Interpreting the crisis
Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey
Doreen Massey and Stuart Hall discuss ways of
understanding the current crisis.
Doreen There are many different ways of thinking about the current crisis, but
certainly one useful way is to think about the present as a conjuncture - this way
of analysing was very productive in the discussions about Thatcherism in the late
1970s and 1980s in Marxism Today and elsewhere, in which you played a leading
Perhaps we should start by thinking about what conjunctural analysis is, and
how it differs from other kinds of analysis.
Stuart It’s partly about periodisation. A conjuncture is a period when different
social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society
and have given it a speciﬁ c and distinctive shape come together, producing a
crisis of some kind. The post-war period, dominated by the welfare state, public
ownership and wealth redistribution through taxation was one conjuncture; the
neoliberal, market-forces era unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan was another. These
are two distinct conjunctures, separated by the crisis of the 1970s. A conjuncture
can be long or short: it’s not deﬁ ned by time or by simple things like a change of
regime - though these have their own effects. As I see it, history moves from one
conjuncture to another rather than being an evolutionary ﬂ ow. And what drives
it forward is usually a crisis, when the contradictions that are always at play in
any historical moment are condensed, or, as Althusser said, ‘fuse in a ruptural
unity’. Crises are moments of potential change, but the nature of their resolution
is not given. It may be that society moves on to another version of the same thing
(Thatcher to Major?), or to a somewhat transformed version (Thatcher to Blair); or
relations can be radically transformed.
The neoliberal crisis
Gramsci and Althusser, who helped us to think in this way, were primarily interested
in such moments of major ruptural crisis (like 1917), when the ‘organic’ relations
of society - especially the economic structure - were deeply reshaped. Gramsci
thought the conjunctural level less signiﬁ cant than the organic. But he does also talk
about using the notion of conjuncture in a broader, more methodological way: as
a way of marking signiﬁ cant transitions between different political moments; that
is to say, to apply it as a general system of analysis to any historical situation. And
that is how I use it now. In Policing the Crisis we tried to look at the postwar period,
which - despite its many contradictory aspects - was a conjuncture dominated
by what has been called the post-war, social-democratic consensus. This political
‘settlement’ came apart in the crisis upheavals of the 1970s. Thatcherism, neo-
liberalism, globalisation, the era dominated by market forces, brutally ‘resolved’ the
contradictions and opened a new conjuncture.
The question is, can we look at the present situation in that way? When does it
begin? Has it been through a crisis before? What sort of crisis is this? Is it temporary?
Is it going to transform things but not very deeply, followed by a return to ‘business
as usual’? Is it what is called a passive revolution, when none of the social forces are
able to enforce their political will and things go stumbling along in an unresolved
way? John Major’s government was such a moment, when things that had been
inaugurated by Thatcherism were in serious difﬁ culties, but were patched together
by the dominant classes, to hold the Tories in power for a few more years, without
any serious challenge from below
Doreen One of the reasons for needing to understand the structural character of
the current conjuncture is that, as you say, it’s not predetermined what the outcome
will be, or what will happen. And this kind of analysis gives us some purchase on
understanding the range of potential outcomes.
Stuart I agree. It forces you to look at many different aspects, in order to see what
the balance of social forces is and how you might intervene, or have a better idea of
how to intervene effectively. So is this crisis about a real shift in the balance of social
forces? Or, if not, how can we push the crisis from a compromise ending to a more
radical rupture, or even a revolutionary resolution? But ﬁ rst you have to analyse
ruthlessly what sort of crisis it is.
Interpreting the crisis
Doreen The other thing that’s really striking - and I went back as you have been
doing and looked at the Prison Notebooks, and Althusser - is the importance of
thinking of things as complex moments, where different parts of the overall social
formation may themselves, independently, be in crisis in various ways, but at a
certain point they are condensed. Although we see this moment as a big economic
crisis, it is also a philosophical and political crisis in some ways - or it could be,
if we got hold of the narrative. So it’s really important that we don’t only ‘do the
economy’, as it were.
Stuart Absolutely not. It is not a moment to fall back on economic determinism,
though it may be tempting to do so, since the current crisis seems to start in
the economy, with the collapse of the global ﬁ nancial system and the banks. But
any serious analysis of the crisis must take into account its other ‘conditions of
existence’. For example, the ideological - the way market fundamentalism has
become the economic common sense, not only of the west but globally; politically
- the way New Labour has been disconnected from its political roots and evolved
as the second party of capital, transforming the political terrain; socially - the
way class and other social relations have been so reconﬁ gured under consumer
capitalism that they fragment, undermining the potential social constituencies or
agencies for change.
Gramsci, who struggled all life against ‘economism’, was very clear about this.
