Friday, December 30, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 23 (The Winter of Discontent)

"Jack always said it was difficult for us Americans to understand what it was really like here in the darkest parts of the eighties. We had a doddery old President who talked about the end of the world a little too often and was being run by the wrong people. But they had a Prime Minister who was genuinely mad. You know there were even feminists and women's studies theorists who denied she was even really a woman anymore, she was so far out of her tree? She wanted concentration camps for AIDS victims, wanted to eradicate homosexuality even as an abstract concept, made poor people choose between eating and keeping their vote, ran the most shameless vote-grabbing artificial war scam in fifty years... England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture." - Warren Ellis, Planetary #7

In general I attempt to maintain some vague illusion of critical balance on this blog. Even in political matters, where my overt progressivism is unmistakably a thing, I try very hard to acknowledge the points where leftist politics have failed and to find concrete lessons, both rhetorical and substantive, for their failures. But here we reach a new sort of problem of balance - one we've been circling about since the Three Day Week entry back in the late Pertwee era. (In this regard it's fitting that we come to this right off of a story where the biggest flaw is that it's not the glam rock era anymore.) And that problem is, in a nutshell, Margaret Thatcher.

First of all, however much I've been willing to shoot my own side of the debate when it's being stupid, I've never been one to give much quarter to the right. The idea of starting with Thatcher is hardly inspiring. The fact of the matter is, I fiercely disagree with virtually everything Thatcher stood for and everything Thatcher did. There's little margin around that to formulate some sort of balance. There's no way to hold the ideals and values I hold and thus that this blog holds and like Margaret Thatcher. There's not even really a way to hold them and avoid hating Margaret Thatcher.

But there is something about Thatcher that goes beyond mere political reason. I commented in the Dad's Army entry, to some controversy and consternation, that Thatcher was "basically the raw embodiment of all evil." The line was intended at least partially as one of those moments of excessively deadpan humor that I favor - an instance of willfully overplaying my hand and taking the most extremist position available so that all future statements on the subject are pleasantly moderate.

But there's almost no such thing as overstatement on the subject of Margaret Thatcher, as the Ellis quote I started us off with demonstrates. None of it is strictly speaking untrue (although technically the concentration camps for AIDS victims were Lord Christopher Monckton, of whom Herman Cain is a poor American remake), and it doesn't even scratch the surface of the horrors of Thatcherism. If we want to dig a bit deeper we can find impish beauty like the petition going around these days to privatize Thatcher's funeral, which is a work of sheer brilliance, doubly so because she's still alive. Or, of course, there's things like Pete Wylie's astonishingly gorgeous "The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies!" (The exclamation point is really what makes it.)

There is, in other words, a loathing of Thatcher that exists in excess to any remotely plausible requirements. People without successful genocides to their names don't generally require this. And eventually there becomes a moment of discomfort as one realizes the sheer extent of the vitriol that one is pouring onto a lonely old senile woman dying in London. To some extent these understandable feelings can be effectively mitigated by watching video of some miners being beaten or something, but there's still some troubling kernel here - a moment where one stops short, momentarily thrown by the savagery of it all.

Part of this, and this is the other thing that the Ellis quote gets at, is that Margaret Thatcher exists in two spheres. Politically she is loathsome, but loathsome in what is at least a relatively constrained sense. She is at or near the limit point of how bad liberal democracy can get. A worst case scenario for 20th century electoral politics. And if we are to be honest, this must be contextualized in a larger sense. She is not Pol Pot or Pinochet. She may have aided and supported both, but she never actually used death squads herself, and I suppose that counts for something.

But there is also the cultural Thatcher. If we're being perfectly honest about why I despise Margaret Thatcher, given that I wasn't born when she came into power and was eight and hadn't heard of her when she fell from power, the reasons are far more prosaic. Most of the music I love is either 80s British new wave bands or bands that were heavily influenced by or influences on it. My favorite era of the classic series of Doctor Who is the Cartmel era. A large swath of my favorite writers come out of the British Invasion of comics writers in the late 80s, with Alan Moore, my avowed favorite, being at the front. And all of these were fiercely anti-Thatcher.

But more than that, they were defined by how anti-Thatcher they were. I was talking to a good friend who's just finished a book on industrial music who had been interviewing a prominent figure in one industrial band or another. I don't remember which one, and in some ways it's better that way, leaving the statement in an oddly more true universal form. Like most of industrial music it was aggressively political, and my friend asked the guy what it was they were protesting against, expecting some sort of concrete, material answer. Instead the answer was that they were opposed to Margaret Thatcher. Just Thatcher. Period. She was a teleology unto herself.

This dimension of Thatcher is somewhat harder to grasp. There are, I think, two major reasons for it. The first is simple historical fact. Thatcher was the most prominent figure in what was the most thorough and complete restructuring of British society since the immediate aftermath of World War II. Simply put, what one would consider the default values and principles of British politics in 1990 were radically different from those in 1979 to the point that when Labour finally wrested Downing Street back they did so largely by conceding almost every philosophical point they'd once differed on to Thatcher.

