“Jack always said it was difficult for us Americans to understand what it was really like here in the darkest parts of the eighties. We had a doddery old President who talked about the end of the world a little too often and was being run by the wrong people. But they had a Prime Minister who was genuinely mad. You know there were even feminists and women’s studies theorists who denied she was even really a woman anymore, she was so far out of her tree? She wanted concentration camps for AIDS victims, wanted to eradicate homosexuality even as an abstract concept, made poor people choose between eating and keeping their vote, ran the most shameless vote-grabbing artificial war scam in fifty years… England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture.” – Warren Ellis, Planetary #7
In general I attempt to maintain some vague illusion of critical balance on this blog. Even in political matters, where my overt progressivism is unmistakably a thing, I try very hard to acknowledge the points where leftist politics have failed and to find concrete lessons, both rhetorical and substantive, for their failures. But here we reach a new sort of problem of balance – one we’ve been circling about since the Three Day Week entry back in the late Pertwee era. (In this regard it’s fitting that we come to this right off of a story where the biggest flaw is that it’s not the glam rock era anymore.) And that problem is, in a nutshell, Margaret Thatcher.
First of all, however much I’ve been willing to shoot my own side of the debate when it’s being stupid, I’ve never been one to give much quarter to the right. The idea of starting with Thatcher is hardly inspiring. The fact of the matter is, I fiercely disagree with virtually everything Thatcher stood for and everything Thatcher did. There’s little margin around that to formulate some sort of balance. There’s no way to hold the ideals and values I hold and thus that this blog holds and like Margaret Thatcher. There’s not even really a way to hold them and avoid hating Margaret Thatcher.
But there is something about Thatcher that goes beyond mere political reason. I commented in the Dad’s Army entry, to some controversy and consternation, that Thatcher was “basically the raw embodiment of all evil.” The line was intended at least partially as one of those moments of excessively deadpan humor that I favor – an instance of willfully overplaying my hand and taking the most extremist position available so that all future statements on the subject are pleasantly moderate.
But there’s almost no such thing as overstatement on the subject of Margaret Thatcher, as the Ellis quote I started us off with demonstrates. None of it is strictly speaking untrue (although technically the concentration camps for AIDS victims were Lord Christopher Monckton, of whom Herman Cain is a poor American remake), and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the horrors of Thatcherism. If we want to dig a bit deeper we can find impish beauty like the petition going around these days to privatize Thatcher’s funeral, which is a work of sheer brilliance, doubly so because she’s still alive. Or, of course, there’s things like Pete Wylie’s astonishingly gorgeous “The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies!” (The exclamation point is really what makes it.)
There is, in other words, a loathing of Thatcher that exists in excess to any remotely plausible requirements. People without successful genocides to their names don’t generally require this. And eventually there becomes a moment of discomfort as one realizes the sheer extent of the vitriol that one is pouring onto a lonely old senile woman dying in London. To some extent these understandable feelings can be effectively mitigated by watching video of some miners being beaten or something, but there’s still some troubling kernel here – a moment where one stops short, momentarily thrown by the savagery of it all.
Part of this, and this is the other thing that the Ellis quote gets at, is that Margaret Thatcher exists in two spheres. Politically she is loathsome, but loathsome in what is at least a relatively constrained sense. She is at or near the limit point of how bad liberal democracy can get. A worst case scenario for 20th century electoral politics. And if we are to be honest, this must be contextualized in a larger sense. She is not Pol Pot or Pinochet. She may have aided and supported both, but she never actually used death squads herself, and I suppose that counts for something.
But there is also the cultural Thatcher. If we’re being perfectly honest about why I despise Margaret Thatcher, given that I wasn’t born when she came into power and was eight and hadn’t heard of her when she fell from power, the reasons are far more prosaic. Most of the music I love is either 80s British new wave bands or bands that were heavily influenced by or influences on it. My favorite era of the classic series of Doctor Who is the Cartmel era. A large swath of my favorite writers come out of the British Invasion of comics writers in the late 80s, with Alan Moore, my avowed favorite, being at the front. And all of these were fiercely anti-Thatcher.
