3rd February 2021
4th Annual Stuart Hall Public Conversation - Movement and Stillness: Art in a Time of Crisis and Upheaval
Join us in welcoming three of Britain’s leading artists and poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson and Jay Bernard as they come together...
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
11th October 2020 / Article
The Coronavirus Pandemic and its Meanings
By: Michael Rustin
the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020
This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.
In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.___
The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).
How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.
Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.
There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.
It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.
It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.
These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.
Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.
The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.
It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.
A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.
The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.
We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).” These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.
Psychological Aspects of the Crisis
So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.
Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).
I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.
Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.
Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.
The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.
I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.
However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2). Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.
Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .
This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:
- The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
- In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
- In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
- In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.
Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.
And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?
- This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.
Adorno, T. (1951/1978) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951) reprinted in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Blackwell (1978) pp 118-137.
Bauman, Z. “Freudian Civilisation Revisited: or Whatever happened to the reality principle?” (2009) Journal of Anthropological Psychology No. 21, 2009, Department of Psychology Aarhus University pp 1-9. https://psy.au.dk/fileadmin/Psykologi/Forskning/Forskningsenheder/Journal_of_Anthropological_ Psychology/Volume_21/target.pdf
Beck,U. (2000) What is Globalisation? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bion, W.R. (1975) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.
Castells, M. (1998) The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, Vols 1, 2 and 3. Oxford: Blackwell.
Gellner E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement. London: Paladin.
Gellner, E. (1995) “Freud’s Social Contract”. in Anthropology and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 62-93.
Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hall, S. and Massey, D. (201) “Interpreting the Crisis”. Soundings 44, pp. 57-71.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law & order. Basingstone: Palgrave/Macmillan
Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell
Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.
Massey, D. (2002) ‘Globalisation: what does it mean for geography?’, Geography, 87, 4, 293-6 https://think-global.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/dea/documents/dej_9_2_massey.pdf
Nussbaum, M. and Sen. A. (eds.) (1993) The Quality of Life. Oxford:: Oxford University Press.|O’Toole, F. (2019) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London : Apollo.
Rosenberg, Justin (2013) “The ‘Philosophical Premises’ of Uneven and Combined Development.” Review of International Studies, 39 (3). pp. 569-597
Rustin, M.J. (2016) “Sociology and Psychoanalysis”, in A. Elliott and J. Prager (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. pp 259-277.
Rustin, M.J. (2019) “Is there an alternative to reactionary modernisation?” Soundings 71, pp 116-127.
Rustin, M.E. and M.J. (2017) Reading Klein. London: Routledge.
Segal, H. (1973/1988) Introduction to the Thought of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.
Trotsky,L. (1932/) The Russian Revolution. New York: Simon Schuster..
Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Williams, R. ((1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 128-136.
Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock
Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections
between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)
and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:
Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),
Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child
Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of
Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
8th April 2020 / Article
Offline Responses to an Online World
By: Priya Sharma
what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
This paper focuses on the current theme of offline response that is the result of research conducted on digital identity work and labour amongst queer and female British South Asian Instagrammers. In this context, online space is defined as internet-based social media platforms and offline space refers to the local diaspora community or family in which the participant is embedded.
This quote from Christine Hine speaks to the complex ways in which we navigate our way through these online and offline spaces:
‘ The internet has brought us together in myriad new ways, but still much of the interpretive work that goes on to embed it into people’s lives is not apparent on the Internet itself, as its users weave together highly individualized and complex patterns of meaning out of these publicly observable threads of interaction.’
(Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday)
The image above is a screenshot taken from Instagram. It is a doctored image of Gandhi as the devil posted up to an account called SouthAsia Art. This image, along with others on this account are the result of an Indo-Fijian artist’s residency, where she has researched the plight of female South Asian indentured labourers in Fiji and Gandhi’s complicity with the British empire in deciding their fate. The offline conversations and activities that have resulted in this image go some way in highlighting these complex
patterns of meaning that Hine is talking about that aren’t obviously apparent on the internet alone. It would be interesting to gain an insight into the activity being done currently in Fiji around this forgotten history and the meetings and conversations that are taking place amongst the South Asian diaspora there. And it is the uncovering of a working-class female South Asian history, being done by female scholars from the diaspora that is at the heart of the activity behind this image. In this same vein, this research presents an opportunity for young British South Asians who exist outside of male, cis-gendered heteronormativity to reflect on and speak for themselves, about themselves and others who inhabit this online space. Just as the diaspora is recovering its histories, so too should it be allowed to articulate its present.
