University of the West of England, Bristol
This piece looks at the political swing to the Right that has taken place in the UK over the past thirty years, with an emphasis on how it affects our capacity for critical cultural production. I am concerned with developing practices within film and Film Studies that disrupt the hegemonic project of neo-liberalism. Using the Bristol Radical Film Festival as an example, I conclude with an allusion to the wider project of creating a nationwide Radical Film Network as a means for what Gramsci might call the dissemination of counter-hegemonic ideas.
In 1979 Stuart Hall wrote “no one seriously concerned with political strategies in the current situation can now afford to ignore the ‘swing to the Right’…we have so far- with one or two notable exceptions- failed to find strategies capable of mobilising social forces strong enough in depth to turn its flank” (Hall 1979: 14). Published in the now defunct theoretical magazine Marxism Today, the aim of Hall’s piece was to explain how the contrary political interests of Thatcherism and the working class came to be merged under a new logic made up of existing socio-philosophical elements that had been dismantled and re-polarised to the Right. The parallels between Hall’s 1979 analysis and the contemporary political landscape are striking. Nearly twenty years before New Labour, he explains that the key principle to understanding this political shift is the contradiction within social democracy. That is, how those that represent the interests of the working class come to act as a point of discipline for that class once they are in power. Seeking solutions to a financial crisis that are agreeable to capital, social democracy uses its “indissoluble link” with the working class “not to advance, but to discipline the class and organsiations it represents” (Hall 1979: 17).
This contradiction set the precedent for a re-working of the entire political spectrum, a project that has been masked by a ‘national interest’ rhetoric. That is, the interest that to which all other sectional interests, including those of teachers and students, are subordinate. Contemporary examples can be found in the ways in which Michael Gove has defended his proposed reforms to the school curriculum, with constant reference to the UK as a competitor within a “global race”, whose interest it is to remain at the top of various international league tables (Adams 2013). At the heart of this rhetoric lies what Hall has called the “new logic” of Thatcherism, the “critical ideological work of constructing for ‘Thatcherism’ a populist common sense” (Hall 1979: 17). Creating consensus runs parallel to the closing down of the possibility for a critical interpretation of the way things are. The swing to the Right, then, has engendered a recalibration of the multiple determinants that shape the human subject, from the political and economic spheres to cultural and educational institutions, and, by proxy, the various disciplines and practices within education. The new horizon of possibilities is framed by a discourse between a form of liberal, postmodernist multiculturalism on one hand and neo-liberalism on the other. In their scrapping of the teleological narrative of Marxism, the liberal, postmodern multiculturalists lost the framework with which it is possible to make sense of the world through class and capitalism, having ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’. Meanwhile, the demise of the political Left has created a theoretical vacuum which has been plugged by a liberal cum Right wing consensus that facilitates the incursion by neo-liberalism on the public sphere, or what Chantal Mouffe (2005) has called the ‘commercialisation of public space’.
How do these socio-political developments affect the way/s in which we communicate? In answering this question Hall alludes to the importance of counter-hegemonic cultural production. Culture, he says, is our way of making sense of the world. It is giving meaning to things through frameworks of understanding, without which communication would be impossible. When these frameworks are dominated by powerful social and political forces, so culture is shaped by those same forces. Put in Habermasian terms, our life-world becomes colonised by the interests and rationale of economic and political systems. We begin to chase private, individualistic ‘goods’ over the common, shared goods of the community. In turn, we reproduce the frameworks of meaning that oriented us in this way by our externalising of culture through language and other forms of communication. Capital reproduces itself, then, by colonising culture, restricting the horizon of possible meanings to those situated within the dominant consensus. Salter (2012), however, explains that Habermas’ theory alone is insufficient when it comes to explaining the colonisation of practices and institutions as it “does not explain how specific practices might act as foundations for resistance” (Salter 2012: 79). Supplementing Habermas’ theory with Macintyre’s theory of social practice as communicative labour, Salter explains how:
Practices tend to be situated within institutions…practices are colonised when pressured to adjust to the pursuit of external goods rather than their own internal goods and the goods of the communities in which they take place. When external goods dominate, the practices are prevented from facilitating human flourishing…Despite the corrupting influence of some institutions, social practices connected to the common goods of communities, can act as bases of resistance to colonisation (Salter 2012: 80, 81).
A key element to this form of resistance is the historical grounding of practices, which allows learners to understand them as traditions that are concerned with the internal goods of the practice as well as those of the wider community. “Effectively, the pursuit of internal goods is resistance to colonisation” (ibid). It is on this level that the discipline of Film Studies and the practice of filmmaking can contribute to an effective resistance against further neo-liberal colonisation of both educational institutions and the wider life-world. But what tangible form/s would this mode of resistance take? What would be the foundation for a practice that sees film and its surrounding practices as pedagogical tools through which complex theory is realised in the concrete world?
The Bristol Radical Film Festival is an ongoing project, the foundation of which is an understanding that members of the public (and certainly those within academia) cannot let images and representations mediated by neo-liberalism dominate the public sphere. Heading into it’s third year, the festival not only occurs on an annual basis, screening politically radical films from around the world, but is expanding to include monthly events in a range of cultural and community spaces across the city. Our intervention in public space/s constitutes a form of counter-hegemonic cultural production, in that the festival opens up the possibility for the creation of new meanings, whereas dominant systems seek to close down this possibility. Our recognition of the political trajectory over the past thirty years gives us a concern for the goods internal to film and Film Studies, as well as those shared goods of the wider community. The danger is that film culture will become colonised by the external goods of dominant systems. For this reason any practice that is concerned with the development of film and Film Studies as creative, critical forces must be, primarily, explicitly political, opening up space for what Mouffe calls a “critical art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate” (Mouffe 2007: 4). The establishment of a nationwide Radical Film Network allows us to make connections across our respective, interrelated spheres of activity with the shared goal of defending our practices and disciplines against colonisation. Perhaps most importantly, this network could play a role in re-connecting education with radicalism and contribute to the defense of those wider public goods that facilitate human flourishing.