Saturday, 4 May 2013

First published in the Backbencher April 14 2013

One reading of the politics of the 1970s is that civil breakdown and the winter of discontent was caused by out of control greedy Unions run by communist Union bosses holding the country to ransom. Another reading is that the manufacturing and industrial base of postwar Britain was no longer sustainable. Shifting market relations and global capitalism led production to countries with low wage costs and the civic strife we saw did not originate from the work of individual hands but changes in the economic base.

The first explanation posits the individual as responsible, the second posits the structural relations of capitalism. The distinction is a salient one with Mrs Thatcher in mind. Was it her hand, her wicked ideology that took us on an evolutionary U-turn? Well in one sense yes – she deregulated the financial sector which led to the meltdown we see around us. She foisted the Poll Tax on Scotland, sold off the railways and the housing stock. She began the dismantling of the welfare state – a project that is a necessary consequence of the logic of conservatism and is clearly continuing today. It was her that rejeuvenated the self-help greedy loads-o-money ideology of Samuel Smiles  – ‘it was er wot done it yer oner!’

But there is another important sense in which she could not have done what she did without the conditions which allowed her to. The stage set had to provide the scene on which her, to my mind intensely ugly, brand of Toryism could appeal so strongly to so many. It was her moment but it was a moment in which the structural conditions generated the possibility for her individual agency to act. In academic terms we could say that the case of Mrs Thatcher expresses the never-ending dialectic between the material and the economic on the one hand and the ideological and the individual on the other.

When Mrs Thatcher’s death was announced last week, several old socialist minded, miner-supporting friends contacted me in various states of celebratory inebriation. ‘She’s dead’ they said ‘Good’. I had mixed feelings.  I could not rejoice at the death of a fellow human being who, whilst I abhorred her politics, was an old lady with some form of dementia. My friends sensing my unwillingness to celebrate with them, told me off –‘She died in the Ritz man not some horrible housing estate, how can you feel sorry for somebody who did so much damage to so many people’s lives and sold off the family silver?’

Well she was still a human and she wasn’t Eichmann or Himmler and there is a sense in which she thought she was doing the right thing. Furthermore, she was an actor amongst other actors. You could say that all she did was tactically use the weaknesses and hypocrisies of the opposition who just happened to be on the same political stage she was - Arthur Scargill and a Labour party in complete disarray were a gift. What happened was that in her ideological hands the new structure of capitalism unfolded.  She was just good at it, she knew when she was on a winner and when the wind was in her favour.

This tension between individual and structural forces is a perennial if not ubiquitous feature of the human condition. In various ways aren’t we all caught in the same contradictory game?

We might be able to hold her to account for her personal acts, but we can’t bring her to book about the structural relations of capital. For me she was more  puppet than puppet master.


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