The decision to analyse participant responses was taken as opposed to analyses of digital content that users put up on their Instagram profiles as a different truth (and albeit one that is rarely researched) was found in participant’s reflections of this digital world. We know that we are beyond the point of the early days of tech utopia and simple empowerment online because the real-world systemic inequalities are perpetuated in the digital world. But what transformative elements of this world exist for its users? What are the limitations and barriers? How could participants explain, in their own words what this world represented to them? And in turn, what would these responses reveal about the wider South Asian diaspora in Britain today?
Thirty years after Stuart Hall’s discussion of ‘new ethnicities’, this paper is an attempt to try and think through the ways in which young female and queer British diaspora communities articulate themselves but also reflect on their digital selves and the issues that are confronted through their responses. Drawing on anonymised interviews conducted with 34 Instagrammers, this study attempts to make visible things that their digital content usually renders invisible.
Instagram is a photo and video sharing smartphone app launched in 2010 that enables an account holder to share content with followers who have chosen to subscribe to their account and vice versa. The particular sphere of Instagram the participants inhabit will be referred to as the South Asian Digital Diaspora space (the SADD space) throughout this paper. It is defined as a networked space that privileges articulations of gender, sexuality and culture through the lens of South Asian diaspora communities.
Many themes and issues were covered by participants in the interviews, but what stood out most were the anxieties and connections that lie behind the accounts within the SADD space. Here are some of the themes that really came to the fore and the ones that will be discussed in this paper:
- The private and public account
- Respectability politics
- Digital space invasion
- Racial neoliberalism
The private and public account
The private and public account theme was a prominent one amongst participants: this is where a user can choose to either make an Instagram account private so when someone clicks onto the account, they can’t see the content and have to put in a request to follow it. It is up to the account holder to grant them access to the content. A public account is open so anyone can view content when they click on the account. One participant talks about having a private account that ends up being infiltrated by what they term a ‘lurking profile’:
“So it’s typically a profile with not many posts at all, they follow more people than they are followed by and there’s often no profile picture and they just lurk and watch people’s stories. One of my friends alerted me coz people were making really homophobic comments about me in WhatsApp chats and I was like ‘oh damn’ I have to be careful. I blocked a lot of people after this and I thought it was a safe space because it was private but apparently it wasn’t. You don’t know whose watching, especially when you’re wanting to further your career and a lot of your art entails themes of queerness, there’s this sense of impending danger that you have lurking somewhere at the back of your mind. I think in one way, while Instagram is good in getting stuff out there, you also expose yourself which is difficult to navigate because you don’t know who’s watching.”
Another participant recently made her profile private after her comments on a photograph of a prominent Muslim Instagrammer sparked some outrage:
“There was an argument going on in somebody else’s comment section, as always! She [this famous instagrammer] wears her headscarf in quite a unique way so you can see a little bit of her hair. Then someone commented, a guy, who clearly didn’t know what he was on about saying ‘this is what fame does to you, you forget your morals, you forget your principles, you don’t wear the hijab correctly’ […] I said ‘that’s funny coming from you coz you’re a male and you don’t know the struggles of covering your hair’ […] he got angry at me and said ‘you don’t wear your hijab properly either’ and at that moment I realised for him to say that he’s seen my pictures on my Instagram […] it made me feel something, unsafe I think […] he’s looking at my photos and using that against me.”
Through these responses, we begin to understand how the public and private functions of the SADD space operate. Trying to articulate the intersections of your identity or defending another person’s can put you at risk. For the first participant, it was an ex-school friend who had created the ‘lurking profile’ – this friend had connections to the participant’s family and so there was risk of the offline world becoming an unsafe space for them. For the second participant, before this negative interaction, her profile had been public for a very long time meaning that the SADD space was where she felt safe. After this interaction, this space became unsafe.
To counter the public profile, private ones are made so there is a secret online life being lived alongside the offline life. This doubling of life isn’t new to those that have grown up in strict, conservative South Asian families, the difference is the detail that goes into this digital life and the constancy of it (you’re always carrying it around with you on your phone), which can create real anxiety for participants. The societal risks that exist within the offline and online South Asian community at large creates a barrier to self-representation for the participants, especially when it comes to issues around gender and sexuality.
