THERE is no more pertinent example of confused thinking shot through with narrow dogma than Margaret’s Thatcher’s infamous statement that “there’s no such thing as society.”
But, far from being a simple distillation of the classical capitalist idea that economic decision-making — or responsibility — properly resides in individuals or family units, in her polices the Iron Lady was drawn to the 20th-century City-centred reworking of economic theory which drove privatisation and deregulation.
There was more to it than that of course — most especially the globalised imperialism given expression in the Nato alliance and Britain’s membership of the European capitalist entity — but the determination with which the deregulation of the finance sector was driven was a decisive factor in producing the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity price with which we paid for that crisis.
Thatcher dressed up her coldly dispassionate economic policies with a faux-housewifely nod in the direction of social cohesion. She went on to claim, in her 1987 interview with Women’s Own magazine:
“There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
The present-day version of this is to be found in the idea, given form by Tory ministers, that foodbanks, rather than being the symbols of a disintegrating welfare state, are a welcome expression of such good neighbourliness.
Unpack these weasel words and match them against the destruction wrought on social cohesion that such a dismantling of the welfare state has entailed and the hypocrisy of their authors is apparent.
The biggest single factor driving the disintegration of the support that families can provide lies in the stalled incomes and disappearing benefits, homelessness and poverty that are the direct consequences of government policies.
The Covid-19 crisis demonstrates daily that modern life shows that — far from dismantling the state and allowing us as autonomous economic actors to act unconstrained in the marketplace — people need a close partnership between the individual, families, the communities in which they reside — and the structures of an enabling state.
When this crisis passes there will be a reckoning.
The fatal delay in recognising the need to socially isolate, the failure to build extra capacity into the health system, the serial cock-ups over testing and protective equipment, the dangerous disparity between the need and provision of intensive care equipment and the run down in nursing numbers is resulting in uncounted family tragedies.
The social cost of Britain’s increasingly apparent failure to deal with the strains imposed on all our social structures, most especially the family, includes anxiety and stress and, inevitably, a rise in domestic violence.
Italy, where the family structures are famously strong, is further up the curve than we are and reports are emerging that armed police are deployed in supermarkets where penniless people are demanding food.
The human response to this emergency is manifested in a huge outpouring of solidarity for NHS staff and essential workers, the creation of a mass movement of social solidarity and good neighbourliness and the outlines of a popular demand for a new kind of governance.
In her primitive and provincial way Thatcher was trying to make sense of the fatal contradiction that is presently fracturing the thinking of the right wing.
The needs of modern societies cannot be satisfied if every relationship beyond the family is reduced to a cash exchange or an act of individual good neighbourliness.
Present day capitalism cannot resolve this question. Socialism can.
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