The second reason, though, is that for all of the ways that Thatcher represented a brutal return to Enlightenment values and the idea of a master narrative, she and her handlers were also breathtakingly savvy at media manipulation. Thatcher was the first Prime Minister of whom it could be said that the modern media environment was her native tongue. Others used the media, yes, but Thatcher as a politician did not exist separate from it. Her media image was a fundamental part of her entire politics. There was, in a very real sense, no difference between her leadership and the press coverage of her leadership. She may not have thought that society existed, but she certainly believed in the existence of the mass media like no Prime Minister before her.

(To date no leader of either the US or UK has run the country with digital media as their native language.)

We'll return to the broader consequences of this, but for now let's leave it at this. The fact that Thatcher was so media savvy caused her to be a more diffuse phenomenon rather than a personal one. In a very real sense Thatcher was an always-present force - a mental phenomenon rather than a purely material one. Of course people reacted against her in a way that did not quite make sense for reacting against a person. She wasn't just a person. She was a brand. An ideology. A sigil, if you like. That, then is the what of May of 1979. Or at least, as much of it as can be understood without turning first to the how.

First the "consensus" explanation, by which I mean the default. Of course, given the magnitude of Thatcher's social and cultural victory, we should be suspicious off the bat. History is written by the victors, and while Thatcher herself my be gone it's considerably less clear that the historical moment that she represents has given way to a new one. The 1980s, even in their longest sense, have ended, sure. But if a coherent "next step" from Thatcherism exists we remain, at the time of writing, too in the middle of it to define its edges.

Regardless, if one is vaguely sympathetic to Thatcher then the story goes something like this. Broadly speaking, there is an economic model called Keynesianism, named, unsurprisingly, after a guy named Keynes. To collapse scads of complex economic theories into a single sentence, Keynesianism says that if the government spends money it will create more money. Keynesian thought formed the basis of most economic policy in the US and UK for several decades. Then in the 1970s it abruptly stopped working and the world blew up.

Well, not quite blew up. But a big problem called "stagflation" happened whereby the economy of a whole bunch of countries stopped growing but inflation kept growing. Which was a big problem because most of the time fixing slow economic growth causes inflation and fixing inflation slows growth. The UK was hit hard by this, first in the energy crisis that led to the Three Day Week, and then again in 1976 when the government had to seek a massive loan from the IMF, which, in traditional IMF style, demanded massive austerity measures. It was, in other words, an extremely rotten economy.

In an attempt to control inflation the Labour government adopted a policy of wage control on government employees with the support of the Trades Union Congress. This lasted for several years until Ford of Britain, despite being a massive government contractor, decided to defy the 5% maximum on wage increases and offer its striking employees a 17% raise in November of 1978. This, coupled with some stinging political defeats for Labour when the TUC and its supporters rejected its latest round of wage controls, and the government was essentially left with no support for actually enforcing its wage controls on the private sector.

Seizing on the weakness, various unions began pushing hard for considerable price increases and striking to get them. The result was that in the coldest winter since 1963 industry after industry was disrupted by major strike actions, generally with considerable theatricality on both sides. For instance, when striking Lorry drivers failed to let the correct set of emergency supplies for farmers in Hull through farmers deposited bodies of pigs and chickens outside the union headquarters. Other infamous events were a two week gravediggers strike that led to speculation that people would simply be buried at sea and a garbage strike that led to Leicester Square in the middle of London becoming a makeshift landfill. Finally, in late March the Scottish National Party, frustrated at the government's lack of support for further devolution of power to Scotland, withdrew from the coalition, causing Callaghan, the prime minister, to lose a no confidence vote and force a general election which Thatcher won.

The heart of this narrative, of course, is an idea of inevitability. The system that Callaghan was following was shown to be a failure, the people voted him out and Thatcher in, and she inaugurated a new age of supply side economics. A similar story can just as easily be told about the US in 1980 to get to Reagan's election. The benefit of this narrative, of course, is that it neatly sidesteps the question of whether Thatcher was right. Whatever the horrors of Thatcherism - and as we'll get to see over the next eleven years of history, there are oh so many of them - she was necessary because the alternative was shown to be fatally flawed.

The problem with this sort of narrative is that economics aren't really falsifiable. I mean, they sort of are. It's just that running the experiments necessary to falsify claims usefully and thoroughly isn't feasible. As a result, with any sort of story like this one runs the risk of confusing what happened with what was inevitable. In truth, of course, it is impossible to say with any real knowledge or confidence what would have happened in any number of alternative circumstances. It is, for instance, wholly possible - even probable - that Callaghan would have won re-election had he called the election in the fall of 1978 instead of engaging in another round of wage controls. Or if he hadn't made a crushing gaffe in which he denied that the industrial actions constituted a crisis as he returned home from a summit in Guadeloupe in early January. Callaghan was politically incompetent as much as anything, a fact that, in politics, is more than sufficient to cause electoral defeat.

