Even in death, Thatcher’s zombie ideology that “there is no alternative” will continue to feed on our imagination. The time has come to prove her wrong.
Thatcher is dead — and I am in a state of mourning. I am mourning because she got away with it. Just like that disgusting dictatorial friend of hers, General Pinochet, when the mass-murdering monster peacefully died in his sleep in 2006. They both got away with it. And worse: each left behind an ideological legacy so politically and culturally pervasive that we are still beating our heads into the wall just to try and erase it. Like some kind of zombie ideology preying on our collective imagination, the undying spirit of Pinochet and Thatcher lingers on into the 21st century. We protest, we write, we riot — but nothing ever seems to change. For these are the undead. They cannot die.
“Liberalize, privatize, stabilize!” The austerity mantra is repeated by bland and lifeless technocrats from Mexico to Greece, while teenage students lock themselves up in high schools and go on hunger strike in Santiago de Chile. Others run riot in the street, dragging policemen off their horses and beating them up with sticks. In London, the disaffected youth rise up in riotous fury, attacking police, looting shops and burning down their neighbor’s homes. “There is no alternative,” Thatcher said. In this neoliberal era of cynicism, the only alternative left for Generation Playstation has become the emulation of the effigies of consumerism; or burning down its symbols of authority.
The traditional Left still has good reason to hate Thatcher, and perhaps to organize some kind of public party on her state-funded grave. I don’t blame them. But I also don’t think the celebration of her long-awaited death will do the cause of the Left much good. The traditional Left — based as it is on defunct political parties and dysfunctional trade unions that toppled over the moment the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a whiff of its neoliberal hot air at them — is clearly moribund and destined for the dustbin of history. Partly, the ferocity with which Thatcher pursued her state-based class war was responsible for its demise; but for the most part the decline of state-oriented labor activism is simply the result of a process of structural change that goes far beyond the actions of an individual woman.
In an otherwise profoundly misguided article, Slavoj Zizek once rightly observed that the greatest achievement of Thatcherism was not the 11-year rule of Thatcher herself, but the premiership of Tony Blair. There is a truth in these words that should weigh heavily on the conscience of all those who remain committed to social change today. The great triumph of Thatcher’s neoliberal project resides not in the many confrontational ways in which she sought to weaken Labour, but rather in the subversive ways in which her polarizing rhetoric actually ended up strengthening Labour — eventually turning it into the most powerful weapon of the capitalist class. If anything, Tony Blair proved that it was never really Thatcher who ruled Britain, but the financial interests in the City of London all along.
From the very beginning it was clear that Thatcher was really just the bitch of financial capital — who did not mind biting ordinary citizens in the face on its behalf. She deregulated the financial sector with a religious ferocity that would make even an inquisition-era Pope blush; but she was by no means single-handedly responsible for the financialization and de-industrialization of the British economy. Indeed, the seeds of that process go back way further, at least to the late 1950s, when a combination of structural pressures and deliberate state actions helped to establish the so-called Eurodollar markets in London, which effectively served to re-establish the City as a major international financial center. And, of course, Thatcher’s deregulation of the City continued with equally dogmatic conviction under Tony Blair.
In this sense, Thatcher is hated not because she assaulted labor and destroyed the British welfare state — but because she did it with such religious zeal and such extreme determination. She was hated, in other words, not for the policies and ideas she pursued but for the ugly face she put on them, and the extremely obnoxious squeaking voice with which she barked at her opponents. Ultimately, Thatcher was hated because she personified the naked logic of class warfare operating underneath the technocratic surface of her neoliberal project. She was hated because she made “there is no alternative” sound like there really was no alternative; and because her version of class warfare seemed to veer on the same blunt brutality that had marked the profoundly dehumanizing logic of laissez-faire capitalism in the Victorian era.
For this, we should actually be grateful to Thatcher: at least she made it very obvious where she stood. From the extreme police brutality at the Battle of Orgreaves to the highly symbolic milk snatching from school children, Thatcher’s approach to class struggle was straightforward and in-your-face: “my job is to stop Britain going red”, she once proudly boasted. Under Thatcher, as under Reagan and George W. Bush, the battle-lines were clearly drawn: you were either with her or against her. Things were so simple then. What are we to do today, with the Orwellian ideological apparatus of the neoliberal project firing on all cylinders? Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing as society” became Cameron’s “Big Society”. The policies and social outcomes are still the same, but many people just don’t see it anymore.
