“Liverpool’s trades union leaders of 1991 crowing atop piles of stinking rubbish like cockerels on dung heaps, its welfare mentality growing upon the destruction of wealth producing jobs . . . poverty and crime nourished on the thin gruel of welfare, the whole mess financed by borrowing whose costs choke any tentative growth of industry or commerce, was the world’s image and terrible reality of Britain in the 1970s” (Norman Tebbit, who held two Ministerial positions under Thatcher administrations).
“The tragedy is …that Liverpool is stuck in a groove, refusing to listen to criticism, clinging to past charms and triumphs, desperate not to be seen as provincial but managing to appear just that by cutting itself off from the world. When the world is against you how gratifying it must feel to know that you really do walk alone” (Margolis, The Times, 1993)
The institutional failings and corruption exposed by the long-running campaign for justice for the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster cannot be fully understood without acknowledgement of a longer running campaign of state violence and vengeance against the city of Liverpool and its people. The suffering of the families and survivors, the denial of their rights, the marginalisation of their voice in the English legal system and in the organs of public debate was rendered – in part – ‘acceptable’ because of the wider pathologizing of Liverpool and its people already underway by this time. A particular hierarchy of credibility (or ‘Truth’) has been maintained by the existence of a much wider and historically formed set of fictions about the city and its people, and these are important to reflect upon.
Liverpool has long served to embody the anxieties of British ruling elites and capitalist apologists and provides a case study in the attempted governance of a place through a lens of class based loathing. And so ‘the cockerels on dung heaps’ in Tebbit’s dystopian diatribe could pass as relatively uncontroversial 3 years after the Hillsborough Tragedy. The pariah status of Liverpool was reaching its peak by the early 1990s: ‘gun-capital UK’, ‘Self-Pity City’ and a multitude of pre-Little Britain ‘comic observations’ fuelled the idea of the bent, criminal, inarticulate, jobless, scrounging and drunken ‘scally’. Beginning in the late 1970s, the New Right crusade against working class culture and organisation had general and specific targets: but the emphasis was on ‘their’ culture – outside of the law, common standards of civilisation and, hence, untouched by reason, rationality and restraint over their emotions. The contrast drawn between ‘rational civilised standards’ and those ‘lesser breeds with emoting tendencies’ hides the revanchist, barbaric and emotive politics that is practiced by the powerful under a veneer of civility.
The demonization of Liverpool and its people already had traction from the post-1945 period when Liverpool’s political and economic decline began to bite. Although, even as far back as the 19th century the specific ‘problem’ of Liverpool was being constructed by element of capital and state servants. The shrinking of the local economy, the emigration of the middle classes, an intensification of casualization and its reputation as a ‘city that dared to fight’ under Militant rule in the mid-1980s, underpinned shifts in Liverpool’s imagined status from the ‘2nd city of empire’ to ‘slump city’. To be sure this shift was hastened and abetted after 1979 by New Right (NR) thinking under their notion of the city’s ‘managed decline’. The strategy of ‘rationalising’ Liverpool and re-educating its people towards market fundamentalism were – and remain – a lesson in the specifics of British state violence and vengeance politics aimed at a section of its own people.
For the NR, Liverpool epitomised the great unmodern foot-dragging tendencies that stood in the way of market progress. For market zealots, the city also appeared to exemplify the ‘underclass’ thesis that purported to identify the UK’s and USA’s locales that contained the triple terror of the ‘idle, thieving, bastard’. This in itself shows how capitalism has never been about the rational consent to, or even imposition of, state-market rule. Brute imposition yes – but alongside this comes a series of promises and threats that imbues emotional resonances that carve out a ‘common sense’ of market rule. Therefore, alongside fabricated desires tied to consumption we see the generation of emotional logics and symbolic violence aimed at justifying, legitimating and regenerating market rule. In Liverpool the language of the ‘underclass’ (hatched in right wing think tanks and academia) was unforgiving and racist in its selective dehumanisation of communities and the marginalised. Ostensibly this was a blame the victims strategy and can be counted as one more layer in a long tradition of conservative forces seeking vengeance politics against what they see as an unwarranted questioning of their authority and the ‘natural’ deference to their rule.