But there's a broader issue in treating Thatcher's rise as an inevitable transition, which is that it's not particularly clear that Thatcher was actually the turning point in the ascension of the ideology she represents. It is of course perilous, or at the very least a cheap argumentative move, to attempt to summarize any ideology in a single sentence. But having oversimplified Keynes let's attempt to collapse the whole of Thatcherism into one belief: the belief that monetary profitability is the only meaningful measurement of worth, and thus that more profit is always better.

But in this regard virtually all sides of the debate had given the game away long before the 1979 election. Callaghan was barely different from Thatcher in this regard. They both took it as essentially axiomatic that  economic growth was a necessary priority and that an essentially capitalist system had to remain in place. The IMF loan itself was fundamentally a triumph of neoliberalism (a term that encompasses Thatcherism, Reaganism, and the other right-wing governments of the 1980s, and that causes no end of confusion for Americans who take "liberal" and "left-wing" to be synonymous). Even the unions essentially conceded the core of the debate to neoliberalism, treating their job as extracting the maximum possible amount of money for their members and their members specifically and becoming, in essence, profit-seeking entities in their own right.

Once all sides have fully and thoroughly embraced the capitalist drive towards maximizing individual profit and endless expansion the reversion to Thatcherism is inevitable. But not because Thatcher marked some sort of historical transition. Rather, because she marked an acknowledgment of a transition that had already happened. In this regard, even though a decade has passed, we're really only finishing the job that started in 1968 when the left-wing radicalism that characterized 1960s counterculture went into terminal decline. Once you've rejected the radical possibilities of the Situationists in favor of capitalism Thatcherism isn't a transition but a logical endpoint.

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a memorable (at least to me) moment in one of his books in which he imagines a yuppie reading a book by French philosopher Giles Deleuze and, contrary to what one might expect of a yuppie reading a book by someone who (much as I imagine Deleuze would object to the characterization - though given that he is dead and wouldn't be likely to read my blog anyway, his objections count for very little) may as well be called a Situationist, loving every moment of it, exclaiming things like "Yes, this is how I design my publicities!" and "This reminds me of my son's favorite toy!"

Reading Guy Debord in 2011 one is seized continually with a similar feeling. Every snarling epithet in which he denounces the mechanisms of capitalism reads equally well as a design manual for the very system he decries - a list of tactics to convince people that your profit and their freedom are somehow equivalent. I am not the first to joke that were one to design a bourgeois reverse engineering of Marxism to act as a collective class in pursuit of their common interests it would be difficult if not impossible to come up with a better approach to the problem than the neoliberalism of the 1980s.

Here, then, we can see the true revolution of Thatcherism. It is not the turn towards profit as the sole and absolute value of the world. Rather, it is the devastating practical refutation of what had previously been axiomatic: the idea that postmodernism was inherently leftist. This is at the heart of Thatcher's peculiar notion of conservatism. It is visible in her hilarious claim that William Gladstone would be a Tory if he were alive in the 1980s, as though the statement that her party was very progressive by the standards of a century ago was in some way meaningful. Thatcher's conservatism hinged on the willful confusion of what was with what is nostalgically remembered, seeking endlessly to mask further acceleration towards the culture of naked and unabashed greed she championed as a "return" to a past that, in truth, never was. Even her famed declaration that she was a politician of "conviction," when scrutinized, collapses to little more than a moment of arch-relativism. Her worldview was valid not because it was based on the product of consensus or even evidence, but because it was based on fundamental and unshakable personal belief. Thatcherism, in this view, is little more than heavily armed relativism.

In this regard the position that really drops out of the mix is conservatism, at least in its classical sense of trying to maintain the current state of affairs or return to the past. Malcolm Hulke, of course, saw this as far back as 1974 in his rejection of the very idea of a "golden age." But the point remains. This is in many ways a triumph of postmodernism. The past is a foreign country, accessible only through memory and reconstruction. So why not construct the future you want and pretend that it was the past. Throw in a patois of genuine social conservatism and you can hijack the rhetorical appeal of conservatism to serve a progress narrative towards whatever future you desire. Thus you have the gaudy and contradictory spectacle of the contemporary right's belief that government shouldn't interfere with business, only with how people have sex.

The real problem is that this tactic has proven appallingly difficult to counter. Once the right realized that postmodernist tactics could serve their purposes just as well as they could anyone else's it became very, very difficult to outflank them. This sort of trick still describes the right-wing playbook in 2011. Language is just a social construct, so why not completely improperly use the word "socialism" to describe Barack Obama's actually still basically neoliberal economic policies? It'll become what socialism means soon enough anyway.

For our purposes, then, Thatcher provides a moment of genuine horror. We've nodded at this in part already with the Mary Whitehouse entry, but here it becomes a very fundamental challenge to the entire philosophical edifice we've been building. We've been holding that the solution to the problem of the alchemists is material social progress. But Thatcher provides an even simpler solution. After all, what better philosopher's stone is there than money, a substance that truly can transmute any object into any other object. What is more mercurial than currency? What better represents the abstract and floating nature of the signifier than the coin, which truly can mean absolutely anything in the world?

