The recent passing of Stuart Hall led me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for some time – read one of his many co-authored political interventions: Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. A foundational work in cultural studies, the book looked critically at the phenomenon of ‘mugging’ in Britain during the 1970s, a crisis of authority confected by government and media.
Hall and his co-writers argued that the rise of this new focus on law and order was the result of a significant weakening in the government’s ability to generate consent from its citizenry. Or, as the author’s approvingly quote Gramsci: “the crisis of the ruling class’ hegemony [occurs] because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested or forcibly extracted the consent of the broad masses…A ‘crisis of authority’ is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or the general crisis of the State.”
We have seen something of this across Australia of late. Crises of authority – taking the form of bikies, out of control drinkers and ‘one punch’ attackers and paedophiles – have emerged from all quarters, generated in tangent with a willing media driven as always by their own bottom line more than political expediency.
How are such law and order drives usually read by the Left – if we are to continue with the fiction that such a thing exists? Firstly, law and order drives are read as media sensations of the lowest calibre. The easily led ‘bogans’ (read, working class), entirely depending on the Herald Sun or Courier Mail for their drip-fed opinions, are joined in a chorus of moral outrage. Secondly, they are a distraction, one foisted on the people by a conniving government intent on taking away liberties and rights while citizens backs are turned.
The fantastic thing about Hall’s work is that it looks beyond such shallow readings – highlighting instead the relationship between law and order, political crisis and hegemony. In the remainder of this article I want to sketch out briefly some of the ways that the tools employed in Policing the Crisis can be used to come to a better understanding of what’s going on in Queensland in particular at the moment.
Let’s set the scene briefly. The Liberal National Party (LNP) comes to power in Queensland (as government’s tend to in such a unicameral setting) with a landslide. The past government had exhausted its political capital – read, consent – with a disastrous privatisation drive, and the LNP took advantage of this disarray, coupled with the GFC, to intone a sense of crisis, which they followed post-election with talk of austerity and the launch of a commission of audit. This was a useful intonation for a government who was in power due to a swing away from its predecessor more than anything else.
Hall’s work speaks of the need for a law and order drive as not necessarily reflecting a strong government, but rather as a sign of intense weakness. The ‘mugging’ epidemic in Britain, a term borrowed from the United States, emerged just as the dual crisis of a stalled political-economic project – Keynsianism – and a massive upsell in popular anger (the Sixties youth, cultural and racial rebellion).
In the Queensland case, there is no mass rebellion, but Newman’s government has moved from crisis to crisis from day one. Corruption scandals marred its earliest days, leading to a concerted attack on the ‘impartial’ Crime and Misconduct Commission, while its sackings of public servants, supposedly to solve a budget crisis, created wide scale opposition in LNP heartland, who were destined to lose vital services and jobs.
In Gramsci’s terms, we here have a “failed political undertaking,” for which the consent of the people had been appropriated, the resentment of whom was increasingly apparent. The bikie threat, much like that of paedophiles, liberal judges or, in NSW, ‘coward punchers’ needs to be read, then, not so much as a media and governmental distraction of the people—who still were and remain mightily pissed off, and cannot be led as easily as some leftists imagine—but an attempt to rebuild the requisite level of consent to allow government to operate. This is then, not the work of a powerful government, but instead that of one seeking to reassert lost authority.
This exhaustion of consent, and a requirement for it’s rebuilding, was coupled for Hall with the rise of the ‘exceptional State’ – “the active…recruitment…of the law…to the informal political work of censorship and control” – two seemingly contradictory predicaments that are here fundamentally wedded. The “exceptional” state increasingly runs roughshod over its own rules and regulations in order to (further) criminalise sections of the population. While this criminalisation, and smearing of those members of society who stand up for them (lawyers, students etc) has precedence in Queensland history, the coupling of these draconian policies with an intense political crisis is new, and worthy of sustained attention by those better in tune with the specifics than myself.
But what crisis is Newman policing here? It is the crisis of consent for his government in the short term, sure. But it is equally the crisis of political representation, and it cuts both ways. For the Right that Newman represents in Queensland, this is a crisis of how to manage capitalism in a hegemonic fashion. Hall was writing of the ‘interregnum’ period between the decline of Keynsianism and the assertion of state-led ‘neo-liberalism’ under Thatcher. There was not, and is not now, a ‘common sense’ solution to the problem of economic crisis, so a sense of crisis and threatening minorities must suffice.
For the Left, this is just as concerning. For, much as during the 1970s, there is a significant reaction against these attempts to foist the “exceptional state” on unwilling citizens. 45% of Queenslanders oppose outright the Bikie laws, significant numbers given the ‘common sense’ phrasing the right has (rather ineptly) used to justify them. And, to look at it from another perspective, the law and order drives of the major tabloids have failed to flag their declining sales. Yet, the Left seems unable to mobilise a properly counter-hegemonic narrative here. The excesses of these laws are challenged, but no over-arching critiques are being made, ala Hall, linking the climate of law and order with that of a distinct crisis in the governability of capital in a local and global setting.
I’m not proposing any concrete solutions here either. In the long term, we are going to have to think through how we can do what the Right seems to do so well, and what the Left was once able to do – hook into and modify the ‘common sense’, the authentically popular sentiment of people – if we’re going to move forward. This would be an important step towards fostering a collective response from below, which can understand these laws, as Hall did in his own time, as only a symptom of the totality of capitalism’s floundering social relations.
 Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London: Macmillan Education, 1978), 238-9.
 Ibid, 286.