This barrier to self-representation, even when challenged, can remain a barrier, the result being the self-censoring of content. Participants are held up to the politics of respectability in the SAAD space. This participant says:
“I know there’s been cases where my mum’s been like ‘take that down now’ because I’m too exposed, and my mum is very liberal. She’s like ‘your projecting the wrong image out there’ and basically compared me to being a sex worker”
The images we would see on this participant’s profile isn’t how she truly wants to be seen, but how her family will allow her to be seen. What this remark makes visible are these private conversations between parents and offspring that happen behind closed doors and influence the images in the SADD space. Even though this participant describes her mum as very liberal, she tells her daughter that she is projecting the ‘wrong’ image by posting up pictures of herself in what she considers provocative clothing, equating the showing of flesh to sex work, which is very problematic for reasons we don’t have time for today . This participant’s notion of parental liberalism, or her mother’s liberalism, permits her to do things, like wear a short skirt and drink as long as it is done away from the community, that it remains invisible. And that no trace of it exists in the SADD space.
This idea of the ‘wrong image’ is echoed in this participant’s answer:
“I’m not going to say I censor it, but I can very easily choose certain issues that I know spark some kind of outrage within my parents’ communities – I would avoid those deliberately. I’m not gonna talk about my personal life so there’s nothing essentially on my profile that would make people think ‘oh my god, look what your daughter’s doing’. What am I doing? I’m just posting photos, so there’s not really anything wrong that I’m doing.”
This participant subconsciously conflates her personal life with doing something wrong – the personal: i.e: the emotional, the intimate is made to feel wrong in the SADD space, so is best kept invisible.
The SADD space is a space of self-representation that can end up being externally policed by those outside of it, especially when it comes down to articulations of sexuality, gender and lifestyle. One way of making the SADD space safe is to make it private, but even then, as demonstrated earlier, it can be infiltrated. So how can participants navigate these complex online/offline relations with some ease?
Digital space invasion
One participant said that the SADD space gave her the confidence to be more vocal about who is she within her local community:
“I think for the confidence levels and the confidence to be outspoken and political and to kind of take that change and put it back into the community as well. I’ve been able to, rather than living that entirely online, I have been able to take that back out and because I’ve shown that side of myself publicly on the internet, now it’s allowed me to show that person to the people I see in the community who’ve seen it on Instagram.”
There is an awareness that this approach comes with risk of confrontation or worse, but it demonstrates one way that these anxieties can be relieved. This approach comes down to how safe somebody already feels within their offline community.
The popularity of the SADD space goes beyond articulations of self to demonstrate the ways in which participants circumvent the traditional cultural industries, making them space invaders of industries that have historically rejected or compromised the work of British South Asian creatives, as Nirmal Puwar writes:
“As we witness a number of policy initiatives under the banner of ‘diversity’, the ‘guarded’ tolerance in the desire for difference carries in the unspoken small print of assimilation a ‘drive for sameness’. Through these processes the kind of questions that are asked as well as the voices that are amenable to being heard within the regular channels of the art world, academia, or other fields of work, can become seriously stunted.” (Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, 2004)
This digital invasion of the cultural industries has forcibly opened up a space of difference without compromise and industry gatekeeping. One participant runs her business entirely through the SADD space and has relied on it heavily to gain recognition and get work, promoting herself specifically as a South Asian tattoo artist:
“I used my Instagram as my portfolio when I was looking for tattooing apprenticeships, and I was lucky enough to have found the apprenticeships I had because of Instagram. I used to be an apprentice at the studio I now own and they had offered me a job there because they saw and liked my work on Instagram.”
Participants have stated that they have gotten art and writing commissions, exhibitions, collaborations and job opportunities off the back of the SADD space and they also make a point of supporting each other through it:
“I’ve been able to connect with some really lovely people locally because of it and have been able to show up to events that were exclusively advertised on IG and learn about a lot of underrated hyperlocal culture that I felt needed visibility as well.”
Staying culturally true to yourself, connecting with others like you, not giving in to dominant whiteness and still financially succeeding by way of bypassing traditional gatekeepers is undeniably empowering for members of the SADD space.
