Richard Hoggart: A public intellectual for progress
It is easy to pigeon-hole Richard Hoggart as an avant-garde radical eager to tear down the fabric of conventional society. But Hoggart was deeply opposed to the levelling creed of cultural relativism and had more about him than might appear
The academic Richard Hoggart, who has just died at the age of 95, was an influential writer on literacy and communication in the middle decades of the last century.
Opposed to public schools, a foe of many of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, and the founder (along with the Marxist Stuart Hall) of the academic field of cultural studies, it is easy to pigeon-hole him as an avant-garde radical eager to tear down the fabric of conventional society. But Hoggart was a more subtle and multi-dimensional figure as a good obituary in the Telegraph sought to show.
This meritocrat was deeply opposed to the levelling creed of cultural relativism which spread through the humanities and social sciences of universities on both sides of the Atlantric for almost a generation from the 1980s onwards. It was a kind of intellectual anarchism for scholars who had nothing worthwhile to say or who delighted in denigrating all orthodoxies and the concept of truth itself.
In one of his last books he approvingly quoted the definition offered by Zigmunt Bauman in 1992. Cultural relativism “proclaimed the end of the exploration of the ultimate truth of the human world or human experience, the end of the political or missionary ambitions of art, the end of dominant style, of artistic canons, of interest in the aesthetic grounds of artistic self-confidence and objective boundaries of art”.
The sense that improvement was futile since there were no absolute standards of worth to aim for was a perspective that made deep inroads into Western public culture during the late 20th century. Such a view was implicitly and sometimes openly embraced in the British teaching profession, as well as by many in the unions, resulting in a spectacular dropping off in educational standards.
Richard Hoggart was perhaps fortunate to have been born in 1918 and not 1980. Growing up in an inner city area of Leeds, he lost both parents when he was very young. He was taken under the wing of a teacher who spotted his talent and helped him to advance up the educational ladder.
Instead of placing him in an orphanage, the social services were pragmatic enough to allow him to stay with two aunts and a grandmother who looked after him well.
The sense of belonging was a recurring theme in his writings. It caused him to stand apart from intellectuals who disparaged family and community, promoting instead an often destructive social experimentation. In a relativist society where ‘anything goes’, the sense of a coherent belonging soon dissolves. He invoked the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who himself powerfully invoked that sense in his 1981 book, After Virtue:
“I am someone’s son or daughter…a citizen of this or that city…as such I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral standpoint. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity”.
He feared the redefinition of humankind as primarily a species of consumers. It made him a foe of many of the alterations in British society associated with the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Absolute freedom decoupled from the need to uphold values necessary for the preservation of social cohesion alarmed him.
The conservative thinker Russell Kirk wrote about a heritage of practical liberty being jeopardised by radical experimentation that was ultimately directionless.
He and Hoggart would have had a surprising amount to agree on despite being located on the left and the right. They both feared and distrusted populism, or what the insightful 19th century French thinker de Tocqueville described as “democratic despotism”.
It was after Thatcher, in the era of Tony Blair and New Labour, when a flashy populism, with a sinister undertone in authoritarian laws and devastating forms of social engineering, swept over Britain. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was a superficially modernising doctrine meant to manufacture consent for a philistine and avaricious elite.
As George Walden pointed out in New Elites (2001), a book that still can be read as a guide to the political present, the tenets of anti-elitism were shamelessly pushed in order to lower standards and marginalise lower income groups.
Hoggart is likely to have endorsed his judgment that, ‘When the left pour indiscriminate praise on popular culture, they are lowering the horizons of those at the poorer end of the social scale, whose interests they profess to champion’.
Hoggart was already near 80 when Blair was elected and his remaining writings were devoted to looking back at a time when there were signs of a more genuine meritocratic spirit. His eldest son Simon, for many years the Guardian’s main parliamentary sketch writer, was by the time of his own death this January arguably the only witty writer left on a paper which had long forsaken the elder Hoggart’s liberal humanism.
He sometimes poked fun at Blair’s messianic ideas, increasingly bound up with making Britain the world’s leading laboratory for the forces of globalisation.
Both Blair and his successor Gordon Brown strove to make Britain the most open country in the global village; policies of free trade and open borders primarily benefited members of a metropolitan elite marked out by their education, wealth, occupational roles and networking capacity.
The global villagers of the left made common cause with the global corporatists of the business world. Both were supremely relaxed about creating a uniform society supposedly resting on the principle of equality. It was one with little room for local identities and indeed real moral frameworks.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond’s SNP is a faithful but unacknowledged inheritor of Blair’s globalisation ideology. Its policy of open borders and submission to EU centralisation rob its cause of any authentic nationalist content.
In England and Wales, there is now a groundswell of support for UKIP principally because of its declared intention to restore popular sovereignty. If it can transcend its populist features with a coherent blueprint for restoring representative government to Britain, its impact on history could be profound.
There are writers, artists, scientists and thinkers out there who, like Hoggart, scorn the sham anti-elitism of a modern political class. Unlike Hoggart in his prime, they are largely absent from the media. But that does not mean their ideas will not stand a real chance of re-shaping policy in the Britain of the future.
Tom Gallagher’s book Divided Scotland appeared in 2013 (Argyll Publications). His next one Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration via Monetary Union (Manchester University Press) appears this summer
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