Conjunctural Promises: A Retrospective Roundtable Honoring John Clarke
Kathy (Kathleen) Coll (U. San Francisco), Anu (Aradhana) Sharma (Wesleyan), Jeff Maskovsky (CUNY), Paul Stubbs (The Institute of Economics, Zagreb) and John Clarke (The Open University)
Summary: On November 22, 2019, at the AAA Annual Meting in Vancouver, Canada, an Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP) roundtable discussion was organized on the theme “Conjunctural Promises” in honor of the United Kingdom-born cultural studies and policy studies scholar John Clarke. Much of John Clarke's work has emphasized the value of conjunctural analysis over a singular or unitary account of politics and policy. John Clarke has long been concerned with the multiplicity of forces, pressures, tendencies, contradictions, and conflicts that mark the present and in the dominant, residual and emergent forms of politics that have shaped the last forty years, which he understands, following Stuart Hall, as a long-term moment of intersecting political crises. For John, the over-determined antagonisms of conjuncture are, at one and the same time, moments of possibility and of danger. His work, impossible to confine within disciplinary boundaries of cultural studies, anthropology, or social policy, points to the importance of collaboration in scholarly analysis and in political work.
This retrospective roundtable focused on the implications of Clarke's work for different time-space contexts, exploring some of the social, economic, cultural, governmental, political and historical forces that have coalesced in the making of contemporary crises as well as the possibilities of building new counter-hegemonic good sense. Panelists, three of whom are among the ‘voices in his head’ in his latest book Critical Dialogues: thinking together in turbulent times, provided critical comments on John Clarke's influence on their thinking, their work, and their politics. Finally, John Clarke responded to these comments and addressed some of the key challenges for conjunctural analysis for the present.
Kathy (Kathleen) Coll
I wanted to thank Paul Stubbs and Jeff Maskovksy for including me in this panel. I wish I could do good impressions of other voices and accents. It would be very useful today as I have been hearing John Clarke’s voice in my head a lot lately, even more often than usual. As I reflected on what I wanted to say about how he has impacted my life and work, as both academic and friend, I realized that, as special and unique as my John stories are for me, they will likely sound very familiar to others in this room, along with many more who are not here with us today.
John Clarke’s voice has been in my head since I first read Policing the Crisis (Hall et al 1978), which I read a few years later, but through the lens of crises in my hometown of San Francisco contemporary to its publication at the end of the 1970s. Deindustrialization and redevelopment were remapping and remaking political economy and racial politics. Mayor Alioto and my district Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated in their offices by a colleague, an Irish American former policeman who had been elected to the county Board of Supervisors by disgruntled old guard sectors of San Francisco’s working-class white ethnic communities. Almost 1,000 San Franciscans, mainly African American, had just died in Jonestown, Guyana in a mass cult murder by their white millenarian charismatic leader, who was himself a key figure in local politics. The International Hotel had finally fallen after ten years of struggle to defend the decrepit but beloved residential community built for and by low-income Filipino and Chinese immigrant elders. The struggle for justice for Los Siete de la Raza and revelations of FBI and SFPD infiltration of African American organizations framed local debates over race and policing for most of the decade.
The period of upheaval marked the end of the first post-’68 decade and coincided with deindustrialization of the local economy and the rise of finance and technology interests that produced Silicon Valley, but also the rise of a progressive local political culture that seems at odds with the country and hard to explain only in economic terms. Policing the Crisis offered me critical frameworks for contextualizing that period and the decades of upheaval and securitization that followed. By noting the intensity of my sentiments about the present, whether the experiences of my hometown in my youth or of politics in this country today, John helped me understand crises as complex, conjunctural and structural phenomena not easily addressed or resolved (Clarke 2010). John visited San Francisco in the years following the publication of Policing the Crisis, part of what we would now call a sofa-surfing tour of the US in which he engaged left activists including in San Francisco. This was roughly the same period in which I was digesting the book and being introduced to cultural studies as a student and young leftist myself.
I first met “The John Clarke” in real life, fourteen years ago at the SANA-CASCA joint meetings in Mérida, Yucatán. I attended a panel about citizenship on which he was, as is often the case, the only non-anthropologist. Also, as is his custom in these contexts, he began by announcing himself as a disqualified interloper “not an anthropologist” before proceeding to make a series of careful, conjunctural, and critical comments on citizenship, civility and British political subjectivity that had everyone nodding in engagement, if not agreement.
At that point in my career, I was struggling to think about what I as an ethnographer of immigrant political activism and citizenship had to contribute to discussions in what was supposedly my own discipline. I was also only a few years post-doc and had over ten years under my belt as a contingent academic and career adjunct professor. I did not have many publications. I did not speak from the floor at conferences. Every other speaker on the panel spoke French, which I did not, and still do not (John has, irritatingly, learned French in the interim). Somehow John and fellow panelist Catherine Neveu made me feel it was alright to stand up, admitting I likely misunderstood most of the papers, but still saying my piece in service to the panel’s efforts to advance the conversation about citizenship and belonging.
This is where I first saw in person how John confounds the borders of disciplines and politics of scale in citizenship studies, but also in academic hierarchies. In the course of working across and between the boundaries of cultural studies and policy studies, he kept making more room for more and different people at the table. I come from a cultural tradition that values hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and good craic, so to be welcomed to intellectual fellowship with someone who loves to eat, drink, walk, and talk as much as John does has been a great blessing on many levels. After that encounter in Mérida, French anthropologist Catherine Neveu invited Brazilian political scientist Evelina Dagnino, John, and me to work with them on an interdisciplinary project that had us reading, writing, arguing, walking, eating and drinking and arguing more about citizenship for three months in Paris. That was followed by more of the same over seven more years, condensed into short intensive bursts before, during, and after every conference we could rationalize attending together. Eventually, thanks mainly to John’s and Catherine’s discipline and clarity, punctuated by a lot of yelling from the Americans (South & North), the four voices became one book Disputing Citizenship (2014, Policy Press). While a thoroughly collective project, John’s influence is clear. He collaborates in writing as he does face to face, working to lift the collective project without subsuming his own, or anyone else’s, situated knowledge and voice.
