This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
THERE can be no doubt about it: the move to the right no longer looks like a temporary swing of the pendulum. On the national political stages of Britain and the United States and at the international meetings the spotlight has veered hard over to the ideas and rhetoric of the New Right.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Maggie Thatcher’s austere kingdom. But it would be wrong to identify the success of the British radical right solely with the personality of Mrs Thatcher and her hard-nosed cronies. Although they have given the swingto the right a distinctive personal stamp, the deeper movement is a form of authoritarian populism which has great appeal to the average punter.
At the ideological level many of the key themes of the radical Right - law and order, the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state, the onset of social anarchy, the ‘enemy within’, the dilution of British stock by alien black elements - had emerged well before the full extent of the recession was known. They emerged as a reaction to the radical movements and political polarisation of the 1960s.
The radical Right is engaged in a struggle for dominance against both social democracy and the moderate wing of its own party. The strength of its intervention lies partly in its commitment to break the mould. It takes elements of the prevailing philosophies, dismantles them and reconstitutes them in a new logic. Thatcherism succeeds by directly engaging the ‘creeping socialism’ and apologetic state collectivism’ of the Conservative ‘wets’. It strikes at the very nerve centre of consensus politics, which dominated and stabilized the political scene for over a decade. Whilst actively destroying consensus politics from the right, it aims for the construction of a new national consensus of its own making.
The contradictions within social democracy are one key to the whole rightward shift of the political spectrum. The contradiction can be put in simple terms: to win elections social democracy (Labour in this case) must maximise its claims to be the political representative of the working class and organised labour. This relationship of class-to-party has depended on the set of bargains negotiated between Labour and trade union representatives of the working class. This ‘indissoluble link’ is the practical basis for Labour’s claims to be the natural governing party when there is crisis.
But once in government, social democracy is committed to finding solutions to the crisis which are capable of winning support from key sections of capital, since its solutions are always framed within the limits of capitalist survival. And this requires that the link between party and class be used not to advance but to discipline the class and organisation it represents.
The rhetoric of ‘national interest’, which is the main way that a succession of defeats have been imposed on the working class by social democracy in power, are exactly where this contradiction shows through. For people-to-government (the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s appeal) dissects the struggle in a different way than class-to-party. At key moments of struggle - from the strikes of 1966 right through to the 1979 five per cent pay norm which was broken so disastrously - the Labour government was forced to come down on the side of ‘The Nation’ against ‘sectional interests’, irresponsible trade union power’ etc - that is, against its own class.
This is the terrain on which Mr Heath played such destructive games in the lead-up to the Industrial Relations Act of 1971 and its aftermath, with his invocation of ‘the great trade union of the nation’ and the spectre of the greedy working class ‘holding the nation to ransom . Thatcherism, deploying the vocabulary of ‘the nation’ and ‘people’ against ‘class’ and ‘unions’ with far greater vigour and popular appeal, has homed in on this objective contradiction between Labour and the class which is the basis of its support. Considerable numbers of people - including many trade unionists - find themselves caught up in this rhetoric of ‘the nation’ and ‘people’, and swirled along in a rising wave of hostility to trade unions.
Closely related strands in the philosophy of the radical Right are the themes of anti-collectivism and anti-statism (‘Big government is the problem’). Thatcherism has rejuvenated these traditional nineteenth century themes. On the economic front this has meant refurbishing the ideas of monetarism, and knocking away the Keynesian lynch-pin at the centre of corporatist state intervention throughout the postwar period - pumping money into the economy to create jobs.
Neither Keynesianism nor monetarism, however, win votes in the electoral marketplace. But Thatcherism discovered a powerful means of translating the clichés of ‘freedom of the marketplace’ into the language of experience, moral imperative and common sense, providing an alternative ethic to that of ‘the caring society. Being British’ became once again identified with the restoration of competition and profitability; with tight money and sound finance (you can’t pay yourself more than you earn!) and the national economy became debated on the model of a household budget. The essence of the British citizen, the Tory message read, should be self-reliance and personal responsibility, not crippled by taxation, enervated by welfare state ‘coddling’, with their moral fibre irrevocably sapped by ‘state handouts’. This assault on the very principle of social welfare - the corner stone of consensus politics from the mid 1950s onwards - was mounted through the emotive image of the ‘scrounger’: the new folk devil.
This populist language and the reconstruction of a ‘free market’ ethic has been given a sensitive public relations treatment to render it palatable. The excessively high-minded Sir Keith Joseph and the excessively broad-bottomed Rhodes Boyson, the ‘disinterested’ lead writers of The Times, The Telegraph and The Economist and the ventriloquists of populist opinion in the Mail, the Express, the Star and the Sun gave it their undivided attention. One of the country’s top advertising agencies, Saatchi and Saatchi, were called in to polish up the popular appeal of the Leader and her policies. Gaining the support of the popular press was a critical victory in the attempt to redefine the commonsense of the times: from the ‘caring society’ to the ‘by our own bootstraps’ nation.
Thatcherite populism is a particularly rich mix. It combines the resonant themes of basic Toryism (nation, family, duty, authority, standards, tradition) with the aggressive themes of a revived neo-liberalism (selfinterest, competitive individualism, anti-statism). ‘Freedom of the people equals the free market’ is once again in the foreground of the conservative ideological repertoire. Around this contradictory point the authentic language of ‘Thatcherism’ has crystallised. It began to define the crisis: what it was and how to get out of it.
When in a crisis traditional alignments are disrupted it becomes possible to persuade working people to align themselves with the formation of a new power bloc: an alliance with the new political forces of the Right in a great national crusade ‘to make Britain "Great" once more’. The idea of ‘the people’ unified behind a reforming drive to tum back the tide of ‘creeping socialism’, banish the illusions of full employment without inflation fromthe state apparatus and renovate the power bloc is a powerful one. Its radicalism connects with popular sentiments. But it effectively turns them on their head, absorbs and neutralises their popular thrust and creates, in the place of a popular move toward radical change, a populist unity. It brings into existence a new coalition between certain sections of the dominant and the dominated classes. We can see this alliance between ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘the people’ in the very structure of Mrs Thatcher’s own rhetoric:
‘Don’t talk to me about "them" and "us" in a company’, she once told readers of Woman’s Own: ‘You’re all we in a company. You survive as a company survives, prosper as the company prospers - everyone together. The future lies in co-operation and not confrontation.’ This ousts the existing structure of opposites - ‘them’ vs ‘us’. It sets in its place an alternative set of equivalents: ‘Them’ and ‘us’ equals ‘we’. Then it puts we - ‘the people’ - in a particular relation to capital: behind it, dominated by its imperatives (profitability, accumulation); yet at the same time yoked to it, identified with it. ‘You survive as the company survives’; presumably you also collapse as it collapses. Company liquidations and bankruptcies totalled 40,019 in the four years of Mrs Thatcher’s rule 1980 - 1983, compared to 21,393 in the previous four years of Jim Callaghan’s office.
This process of absorption and neutralisation of popular sentiments has often been described as ‘false consciousness’, just a set of ideological con tricks whose cover will be blown as soon as they are put to the stern test of the real world. But this underestimates both the rational core of these populist sentiments and their real basis. ‘Thatcherism’ operates directly on the real and contradictory experience of the popular classes under social democracy: that when Labour comes to power as champion of the working class and trade unions, it turns round and forces them into a straightjacket of wage controls. Qn this basis it tars Labour with the ‘bureaucratic statist’ brush - and wins support amongst all freeborn Englishmen.