However, it could be argued that this space, as a social media platform could be described as a cultural industry, whereby the processes of cultural production of British South
Asian identity are not without their problems. Under the racial neoliberal address, there is a call for a shift from the politics of representation to a politics of production (Anamik Saha, Race and the Cultural Industries, 2018), the constraints of which appear largely invisible within the SADD space. On a platform like Instagram, you can feel like you are in control of the processes of production behind your self-representation without having to question it further. This is a platform that has approached participants to sell products, that exists on an economy of likes and sponsorship deals and I think to not interrogate these processes of capitalist production further is to do a disservice to Stuart Hall’s conception of a politics of representation – we mustn’t forget the political. When we do, we begin to see the essentialising effects of the neoliberal processes of production, churning out what we believe to be our own truths, as one participant puts it:
“There’s this South Asian monolithic nation project happening out there which I think is something that I’m quite cautious about because I think that growing up in this country, a lot of South Asians, you’re growing up with loads of people from diasporas and to self – exoticise yourself sometimes because it does go to that at points, there is a real risk because with this collective consciousness which is coming about on Instagram, there is a convergence of more niche people into this bigger aesthetic in order to get recognition to be a part of that project.”
The convergence of South Asian religious and ethnic identities within the SADD space (usually Hindu/Punjabi and middle-class), removes the potential for a radical politics of representation, but this essentialism is not lost on some participants who inhabit the SADD space, which is promising.
Conversely, these processes of production are significant to users because the aforementioned religious and patriarchal barriers present much more of an oppression compared to that of capitalist neoliberal processes of production, which offer a type of safety and freedom to allow participants to be honest without major consequence. As recognised by some participants, these neoliberal forms of self-representation do not offer a long-term solution to systemic oppressions, but it also cannot be denied that the SADD space can be an affirming space for many of its users; this positive response from one participant is a reminder that ultimately we are all searching for ways to belong:
“It makes so much difference to know there are also other south Asians living alternative lifestyles, helping and supporting one another. Giving visibility to and sharing content from these accounts is important to me because I’m trying to be the person I needed when I was younger.”
"The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south"
3rd February 2018 / Article
By: David Edgar
"The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south"
3rd February 2018 / Article
The First Stuart Hall Public Conversation: Opening Talk
By: David Edgar
The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south
"The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south"
Fifty years ago this January, the South Vietnamese Chief of Police shot dead a young man in a check shirt, at point blank range, in the streets of Saigon. For me, at 19, the photograph of this event had a double meaning. Of course, it showed starkly the casual brutality of the regime which the Americans were propping up. But it showed something else. The young man in the check shirt was not an innocent bystander, caught up in a stop and search raid. He was an officer in the National Liberation Front. He had been fighting – and killing – as part of the NLF’s Tet –or new year offensive, which fought its way to the outskirts of the US Embassy itself, threatening the headquarters of the mightest military machine on earth.
So, for me and millions like me, the lesson of Tet was not the victimhood of the Vietnamese but their heroism. Alongside the antiwar movement, it forced Lyndon Johnson to abandon his ambitions for a second full presidential term. It inspired the uprising in American cities which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, and the rebellion of students and workers in France in May. In August, it was emulated by protestors at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and supporters of the Prague Spring. It was captured on film again in October, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in protest against racism and for human rights during the men’s 200 metres medal ceremony at the Mexico Olympics.
It’s all the more odd, then, to be told that the most enduring legacy of 1968 was the neo- liberalism of the 1980s. Yet the idea that has become increasingly prevalent. It is the core thesis of conservative historian Dominic Sandbrook’s monumental history of postwar Britain, already
over 3,300 pages long in four volumes, and he’s only up to 1979. It’s the view of former 60s revolutionary Regis Debray, who now argues that the uprising of which he was a part let loose the ultra-capitalism of the 80s and 90s. Likewise, left-wing commentator, Anthony Barnett, argues in his Brexit book The Lure of Greatness that “the revolt that began in 1968 led to a renewal not of socialism but of capitalism”. In a Guardian article about the V&A’s 2016 exhibition about the late 60s counter-culture, You Say You Want a Revolution?, Polly Toynbee accepted that “out of all this revolution against ‘the system’ came a ‘me’ individualism that grew into neoliberalism”. The exhibition’s narrative began in swinging London and ended in Silicon Valley: its thesis was that Apple (Beatles) gave birth not to a new society but to Apple (Steve Jobs).
The idea that Thatcherism was somehow Tariq Ali’s fault would have seemed very surprising to the lady herself. In late March 1982, commenting on the Brixton riots of the summer before, Mrs Thatcher announced that “we are reaping what was sown in the sixties. The fashionable theories and permissive clap-trap set the set for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated”. Three years later, she grouped together a potpourri of 60s folk devils – striking teachers, football hooligans, left-wing local councillors, trade union pickets – as examples of the “enemy within”.