Citizenship is conventionally understood as a form of relation, most often as a relation between the citizen and the state, but also as a relation of membership (of a society or political community). But citizenship acts as a point of connection – indeed, a point of mobilisation – for many individuals and groups who identify themselves as citizens when they act, name themselves as people who would be citizens in demanding citizenship, or demand that citizenship be enlarged, enhanced or transformed to engage with other issues, identities and desires. Citizenship is thus a potent keyword in social, cultural and political terms, naming actual or imagined possible relationships…Citizenship is, for us, a connective word in a more specific sense: it connects and draws together the four authors of this book from very different locations...(W)e attempt to challenge the recurrent claims of disciplinary ownership of the concept of citizenship, most evidently, those of political science and political philosophy. Our own approach to citizenship is relatively undisciplined…As we will show during the book, the entanglements between citizenship, culture, politics and power are the organising themes of our own conversations…What is at stake in this book is the problem of how citizenship is formed out of contextually located and animated entanglements of culture, politics and power – and never culture in general, politics in general or power in general. (pp. 1-3)
I only know a fraction of the scholars who John has helped in their careers, so I know my story is not unusual, but it is mine and I am grateful for the chance to share my own acknowledgement here. The year Disputing Citizenship was published, and thanks in part to that publication, I was finally able to transition after 25 years as a contingent faculty member, a 47-year-old woman, into a tenure track job. It wasn’t an anthropology department that gave me this chance, but rather a Politics department, where an interdisciplinary book on policy made my work legible in the context of US political science. No small feat. In my hometown. Where my family has lived for five generations. The site of most of my fieldwork. I literally won the academic lottery, thanks in no small part to the work I would not have completed without John’s encouragement, incitement, disputes, walks, talks, and many, many letters of recommendation. Along the way I have watched him do the same for younger scholars, especially women fighting to make their work known and understood where disciplinary boundaries of academic citizenship and cultural boundaries of gender, sexuality, race and nationality all constrain us.
There are many more stories I could tell about what it’s like to be neighbors and work alongside John for 8-10 hours a day, every single day of the week, for months at a time. I have had the great privilege to share most of these stories with Janet, and John will be glad I will not do so here. As he has been known to say, always giving his mother, and Yorkshire motherland, due credit: “I am a well-brought up boy.” This unruly Irish American is very grateful for that alternative role model, as well as this chance to say just a little about what I owe John, the women scholars he helped bring into my life (especially Janet Newman, Catherine Neveu and Evelina Dagnino) and the complicated lineage of citizens, scholars, and activists that brought us together in relations that are always, like Balibar’s metaphor of citizenship, always imperfect and under construction (2004). What a blessing to have you as a friend, John.
Balibar, Etienne, 2004. We, The People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Clarke, John, Kathleen Coll, Evelina Dagnino and Catherine Neveu, 2014. Disputing Citizenship. Bristol: Policy Press.
Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: MacMillan
Anu (Aradhana) Sharma Thinking with JC - Keywords (glossary)
Thank you, Jeff and Paul, for organizing this and for thinking of including me.
It is a pretty daunting task to try and convey to you, John, and to everyone here what your friendship and ideas have meant for me. For John embodies the intellectual generosity and collegiality, the political commitment, and above all the goodness and genuine warmth that is rare to chance upon in the world of academia. At least that is what my jaded experience tells me.
I owe our first encounter to Kathy: Paris, 12 years ago, at a workshop on citizenship, where John had not only read each word of what I had written, but had several words of his own to complement each one of mine. Here I was, a little brown female “newt” in the overwhelming world of the Western academy, trying to find my feet on a very slippery and uneven terrain and fully expecting to be cut to down to size at every turn. John not only took me seriously, he took me under his wing, and gave me the confidence to take little flights of imagination and leaps of faith. I remember that lunch we had in Paris—was it over three hours?—where we polished off at least one bottle of a glorious French red—for lunch—and where he gifted me a copy of one of his favorite books on the history of Paris. And where he listened to my ideas, because that is what he wanted to do. Who does that anymore?
I remember that we talked about India and I asked him if he had traveled there. No, he replied, and in what I would later come to understand as his characteristic style, expressed his dilemmas about traveling to a place in whose history he was so entangled. John’s acknowledgement of that historical burden was striking. Here was a person who not only wrote and thought about power and politics, but positioned himself in relationship to these processes. I saw this as an instance of his commitment to decoloniality as an embodied ethos and practice, and I was floored. John had my ears and he has had them ever since.
John is a rare gem, a collaborator, mentor, sounding-board and co-conspirator, without whose wisdom and wisecracks, support and intellectual acuity, and his “hmmm… yes, buts,” I would not be where I am, doing what I do. So, how do you even attempt to give words to all the thoughts and memories and emotions that well up when you think about raising a toast to John Clarke? Well, you turn to his words, and you think with him. That is what I propose to do today, very briefly. I do so in resistance to the unsettling ring of finality that celebrations like this often have. I tip my hat and say cheers to John provisionally, knowing full well that we must, we will, continue on this convivial path of commoning and collaboration. I refuse to see today as a closure.
If you were listening carefully, I just used a bunch of “C” words. Commoning and conviviality come from Gustavo Esteva, another person with whom I think - what you call the voices in your head, John, I call my invisible backpack or the Jibreels (Gabriels) on my shoulders. Gustavo Esteva (2012) emphasizes the verb commoning over commons, as a way to mark the ongoingness of building commons, becoming in-common with others, as a practice of refusing neoliberal capitalism. The words Collaboration and Closure come from JC himself.
Indeed, “C” words seem to curiously surround John Clarke. There is of course “Clarke” and the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Or consider the titles of some of his books and articles: Policing the Crisis; Changing Welfare, Changing States; Disputing Citizenship; Of Crises and Conjunctures…; Critical Dialogues. Then of course, there are words like contradiction, conversation, commonsense, clarification, civility, contestation, condensation, contingency and so many others that John both expounds upon and critiques. I have raided many of these Cs because I find them provocative and supremely helpful in making sense of the worlds I inhabit and write about. I will take up a few today: crises, conjuncture, collaboration, (resisting) closure, and will add another—composting.
JC is a critical thinker of crises, par excellence: crises that condense many contradictions and that converge at a particular conjuncture to create rupture. There is nothing linear or singular or temporally definable or predictable about crises and conjunctures. That is what I have learned from John - to sit with and really think through the heterogenous elements that coalesce, often surprisingly and with “teeth gritting harmony” (Althusser 1971), to produce a crisis in a specific moment. A conjuncture is that moment of overdetermined condensation of multiple layers and processes, in precarious articulation with each other. (I am choosing my words very deliberately, JC.) It is a moment of danger, but also one of possibility, for precarious assemblages congeal contradictions and can be undone. Conjuncture, then is not merely a way to understand crises and predicaments, but to also intervene in them, to disassemble them or to re-assemble them otherwise.
This is what has been so useful for me in thinking about the “empowerment” as a particular assemblage at a particular neoliberal, late capitalist conjuncture: to tease out is contradictions, risks, and possibilities. And I continue to work with this idea in my current work where I examine the politics of neoliberal “good governance” and its conjunctural workings and consequences at a moment when populist regimes in India and elsewhere are surging, as is the moral politics of right versus wrong. This is a conjuncture that makes a hash of the givenness and stability of our usual political categories of mainstream and alternative, right and left, capitalist and socialist, democratic and authoritarian… I think with John to muse about the complexities of our present. His collaborative impulse—the voices in his head—also encourages me to expand our conversations.
