The Bitter Death Of The Welfare State

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.

People who are not wholly in tune with the politics of Margaret Thatcher are often reluctant to acknowledge the existence of a Thatcherite revolution. But if, by the term 'revolution', we understand a profound reshaping of society, its institutions and its culture, then such a notion is not far-fetched. In three terms of office, Thatcherism has transformed the economic, political and cultural map of Britain.

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. This consensus provided the political base-line of society and underpinned its social stability. Its key features were: acceptance of a mixed economy with a significant public sector; an expanded welfare state; a commitment to full employment. Above all there was a recognition of the need for the state 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, with the help of its intellectual allies. 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. The public sector is being rapidly privatized; the public interest deregulated. The State has become a dirty word in the Thatcherite vocabulary. The welfare state has been subject to savage cuts and, wherever possible, turned over to private suppliers. More significantly, its underlying social principle - universal provision according to need rather than ability to pay - has been exposed to an unremitting ideological assault.

Full employment has been abandoned. Not only that, but unemployment has been actively used to discipline the labour market, to force people to take jobs at lower rates of pay - at the same time as the defence of their living standards and working conditions, through the principle of trade unionization, has been undermined.

The restructuring of society has not stopped there. Local government has become the object of an unremitting attack stimulated by the fact that those local councils most involved in servicing their populations of need, especially in the large cities, were often also Labour enclaves. The civil service - at least traditionally supposed to be impartial in relation to narrow party commitments - has been systematically 'politicized'. Those who are not at one with the Thatcher project, who are not one of us', as she is fond of saying, sooner or later find themselves put out to grass.

The education system - historically quite independent of central government - has been ruthlessly harnessed to the will of the Secretary of State, who has taken powers (under the new 'Baker Bill') unthinkable in earlier times; and much of it is to be privatized or deregulated in its own wax. Even the NHS, where the welfare consensus still holds firm, will progressively have major sectors passed over to the principle that those who can pay should get the best and quickest medical care.

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. It aims to win popular consent and authority by a strategic struggle - by fighting on many different fronts at once (the economy, the family, education, sexuality, the realm of ideas and so on) and by promulgating a whole new social philosophy.

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, of Looking After Number One. The recent attempt to sell this pure gospel of possessive individualism as reconcilable with Christian charity is a last-minute, and not very convincing, exercise in moral cosmetics.

The advance guard of this new social philosophy are the 'businessmen', who have suddenly become the keepers of the nation's conscience and guardians of its education and university system, preaching efficiency and profitability as the only measure of the Good Life. This is the 'get on your bike' philosophy, the Politics of Greed.

Nannies and Neanderthals
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 to the family, of the role of women and of what young people should and should not know is positively Neanderthal. It has a narrow, exclusive, racist conception of what it is to be English and celebrates the divisions and inequalities, the patriarchal and hypocritical forms of respectability, which characterize its 'Victorian values'. 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.

So why then, you may well ask, has this project succeeded, at least so far, in carrying the day? The fact is that the British economy, despite the affluent interlude of the 1950s and early 1960s, is sluggish, backward in structure and in a long post-imperial decline. It never made the transition into late capitalism with the vigour or vitality of West Germany, Japan and the US. The historic compromise of the post- war consensus looked, politically, more and more like a stalemate. It was neither irrevocably capitalist nor, in any sense, socialist, but the worst of both worlds.

The forms of welfare state and public sector adopted by Labour were bureaucratic and remote without increasing popular participation, advancing democratic control or diffusing power throughout society. When the world capitalist economy went into recession in the mid- 1970s, the basis of that untenable compromise was finally blown away. Labour itself began to cut welfare and adopt monetarist solutions.

Besides, change was inevitable for other reasons. The structures of the British state are deeply hierarchical and anachronistic. Our constitutional arrangements are suffused in the magic of tradition and ritual, more appropriate to feudal than to post-industrial times. The hard truth is that Britain, at the beginning of the 1980s, had to move and change in order to survive.

Devil take the hindmost
Mrs Thatcher spoke, in her homely, commonsensical, Finchley-schoolmarm way, directly to this deep underlying sense of unease about Britain's future. She invoked the fear and anxiety at change which always assails a hitherto imperial power which has entered the days of its decline. And she promised to take the British people safely through difficult times towards a Great Future. Thatcherism effectively exploited popular discontents and grievances, convincing people that the only alternative was to let market forces rip through society - and let the Devil take the hindmost.

Thatcherism was also able to exploit some deeper sociological changes in society to its advantage. The old manufacturing industries, and the communities of occupation and skill which had grown up around them, could be left to decline - especially since they were the traditional heartlands of Labour and the unions. Instead it spearheaded new industries, backed by foreign money, and hitched its star to the global financial markets powered by the new information technologies. The workers in these sectors - highly skilled and highly paid - proved willing not only to forgo trade unionism but also to accept a more privatized and self-interested philosophy.

Also taken on board was the small but highly visible Yuppie culture, with its unashamed commitment to making money - preferably with as little effort as possible in the quickest possible time. These new social forces (now extensively represented in the Cabinet and the 'new men' of the remodelled Conservative Party) have been the hard-nosed pioneers, the leading edge, of the new social gospel.

Thatcherism has governed, from first to last, on a minority vote. But there is no doubt that it has made itself popular with significant minorities in all classes, eating into and undermining the old Labour working-class constituency. It has been able to rotate the minorities, building effective coalitions around its programme at the strategic moment. In this way it has not only built itself the majorities it needed, but also undermined the support for an older social philosophy. It has prospered from the fragmentation of society.

Above all, it has turned popular discontents and disappointed hopes to its advantage. One good example is education. Parents disappointed by the state education system have been open to persuasion that they could buy their children success - even though few, in reality, will be able to afford the kind of private school that could guarantee this. The vast majority of children will continue to 'fail', comparatively speaking, in the increasingly underfunded schools which are left behind.

In fact there is no long-term basis for growth and prosperity in a modern society without an educated population, and that means more, not less, public education for all. But Thatcherism's appeal to self-interest makes parents imagine that they can salvage something for themselves at the expense of the rest of the nation. There is, she has said, 'no such thing as society: only individuals and their families'. There could hardly be a clearer example of how private advancement for the few can only be purchased - within the terms of Thatcherism's Politics of Greed - at the expense of the many and the good of society as a whole.

The difficult truth
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 difference comes when we ask, which programme of modernization, which strategy for change, is the right one? On what principles should it be based? 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, its agendas and habits, emerged out of the older structures and institutions which Thatcherism is rapidly eroding. Unfortunately, even amongst the New Right's enemies, the old Keynesian alternative no longer carries either credibility or conviction.

Yet it cannot be the case that There Is No Alternative To Thatcherism - if only because it represents so narrow, exclusive and socially divisive a way for people in Britain to attempt to enter the twenty-first century. 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.

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