Mrs Thatcher’s ideological marriage of economic libertarianism and social conservatism was not new, or – really – hers. 2018 also sees the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech in Birmingham. In his remarkable series of lectures and articles about emergent Thatcherism in the late 70s, Stuart Hall identified Powell and Powellism as its progenitor. Concentrating on another Birmingham speech, in Northfield during the 1970 election, Stuart noted how Powell had first identified an “invisible enemy within”, consisting of students “destroying universities” and “terrorising cities”, the near destruction of civil society in Northern Ireland and the accumulation of “further combustible material” of “another kind”.
Thereby, as Stuart argued in his 1978 lecture Racism and Reaction, black people, their identity grounded in obviously visible and unalterable biological fact, “became the bearers, the signifiers of the crisis in British society in the 1970s”. Not for nothing did Conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne write, after Mrs Thatcher’s triumphant success in the 1983 general election, that “What is now Thatcherism was originally known as Powellism: bitter- tasting market economics sweetened and rendered palatable to the popular taste by great creamy dollops of nationalistic custard”. In Policing the Crisis, Stuart pointed out how – before the 1970 election – Edward Heath had squared the Powellite circle, by planning to combine what would later be called neoliberalism with the strong state that would be necessary to impose it, a strategy which would be implemented successfully through the British coalfield in 1984-5. As she mobilised the police against the miners, Mrs Thatcher was also using the power of the state to eliminate Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, which, as James Curran points out in the forthcoming Culture Wars, represented the most consistent effort of the graduates of the late 60s to put their ideals into practice, consulting with, empowering and enabling gay people, women, ethnic minorities and the (rapidly declining) manufacturing workforce of London.
In his writings on Thatcherism, Stuart frequently described the two wings of Thatcherism as an “unstable combination” of libertarian economics and social authoritarianism. Certainly, there were traditionalist conservatives, like Worsthorne, who thought that the problem with 70s Britain was not too little liberty but too much: in a 1978 essay collection of distinctly Thatcher-sceptic character, he insisted that the problem with Labour was “that it had set too many people far too free”. But, today, it is the mirror image of the Thatcher coalition – the progressive left cocktail of social liberalism and economic interventionism – which is under serious – some would say existential – threat.
The theoretical inconsistency of the cocktail was not a major political issue through most of the postwar period, when Labour’s traditional (and traditionalist) supporters were happy to vote in their economic interests, and to put up with the party’s programme of social reform; though much of that agenda, particularly as it related to women workers’ rights, was clearly in its interests as well. This deal was consciously broken by New Labour, whose rejection of Labour’s traditional economic agenda had real effects on working people’s lives. Real wages continued to stagnate or fall (though disguised by the rise in personal debt and the topping up of low wages by tax credits). The unions remained shackled by Mrs Thatcher’s trade union laws, as management consultants “modernised” the working practices of private and public sector workforces, reduced and reducing in size. Under Thatcherism, as Stuart wrote in 1991, there was “not a school, hospital, social service department, polytechnic or college in the country which has not been so remodelled”. Under New Labour, managerialism continued to challenge employee behaviour, “not by changing their minds but by changing their practices, and thus the ‘culture’”. Socially liberal, proudly neoliberal (and globalist) in economics, New Labour (following Bill Clinton) had redrawn the political fault-line.
Initially this strategy was successful. But between 1997 and 2001 Labour lost nearly three million votes, many from its working-class core. In 2005 it lost another million and half – a significant number from its liberal wing, appalled both by the Iraq war and by Labour’s consequent resiling from its progressive social agenda. In July 2004, Blair paraphrased Mrs Thatcher’s critique of the 1960s, as an era in which young people “were brought up without parental discipline, without proper role models and without any sense of responsibility”, calling for an “end to the 1960s liberal consensus”. While, as Stuart pointed out in 2011, the party that gave us the Human Rights Act went on to offer “widening surveillance, private policing and security firms, out-sourcing, the round-up and expulsion of visa-less migrants, imprisonment of terrorist suspects without trial, and ultimately complicity with rendition and a ‘cover-up’ of
involvement with torture”. In 2010, the civil liberties sections of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestoes were virtually identical (no ID cards, National Identity Register, children’s database, or retention of innocent people’s DNA). Labour’s manifesto didn’t have a civil liberties section at all.
