Iron Lady, Tin Drum.

April 16, 2013

As an actual human being and an individual politician, there was never anything particularly remarkable about Margaret Thatcher. Her significance lay in the symbolism attached to her by the neoliberal ruling class which she served. She was a handy tool with which to construct the framework of the world in which we live now — a framework built on foundations created by the social democrats whom the neoliberals supplanted. Like Hitler, she was the “drummer” leading a parade which someone else had organised; unlike Hitler, she never freed herself from those organisers.

Propaganda is the key to Thatcher’s popularity and unpopularity. The British Labour Party developed a mythos under which the Thatcher government was extraordinarily evil, thus dodging the obvious fact that what Thatcher was doing simply expanded on the policies of the Callaghan government. The mythos proved so attractive — providing a beautiful excuse for all failures and a bogey for all fears — that the Left (at least that influenced by Western propaganda) all over the world adopted it to some extent. This in the end did extraordinary harm to the Left, since facile hatred for Thatcher effectively discouraged meaningful analysis of her policies and thus masked what was really going on.

The Right’s mythos was even more powerful, although extremely significant. To the Right, Thatcher was the protective parent-figure who would defend the national family against enemies without and within, and this legitimated complete intellectual subordination. There was, supposedly, a war on, and in a war you don’t ask questions — especially not about the Churchillian figure conducting the war.

The object of the whole exercise was quite simple. In Britain, Germany and the United States in the mid-1970s, elements of the general public were becoming incoherently dissatisfied with the Western socio-political dispensation. Homosexuals, women and blacks had begun to demand equal rights with white heterosexual men. Some mild left-wing politics were being expressed in established circles, while outside these circles a stance of extreme cynicism and hostility towards traditional authority had become fashionable in the middle class (borrowing this stance, as usual, from the traditional working class).

This led some to ask embarrassing questions about the role of the U.S. government in the world, about the links between contemporary German society and the Nazis, and about the real substance of British governmental hegemony as opposed to the facade of elections. It was not very likely that this minority of dissidents would rapidly overthrow the system, but it was quite possible that if it were allowed to flourish, such dissidence (based as it was on the solid reality of American imperialism, German corporatism and British plutocracy) might gain substantial influence. As in the Soviet Union, dissidence had to be crushed before it could gain a significant foothold.

In Germany it was easy to do this through violent intimidation; the universities were purged, the activists were killed or imprisoned. The rise of the corrupt Kohl regime simply provided this repression with an official seal, for the so-called social democrats were (as they had been in 1919) eager to help the corporate state retain real power. In exchange for this support, the social democrats were able to bargain for less repression of their own organs of authority — the trade unions, which meant that the workers could not be crushed so thoroughly as elsewhere. This may have contributed, ironically, to the maintenance of German pre-eminence in Europe, since it means that manufacturing was not degraded as it was elsewhere in the West.

In Britain and the United States, in contrast, it was not so easy to employ repression. A pretext had to be found to justify this, and what was found was essentially the same as had already been employed in Germany. This pretext was the revived Cold War. The fantasy was that the absurd military build-up in the USSR (which had been going on since the fall of Krushchev in a desperate and futile attempt to match Western military might, diverting precious capital away from productive investment) represented a menace to the Western world. Britain and the United States flooded the world with propaganda about the peril represented by the USSR and its allies — who invariably consisted of whatever weak country happened to be a target of Western imperialism at any given moment. Against this mythical peril, the Anglo-American reactionaries banded together, in a risible attempt at the Roosevelt-Churchill alliance of World War II.

There were those who recognised that the peril was mythical, and these, intellectuals, socialists and activists, were targeted as agents of the enemy. If they were not actual spies and saboteurs working for the global Communist conspiracy, they were dupes, and deserved no mercy. Interestingly, this was not so prominent in the United States, despite the legacy of McCarthyism — the efforts by the Reagan administration to demonise American intellectuals and radicals in this way were far from dominant, though this was not for want of trying. (The Reagan administration even resuscitated the old House Un-American Activities Committee under another name, calling fascists from across the globe to testify before it about the menace of Communists disguised as Salvadorean nuns and South African schoolchildren.)

In Britain, however, the process worked magnificently. All left-wingers, all the way up to the various Leaders of the Opposition, were denounced as agents of a supreme enemy. (One leader of the Labour Party, Foot, was accused of being an actual Soviet spy; his successor, Kinnock, was accused of being a placeholder for Benn, supposedly a Soviet spy who would take his place.) War in Northern Ireland was intensified and made commonplace — and was also, naturally, seen as a Soviet project. Thus, when Thatcher manipulated the coalminers into going on strike under disastrously unfavourable conditions, this strike, too, was perceived as a Soviet project (even though Communist Russian and Chinese coal was flowing into Britain) and the workers were represented as agents, or dupes, of the global conspiracy to impose — what? Wisely, the Thatcher and Reagan administrations never discussed what the actual goals of the Communist conspiracy might be, since doing so might have made it look extremely attractive when compared with the goals of Thatcher and Reagan.

There was no doubt about what those goals were. The object of the exercise was to eliminate the egalitarian and social democratic projects which had evolved between the Great Depression and the 1973 financial crisis. First, the feeble and disorganised extreme variants of those projects were contemptuously crushed with the assistance of social democrats, and then the social democrats themselves were crushed. “Crushed”, not with bulldozers or police attacks, usually, but rather with intimidatory rhetoric alone, powered by a control of the press and electronic media which in Britain was direct and almost complete, whereas in the United States it was indirect and partial. Nevertheless, as right-wing rhetoric became aggressive and overwhelming, left-wing rhetoric faded away as left-wing voices either were silenced, or discovered that they could continue to enjoy access to the media only if they abandoned their principles — and therefore they abandoned their principles.

In other words, the victory of the Thatcher project relied on the weakness and lack of principle of the left, and this reliance proved completely justified.

The consequence of all this was a society without any political leadership which was not Thatcherite in its essence — devoted to practices which were aimed (in the long term) at eradicating the rights of the working class as far as possible, and promoting the rights of the ruling class as much as convenient. This was sold as “conservatism”, yet in reality the traditional values of Anglo-American conservatism were in conflict here, since the attack on the working class required a substantial undermining of national sovereignty in Britain, and of global pre-eminence in manufacturing in the United States. Both countries de-industrialised their economies, transferring workers into low-wage service industries while national wealth depended on finance — on banking for, and insuring, the manufacturing and extractive industries of other countries. Conservative nationalism was sacrificed to conservative plutocracy — and here again, Thatcherism provided a solution; the actual fact of abandoning the national interest was compensated for by an illusion of nationalism, of flag-waving jingoism, xenophobia and renewed racism, all of which covered up the fact that Britain was no longer capable of surviving economically without European sponsorship, any more than the United States was capable of surviving without Japanese sponsorship (and later Chinese sponsorship).

So, in a real sense, Thatcher made the world in which we live. There is no need to put up a monument, for her monument exists in the blank parodic politics of our global electoral systems, the vicious inequality in the West and in the territories which the West commands, the poisonous propaganda of the Western media, the paranoia with which the West greets even the feeblest challenge with brutal violence, and with which the West justifies the establishment of an ever-growing ensemble of secret police forces, increasingly backed up with powers of secret detention, torture and political murder previously confined to Latin America and Africa. In an important sense, indeed, Thatcher brought the war against the Third World home to the First World by invoking the menace of the Second World. In doing this, she was able to enrich the wealthy and immiserate and disempower the poor, which was the whole object of the exercise.

Unfortunately, the long-term consequence of this project may well be the extinction of the species — but, as Thatcher remarked , “There is no alternative” — at least, not an alternative palatable to her sponsors, and no alternative unpalatable to her sponsors could be permitted to exist.