What he says is that no crisis is only economic. It is always ‘over-determined’
from different directions. On the other hand, you can’t think about a crisis and its
resolution until you deal with what he calls the economic nucleus. We can’t ignore
the way the ﬁ nancial sector has asserted its dominance over the economy as a whole,
or indeed its centrality to the new forms of global capitalism. But we must address
the complexity of the crisis as a whole. This is a difﬁ cult balance, but, as you say,
crises are always ‘over-determined’. Different levels of society, the economy, politics,
ideology, common sense, etc, come together or ‘fuse’. Otherwise, you could get an
unresolved ideological crisis which doesn’t have immediate political connotations,
or which you can’t see as being directly related to a change in the economy. The
deﬁ nition of a conjunctural crisis is when these ‘relatively autonomous’ sites - which
have different origins, are driven by different contradictions, and develop according
to their own temporalities - are nevertheless ‘convened’ or condensed in the same
The neoliberal crisis
moment. Then there is crisis, a break, a ‘ruptural fusion’.
Doreen As you were speaking, I was thinking that maybe one of the things that
they - the Tories, the neoliberals, including New Labour - have managed to do is
almost to separate the economic crisis from the philosophical one. There was a
period, when the ﬁ nancial crisis was ﬁ rst in the news, when people were beginning
to question the way they were thinking about the economy and consider alternative
ways of doing things - for example there was a discernible shift to investing more
in the co-op, talking about mutualisation, arguing that we need to get rid of all
this individualism and greed. And yet today here we are sitting here with Cameron
saying that the big problem is the public deﬁ cit, and the big state. The economic
crisis is partly being solved, at least for the time being, and that is seen as the only
problem. The implosion of neoliberal ideology is no longer on the agenda. It’s as
though they’ve separated those two instances again.
Stuart For a brief moment some people did indeed say ‘this economic model isn’t
working any more’. But the separation between the economic and the ideological
seems to have reasserted itself. This has been characteristic of our whole period.
From very early on, New Labour said, really, there are no major ideological or
economic questions left; there is only ‘managing society’. In this latter respect,
New Labour’s neoliberalism differed from Thatcher’s - though they remained
variants of the same thing. Thatcherism was anti-state, whereas New Labour
made a ‘rediscovery’ of ‘active government’. New Labour said that they could do
marketisation better than the Tories, who were running into trouble, and could
avoid a huge political backlash by blurring the private/public divide, and letting
the market buy out most of the public activities that were proﬁ table, while the state
concentrated on the technical management of the consequences. New Labour was
very successful in boxing up that whole question in this way - one which didn’t
seem to offer an ideological or political choice. What began to happen - certainly in
the moment of the downturn and perhaps a bit before that - is that some of these
connections began to come to the surface. But there has been a failure by Labour to
address them or to ﬁ nd a way of narrativising them into a crisis of the whole system.
Since New Labour shares with the ﬁ nancial sector a view about how critical it is for
the global capitalist system to continue to work, they are satisﬁ ed to say, ‘In the long
Interpreting the crisis
run, everything depends on getting back to business as usual’.
Doreen And we can distract attention by having the ministers and the
parliamentarians taken to task over expenses and suchlike. They become the bogeys,
not the bankers.
Stuart Politics is often the source of a spectacle designed to divert you from what
is really important. The furore over MPs’ expenses was really an instance of that. Of
course, in an era when New Labour ‘is extremely relaxed about people becoming
ﬁ lthy rich’, MPs will put their snouts in the trough too. But I’m sure most of the
deep public feeling, the slightly irrational anger, about MPs’ expenses is because
people can’t get at the culprits. Indeed, many people have no real idea what it is
like to be really ﬁ lthy rich in our society. The people who know are the bankers,
the top CEOs, the hedge-fund managers who operate globally, bank off-shore, live
an extravagant lifestyle without limits and pay themselves exorbitant salaries and
bonuses for getting things disastrously wrong. But the anger becomes displaced onto
MPs - which is not to deny that some of them behaved in a shamefully greedy way.
Doreen I agree with that, and I think there’s another reason, which is that we
pay the MPs and are therefore entitled to criticise them - they are in some sense
accountable to us. Whereas the bankers are part of this thing called market forces,
and it is now embedded deeply within us, precisely as a result of the past thirty
years, to think of market forces as somehow natural, and not criticisable in a simple
way - morally, ethically, politically. We experience the ﬁ nancial system as being
beyond any possibility of intervention. That’s part of what is so disabling, precisely
the ideological moment in the politics that we’ve inherited.
Stuart I think the ideological dimension is very critical - the way in which the whole
political discourse has been ‘cleansed’, so that the public interest, public ownership,
common goods, equality, the redistribution of wealth, the stubborn facts about
poverty and inequality, etc, all became ‘unspeakable’. That’s an instance of the way
ideology, through erasure, provides one of the conditions of existence of politics
and the economy, and thus of the crisis. Thatcherism made it part of common sense
that you can’t calculate the common interest. “There is no such thing as society’. All
The neoliberal crisis
you can calculate is individual self-interest, and then the hidden hand of the market
will make that work for, or trickle down to, society as a whole. The big shift here, of
course, is that this has become New Labour’s philosophy too.
