Features > Politics
24 February 2021
Andrew Pearmain is a retired schoolteacher and social work manager, and still practising historian, recently moved back to London to help with his grandchildren (and enjoy his own second childhood with them). He was a prominent member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, briefly in the Labour Party, but currently loosely aligned with the Greens.
Andrew Pearmain’s biography of Antonio Gramsci, the first in English for over forty years, was recently published by I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury.
More politics …
- Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick / Transforming toxic power relations (Part 1, Theory) and (Part 2) – Relational politics
- Simon Barrow / Where stands the left in the SNP?
- David Beetham / Authoritarian populism versus democracy: the political challenge of our time
- David Purdy / A period of reflection
From hustle to jostle: Gramsci in the culture wars
Andrew Pearmain argues that the growth of identity politics is a denial of commonality, a concept that should be central to the politics of the left
IN 2003, I interviewed the renowned Gramscian cultural theorist Stuart Hall, as part of the research for my PhD, subsequently published as The Politics of New Labour (2011). We focussed on the then thirty year development of Thatcherism, from its obscure early 1970s beginnings in far right thinktanks on the fringes of the Conservative Party to the hegemonic new world order of neoliberal globalisation. Hall had done much to define what it all meant, with “The Great Moving Right Show” (1978) and subsequent articles in the Communist Party-sponsored magazine Marxism Today collected in The Hard Road to Renewal (1989). Along the way, we saw the emergence of what would become known as “identity politics”, as social categories and personal labels shifted from the traditional terrain of class, defined by collective economic power and standing – all that classical Marxist stuff about the proletariat and bourgeoisie, or even the politer social-democratic categories of working, middle and upper classes – to the more individual characteristics of race, gender and sexuality.
Antonio Gramsci, leader of the Italian Communist Party, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the fascist regime in 1927
One of Hall’s most memorable insights, for me at least, was summed up in the term “hustle”, as the means by which people from minority ethnic communities made their way through the competitive arenas of radical individualism in the 1980s and ’90s, succeeding in areas of society, culture and the economy – primarily sport and music, and to a lesser extent fashion – previously dominated by white people. In the process a series of concessions and compromises were granted and exacted – what Antonio Gramsci would have recognised as “trasformismo” or “transformism”, the adaptation and absorption of resistance in order to neutralise opposition and refresh the ruling elite – to achieve and consolidate measures of success for the radical individuals involved. In broader political terms, as Slavoj Zizek would later gleefully point out, these forms of cultural resistance are useless or even counter-productive.
Foremost amongst these compromises was the ready acceptance of capitalism’s imperatives of commercial exploitation and wealth accumulation, the opening up of new markets and commodities for profit. All the while these basic motivations and purposes were obscured, frequently under oppositional stylings and rhetorics, a subterfuge Gramsci called “sovversismo” or “alternativism”, “subaltern” grumbling or agitation that doesn’t bring about any substantial or lasting change. None of this was anybody’s “fault”; it was just the terms of exchange, the “common sense” whereby hegemonic capitalism imposed its prerogatives. Nor is it to make a judgment on the artistic value of the products of “hustle”, which may in themselves be truly groundbreaking (or, a term which became widespread in the “Third Way” cultural lexicon of the newly agglomerated creative industries, “world class”). There is real beauty in a perfectly performed jazz trumpet solo, a catwalk show of expertly tailored couture, or even a wonderfully crafted goal (football was officially recognised as a popular cultural form in this period, for example in my own home city’s bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2003; we lost, it went to Liverpool, that place of expert applicants).
I had obviously heard the term “hustle” before, usually in relation to male prostitution (another arena of subalternity and subversism), but never as a function of cultural change and social mobility, whereby some black people succeeded in a predominantly white, inherently racist society with a long history of imperial conquest and colonial dominion over their forebears. It is of course a very limited, precarious and conditional success, easily lost or withdrawn, and kept well away from the much less visible concentrations of economic and political power where “hegemony” – Gramsci’s much-used but not always understood master-concept – is decided, shaped and exercised. But hustle makes a lot of noise and heat and for its most effective, single-minded operatives a very good living, while leaving most black people at the bottom of the heap, or even, as the recent Windrush scandal has demonstrated, liable for deportation when their services are no longer required.
