I don’t feel like dancin’

This post was written by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

‘Margaret Thatcher is Dead: This lady is not returning!’ is one way of the calmer statements celebrating Thatcher’s demise on my Facebook page. I can’t join the clamour singing ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’, trailing as it does its horrific historical sexism. More sadly, I can’t see anything to celebrate. Whilst this once formidable Tory trailblazer is dead, her ideas are more resurgent than ever. Neither Cameron nor Osborne will ever be damned as a warlocks or necromancers – this rarely happens to men – yet it is thanks to them that Margaret Thatcher dies triumphant. Thatcher’s success, like that of her pal, Ronald Reagan, was that through a combination of shrewdness and luck she could ride the high tide of corporate capital’s determination to increase profits by rolling back all the popular gains of the postwar settlement. She was neoliberalism’s willing tool, rather than something unique, evil or otherwise.

What is truly extraordinary about these times is that while Thatcher’s economic legacy has imploded, her ideological stance – which as she said was always her main agenda – is more viciously enforced than ever. “Markets know better than governments”, was her pivotal mantra, the rest flowed from this. Oh no they do not! You would think we must all have learned this from the catastrophic economic collapse in 2008, when so many banks had to be bailed out by governments, only to be returned as quickly as possible: old bonuses intact; new regulations nonexistent. All too quickly forgotten is the revelation of the cruel absurdity of the economic collapse set in motion by the buccaneers of the finance sector that Thatcher had ‘liberated’ in October 1986, with all the reckless gambling and belief that ‘toxic debt’ was itself a tradable commodity. Or at least, any such knowledge is drowned out by the continued combination of Coalition rhetoric baiting Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, together with relentless media attacks on the ‘undeserving’ poor, or any other scapegoats conjured up to misdirect people’s sense of resentment, fear and insecurity: ‘Crisis: Blame the baby boomers, not the bankers’, was a typically absurd headline in The Times when Irish Banks banks were on the point of collapse at the start of 2010, summarizing the argument by their chief economic analyst, Anatole Kaletsky.

In these topsy-turvy times, any thoughtful, reforming responses to the crisis, no matter how carefully argued and widely supported by fellow economists – such as those put forward by the highly respected American economist, Paul Klugman – are tossed aside in the UK. No reference to Keynesianism or any policies for decreasing the obscene inequality that helped generate the crisis are considered. Instead, after so much mayhem, Thatcher’s worship of market values rules supreme, motivating vicious cuts in welfare and the surreptitious turning over of what remains of the public sector to the private, even as the crisis in market forces and the finance sector continues to deepen, especially in Europe.

Of course there have been impressive flurries of resistance, and for a while in the wake of the Occupy movement, grass-roots dissent was back on the political agenda. Networks of resistance are active around the country, especially in defence of the NHS. Yet those eager to dance on Thatcher’s grave have much thinking to do, when there remains such a lack of connection between protesters and mainstream politics. Indeed, as Paul Mason admits in his book celebrating all the new protest movements around the globe, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, most of the people he interviewed ‘were hostile to the very idea of a unifying theory’. Yet it is surely some sort of compelling counter-ideology and alternative strategy to the ubiquitous rule of market forces that we are desperately in need of if we are ever to safely bury Thatcher. Although the rich few get richer and the rest of us poorer, the left has yet to strike any real chord with the broader public. We know that it was Tony Blair, or ‘Blairism’, which – as Thatcher knew – did so much to entrench her legacy: with his seamless endorsement of market values and public veneration for wealth and celebrity, even as it furthered cynicism about politicians and politics generally. We have headed so far down that stream, it is hard now to turn things around.

It took the extraordinary conditions of the Second World War to create the Labour Party’s comprehensive commitment to welfare, albeit of a conservative and authoritarian kind. The reforms and nationalizations inaugurating the British welfare state, post 1945, were based on the deliberate spread of a consensus that it was economic insecurities and domestic unhappiness that created unhappy societies: ‘many of the maladjustments and neuroses of modern society’, as Bevan explained when Minister of Health, arose directly from poverty and insecurity. When will our politicians say these words again? Any direct action, movement politics or coalitions of resistance we build today has to find ways to influence national government to reaffirm that mind-set, hopefully with more creative agendas than hitherto, before we can bury Thatcher. And since I began with a feminist note, let me also end there. Some women have argued that it was Thatcher who provided the best role model for helping women release their true potential. No she did not. She was the perfect role model for the ever deepening gulf between women, as the privileged few have been able to rise to the very heights of political or corporate power, even as the majority of women, affected at every turn by the rolling back of welfare and the politics of individual success she promoted, are ever more firmly left at the bottom of the heap.