In that spirit, I want to add a new C to John’s repertoire, which converges with his idea of conjunctural crises and his love for Raymond Williams; it also speaks to the ecological predicament we find ourselves in. I am being a little playful here, so bear with me. The word I propose is “composting.” Here I am thinking with Stacey Ann Langwick (2018), who uses the word composting to consider habitality and life in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis Tanzania. The Latin root of compost is composita or componere, that is, something put together. Compost also signals a cyclical ongoingness, a regeneration in decay. Langwick (2018:431-2) writes:
“Compost is that which fosters a process of living-through. It trains our attention on the ability of parts of the past that have been left behind, residues and scraps, to transform through specific entanglements into something other than themselves—and, if carefully tended, to transform into the components of rich healthy soil, the entanglement that grounds growth and other life. Compost re-members and in so doing, it decenters the work of crisis and its forms of forgetting… Composting proposes an ethic of return or a regular turning. The past is turned in and under to cultivate an environment dense with matter and with the potential for transformative relations.”
There is something about compost as metaphor that I find compelling, especially in the context of John’s work. For I think of compost as a conjunctural and uneven churning of residuals to unexpected emergents, and to generative effects (Williams 1977). It is a useful metaphor for thinking about conjuncture and our present ongoingness - the turning and re-turning that composting requires. It is also useful as a practice of doing theory - the coming back to, clarification, critical thinking that John writes about. And finally, composting can be considered as a decolonial ethos, always under cultivation, to live in and beyond crisis, in the Anthropocene. I quote Langwick again: “Composting calls for an ethics that rests in ontological dynamism. Our stakes in each other cannot be articulated through a loyalty or faithfulness to what one is; rather, the stakes consist in a commitment to becoming other—to becoming that through which other living might happen” (2018:433). It is these becomings—becoming “with” and becoming otherwise, in an ongoing emergent way, as a scholar and a person—that I owe to you, JC.
But, of course, now I am straying from Cs to Bs. And since I am on that path, let me stray a little further to Ps. I want to play with John’s idea of provisionality as a way of avoiding hardened closure. Here I want to think with J.K. Gibson-Graham’s idea of weak theory (they are among the feminist Jibreels on my shoulders). Gibson-Graham (2006) write against totalizing, all-encompassing theory and its all-knowing hubris, which they contend generates paralysis and melancholia, particularly in the mainstream left. Building on Eve Sedgwick’s work, they argue that “the embracing reductiveness and confident finality associated with the practice of theorizing is a form of paranoia… [P]aranoia wants to know everything in advance to protect itself against surprises. It attempts to show intricately and at great length how everything adds up…. Paranoia extends the terrain of the predictable” (Gibson-Graham 2006:4). Your work, John, is exciting precisely because it compels me to break out of the paranoia, predictability, and paralysis, which is so easy to inhabit in times of crises; because it forces me to contend with chance, the what-ifs, the conjunctures whose multiple strands do not fit into a given logic or end; and because it allows me to remain open to surprises that cannot be known in advance. Your writing pushes me to keep alive a sense of curiosity - to see how things may work out without falling into predictable patterns and to think provisionally.
In Critical Dialogues you ask us to seek “provisional resting points” rather than closure in our thinking. You write: “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, has always struck me as an indispensable reminder of this provisionality—and I do not think I have written anything since that has not been a working paper in this sense. But provisional is not the same as tentative: I write and say things that are assertive” (2019:9).
So, allow me to be John-the-contrarian for a moment and say, “Yes, but…” Why prioritize assertion over tentativeness. Don’t the ideas of conjuncture, overdetermination, articulation, and provisionality compel us to cultivate tentativeness as an ethic, and is tentativeness necessarily flawed? This is a very minor quibble, I know, but bear with me as I continue in John-the-contrarian mode and call forth JKGG, once again. They write:
“What if we believed that the goal of theory was not only to extend and deepen knowledge by confirming what we already know—that the world is full of cruelty… and systemic oppression? What if we asked theory to do something else—to help us see openings, to help us find happiness, to provide a space of freedom and possibility? As a means of getting theory to yield something new, Sedgwick suggests reducing its reach, localizing its purview, practicing a ‘weak’ form of theory that cannot encompass the present and shut down the future… The practice of doing weak theory requires acting as a beginner, refusing to know too much [and] refusing to extend diagnoses too widely or deeply” (Gibson-Graham, 2006:7-8).
What Gibson-Graham (following Sedgwick) call weak theory, I understand as processual and provisional thinking (a la John), which is located in time and place, and is tentative in that it resists an all-knowing self and given ends.
Cultivating an openness to tentativeness, at once humble and creative and deep, is something that I have learned to embrace: my discipline asks me to do that as does your work, John. It is in your spirit of “clarification” - of returning to texts over and over again in a slow process of dialogic and collective musing - that I think we need to revisit Gibson-Graham and others as we partake in the pleasure and the potential of tentative theorizing at the present conjuncture. If overarching and assertive narratives have done little to get us out of the mess we find ourselves in, perhaps it is the attentiveness to small things (hat-tip Arundhati Roy) and playful tentativeness that might lead us to openings that we desperately seek, and help us win something. As Stuart Hall put it: “Leave the heroism out of it. And just win a few” (1997:64)
Here's to many more critical dialogs, collective composting, crossborder raiding, resisting closure, making theory, collaboratively and tentatively over glasses of Chateauneuf du Pape, and maybe, if I can convince you, co-traveling to India. Cheers, JC!
Althusser, Louis. 1971. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation). In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. B. Brewster, pp. 127-186, New York: Monthly Review Press.
Clarke, John. 2019. Critical Dialogues: Thinking Together in Turbulent Times. Bristol: Policy Press.
Esteva, Gustavo. 2012. “Commoning in the New Society.” Unpublished Essay Manuscript.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hall, Stuart. 1997. Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities. In Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. King, Anthony ed. Pp. 41-68. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Langwick, Stacey Ann. 2018. The Politics of Habitability: Plants, Healing, and Sovereignty in a Toxic World. Cultural Anthropology 33(3):415-443.
Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jeff Maskovsky John Clarke and The Promises of Conjunctural Thinking
(I knew John was socially promiscuous in the intellectual circles in which we are fellow travellers, but I did not know that he seduced me with the same game that he used to seduce Kathy, with one notable difference. Although I have always thought of myself as younger than John, unlike Kathy, he has never referred to me as such.)
I first met John at a AAA meeting in Washington DC in 2001. He attended a session I was on, on US welfare politics, with Judith Goode, Catherine Kingfisher and Sandi Morgen. A year out of graduate school, my academic future felt very uncertain. So I did what many a young insecure white boy-scholar might do: I channelled all of my fears and insecurities into a very righteous Marxist account of the neoliberalization of US poverty governance, which John was in the audience to hear.