When radical geographer Neil Smith spoke of revanchism (literally meaning the act of retaliating) he drew attention to a conservative movement that emotively seeks to maintain divides of wealth and poverty: a divide maintained in order to license wealth creation and net the privileges this brings at others expense. The defence of privilege, wealth and power is the hallmark of the revanchist (normally ultra-conservative and representing a ‘victory’ of propertied interests). For Smith this is an un-apologetic protection of authority ensconced in ‘cherished’ institutions like ‘the family’, patriarchal mores, racial hierarchy and sexual codes of conduct. And the defence becomes “increasingly vicious [in] defending it”. Liverpool by late 1993 seemed to epitomise a city firmly outside of idealized and wished for hierarchical certitudes: its pariah status serving as a disciplinary caution to others seeking to challenge the new rules of capitalist living.
Smith wrote that revanchism is a feature of capitalist regenerative politics and its “brilliance” lies in its “universal ambition to terrify the populace into self-discipline and compliance”. Liverpool’s refusal to join the emergent neoliberal bandwagon in the 1980s and the vitriol this produced in the national governing elite, helped pave a way for the onslaught against the Hillsborough families, survivors and supporters. Their temerity was not to ‘know their place’ and ask questions of governing authorities. Another of their ‘misdemeanours’ was to show emotion (anger, disbelief and acute suffering) in public and in their long searching for a non-existent heart within the medieval and elite-driven legal process in the UK. This singled them out as ‘enemies within’, a list of dissenters established under successive Thatcher regimes. Questioning established institutions in this way is to potentially draw back the rational pretence that veils justice and expose the barbarism and self-serving assumptions that drive it. Revanchism is all about elite defence of their interests and – therefore – a defence of their impunity in public and private life. The defence is umbilical in its attachment to promoting a broader social hostility that – in the case of Hillsborough – undermined any sustained media and public compassion for victims of state or corporate violence.
In this period a coercive state was on the ascendency. Its vengeful tone was proclaimed loud and proud. Its seeming unity of purpose – to smash trade unionism, working class organisation, travelling communities, and dissent among feminists, students, environmentalists and anti-racist campaigners – was justified through a politics of fear, hostility and criminalisation. As Stuart Hall termed it a form of regressive politics was established, dragging society backward to impose Victorian moralities of order drawn from a bourgeois imaginary. This regressive turn had real consequences for reversing any victories in the post war period in terms of building a ‘representative’ state that, to some degree, recognised the rights, voices and needs of ordinary people. The NR vision of a regressive Victorian state signalled to state servants (particularly in the police) that those barely recognised rights and voices of the people were not to be part of market fundamentalist plans. Instead, the NR plan was to go forward into a new moral order where we now see evermore clearly that there was no morality for governing but merely an imposed disciplinary ‘morality’ for the people.
Moreover, it was the security-police state that was expanded and lauded – backed by a political administration that paid for and ideologically supported years of police violence, intimidation and wrongful arrests of coal miners and their supporters in the mid-1980s. This was a state where the correspondence of interests that ran across its key sites – government, judiciary, policing and emerging entrepreneurial business class – were rarely open to scrutiny and heralded a state in which (we are beginning to learn) barbarism, corruption and illegality run deep. To challenge this state of affairs back then meant you were part of the phalanx of enemies or just “moaning Minnie’s” as Thatcher used to say.