But more than that, they were defined by how anti-Thatcher they were. I was talking to a good friend who’s just finished a book on industrial music who had been interviewing a prominent figure in one industrial band or another. I don’t remember which one, and in some ways it’s better that way, leaving the statement in an oddly more true universal form. Like most of industrial music it was aggressively political, and my friend asked the guy what it was they were protesting against, expecting some sort of concrete, material answer. Instead the answer was that they were opposed to Margaret Thatcher. Just Thatcher. Period. She was a teleology unto herself.
This dimension of Thatcher is somewhat harder to grasp. There are, I think, two major reasons for it. The first is simple historical fact. Thatcher was the most prominent figure in what was the most thorough and complete restructuring of British society since the immediate aftermath of World War II. Simply put, what one would consider the default values and principles of British politics in 1990 were radically different from those in 1979 to the point that when Labour finally wrested Downing Street back they did so largely by conceding almost every philosophical point they’d once differed on to Thatcher.
The second reason, though, is that for all of the ways that Thatcher represented a brutal return to Enlightenment values and the idea of a master narrative, she and her handlers were also breathtakingly savvy at media manipulation. Thatcher was the first Prime Minister of whom it could be said that the modern media environment was her native tongue. Others used the media, yes, but Thatcher as a politician did not exist separate from it. Her media image was a fundamental part of her entire politics. There was, in a very real sense, no difference between her leadership and the press coverage of her leadership. She may not have thought that society existed, but she certainly believed in the existence of the mass media like no Prime Minister before her.
(To date no leader of either the US or UK has run the country with digital media as their native language.)
We’ll return to the broader consequences of this, but for now let’s leave it at this. The fact that Thatcher was so media savvy caused her to be a more diffuse phenomenon rather than a personal one. In a very real sense Thatcher was an always-present force – a mental phenomenon rather than a purely material one. Of course people reacted against her in a way that did not quite make sense for reacting against a person. She wasn’t just a person. She was a brand. An ideology. A sigil, if you like. That, then is the what of May of 1979. Or at least, as much of it as can be understood without turning first to the how.
First the “consensus” explanation, by which I mean the default. Of course, given the magnitude of Thatcher’s social and cultural victory, we should be suspicious off the bat. History is written by the victors, and while Thatcher herself my be gone it’s considerably less clear that the historical moment that she represents has given way to a new one. The 1980s, even in their longest sense, have ended, sure. But if a coherent “next step” from Thatcherism exists we remain, at the time of writing, too in the middle of it to define its edges.
Regardless, if one is vaguely sympathetic to Thatcher then the story goes something like this. Broadly speaking, there is an economic model called Keynesianism, named, unsurprisingly, after a guy named Keynes. To collapse scads of complex economic theories into a single sentence, Keynesianism says that if the government spends money it will create more money. Keynesian thought formed the basis of most economic policy in the US and UK for several decades. Then in the 1970s it abruptly stopped working and the world blew up.
Well, not quite blew up. But a big problem called “stagflation” happened whereby the economy of a whole bunch of countries stopped growing but inflation kept growing. Which was a big problem because most of the time fixing slow economic growth causes inflation and fixing inflation slows growth. The UK was hit hard by this, first in the energy crisis that led to the Three Day Week, and then again in 1976 when the government had to seek a massive loan from the IMF, which, in traditional IMF style, demanded massive austerity measures. It was, in other words, an extremely rotten economy.
In an attempt to control inflation the Labour government adopted a policy of wage control on government employees with the support of the Trades Union Congress. This lasted for several years until Ford of Britain, despite being a massive government contractor, decided to defy the 5% maximum on wage increases and offer its striking employees a 17% raise in November of 1978. This, coupled with some stinging political defeats for Labour when the TUC and its supporters rejected its latest round of wage controls, and the government was essentially left with no support for actually enforcing its wage controls on the private sector.
