With the Long Revolution Underway, We Need to Think Big

On November 30, two million British workers walked off the job. High inflation, cuts to social services and a protracted period of wage stagnation will see the spending power of the average family plummet for the next five years. This sort of erosion (real median income is predicted to fall by 7 percent) has not been seen since the late 1970s. Austerity measures will have long-term effects – families with children in 2016 will be worse off than those now. Figures from The Institute for Fiscal Studies indicate that the brunt of the latest cuts will be borne by the most vulnerable. The reaction of Chancellor George Osborne was to say that Britain needed “to live within its means,” something he obviously did not say to the megabanks which have received huge bailouts here, as did banks in the United States.

I attended the demonstration in Oxford, which drew the largest crowd in the southwestern part of the United Kingdom. I heard things one could never have imagined before at a labor strike. Speaker after speaker evoked both Tahrir Square and Occupy Oakland. A Palestinian union leader addressed the crowd. The most distinguished gentleman in a fine black wool walking coat asked all the women to raise their hands and then said, “Do you realize that 75 of the cuts affect women disproportionately?” One woman said that up until three weeks ago, she would have never imagined joining a union, and now here she was, addressing a crowd of 5,000 people packed into Broad Street.

Not only were issues of child hunger, health care for the elderly and education mentioned, but also the quality of the environment, access to technology and the need for a world summit of the 99 percent. The message overall was that it was time to think big – this global crisis demands a global response, and the suffering of one population in one spot on the globe connects intimately with that of others.

The consolidation of power now taking place without regard to national boundaries has had deep impact on the last remaining public investments in very specific, local ways. Major institutional changes are needed that, like the economic crisis itself, run through the social, political and cultural spheres. Stop-gap measures and rhetorical flourishes were seen for what they are – appeasements that do not go to the roots of the problem. How can we best understand the new scale: how protest against local economic policies connects up with the global protests of the Occupy movement?

It has now been well over a half-century since what came to be known as cultural studies incubated in the works of scholars such as Richard Hoggart, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. Hoggart and Williams in particular shared the position of outsiders to the Oxbridge academic world – both came from working-class backgrounds, both first started as teachers in post-compulsory educational institutions, both were committed to viewing “culture” as a particular site of political and social contestation and negotiation in which some human populations were set against others.

But even after becoming established at the University at Birmingham, cultural studies are and have continued to be too impressionistic for social scientists and too rigid for humanists, and no one feels especially comfortable with its loose and amorphous object of study, “culture,” except, perhaps, some anthropologists. One key phrase of cultural studies seems to say it all: “structures of feeling.” It's hard not to bite one's teeth at that one. And yet, perhaps like the Occupy movement, this unsettledness works to its benefit now, within the interconnected spheres of globalized finance, politics and cultural formations.

Indeed, one of cultural studies' great advances was to see the intimate connections between what it called “industry, democracy and culture.” It saw culture as “articulating” the networks of economic, social and political life, and that network was vibrant and manifest in the streets of Oxford. Ways of living, of relating to fellow human beings, of sensing one's relation to the world, are being reshaped on what seems to be a daily basis.

Even the givens of life under neoliberalism seem to be unsettled: the usual accommodations of the state to dissent or fluctuation in the capital and labor markets seem to be ruthlessly withdrawn. As intellectuals, we might continue to mine the archive of disciplinary practices, methods, data, and yet there seems a sense of inadequacy and incompleteness in most of our efforts. Public discourse as well seemed, at least until the recent few months, to be trapped in a rhetoric that was palpably dated. Nonetheless, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Williams “The Long Revolution,” I wish to make the argument that cultural studies is eminently adaptable to the historical occasion of the Occupy movement.