There are, of course, a wealth of answers to that question, and Doctor Who has been formulating them with varying degrees of confidence for sixteen seasons now. Thatcher, at a Conservative policy meeting, once famously threw down a copy of Friedrich von Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and proclaimed "this is what we believe." She may as well have thrown down the script for Evil of the Daleks and said "this is what we don't." And now she runs the country.

Game on.

31 comments:

  1. Superb summary of Thatcher and what her rise to power means for Doctor Who. I admit that the blog is entering the period I've been awaiting since I started reading (back during season 5). For all its longevity and continued popularity, Doctor Who remains, IMO, a product of the 1960s in certain key ways: it's written into the shows DNA, so to speak. The rise of Thatcherism, then, marks the first point at which the show was not merely out of step with, but in actual opposition to the dominant social and political ideology of its time.

    I've always thought it fascinating that the show enters its "dormant" phase in 1989 so near the end of Thatcher's ascendancy. Even more so considering that the Cartmel era featured some of the most overt political commentary in franchise history (see "The Happiness Patrol"). Given everything that was lining up against it, it's not surprising the show exits the 1980s in a considerably weaker state than it entered it.

    The game may have just started, but I'm not sure it's one that Doctor Who will be winning. At the very least, it's going to be bruised badly in the first quarter.

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  2. I don't know about quarters, but I'd roughly say that it has a quite good first half and even scores an early goal before having a crushing collapse near the half-time whistle and going 3-1 down, but that it manages to pull even in the second half, nick a stoppage time equalizer, and force a replay.

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  3. Excellent post. This is the second time I've heard the argument that the right has highjacked post-modernism (although in the other article I read they couched this in terms of the anti-intellectualism that post modernism could be twisted to support), and I think it's very revealing of the right's ascendency to the present day. I'll be very interested to see where this thread about Thatcher goes.

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  4. Phil, this was an absolutely glorious and elegant take-down of Thatcherism, neoliberalism and the revolting fascistic anti-intellectualism and bigotry that goes along with it. So much of my career has been based around trying to unpack all of this, figure it out in terms of historical and cultural context, finding a way to move on and feeling kind of hamstrung by how daunting it all seems: This was actually kind of a self-affirming, reassuring and empowering thing to read. I'd probably be naive in assuming Doctor Who is the answer to all of it, but it's certainly going to be fun to read about how it responds (even if the early John Nathan-Turner era is not a particular favourite of mine).

    You've done it again and I can't praise your scholarship enough.

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  5. Really fine work, Phil. The point about Callaghan and Thatcher being fundamentally not that different from each other is worth noting, and there's a direct parallel to Carter/Reagan. Though the right now loves to depict Carter as this dithering failed liberal whose defeat meant the death of the Sixties at last, much of the Reagan Revolution starts with Carter. Deregulation? Carter (god bless him for deregulating breweries, however--one small mercy). Privatization? Carter. Late-stage Cold War saber rattling? Carter. the Paul Volcker strategy of killing inflation via sky-high interest rates? Carter. Etc etc.

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  6. Another superb post. A couple of points.

    1. One group of people who would completely disagree with you about the necessity of hating Thatcher would be the Christian Socialists. It's notable that Doctor Who has become such an important text for the thinking Left that Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the nearest human approximation to Deep Thought yet evolved, explicitly and approvingly referred to "The Happiness Patrol" in his Easter Day sermon this year.

    2. "There is no such thing as society". Here, Thatcher is repeating a lecture which I am sure she heard as a first year undergraduate law student. It's certainly something which I was taught at university in the late 1980s.

    The point is, in English law, there's no such thing as human rights. No such thing as rights based on the person. Rights are based on property. Habeas Corpus is about a man's right to ownership and control of his own body.

    (Of course, the UK had been a founder member of the United Nations and a signatory to the the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. Nevertheless, part of the right-wing opposition to the Human Rights Act 1998 is still that it is repugnant tohe pure tradition of English law).

    In fact, the opposite of a non-existent Society is, to use the Big Lie of the 1980s (though a much earlier phrase), "a Property-Owning Democracy".

    I could, and frequently do, rant for hours on the irony of Thatcher's Tories adopting Gramsci's theories on hegemony in order to successfully persuade the populace that having a mortgage doesn't make them indentured labour, it makes them middle class. But I want to go and watch a repeat of the Royal Wedding on ITV before plotting next year's Socialist Revolution...

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  7. I didn't even know about the Happiness Patrol reference on Williams's part, and I already considered him to be a national treasure. He's one of my absolute favorite people on the planet. Thank you for sharing that detail. :)

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  8. Thatcher raised taxes, crusaded against global warming, and handed Hong Kong over to Red China. Clearly a socialist.

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  9. (That last comment was a joke, of course, though the first three statements in it are all true. It is also true that Michael Manley, at the end of his life, was attempting to espouse a Thatcherite socialism. Jah live!)

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  10. Rowan Williams is the perfect Archbishop of Canterbury because he has the most vicarish voice of any human being who has ever lived.