So when – somewhat to its and his surprise – the electorate invited David Cameron to form a coalition between free market Liberals and socially liberal Conservatives, it appeared to promise a fulfilment of New Labour’s promise. The Blue Labour tendency, which combined traditional interventionist economics with faith, flag and family social conservatism – its guru Maurice Glasman called for a complete halt to immigration – was an attempt to build a coherent mirror-image alliance on the other side of the new faultline.
Meanwhile, and with much greater success, the traditional working-class was being targeted, across the continent and beyond, by the populist right, who had spotted that social- democracy’s vacation of left economics had created a vacuum which it set out to fill. From Warsaw to Wisconsin, parties which had hitherto combined reactionary populism with free market economics heaved their economic platforms to the left. Poland’s hitherto traditionalist Law and Justice Party transformed itself to a populist right party, opposing immigration but supporting the welfare state, and appealing thereby to working-class families who had lost out during the shock therapy marketisation of the 1990s. The Austrian Freedom Party, once hostile to welfare spending and in favour of raising the retirement age, reversed those positions. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party converted itself from free-market antistatism to a proponent of workers rights and the minimum wage. In France, Marine le Pen declared the Front National to be “France’s leading working-class party”.
In Britain, UKIP declared itself opposed both to big business and banking, came out against the bedroom tax, and dropped its earlier reservations about the NHS. As with New Labour before it, the coalition’s marriage of economic and social liberalism quickly morphed into a more traditional compound of neoliberal economics with – in Stuart’s glorious phrase –
“low-flying authoritarianism”. While Conservative ministers – particularly Theresa May at the Home Office – gave ample evidence of what would happen – from the snooper’s charter via Extremism Disruption Orders to repeal of the Human Rights Act – once they took to the open skies. Once again, in a government which combined the two, economic liberalism was sustained while the social liberal agenda withered.
And then came the referendum; in which, freed from traditional party contours, working-class electors were able to vote social-conservative without having to vote for the rest of the Conservative package as well. Like the rocks exposed by a lowering tide, the referendum was perceived as revealing an underlying hostility to social liberalism which had been there all along. Only a third of 2015 Labour voters voted Leave. But the strength of the Leave vote – and Ukip – led the newly crowned Theresa May and her advisors to target potential voters in Labour areas, hardening their stance on social issues while – to use a Stuartism – double-shuffling to the left on economics. In her first speech as Prime Minister, on the steps of Downing St, May promised to be on the side of what Ed Miliband had defined as the “squeezed middle” but which she rebranded as the “just about managing”.
Thus the Conservatives (along with right-populists on the continent) could position themselves as the direct mirror opposite of what was increasingly defined as a globalised, liberal, cosmopolitan elite. Hence May’s 2016 Conservative conference speech, in which she berated politicians who have “more in common with international elites than with the people down the road”, concluding that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. While, in the same month, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers”; including, no doubt, the bank from which he stuffed his cabinet. This conspiratorial model has, of course, its roots further to the right, where American Neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach calls for nationalists to “stand united against our common foes, the rootless international clique of globalists and bankers that wish to dominate all free people on the Earth”.
So, a year ago, the character of the conjuncture was clear. Abandoned by social democracy’s defection to neoliberalism, the left-behind half of the population was turning to right-populist parties offering a cocktail of mock-socialist economics and real social conservatism. In panic, Conservative parties sought to present a slightly watered down version of the cocktail. On the left, the socially progressive middle class split from its traditional working-class base. Clearly, when Theresa May called the election last spring – promising an adamantine Brexit and an attractive selection of Labour economic policies – she was on the way to a landslide.
Why didn’t it work? One reason was that – despite the apparent lesson of Brexit – the last 30 years has not seen a swing towards traditional values, but away from them. The much- touted correlation between Leave voting and belief in the death penalty is surely less significant than the fact that support for its restoration declined from 75% of the population in 1983 to under half today. There has been an extraordinary liberalisation in attitudes towards homosexuality, inter-racial marriage and extramarital sex. Published since the election, the latest British Social Attitudes survey confirms that support for same sex relationships has increased from 47% in 2012 to almost two thirds now.