Labour’s social democracydid increase state control. ‘Statism’ was a stifling force. That’s why anti-statism has proved so powerful a populist slogan. The Labour party in government did set itself to contain and reform, instead of transform. British capitalism. What capital could not accomplish on its own. Labour’s ‘reformism’ would do by using the state as representative of the ‘general interest’ to create the conditions for ‘business as usual’, the effective resumption of capitalist accumulation and profitability. Social democracy had no other strategy other than massive state control and support for both private and public industry, plus a welfare tax for the working class. Hence the state has become a massive presence, inscribed over every feature of social and economic life. But, as the recession bit more deeply, so the management of the crisis required the Labour government to discipline, limit and police the very classes it claimed to represent.
The best index of this problem was the incomes policy, especially in its last and most confusing manifestation, the Social Contract. To the Labour government it represented the only way in which social and economic discipline could be ‘sold’ to the trade union movement. The glaring discrepancies between the redistributive language of the Social Contract and its actual disciplinary character was the best example of how the state, under social democracy, came to be experienced as ‘the enemy of the people’. This contradiction bit deeper and deeper into the Labour/trade union alliance between 1976 and 1979 until it undermined the credibility and raison d’etre of Mr Callaghan’s government itself.
The radical Right welcomed this trade union revolt against ‘state interference in free collective bargaining’ much the same way that the father welcomed the return of the Prodigal Son.
The problem stemmed from Labour trying to work within the capitalist system while expounding socialist policies. The expansion of the state machine, under the management of civil servants and experts, has often been defined in this tradition as synonymous with socialism itself. Labour has been willing to use the state to reform conditions for working people, provided this did not bite too deeply into the logic of capitalist accumulation. The fact is that ‘statism’ is not foreign to Labour socialism: it is intrinsic to it.
The Right has capitalised on the fatal hesitancy of the Labour party to identify itself with the emergence of democratic power at the popular level. Mrs Thatcher is guilty of exaggeration - but no more than that - when she identifies state bureaucracy and creeping state ownership with the Labour party’s ‘socialism’. Then she goes further and identifies this socialism’ with the spectre of socialism of East European regimes: and contrasts this with the sweet sound of ‘Freedom’ which, of course, she and her New Model Conservative Party represent.
It is the New Right’s further advantage that the experience working people have had under Labour has not been a great advert for more nationalisation. Whether in the growing dole queues, the waiting-rooms of the overburdened National Health Service, or suffering the indignities of claiming Social Security benefits, people experience the corporatist state increasingly not as a benefit for them but as a powerful bureaucratic imposition on them. The state has become less a welfare agency, and more a benevolent dictator.
Instead of confronting this contradiction at the heart of its strategy, Labour has fallen back on stressing the neutrality of the state, incarnator of the National Interest and above the struggle between the contending classes. It is precisely this abstract state which has been transformed by Mrs Thatcher into the enemy. It is ‘the State’ which has over-borrowed and overspent; fuelled inflation, fooled the people into thinking there would always be more where the last handout came from; tried to regulate things like wages and prices which are best left to the hidden hand of market forces; above all, interfered, meddled, intervened, obstructed, instructed and directed - against the essence, the genius, of the British People. It is time, she says with conviction, ‘to put people’s destinies back into their own hands’.
So in any polarisation between state and people, it is Labour which is represented as undividedly part of the power bloc, enmeshed in state apparatus, riddled with bureaucracy, in short ‘with’ the State; and Mrs Thatcher, grasping the torch of freedom with one hand, who is undividedly out there, ‘with the people’. It is the Labour Party which is committed to things as they are - and Mrs Thatcher who means to tear society up by the roots and radically reconstruct it. This is the process by which the radical Right has become ‘popular’, and Labour unpopular.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
PHOTO ESSAY: For Eritrean migrants, there is more dignity in death
The recent Saudi clampdown on migrant workers has brought campaigners onto the streets. Chris Matthews was with some of them in London.
Jamie Kelsey-Fry reflects on the movement that has united people around the world.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara argues that we can all improve our wellbeing through traditional medicine and by slowing down.
Ken Loach: why I support a cultural boycott of Israel
If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.
– Emma Thompson –
Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.