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  11. For all Margaret Thatcher's ability to manipulate the media, she could still find herself caught out by the common man (or, in this case, woman). I imagine you may have heard about this, Philip, but this clip may deserve a Pop Between realities essay of its own: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cxe0hZXDR8

    There's something very Doctor Who about this question and answer session televised live on a BBC news programme the year after the Falklands war (and not just because the set look like one from Warriors of the Deep). It all went swimmingly until a teacher named Diana Gould brought up the sinking of an Argentinian battleship, and then Thatcher slowly looses control.

    Unsurprisingly, this sort of question and answer session never happened again. And the BBC would be made to suffer.

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  12. I read Thatcher's book Statecraft. I thought she said some good things in that.

    I don't agree with everything Thatcher did, but she stood for a strong free-market economy and opposed the evil of Communism, as well as supporting family values. That makes her one of the good guys in my book.

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  13. "Supporting family values" is a rather hollow talking point, IMO. It's not that it's meaningless, quite the opposite: it's that it means radically different things depending on who says it. I consider myself a fervent supporter of family values, but I rather suspect that my conception of those values, which prioritizes a loving and stable environment regardless of gender roles and has bugger-all to do with religion or faith, is anathema to Thatcher's.

    But, more to the point, I think Phil captures the problem with the hoary old "family values" appeal in this essay. The idea that there is a set of "traditional family values" that existed in some bygone golden age and that can (let alone should) be returned to is a postmodern construct. That's not enough to dismiss it on its face, but it does make Thatcher and her ilk's presentation of those values crassly cynical and even (IMO) exploitative.

    Supporting "a strong free-market economy" and opposing "the evil of Communism" is, in my experience, another rather bland set of platitudes that can be applied to just about any major Western politician since the 1960s, with only a handful of exceptions. Leaving aside the question of whether or not these are actually laudable goals in the first place, I don't think they say much to distinguish Thatcher from any other politicians of the era. Again, I think Phil covers this quite well in the article: in terms of policy, there's not much sunlight between Thatcher and Callaghan, or, for that matter, between Thatcher and Blair. It's bland campaign-speak that masks what Thatcher was actually responsible for during her tenure.

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  14. "Callaghan was politically incompetent as much as anything, a fact that, in politics, is more than sufficient to cause electoral defeat."
    Sorry, no. Callaghan was an extremely savvy politician, which is attested by the sheer genius with which he kept his - minority, mark you - government going. I'm not saying this as a hard-left type, either, mind - if anything, I'm tribally (small-c) conservative.

    "Thatcher's conservatism hinged on the willful confusion of what was with what is nostalgically remembered"
    Philip Sandifer - popular historical narrative. Popular historical narrative - Philip Sandifer.

    "Malcolm Hulke, of course, saw this as far back as 1974 in his rejection of the very idea of a "golden age.""
    Mac Hulke was, of course, at the forefront of the field of history in the post-war period.

    "The past is a foreign country, accessible only through memory and reconstruction. So why not construct the future you want and pretend that it was the past."
    Again, people have always done this. The only new element, academically speaking, is the rise of archaeological postprocessualism. Or, as the professionals call it, "bullshit".

    "Thus you have the gaudy and contradictory spectacle of the contemporary right's belief that government shouldn't interfere with business, only with how people have sex."
    Ye-es. You're not too familiar with the flaccid state of British politics at present, are you? No-one, on any side, believes in anything except power.

    I think the point about language is an interesting, but tangential one: watch what happens over this period to (a) the American TV press, and (b) the UK print press, in particular the big broadsheets, which go from broadly-biased news-engines in the late 70s to screeching party cheerleaders today.

    The concept of a truth independent of opinion and personal bias is rapidly disappearing in popular news, and hence in the word generally. What has come to matter is the master-narrative on a subject. This applies universally, and is very difficult to spot unless you already understand a topic fairly well, and can spot the little inexactitudes, the summary glossing, the ignorant misuse of certain details, the blurring-at-the-edges required to make it fit the larger jigsaw.

    It's very interesting to chart the attitude to truth on the internet. There's a certain attitude among younger users on most internet forums, I find, that the facts don't matter, because such-and-such is bad/uncool/etc., anyway.

    Quid est veritas?

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  15. History is written by the losers, of course, because they have nothing better to do. I can be glib on New Year's Eve surely? It's a most ingenious post, and Zizek is good on Thatcher, comparing her to Lenin, before his successors mummified him into Leninism. Maybe it's because I'm a Southerner, but I cannot understand this hatred of the Iron Lady. It's as tedious as anti-Semitism, another impulse irresistible to so many writers and thinkers and hapless lefties. Thatcher ist unser Ungluck, y'see. Poor Warren Ellis. Maybe Thatcher's eerie virtue is in drawing a florid, creative madness out of those who would just be crazy masturbators otherwise. If there's hope it lies with the proles who bought their council houses, not with PhDs fascinated by unreason, and another country's unreason at that! Unglaublich!

