Leave Thatcherite Conservatism Behind | Henry George
The conservative movements in Britain and America are zombified, wandering across a landscape of leftism, dragging the bones of old ideas and dead consensuses behind them. What conservatives have to offer today is between the old, dead ideology of yesterday and the new way of seeing the world that’s struggling for birth as a coherent orientation.
The problem is that we are prisoners of an unhealthy political nostalgia, held captive to our supposed modern golden age of the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan are held as sanctified icons, symbolic of conservative vitality and electoral victory. Except Thatcher wasn’t a conservative and maintaining that she was prevents the right from an honest reckoning with where we are now.
There is a supposed and much-talked-about political realignment underway, with more working-class, blue-collar workers and townsmen joining the Tories en masse, whole white-collar, middle and upper-middle-class metropolitans have redefined the Labour Party in their image. Labour’s Red Wall was blown apart by the party’s own stacking of ideological dynamite, the combination of domestic castigation and foreign kowtowing to our enemies too much to bear. Labour has no-one to blame but itself for this loss.
The Conservative Party has paid lip-service to this new paradigm but is struggling to shrug off the legacy of its Thatcherite, centralising managerial past. Thatcher was a revolutionary, as John Gray argues in Enlightenment’s Wake, and was not interested in conserving the institutions and social ties that hold society together. She didn’t even really believe society existed, much as her supporters continue to protest otherwise. She epitomised the view of our conservative establishment that they know what’s economically best for we benighted fools of the electorate and that we should take the medicine whether we think it’s killing us or not.
Of course, in their view, neoliberal economics has just never been tried properly before. The idea that Thatcher was really a neoliberal while simultaneously a social conservative may strike those sympathetic to her as an incoherent claim, even if it’s descriptive. Even though she slammed down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table at a Cabinet meeting, proclaiming “this is what we believe!”
Yes, Prime Minister, you were admirable in your strength of belief. What a pity this belief undermined the bonds and ties of mutual loyalty that produced the society in the image of your upright, Methodist preacher father and in turn gave birth to an eroded and degraded conglomeration of atomised individuals more in the image of your libertine son. Hayek wrote in this very book that “Progress is movement for movement’s sake.” This nihilism lies at the bottom of the social left and economic right’s claims to liberal emancipation and autonomy.
This is the problem with those still yearning for Thatcherism who continue to insist that the answer to all our manifest woes is more freedom, more liberty to do as we like as long as we don’t hurt anyone else, cutting our taxes to enable us to keep doing so. Never mind that this is an inherently inaccurate and incoherent view of human nature and human society.
Of course whatever we do has an impact on others. How could it not? The liberal worldview, posited by thinkers from Locke to Rawls, declares the human person unattached to time, place, and the people who inhabit these spaces. We are instead a collection of atoms, our only motivations freedom, choice, and the accumulation of these through social emancipation and economic liberty. Forget the past or posterity. Focus on the eternal present and rush to fulfill your need for ever more distant happiness and contentment.
The liberal worldview is wrong in its anthropology and teleology. As such, it harms attempts to rebuild the shattered remnants of our culture when applied by those in power who are so blinded by ideology they don’t even see the problem in front of their glazed eyes. The double-liberalism of David Goodhart manifests in what Michael Lind calls the “technocratic neoliberalism” of the last 40 years. This was the “synthesis of the free-market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left.” In concrete terms, this post-Cold War dispensation meant deregulation, offshoring, atomising individualism, and mass immigration. The vision is of a global future, of constant churn and change that requires people to ‘get on their bikes’, as Norman Tebbitt once famously put it, to cycle wherever the market takes them.
Covid-19 has simply sped up the consolidation of our increasingly Latin American levels of inequality that have been increasing since the 1980s, entrenching what Joel Kotkin calls the New Feudalism, with the tech Oligarchy controlling what we see and hear. Meanwhile, the Clerisy of academics, media conglomerates, and other members of the cognitive elite professional class continues to stave of proletarianization by forcing the narrative down our throats. This is the future that Liz Truss wants for all of us, and we should like it and be grateful for the ‘freedom’ it grants.
Ignore the growing impossibility to live a good life, unable to earn a decent living, worship your God in His house, enter stable relationships, and have a family. Forget your home and family, move to the city, live in a pod, and service the global corporate machine. Find no real-life friends, no lasting attachments or commitments, eat unhealthy food, watch Netflix, substitute porn for love and then die alone having failed to produce any children and therefore a legacy. Isolation and existential impotence are the perfect tools to keep restive populations submissive.
I mean, any alternative to that, which might enable something that would fulfill our deepest needs would be ‘socialism’, aka immoral, so we can’t entertain thoughts of anything different.
All this doesn’t seem like liberalism, and how could it be the legacy of Thatcherite conservatism? But it is its logical conclusion. Having wrenched apart the intermediate institutions of civil society that bind people together into a web of meaningful relationships and commitments, and denuding millions of stable, well-compensated employment, the only way to ensure continuing order is to expand the state to fill the gaps left by families and communities. The brute power of the state and its corporate allies is couched in the language of the supposedly cozy yet actually punitive woke identitarian worldview. As Disraeli pointed out, however, these views pushed by liberal technocrats are “very convenient opinions for the rich and powerful.”
The state, run by those for whom our current situation works more than fine, itself perpetuates the cycle of dislocation and demoralisation. Legislation is crafted to enforce and expand the advantages for those already enjoying the fruits of success. The pandemic has simply given our new Oligarchy an excuse to solidify their domination of the commanding heights of our cultures and society.
The answer to this is not easy. Socialism is obviously not it, despite the continual delusions of the Corbynite and Bernie Sanders Left. Nor is some sort of 90’s/00’s centrism that combines the worst of both left libertinism and right economism. Post-Liberalism might be a solution, but this ill-defined term and still-fuzzy worldview is still working itself out and is in conflict between its left and right-leaning denominations.
The one thing that can be said with any degree of certainty is that returning, again and again, to the solutions of the Thatcherite yesterday will not solve the different problems of our Post-Liberal today. Ideology cannot meet the changing contingencies of time and place. The conservatism of Thatcher is dead. Maybe it’s time we let the dead rest.