I had some prior insight into this process when in 1981 I organised a study of the experiences of black British students in higher education. They were at that stage a very small group, a few thousand at most (including the recently ex-NUS president Trevor Phillips, now bête noire of identity politics) in a very much smaller student population than now. Their most common and striking observation was of feeling “in between”, detached from their own black community by their academic success, but not belonging in the predominantly white academy either. This was a kind of social and cultural indeterminacy which would become quite common as organised class-based politics disintegrated, and we all became in some way or other “outsiders”. But at that stage, with early Thatcherism balking at serious civil unrest (most of it concentrated on black ghettoes, responding to and provoking racist policing) and what we used to call “the labour movement” still largely intact, it was highly unusual. I suspect I recognised something of myself, an academically successful but déclassé child of a fallen middle class family, in their alienation. In contemporary terms, these were varieties of “imposter syndrome”, a kind of social vertigo familiar to anyone who finds themselves elevated, as it were, out of their depth.
An accomplished, charismatic performer
In some respects Stuart Hall’s own career makes an interesting case-study. Born into the multiracial Jamaican post-colonial upper middle class, he was by his own admission “a bright, promising scholar” clearly destined for academic success in the mother country. Once established on the Oxbridge/London circuits of the high Anglo-intelligentsia, he managed to place himself at the beginnings of several momentous initiatives, from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and New Left Review to the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and (as one of several non-party members) the editorial board of Marxism Today in its 1980s magazine-format heyday. His forté was the hour-long lecture: an accomplished, charismatic performer, a cross between a lay preacher and a stage actor, he would begin quietly and slowly, feeling his way into his subject, without much by way of notes and with numerous but always relevant and interesting sidesteps, and gradually build up an assembly of ideas and citations, always engaging and sometimes startling, into what eventually looked like an all-embracing and utterly incontrovertible argument. Audiences (including me on several occasions) would routinely gasp and break into applause at his conclusions. I’m told Isaiah Berlin had a similar discursive style and charisma; in my experience the writings of W.G. Sebald exercise that same surreptitious pull (but not in person; Sebald was widely considered a reclusive curmudgeon at the University of East Anglia).
On the other hand, as one of his publishers once rather plaintively pointed out to me, Stuart Hall’s body of published work is remarkably slender, and never included a whole book under his own name. He is less well known for his own written work than for citations, always reverential and sometimes plainly name-dropping, in other people’s (again including me in my two published books). He was a skilled practitioner of the memorable soundbite; “regressive modernisation” for the basic project of Thatcherism, for example, or the ideological weight of the term “scrounger”, though some of these, most notably “authoritarian populism” (Ivor Crewe), turn out to have been coined by other people.
With passing time (Stuart Hall died in 2014), his reputation and following continue to grow, more often now for the contribution he made to the study of race and black politics and the legion of acolytes he inspired, including a number of cultural celebrities, prominent artists and well-placed media figures who passed through his orbit, usually as postgrads at Birmingham CCCS. I always find this a little odd because his own “black politics” were quite muted, aware of the sensibilities of all sections of his audience, and usually overshadowed by the abiding humanistic universalism he drew from his Gramscian Marxism and his earlier immersion in an inclusive, anti-racist liberationist politics which preceded “identity”. One of the ironies of all this is that the trajectory of Hall’s career closely follows Gramsci’s, with early academic success and political activism giving way to methodical research into and on behalf of a cause which had been roundly defeated, followed by posthumous fame and usage which does not always accord with what they actually thought, said, wrote or did (in Gramsci’s case, for example, the motto “Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect”, which was taken from the French writer Romain Rolland, who for his part had taken it from someone else!).
However, for someone routinely introduced as “our leading Gramscian”, Stuart Hall added very little to the torrent of “Gramsciana” that followed the 1971 publication of Selections from the Prison Notebooks, beyond practicing and advocating what he called “thinking in a Gramscian way”. Even the 1987 article “Gramsci and Us” – the only substantial piece of Gramsciana published by Marxism Today in its final glorious decade – was based on a lecture at the Marx Memorial Library on the 50th anniversary of Gramsci’s death, and was far more about “Us” – now in rapid retreat under the assault of triumphalist “Big Bang” Thatcherism – than Gramsci. Stuart could be very slippery in interview, usually for the worthy purpose of seeking consensus, sometimes for the rather less worthy purpose of sounding out the interviewer. This could also come dangerously close to dissembling, for example on the false optimism of “New Times” with which he concluded his dalliance with Eurocommunism in 1989, or the notion that the radical individualism of Thatcherism could be construed positively or “contingently” as “the revolution of the subject”. He seems never to have actually joined any political party or really, fully belonged to anything for very long; his attachments were always contingent, his instinct for leaving just as finely tuned as for arriving. All of this, of course, is characteristic of the in-betweenness of non-belonging, but also essential for the effective practice of “hustle”.