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  16. Come now. Doctor Who blogs are written by the losers. In this case, the one who's drinking tea and writing about Creature From the Pit on New Year's Eve. And then when I finish I'll watch Nightmare of Eden. My plan is to have a drink every time a Mandrel is scary.

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  17. So you're not drinking on New Year's Eve?

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  18. And here I thought your title would be "The Master is Prime Minister of Great Britain!"

    Thatcher represented a brutal return to Enlightenment values

    Ah yes. Thatcher -- the heir of Voltaire, Thomas Paine, David Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin. Thatcher -- the embodiment of liberation, toleration, equality, anti-authoritarianism, anti-imperialism, and epistemic modesty. I'm sorry, but that claim is just barking mad. Thatcherism and Enlightenment values are utterly at odds.

    The problem with this sort of narrative is that economics aren't really falsifiable.

    It doesn't need to be, since the basic principles of economics are a priori. The real problem with the narrative is that Keynesianism and Thatcherism are both lousy economic systems, representing different but equally brutal strategies for maintaining the control of the ruling class.

    causes no end of confusion for Americans who take "liberal" and "left-wing" to be synonymous

    As well as for people on both sides of the Atlantic who take neoliberalism to be the extension, rather than the cynical suppression, of 19th-century classical liberalism.

    Thatcher, at a Conservative policy meeting, once famously threw down a copy of Friedrich von Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and proclaimed "this is what we believe."

    Yes, but as usual she was lying. She was more honest when she told Hayek that he would never succeed in convincing her to be a liberal. She could sense that, despite his faults, Hayek was too much of an Enlightenment liberal ever to get completely with her program.

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  19. P.S. - Here, from the book that Thatcher claimed to believe, is Hayek's analysis of conservatism, which applies pretty well to Thatcher:

    This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks. ...

    In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule -- not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

    When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. ... To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

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  20. This post is a great explanation of why my favorite band's (the Manic Street Preachers) politics are the way they are. Like the industrial bands you describe, their politics are strong but vague, so being "anti-Thatcher" actually makes a lot of sense. They're heavily influenced by post-punk and from Wales, so that makes even more sense.

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  21. Ah, Warren Ellis. I do so love the kind of mind it takes to frame the idea that 'some feminists thought that Thatcher was no longer even a woman' could say more about Thatcher than about those feminists.

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  22. But Mr Hayek: if you have strong moral convictions, and you think government should be moral (which seems like a good idea), then logically why would you want to work with the immoral to form a government that allows others to pursue immoral ends? That kind of political pluralism only makes sense if you start from a position of at least vague moral relativism, where others' morals are in some sense as valid as your own. But then you wouldn't have a 'strong moral conviction'.

    So I don't see how you can both have a strong moral conviction, and also be willing to commit to the kind of political pluralism described. Either you put morals ahead of politics, in which case you don't compromise with the (as you see it) immoral; or you put political structures ahead of morality, in which case your moral convictions can't be that strong.

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  23. SK,

    No, wanting other people to be free to pursue immoral ends doesn't imply moral relativism in the least. It could also be defended on either the pragmatic grounds that people are going to continue to disagree even if these are right and those are wrong, and we need a basis for continued coexistence nonetheless, or else on the moral grounds that people have a right (a real, objective, non-relative right) to live their own lives and make their own decisions, even wrong ones, and we disrespect their humanity and our own when we impose our ideas, even our correct ideas, upon them by force. (Or on both grounds, of course.)

    The pragmatic argument was more central for Hayek (plus there's a bit in Hayek of Mill's idea that leaving people free to live their ideals and letting these ways of living compete is a precondition of our being able to know which ideals are right), while the moral argument is more important for me. But neither of those is a relativist argument.

    In fact there's no connection between relativism and toleration at all. Only if one rejects relativism can one withstand the argument "the principle of toleration may be true for you, but it isn't true for me."

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  24. Ah, a good point. Okay then: political pluralism depends either on the kind of relativism that can elevate pragmatism above morals; or on a moral conviction that includes this idea of 'people's right to be wrong'.

    But if you have a strong moral conviction that doesn't include the idea that 'we disrespect [people's] humanity and our own when we impose our ideas, even our correct ideas, upon them by force' (and that's certainly not a self-evidently true idea: lots of people throughout history have not held it, and if you do think some choices are correct (leading to flourishing as a human being) and others incorrect (though seemingly innocuous or even good, they in fact stunt one's humanity and prevent one from flourishing) then you could equally well claim that we disrespect their humanity when we do not use every means we can to help them make the correct choices, as doing so is in their own interests if only they could see correctly) then it is perfectly logical to rule out political pluralism and this ruling-out is not, in fact, a defect of character but an expression of moral commitment.