Seizing on the weakness, various unions began pushing hard for considerable price increases and striking to get them. The result was that in the coldest winter since 1963 industry after industry was disrupted by major strike actions, generally with considerable theatricality on both sides. For instance, when striking Lorry drivers failed to let the correct set of emergency supplies for farmers in Hull through farmers deposited bodies of pigs and chickens outside the union headquarters. Other infamous events were a two week gravediggers strike that led to speculation that people would simply be buried at sea and a garbage strike that led to Leicester Square in the middle of London becoming a makeshift landfill. Finally, in late March the Scottish National Party, frustrated at the government’s lack of support for further devolution of power to Scotland, withdrew from the coalition, causing Callaghan, the prime minister, to lose a no confidence vote and force a general election which Thatcher won.
The heart of this narrative, of course, is an idea of inevitability. The system that Callaghan was following was shown to be a failure, the people voted him out and Thatcher in, and she inaugurated a new age of supply side economics. A similar story can just as easily be told about the US in 1980 to get to Reagan’s election. The benefit of this narrative, of course, is that it neatly sidesteps the question of whether Thatcher was right. Whatever the horrors of Thatcherism – and as we’ll get to see over the next eleven years of history, there are oh so many of them – she was necessary because the alternative was shown to be fatally flawed.
The problem with this sort of narrative is that economics aren’t really falsifiable. I mean, they sort of are. It’s just that running the experiments necessary to falsify claims usefully and thoroughly isn’t feasible. As a result, with any sort of story like this one runs the risk of confusing what happened with what was inevitable. In truth, of course, it is impossible to say with any real knowledge or confidence what would have happened in any number of alternative circumstances. It is, for instance, wholly possible – even probable – that Callaghan would have won re-election had he called the election in the fall of 1978 instead of engaging in another round of wage controls. Or if he hadn’t made a crushing gaffe in which he denied that the industrial actions constituted a crisis as he returned home from a summit in Guadeloupe in early January. Callaghan was politically incompetent as much as anything, a fact that, in politics, is more than sufficient to cause electoral defeat.
But there’s a broader issue in treating Thatcher’s rise as an inevitable transition, which is that it’s not particularly clear that Thatcher was actually the turning point in the ascension of the ideology she represents. It is of course perilous, or at the very least a cheap argumentative move, to attempt to summarize any ideology in a single sentence. But having oversimplified Keynes let’s attempt to collapse the whole of Thatcherism into one belief: the belief that monetary profitability is the only meaningful measurement of worth, and thus that more profit is always better.
But in this regard virtually all sides of the debate had given the game away long before the 1979 election. Callaghan was barely different from Thatcher in this regard. They both took it as essentially axiomatic that economic growth was a necessary priority and that an essentially capitalist system had to remain in place. The IMF loan itself was fundamentally a triumph of neoliberalism (a term that encompasses Thatcherism, Reaganism, and the other right-wing governments of the 1980s, and that causes no end of confusion for Americans who take “liberal” and “left-wing” to be synonymous). Even the unions essentially conceded the core of the debate to neoliberalism, treating their job as extracting the maximum possible amount of money for their members and their members specifically and becoming, in essence, profit-seeking entities in their own right.
Once all sides have fully and thoroughly embraced the capitalist drive towards maximizing individual profit and endless expansion the reversion to Thatcherism is inevitable. But not because Thatcher marked some sort of historical transition. Rather, because she marked an acknowledgment of a transition that had already happened. In this regard, even though a decade has passed, we’re really only finishing the job that started in 1968 when the left-wing radicalism that characterized 1960s counterculture went into terminal decline. Once you’ve rejected the radical possibilities of the Situationists in favor of capitalism Thatcherism isn’t a transition but a logical endpoint.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a memorable (at least to me) moment in one of his books in which he imagines a yuppie reading a book by French philosopher Giles Deleuze and, contrary to what one might expect of a yuppie reading a book by someone who (much as I imagine Deleuze would object to the characterization – though given that he is dead and wouldn’t be likely to read my blog anyway, his objections count for very little) may as well be called a Situationist, loving every moment of it, exclaiming things like “Yes, this is how I design my publicities!” and “This reminds me of my son’s favorite toy!”
