Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit

If you need a little of both this mid-February, Zoe Williams in the Guardian carries a lengthy interview with the great scholar Stuart Hall at 80 (read it here). Hall attributes the title's mantra to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, but as William's notes, it helps define Hall's tonic effect on his readers since the 1970s. For this reader, it is Policing the Crisis:Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978) co-authored by Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clark and Brian Roberts that was a defining encounter when I read it in the mid-1980s. Written before the rise of Thatcher in the UK, and before the full expression of mass incarceration in the United States, the book brilliantly diagnosed the new terrain of crime politics to come. Along with Stanley Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral Panics:The creation of the Mods and the Rockers (1972), the book also framed a method of political criminology that would prove as productive as Michel Foucault's, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (English 1977) in helping us analyze the emergence of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

A few choice bits:

Aging and encountering chronic kidney illness has deepened his sense of social solidarity.

"I've always known in my head I'm not an island, but it really came across. It's not just the kidneys – I could give you a litany of things that are wrong with me. I couldn't go two days without someone coming in to help me."

Hall is disturbed that so few seem to be vocally protesting the massive changes to the National Health System planned by the Tory led coalition, mainly aimed at making the system more profit centered. But the politics of health could prove to be an important ground of renewal in both the UK and the US where Obama's expansion of health coverage is certain to be debated in the election campaign. Hall's criticism of the Labour Party for not mounting a moral campaign on behalf of the NHS is equally applicable to Obama.

Hall views himself as a critic of both Neoliberalism and Marxism:

"I got involved in cultural studies because I didn't think life was purely economically determined. I took all this up as an argument with economic determinism. I lived my life as an argument with Marxism, and with neoliberalism. Their point is that, in the last instance, economy will determine it. But when is the last instance? If you're analysing the present conjuncture, you can't start and end at the economy. It is necessary, but insufficient.

Too many of my students assume that mass incarceration exists only because of Neoliberalism, or displaced Jim Crow racism. But while these are necessary conditions, as Hall might say, they are not sufficient. Mass incarceration endures because it is anchored in a moral case, one that pits "innocent" against "guilty" and not surprisingly finds that if losses or risks are inevitable they should be imposed on the "guilty" no matter how extreme.

Hall, like Foucault was, is ultimately a theorist of the present. I'll end with his forceful advice for it will serve well those of us seeking to understand the possibilities opened by California's penal crisis.

Analyse the conjuncture that you're in.

1 comment:

irish crim said...

Great stuff as always Jonathan. For those interested in reading more about Stuart Hall (and about 49 other criminological legends like Stan Cohen, David Garland, and Meda Chesney-Lind), check out the badly overlooked book Fifty Key Thinkers in Criminology (Routledge, 2010).