In the global class war of the 21st century, Thatcher’s blunt upper-class sneers have been replaced with the seemingly progressive reason of the embarrassingly subservient Nick Clegg; Pinochet’s murderous role in suppressing the Left became Piñera’s heroic role in saving trapped Chilean miners; Reagan’s cowboy attitude to CIA-sponsored coups and US invasions in Latin America has long since made way for Obama’s friendly smiles and silent drone strikes. In the process, the dehumanizing logic of global capitalism and neoliberal ideology is obscured with a gentle layer of good-intent. This is capitalism with a human face; a blend of market fundamentalism specifically tailored to making you believe it is in your best interest to obey.
But the financial meltdown of 2008 and the deluge of public debt that followed in its wake have made it clear that the financial sector still pulls the strings everywhere, and that the political puppet-show and democratic dress-rehearsal repeated every four years or so are just that: superficial changes to cover up a terrifying process of structural change towards ever greater capitalist control over our lives. Coming on the heels of the collapse of the corporatist Keynesian compromise that had marked the post-war decades, Thatcher’s relentless assault on the working class came to embody that structural change — it came to represent it. But it remains crucially important to make a distinction here: it was not Thatcher who systematically erased our dignity and destroyed our society. It was the capitalist system she sought to defend.
If there is one thing that captures Thatcherism as an ideology and sets it apart from the naked logic of capitalism as Thatcher otherwise expounded it, it must be the immensely effective mantra that “there is no alternative.” In this respect, Thatcher helped to bring about one of the most dramatic and most successful suppressions of humanity’s collective imagination since the invention of the Catholic Church. Indeed, the mantra was so powerful that it continues to be repeated ad nauseam by the right today — in the proclamations of Troika representatives, for instance, when they claim that “there is no alternative” to dramatic budget cuts, impossible tax hikes and a mass firesale privatization of state assets in Greece or Spain. This is surely the most powerful way to repress change and avoid any democratic debate.
And yet the mantra’s most destructive and subversive legacy resides not in its dogmatic appropriation by the right, but in the many subversive ways in which it managed to undermine the collective imagination of the Left. For instance, when reviewing David Graeber’s new book on democracy, John Kampfner argues that “Graeber’s unwillingness to set out credible economic and political alternatives is curious.” But did not Graeber, by helping to set up the New York General Assembly and by explicitly mentioning Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots and its emphasis on direct democracy, provide precisely such an already-existing alternative? Was not the prefigurative politics of the Occupy movement precisely the type of real-world alternative we have all been longing for? By just refusing to see it, Kampfner indirectly helps to perpetuate Thatcher’s dictum that there is, indeed, no alternative.
Either way, regardless of how successful her ideological mantras may have been, Thatcher was never really the prophet her supporters made her out to be. In the 1980s, she unapologetically defended the Apartheid regime in South Africa, stating that Mandela’s ANC “is a typical terrorist organisation” and “anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.” For Thatcher, there was apparently no alternative to white racist rule in South Africa. Luckily, it only took a few years for the Iron Lady to be proven wrong. Now that global capitalism and neoliberal ideology are running on their last legs, the time has come for us — those anti-capitalists living in “cloud-cuckoo land” — to prove her wrong once more.
When the drill bored down toward the stony fissures
and plunged its implacable intestine
into the subterranean estates,
and dead years, eyes of the ages,
imprisoned plants’ roots
and scaly systems
became strata of water,
fire shot up through the tubes
transformed into cold liquid,
in the customs house of the heights,
issuing from its world of sinister depth,
it encountered a pale engineer
and a title deed.
However entangled the petroleum’s arteries may be,
however the layers may change their silent site
and move their sovereignty amid the earth’s bowels,
when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage,
Standard Oil arrived beforehand
with its checks and it guns,
with its governments and its prisoners.
Their obese emperors from New York
are suave smiling assassins
who buy silk, nylon, cigars
petty tyrants and dictators.
They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.
Translated by Jack Schmitt