But the BSA survey tells us something else, which is that attitudes to tax, spending and welfare have also moved dramatically to the left. So, support for raising taxes and expenditure, 32% in 2010, is now 48%. Support for more cuts has dwindled from 35% ten years ago to 29% today. Public opinion seems to be moving leftwards on social and economic issues at the same time. Hence, Labour increased its purchase on the higher-educated middle class. But it also won the young working class (70% of DEs aged between 18 and 34). And thus won three and a half million more votes in 2017 than it had won two years before.
And how does this relate to 1968 and its legacy? Well, Jeremy Corbyn was 19 in 1968 and became a London borough councillor in the early 70s; John McDonnell was 17 and later became
deputy leader of the GLC. In terms of personnel, the current Labour leadership is the 1968 generation gone grey. But what happened last summer was not about a year in politics, but a decade in which the 1960s compound of social emancipation and anti-capitalism had been renewed. Jeremy Corbyn’s 600,000-strong model army clearly owes much of its size and strength (and social media nouse) to the activist movements which emerged in 2011: the Day X protestors against the student fee hike; the schoolkids protesting the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance; Occupy and UK Uncut. Which in turn were the inheritors of 1968.
First, by being youth movements. The election may not have seen as big a growth in youth turnout as was originally estimated, but there was clearly a dramatic increase – for Ipsos Mori, 20% – in the numbers of young people voting Labour. The cross-over point from Labour to Tory is now well into middle age: if the slogan of the 60s was “don’t trust anyone over 30”, now it’s “don’t trust anyone over 47”.
Then there’s the fact that the movements of the 10s echo those of the 60s, in style and substance. From Wages for Housework to MeToo, from Black Power to Black Lives Matter, from “We are all foreign scum” to “We are all Khalid Said”, from yippies levitating the Pentagon to UK Uncut invading Fortnum and Mason, from Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, from Chicago’s Lincoln Park to the steps of London’s St Paul’s, the form and content of late 60s protest saw itself renewed nearly 50 years later.
It’s easy to see the differences between now and then: as Paul Mason notes, the 2011 Egyptian uprising was planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast on YouTub2. But it actually happened when people came together in a public space where – in the words of the Chicago yippies – the Whole World Was Watching. Led by the secular graduate young, the Egyptian revolution also mobilised the unionised Egyptian working class and the urban poor. MeToo challenges the lopsided gains and losses of the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s; it is at root a protest against the abuse of power in the workplace.
And the protestors of the 60s and the 10s both faced the state. The tactic of kettling first came to prominence when it was used against students on Day X. Undercover policemen infiltrated environmental groups as the FBI had infiltrated the Black Panthers. Electronic and online surveillance has increased massively, in fact and in law. In Europe’s Fault Lines, Liz Fekete argues persuasively that, in Hungary, Greece and elsewhere, the state not only colludes with the far-right ideologically, but has complied with it militarily, in policing neighbourhoods and borders. Both in action and reaction, our world echoes the world of 50 years ago.
Apart from the overthrow of the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan, the movements of 1968 won no direct political victory. But, as Stuart reminded us, one should not confuse the outcome of an event with its impact. The conjuncture which saw the desegregation of the American south, the bringing down of two presidents, and the birth of contemporary feminism, did indeed emancipate individuals. But those gains were won through collective protest, community and solidarity, by movements that were the enemy of the market state. And, guess what, they may be on the way back. Happy birthday, Stuart.
- John Lichfield: Egalite! Liberte! Sexualite! Paris, May 1968, Independent, 23 February 2008
- Antony Barnett: The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit & America’s Trump, p355
- Polly Toynbee: Did we baby boomers bring about a revolution in the 60s or just usher in neoliberalism?, Guardian, 8 September 2016
- Quoted in the Guardian, 18 March 1982
- Speech to the Conservative Central Council, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 23 March 1985
- Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p152-3
- Peregrine Worsthorne, Sunday Telegraph, 12 June 1983
- Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p159-61
- Ibid, p210
- Maurice Cowling (ed): Conservative Essays, p147-8
- Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p269
- Ibid, p307-8
- Guardian, 20 July 2004, quoted in Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good, pxv
- Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p327-8
- Liz Fekete: Europe’s Fault Lines, p118
- Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings, p295
- David Neiwart: Alt-America, p307
- Ibid, p242
- Guardian, 28 June 2017
- Britain Election Sudy Team: The myth of the 2017 youthquake election, 29 January 2018
- Paul Mason: Why It’s Kicking Off All Over, p13