Doreen It’s become deep within individual people’s philosophy - ‘you can’t do
anything about it, it’s the market, isn’t it?’. It’s right at the heart of the way in which
we look at the world.
Stuart It operates both at the level of common sense and at what Gramsci called
the level of philosophy, i.e. the new win-win economics, the mathematical formulae
which tell investors how to make money out of making money, the illusion that it’s an
economy in which everyone proﬁ ts. Gramsci would say that a hegemonic settlement
only works when ideology captures or ‘hegemonises’ common sense; when it becomes
so taken-for-granted that its ways of looking at the world seem to be the only ways
in which ordinary people can calculate what’s good and what’s not, what they should
support and what they shouldn’t, what’s good for them and what’s good for society.
Doreen Before we speak, before we think, it’s the framework within which we think.
Stuart Exactly. But I don’t think the governing philosophy always become common
sense. It takes a while, and a mastery of the political ﬁ eld. Hegemony is something
which has to be struggled for, which is always in process.
Doreen It takes a huge amount of work. And quite explicit work. And they know
they need to do it. When I was researching the City of London, the ﬁ nance centre,
I was amazed by the amount of stuff they produced.
Reports, pieces of research,
interviews on the radio, the television, everywhere, to convince us that without them
we are all dead. That they are the golden goose of the economy. They’re doing the
same now, with seeking to divide private sector workers from public sector workers.
Labour does not put in that effort to create shifts in people’s hearts and minds. It
just listens to focus groups. It doesn’t itself go out and try and create a new common
sense, a new narrative - partly because it doesn’t want to, but also …
Interpreting the crisis
Stuart … I don’t think it knows what it would be possible to create a new common
Doreen It’s got so used to having a so-called ‘natural base’, that it doesn’t know how
to create one through its own efforts. Perhaps this is the point at which to say more
about hegemony, a concept that is associated with thinking about conjunctures, and
those periods where there’s a particular political settlement.
Stuart Not every political force or philosophy which is dominant at a particular
period achieves widespread consent. It is not always the case that the governing
political philosophy is spoken by everybody as if they’re already inside it. It is when
it becomes ‘just how things are’ that it wins consent and enters common sense. And
at that point the political regime or philosophy has achieved a more settled, long-
term, deeper form of control. It is possible to rule if you operate in a dominative
way, if you tell people what to do, if you do the propaganda, if you send into labour
camps people who don’t agree with you, if you police the boundaries. But hegemony
is much deeper than that. And I think what is so critical in understanding how
hegemony is secured is to see how it makes, for example, the language of class,
which we were accustomed to use, seem no longer applicable. That’s not because
class is unimportant or has disappeared, or because the class structure hasn’t
changed, or anything like that. But when you look at the theatre of politics, classes
don’t appear in their already-united form. Unifying them with other social forces
into a ‘historical bloc’ is part of what politics does. The ways in which people and
groups are articulated into a hegemonic project are immensely complex. If ﬁ nance
capital drives industrial capital to the wall, well, can we still speak of Capital as a
uniﬁ ed entity? Some working-class people resisted Thatcherism, but some jumped
on their bikes and became self-employed. Where is ‘class consciousness’ then?
Hegemony is about winning consent through the complex articulations of different
social forces that do not necessarily correspond to simple class terms.
Doreen And it’s about that kind of interpellation of people’s interests into your story.
And Cameron can be seen to be making efforts to do that, you can see it in a lot of
his language. And something like Thatcher’s allowing people to buy their council
houses was a perfect mode of drawing people in.
The neoliberal crisis
Stuart And on and on and on. That work has to be done so it can reach a level
of unconsciousness where people aren’t aware that they’re speaking ideology
at all. The ideology has become ‘naturalised’, simply part of nature. ‘Market
forces’ was a brilliant linguistic substitute for ‘the capitalist system’, because
it erased so much, and, since we all use the market every day, it suggests that
we all somehow already have a vested interest in conceding everything to it. It
conscripted us. Now, when you get to that point, the political forces associated
with that project, and the philosophical propositions that have won their way
into common sense, are very tough to dislodge - you can’t just vote them out, or
kick them out of power.
Doreen And it’s not simply a matter of logic either. You have to have an alternative
Stuart You have to have an alternative popular appeal - partly because ideology is
never just rubbish, it always has a basis in real things. People know that a lot of the
nationalised industries were extremely inefﬁ cient and, in their own way, some of the
privatised industries were more efﬁ cient. Of course, there are social costs to that. But
nobody talks about the costs. They just talk about ‘efﬁ ciency’. What drove that shift?