After the session, John introduced himself. He hoped, I assume, to make a connection with Judy, Catherine and Sandi, as I’m quite sure he had his doubts about me. But he didn’t exclude me. In that interaction, and beyond, John tolerated my rough edges, my poor manners, and my righteous, overly simplistic analysis, and thus began one of the most important intellectual conversations of my life. Since then, John and I have participated in a range of wonderful projects and kept up a conversation that is almost two decades long. We recently spent time together thinking about populism in a series of workshops that led to the publication of an anthology, Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism, which West Virginia University Press published in early 2020 (Maskovsky and Bjork-James 2020a). I am grateful to John for being such a constant, thoughtful and kind collaborator and friend. I’ve told him many times that when I am doing intellectual work, I hear his voice loudest in my head.
In the short time that I have today, I couldn’t possibly do justice to John’s broad and deep scholarly influence on me, anthropology, or interdisciplinary cultural studies. So I have decided, for this occasion, to share with you the story of a recent moment when John’s way of thinking, and his support, guided me to think conjuncturally in a context in which others were thinking in other ways. The story is about how best to account for what some are calling the “global populist wave” or “the illiberal turn,” but which I like to refer to as angry politics. I hope that the story gives you a sense of the importance of John’s work and of John himself to thinking conjuncturally in these difficult and uncertain times.
Here briefly is the story. I participated in a workshop on “the illiberal turn” that explored the connections between the rise of various right-wing populisms, mostly in Europe and the United States, and the shifting global political economy. An important part of the discussion centered, unexpectedly (at least to me), on the rise of China as a rival capitalist regime to the global capitalist north/west. The thesis that emerged was that, in the post-cold war period, the rivalry between these two forms of capitalism has unsettled key articulations of nation, state, and the social realm. This unsettling has undermined middle-class fractions across Europe and in the United States, even as it has enabled the expansion of the middle classes in Asia and in other parts of the world. Those squeezed out from the middle classes, disillusioned with neoliberalism, have now turned to the right in search of some sort of redress to the decline of their material wellbeing and the erosion of their dominant civilizational position on the world stage, the argument went.
Now, I agree that class-based disaffections are playing an important role in Europe and the US and elsewhere in advancing recent gains by the populist right, and I am also convinced that China’s rise and its economic reverberations across the world are reshaping politics elsewhere in new and unexpected ways. This latter point is an important aspect of the new global political economy, and its implications for globalization, development, and the articulation of nation, states, and social welfare are themes that we are only just beginning to grapple with seriously. But I’m quite sure as well that there is more to the story than this. Indeed, for me, an adequate explanation for right wing populism’s appeal today requires that we attend not just to capitalism’s accumulation regimes, class politics, and imperialist rivalries, but also to race, gender and sexual politics, to the local and the particular, and to the multiplicity of forces, antagonisms, affects, and conflicts that shape politics as well. I sent off an email to John in which I vented my frustrations with the direction that the workshop conversation had gone. “Do you think maybe other things besides capitalism alone might shape politics from time to time?” I asked glibly, followed by the word, “Oy.” “Oy indeed,” John replied. And then he shared that he’d recently enduring something similar.
It’s no surprise that John and I bonded over the “capitalism alone” argument (Milanovic 2019). Let me take a few minutes to elaborate a few aspects of conjunctural thinking, and of John’s version of it in particular, that I see as crucial to the effort to understand and confront the anger that seems to saturate the political scene of late.
The first point is that multiplicity matters. Conjunctural analysis enables a nuanced understanding of the emergent political forms of the present, and it ought to be embraced not out of any sort of clannish politico-theoretical fealty to Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, or John himself, but rather because of its explanatory power; for it can advance the urgent task of explaining the dismaying politic developments that we are enduring, contesting, and implicated in in ways that other approaches cannot. John’s recent writing on Brexit exemplifies this point (Clarke 2020; Clarke and Newman 2019). The vote, he argues, is multiply motivated as frustrations with politics-as-usual and globalism were linked with anti-immigration and anti-European sentiments in the Leave campaign. Indeed, overlapping constituencies with various disaffections and multiple ideas for how they might be remedies went into the Brexit vote. An important lesson from John’s analysis is thus that if we ignore the multiple sources of anger and the ambiguities that persist despite the spectacle of a popular referendum, if we ascribe instead simple or unitary explanations for events that are shaped by multiple perspectives and multiple political forces of disaffection, we can’t see the new lines of political danger and possibility that open up in the aftermath of moments such as the vote for Brexit.
My approach to understanding the rise of Trumpism focuses similarly on a multiplicity of contradictory and ambiguous convergences. Trumpism is indeed a political backlash against liberal globalist cosmopolitanism, and, indeed, it does channel the disaffection of various fractions of the US working and middle classes in a new but not wholly unprecedented political direction. But I would also argue for the centrality of racialized subjects in the making of Trump-era politics, and for the specific understanding of Trumpism as a form of white nationalist politics that has shattered the liberal racial consensus of the post–civil rights era, the hallmarks of which are color blindness or liberal multiculturalism (Maskovsky 2020). Trumpism is further about gender politics, as Trump, as with many other populist leaders elsewhere, cultivates a public image of himself as a “strongman” who is uniquely capable of rescuing a nation feminized by political correctness, affirmative action, and multiculturalism from its liberal establishment enemies (Maskovsky and Bjork-James 2020b). Trump’s chronic lying, his impeachable offenses, and his overall lack of presidential comportment do little to undermine his popular support, since his followers are far too enraged at the liberal establishment and their media accomplices to trust their accounts or opinions.
A second important point about conjunctural thinking is about the local and the particular as important sites for theorizing. The brilliant feminist geographer Cindi Katz has criticized what she calls major theory – theory with global ambitions that is invested in making the broadest of claims – for ignoring agency, subjectivity, incoherence, contradiction, forms of difference, and lived experience in the ambition of capturing the totality of power’s impulses and operations”. I also see John as a major thinker in what Cindi refers to as minor theory, theory that, because it is grounded, fluid and relational and because it speaks to the problematics of our time with a commitment to the local and the particular, is the antidote to the masculinist, grand-narratives posturing of major theory (Katz 1996; 2017). In his work, John has written persuasively, and humorously, against “apocalyptical political economy” (Clarke 2003), “inertial institutional-political analysis” (Clarke 2004) and post-Foucauldian epochal thinking (Clarke 2008). These critiques are not rooted in the partisan theoretical warfare as it has played out in the last few decades. For John, it doesn’t matter if major theory is Marxist or post-structuralist, critical theoretical or social theoretical. Indeed, John is suspicious of any theory that presumes that the people who are summoned by power respond to it simply or simplistically (Clarke 2003). This sensibility opens up a space for taking seriously people’s refusals, resistances and recalcitrance, and encourages us not to overstate the power of dominant governing projects, practices, and rationalities. We are all no doubt familiar with John’s work on neoliberalism’s attempted to reorganize the social, responsibilize citizen-subjects, and reorganize the social realm, but these are attempts, as John insists. They are never the end of the story in John’s work (Clarke 2001, 2007, 2008).
