Revolutionary Youth – Insights from Stuart Hall's Revolutionary Legacy

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

Stuart Hall’s revolutionary legacy
16 February, 2014 – Mark LeVine – AlJazeera

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.

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.

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. …more