Stuart Hall’s revolutionary legacy

Hall’s work in cultural studies offers unique insight into the role of the youth in the Arab revolutions.

Youth have played a key role in the Arab uprisings [AFP/Getty Images]

Of all the insights offered by the seminal Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who passed away on February 10 this year, one of the most relevant for anyone concerned about the Arab world today was his argument that “identities are an endless, unfinished conversation.” It’s hard to think of a better summary of why the revolutions that started with so much hope across the Arab world in the winter of 2010-2011 have had such a hard time producing a positive outcome.

It’s not merely that elites and the systems that have long protected them remain too powerful for their peoples to bring down. It’s that in this long but still liminal historical post-Cold War moment, precisely what kind of “people” Egyptians, Moroccans, Libyans, Bahrainis and others want collectively to be remains very much undecided. 

Stuart Hall is perhaps the best known exponent of the academic discipline of cultural studies, which emerged in the post-war era, first in the UK, then in the US and soon after that globally as one of the most important approaches to studying contemporary societies. From his early days with the New Left Review and then at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham and the Open University, Hall’s research studied how and why political and economic systems retain the consent of societies, even when their policies do not serve their economic or political interests.

Of all the disciplines that emerged out of Karl Marx’s economic and historiographic theories, none could claim to have taken his call for schools not merely to interpret the world but openly to change it with and through the knowledge they produce as has cultural studies. Of course, whether or not they want or are willing to admit it, all scholars are engaged in the business of transforming the world, or at least people’s perception and experience of it. It’s just that most of the time they reinforce rather than challenge the status quo.

Recognising youth

Cultural studies’ activist roots run deep into the pre-World War II era, when studies of culture in Britain were relegated to workingmen’s associations lectures and adult education courses. It was only after the War that the burgeoning number of “youth” suddenly became a problem governments needed to address in order to manage society at large.

Building on the insights of thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and his concept of “hegemony,” Michel Foucault’s studies of the myriad ways power and knowledge flow through societies, and the seminal research of the Frankfurt School, cultural studies scholars explored emerging post-War British youth subcultures to understand how their unique sense of style, and their seemingly rebellious and threatening attitudes towards the establishment, most often reinforced rather than challenged the hegemonic political systems of the West.

People & Power – Egypt: Revolution Revisited

From the start, cultural studies scholars understood that movements such as the Mods, Teds, hippies, punks, and hip-hoppers, all contained the potential for political action. Some even directly participated in powerful movements such as the civil rights and anti-war movements. Yet all fell prey to what Thomas Frank has so well described as the “conquest of cool” by capital – the seemingly ineluctable ability of the market to coopt, commodify and in so doing defang even the most subversive forms of popular culture.

Part of Hall’s genius was his ability to understand the relationship between the strengths and weaknesses of subcultures and the emerging global ideology and political economy of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, which he described under the rubric of “thatcherism”.

At the very moment that a neoconservative, semi-authoritarian populism was becoming politically, economically and culturally ascendant across the US and UK, Hall’s research opened up youth culture globally to investigation by scholars working in a variety of disciplines. The goal of his research was continuously to seek to make theory more relevant to practice, to provide tools for exploring popular culture that would help scholars not merely understand its dynamics, but help young people more successfully reshape their societies towards a more just and equitable future.

Sub-, counter- and revolutionary cultures

Given the importance of “youth” to any hope for political change in the Arab world (as the Carnegie Middle East Center put it not long before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings), the work Hall helped foster has opened innumerable paths to study the way culture, politics, and economics are aesthetically embedded in one another, in particular through the consumption of various forms of artistic production.

As the Arab world became more fully enmeshed in global neoliberalism and globalised Euro-American cultural norms and patterns of consumption began to penetrate the region, the need to apply the insights of cultural studies to the changes being experienced by the emerging generation of citizens became more important. The writing, was quite literally on the walls, in the soccer stadiums, in the lyrics of hiphop songs and the dark explosive sound of the local heavy metal scenes. All of  these portrayed a situation far at odds with the rosy picture of countries like Tunisia and Egypt painted by the IMF and the World Bank.

Empire – Egypt: The unfinished revolution

Indeed, when I met the first generation of bloggers in Egypt and across the region in the 2000s, it was abundantly clear that they saw little place for themselves in the changing political-economic landscapes of their countries. They increasingly had the means to imagine, define and pursue alternative futures than the ones being – or rather, not being – laid out for them by their societies.

It was from Hall and his students, who developed the notion of “subcultures” as sites where alternative identities had the potential to challenge dominant and/or hegemonic systems, that I began to understand how emerging digital, and particularly internet-related, technologies were enabling a radical change in the nature of cultural production, circulation and consumption. They gave musical and other artists as well as activists the chance cheaply to produce and limitlessly and freely to circulate artistic production and subversive forms of knowledge that were beyond the control of either government censors or the market.

This process was a crucial component in the emergence of countercultural identities and politics among young people across the region that didn’t just seek to be left alone but directly challenged the moral and political foundation of the existing systems and imagined alternative identities and political-economic structures that linked this new generation to their peers globally.

No one could have predicted that an unknown rapper would write the anthem of the Tunisian revolution, or an Egyptian metal fan the song that would symbolise the spirit of Tahrir. But anyone who followed Hall’s research understood that the generative impulse of revolutionary action would likely come from youth cultures that figured out how to channel cultural creativity into more direct political engagement, which had moved from sub- to counter-cultures and ultimately towards revolution.

Yet Hall also recognised how difficult it was for even the most successful critical projects to develop viable discourses to attract the majority of the population to long-term struggles for system-level change in their societies. He lamented this in his final interviews when speaking about the sorry state of the Left in the UK as well.

The same cultural terrain that enables revolutionary cultural action also enables counter-revolutionary discourses based on fear, demonisation, and dehumanisation to reassert themselves. The work of Hall and several generations of colleagues serve as a warning to activists in Egypt, Ukraine, or the US, that struggles for “freedom, dignity and social justice” will be won not through organising power or stronger economic arguments, but by offering a powerful combination of fresh “ideas, independent analysis… and vision” that can counter right-wing ideologies, and the economic and political forces behind them.

That generation – a tahrir filled with metalheads, Ultras, muhagabas (veiled women) and Muslim Brothers all united not merely against one man, but in the belief that “another world is possible” – offered a glimpse of the power of so many subcultures coming together to create a truly revolutionary moment and space. The ongoing search for a vision that can solidify and direct that power throughout society remains one of  Hall’s most important legacies, one in which the new generations of cultural studies scholars and practitioners will be fully engaged.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.