The best accounts of angry politics today are similarly rooted in minor theory. They speak back to the grand narratives about the global populist wave with a mode of theorizing that is not just attentive to geographical and historical specificity but that uses deep knowledge of places outside of, say, Manchester in the 1950s, to consider how authoritarian rule emerges and how encounters with it are made sensible and interpreted by various people across an uneven and highly differentiated landscape. Thinking dialectically about the particular and the general requires that we trace the rise of angry nationalisms, right-wing populisms, racist xenophobia, and various forms of authoritarianism in connection to the fraying of the global neoliberal order while simultaneously emphasizing in our accounts of that order its instabilities, contradictions, and the limits and limitations of its projects. What I am trying to say here is that simple, unitary, or reductionist explanations of neoliberalism impede our understanding of the turns to authoritarianism that have arisen in the spaces that have opened as the neoliberal order weakens and exhausts itself as a governing project.
And this leads to a third point about conjunctural thinking, which is about political possibilities and thinking otherwise. John has always insisted, as a matter of both theory and description, that the emergent does not ever arrive into an empty space. He frequently cites Raymond Williams on this point, directing us to consider the emergent in relation to the dominant and the residual, which frequently have quite a bit left to say and do even as new politics and governing practices arise (Williams 1977). For example, in his influential account of the reconfiguration, not death, of the “social” and of the public realm under conditions of neoliberal globalization, John emphasizes how older ideas and institutionalizations of the public, and of the state’s obligations to its citizens, resist transformation, as for example when the British public continues to express enthusiasm for old time public services and forms of collectivism that are not subordinated to the economy on the terms established by neoliberals. He further insists that new political potentialities may surface when people respond to dominant framings of the economy, social and the political with residual concerns and questions (Clarke 2004).
It is crucial, I think, to apply this insight to cases of angry politics and rising authoritarianism. With respect to the US, residual questions and concerns around collectivity, welfare, public services, and the social realm itself have been articulated to menacing, reactionary, and racist forms of white nationalist national identity in the current conjuncture. Indeed, Trumpism works as a form of authoritarian rule that is heavily invested in a set of residual questions and concerns that are particular to white middle-class men and their presumably heterosex families (Maskovsky in press). By elaborating these concerns in white nationalist terms, Trumpism speaks back to the dominant authoritarian form of neoliberalism that came before it and that continues to dominate, popularly and politically. Neoliberalism’s durability can be seen in many places, in, for example, the liberal fascination with “the truth,” and in the popular obsession with “the deep state.” Yet it is a mistake to assume that the political landscape in the United States is comprised exclusively by neoliberalism and the more dangerous and exclusionary form of authoritarian rule that is Trumpism. Indeed, there is a much broader set of political possibilities at play, including those that are elaborated as antiracist, queer, anti-colonial, and antisexist. (And conjuctural thinking offers a way to see the continuities between the forms of colonial, capitalist, antiblack, antiqueer, sexist, and settler state violence that adhere in liberalism over the long durée and to insist as well that the Trumpism poses new dangers and represents a new governing form.) We are also in the midst of a popular reimagining of social democracy. That a visible social democratic polity has emerged, and that the term “socialism” has surfaced in the context of Trump’s ascent, is no small political achievement as is the rise of anti-racist political action across the United States and the demand to defund the police. Ultimately, it is essential to consider the surfacing of emergent forms of more positive, emancipatory politics, to investigate the ways that they rearticulate state, nation and the social in ways that differ from dominant and residual articulations, and to track how they mine the residual for inspiration and popular appeal. Creating and sustaining spaces of political experimentation in increasingly illiberal or postpolitical spaces inevitably raises questions about the dominant and residual and about particular forms of institutionalization (the Democratic Party, for example).
To conclude, conjunctural analysis compels us to place multiplicity, the local and the particular, and the dominant, emergent and residual in the same frame, enabling scholarship that points to ways of thinking and acting otherwise in these difficult and uncertain times. John’s work is of particular importance because in it, he helps us to resist perspectives and approaches that offer big, broad, easy answers that foreclose political possibilities. We are all vulnerable, I think, to seduction by major theory. John is a master of persuasion in the effort to break major theory’s hold on us. He provides us with a deep intellectual well of insights about the instabilities, contradictions, limits and limitations of dominant forms of politics and governance. His work helps us to displace the “mansplaining” tendencies of major theory, and the ease with which it evacuates and flattens out differences and the lived experiences of people who, when summoned by power, refuse to cooperate (cf., Katz forthcoming). John nourishes our ethnographic, historical and cultural imagination, helping us to play our part, as academics ought, in imagining, and helping to bring about, a more positive future.
A final word about John and his personal style of intellectual engagement. As I mentioned above, John’s voice is one of the loudest I hear in my head when I sit down to write and when I am struggling to think through something new or difficult. I feel fortunate to know John well enough to be able to conjure in my head pretty much what he sounds like, and what it feels like to be in conversation with him. John’s voice is warm, friendly, gentle, and kind; he is charming, he speaks politely, and he is often self-effacing, though we all know that false modesty trick that he does sometimes, as a prelude to a point of disagreement or to his offering up of a critical perspective. I have to admit that hearing John’s voice — in my head and in real-time talk — is sometimes pretty jarring for this gay, Jewish New Yorker who has a very different presentational style and mode of contemplation. Sometimes it takes me a great deal of effort to really hear John – and hearing him often requires multiple acts of translation on my part. In my head, I sometimes rephrase what John is saying into the crass and vulgar terms with which I am more comfortable. But I try as well to tack back to what John said, and how he said it. I have come to see this translating practice as generative and relational; it has done so much to crystalize for me the intimate terms of our collective intellectual struggle for justice, freedom and equality, and has made me a better scholar and person. Thank you, John.
Here are some other things I’ve learned from John:
1. Do not take disciplines too seriously.
2. Don’t use a political crisis as an opportunity to show how great your discipline is in explaining what the hell is going on in the world.
3. Sanctimony in academic politics is annoying and forecloses vital and creative ways of thinking.
4. Don’t participate in an intellectual conversation that makes you feel like shit.
5. Good (Italian) food, wine and furniture matter, not only in bourgeois ways.
Clarke, John 2001. Globalization and Welfare States: Some Unsettling Thoughts. In Globalization and European Welfare States. R. Sykes, B. Palier and P. Prior, eds. New York: Palgrave. Pp. 19–37.
Clarke, John. 2003. "Turning inside Out? Globalization, Neo-liberalism and Welfare States". Anthropologica. 45 (2): 201-214.
Clarke, John. 2004. Dissolving the Public Realm?: The Logics and Limits of Neo-Liberalism. Journal of Social Policy, 33(01) Pp. 27–48.
Clarke, John. 2007. Changing welfare changing states: new directions in social policy. London: Sage.
Clarke, John. 2008. Living with/in and without neo-liberalism. Focaal, 2008(51) pp. 135–147.