Constantly associating ‘the market’ with positive things like freedom, choice - and
thus the necessity of a privatised economy; that’s the logic. You can see these chains
of connection being forged in people’s everyday thought and language, as well as
in political debate and argument, in media discussion and in theory. People have
lost a sense of where the discourse came from and what it leaves out. And when
that happens, they can be seen as being subjected to the discourse. New Labour
knew all about that. The logic of ‘spin’ was to detach concepts from their previous
associations and shift them to new meanings. You can also see this process when
they banished ‘equality’ from the vocabulary and started to talk about fairness; when
they banished ‘capital’ and started to talk about free markets; when they gave up on
‘society’ and started to use that weasel word ‘community’ instead. All these shifts of
language were ways of deconstructing a form of consciousness which had governed
political thinking on the left for a long time.
Doreen Insidious little shifts from all kinds of points.
Interpreting the crisis
Stuart So conjunctural analysis also means describing this kind of complex ﬁ eld
of power and consent, and looking at its different levels of expression - political,
ideological, cultural and economic. It’s about trying to see how all of that is deployed
in the form of power which ‘hegemony’ describes.
Doreen So when we’re thinking for instance about culture in the UK today, we
should be analysing it in that way, trying to think through the ways in which it’s
been enrolled into the establishment of a particular kind of common sense.
Stuart Think of how the celebrity culture has co-opted ordinary people into the
belief that they too can be wealthy and famous. This has very real consequences
for how you make a conjunctural analysis of the present. There is a temptation -
because it’s the ﬁ nance sector that has collapsed, thrown us into the crisis - to say, oh
well, in the end ‘it’s the economy stupid’: as if the economy determines in a simple
way. But if you just look at that, and left out these other conditions which make it
possible, you wouldn’t really understand how power is working in this situation,
and what is coming into crisis.
Doreen Nor would you give yourself all the possible fronts to work on.
Stuart Yes, of course. Because as soon as you understand why they’re ‘leading’ in this
way, you can see not only where but how a counter-intervention should be made.
For instance, unless you are really prepared to deconstruct the notion that market
forces defend individual freedom, and are the most efﬁ cient ways of organising
economic life, unless you unpick that market thing which holds together a whole set
of understandings which structure institutional life, the economy, everyday thinking,
common sense, you are unlikely to be able to intervene effectively in a radical or
Doreen Do you think, though, that ﬁ nance is crucial to the conjuncture that we’ve
just been through - if it’s ended? Is the ﬁ nance constellation at the nucleus of the
kind of hegemony that we’ve seen during the last thirty years or so? I think it is, and
that certain ways of thinking have come from it. In a number of ways.
The neoliberal crisis
Stuart I certainly think it is. My understanding of the current conjuncture is that it
begins with the collapse of the welfare state and Keynesian demand-management,
and all of the thinking that went with that. That phase was dominated by trying to
increase the productivity of the manufacturing economy - Wilson’s ‘white heat of
technology’, ‘workers by hand and brain’, the capital-labour corporatist management
of the state. Labour’s last gasp. The 1970s is a period of upheaval, and Thatcherism
resolves that crisis into a new conjuncture. The new market-forces conjuncture
has two phases to it: the Thatcherite destruction of everything associated with the
welfare state, letting market forces rip, privatising the state, high unemployment,
and battering society as a whole into the acceptance of a new order. Then, when
even the Tories think this can’t work for much longer, funnily enough, a transformed
and deeply co-opted New Labour provides that other, more human, face. But the
two phases should be regarded as a single conjuncture which we can characterise as
the triumph of neo-liberalism. I know it’s an inadequate word, but it’s the only one
we have for characterising what deﬁ nes the whole arc. Whether ﬁ nance capital is so
dominant in the ﬁ rst period, I’m not sure.
Doreen I was working in the GLC at that time. And the debates within our bit of
the GLC, our arguments about what we should do, were very much concerned with
the question of the future of London, and of course, one issue was London as a
ﬁ nancial city; and what was going on during the early period of Thatcherism was the
disruption of the manufacturing base, in very serious ways. That and the Big Bang.
At least some of the preconditions for the shift in the economy were laid down at
Stuart I think that’s very important. The triumph of ﬁ nance capital over industrial
capital has been going since the 1970s; it also has a long history before that.
Remember the dominance of ﬁ nance capital and the City in the 1890s and its
connection with the ‘high noon’ of imperialist expansion? The dominance of ﬁ nance
capital seems to be deeply inscribed in old and new forms of capitalist globalisation.
Doreen Yes, it’s a longer history. You and I remember Harold Wilson’s attempt to
set up a national plan for manufacturing and labour, and when he tried to set up a
Department of Economic Affairs. And what happened? It all got completely wiped