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The Bitter Death Of The Welfare State

Aotearoa/New Zealand

new internationalist
issue 188 - October 1988

The bitter death of
the welfare state

Britain is the jewel in the crown of the Politics of Greed.
Stuart Hall anatomizes the success of Thatcherism - and laments
the failure of the Left to accept its significance.

In its three terms of office, Thatcherism has transformed the economic, political and cultural map of Britain - and has exported its ideas and practices all over the world.

After World War Two and the 'Hungry Thirties', an unspoken consensus about the basic shape of British society came into being, supported (despite their many differences) by the two main political parties. Its key feature was the recognition that the State needed to intervene in the economy and in society to regulate the inegalitarian effects of the free play of market forces - and to impose some notion of public interest.

It is this underlying consensus which Thatcherism is dismantling in practice and rubbishing in principle. The values of an untrammelled free market and an 'enterprise culture' are the elements of a new consensus, a new common sense, which Thatcherism is attempting to impose.

The dismantling is now far advanced. But the critical thing to understand is that this restructuring of society has been, at every turn, coupled with an ideological offensive designed to win hearts and minds and gradually to reshape the culture itself. Every move has been ideologically packaged so as to appeal to the narrow self-interest of particular groups, to sell them a new conception of themselves - as 'Sid', the proletarian shareholder, for example. People have been offered a new image of private success so as to win them over to a positive identification with the Thatcherite project.

This longer-term and deeper reshaping of the cultural and moral life of the nation is really what gives Thatcherism its cutting edge and makes it a 'hegemonic' force in politics: a force which means not simply to win electoral power in the system, but to realign the whole of society with its project. Its aim, in short, is not simply to remodel society but to undermine the philosophy of social co-operation, mutual aid and care for the underprivileged which has formed the ideological basis of the Left. It seeks to institutionalize in its place a new social ethic - that of self-interest.

This project, despite the consistency and single-mindedness with which it is being driven through, is not without its contradictions. It was sold to people in the name of greater choice and freedom, as a way of releasing energies said to have been rendered ineffectual by bureaucracy and what Thatcher calls 'the Nanny State'. Yet it has itself only been advanced by greatly enhancing the centralizing powers and regulatory functions of the State.

It seeks to harness an increasingly free market to a society which is more socially regulated and disciplined. Its moral regime is less tolerant of diversity (so much for 'choice'). Its style of government is secretive and authoritarian. It is deeply suspicious of any hint of genuine democracy. Its image of the family, of the role of women and of what young people should and should not know is positively Neanderthal. It has a narrow, racist conception of what it is to be English. The image of future Britain which it advances is more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century. Thatcherism aims to take the country forwards by taking it backwards.

Yet those who are opposed to the Politics of Greed have a difficult truth to learn. Thatcherism has addressed real problems, real issues. It derives its rationale and logic from real, novel developments in society and the economy. And its success has exposed some of the weaknesses in the type of welfare state-dominated social democracy to which Labour has been so deeply wedded. It is not wrong to say that Britain must modernize itself. The problem with Thatcherism is not its commitment to change but rather the nature of the changes which it has set in motion.

The problem is that the Left is not convinced by the need for change. It has no alternative scenario which could make a broad appeal to the many sections of society who are not persuaded by the Thatcherite cause, no vision which could capture the public imagination or build an equally popular counter-politics. Indeed it is reluctant even to acknowledge the truly historic dimensions of the turning point which Thatcherism has defined - it shies away from the sharply polarized alternatives which are now laid before the British people.

Much of the Left clings to the belief that it might still be possible, with a little luck, to go back to the old Keynesian, welfare-state game. And it is bogged down in this fond but unrealistic alternative, partly because its own philosophy and organization emerged out of the older structures which Thatcherism is rapidly eroding. Unfortunately, even amongst the New Right's enemies, the old Keynesian alternative no longer carries either credibility or conviction.

What is needed, above all, is political imagination. We have to imagine what an alternative society would be like - one more equal and more just, more democratic and more tolerant, less nationalistic and philistine. One in which the interests of individuals are not pitted in a remorseless competitive struggle against the good of all, but where the principles of citizenship, social justice and tolerance are progressively institutionalized in a more responsive, less bureaucratic state. Where ordinary people can increasingly exercise the power to shape their collective life as a community.

Such ideas are utterly foreign to Thatcherism; and no unbridled capitalist regime, in which the market is God, has ever produced such a society in the past - or seems likely to do so in the future. There is more to life than has ever appeared within the mean-spirited philosophy of the New Right. However, it is unlikely to come into existence as a real, practical possibility until we have taken Thatcherism's full measure, learned its lessons and designed some alternative but equally far-reaching agenda. Stuart Hall is Professor of Sociology, at the Open University and one of the foremost thinkers on the Left in Britain. Britain is the jewel in the crown of the Politics of Greed.

Stuart Hall examines the success of Thatcherism - laments the failure of the Left to accept its significance.

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