Stuart Hall is one of the most profound cultural theorists of the 20th century. However, recent rediscoveries of Marx, Engels, and other earlier thinkers often overshadow the work that later theorists did to move the tradition of Marxism forward. First published in 1988 in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, Stuart Hall’s essay “Gramsci and Us” raised questions that linked the theories of Anontio Gramsci with the conservative revolution of Margaret Thatcher. It goes without saying that it offers a different analytical framework for the Trump era, one that uses concepts such as conjuncture, hegemony, ‘authoritarian populism,’ and ‘regressive mordernisation’ to understand political power. Hall’s main point was that political power cannot be understood without examining shifts in the cultural and ideological terrain of politics. Furthermore, he understood that power required understanding the ‘common sense’ that everyday people use to think through their struggles for daily existence.
Reexamining culture does not mean reigniting the culture wars of the 80s, and 90s. It means developing a sharper analysis of the impact of culture on the wider class struggle. Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall showed that political coalitions gain power through cultural hegemony – the shaping of thoughts, beliefs, and values by the ruling class in order to dominate society through consent. Hegemony gives coalitions the mandate to carry out a given political project such as free market capitalism, New Deal-style programs, or neoliberal reforms. Ruling class hegemony masks contradictory interests within and between classes by concealing exploitation with imagery, slogans, and nationalist sentiment. As Stuart Hall suggested, a more holistic understanding of power is necessary: “The nature of power in the modern world is that it is also constructed in relation to political, moral, intellectual, cultural, ideological, sexual questions. The question of hegemony is always the question of a new cultural order.” The cultural terrain is not just a conflict over moral preferences, such as reproductive rights, school curriculum, gun control, and separation between church and state. The cultural terrain is an ideological struggle. Fundamentally, it is a struggle between competing visions of how the world works.
Historical eras develop a revolutionary character when ideas that were once fresh and innovative are no longer accepted by the general public due to given circumstances. At its root, this cultural analysis is material, because the circumstances are almost certainly economic. In American history, economic contradictions inevitably lead to profound changes.
Throughout much of the early 19th century, Southern slaveholders held immense control over the branches of the American government. The Mexican American War and the debates over expansion of slavery led to profound disagreements over the future of the country. Eventually, this slaveocracy was overthrown by the Republican party, leading to abolition of human property and the radical reforms of Reconstruction. The intensification of political crises in the 1850s made it impossible to avoid the issue of slavery. Parties that tried to avoid the issue of slavery either split – like the antebellum era Democratic party – or faded into existence all together – such as the Whig Party.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the overwhelming power of big business reached its climax with the laissez-faire fundamentalism of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Hoover refused to accept that “business as usual” was no longer sustainable, even as millions of Americans sank deeper and deeper into extreme forms of poverty. In that historical moment, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was embraced by a wide array of social groups who feared the complete collapse of capitalism all together. The economic crisis of the Great Depression gave Roosevelt a mandate for a political transformation. In the end, the ‘New Deal Consensus’ lasted until the 1970s, when the crisis of inflation and economic competition – from rising industrial powers such as Japan and Germany – precipitated hyper-privatization under neoliberalism.
These are not only revolutionary moments in history, but moments of ‘reconstruction’ when the reorganization of social groups leads to opportunities for new ideological projects. As Stuart Hall explained:
There is nothing more crucial, in this respect, than Gramsci’s recognition that every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction; that, historically nothing is dismantled without also attempting to put something new in its place; that every form of power not only excludes but produces something.
What is new during each ‘reconstruction’ takes an ideological form. In this case, the most visible form of ideology is culture. Stuart Hall drew on Gramsci in order to understand the political and ideological development of economic interests. Using Gramsci, Hall pointed out that class interests are not reflexive representations of immediate needs. The aesthetic appeal of conservative ideology is its veneer of loss, masochistic austerity, and nationalist redemption. Where there is loss, there is something to be regained. Hall saw this in Thatcherism:
“…Thatcherism, as an ideology, addresses the fears, the anxieties, the lost identities, of a people. It invites us to think about politics in images. It is addressed to our collective fantasies, to Britain as an imagined community, to the social imaginary.”
The feeling of loss is not necessarily a basic need, but it is also not ‘false consciousness.’ What becomes clear in “Gramsci and Us” is how the political vision of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump can be both revolutionary and reactionary:
In our intellectual way, we think that the world will collapse as the result of a logical contradiction: this is the illusion of the intellectual – that ideology must be coherent, every bit of it fitting together, like a philosophical investigation. When, in fact, the whole purpose of what Gramsci called an organic (i.e. historically effective) ideology is that it articulates into a configuration different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations. It does not reflect, it constructs a ‘unity’ out of difference.
Conservatives have a long history of appearing contradictory and inconsistent. Their ideological peculiarities are not simply a ‘Rorschach Test’ that comfortingly reflects people’s needs. The right uses contradiction to bring together different class interests under one banner. It reinvents the timeless conservative vision, hiding its reactionary character, and presents it as something new.
John Forte is a high school social studies teacher, a union activist, and a DSA member living in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.