- This Conjuncture 3
This issue of New Formations is, in effect, the third in a series. Like its predecessors – published together as issue 96–97, – it seeks to pay tribute to the lasting intellectual legacy of Stuart Hall, both by exploring some of the central themes of his own work, and by undertaking from various perspectives the task that he so often enjoined upon his students and interlocutors: the analysis of the contemporary conjuncture, in all of its complexity. Sixteen months have passed since the publication of that double issue (I write in February 2021); during which time some extraordinary – perhaps epochal – events have occurred.
On both sides of the Atlantic, an electoral adventure undertaken by the radical left has ended in disappointment. In December, 2019 the UK Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives standing on a nationalist platform that was as crude as it was dangerous. That platform consisted of almost no policy but to ‘get Brexit done’: and done it has now been, despite the mounting evidence of catastrophic economic costs. In the US, socialist Bernie Sanders was beaten to the Democratic presidential nomination by Barak Obama’s former Vice-President, Joe Biden: a centrist machine politician of the first order. Biden beat Donald Trump in last November’s election, and his recent inauguration was characterised by encouragingly progressive rhetoric; but it remains to be seen whether his administration will actually mark a significant left turn for US government policy.
But neither the formation of a right-wing Conservative government in the UK, nor the election of a moderate Democratic president in the US, are remotely unusual occurrences. The real historic event of the past year has been that which saw the most radical peacetime disruption of daily life within living memory, in most countries on the planet: the Covid 19 pandemic, along with the various attempts by governments to control it and mitigate its effects. All of our contributions were first drafted prior to this event, and at the time of writing it seems decidedly premature to derive any long-term conclusions from the experience, except to observe that at least one major tendency of recent developments in capitalism has been accelerated and intensified by these events: the growing power and influence of digital platforms and the corporations that operate them.
The massive transfer of large quantities of social and cultural activity to online platforms (from schooling to everyday social interaction), and the concentration of power and profit in the hands of web-based distribution giants such as Amazon, are two of the most strikingly observable social phenomena of the moment. Those of us working in universities have been [End Page 5] faced with a present in which communications technology has only increased the demands on our time and attention, while, in the UK at least, the long-term financialisation of universities has come up against the critical economic effects of the pandemic to produce a wave of redundancies and uncertainty within the sector. This is just one localised example of the increasing imbalance of power between those controlling digital platforms and financial flows, and everyone else.
One reaction to this shift has been an explosion of the internet-enabled conspiracy theories that have been circulating and developing online for many years now. In part this phenomenon can be understood as a kind of direct reaction to the growing power of Silicon Valley: conspiracy cults such as the Q-Anon movements have grown up in the less regulated corners of the internet, and often manifest deep resentment towards the liberal technocracy that leading figures of the tech industry like to present themselves as. This, arguably, is the thread that connects the New Age anti-vaccine campaigner to the alt-right white supremacist. What makes such thinking especially dangerous today is its growing penetration of both the mainstream political sphere, and the institutions of the ‘repressive state apparatus’. In both the US and France, for example, there have been worrying reports of significant neo-fascist influence within the ranks of the police, and observable relationship between anti-vaccination discourse and the rise of far...