When Gough Whitlam dies, I dread to think what the Young Liberals and company will tweet. Last last night, I was given a bit of a sneak peek courtesy of very many lefties on Twitter in response to the death of Margaret Thatcher.
At the outset, I should say that I don’t get that moved or sentimental about the deaths of famous people. As a community, we thought it particularly odd when North Koreans made public displays of grief when Kim Jong-Il died… and yet think it perfectly ordinary to demand outlandish lengths of respect and commemoration when cricketers, musicians, and various other menaces to the Public Quiet kick the bucket.
It is not a sentimental feeling of loss I feel now that Thatcher’s dead. I don’t feel the need to wear sackcloth or rub ashes in my hair. I don’t even feel like it’s a great shame that she’s dead — a feeling which I suspect comes more from our shared fear of death and of mortality rather than an appreciation of eudaimonia.
But what I do feel is that her passing gives us an opportunity to reflect upon who she was, what she did, and what we need to learn from the period in which she was influential. Perhaps more than just an opportunity. Perhaps it’s an excuse. As a society, we feel the need to find excuses to think. I worked as an adviser to an influential special interest group and developed a quick appreciation for the need to capitalise opportunistically when spaces happened to open up in the agora for new ideas. It seems we can’t cold call the public with new ideas; we need to wait until they’re in a frame of mind to listen. The death of a public figure puts people in that frame of mind to consider ideas. The death of Thatcher puts people in the frame of mind to ask questions about conservative politics, women in politics, and the near total colonisation of the political sphere by the economic sphere.
I must admit that I don’t have a lot to say about women in politics. I imagine there aren’t too many people who’d care what a straight, white male would have to say on the topic either. I do have plenty to say on the topic of the economic sphere’s hostile takeover of politics, but it’s the first subject that I think is the most relevant here. The death of Thatcher gives us an opportunity to look over the past thirty years of conservative political thought and ask: ‘What the fuck have we done?’
Thatcher is perhaps more responsible for the modernisation of both the Left and the Right than any other person. The modern Left, in particular, is only recently coming to terms with the idea of Thatcher being influential in their intellectual development. Who — besides the rusted on crazies — in the Left are still wedded to collectivism? Which modern Left wing thinker doesn’t (even if begrudgingly) accept that markets are Just So the ideal way of distributing goods (but, as we don’t live in a perfect world, we must have some State intervention)? How many times have I heard Latham, Rudd, Gillard, and Beazley impress upon the population the need for personal responsibility? And where would Keating be if it weren’t for Thatcher paving the way with economic rationalism? Third Way politics is the munted love-child of Thatcherism and the Left’s desperate need to feel relevant.
Thatcher’s great success was the normalisation of a particular kind of attitude: that economic rules were free of ideology and should be accepted by both sides of politics. The debate shifted away from other areas of politics towards the modern debate, ‘Which side of politics best gives expression to these ideologically-clean rules of economics?’ Of course, economic rules are not free of ideology — and their integration into social policy is certainly not. But, thanks to Thatcher, we can now trap voters in discussion of the nation’s budget in terms of their household budgets, and promote the voodoo economics of ‘Rich people make poor people richer because Science’.
Over here on the Right side of the political spectrum, it is nearly impossible to escape the Thatcherite shadow. She, aided and abetted by Reagan, cut off the many-headed Hydra of conservative thought, cauterising the stubs of all but the neo-liberal neck. The important similarity between this Heracles and Iolaus of Anglo-American politics was their recreation of the past. All conservatives (even me) are guilty of creating their own imagined past to which we wish the world would return. For Reagan, it was a new vision of the old Constitution. For Thatcher, it was a fantasy Victorian age with stalwart values and thriving institutions of state (especially the Monarchy and the Parliament). It’s here that we get the very odd idea of the ‘Economically liberal; Socially conservative’ politician — as if advocating a market system which advantaged the wealthy were somehow ‘liberal’.
It’s this violence towards traditional conservatism which severed the link between the mainstream political conversations of the 1800s-1960s and the present. Our political dialectic was not between the workers/labourers and the aristocrats/bourgeoisie. Thatcher’s (poor) treatment at the hands of the old guard Tories reframed the conservative debate: we now discuss issues in terms of common individuals and imagined latte-sipping, technocratic/academic elites. Both sides of politics do this, but modern conservatives are a bit more eager about this narrative. Tories used to fantasise about families: Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People‘ speech, for example, isn’t about real families. It’s about his idealised fantasy family: heterosexual parents who dutifully maintain the marriage to support the production of children who, in turn, would dutifully undertake their filial obligations towards their elders. It was a whitewashed family, bleached of complexity and imperfection. Thatcher changed this: over the course of her time in power, she stopped talking to fantasy voters who couldn’t deliver her actual votes, and instead took to talking to real individuals about the fantasy elites who were ripping them off, who were concealing the truth, and who were really to blame. Confusingly, union leaders were held up as typical of this new elite — publicly speaking out in favour of workers, but really holding individuals to ransom and privately being corrupt. The telos of this is the modern absurdity where working families are resentful of elitist, ‘class war’ politicians who want to tax the rich in order to fund socially beneficial programs.
In his essay What Is To Be Done?, Lenin discusses ‘Tailism’ (‘khvostism‘) where political leaders hijack the spontaneity of the public mood. The leaders aren’t really leading, says Lenin; they are following the mood of the public and echoing back to them what they want to hear. It was a criticism specifically of various revolutionaries, but Thatcher showed that reactionaries were similarly capable of tailism. The public is often too eager to fall into moral panics, and Thatcher had a knack (studiously copied by John Howard) for giving voice to these excesses of indignation. Instead of being a social leader, Thatcher’s conservatism exemplified a new form of reactionary politics: affirming whatever politically beneficial bellyfeel was permeating the electorate.
Being a social leader was antithetical to Thatcherism. In a confusing and often contradictory way, Thatcher herself believed deeply in supporting charities — but only ones which had a proper Victorian air about them, like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — but did not believe in society as a whole supporting individuals. Extremely wealthy individuals helped the poor, she thought; State investment in social goods did not. Her political inclinations were as much an attack on the conservative understanding of the State as they were an attack on Lefty entitlement culture.
It’s this nihilism about the value of society which has bled out the soul of conservatism. We are no longer the staunch defenders of the arts and high culture — because that would be elitist — but we are mouthpieces of individual responsibility without ever having to decide what we mean by those words. We have the audacity to criticise left wing political parties for funding cultural institutions which celebrate low culture, but won’t back universities and high culture when we have government. For this, we can thank Thatcher and her cronies. After all, they claim, why should the check out chick have to subsidise the opera and the ballet via their taxes?
Thus, we get the choice of two groups of barbarians. Which party will be the best custodian of the economic good? If you ask about the cultural good, you’re an elitist and must be voted off the island. If you ask about the social good, you’re making some sort of category error: there is no society, only Zuul.
Now is a good time to put Thatcher to rest, both figuratively and literally. The great shame is that we can’t bury her political ideals with her; instead, we conservatives are doomed to be haunted by yet another spectre whose chain-rattling warnings from the beyond cannot be heard over our own sanctimonious intercessory prayers. And so we should commit the Blessed Thatcher to the earth where, with Plautus as host, she can spend eternity with Hayek, Mises, and Reagan. There, she will be safely sealed away from the political world of the living, and can fill her cup with the sort of riveting conversation we would associate with Hayek, Mises, and Reagan…