Reflections on Thatcherism and the Good Life

I have often been asked why I am so antagonistic towards the politics of Margret Thatcher. I have come to realise over the years that my animosity has less to do with individual policies (although many of them still irk me), and more to do with a general cast of mind one finds among the Conservative politicians she left behind One might describe this condition as one of mono-idealism: The notion that a single doctrine or ideal can adequately unlock the complexity and richness of human life. Thatcher offered a vivid exposition of such mono-idealism in her Party Conference speech of 1975:

Some Socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals. We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else, however much the Socialists may pretend otherwise. We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal but to us every human being is equally important…Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him, and she knows she has within her, in the way they choose.

On the surface, this view of politics is generous in its acceptance of the divergent talents of diverse human persons. It seems respectful of the fact that we are not meant for off-the-peg destinies, but should be given the opportunity to develop, change and revise our goals. But when one looks more closely (particularly at the apostles of the so-called ‘Thatcher revolution’) one sees how regimented such a worldview is.  Last year Alan Duncan MP was roundly condemned for his claim that critics of the Prime Ministers tax affairs risked causing the House of Commons to become ‘full of low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and who know absolute nothing about the outside world.” Mr. Duncan should be commended for expressing the sentiments of Thatcher’s true believers with such cogency. Those worthy of his contempt are those who do not define their achievement in terms of ‘enterprise’ and who do not inhabit ‘the real world’ (we must assume he means the rather select world of oil trading Duncan inhabited before his election to Parliament). So, it seems that the repressive ideal of the State Socialist (with citizens as passive recipients of public services) is replaced with an equally monotone ideal, that of the enterprising businessman. To be worthy of respect we must all have ‘get up and go’ and make our own rags-to-riches story. While the following Thatcher quote appears to be apocryphal it expresses the general gist of her worldview rather well: ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.’

PhotographIn the Enterprise Society, one’s life is subject to yardsticks just as exacting as those supported by the centralizing commissar. One lives by share-prices, productiveness, earning power or output. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things as aims as part of a well-rounded life. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with securing material security for one’s family, if such security does not harm wider society. One must live as one’s conscience dictates and if that means becoming a chief executive, so be it. But Mr. Duncan’s ambition is not a private matter, it constitutes the public creed of the age (reproduced in every school, university, and company in the land). It is not enough that we make money, we must ‘sell ourselves’, contribute to the team’, ‘fit into the company ethos’. We must be productive members of society as defined by the tick-boxes of the managerial class. What does this possessiveness do to the liberalism Thatcherism professes to cherish? In this post-Thatcher world, freedom has been decoupled from liberalism. Freedom to amass, consume and buy is the only freedom thought worth having. And since the spreadsheet fetishists cannot guarantee that we will all agree with this assessment, we must be schooled appropriately. The C.V., annual targets, performance reviews and relentless advertising have replaced the State Computer.  True, the world of corporate management while lacking the messianic fervour and casual cruelty of previous forms of mass organisation is equally anti-individualistic. Yet, this is precisely the world that Thatcherism created. Under this new regime, people could be easily pigeon-holed into a role, the most virtuous being the ambitious ‘home-owner’. People were encouraged to have a piece of an identical dream; quiet, bourgeois and rather stilted existences. Nothing could be further from the inspiring slogan ‘Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him’.  How did it all go so wrong? In part, the error of Thatcherism is in its own exaggerated self-belief. Thatcherism is not merely an economic doctrine, it is a comprehensive vision of the good life, which prescribes work, wealth, and family as the means of establishing a stable and descent society. Such a worldview necessitates `vigorous virtues’ of self-sufficiency, energy, independent-mindedness, adventurousness, loyalty to friends and hardiness in the face of enemies (see Shirley Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism). In other words, Thatcherite politics attempts to subsume all areas of life to itself, disparaging any alternative attempts at articulating value and meaning. It is a vision of politics inherently intolerant of life-alternatives (a view of life just as intolerant as the State Socialism it attempts to supplant). By rejecting other accounts of the good life, Thatcherism politics ended by despising large parts of the liberal tradition it professed to uphold. It preached freedom then defined the nature of freedom in highly dogmatic terms. Thus, despite its liberal dress, Thatcherism has much more in common with its mortal foe Marxism. It is certainly equally as mechanical and materialistic. In both schemes, economics is all.

PhotographIf Thatcherism lacks a genuine respect for a many-faced vision of liberty, what would a fuller picture of liberal society encompass? A truly liberal society is one which there is the maximum freedom for people to pursue their vision of the good life if this doesn’t prevent other people from coming up with their own vision. In other words, in a liberal society, one would expect a genuine flourishing of value-systems, with different people valuing different things to various degrees. There will be people who obtain their sense of achievement by selling things, others from investing. There are some who get satisfaction from teaching, others from learning. There will be people for whom achievement means having a beautiful garden, happy children, or a loving spouse. Some of us would be at our most fulfilled if we lived as a Yogi or a monk. Some people get satisfaction from a combination of all these things. In this account material success possesses a purely utilitarian role. It has no value in and of itself.  It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about the worth of a person in any meaningful sense. As the British sociologist Michael Young once put it:

Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupations and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no overall inequalities of the sort we have got used to. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant to the lorry-driver with unusual skills at growing roses? A pluralistic society would also be a tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity to develop his or her own special capacities for leading a full life which is also a noble life led for the benefit of others as well as the self.

Image result for supercomputer wikiSuch pluralism is the exact opposite of our present social order. Instead of feeling ever more at home with themselves (as Young’s vision suggests) people feel increasingly estranged by a technocratic and hierarchical society. Instead of celebrating difference, we valorise an ever-narrower skill-set in the pursuit of ever-narrower economic goals. Daily life feels increased boxed-in, filled with pointless red-tape and monotony, all in the cause of being ‘successful’ (accorded to the perverted lights of this spreadsheet epoch). If the economic fetishist were to express his thrill solely among fellow suffers, one cannot complain. It is the elevation of managerialism and money to the realm of politics which must be objected to. In this vein, what is so sad about many post-Thatcher Conservatives is their relentless desire to impose a single metric of human achievement on the rest of us. All who not share their focus (and perhaps want to spend more time with their family or planting rose bushes) are deemed ‘under-achievers’. Accordingly, the poet, teacher and religious specialist represent different shades of ‘useless’ (unless it can be shown that their work has sufficient monetary value). This, of course, is an understandable judgement, if you have a narrow definition of achievement. It is also understandable that Alan Duncan doesn’t like those who are troubled by significant levels of wealth. If one derives much of one’s sense of identity from one’s wealth, then of course, one is going to call those with a different value set everything under the sun. Such people are an attack on an influential way of looking at the world.  How can we flourish in the drab world of money and managerialism? The most subversive thing we can be in this age is being cynical about all upbeat messages of choice, freedom, and authenticity, we are being fed. We can work for a company but we certainly don’t ‘have to enjoy it’. We can earn our keep without being enterprising or pathologically committed.  We can do jobs without imbibing any ‘company ethos’. We need to keep before us the silliness of it all. This will give us the breathing space to go on in a society where the retail figures are worthy of their own slot on the Six ‘o’clock News, but where community, friendship and beauty matter little. It is only to be hoped that one day what that great liberal Keynes prophesied will come to pass: ‘The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease’.

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