Pushy vanguardists of radical individualism
What I want to argue here and now is that forty years after its onset we have arrived at a more settled form of hegemonic Thatcherism, which I would characterise by the term “jostle”. That is, a kind of group hustle practiced by what is now a substantial and influential black middle class moving rather more smoothly into the space opened up by previous generations, the pushy vanguardists of radical individualism, all those sportspeople and musicians now revered (rather like Stuart Hall) as “pioneers”, “role models” and “icons”. This new “educated black elite” are the people jostling for a spot on the annual “Powerlist which celebrates the UK”s 100 most influential black people” (The Voice). Though many of them bridle at the label “black middle class” out of recognition of their ethnic origins – that sense of in-betweenness again – the very existence of such a list is evidence of their absorption. More broadly, in a political economy where “attention” is now a primary commodity of exchange, consumption, exploitation and profiteering, we are all of us duty-bound to jostle for attention.
Another measure of progress, in an area where “aspiration”, parental support and educational achievement are considered key markers of upward social mobility, is university admissions for black students, which went from 16,808 (21%) of the age-cohort in 2006 to 29,688 (31%) in 2011, to reach over 40% by 2018, fully 10% higher than their white counterparts, and a faster overall growth rate than any other ethnicity (UCAS). With the support of equal opportunities laws, policies and practices, especially in the workplace, this new, overwhelmingly “professional” black middle class (predominantly medics, lawyers, media types, accountants and financiers; not many in the dirty business of business) has set about securing its place on the outskirts of bourgeois hegemony. Or rather, to use the Gramscian term, the “historical bloc” with which the ruling group of our society surrounds, insulates and legitimises itself.
Much of our contemporary cultural and political discourse is simply the noise of that jostle, as the ruling class incorporates the emergent subaltern groups of second and third generation immigrants into the historical bloc. Some of them, most notably South and East Asians with their high regard for professional advancement and family obligation, are further along the road than others. The children and grandchildren of black Africans are now rising similarly rapidly, and probably account for the huge and rapid increases in black admission to universities (the statistics do not seem to recognise the culturally and socially crucial distinction between black Africans and Afro-Caribbeans). What we have come to call “culture wars”, arguments for and against “political correctness” (a term which actually started out as a self-mocking joke on the far left in a time of rather calmer and more nuanced public discourse), is simply the grinding sound of these social hydraulics, as elements of previously oppositional social groups are absorbed into the ruling order, against some resistance from the previously dominant, mostly white and male.
Specifically, the newly embourgeoisified ethnic minorities are adapting the language of racial identity to traditional middle-class sensibilities and mores, forcibly muffling the crude insults and epithets of racial antagonism beneath good manners, politeness and the ultimate bourgeois-liberal hypocrisy of “non-judgmentalism”. It translates into one great big “You can’t say that!”, as my adult children tell me every other day. Language matters, but I do wonder what happened to our greater concern for what we used to call “underlying attitudes” where personal racism truly, historically, resides. There is undoubted historical progress in the passage from the n-word and the P-word to black and brown, even if only in the snub to boorishness, but I’m not so sure about the strangely amorphous (and literally deracinated) “people of colour”. Perhaps this is what a prim, self-satisfied, superficial, bourgeois multiculturalism sounds like; it ultimately serves to obscure the historical record, and very nicely let white people off the hook. Can anyone truly claim that outside of “polite society”, the white British have sloughed off their deep-dyed legacy of racism, based on centuries of murderous, dehumanising exploitation? Isn’t that what Brexit, that gross affront to the liberal sensibility, is finally all about?
The same processes of absorption or cultural taming can be found in other spheres of minority agglomeration and interest. On sexuality, it is actually more advanced, mainly because homosexuality has always been an element within the historical bloc of bourgeois rule, hence the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of (as one of them once put it to me) “so many gay Tories”. Within the forty year span of Thatcherism, we have gone from militant gay liberation, through solidaristic gay community to ruthlessly commercialised gay scene, again breaking through first in music and fashion, and finally the ultimate signifier of bourgeois respectability, gay marriage. Even class, the basic binary divide of the old pre-Thatcher, labourist economy and society, has been transmuted into a token of personal identity, with the weirdly ungainly concept of “classism” now added to all the isms to which we are supposed to take exception. And there have always been ruling class women. The difference is that, with the softening and “feminising” of capitalism’s self-image in the shift from productivism to consumerism, their numbers and entitlements now extend deep into the middle orders; a welcome but fairly small crack in the glass ceiling.