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  25. But from a eudaimonist perspective it's not just others' humanity but our own that we disrespect in subjecting others to our wishes against their will, thus degrading our human status by choosing a beastlike mode of interaction rather than one based on reason and persuasion. As Cicero says: "There are two forms of conflict: one by discussion, the other by force; the former appropriate to man, but the latter to beasts." He is probably echoing Lysias: "It is the way of wild beasts to be forcibly subjected to one another, but the way of human beings to define justice by law and to persuade by reasoned discourse." And there are similar remarks in Aristotle, who says that humans are the most truly political animals because we can interact via reason and speech, and that ruling over the unwilling is both unjust and destructive of our own happiness, even if our intentions are good -- because results count as good only if achieved in a just manner. In violating others' rights we harm ourselves.

    Moreover, even if others would be better off choosing the right path, it does not follow that they would be better off being forced onto it. That would be like saying that because A is your ideal lover, then if you foolishly reject A, A would be justified in raping you for your own good.

    I also think you're describing eudaimonism in too utilitarian a way when you cash out "choices are correct" as "leading to flourishing as a human being." Although a concern to promote flourishing is certainly among the virtuous person's concerns, the value of flourishing does not primarily play the role of a result to be maximised. In eudaimonism, actions are virtuous not because they promote flourishing but because they express it.

    Moreover, even on the Hayek/Mill type of approach (which, as I said, is secondary for me), why couldn't the concern to avoid social conflict and discoordination be a moral concern -- and so not a subordination of moral concerns to pragmatic ones? As a non-utilitarian I don't think promoting good results over bad ones is by any means the sole determinant of an action's morality, but it's certainly relevant.

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  26. That seems to involve a very black-and-white idea of 'force'. Aristotle, for example, holds that it's the duty of everyone to educate people in the ways of virtue, and such education will of necessity involve a degree of force (and Aristotle, I'm fairly sure, would have been less squeamish than we are now about that extending to corporal punishment). That force, force used to educate and chastise, must not be the self-destructive kind, or moral education would be impossible (you cannot reason with a child, or with anyone whose education has left them deficient in either moral reason or phronesis: humans when they approach their telos interact via reason and speech, but you cannot speak to a baby, and education, and therefore a degree of force, is required to get people to a state where they can be reasoned with). And of course laws are not always about force: sometimes they are about expressing socitey's approval or disapproval, and so play the same role as school rules which are there to help pupils develop the correct instincts that will enable them to flourish in later life. It may be a rule, for example, that they stand when an adult enters the room: indeed it is true that it is not the standing which is virtuous, but obeying that rule will (it is hoped) inculcate in the child the virtue of a proper respect for age and authority.

    After all, how does one learn to be a virtuous person? One cannot one day simply decide to think like a virtuous person. One must first begin to act like a virtuous person, and then hope that gradually one's thoughts will follow: one's face will grow to fit the mask. If one wishes to be more generous, one must begin by giving away money and time even though one begrudges ever penny and every second, and then perhaps one day one will find that the habit has become so ingrained that one actually is generous.

    So society can -- and, logically, if one has a strong moral conviction that certain things are better than others, must -- help people to educate themselves by expressing disapproval of the bad and promoting the good. If it would be a good thing for people to be more generous, more respectful, more continent, then one must enact laws that will help people to behave in those ways, even if unwillingly, in the hope that they will develop the habits of virtue: exactly like how Aristotle says you must educate a child.

    And of course the other place where force is justified is the administration of justice: it may be self-destructive and futile to attempt to force people to be good (though not futile to try to educate them to be good), but it is required to punish them when they have been bad, even if they do not think that what they did was bad at all because they have a differing moral system (which, ex hypothesi, you think is wrong).

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  27. Aristotle, for example, holds that it's the duty of everyone to educate people in the ways of virtue

    Aristotle never says that. He does say that it's the duty of the city to educate everyone in virtue; but he also says that the political authority of the city must rest on consent.

    Admittedly Aristotle is more authoritarian than I would like, but that's because he hadn't fully worked out the implications of his own principles. (Those implications would get worked out by subsequent generations.) But he's much less authoritarian than you imply. (Well, apart from his nonsense about natural slavery, where he's more authoritarian than you imply.)

    Part of Aristotle's problem, and a problem with the Greek philosophers generally, is the failure to distinguish between society and state. (Greek popular culture actually made this distinction fairly clearly, but for some reason the philosophers didn't.) So those, like the Sophists, who saw that the state was an artificial contrivance of dubious validity, erroneously drew the same conclusion about society, whereas those, like Aristotle, who saw that society is a natural part of human flourishing, erroneously drew the same conclusion about the state.

    you cannot reason with a child, or with anyone whose education has left them deficient in either moral reason or phronesis

    Pretty much everyone is deficient to some degree in reason or phronesis. That's not an excuse to treat everybody like children. Besides, who's going to be doing the treating?

    And of course laws are not always about force: sometimes they are about expressing socitey's approval or disapproval

    Buy a billboard.

    If it would be a good thing for people to be more generous, more respectful, more continent, then one must enact laws that will help people to behave in those ways, even if unwillingly, in the hope that they will develop the habits of virtue

    Non sequitur. From the fact that a certain goal is desirable, it does not follow that any particular means will be either morally permissible or pragmatically effective in achieving that goal. And Aristotle says quite explicitly that such a goal no longer counts as good if achieved by aggressive force.