Clarke, John. 2020. Frustrations, Failures and Fractures: Brexit and ‘politics as usual’ in the UK.
In Maskovsky, Jeff, and Sophie Bjork-James, eds. Beyond populism: angry politics and the twilight of neoliberalism. Morgantown : West Virginia University Press, Pp. 99-116.
Clarke J., and Newman J. 2019. "What's the subject? Brexit and politics as articulation". Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology. 29 (1): 67-77.
Katz, Cindi. 1996. "Towards Minor Theory". Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 14 (4): 487-499.
Katz, Cindi. 2017. "Revisiting minor theory". Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 35 (4): 596-599.
Katz, Cindi. Forthcoming. “Planetary Urbanization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Maskovsky, Jeff 2020. “Other People’s Race Problem.” In Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism, edited by Jeff Maskovsky and Sophie Bjork-James. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, Pp. 167-181.
Maskovsky, Jeff. In press. Engendering White Nationalism. In Christine Kray and Uli Linke, eds., Formations of Political Culture in the Trump Era. New York and London: Routledge.
Maskovsky, Jeff, and Sophie Bjork-James. 2020a. Beyond populism: angry politics and the twilight of neoliberalism. Morgantown : West Virginia University Press.
Maskovsky, Jeff, and Sophie Bjork-James. 2020b. Afterword: The Future of Angry Politics. In Maskovsky, Jeff and Sophie Bjork-James, eds, Beyond populism: angry politics and the twilight of neoliberalism. Morgantown : West Virginia University Press, Pp. 276-282.
Milanovic, Branko. 2019. Capitalism, alone: the future of the system that rules the world. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Paul Stubbs John Clarke and Thinking Conjuncturally About Social Policy
It took me until November 2005, when I was already 46 years old, to meet John face-to-face. I had followed his work at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and, subsequently, at the Open University virtually all of my academic life. ‘Policing the Crisis’ by Stuart Hall, Brian Roberts, John, Chas Critcher and Tony Jefferson (Hall et al, 1978) was, and still is, one of those books, read as a young undergraduate, that convinced me that academic writing could be engaged, passionate, and make a difference. It was John’s book ‘Changing Welfare, Changing States’ (Clarke, 2004), that turned me from an admirer to stalker, however. John had me at ‘hello’ or, to be more precise, he had me by the Preface, where he stressed the relevance of anthropological approaches to social and public policy. The actual quote, in case Jeff and others need reminding, is: “I feel especially fortunate to have ‘discovered’ anthropology and anthropologists in this process – especially the CASCA/SANA axis and its commitment to doing hard work in hard times”. The book provided huge encouragement for me to continue my own explorations along these lines, which had begun in collaboration with Noemi Lendvai, having felt precisely the frustration that John named, that “many of the most important ‘turns’ in social science had been ignored, dismissed or misunderstood by the main body of social policy scholarship” with “complex concepts” being “left to others” and arriving “late, if at all, and invariably in highly simplified form”.
The collaboration, with John, Noemi and Dave Bainton, that became the book ‘Making Policy Move’ (Clarke et al, 2015) was, without doubt, the best intellectual journey of my life. I do not remember any “twelve-hour working days” that others have spoken of or, if I do, they were punctuated by at least four hours of lunches and dinners. I now realize that the three years from conception to completion of the book was really quick compared to other collaborative endeavors; perhaps John has translated or even negated ‘slow scholarship’ in ‘new times’.
John’s work, like that of Claus Offe before him (Offe, 1984), perhaps, albeit in a very different way, suggested that reconfigurations of ‘the social’ were not ephemeral or epiphenomena, should not be rendered technocratic through rigid typologies and endless cranking of variables until you supposedly find robust ‘regimes’, but are absolutely central to the work of hegemony and of resistance. In John’s invocation, social policy is always complex, contradictory and contested. It is also profoundly contingent and conjunctural. A lot of Cs there . John’s work, whilst empirically primarily focused on the UK and the United States, a point to which I return later, opens up, for me, new ways of thinking about social policy in South East Europe, a space where, as John conceptualized, very early on in our dialogues, “governance and the subject and objects of governing are in process of simultaneous and mutual invention or constitution”. If my critical thinking on social policy in South East Europe has been sharpened, it is largely under John’s influence. I heard his voice in my head as I wrote, in a very recent text on Croatia, “social welfare, then, is not a marginal or side effect of authoritarian neoliberalism, but a privileged arena of struggle for a hegemonic moral economy” (Stubbs, 2019).
I was so lucky that John said yes to my initial invitation to speak at a workshop “in a spa just outside of Zagreb” and that he found the “seen better days” ambience of the hotel venue entirely to his liking or, as he would put it, “as long as you are in good company, it doesn’t matter where you are”. John continues to take part, and always speak first, at a course I co-organize every two years in Dubrovnik and I was also lucky that he accepted an invitation to speak at a left-green summer school on the island of Vis a couple of years ago, providing much needed inputs to the theme of the relationship between the commons and the state. In truth, any time with John is a time of delight.
It is important to remember that, for John, conjunctural analysis is “not a theory but an orientation”. Although Gramsci, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams are most often evoked in his writing, Althusser seems to be there too, having famously argued that we need to seek to understand “the exact balance of forces (and) state of overdetermination of the contradictions at any given moment” (Althusser, 1970), not unlike John’s plea to analyze “the character of the … moment – the forces, tendencies, forms of power, and relations of domination and subordination … condensed in a conjuncture” (Clarke, 2019) Condensation, contradiction, overdetermination and articulation are concepts that John deploys a lot although the relationship between them is not always clear. In the keywords section of Critical Dialogues, John suggests that conjuncture itself “remains elusive both as a concept and an approach” (Clarke, 2019). It certainly focuses attention on what John calls “the multiplicity of forces, accumulated antagonisms, and possible lines of emergence”. In Changing Welfare, Changing States, and taken further in some of the conversations in Critical Dialogues, it is this idea of ‘unstable equilibria’, taken from Gramsci, that unlocks the complex and fluid meanings of welfare amidst the shifting nature of both the state and imaginaries of nationhood and family.