Lynne Segal’s new book Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing will be published by Verso in the Autumn.

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7 thoughts on “I don’t feel like dancin’

  1. A very enlightening & well thought out brief assessment of the woman & her legacy. It reminds me of the way people say ‘if it wasn’t for the Beatles, Elvis, Little Richard or whoever, popular music would not be where it is today, whereas I believe the times throw up the people who fit those times & the general direction would be almost identical whoever was prominent.
    Other countries in Europe followed a similar socio-political path as Britain as I understand it, tho’ less radically. Correct me if I’m wrong, I am only a humble plumber with scant academic knowledge.

  2. It wasn’t the ‘big-bang’ that let the banks off the lease it was the repeal in the US during the Clinton Administration actually, not the Reagan or Bush Snr ones, that broke the separation between investment banks and depositor funds. A act of folly repeated in the UK during a Labour government not a Conservative one.

    So by all means debate Mrs Thatcher’s economic and social legacy but at least use correct information and let’s not forget that the 1970s were not some utpoian paridise either, nor should we celebrate that part of our history where those from the working class were doomed to relive the lives of their parents and grandparents and never be allowed to achieve their potention while the middle class was allowed to avail of the all the new opportunities from the post-war settlement.

    If Lloyd George created the first UK welfare state (copying Bismark’s Germany) and Athlee created the second one, are we not now in need of a Welfare State 0.3 because no one in the UK needs to live in poverty anymore and more times than not the poverty is directly related to choices people make, ie the NHS is free so there is no justification for people having children they are not emotionally or financially able to parent. Isn’t maintaining good health a personal choice – how much misery is self inflicted by smoking and drinking in an age where no one can claim ignorance about its effects?

    Isn’t all Mrs Thatcher tried to do was to shift the argument that there are plenty of people who are perfectly able to fend for themselves and shouldn’t they be allowed to while ‘society’ should then help those who cannot help themselves.

    The idelogical difference is not just between the rich and poor it’s between accepting responsibility for one’s choices or passing the blame for poor choices to ‘the government’?

  3. I agree that Margaret Thatcher did nothing for the female cause as she neither promoted legislation that would help the situation of the majority of females, nor did she improve the image of women as a whole. The thatcher government legacy is also nothing to be proud of. While I can see that she took over the country in a very challenging economic situation and that something had to change at that point, the answers that her government brought to Britain were the radical reduction of almost every form of social justice, the over prioritization of city of london financial market agendas, and unflinching degradation of all state owned and run services.
    Perhaps it is harder to see it if you live in UK or even in London, but Britain is not thriving and this is the legacy that she has left behind her.

  4. It is illogical and unreasonable that Margaret Thatcher should be reproached for apparently not doing more to assist other women to obtain career opportunities in politics and elsewhere and positions of power any more than it is unreasonable that Barack Obama should be reproached for not doing similar for other African Americans. The fact that they both achieved as much as they had will have encouraged others to believe that they are capable of doing as much if not more. Such criticism smacks of meanness and perhaps envy.

  5. What a funny piece. I came to it because I thought it might be about Maggie T, but instead it was an economics lesson from a professor of gender studies. How odd Professor Segal that you finish by wondering if the welfare state will ever again reach the heights of the post war settlement. When in fact the monster has grown 18x in real terms since 1948 – source below, The Guardian. Why is this so? Because the people paying for it all – the rich, and future generations – are a minority of the electorate. In the short term it is in most people’s interest to vote for more government handouts. And so they do. Maggie was brave enough to begin to make the case for less handouts, for which she continues to receive vitriol, but in fact no democratic politician can stop entitlements growing in the western welfare world.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2013/feb/05/benefits-debate-explained-skiver-striver

  6. As Berthold Brecht wrote of his character Arturo Ui,  “the bitch that bore him is in heat again ”  For Thatcher the bitch that bore her is in heat again with so called austerity policies designed to transfer wealth from the 99% of the population to the richest 1% is rampant throughout the world with heirs like Cameron in Britain and Harper here in Canada implementing them.

    As I said to an Argentinian fellow graduate student over twenty years ago now.

    “it is a pity we couldn’t both have lost the Falkland’s war, you would have still got rid of the generals and we would have got rid of Thatcher.”

    I regret that Britain’s first woman prime minister will be remembered for the destruction of all civilized norms in her country rather than helping to save it from neo-liberalism like Argentina’s first woman President Cristina Fernandez.

    It is also ironic that the mad cow who through her agricultural policies gave the world mad cow disease should die in the throws of dementia.  I will never forgive her for destroying the country I grew up in.

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