was right – in the world of the twenty-first century, we face a choice between a cosmopolitan neoliberalism and various kind of revanchist nativism; nothing else is really on the table. Neoliberal cosmopolitan centrists, such as Macron in France, present themselves as the only realistic bulwark against a rising tide of proto-fascism, and their projects as the only achievable form of modernisation. Where they cannot plausibly play that role any longer, they appear willing to allow the Right to gain ascendancy rather than permit the Left to take leadership of a new coalition which might resist conservative nationalism. The Parliamentary Labour Party’s sabotage of the Corbyn project – and The Democratic National Committee’s strenuous efforts to prevent Sanders from winning the presidential nomination, despite polls showing that he would have beaten Trump amongst the very blue-collar voters who eventually handed him the White House – followed precisely the same logic.
The other typical response to the situation that we have been describing is one which argues for the Left actively to reject cosmopolitan values in favour of some kind of progressive nativism. In the UK, advocates for ‘Blue Labour’ have argued that the Labour Party should present itself as the protector of communities whose integrity and way of life have been threatened by globalisation, neoliberalism and multiculturalism, advocating for immigration controls on the grounds that free movement of labour only facilitates the exploitation of workers. Perhaps the most intellectually ambitious thinker to have been associated with this current, Jon Cruddas M.P., specifically identifies cosmopolitanism with the politics of Blairism and other ‘Third Way’ projects of the 1990s. Cruddas makes a strong case that the Left simply cannot entirely abandon ‘ownership of political categories such as home, community and nation’ to the political Right. Although he explicitly argues for an ‘inclusive’ patriotism, Cruddas seems to counterpose this to any form of cosmopolitanism.
The problem with this approach, as interesting as it is, is that it tends to argue as if neoliberal cosmopolitanism were the only form of cosmopolitanism that had ever existed or could ever be imagined. But this rather seems to overlook the possibility that communities might have coherent relationships to each other, to their localities and their histories, which are also informed by a commitment to open relationships with others. The history of human culture is full of examples of violent and exclusive tribalism, but it also furnishes many examples of cultures wherein hospitality to strangers is regarded a key normative ethic. Critics of contemporary cosmopolitanism seem to struggle with taking seriously the fact that for many inhabitants of cities like London and Glasgow – including many poor and working-class people – cosmopolitanism is just as real and authentic a characteristic of our identities, our histories and our communities as localism and nativism might be for others.
In fact this is a key reason why the emergence of Corbynism came as such a shock to so many political commentators: they simply didn’t believe, and still don’t believe, that the culture of the metropolitan left has any kind of reality or existential purchase. In this, they are simply, demonstrably mistaken. There is a long history of what Stuart, among others called ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ – what Mica Nava has called ‘visceral cosmopolitanism’ – in the everyday lives and popular culture of urban and suburban Britain, which cannot be dismissed from any attempt to make sense of that history or the culture which it has produced.
What I’m arguing, in short, is that while neoliberal cosmopolitanism clearly has to be rejected, it would be a mistake to throw out the cosmopolitan baby with the neoliberal bathwater. The alternative is for us to reclaim the idea of a democratic cosmopolitanism. By ‘democratic’ it is crucial to appreciate that we cannot simply mean ‘demotic and widely available’. A widely-available demotic cosmopolitanism is precisely what cosmopolitan neoliberalism offers as one of the principle rewards for participation in contemporary consumer culture. Anybody can buy themselves a bit of cosmopolitan culture – ordering a take-away, taking a cheap holiday, downloading music from around the world – provided they have the means. A democratic cosmopolitanism must imply something more than this. ‘Democratic’ in this sense must designate a certain rejection of individualism and privatised culture in favour of the idea that people should be able to deliberate, make decisions and take action as members of groups, about the things that affect their lives. The appeal of Brexit for almost everyone who voted for it is the feeling – however misplaced – of democratic efficacy that it offers them. It’s no accident that ‘take back control’ became the Brexit slogan. The Left will never counter it without offering people more control than Brexit does. But there is no future either for the Left in going along the with fairy-tale that the democratic agency people so desperately want will actually accrue to them simply by virtue of laving the European Union. Only a truly democratic politics, willing to confront entrenched inequalities of power in both the economy and our venerable political institutions, could take us beyond the current impasse for the Left.
What would it even mean to make such a politics the basis for a political programme in relation to issues such as Brexit and UK immigration policy? I don’t claim to have all the answers to this question, but I do insist that it is the right question, and that is a start. I suspect that any political programme informed by this analysis would have to begin with our leaders acknowledging both that the Brexit vote was a democratic one which must be accorded some legitimacy, and the demonstrable fact that it was shaped by a 30-year campaign of propaganda and misinformation by the right-wing press. I suspect that policy ideas which have barely been discussed in this country, such as the regional devolution of immigration policy, would have to be considered. If Stoke wants to reject immigrants but London wants to welcome them, then why not? Perhaps this would force government to address the desperate inequality within urban centres like London, rather than effectively forcing immigrants to move to parts of the country where property and labour are cheap. Obviously all kinds of objections could be made to such an idea, but this is merely an example. I strongly suspect that a government committed to the kind of project that I am proposing would have to implement a large-scale programme of political education and public deliberation in order to try to overcome the demonstrable ignorance of the public on a number of crucial issues, before making any attempts to shift the political direction away from euroscpetic nativism. Either way, these are the kinds of questions which a democratic cosmopolitanism would raise, and that almost nobody in mainstream British politics is raising today at all. A rare and valuable exception, deserving of all our support, has been the Take Back Control project (https://takebackrealcontrol.com/about/) organised by The World Transformed (http://theworldtransformed.org) an inspiring and inspired series of participatory political education events organised specifically in Leave-voting areas this year.
