Policing the ‘Benefits Crisis’: what would Stuart Hall do?

by Tracy Jensen 

Today the sad news was announced that Stuart Hall has died.  My Twitter timeline and email account has been awash with mourning colleagues; scholars, researchers and students remembering and reflecting upon the legacy of his enormous archive of work.  Many people have shared stories of how his innovative combinations of critical theory and public activism have inspired them, and linked to recent interviews and articles where he turned his intellectual gaze upon the activities of the Coalition administration – the culmination of a political and cultural turn to neoliberalism, the first rumblings of which he charted in Policing the Crisis (published the year before Thatcher came to power).  If you have ever wondered where the word ‘Thatcherism’ came from – that was Stuart Hall.  Although we never met, I have always felt my connection with him – we were both uncomfortable Oxbridge outsiders, we were both housed by the Open University (Hall as Professor of Sociology and me as a PhD candidate) and he was a member of the first Board of Governers at UEL where I am now based.  One of my proudest moments was being published alongside him in the latest issue of Soundings – a journal where his stirring manifestoes for moving beyond neoliberalism can be found.  His wide-ranging eminence across so many fields means that there are many, many others like me who have overlapped with and admired his work and his approach.

More than our institutional crossovers though, Hall has sustained me intellectually through his fierce writing, his sophisticated approach and his devotion to social justice.  To my mind, he is the most powerful advocate of interdisciplinarity and collaborative scholarship – two things we need more than ever if we are to keep the university going as a place of critical insight, and not simply a profit-seeking institution.  Hall famously said the university is a critical institution, or it is nothing.  His work insists that we develop ways of opening up a critical dialogue between the machinery of politics and the culture of the everyday.  He exhorts us to connect up the places where state power is exercised and where we take these workings of power into our daily lives, conversations and exchanges.  He recognised that the media take a central role in structuring ‘social knowledge’ – in his words possessing a ‘near-monopoly’ as the primary source of information and mediating the passage of this from those ‘in the know’ to the ‘structured ignorance’ of the general public (Policing the Crisis, p66).  Yet he also recognised the limits of remaining overly-attached to media power conspiracies – it is a ‘near-monopoly’ certainly, but not a complete one.  Ideological closure can always be interrupted – counter-definitions and narratives can always be developed.  Hall’s commitment to identifying and nurturing sites of counter-narratives led, under his directorship, to fascinating close-up portraits of cultural resistance from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.  This influential body of work triggered a reflective ‘cultural turn’ across many disciplines of study, supplanting the often-fatalistic inertia that characterised theories of cultural power through the notion of ‘cultural politics’ (possibly my most-over-used phrase), and establishing popular culture as an object for serious study. I still find it incredible that the CCCS – the home of British cultural studies – was closed in 2002.  While political elites are clearly invested in dismissing and discrediting sociology, media and cultural studies (not least because they teach students how to think critically about power), it is hard to believe that a university would vandalise itself in such a wilful act of atrophy.

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Picture: first and second editions of Policing the Crisis

I am re-reading much of Hall’s work in 2014.  The second edition of Policing The Crisis was published last year and it feels as fresh and mighty as ever.  I defy anyone to read the new preface without concluding that this research is still one of the most important publications written about the apparatus of power.  In particular his examination of ‘public opinion’ machinery is timely within the context of welfare reform debates and the saturation of primetime television with so-called ‘poverty porn’ such as We All Pay Your Benefits (BBC), On Benefits and Proud (Five) and most recently the ongoing series Benefits Street (Channel 4).  Hall and his colleagues were concerned with the emergence of a new cultural figure – ‘the mugger’ – upon whom street crime is racialised and against whom social anxieties around youth, urban space and control become projected.  The conjunctural analysis they develop – mapping out public and official disquiet, “trying to catch public opinion, unawares, in the very moment of its formation” (2013: preface, xiii) – is an approach I use in my current work mapping out the emergence of the ‘welfare scrounger’.  As Hall and his colleagues compellingly argued, such figures are essential at times of crisis, when new formations of ‘commonsense’ are condensing.  Our current crisis – economic and political but also cultural, organised around the concept of austerity and the ‘virtues’ of restraint vis-à-vis the welfare state – is a crisis that is rapidly condensing upon figures of ‘welfare dependence’. The figure of ‘the mugger’, and repetitions of mugger discourse (across news media, courtrooms, public commentary, everyday conversation, gossip and other formal and official sites of disquiet) came to solidify a new ‘commonsense’ consensus around authoritative policing.  Welfare has now firmly ascended into the public arena and taken the shape of ‘public issue’ – that much is clear from the burst of poverty porn programming.  But what new forms of consensus will become ‘commonsense’ in the repetitions of welfare crisis discourse?  What will be legitimised once the shifting public opinions around welfare crystallise and harden?  Poverty porn television is too important in the manufacture of a welfare crisis for us to ignore, and the public opinion that is orchestrated via such cultural sites is not ‘spontaneous’ or ‘organic’ but powerfully structured and editorialised.  As Hall et al argue:

