We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
On November 30, two million workers in Britain, where I’m a visiting scholar this term, 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. Real median income is predicted to fall by seven percent. This sort of erosion has not been seen since the late 1970s. Figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicate that the brunt of the British government’s latest austerity measures will be borne by the most vulnerable. Chancellor George Osborne’s reaction was to say that Britain needed “to live within its means”—something he obviously did not say to the megabanks that 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, and a most distinguished gentleman wearing a fine black wool walking coat told all the women to raise their hands and then asked, “Do you realize that seventy-percent of the cuts affect women disproportionately?” One woman said that up until three weeks ago she would have never imagined joining a union; now here she was addressing a crowd of 5,000 people on Broad Street. Not only were child hunger, health care for the elderly, and education mentioned, but also the environment, access to technology, and the need for a world summit of the 99 percent.
The overall message from Oxford was that it was time to think big—this global crisis demanded a global response. Major institutional changes are needed that, like the economic crisis itself, will shake up the social, political, and cultural spheres. Government stop-gap measures and political rhetoric were seen for what they were—appeasements that do not go to the roots of the problem. What we need for “thinking big” are the analytical tools that British cultural studies provides.
It has now been well over a half a century since what came to be known as “cultural studies” incubated in the works of scholars such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams. But even after becoming established at the University at Birmingham, cultural studies was and has always been too impressionistic for social scientists and too rigid for humanists; no one feels especially comfortable with its loose and amorphous object of study, “culture,” except perhaps some anthropologists. Take, for example, “structures of feeling”—that key phrase of cultural studies that describes a collective sense of a new historical moment. It’s hard not to clench one’s teeth at that one. And yet, perhaps like the Occupy movement, unsettledness works to the field’s benefit.
Cultural studies has proven to be eminently adaptable to the Occupy movement.
One of its great advances was to reveal the intimate connections among what it called “industry, democracy, and culture.” It saw culture as “articulating” the network of economic, social, and political life—a network that was vibrant and manifest that day in the streets of Oxford. On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, cultural studies endures as a potent way of understanding our predicament and has proven to be eminently adaptable to the Occupy movement.
The Long Revolution offers a particularly useful, wide-frame optic onto today’s global protests against the obscene concentration of wealth and power, and the cynical desecration of the common good in the name of economic necessity. Williams’ study argues forcefully for the need to think of “revolution” as a long, complex, unfolding human process, uncontained by pre-set categories or conventional spatial, imaginative, or political limits. Williams points out the immensity of the project to understand large world-historical phenomena, and yet the necessity of trying:
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, specialization: political scientists on one side, engineers on another, humanists on some other part of campus, et cetera). Yet this “scaling down” limits us in ways that can have dark political consequences. As Williams argued:
In the long revolution we are making our own scale, and the problem of expectations seems crucial in very 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.
Now is not the time to scale down—it’s time to think, and act, big.
David Palumbo-Liu is Professor and Director of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, and author, most recently, of The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (forthcoming). He edits Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox