thenextwave

‘Freedom’, ‘choice’, and zombie capitalism

Posted in economics, history, politics by thenextwavefutures on 12 April, 2013

thatcher-headlines-after-deathThe best joke I heard after Thatcher’s death was announced went like this:

Mrs Thatcher’s only been in Hell for 30 minutes, and already she’s closed three of the furnaces and another three are on strike.

It wasn’t on Twitter, or on a political blog, but on the listserv of some football fans – fans, as it happens, of a club in a former mining area in the north of England. As Hugo Young said in his posthumously published piece on her (he died in 2003) in Tuesday’s Guardian, “Thatcher was a naturally, perhaps incurably, divisive figure.”

For my part, I think you need only one chart to understand her influence on Britain, which shows the step-change in inequality during her time in power. I’ve published this here before, when I blogged on the 30th anniversary of her first election victory:

uk-inequality-1960-2005002

Moral panic

But although I’ve written quite a lot here about Thatcher and her legacy, sometimes unintentionally, there’s a little more to say, mostly about language.

The seventies are remembered as a time of crisis, one that it ususally blamed on the unions but had deeper roots. The long post-war consumer boom had run into the oil shock, and this meant (in stagnant and inflationary  economies that weren’t used to either) that arguments about distribution were back on the table. In the UK, the 70s were also the most equal decade we have known. But it’s also easy to forget the tone of moral panic that this 12042013418 induced. Even coherent commentators such as Patrick Hutber were shovelling out books with titles like The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class, while the less coherent, such as the ex-soldiers General Walter Walker and David Stirling were threatening armed insurrection.

So Thatcher’s rhetoric fell on ready ears. And it’s this Great Fear that David Cameron is summoning in his mystical talk in the Commons of ‘came the hour and came the lady‘ or the Daily Mail when it talks about her ‘saving the nation’. The ’70s was a decade of political and economic crisis.

Disconnecting language

Part of Thatcher’s method (Reagan did something similar in the States) was to split the language from the actions to create a new kind of ‘performative politics‘ in which the political language used was disconnected from the thing itself. What I mean by this is that when Macmillan said ‘we’ve never had it so good‘, it was largely true, even if you weren’t a Conservative voter. When Thatcher spoke of, say, “freedom of choice“, it was a way of describing an action that would benefit only a sectional interest.

During the ’80s Stuart Hall, influential on Marxism Today, spoke of Thatcher’s “regressive modernism”.  Or as Anthony Barnett observed in a piece written on the day her death was announced, and published by Open Democracy, “the paradox of Thatcher” was “that she destroyed what she appeared to preserve.” (Frances O’Grady, the TUC leader, was slightly kinder: her version of the Thatcher paradox is that “Thatcher’s social instincts were always nostalgic conservative. … Adam Smith’s invisible hand ended up raising two fingers to her moral project.”)

Dressed up as choice

It doesn’t really matter which of her social and economic policies you look at, but all were dressed up in the name of freedom and choice and had the effect of increasing inequality and reducing social mobility. Council house sell-offs? Attacking the rights of employees? Deregulation of the City of London? Privatisation of state-owned assets? Check, check, check and check. The list goes on and on, and might as well include blowing £70 billion of the UK’s one-off oil revenues on tax giveaways and unemployment benefit rather than investing it in infrastructure (as Norway did). Economic growth under Thatcher was less than Britain’s long-run average (2% a year), which given the scale of the oil revenues, and the extra from privatisations, is not much of an “economic miracle“, and it looks even worse with with hindsight.

It takes about a generation for these types of changes to work through the system, and so we can see now how they turned out, and the answer is, not well: at least, not well unless you’re a member of the new rentier class they created. Could one have seen these outcomes at the time? Yes. Welcome to the new monopolists.

Post-critical repetition

In a timely essay published just before Thatcher died, Will Davies conjured a striking image of ‘Brezhnev-style capitalism’. What he meant was that the system has bankrupted itself, literally and metaphorically, as Russian state socialism did  under Brezhnev, and it has responded in just the same way, by repeating words which are supposed to speak of the benefits of the system, but have become meaningless except  in their role as mantra, their function now being to misdirect us away from ‘actually existing capitalism’ and its dismal outcomes.

In his recent On Critique, Luc Boltanski argues that repetition becomes the key trope of political actors who seek to avoid moments of critical or objective judgement. … [N]eoliberalism has entered a post-critical, repetitive phase, in which certain things have to be spoken – delivery, efficiency, security, competitiveness – but in order to hold the edifice together, rather than to reveal anything as objectively ‘delivered’, ‘efficient’, ‘secure’ or ‘competitive. Political systems which do not create space for critique encounter this need for mandatory repetition immediately, as occurred to state socialism.

Zombie capitalism

On the same day as the obituaries, Aditya Chakrabortty had a piece published about Lloyds Bank. When I read it I had just voted against its current absurdly generous director’s remuneration proposal, my few shares in the bank being the several-steps-removed legacy of the Halifax’s disastrous decision to de-mutualise itself. Indeed, that decision and its catastrophic consequences could stand as an emblem of Thatcher’s politics and values, and their effect on policy and economics alike.

As Chakrabortty writes, “At £17,000 a year, the average salary at Lloyds (figure from trade union Unite) is so far below the national median that employees with families often rely on tax credits.” Some bank employees need payday loans to get through the month.

Commentators sometimes say, of Thatcher, that she presided over a “turbocharged” capitalism. They have the adjective wrong. “Turbocharged” is what you see in Shanghai, of money outstripping the infrastructure and institutions it needs to make it work. Thatcher’s “economic miracle” was built on selling public assets cheap and encouraging debt. And the capitalism that we have as a result is a form of a zombie capitalism which exists only at the level of discourse, of repetitive linguistic tics. Zombie capitalism is failing even on its own terms; it is unable to pay its workers enough money to keep itself above the waterline.

The image at the top of this post is from TNT magazine, and it is used with thanks. The photograph of ‘The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class was taken by Andrew Curry and is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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  1. […] written here before that she might have regretted that: Anthony Barnett said “that she destroyed what she appeared to preserve.” Either way, roll […]


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