In formally democratic societies, ‘becoming commonsense’ is one key route to securing popular legitimacy and compliance and thus the basis of what Gramsci called ‘hegemonic’ forms of power  (2013: xiii)


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Picture: Structuring welfare ‘debate’ in Big Benefits Row

The process of welfare reform ‘becoming commonsense’ is therefore a process of pulling ordinary, normally invisible, people into a staged public conversation, something that looks like public debate but which is in fact a highly structured exchange.  We can see how this orchestration of public opinion was developed in Big Benefits Row: Live, in which Five shamelessly capitalised on the ratings success of Channel 4’s Benefits Street, drawing on familiar talkshow tropes to prolong and extend the ‘debate’ which had scrutinised the residents of James Turner Street.  Big Benefits Row: Live promises immediacy (through its liveness), participation (displaying a Twitter hashtag throughout) and controversy (host Matthew Wright promising “strong opinions” from “a nation at boiling point” in his opening speech – and in its very title we are offered a ‘row’).  But while it seems to promise an unmediated window onto ‘how the public really feels’, BBR in fact functions as an organised, formal part of how public opinion becomes shaped.  Hall and his colleagues plundered the ‘letters to the Editor’ pages of newspapers to catch public opinion in the moment of its formation – we might view the tweets sent in response to the #BigBenefitsRow as a contemporary version of this.  Letters, tweets, and the increasingly heated exchanges of those participating in BBR are “the more powerful because it appears to be in the readers’ [tweeters, viewers] keeping and done with his or her consent and participation” (Policing the Crisis, p121).

Big Benefits Row: Live goes one step further – displaying the results of its opinion poll which asks ‘do you think the benefits system is fit or unfit for purpose’ and finds that two-thirds of respondents think it unfit.  This moment potently documents the democratic image that poverty porn television has of itself – as well as its profound lack of reflexivity.  Innocently asking ‘why are we talking about benefits so much’ at the very moment that it exploits such talk; populating a discussion panel with professional attention-seekers (‘self-styled public commentator’) and not one sociologist in sight; such compositions demonstrate how ‘public consent’ is prompted, manufactured and constrained.  Hall and his colleagues are eloquent on this – replace ‘crime’ with ‘welfare’ and they could be writing in response to poverty porn television;

“‘Public opinion’ about crime does not simply form up at random.  It exhibits a shape and a structure.  It follows a sequence.  It is a social process, not a mystery.  Even at the lowest threshold of visibility – in talk, in rumour, in the exchange of quick views and common-sense judgements – crime talk is not socially innocent […] the more an issue passes into the public domain, the more it is structured by the dominant ideologies about crime” (Policing the Crisis, p136)

We must interrupt – and keep interrupting – the crystallisation of ‘commonsense’ ideas about welfare.  The populist authoritarianism that is incited by poverty porn, and apparently licensed by such ‘public opinion’ polls, must be resisted.  Hall’s project to map the production of consent and the structuring of social knowledge has never been more urgent than now.  He heard, in the mugging crisis, “the ugly sound of an old conjuncture unravelling” (2013: xviii) – but what will we hear when the ugly echoes of poverty porn exploitation have died down?

Sociological Research Online has announced a Rapid Response to Channel 4’s Benefits Street – if you would like to contribute to this important issue you can find more details here.

Tracy Jensen’s research explores the classed and gendered intersections of contemporary parenting culture, and how these are reproduced across social, cultural, media and policy sites. Tracy tweets at @Drtraceyjensen

Hall, Stuart et al (2013) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, The State and Law & Order, 2nd Edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Categories: Rethinking The World

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3 replies »

  1. I’ve actually been applying ‘policing the crisis’ to Canine Breed Specific Legislation, especially here in the UK, in my own research analysis. It has been very fruitful indeed, quite astoundingly so. It’s good to see how useful it remains for other issues such as the Coalition’s treatment of people needing social security.

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