Thursday, 11 April 2013

Thatcher, Society & the Market

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women's Own magazine, October 31 1987:
'I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. "I have a problem, I'll get a grant." "I'm homeless, the government must house me." They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.'

ON Monday's PM program on Radio Four, Baroness Gillian Shephard, in a confrontation with the former Labour MP, Clare Short, denied that Margaret Thatcher had ever said, 'There is no such thing as society!'. The next day on the same program the full quote in which she said it twice was read out: she said 'There is no such thing as society... there are individuals and families!' Essentially, she was claiming 'society' is an 'abstract' concept, and therefore individuals and their families must take responsibility for their own destinies and plight and not blame things that happen onto 'society'.

Significantly in another interview Thatcher challenges the interviewer who uses the term 'the market theory'. She said that 'the market is not a theory' but a reality, and that historically there has always been 'a market'. So there we have it, for her society is an 'abstraction' and the market is 'real'.

The 19th Century French sociologist Emile Durkheim considered society to be somehow more than the sum of its constituent parts: that is more than a random collection of individuals and their families. His view, and that of other social thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Talcott Parsons, Harold Garfinkel, up until the present, is to consider that society is not abstract but acts upon individuals and influences their destinies: in Durkheim's case he even tries to show that such apparently individual acts as suicide are socially construed. This belief in the importance of the social construct is apparent even in the works of novelists such as Dickens and Balzac. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, wants to argue that it is 'the market' not 'society', that is the main motor driving the human race even if the destiny is a sociological abyss.

Left wing writers like the play-write Bertold Brecht admitted that capitalism and the market were economically dynamic and creative, but often socially destructive in a devastating way. Yesterday, in the International Herald Tribune, AC Grayling wrote:
'The curious feature of Thatcher's legacy is that although she struck an axe-blow deep into the heart of Britain, it is society, not the political sphere, that remains deeply divided by a widening gap between rich and poor.'

Mr. Grayling adds:
'the country's politics have almost ceased to be ideological, as ... (a)ll the main British political parties now strive for the center ground, and the differences between them are about managerial style, not questions of principle.'

AC Grayling sums-up the legacy of Thatcherism thus:
'She began the deregulation of banking that led ultimately to Britain's contribution to the global financial crisis of 2008. She reversed the trend of greater social integration and diminishing of the wealth gap that characterized Britain in the three decades after 1945. Post-war convergences in class and wealth disappeared and former divisions resurfaced as consumerism and social incivility followed quickly on her brusque reorganization of British society.'

And now, we are left with the debris of Thatcherism: the secular all embracing religion of consumerism, welfare dependency, Mick Philpotts, and a sharp division between owner-occupiers and those young people who fail to get on the housing ladder. The market cannot be ignored but all societies find it necessary to place some form of moral side-constraints on economic exchange in the market place, either through village customs; traditional practices; an appeal to some form of religious authority; or laws and statutory regulations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There was a lot about Thatcher the milk snatcher that had more in common with classical Liberalism. No Tory would have said there was no such thing as society. Conservatives are wary of too much invidualism. The 19th century conservative radical Richard Oastler told Sir Robert Peel that conservatism meant for him: "A place for everyone and everything in it s place." Thatcher's guru was Hayek.

The way some of the Tories are eulogising Thatcher you'd never believe they threw her out of office. The woman was off her trolley by some accounts. Her chief of staff Michael Dobbs said he'd attended a meeting with Thatcher and five cabinet ministers when she hit him with her handbag. He said: "I received the full force of that handbag. it was an exceedingly painful moment, she beat me up something rotten, she was appalling and out of control."