By Kindred Winecoff
A couple of quick additions to my previous post on Thatcher and punk rock. First is perhaps the greatest stunt a punk band ever pulled (in a quite strong field): convincing at least some folks in the upper reaches of the US and UK intelligence services that a Soviet plot was underway (ht Adam). An enjoyable read despite Buzzfeed’s Buzzfeediness.
More substantive is Jonny Thakkar’s recent long article on Thatcherism: where it came from, what it meant, and whether it was essentially inevitable. I’ve been a big fan of Thakkar ever since I discovered The Point a few years back, and strongly recommend searching its archive. Lots of good stuff in there. This article, I think, conveys a lot of the intention behind my meager post (and much more too). Take this as a morsel:
[O]ne of the greatest mysteries of the last three decades has been why leftist parties, so quick to criticize neoliberal policies in opposition, have consistently pursued them once in power. Since 1979, when Thatcher was first elected, almost all Western governments, left and right, have, to greater or lesser degrees, privatized public services and utilities while lowering taxes on corporate and individual incomes; inequality has risen inexorably; and the common perception is that citizens have become more consumerist and individualistic. In coming to terms with the failure of their elected representatives to arrest these trends, leftists have tended to cry corruption or cowardice; but the phenomena in question are too universal to be explained by personal vice alone. Either politics in general is just a cynical masquerade conducted by the rich and for the rich—a tempting explanation, to be sure—or there is something about the contemporary situation that makes it virtually impossible to resist neoliberalism. There must be various factors at work, but one of them is surely the absence of a compelling counter-ideal to neoliberalism in recent leftist thought. In the last three decades intellectuals and activists have mostly directed their attention towards foreign policy, climate change or identity politics rather than economic questions; when they have engaged directly with neoliberalism, it has typically been to offer what should technically be called conservative complaints, seeking to slow or reverse change rather than to suggest any new direction or ideal.
It is this sentiment, or something like it, that I was trying to get across. Mark Blyth stresses similar points at various times in his uneven, but well worth reading, Austerity. I’d put more emphasis on material conditions and less on a lack of counter-ideals, and I don’t think all of politics is rent-capture, but basically I think this a question that demands an answer. And I haven’t heard a good one.
Like it or not, neoliberalism is the closest thing we’ve gotten to a real global revolution with real global labor and capital integration. The best anti-neoliberalism counterfactual isn’t very appealing. And the effects should have been predictable: the wealthy in the global North have benefited (in many cases) as have the poor in the global South (in at least some cases). The middle class hasn’t disappeared… it’s grown enormously. It’s just that the new entrants aren’t from the U.S. or U.K., so for many of us it looks like stagnation. If you doubt my portrayal of the empirics, go check out Branko Milanovic’s extensive research on these questions.
Constructing a meaningful left politics out of this is very difficult. It must either eschew internationalism or eschew nationalist egalitarianism in the short run, and the short run might not be all that short. Neither is easy to do, for philosophical and practical reasons. The left can work for a more redistributionary tax code, but as Thomas Piketty — remember that name… you’ll see it a lot over the next 6 months — tells us in his landmark analyses into national inequality, that is a mere palliative; not a cure. More radical solutions, such as nationalizing finance, are non-starters politically and probably are not even desirable on the merits. (Do you really want financial power and state power to be even closer together?) The same is true of traditional right politics, which has been even more thoroughly discredited.
I have not yet decided what I believe to be the appropriate path forward. Thakkar recommends Platonic socialism — and bizarrely claims that simply not working somehow reduces inequality — but I can’t see it as a positive political program even if I accepted all of its premises, which I most certainly do not. I do know that I am grateful for durable political institutions undergirded by fairly strong norms of liberty, equality, and fraternity in whatever order they may appear. I know that “muddling through” is an underrated political strategy. And I know that even if neoliberalism was inevitable or even desirable c. 1980 does not make it so now. The religious battle over Reagan and Thatcher — angels or demons? — serves no positive function any longer. If your politics reduces to “banks are bad” or “government is bad” or “country X is bad” then you’re at least a generation out of date in your political thinking.
The task at hand is to construct social, political, and economic realities that extend the quite-meaningful gains we’ve made since industrial revolution, to do so with our eye on time horizons that extend further than the present day. We cannot pretend that gains we’ve made are not real; they are. We likewise cannot accept that we could not or should not do better.