As this is meant to be a critical dialogue, I want to note four puzzles, questions or concerns about John’s conjunctural analysis of welfare that have struck me over the years. The first is the relationship between conjunctures and epochs. Are conjunctures sub-epochal, in that the neo-liberal age, broadly following on from the Keynesian age, can contain many different kinds of welfare conjunctures? Or should we be anti-epochal in our thinking and in our politics? Secondly, does it matter that your work is largely confined to the UK when you insist that conjunctures can never be reduced to the space of the nation state? Whilst I share your worry about the shift from ‘methodological nationalism’ to ‘methodological globalism’, how can we address the transnational and the supranational better within conjunctural analysis? Thirdly, whilst sharing your skepticism regarding the determinism of David Harvey and, even, Bob Jessop, where precisely is ‘his Majesty the economy’ (Althusser, 1970) in your work, John? Although it leads him into over-rigid and over-theoretical formulations, shouldn’t we at least take seriously Jessop’s idea that “the complex ecology of accumulation regimes, modes of regulation, and spatio-temporal fixes” (Jessop, 2013) need to be brought back in and not reduced only to the realm of discourse or moral economy. Perhaps the borrowing by Noemi Lendvai and I (Lendvai and Stubbs, 2015) from the work of Jamie Peck and others on variegated capitalisms (Peck and Theodore, 2007) may offer some way of addressing this, I humbly suggest. Fourthly, John, you have been a wonderful supporter of intersectional and post-colonial approaches to social welfare; as Anu has said, you most definitely have a ‘decolonial ethics’, but this is not really reflected fully in your own writings. I wonder if you agree with this and what some of the implications might be if it is true. None of these are meant to put you on the spot but I would love to discuss any or all of them more with you.
Our dialogue in the book was, appropriately enough, recorded during the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, for both of us a kind of “home away from home”, in Chicago in November 2013. Listening to the recorded version (Clarke and Stubbs, 2019) captures something of the spontaneous humor of the encounter as two working-class kids wonder out loud how they got this far without ever really being found out. I interpret this, now, as an affective corollary of our continued interest in the power of ‘ambivalence’ in critical thought and action. ‘Ambivalence’ is unambivalently nailed down in the ‘keywords’ section of Critical Dialogues as “the condition of not being certain in theoretical or political terms and thereby being open to the play of different orientations or possibilities” or, more simply thinking and feeling “more than one thing at a time”. Discussing what, for me at any rate, had been a subconscious fear of ‘dilettantism’ was surprising, even a bit shocking, and yet at the same time, a deeply liberating enunciation. A recent lyric from the wonderful debut album by the Dublin-based poetry-driven post-punk ensemble Fontaines D.C. runs as follows:
A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money
An idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking
A phony is someone who demands respect for the principles they effect
A dilettante is someone who can't tell the difference between fashion and style
Well, John has a style that will never go out of fashion. He mixes it beautifully with kindness and generosity. In an interview in November 2016, Jennifer Warnes recalled Leonard Cohen’s ‘radical kindness’, mixed with gentleness and tenderness, in terms of the stance he brought to the world, that made you want to spend as much time as possible with him. John has that for me. Do not get me wrong, when we get together, John and I can be merciless in dissing the huge egos of some of those apparently ‘ploughing the same furrow’ of academia as ourselves. But, present a spark of a paper here that John likes, and be sure he will seek you out, praise you, champion you, and dialogue with you in ways that you probably never thought entirely possible. And he will keep on doing that for as long as it takes. Perhaps forever. He is nowhere near as ill-disciplined as he sometimes makes out; and his generosity, perhaps more semi-structured than fully structured, is heartfelt and boundless. Last year, I joked that we would put on this panel safe in the knowledge that this would be his last AAA event. It was a bad joke – don’t stop coming John! – without you here, we may not be completely lost, but it won’t ever be the same again!
Althusser, Louis. 1970. For Marx, London: Hutchinson.
Clarke, John. 2004. Changing Welfare, Changing States: new directions in social policy, London: Sage.
Clarke, John. 2019. Critical Dialogues: thinking together in turbulent times, Bristol: Policy Press.
Clarke, John and Paul Stubbs. 2019. Audio file from Critical Dialogues,
Clarke, John., David Bainton, Noemi Lendvai and Paul Stubbs. 2015. Making Policy Move: towards a politics of translation and assemblage, Bristol: Policy Press.
Hall, Stuart., Brian Roberts, Chas Critcher, John Clarke and Tony Jefferson. 1978. Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law ‘n order. London: MacMillan.
Jessop, Bob. (2013) ‘Capitalist Diversity and Variety’,
Lendvai, Noemi and Paul Stubbs. 2015. “Europeanization, Welfare and Variegated Austerity Capitalisms – Hungary and Croatia”, in Social Policy & Administration 49(4): 445-465.
Offe, Clauss. 1984. Contradictions of the Welfare State. London: Hutchinson.
Peck, Jamie and Nik Theodore. 2007. “Variegated Capitalism”, in Progress in Human Geography, 31(6): 731-772.
Stubbs, Paul. 2019. “Towards a Political Economy of Welfare in Croatia”, in Economic Annals, 223; 105-136.
John Clarke A response
It is difficult to provide a reasoned and gracious response in the midst of a swirl of emotions: embarrassment, gratitude, joy and quite a bit of sadness surrounding what will be my last visit to the AAA after almost twenty years. My first visit was at the invitation of a group of PhD students from the University of North Carolina, around the permanently troubling theme of neoliberal governmentality. The topic and panel description were distinctly cutting edge and funky, so much so that the organizers gave us a ballroom, which we failed to fill, attracting around six people. We had a good time, but it was a salutary introduction to the scheduling peculiarities of AAA events. I was not hugely thrilled by the rest of the conference: I kept going to panels and papers with super smart titles, only to be left with a sense that more energy had been expended on the titles than on the papers themselves. Frustrated and disappointed, I was about to give up when I went to the panel that Jeff described on the politics of US welfare – and was rescued. That encounter, with Jeff, Sandi Morgen, Judy Goode and Catherine Kingfisher, created long running friendships, an attachment to SANA, and a reason to keep coming back.
This version of anthropology (and the later emergence of an anthropology of policy) really did feel like finding ‘my people’ - people who have kept me engaged, alive and interested ever since. This encounter hit an intersection between my cultural studies inheritances and my peculiar interests in policy studies, welfare politics, states, citizenship and the rest. It also provided a foundation for discovering other anthropologies – and anthropologists – whose work has taught me much, even if it is focused on what Tania Li once described to me as ‘places full of mud’ rather my usual habitats of tarmac and concrete. Such anthropologies have played a crucial role in taking me out of the overly British/English obsessions of both cultural studies and social policy. I realize I may not have moved as far as Paul and Anu in their different ways suggest I might, but the not so United Kingdom continues to exert a terrible fascination, especially in these Brexit days. Nonetheless, anthropology has helped to ‘provincialize’ Europe and the UK for me, for example, in learning from Anu’s work on the shifting and ambiguous configurations of state and civil society or about the challenge of thinking the national question transnationally.
Turning to some of the more specific things raised by these generous comments, I must confess that I am not sure that I recognize the John Clarke they have described. This is not just false modesty: it seems to me all of them have underestimated the gifts and pleasures that I have received from them. They have variously excited me, stretched me, invited me to think new thoughts, discover new problems and approach familiar things from new angles. Why would I not take pleasure in their company, and the company of the many others that I have met through the AAA, SANA, CASCA and ASAP? I have a long-standing dread of becoming one of those senior male academics who tells you the thing they know, over and over again. I have met, and had to listen to, many of them over the years and have rarely found it a rewarding experience. Cultural Studies offered me a model – literally in the form of Stuart Hall – of a commitment to ‘thinking again’ as the core of good intellectual work. But to do that, it is vital to have people to think with – and these four have been brilliant people with whom to think.
