Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mrs. Thatcher is Dead: Could the Eighties Finally Be Over?

Margaret Thatcher whom the Soviets called "The Iron Lady" died yesterday in London of a stroke at age 87.  She was probably the most influential British prime minister of the last half of the 20th century as well as the most divisive in modern times.  The financial industry and the establishment press are hanging out the black crepe and issuing soaring eulogies comparing her to Winston Churchill in tones of hushed reverence.  Meanwhile, a lot of people are celebrating her demise in the streets of London, Glasgow, Bristol.  Some of those celebrations turned riotous.  Similar street parties are taking place in Northern Ireland in the streets of Derry and Belfast.

South Africa has little cause to remember her fondly and issued a chilly statement acknowledging her passing.  They remember that she was a vocal opponent of sanctions against the Apartheid regime, and a close ally of PW Botha and his government in the name of anticommunism.  She described the African National Congress as a terrorist organization and Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.  She was not alone.  We Yanks forget that Ronald Reagan shared her views about South Africa and also opposed sanctions.  The religious right, especially Jerry Falwell, enthusiastically championed the Afrikaaner cause in the USA (a reminder that Falwell and a lot of other leaders of the religious right were unregenerate Southern segregationists).

I sometimes think that the Irish Republican Army will miss her the most of all.  She was arguably the best friend they ever had.  Her heavy handed tactics in Northern Ireland drove Catholic opinion to support the IRA, increased their recruitment, and goaded them into ever more daring and outrageous acts of violence, which in turn made Mrs. Thatcher crack down even harder.

Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power at the height of the reaction against the turmoil and transformations begun in the 1960s, and ended the confused malaise of the 1970s.  Together, they created the rightwing orthodoxy which has dominated Anglo/American political and cultural discourse for more than 30 years.

In the years of Reagan-Thatcher, international capital wrapped itself in Old Glory or the Union Jack depending on what shore it found itself on.  Capitalism became ideology in those years; the optimistic pragmatism of Adam Smith became the militant doctrinalism of Ayn Rand.  In the Reagan years, the USA saw the beginning of the largest transfer of wealth in the nation's history from the middle to the top.  Both Reagan and Thatcher broke the back of the labor movement in their respective countries.  In the USA, earnings for hourly and salaried employees began their long stagnation while the gulf between executive and employee pay began to widen to its present chasm.  Both Thatcher and Reagan began the deregulation of the financial industry that culminated in this country with the final repeal of the Glass Steagall Act that separated banking from speculation under President Clinton.

All of that now seems to be ending.  The global financial crash of 2008 ended the popular romance with financial speculation.  The re-election of Obama in 2012 signalled both a demographic change and a broad desire to change course from the orthodoxies of the last 30 years.  And now, both of the leaders responsible for creating those orthodoxies are dead leaving us to sort out their legacies.

Counterlight's Peculiars sends off Margaret Thatcher and the Eighties with a Biggest Hit that captures the soul of an age that had no soul.


I would imagine that a lot of Chileans are not exactly grieving over Mrs. Thatcher.  She was a close friend and staunch supporter of Augusto Pinochet who she praised for "bringing democracy to Chile."  Of course she failed to mention that the government he overthrew in a military coup was a legitimately and democratically elected government.

David Corn reminds us that Margaret Thatcher was many things, but she was no consensus builder.  She played to win and to crush her enemies.  Her enemies included a substantial portion of the British population who did indeed suffer her triumphs.

Alex Pareene at Salon pulls no punches:

Margaret Thatcher was a zealot, a friend to the worst mass murderers of the 1980s, a force for antisocial cruelty, and her violent means of ending the great British experiment in social democracy made the country a more brutal, less equal county. One of the most telling, and disturbing, of Thatcher’s catchphrases was “there is no alternative,” which was always invoked specifically to close off the possibility of considering the many extant alternatives to her top-down class warfare. At this point, the alternatives that might’ve produced a more equitable future are indeed long since gone, and the future — for England’s indebted, jobless youth and people the world over ground down by her philosophical comrades — looks about as grim as those horrid 1970s must’ve looked to the people who originally voted Thatcher into office. The world is better off without her, and it would’ve been much better off had she never existed in the first place.

1 comment:

JCF said...

I'll always think of Reagan & Thatcher together, like this.