Not surprisingly, all this jostle among the subaltern groups in and around the historical bloc of bourgeois hegemony has provoked a reaction from its more established residents, most obviously and disruptively old white men, but there are many other smaller examples of group envy and resentment. There is serious tension within the “black communities”, sufficient to make me deeply uncomfortable with that blanket term, between Africans and Jamaicans, most evident in poorer parts of London, which goes right back to their respective roles in the slave trade, as traders and traded, and currently shows itself in very different levels of attainment in education and employment. Older “second-wave” feminists resent the lack of recognition and respect for their struggles by younger women. Likewise, older gay men often feel excluded and dismissed by the contemporary, heavily youth-oriented gay scene, not least by the supposedly neutralising appropriation of terms like “queer” which in their own experience had a profoundly damaging impact.
Much of this secondary, reactive “out-group” grievance derives from the feeling that what Gramsci called the “common sense” of the conjuncture, constantly shifting and adapting with the tides of fashion and novelty, is leaving them behind. This is what gives their complaints a clear transgressive thrill, and confers upon reaction of all varieties – in a curious twist on another political phenomenon first spotted on the far left – a distinctly counter-cultural allure. There is delicious relief in “saying what you really think”, especially if people you don”t like take offence. Most of us also enjoy confounding expectations, including people assumed for a century to, tribally and instinctively, “be Labour”. Call it “blue Labour” or “red/blue wall”, it reveals nothing so much as the shallow roots of Labourism.
These are contemporary examples of the “morbid symptoms” which appear at moments of acute tension, usually felt as political crisis but actually the consequence of social stagnation, when “the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born” (another Gramscian saying actually taken from someone else, in this case Karl Marx). These include the curious phenomenon of transgenderism, the claim on female and homosexual victimhood by almost invariably straight white men, angry blokes in frocks, or kickbacks from within the subaltern groups against the process of absorption within the historical bloc. What is “grime” and much else of “rap culture”, with its pumped-up, shouty glorification of violent crime, not to mention its deep-dyed misogyny and homophobia and supposedly taboo-busting appropriation of the n-word, but a great big “fuck you” to the new professional black middle class from their delinquent cousins? This fraying at the edges of the new historical bloc, a particularly fractious jostle, usually occurs over such intangibles as “respect” and “pride”, arguments which could easily be settled with a sincere thankyou or sorry. Underneath all the faux outrage and easy offence lurks a darker “identity politics” based on the much more dangerous tokens of belonging to nation, region, religion and race, which have the potential – as Eric Hobsbawm first observed of the horrible wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and ever more obvious since the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing “deglobalisation” – to turn seriously nasty. As austerity and severe social stress extends into a second decade, exacerbated by Brexit and now Covid-19 and its variants, we can expect more of the same.
We must never forget that what all these altercations represent is actually social disaggregation, people falling out with each other over nothing much really, and as such a kind of counter-potential hegemony (to paraphrase Togliatti’s paraphrase of Gramsci), a reassertion of the ruling hegemony of bourgeois capitalism. The constant emphasis on difference, or in its identity politics formulation “diversity”, is a denial of commonality. The politics of identity itself becomes a means of containing people within supposedly fixed categories. I hope this is not some 21st century variant of the 1970s/80s Stalinist objection to our emerging identity politics, that “it’s all about class”, though I have a horrible feeling the tankies may have had a point.
What we need instead, if we are to get historical progress back on track, is social coalition, what was theorised by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) at its most Eurocommunist as a “broad democratic alliance”. This was to be brokered by Gramsci’s “Modern Prince”, the organised, strategically coherent and tactically competent revolutionary agency which the CPGB never truly was (with the arguable exception of the late 1940s). Right now the Modern Prince is little more than a ghost at the banquet of British politics, but may in time transform the assemblage of causes and outgroups jostling for attention that currently passes for “the left” into an active, purposeful common project of social integration and democratic participation, and as such able to challenge, break and replace the prevailing hegemony and truly, deeply, perhaps even madly, transform our sorry old society.