    And of course the other place where force is justified is the administration of justice: it may be self-destructive and futile to attempt to force people to be good (though not futile to try to educate them to be good), but it is required to punish them when they have been bad

    Another non sequitur. From the fact that violence is permissible in order to restrain those who violate others' rights, it does not follow that punishment is permissible.

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  28. From the fact that a certain goal is desirable, it does not follow that any particular means will be either morally permissible or pragmatically effective in achieving that goal.

    True. But a goal being morally desirable does mean that morally permissible means should be taken in its pursuit, yes? So the question is whether lawmaking towards the end of making society more moral counts as morally permissible, and 'it doesn't' is neither self-evidently true, nor the position taken most generally by most societies throughout history, all of which have engaged in morally-driven law-making to some degree or other to no great outcry, aside from the objections of a few libertarian loonies and John Stuart Mill.

    And Aristotle says quite explicitly that such a goal no longer counts as good if achieved by aggressive force

    Again, we're now into the realm of what force counts as aggressive. Is locking the door of an alcoholic's liquor cabinet 'aggressive force'?

    From the fact that violence is permissible in order to restrain those who violate others' rights, it does not follow that punishment is permissible.

    No, but again as thoughout almost all history societies have held to the notion of justice that says that those who do wrong should be punished, and as the claim that punishment is not permissible is neither self-evidently true nor (so far as I can see) logically required by any premises I can see to be self-evident, I think the onus is on those who make the claim to prove it.

    Look, I'm not claiming (here) that the politically pluralist position is false. I was claiming at first that having a strong moral conviction logically led to the conclusion that position that society should be ordered according to that conviction, which is the general position taken by conservatives.

    As you have pointed out that some moral convictions can include arguments like the 'right to be wrong', I have fallen back to the weaker position that there are some logically consistent moral positions which logically lead to that same conclusion.

    All of your objections since I adopted that weaker position seem to me to be aimed at showing that the conclusion is not logically necessary (ie, you point out that the premise that it is a good thing for people to be more generous does not require the conclusion that laws should be made to force them to be act more generously, in the hopes that this will train them so they develop the internal virtue; but you must admit that it permits that conclusion, in the absence of such premises as the 'right to be wrong'). But that is fine; all my weaker claim requires is to show that such a conclusion is logically possible. And unless you can find some argument, without smuggling in the tendentious 'right to be wrong' premise, which shows that the conclusion that society should be morally ordered is not permitted (rather than simply showing that it is not required) I think that you must admit that the weaker case is proved.

    And that is all I need to do to make my original point, which was to object to the idea that having a strong moral conviction leading to the belief that society should be shaped to represent that moral conviction is a character defect rather than a logically consistent philosophical position. (It may not be the true philosophical position; but my point (here) is not that it is true, but merely that it is logically consistent).

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  29. So the question is whether lawmaking towards the end of making society more moral counts as morally permissible, and 'it doesn't' is neither self-evidently true, nor the position taken most generally by most societies throughout history

    Most societies throughout history have sanctioned some pretty nasty things, slavery being an obvious example, so the fact that most societies haven't recognised the basic principles of freedom and equality is no great argument.

    I agree that those principles aren't self-evident, at least in the sense you probably mean (e.g., "undeniably obvious"). But they do represent a fairly straightforward extension of moral principles that nearly everyone does accept. And there's no mystery as to why most societies have been reluctant to make that extension: people don't lke giving up power over others.

    aside from the objections of a few libertarian loonies and John Stuart Mill

    Those loonies are the ones who brought us the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and a few other such trifles.

    Again, we're now into the realm of what force counts as aggressive. Is locking the door of an alcoholic's liquor cabinet 'aggressive force'?

    If he came by the liquor cabinet justly, then yes.

    the claim that punishment is not permissible is neither self-evidently true nor (so far as I can see) logically required by any premises I can see to be self-evident

    Your focus on self-evidence is puzzling. I think the impermissibility of punishment follows from the nonaggression principle, which in turn follows from the thesis that other people are not our property and so we have no right to dispose of them according to our own will. Anyone is free to affirm that he does have the right to impose his will on others because he has some special rational competence that others lack, but then he needs an argument for that. If he persists in his aggression without such rational basis, then he acts unjustifiably, not because he has violated some self-evident thesis, but because he's being a dick.

    I was claiming at first that having a strong moral conviction logically led to the conclusion that position that society should be ordered according to that conviction

    Only if the strong moral conviction has the wicked content of the right to treat other people as our property.

    which is the general position taken by conservatives

    And by state socialists.

    And unless you can find some argument, without smuggling in the tendentious 'right to be wrong' premise, which shows that the conclusion that society should be morally ordered is not permitted

    Well, such arguments have been given many times. (One of my own attempts is here.) Moreover, I don't think the "right to be wrong" premise is terribly tendentious. Boith Aristotle and Aquinas explicitly accept it, for example, and I don't think you regard them as libertarian loonies.

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