The other disconcerting thing among their comments is the discovery that I am an old man. This is not the foolish belief that I am still a bright young thing (clearly not – and indeed, I never was) but is more to do with their sense that this older or more senior person took a lively interest in them. Most of the places where I have worked have taken a relatively unhierarchical view of age and experience as the basis for privilege – and have been the more enjoyable for doing so. They have also had commitments to forms of collaboration as crucial for the creation of good scholarly work. As a result, I tend to think it matters more whether people are interesting, rather than whether they are formally important – and certainly all these four were, and remain, interesting! The AAA meetings have also facilitated this for me in a specific way, given that I rarely know who someone is at the start of a conversation, so I am not immediately bound up in the professional dynamics of power, privilege and recruitment. Finally, in trying to explain my sense of excitement about being in conversation with other people about their work, I have often resorted to the concept of ‘intellectual vampirism’. One way of staying alive in the academic world is to drink the symbolic blood of younger scholars – without such transfusions, there is a severe risk of being stuck with what I know and that is hardly a good basis for renewal. It may be a less lovely metaphor but I suspect this may be my version of Anu’s ‘composting’.
Kathy made reference to my recurring claim to ‘having been well brought up’. She noted the part of it that is associated with my mother, whose impact on me and my brother Alan has been important as we try to live up to her insistence that it matters how you treat people, and her view that there is little excuse for failing to do so graciously or generously. But I got a sort of second upbringing as a student in the late 1960s and 1970s, when I was exposed to many ‘second wave’ British feminists who taught me things about the importance of conduct and about how to think (not least the refusal of reductive binary logics). And then I got a third upbringing by being involved with Stuart Hall, first as a graduate student, and later as a colleague, collaborator and friend. Stuart embodied the commitments to ‘thinking again’ and to the demanding practice of collaborative working. He was wonderful to listen to: hearing what David Scott (2017) has called ‘Stuart Hall’s voice’ was always a powerful experience because it was always in motion, epitomizing the idea of ‘thinking on your feet’. But Scott also rightly emphasizes Stuart’s gift for listening and thinking with others: what he calls ‘an ethics of receptive generosity’. I have long understood my relationship to Stuart’s example as that of striving and failing … he provided an example that is simultaneously necessary and impossible. That is, of course, the nature of being brought up – in all of my three versions, I don’t claim to have achieved what they showed me was important, but they at least pointed me in the right directions.
Let me take up a couple of the substantive issues from the comments. Paul invited me to think again about the ‘epochal’ and its relationship to the conjunctural that has been the focus of my attention. It is an issue also hinted at in Jeff’s comments about whether capitalism is all we need to know. So (sigh), I do think we need to know about capital and capitalism - in all their shifting complexity - because they deliver certain dynamics, tensions and contradictions that shape the historical moment that we inhabit. We live in the epoch of capitalism and we have to deal with its current phase - of a profoundly unstable globalized, financialized world-consuming form of capitalism - and all the intense economic, social, political and governmental effort that goes into propping it up. But even at the epochal level, capitalism never exists alone, unaccompanied or naked. As Louis Althusser argued in one of his key contributions to rethinking Marxism in which he examined and dismantled the idea of ‘determination in the last instance’:
the economic dialectic is never active in the pure state; in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc. – are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic. From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes. (Althusser, 1962: 32; emphasis in original)
For me, this has always seemed to be one of the defining moments of modern Marxism – and one neglected or ignored by many orthodox Marxists. It does not deny the centrality of the economic but demands that we think its articulation with all the other levels or instances of actual social formations – as opposed to the abstracted (and epochal) conception of modes of production. This has echoes in Raymond Williams’s (1978) distinction between ‘epochal analysis’, in which one only attends to the dominant formation (feudalism, capitalism, etc.), and ‘actual historical analysis’ where we are required to investigate the dominant, residual and emergent formations and the dynamic relationships between them. Analyzing particular historical moments in concrete social formations cannot then be reduced to the ‘fundamentals’ (by which orthodox Marxists mean economic contradictions and relationships), leaving aside the ‘epiphenomenal froth’ of the complex formation of social forces, contradictions and conflicts. Such moments – or historical conjunctures – may have epochal consequences, bringing about what Gramsci called ‘organic’ changes, but it seems to me they have to be traced and analyzed as effects or consequences, not as the working out of a basic economic logic. Nevertheless, I am sure that this argument will run and run…
The other issue is rather different. Anu gently teases out the relationship between provisionality, tentativeness and assertiveness, wondering why I need to be assertive, rather than tentative. This may be my cultural studies inheritance: we were rarely shy or tentative in our interventions (‘arrogant bastards’ was a more usual description). It may also be my inability to shake off the weighty performative style of being a male intellectual (I was once buttonholed at a party in Birmingham by someone who addressed me as ‘one of those heavy male theorists’ without making it wholly clear whether this referred to my intellectual style or merely my body mass). Either way, I do still feel a certain continuing need to be assertive, even when asserting the importance of thinking provisionally. It has something to do with the desire to unlock overly secure and confident arguments (often attached to Grand Theory of one form or another) or bring out their unspoken paradoxes: Paul will remember discussions in Budapest about something called ‘Open Marxism’, which might have had some aspects of Marxism but was anything but open… But I will try to find – and keep – a dynamic balance between tentative and assertive, aided by a slightly different reading of the joys of J.K. Gibson-Graham from Anu’s. I have always thought that their The End of Capitalism (as we know it) is one of the most wonderfully, joyously, assertive and combative books that I know. Their dismantling of ‘capitalocentric’ thinking uses a heady mix of resources (feminism, post-structuralism and even Althusser) and creates a vital space for ‘thinking again’.
By now, everyone knows that I have a certain fondness for alliteration: all those C’s floating about give me a certain sense of order. I once wrote an essay for publication in Finnish which was organized around five of my favorite C’s (constructed, contested, contextual, contradictory and conjunctural). The translator came back to the editors and me to say that it was impossible to translate them into Finnish but, if we would allow him a certain latitude, he might be able to render them as 5 K’s. I thought this was absolutely thrilling and it deepened my admiration for translators who would pay attention to such questions of form as well as content. I am not going to add to the C’s today (except to note that we haven’t talked about contingency…). Instead, I want to end with two F’s. This event has reminded me in very powerful ways that I have been exceptionally Fortunate in my Friends.
Althusser, Louis. (1962/1969) “Contradiction and Overdetermination” in For Marx. Translated by B. Brewster; London: Penguin Books.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. (1996) The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press.
Scott, David. (2017) Stuart Hall’s voice: intimations of an ethics of receptive generosity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Williams, Raymond. (1978) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.