Saturday, 13 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher: the intellectual legacy

The death of Margaret Thatcher has caused much debate about her deeds as Prime Minister, but her intellectual impact has been just as important. I would like to draw attention to the following points:-

* Until the early-to-mid-1980s there was a widespread assumption that history was moving towards the Left: that socialism, in some shape or form, was the way of the future. Afterwards it was increasingly obvious that this was not the case.

* Around the same time the “Marxist interpretation of history” ceased to be intellectually fashionable. Soon the great Marxist historians were either dead or very old, and the younger generation of historians who replaced them were much more right-wing.

* There was a change in the popular interpretation of economics. Going right back to Ricardo in the 18th century, it was argued that wealth was created by work; turning raw materials into useful objects: a blacksmith had the skill to make tools from lump of iron ore; a carpenter could turn a tree into furniture; a farmer could grow seeds to produce food. A fundamental Marxist argument was that profit was, of necessity, exploitation: the workers were not paid the full value of the work which they did, and the capitalist pocketed the surplus. But the modern popular message is that wealth is created by entrepreneurs, who put up the money and set the workers on. By this definition, it is entirely counterproductive for the workers to demand higher wages: without the prospect of a reasonable profit the entrepreneur would not bother (or would transfer his activities to somewhere with a cheaper and more docile workforce), no wealth would be created, and the workers would have no work.

* Trades Unions, whose membership rapidly decreased, came to be portrayed as “them” rather than as “us”: a potential enemy rather than a friend and ally.

* The notion of a “planned economy” was derided. I don’t need to add to this topic.

* The same applies to the collapse of Communist regimes in eastern Europe.

* Ideological changes have followed generational change. It must be remembered that no-one under about 45 can have any clear memories of life before Thatcher, and that to those under 25 she is already a semi-legendary figure. Recent opinion polls have revealed that, over the last 30 years, the number of people willing to pay higher taxes in order to help the poor has halved, from 55% to 27%; and that younger voters are far more likely than older ones to believe that people on welfare are idlers and scroungers. The younger voters must also be puzzled about why we were ever afraid of Communism as an ideological threat: it is clear in retrospect that the Soviet economic model was rubbish. (But how less were we obsessed with security back then, when we were only threatened by Leonid Brezhnev armed with hydrogen bombs!)

These are important changes. Whether they have been due to Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, or whether she reflected a new “spirit of the age”, is not clear. Engels once wrote that it is impossible to say why new ideas appear, but if they “catch on” and win widespread acceptance, it can only be because, in some way, society is ready for them.

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