Reading Guy Debord in 2011 one is seized continually with a similar feeling. Every snarling epithet in which he denounces the mechanisms of capitalism reads equally well as a design manual for the very system he decries – a list of tactics to convince people that your profit and their freedom are somehow equivalent. I am not the first to joke that were one to design a bourgeois reverse engineering of Marxism to act as a collective class in pursuit of their common interests it would be difficult if not impossible to come up with a better approach to the problem than the neoliberalism of the 1980s.
Here, then, we can see the true revolution of Thatcherism. It is not the turn towards profit as the sole and absolute value of the world. Rather, it is the devastating practical refutation of what had previously been axiomatic: the idea that postmodernism was inherently leftist. This is at the heart of Thatcher’s peculiar notion of conservatism. It is visible in her hilarious claim that William Gladstone would be a Tory if he were alive in the 1980s, as though the statement that her party was very progressive by the standards of a century ago was in some way meaningful. Thatcher’s conservatism hinged on the willful confusion of what was with what is nostalgically remembered, seeking endlessly to mask further acceleration towards the culture of naked and unabashed greed she championed as a “return” to a past that, in truth, never was. Even her famed declaration that she was a politician of “conviction,” when scrutinized, collapses to little more than a moment of arch-relativism. Her worldview was valid not because it was based on the product of consensus or even evidence, but because it was based on fundamental and unshakable personal belief. Thatcherism, in this view, is little more than heavily armed relativism.
In this regard the position that really drops out of the mix is conservatism, at least in its classical sense of trying to maintain the current state of affairs or return to the past. Malcolm Hulke, of course, saw this as far back as 1974 in his rejection of the very idea of a “golden age.” But the point remains. This is in many ways a triumph of postmodernism. The past is a foreign country, accessible only through memory and reconstruction. So why not construct the future you want and pretend that it was the past. Throw in a patois of genuine social conservatism and you can hijack the rhetorical appeal of conservatism to serve a progress narrative towards whatever future you desire. Thus you have the gaudy and contradictory spectacle of the contemporary right’s belief that government shouldn’t interfere with business, only with how people have sex.
The real problem is that this tactic has proven appallingly difficult to counter. Once the right realized that postmodernist tactics could serve their purposes just as well as they could anyone else’s it became very, very difficult to outflank them. This sort of trick still describes the right-wing playbook in 2011. Language is just a social construct, so why not completely improperly use the word “socialism” to describe Barack Obama’s actually still basically neoliberal economic policies? It’ll become what socialism means soon enough anyway.
For our purposes, then, Thatcher provides a moment of genuine horror. We’ve nodded at this in part already with the Mary Whitehouse entry, but here it becomes a very fundamental challenge to the entire philosophical edifice we’ve been building. We’ve been holding that the solution to the problem of the alchemists is material social progress. But Thatcher provides an even simpler solution. After all, what better philosopher’s stone is there than money, a substance that truly can transmute any object into any other object. What is more mercurial than currency? What better represents the abstract and floating nature of the signifier than the coin, which truly can mean absolutely anything in the world?
There are, of course, a wealth of answers to that question, and Doctor Who has been formulating them with varying degrees of confidence for sixteen seasons now. Thatcher, at a Conservative policy meeting, once famously threw down a copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and proclaimed “this is what we believe.” She may as well have thrown down the script for Evil of the Daleks and said “this is what we don’t.” And now she runs the country.