Such a politics must obviously take seriously the conditions which gave rise to Brexit and the reasons why so many have been alienated from the cosmopolitan neoliberal agenda of the Third Way. This is why I doubt that those political and social groups still committed to that project and its assumptions are ever likely to be sympathetic to a genuinely democratic alternative, however genuinely cosmopolitan it may be. Their inability and unwillingness to process the situation was made clear during the period immediately following the Brexit vote, when Labour MPs and their supporters took to blaming Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed lack of enthusiasm during the Referendum campaign for the failure of enough working class voters to support Remain.
This is a position so absurd that it is difficult to discuss it in measured terms. For one thing, it was put forward by precisely the same sets of people who repeatedly complained that Corbyn could not connect with ‘ordinary’ voters (so how would his greater enthusiasm for EU membership have persuaded them?). More fundamentally, it simply ignored altogether all of the history which I have referred to here, as well as ignoring some key contextual facts. One of these was Corbyn’s historic euroscpeticism, which he had never hidden. Another was the fact that the referendum campaign was being fought while memories were still fresh – especially on the radical Left – of Syriza’s humiliation by the EU heads of state. This understandably dampened the enthusiasm of many on the Labour left for EU membership, or at least their emotional ability to campaign vigorously for it.
It was clear enough, given how irrational it was, that this blaming of Corbyn was never motivated by any genuine belief that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault. In actuality it was motivated by the fact that, to a certain cosmopolitan neoliberal elite, Corbyn represented something similar to Brexit. What both Corbyn’s capture of the Labour leadership, and Leave’s victory in the referendum, represented, was the end of their capacity to dictate the political and cultural agenda for the UK, including the Labour Party. This was a privilege which they had long since come to take for granted, and they are never likely to be reconciled to giving up any of those privileges at all. That is why, in the medium to long term, I suspect that a democratic cosmopolitan politics is more likely to find support amongst the working-class communities who recently voted Leave than among the furious disenfranchised elites who assumed that EU-membership, like control of the Labour Party, would always be their birthright. It is never likely to be in their material interests to endorse a genuinely democratic, genuinely egalitarian form of cosmopolitan politics
But I think that this is precisely the kind of politics that Stuart’s analyses and their informing assumptions were always implicitly committed to – experimental, future-oriented, and radically democratic; never merely defensive, never merely complacent with the limited forms of liberation offered to us by advanced consumer capitalism. Stuart’s analyses of authoritarian populism in the popular press of the 70s remain astonishingly relevant today. Brexit is simply the ultimate end result of exactly the campaign for right-wing xenophobic populism which he saw beginning then and which, frankly, the Left has never had any organised plan to counter. His arguments for a politics of New Times which would be radically democratic, technologically liberated, egalitarian and cosmopolitan at the same time remain more relevant than ever in a moment when the emergence of ‘platform capitalism’ makes both the possibilities of such a future, and the dangers implicit in every possible alternative to it, more vivid and immediate than ever. As we carry on the struggles for democracy, for justice, for cosmopolitanism and for socialism, into the 21st century, there will be no more important set of tools than those he has left us with, for many years to come.
 I see from a quick google search that I didn’t invent this phrase. Peter Gowan has used it widely, but more in the International Relations sense of ‘cosmopolitanism’, designating an internationalist approach to relations between states, than in the sense of specific particular modes of living in specific local environments – see https://newleftreview.org/II/11/peter-gowan-neoliberal-cosmopolitanism. Emily Johansen uses the phrase in a much more similar way to how I am using it here, in her 2015 article ‘The Banal Conviviality of Neoliberal Cosmopolitanism’ in Textual Practice , Volume 29, No.2, London: Taylor & Francis.
 Stuart Hall (1978) ‘Racism and Reaction’; (1982) ‘The Empire Strikes Back’; (1992) ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ in Stuart Hall (2017) Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays. Durham: Duke University Press.
 Selected Political Writings pp. 275-82.
 Selected Political Writings chapters 5,9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 21
 See http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/reclaiming-modernity-beyond-markets-beyond-machines/
 Nava, Mica (2007) Visceral Cosmopolitanism: London, Bloomsbury.
 https://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1634_sri-perceptions-and-reality-immigration-report-2013.pdf; http://www.septicisle.info/labels/migrants.html; http://www.anorak.co.uk/422965/news/hurrah-for-the-migrants-daily-mail-cheers-for-murderous-scrounging-asylum-seeking-scum.html; Peter J Anderson ‘A Flag of Convenience? Discourse and Motivations of the London-Based Eurosceptic Press’ in European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History and Politics, Volume 20, Number 1, 1 January 2004, pp. 151-170(20); Oliver Daddow ‘The UK media and ‘Europe’: from permissive consensus to destructive dissent’ in International Affairs 88: 6 (2012) 1219–1236
 Stuart Hall (1989) ‘The Meaning of New Times’ in Selected Political Writings.
 https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/sites/default/files/nf8485_11murray_gilbert_goffey.pdf; Nick Srnicek (2016) Platform Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity
1st July 2020 / Audio
By: Caetano Maschio Santos
1st July 2020 / Audio
Caetano Maschio Santos on Haitian immigrant artists in Brazil
By: Caetano Maschio Santos
SHF DPhil Scholar's Caetano Santos talk 'Haitian immigrant artists in Brazil: diasporic negotiations of belonging and citizenship,...