Tuesday, April 14, 2009

 

"Ism" of the Day: Thatcherism

Concerning former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—

Her horizons were as wide as the world and as deep as history. She wanted to "abolish socialism" at home and defeat communism abroad. Incredibly, she arguably did both, at the same time giving her name to a new "ism": Thatcherism - a political philosophy founded on deregulated financial markets, privatisation of state assets, council house sales and the dismantling of the welfare state.

Thatcherism wasn't just an economic policy, however. It was a social psychology based on possessive individualism. It was about getting as much as possible for yourself and your family and then letting the rest of the world go hang. "There's no such thing as society," she said in her most magisterial soundbite. And while she insists that she didn't mean it literally, actually, she did. She largely succeeded, too, in destroying collectivism, a form of social solidarity that had endured in large parts of Britain since the second world war.

—Iain Macwhirter writing in "Children of the Revolution"


"Council houses" are what we would call in the U.S. "public housing." They take their name from the municipal councils that were responsible for their construction and maintenance. Of course the extent of public housing in the U.S. has never approached the level of public housing in the U.K.

Macwhirter, a Scot, has an interesting view of the effect of Thatcher's move to destroy public housing. And it's especially relevant as we survey the economic disaster that has come at least in part from the Bush administration's push to increase home ownership—

Thatcher sensed intuitively that the key to breaking communitarian ties was home ownership. Before 1979, the sale of council houses had been regarded as a fantasy of the loony right. But she went ahead and did it, and by ushering in the age of mass home ownership - "the property-owning democracy" - she turned Britain into a nation of property speculators. Homes, once just places to live, became assets to be traded, used as private fortresses of personal wealth ... and ultimately, vehicles of speculation by the banks. In 1979, when Thatcher came to power, fewer people in Scotland owned their own homes than in communist Poland. Now, nearly 70% of us are owner-occupiers. Ask long-serving trades unionists why workers are so reluctant to go on strike these days and they will often say: mortgages.

Thatcher preceded the Presidency of Ronald Reagan by a year and showed him the way—

Thatcher realised that to destroy socialism she had to destroy the political power of the industrial working class. She was more of a Marxist than most people on the far left, which had fragmented into a litter of splinter groups arguing about obscure points of dogma. Few people in the media believed that Thatcher could possibly succeed with her scorched earth policy of destroying the unions through high interest rates, industrial closures and mass unemployment. "She'll end up like Heath," we snorted, "doing a U-turn and resorting to incomes policy, states subsidies and inflation." But "the lady wasn't for turning" and she broke the unions, and Labour, on the wheel of joblessness, then paid the bills using Scottish oil revenues. She, wisely, left the miners to last, confronting them on her own terms in 1984.

When Reagan took office he followed a similar agenda, creating the then-greatest recession since the Great Depression and famously firing the air traffic controllers who went on strike for the union. "Industrial action" hasn't been the same since.

Of course the recession of 1981 pales in comparison with the present debacle. For this too Macwhirter gives Thatcher credit—

The origins of the greatest economic depression in 100 years lay in May 1979 when she became prime minister. The economic engine she created, based on the unrestrained accumulation of wealth and deregulated financial markets, turned into an uncontrollable global juggernaut which has just careered over a cliff. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the neoliberal model - the housing bubble, the bonus culture, fraudulent derivatives, tax havens, financial speculation, the collapse of manufacturing - had their origins in the Thatcher revolution 30 years ago. When David Cameron's Tories today talk of the "broken society" what they are really talking about is the society of rampant individualism and moral anarchy created by their own former leader.

In the U.S. we don't refer to our lunatic public policies of almost three decades as "Thatcherism" but "Reaganism." Yet of the two, Thatcher surely had the bulk of the brains, and I suspect that Reagan took much of his resolve—and as many ideas as he could handle—from the Iron Lady. Even with respect to blame, Reagan—like George Bush—receives too much credit.

Related posts
The death of the left? (11/27/04)
Maggie Thatcher's pension nightmare (7/02/05)
Truth of the Day: On social change (2/28/08)
Admonition of the Day (4/14/08)
Question of the Day: If America is to adopt socialism ... (9/24/08)

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