Despite its obvious roots in the Britain of the late 50s, “The Long Revolution” allows a particularly useful, wide-frame optic onto how we might approach today's global protests against the obscene concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority and the cynical desecration of democracy and the common good under the name of economic necessity. Indeed, much of what Williams remarks upon in his time seems to be eerily familiar. For example, he writes:

[C]apitalism … emphasizes the decline in control by shareholders (an ironic comment, of course, on the extension of shares, which is then not a new kind of ownership, but simply an extension of playing the market), and the rise in importance of the managers and technicians. In fact the economy, while not controlled by ordinary shareholders, is not controlled by managers and technicians either, but by powerful interlocking private institutions that in fact command what some Labour politicians wistfully call “the commanding heights of the economy.” Even if the managerial revolution had occurred (and the real revolution is the passing of power to financial institutions and self-financing corporations), the original challenge would still be lost, for the direction of our common economic life would have been reduced to a series of technical decisions, without anything more than a market reference to the kind of society the economy should sustain. [i]

While we might ourselves wistfully regard much of what is reported in this passage (that a firewall between private and publicly funded financial entities might be imagined in an era of bailouts whose volume baffles the imagination), we can see how our public lives have been put at the mercy of rational market decisions – or, rather, what is done in their guise.

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Just as Williams' study argues forcefully for the need to think of “revolution” as a long, complex, unfolding human process, uncontained by pre-set temporal categories, so, too, does he urge us to think big, in a spatial way that is imaginatively and politically capacious. Williams points out the immensity of the project to understand large world historical phenomena, and yet the necessity to try to think complexly:

The scale of the whole process – the struggle for democracy, the development of industry, the extension of communications, and the deep social and personal changes – is indeed too large to know or even imagine. In practice it is reduced to a series of disconnected or local changes, but while this is reasonable, in the ordinary sense, it seems to me that this scaling-down only disguises some of the deepest problems and tensions, which then appear only as scattered symptoms of restlessness and uncertainty.

Consistent with the cultural studies project, we find here that the stress falls upon the interconnectedness of politics, industry, technology, and changes in social and individual life. The tendency, Williams notes, is to attempt to understand the world by rationalizing each of these aspects into their separate categories – to “scale down” (and, in the academy, that means, of course, political scientists on one side, engineers on another, humanists on some other part of campus, etcetera).

In many ways, this scaling down also allows intellectuals to abrogate their responsibilities as teachers of ethics by retreating into more and more rationalized “specialities” that effectively disengage us from imagining and thinking through the bigger picture, and allow us to remain in small-scale analytical frames.

Immanuel Wallerstein put it this way: “What the concept of the two cultures [those of the sciences and the humanities] had achieved was the radical separation, for the first time in the history of humanity, in the world of knowledge between the true, the good, and the beautiful.” Wallerstein draws the conclusion that “the great methodological debates that illustrated the historical construction of the social sciences were sham debates, which distracted us from realizing the degree to which the 'divorce' between philosophy and science effectively eliminated the search for the good from the realm of knowledge and circumscribed the search for truth into the form of microscopic positivism that took on many guises.” [ii]

In the late 50s, Williams well named the resistance of the powers-that-be to imagining the scale of the revolution that was brewing all around them: “Ruling groups have their own reasons for not wishing to recognize the true scale of the revolution, but elsewhere it is a genuine crisis of consciousness, and anybody concerned with his own life and the life of his society, in this process of general change, must obviously do what he can to try to resolve and clarify.” (p. 13)

Now is the time for intellectuals not only to emerge publicly to decry the plundering of public funds and the harnessing of the resources of the state to maintain, and even intensify, the savage inequalities that exist between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. It is time for us to think big, to imaginatively and critically create and expand the scale of resistance and protest outside the norms of the academy. This call for action has an intellectual, an imaginative and, decidedly, a political side.

As Williams put it a half-century ago

In the long revolution we are making our own scale, and the problem of expectations seems crucial in every society that has entered it. 'That's enough now' is the repeated whisper, and as we turn to identify the voice we see that it is only that of the rich, the dominant and the powerful, who want change to stop or slow down, but also that of many others, who have no further bearings and are unwilling to risk their real gains. (p. 397)

“Expectations” reside precisely in the nexus of economic, political and social life – it is the cultural imagination that is an essential vehicle for the expression, reshaping and revolutionizing of what we expect of ourselves.

1. “The Long Revolution” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961; rpt Cardigan, Wales: Parthian Press, 2011), 350. All other references are to this edition.

2. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (New York: The New Press, 2000), 195.