As a form of class re-conquest, the slurs on Liverpool’s inhabitants, youth, political leaders and its ‘culture’ conjoined that of the Hillsborough survivors forming an emblematic attack on that seen as the antithesis of the entrepreneurial bourgeois mind-set. Smith argued that reclamation of ‘the nation’ or ‘the city’ was to dispossess “those whose presence or politics would challenge the narrow class and race ambition”. Such challenges to the British state from the 1980s were not simply responded to – revanchist style – with the aim of discipline. The aim to terrify – witting or unwitting – cannot be overlooked. To terrify is not to induce compliance to a set of rules; for that assumes that clear rules exist and that they exist for you as well as your superiors. One of the elements of the Hillsborough tragedy was its aftermath and the order of terror that rained down on the families and survivors. This ‘order’ has consequences: the inducement to trauma through repeated denials that something is happening. This is a trauma that is felt directly in a state of hopelessness, in finding that there is ‘nowhere to go’ and ‘no one to turn to’ in times of greatest need. The order of terror is precisely the absence of rules or norms: rules that one can turn to for redress or justice or rules that allow one just to be heard. And this is one of the greatest of unmasking’s from Hillsborough over 27 years – an order of terror in the heart of the state.
What the Hillsborough survivors and supporters have shown is that such state terror does not always succeed, although, the cost of defiance to this organised trauma remains great (Hillsborough 2016, BBC Films, Director Dan Gordon). A revanchist politics does not always spill into terror. The first stage of revanchist politics is the most panic-stricken and drives calls for the collective punishment of a city or people. The language is generalized in its identification of enemies – football fan, miners, students or environmentalists. This, of course, can have the affect of uniting a people and drawing more to a just cause (in some respects as in the case with campaigns for Justice around Hillsborough). A second stage of revanchist politics speaks to the contradictions and tensions between governing elites. It involves the struggle within sections of capital itself to calm the emotive, vengeful tone: because this tenor becomes seen as detrimental to capitals regeneration. For although Liverpool was the subject of a secretive ‘managed decline’ from the centre, government and capital eventually moved to regenerate Liverpool along business-like lines. And as my own work has shown, the contradictory consequences of revanchist politics stimulated a concerted effort by local state and capital coalitions to reverse any negative imagery that, as a result of NR vengeance politics, has ‘cost’ the city in investment, tourism and consumption (these being the market-led pillars of regeneration as practiced today). Nowadays Liverpool’s imaginary status– backed by lavish corporate funded parties, advertising and media blitzes – is less dominated by underclass imagery and more by cappuccino drinking, ‘vibrant’, consumer-happy and forward-looking Liverpudlians, for whom ‘self-pity’ is a bygone memory. The NR wanted capital back in the driving seat and spearheading the reclamation process – and it is. Capital friendly partnerships between public and private agencies have shown their power and clout in reversing or muting the tone of vengeance politics in order to rekindle capital investment into Liverpool. But the Hillsborough families have had no financial or ideological support and it was only in the Warrington Inquests did such support emerge in the form of public funding.
The 27 years since Hillsborough football stadium disaster presents a disturbing case study of revanchism in action. As one hierarchy of credibility crumbles along with its version of ‘The Truth’, another will need to take its place. As the state gears up to hang some of its own once great and good out to dry and re-legitimate its public face, those that resisted revanchist attacks for so long deserve our gratitude and thanks for breaking through the targeted inertia, lies, deception and arrogance at the heart of the state. At this moment, in this place, revanchism is quietened but on a broader scale it’s not dead – and It was again witnessed in the Warrington Inquests. The fact that it has been publicly acknowledged in 2016 that the seekers of justice for the 96 were right to ask questions and maintain their scepticism in the face of attempts to numb their senses and emotions, that does not stop the rest of us in joining them in continuing to remain vigilant in the face of state attempts to re-legitimate power in the same institutions that have pedal class-based vengeance and denial of their social harms alongside hollow assurance and promises.
BBC Films (2016) Hillsborough (Director Dan Gordon)
Roy Coleman (2004) Reclaiming the Streets, London Routledge
Phil Scraton (1999) Hillsborough: The Truth, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing
Neil Smith(2009) ‘Revanchist Planet’ in Urban Reinventors Online Journal, Issue 3/09